Spring Field Trips: Amphibians, Reptiles, Invertebrates, Birds

NET, LOOKING, CRAYFSHRecording the first time I see various creatures each spring is a habit that stretches back to my childhood, and to this day I keep and even re-read my old notebooks. Over the last few years, the unbridled enthusiasm of a new field partner (not to mention his wonderfully keen eyesight!), has kept me outdoors even more than in the past (see photos).

Spring 2015 has been slow to arrive and seemingly loathe to take hold here in southern NY and northern NJ. But we have persisted in looking for our favorite spring sights, and over the past several weeks have finally been rewarded with views of old favorites and some new observations as well.


Early Spring Amphibians

There are several vernal ponds in southern Westchester County, NY, where, if the weather and amphibian gods favor us, spotted salamanders, wood frogs and spring peepers can be observed breeding on the same night. As the large, vividly-colored Spotted Salamanders have always been favorites of mine, and are the most elusive of the “Big Three” early spring amphibians, I usually focus on finding them.


HOLD SPOTTED SALAMANDERLast year, we hit it just right, and were able to find males beneath leaves along the shore of a breeding pond, awaiting the females’ arrival (the sexes arrive in 2 separate waves, co-mingling only “when necessary”). I’ve found breeding groups as early as March 19th in southern NY, but last year the salamanders showed up during the second week of April. I returned to one favored site during the same week this year, only to find snow on the ground and ice along the pond’s edge! I’ll return soon, hopefully to be rewarded by the sight of their rounded, algae-tinged egg masses.


An even earlier spring breeder, the Eastern Tiger Salamander (in NY, limited in distribution to eastern Long Island) is sometimes roused to action by mid-February. I was unable to visit any sites this year, but assume they were late in breeding as well, given the frigid February we experienced.

Wood Frogs and Spring Peepers were also weeks later than usual, at least per my records, but have now (May 1) reproduced. A friend called tonight from Cape Cod to say that spring peepers were still in full chorus there.


IMG_9954Mid-April in a NJ Swamp: Snappers, Frogs, Birds & Butterflies

On April 17, 2015, we visited a small button bush swamp in northern NJ. Last year at this time, it was alive with bullfrogs, painted turtles, aquatic insects and other typical warm weather residents. We almost immediately came upon a large male common snapping turtle, half-buried in the mud in very shallow water. The cool weather rendered him quite sluggish – a plus for the little turtle wrangler who hauled him out for closer inspection! Snappers are about as cold-tolerant as a turtle can be…several years ago I found one basking on February 16th. By mid-April, they are usually their normal feisty selves, ready and willing to do battle…not so this cold, old fellow.



IMG_5757 SM FROGWe saw none of the American bullfrogs that normally abound in this swamp, but did net several second-year tadpoles that had emerged from hibernation. Green frogs were also absent from the main swamp, but we flushed several near a small, sun-warmed vernal pond. Our net failed to find any water scorpions, diving beetles or other common aquatic insects, but many over-winter as eggs, and so are difficult to locate prior to maturity.


Happily, the red-winged blackbirds were out in force, and calling all day. I’ve observed these early harbingers of spring to return to NY as early as February 2nd. A single mourning cloak, one of the few local butterflies that over-winters as an adult, flitted through the still largely-brown woodland that borders the swamp. At 6 PM, a light rain began to fall, and a small chorus of spring peepers, undaunted by daylight, started-up…assuring us, as little else can, that spring was finally here!


snapper in waterThe Great Swamp: Amorous Snappers, Snakes & Beetles

It’s impossible for a naturalist to have a disappointing visit to New Jersey’s magnificent Great Swamp, and our April 24th trip there confirmed this once again. Although perhaps a bit behind schedule, spring was now in full throttle. A pair of snapping turtles mated (or “wrestled”, according to my 7-year-old cohort!) with abandon within 2 feet of a boardwalk (please see photo). The first rainy night in June should bring the female, and almost all others in this part of the country, out to nest.


