Searching for Herps

Posted on by Kathie Fife

Falling in Love again with Childhood Friends

Fall typically isn’t the time we think about herps (a collective term for frogs and salamanders). This is the time of year when they (herps) borough down into the earth to protect themselves from death caused by freezing cold temperatures. Earlier this week the weather was unusually warm and tropical-like for a mid-September day. On a woods walk, I picked up a branch that had fallen across the trail and discovered I had uncovered the home of a red back salamander.

Red Backed Salamander

Red Back Salamander

Have you seen a red backed salamander before?  They are evasive and secretive; preferring to hide under small stones, dead logs, and in small holes in the earth under leaf litter. It may be surprising that they are more common than the red efts seen crawling across the forest floor on a wet day.

red eft salamander

A Red Eft, the terrestrial phase of the red spotted newt.

Another very common, but almost never seen herp, is the spotted salamander. It also seeks cover on under moist decaying logs, stones, and underground tunnels.

Spotted Salamander

Spotted Salamander – also found on my fall walk!

The spotted salamander breeds in vernal pools in the spring. The first rainy nights when the grip of winter has finally let go, the spotted salamanders march across the snow to find the vernal pools and begin the next life cycle. The mating ritual occurs without any physical contact between the sexes. The males deposit spermataphores (as it sounds, little pockets of sperm protected in a jelly like mass) on materials under the water, such as small sticks and on the upper surface of leaves. The females then find them and position themselves to fertilize their eggs, which are then deposited in large masses, usually in the same pools.

spotted salamander spermataphore

Spotted Salamander Spermataphore in a vernal pool in early spring. It looks like and is about the same size as a bird dropping.

So curiosity got to me (again!) and I abandoned my original mission for the day to search for more species of herps still awake in the forest. I headed to the brook to pick up stones by the flowing water.  Oh, fun!  A very large Northern Two-Lined salamander quickly scurried for the nearest cover to escape my awful intrusion.

Two Lined Salamander. Easily confused with the red backed salamander.  The difference is habitat and the "two lines" along the side of the body that start from the eyes all the way to the tail.

Northern Two-Lined Salamander. Easily confused with the red backed salamander. The difference is habitat (near running water) and the “two lines” along the side of the body begin from the eyes all the way to the tail.  It is more yellow under the belly and lacks the red color on the back like the red back salamander.


Northern Two Lined Salamander. Note the dark line from the eyes to the tail.

This was a relaxing and fun way to spend a fall day.  The days are much shorter in September, so the light was fading fast in the forest.  As I headed home I heard something move in the leaves near my feet.  I had to look closely.

What do you see?

What do you see?

I looked again, and hmmm… nothing.  I moved my feet and then it moved again, and I saw it!

Wood Frog

Wood Frog

Camouflage is amazing, isn’t it?

Red Back Salamander found under decaying wood.

Red Back Salamander found under decaying wood. The dark area across the middle of the photo is where the stick was covering the ground. In warmer temps, red back salamanders move so fast it is almost hard to see them.  This one, looking like a root, was sluggish in the cooler temperatures, and so it allowed me time to get the shot before it ran for cover down a hole in the earth.

It was a lovely afternoon and I felt like a kid again spending time with my favorite childhood friends, “Frog and Toad.”

American Toad

American Toad –  found on my fall walk

In all, I found six species (all the photos posted here were created during my walk) – in just one hour of searching.


As always, please be mindful and respectful to property and wildlife.

All content including images are copyright Kathie Fife Photography.  Please contact us for permission for use before downloading and or copying.  Thank you.


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