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Herpetofauna 2021

In case the title was confusing, herpetofauna means reptiles and amphibians. A less pedantic synonym widely used in the naturalist community is “herps,” but there are many other possibilities for shorthand. I’m hoping “tiles and fibs” catches on with the younger crowd. But for now, I’ll stick with herps.

I decided to write this blog to showcase some of the fascinating herps that live around our house, many of which are quite photogenic. At the end of the blog, I’ll run through some other herps seen farther afield. If you like images more than text, check out my webpage, which contains a selection of my best photos.

House Lizards

I attribute the abundance of herps near our house—especially lizards—to the absence of outdoor cats in our forested surroundings. After humans, feral cats and outdoor domestic cats are the #1 ecosystem disrupter. Although man is a far more destructive species, outdoor cats are responsible for the deaths of hundreds of millions, probably billions, of lizards and birds each year in each human-inhabited continent. Let that soak in for a minute.

PSA concluded, I’ll continue with my story. The aforementioned lizards are the star of the show; a respectable 5 species call our house home (out of the 11 species native to NC).

Green Anoles are the most common and the most persistent. Roughly 42% of my lizard sightings this year were anoles. They are active year-round, including on warm winter days, and are easily spotted basically every day of the warmer months.

Next up is the Eastern Fence Lizard, my favorite local lizard. It’s my favorite because it is badass, always posted up on rocks and trees looking fierce. Fence lizards are the second most common lizard, accounting for 27% of lizard sightings, and were present from early March until late October this year.

The third and fourth species are skinks. The young are attractive, with bright blue tails; the adults just look like skinks. Skink identification is notoriously challenging, often requiring close examination of the number and arrangement of individual scales on the face and tail. The most common ones on our property are Eastern Five-lined Skinks (aka Common Five-lined Skinks), comprising 17% of lizard sightings and persisting from early April until late September this year.

I had previously assumed that all our house skinks were this species. However, in late April, Willow (our indoor cat) captured a skink in the garage that, after close examination, turned out to be a Broad-headed Skink! After safely releasing this fortunate captive outside, I started looking more closely at (i.e., photographing) skinks, and found another pair of Broad-heads on the porch in mid-May. These are currently the least common lizards on our property, accounting for less than 2% of my 2021 observations. It’s possible that a third species of Plestidion skink—the Southeastern Five-lined Skink—is also present around our home, but I haven’t found any yet.

Last but not least is the Ground Skink (aka Little Brown Skink), a lizard with different habits than the rest. It isn’t uncommon, but it’s generally found under leaf litter in the forest, so it’s far less conspicuous than its cousins that bask on rocks and stroll around our deck. These accounted for 13% of my lizard sightings, beginning in late March and persisting until mid-November. They’re harder to photograph, so I have less to show here.

House Snakes

Snakes are much less readily observed than lizards, but this year I managed to see 5 species in our yard and a sixth in our neighbor’s yard (out of 8 species to date; I missed Worm Snake and Eastern Hognose this year). The most common is the Smooth Earth Snake. These are pretty easy to find under leaf litter or logs while doing yardwork; I saw them 5 times this year. All the other species were one-offs, including a Northern Black Racer, a Black Rat Snake, a Ringneck Snake (lifer!), and an Eastern Garter Snake. In the five years we’ve lived at our house, we have never once seen a Copperhead on our property (much to my disappointment). However, both my neighbors reliably find a half dozen each year, and I got to visit a green-tailed juvenile this year before it was executed for dog safety.

House Frogs

This year I heard or saw 8 species of frogs around the house (out of 10 recorded to date; I missed Green Treefrog and Northern Cricket Frog). Some were scattered around the seasonal wet spots and woods near our house, while others were attracted to the water features we recently installed in the front yard.

Upland Chorus Frogs (14%) began singing in the wetter areas downslope of our house in late February and stopped by the end of March, with an occasional Spring Peeper (5%) joining in. By mid-March, a Northern Green Frog (13%) showed up at the water feature and persisted until mid-May. It was joined by an American Bullfrog (9%) in late March, which also persisted until mid-May.