Garter, haidenGarter snakes, green frogs and painted turtles were very much in evidence, and flickers issued forth with staccato calls that seemed more suited to a central African rainforest than a NJ suburb. Our prize insect find was a larval caterpillar-hunter beetle. At the nearby Raptor Trust we were treated to several birds we hadn’t seen in some time, including short-eared owls, ravens and, most surprisingly, an albino/leucistic American robin.




Along the Hudson: Eels, Eagles & Nesting Herons

When last I searched the southern reaches of the Hudson River, back in late February, bald eagles rode some of the waterway’s many ice floes. Friends who frequent the river’s west shore north of Bear Mountain report that resident eagles are now feeding chicks, great blue herons are brooding eggs, and millions of tiny “glass eels” (juvenile American eels) are on the move.


A late spring means that there’s still time to see some of the wonderful natural events you may have missed, and that we can look forward to the explosion of life that herald’s early summer – get out there if you can, and please post your observations below!



Further Reading

Amphibian Breeding Site Conservation

Collecting Insects: Traps & Tips

Tarantulas: Are They The Right Pet for You?

Red Kneed Tarantula

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by George Chernilevsky

Among the world’s 900+ tarantula species (family Theraphosidae) we find a staggering diversity of sizes, colors, and lifestyles, and many that make interesting, long-lived pets. Having been involved with spider care in zoos and private collections from an early age (and at a time when only 1-2 tarantula species were readily available in the USA!), I’m pleased and somewhat astonished to see the explosion of interest here and abroad. Several species that were undescribed a few short years ago are being regularly bred by private keepers – usually to a far greater extent than is seen in zoos. However, as tarantulas become more “mainstream”, they are sometimes purchased by folks who may not have a good sense of their true natures. Unrealistic expectations will dampen the experience of both pet and pet keeper. Following are 5 critical points that the prospective tarantula owner should consider.


Please see the linked articles and post below for detailed care and breeding advice.


Defenxive posture

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Sascha Grabow

Tarantulas are “Hands-Off” Pets that Cannot be Tamed

Like most creatures, Tarantulas are capable of learning, and they routinely modify their behavior in response to captivity. However, they are mainly guided by instinct, and cannot in any way be tamed or “trusted” – they will not bond with people.

Please ignore the foolish advice so common on the Internet and do not handle your tarantula (please post below for info on safely moving tarantulas). Handling is a stressful event for any tarantula. More importantly, while the venom produced by tarantulas has not (as far as we know from published reports) resulted in human fatalities, children, the elderly, and people with allergies or compromised immune systems may be at risk. Please see the article linked below for information on serious reactions caused by the bites of certain Asian tarantulas.


Tarantulas bear urticating (irritating) hairs that are used to repel predators (please see photo). Hairs that come in contact with soft tissue can cause severe injuries. In fact, a Bronx Zoo coworker of mine underwent extensive eye surgery in order to remove Red Kneed Tarantula hairs from his eye. As this person learned, hairs that are in the terrarium or on one’s hands can be just as dangerous as those deliberately shed in response to a threat.


Cobalt Blue tarantula

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Flamesbane

Tarantulas are Nocturnal and Secretive

Well-adjusted tarantulas often emerge to hunt by day, but they will otherwise remain in hiding until nightfall. They will not thrive if forced to remain in the open.


Fortunately, red night-viewing bulbs will enable you to observe your pets after dark.


Your “Single” Tarantula may Surprise You with an Egg Sac

As a single mating can result in multiple egg cases, females sometimes produce eggs long after having been fertilized by a male. If you are not aware of a female’s history, you may find yourself with more tarantula-related responsibilities than you bargained for! While a fascinating endeavor (to me, at least!), rearing 100 or more tiny, cannibalistic spiderlings is not for everyone.


