By Wendy Diaz EMGV
At the beginning of this year and before the Covid-19 pandemic impacted the world, I attended a talk by Brian Bockhahn, regional education specialist, North District Office of the North Carolina State Parks entitled “Reptiles and Amphibians in Your Garden.” It was impossible not to be drawn in by his enthusiasm and impressed with his advocacy for our native reptiles and amphibians. These “cold-blooded animals are in the group called herpetofauna or herps for short1.” He was an engaging speaker and his passion for herps was ‘contagious’ and inspired me to write this article and even though I am more of a bird lover he made me more appreciative of these animals.
In Piedmont North Carolina, we have many reptiles including six species of small ground snakes: worm snake, smooth earth snake, brown snake, rough earth snake, ring neck snake and red belly snake; and, several medium-sized snakes: black rat snake, black racer, eastern king snake, rough green snake, corn snake, eastern hognose snake, eastern garter snake; and, one venomous snake, the copperhead. The copperhead has darker brown cross-bands that look like Hershey kisses and is most active at dusk. The copperhead is a native species of all 100 North Carolinian counties and is typically not aggressive and poses a threat only if provoked and for the most part ‘wants not to be seen.’ In addition to describing these snakes, he explained how to handle them if they need to be removed from an area. A six-foot long snake stick with hook is the best way to move a snake and don’t use tongs or pincers.
Here are lists of other herps in our area:
Eastern box turtle
Eastern fence lizard
Southeastern five-lined skink
Southern dusky Salamander
White-spotted slimy salamander
We used to see an Eastern box turtle frequently in our backyard up until 2003 when the forest behind our house was developed into a subdivision.
There are nine frogs in our area consisting of four True frogs: American bullfrog, Green frog, Southern leopard frog and the Pickerel frog, and five Tree frogs: Green tree frog, Cope’s gray tree frog, Northern cricket frog, Upland chorus frog and the Spring peeper. The Green tree frog was once only found on the coastal plain but now is common in southern Durham County.
Herps are beneficial by keeping their prey in check. For example salamanders eat insect larvae and snakes eat rodents1, frogs eat insects and in turn frogs are prey for fish, birds and reptiles. Amphibians, because of their permeable skin, are an important harbinger of toxins in the environment and are an indicator of environmental health of an ecosystem.
With the increase in construction and development in the Piedmont of North Carolina, amphibians and reptiles are suffering from habitat loss and fragmentation, traffic hazards and sedimentation and pollution in urban and suburban areas. The Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina), the state reptile, used to be very common and is declining in population due to habitat loss and fragmentation and road kills. It needs a one- to two-square mile range, reaches sexual maturity at six years of age and can live to be 100 years old. If you are lucky enough to have a vernal pool on your property, protect it as these seasonally wet or ephemeral pools provide essential breeding areas for frogs, toads and salamanders to hatch and turn into terrestrial adults.
We, as gardeners, are already plant naturalists and are aware that the plant choices we make can benefit birds and beneficial insects and this practice also benefits amphibians and reptiles. So why not help out the fauna as well as the flora with some other horticultural endeavors and practices and use our yards for maximum benefit for our stressed out environment/ecology. Besides planting natives, additional garden practices are needed to help our herps. Amphibians need both wet and dry sites. Ideally, a pool or pond (without fish) will benefit amphibians but if you can’t provide breeding habitat you can provide shelter and basking sites for these cold-blooded animals. Even crevasses under rocks or stump holes provide access to hibernacula or places for reptiles to hibernate in the winter. Natural features like dead vegetation and logs provide cover for herps as well as brush piles, rock piles and even amphibian houses.1 Upside down clay flower pots (or toad abodes) with portion of lip removed for a door placed in a shady part of your yard is ideal for toads and salamanders. Tree stumps make stools and rock walls and logs become good basking sites.
Other simple things Brian recommended for ‘Backyard Habitat Enhancement’ are:
Snags – A dead standing tree that provides good habitat for birds2 also provides lizards with good shelter to cool off or to hide from predators and to ambush prey like insects for food.
Tree cookies – Slices of a tree trunk or wood discs that hold the moisture in the ground beneath and make a nice refuge for a salamander.
Lean-tos – An untreated piece of wood supported by a stick on one side located beneath a shade tree with natural leaf litter provides shelter for a turtle to cool off during the hot summer months.
Other very helpful practices are: keep cats indoors, brake for turtles, plant native diversity, reduce mowing yard, leave natural areas, limit chemical use and let a tree fall and rot in the woods. These ‘chain-saw’ chairs from a dead tree can both provide habitat for herps and decorate the garden.
As it got warmer outside this spring, watching my resident lizards bask in the sunshine during these past few weeks of social isolation has unexpectedly brought me joy as they continue with their lives blissfully unaware of what has befallen us humans. Although I frequently see lizards and snakes I have yet to observe salamanders, hopefully that will change with my new tree cookies.
Here is a challenge while we stay at home, why not try to observe (no touching) as many reptiles and amphibians in your yard and garden as you can and share your observations with iNaturalist. If you are having trouble identifying the herp species, this is a useful website http://www.herpsofnc.org. If you don’t find any, maybe it is time to add some snags, tree cookies and lean-tos in your yard.