Throughout the summer, Watoga State Park Assistant Superintendent Kelly Smith and Park Naturalist Chreyle Bogss have led monthly hikes into the wilds of Watoga to teach and learn about the infinite wonders of nature. Last Saturday’s hike was one that some people probably avoided – the herpetology hike – also known as the “snake hike.”
Herpetology is the study of reptiles and amphibians. During Saturday’s trek around Watoga Lake, hikers actively poked under rocks and logs, looking for frogs, salamanders, toads and snakes. Youngsters, who seem to have a knack for finding critters, did most of the searching while the grownups peered curiously to see what they had captured.
Prior to starting the hike, the experts gave a presentation and displayed three previously captured specimens.
First, Smith displayed a brown and tan American Toad, one of just two toad species found in West Virginia, along with Fowler’s Toad. Male American Toads make a high pitched “trill,”
lasting from six to 30 seconds, similar to a ringing telephone. Smith reminded the group that people do not get warts from touching toads. However, glands on the head of American Toads secrete a mild poison, which can irritate skin and can be dangerous to dogs.
Next, Boggs displayed a bright green American Green Frog. Smith said the frog’s call sounds like a banjo string being plucked. A common backyard species, the American Green Frog is popular as a pet and is the state amphibian of Georgia and Louisiana. Both frogs and toads are beneficial species because they consume large amounts of insects.
Boggs then displayed an Eastern Box Turtle for the group to examine. She explained that male turtles have a flat plastron – the protective plate on the bottom of its shell. Female turtles, on the other hand, have a more concave plastron. As it was handled, the turtle did not seem to be bothered and did not retreat into its shell. Box turtles can live more than 100 years in the wild. They are slow crawlers, which make them very susceptible to getting hit by cars.
As the group began the hike, a young girl found a Red Spotted Newt beneath a rock at water’s edge, which a young boy scooped up carefully for the group to examine. A newt is a small variety of salamander. Therefore, all newts are salamanders, but not all salamanders are newts. The dark green newt was about four inches long with tiny red-spots. Red Spotted Newts have lifespans of 12 to 15 years in the wild, and grow as large as five inches in length.
The newt was released back to his aquatic home and another exciting capture soon followed. Next to a bridge on the far end of the lake, Smith captured a Northern Water Snake. The dark brownish-gray snake, about 15 inches in length, was a small example of a species that can reach more than four feet in length. The young snake had barely visible bands across its body, which will become more pronounced as it grows larger. The snake was very docile and the youngsters handled it without fear.
Northern Water Snakes are common in Pocahontas County and feed on small fish, frogs, worms, leeches, crayfish, salamanders, small birds and mammals. In Lake Erie, once-endangered water
snakes have become an important ally in man’s fight to control the Round Goby, an invasive fish species.
Smith explained that water snakes are sometimes confused with Copperheads, due to their dark bands, and killed. The expert said that many people kill any snake they encounter because of irrational fear. All snakes play an important part in the forest ecosystem, she explained.
Although the focus of the hike was reptiles and amphibians, participants identified several interesting plant species during the walk. On the far side of the lake, a single Large Round-Leafed Orchid stood proudly by the trail. Beautiful purple Pickerel Weed, an aquatic plant, bloomed in abundance in the shallow water at lake’s edge.
Watoga State Park hosts a monthly nature hike during the sumer months. The next hike is on Saturday, August 2, at 10:30 a.m. The hike starts at the Fred Brooks Arboretum trailhead, one-quarter mile west of Park Headquarters, and will focus on the variety of ferns growing in the park.