Cuban Green Roach

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Greg Hume

Tarantulas Need Live Food

While many captives learn to take canned insects and pre-killed pink mice from tongs (do not hand-feed!), live insects will form the vast majority of your tarantula’s diet. Cricket-only diets seem to work well for many species, but the best long term results will be achieved by providing a varied menu which includes roaches, waxworms, silkworms, grasshoppers, earthworms and other invertebrates.


The “It Doesn’t Do Anything” Factor

Ideally, the new tarantula owner will be interested in her or his pet for its own sake. But most of us also wish to see how the animal lives, what it does, and so on. Well-fed tarantulas that are not in breeding mode are often about as active as the infamous “pet rock”…and are nocturnal to boot!


Fortunately, red light bulbs now enable us to watch them after dark. If you provide your tarantula with a large terrarium and appropriate living conditions, you’ll have much of interest to observe.




Further Reading

Are Tarantula Bites Dangerous: Recent Research

Keeping the World’s Largest Tarantula

Amphiuma Care: Keeping one of the World’s Largest Amphibians

Measuring up to 45.6 inches in length and armed with the teeth and attitude of an angry watersnake, the Two-Toed Amphiuma (Amphiuma means) is the largest of North America’s amphibians. Although quite a handful, it is also a fascinating creature, and with proper care may live past the 30 year mark. Due to a lifelong interest in large, aquatic salamanders, I tend to ramble on when writing about them. Therefore, I’ve covered the Two Toed Amphiuma’s natural history in a separate article (please see this article). Today we’ll take a look at its captive care.


Two Toed Amphiuma

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Brian Gratwicke

Some Cautions

The Amphiuma’s rough-and-tumble disposition and innate hardiness (one at the London Zoo topped 30 years of age) should not be taken as an excuse to ignore water quality. Effective filtration and frequent water changes are critical to their health. Please see my article on Mudpuppy Care, linked below, for further details on managing water quality in aquariums housing large aquatic salamanders.


Move Amphiumas by coaxing into net…they are slippery and they can administer a very painful bite, so do not free-handle. Their skin damages easily in nylon nets, so transfers should be made quickly and carefully, and only when necessary.


The Aquarium

An adult Amphiuma will require an aquarium of at least 55 gallons capacity.


The aquarium’s lid should be well-secured, as they will attempt to escape at night. For newly arrived individuals, it’s prudent to line the lid with foam or enclose in a pillow case so they do not damage their snouts by rubbing on screening.


Type habitat

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by US Fish and Wildlife Service

Amphiumas favor swamps and other heavily-vegetated, mud-bottomed aquatic habitats.  Keep plenty of cover such as plastic plants in aquarium, and provide a cave or PVC pipe where the Amphiuma can get completely out of sight.


Water Quality

In common with other amphibians, Amphiumas have porous skin that allows for the absorption of harmful chemicals. Careful attention to water quality is essential.


An aquarium pH test kit should always be on hand. Amphiumas fare well at a pH of 6.5 to 7.0.


Ammonia, excreted as a waste product and produced via organic decomposition, is colorless, odorless and extremely lethal to all amphibians; a test kit  should be used to monitor its levels.


mediaChlorine and chloramine must be removed from water used for any amphibian. Liquid chlorine/chloramine removers are highly effective and work instantly.


Copper may be present in water carried by old pipes; a test kit should be used if you suspect its presence.



Under-gravel, corner, hanging and submersible filters can all be used in Amphiuma aquariums. Even with good filtration, regular partial water changes are essential in keeping ammonia levels in check.


Be sure that the entry/exit openings for filter tubes are well-secured, lest they provide an escape route. I find it easier to use Ovation submersible filters (see above) for these and other powerful amphibian escape artists.


Light and Heat

Dim lighting by day followed by brighter lights at night may encourage daytime activity, but do this only if animal is feeding and otherwise adjusted to captivity. Night-viewing bulbs will help you to observe Amphiumas after dark. All those that I’ve kept at home or in zoos have fed readily by day once adjusted to captivity.


Amphiumas fare best at water temperatures of 70-75 F, but tolerate a wider range.