The Cope’s Gray Treefrogs joined the party in late March. These are the most common—and probably my favorite—frogs on our property, comprising 25% of my frog sightings this year. They are vocal day and night, but especially on rainy nights, and dependably breed in our water features from early spring through late summer. Tadpoles and recently metamorphosed juveniles emerged through late September.

I also spotted my first toad in late March, and I’m fairly sure it was a Fowler’s Toad, as are nearly all toads on our property. However, I did hear an American Toad singing on the same day, which makes me a bit uncertain. In any case, Fowler’s Toads are the second most common amphibians here, persisting until late September and accounting for 21% of my frog sightings. Our rocky upland forest is dotted with many conspicuous toad burrows.

The last frog of the year was the Pickerel Frog (11%), which first turned up at the water features in late July and persisted until early October. Adults must have bred here, as I saw some relatively young frogs (and many large tadpoles that I presume were this species), with a maximum of 4 sharing the main water feature at once. These were much more approachable and photogenic than the two other species of “true frogs” (genus Lithobates) present earlier in the year.

Herps Afield

I always keep an eye out for herps while I’m out birding or looking for odes, etc., but my herp sightings are generally incidental to these other activities and not the result of active searching (“herping”).

Lizards are decidedly less numerous and harder to locate away from our house. About half were Green Anoles, followed by Eastern Fence Lizards and an assortment of skinks. But my favorite species—not found at home at all—is the Six-lined Racerunner, common in the Sandhills and Coastal Plain. On one mid-May trip to the Patsy Pond area of Croatan NF, I saw at least 39!

The most common snakes I typically encounter outside the house are watersnakes, unsurprising given the amount of time I spend on the Haw River and Jordan Lake. This year, all were Common Watersnakes and I was only able to pin one down to subspecies (Northern Watersnake). Other interesting finds included a Dekay’s Brownsnake and a Copperhead on a Haw River through-paddle; Cottonmouths in the Sandhills and the North River Wetlands Preserve; and a Rough Green Snake twice at Jordan Lake.

I didn’t mention turtles at home because, except for an occasional Box Turtle (none this year), no turtles find what they need in our mostly upland forest property. Elsewhere, turtles abide (abound?). I saw plenty of Eastern River Cooters on the Haw, as well as Yellow-bellied Sliders, Common Snapping Turtles, and Eastern Box Turtles. On a rare trip to the office, I predictably saw a few Common Musk Turtles. Closer to the coast, I saw Florida Cooters (aka Coastal Plain Cooters), a close relative of River Cooters with a hotly debated family tree. I also saw my favorite turtles—Diamondback Terrapins—on two coastal trips, including a group of at least 20(!) while paddling the Rachel Carson Reserve near Beaufort. Mountain trips yielded similar species to those in the piedmont, with the addition of a Red-eared Slider (a nonnative Western subspecies of the sliders native to our region). Somehow, my only Eastern Painted Turtle of the year was seen in Maine. That shows you how hard I didn’t look for turtles this year.

I also don’t have any alligators at home, but I did see one in downtown Georgetown, SC, and a bunch on Debordieu Island. I’ll update this blog if I see more on forthcoming trips to SC and FL.

As far as amphibians are concerned, the late winter frogs in the Piedmont at large weren’t too different from the ones around our house, but I did manage to hear or see a few more species, including Southern Leopard Frog, Northern Cricket Frog, and Green Treefrog. Farther afield, I heard my first Carpenter Frogs in North Carolina on a trip to the Sandhills, and saw Bronze Frogs and Southern Cricket Frogs in the Coastal Plain. Next year I’m hoping to make some dedicated trips to search for rare treefrogs down east. On a trip to the South Carolina coast, I heard lots of Squirrel Treefrogs. My only new frog for the year was a Mink Frog seen in Maine.

I didn’t do any ‘mandering this year (i.e., looking for salamanders, usually at night), but I did happen across a Broken-striped Newt in the Sandhills (a new subspecies for me) and saw a bunch of Red-spotted Newts at our family property in Virginia. Next year I’m planning to do some more mountain ‘mandering.

That’s it for my first annual blog about herps! Remember to check out check out my webpage for more photos.


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