I have kept Amphiumas on gravel and bare-bottomed aquariums, but a soft sand or clay-based substrate is preferable, especially for individuals that try to burrow. Avoid any material that will raise pH.



Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Gusmonkeyboy


Minnows, shiners (and other whole freshwater fishes) and earthworms should form the bulk of the diet. Goldfish should be used sparingly, if at all, as they have been implicated in health problems (other species). Small crayfishes are a great favorite (I remove the claws for safety’s sake). Crickets and other insects, shrimp, and frozen foods formulated for large aquarium fish are also readily accepted.


After a time in captivity, most individuals will accept turtle pellets and freeze-dried shrimp.



Related Articles

Mudpuppy Care

Greater Siren Care

Amphiuma Natural History


Indian Sand Boa Care: Keeping the World’s Largest Sand Boa

The Indian Sand Boa (Eryx johnii johnii) is a “boa” in name only…in lifestyle and appearance it is in a class all its own. Being the largest and most docile of the world’s 12 sand boas, this fascinating snake is much sought after by reptile enthusiasts. Although no harder to maintain than the Kenyan Sand Boa and its other popularly-kept relatives, Indian Sand Boas are not commonly seen in the US pet trade, and rarely exhibited in zoos. Despite having spent a lifetime involved in reptile care in zoos and museums, I’ve only run across this attractive, interesting snake sporadically – hopefully more private keepers will begin working with it soon. Please let me know of any interest or experience you have had by posting below…you may also see this snake sold under the names “Red Sand Boa” and “Two-Headed Sand Boa”.


Indian Sand Boa

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by AshLin


To sand boa enthusiasts accustomed to the modestly-sized species typically seen in the pet trade, the Indian Sand Boa will seem impressively large and stout. The cylindrically-shaped adults average two feet in length, although some may reach nearly twice that size.


The small scales appear “polished”, and are colored reddish-brown or yellow-tinged tan. Certain individuals exhibit very beautiful hues of these colors, but all are attractive. The blunt tail closely resembles the head… when threatened, the Indian Sand Boa tucks its head into a protective ball of coils and presents the tail to its attacker. As an adaptation to life spent below ground, the wedge shaped head serves as a “spade”.


Habitat type

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Bilal Mirza

Range and Habitat

The Indian Sand Boa’s range has not been well-studied, but it is known to occur in western and southern India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and, possibly, Nepal. A subspecies, the Persiche Sand Boa (E. j. persicus), is limited in range to Iran. Eleven related sand boa species are found in Africa, south Asia and the Middle East.


Arid, scrub-studded plains, semi-deserts, and rocky hillsides are the Indian Sand Boa’s preferred habitats. Life is spent below-ground, usually just beneath the surface, with the head partially exposed.


The Terrarium

A single adult may be housed in a 20 to 30 gallon aquarium. Indian Sand Boas must be provided course sand and smooth gravel in which to burrow. These secretive snakes rarely thrive if forced to shelter in caves – rather, body contact with the substrate is essential. However, some will remain beneath a piece of glass laid atop and partially covered by sand, and so may be easily observed.



Indian Sand Boas do well at an ambient temperature range of 78-85 F, and with a basking temperature of 90-95 F. As they rarely bask on the surface, a sub-tank heat pad should also be employed along with an incandescent bulb.

General Care

In common with other snakes hailing from arid habitats, the Indian Sand Boa produces dry, compact waste products. If droppings are removed regularly, there is usually little need to break down and clean the entire terrarium.


Kenyan sand Boa

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Viki

As with the more commonly-kept Kenyan Sand Boa (please see photo), Indian Sand Boas must be kept dry, because skin and respiratory disorders develop rapidly in damp surroundings. Always use heavy water bowls that cannot be tipped over when the animal burrows. As other snakes are included in their diet, Indian Sand Boas are best housed alone, and should be watched carefully when paired for breeding.



Indian Sand Boas are highly-specialized ambush predators that wait below the sand for gerbils and other rodents, lizards and smaller snakes. To assist in this hunting strategy, the eyes and nostrils are placed high on the head, which is left partially exposed when they are hunting. Captives will literally explode from the sand to snatch mice moved about with a feeding tong…very impressive, and always a shock to the uninitiated!


Fat-tailed gerbil

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by P.H.J. (Peter) Maas

The jaws of the Indian Sand Boa are not well-suited to swallowing large meals. Except for extra-large individuals, young mice are preferable to adults as a food source. Youngsters should be fed once weekly, while adults do fine with a meal each 10-14 days.



A short period of increased humidity may encourage breeding, but seems not essential.


The young are born alive after a gestation period of approximately 4 months. Due to their large size (nearly 1/3 that of the mother) and unique coloration (orange with black rings) newborn Indian Sand Boas command high prices.


Unlike the young of other sand boas, they are large enough to take pinkies, and rarely “demand” lizards as food.



While most other sand boa species become stressed when removed from their subterranean hideaways, Indian Sand Boas often take short periods of gentle handling in stride. However, the smooth, glossy scales may render them difficult to control.


All sand boas have an ingrained feeding response that often causes them to strike if touched while buried, so take care when approaching your pet or working in the terrarium.


Further Reading

Breeding Indian and Kenyan Sand Boas

Boa Overview: Care and Natural History


Your First Pet Lizard: a Checklist of Things to Consider

Certain lizards, notably Leopard Geckos and Bearded Dragons, are almost mainstream pets these days, but it still seems that many people purchase their first pet without fully considering all that is involved. In the course of my work as a reptile keeper at the Bronx Zoo, I prepared a list of important points that, if considered beforehand, will greatly improve life for both lizard and lizard owner. Please be sure to post any questions, or additional factors that you have found to be important, below. Please also see the articles linked below for my “best pet lizard” recommendations.


Rainbow Ameiva

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Tomfriedel

Captive-Bred vs. Wild Caught: This is much easier to check today than in years past. Lizards born in captivity do not drain wild populations, are less likely to harbor parasites or diseases, and are generally easier to handle than are their wild relatives. Please post below if you need help in this area.


Handle-ability and other Pet Qualities: Lizards will not seek human companionship. The words of legendary snake expert Bill Haast have some applicability to lizards as well: “You can have a snake for 30 years, but leave the cage open, and it’s gone – and it won’t come back unless you have a mouse in your mouth”!


Lizards definitely adjust to captivity, and some species accept handling better than others, but they should not be expected to be “friendly”.


Carolina Anoles mating

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Tom Adams

The “It Doesn’t Do Anything” Factor: Ideally, the new lizard owner will be interested in her or his pet for its own sake. But most of us wish to see how it lives, what it does, and so on. Many lizards, especially well-fed pets, are about as active as the infamous “pet rock”, although there are notable exceptions.


If you want action, consider a small species that actively forages for food, and keep it in a large, naturalistic terrarium. For example, a male and several female Green Anoles in a well-planted 55 gallon tank will provide you with infinitely more to observe than will an adult Green Iguana in a commercial iguana cage outfitted with a single shelf.


Cost: Your pet’s initial purchase price is but one part of the cost of lizard ownership, which also includes electricity use, veterinary care (as expensive as dog/cat care), food, enclosure, and so on.


Water Monitor

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Bing

With some planning, you can easily limit costs. A Flying Gecko needs only a 10 gallon aquarium with a low-wattage basking bulb, and a diet of small live insects…much less expensive than a 6 foot-long Water Monitor kept in a room-sized cage supplied year-round with powerful heat lamps and UVB bulbs and feeding upon rats and other rodents.


Veterinary Care: Reptile-experienced veterinarians are difficult to find in many regions. It is a grave but common mistake to embark on lizard ownership before locating a veterinarian, or to imagine that even the hardiest of species will not require medical care.


Safety: All lizards, even the shyest and smallest, will bite when threatened, and they may react to scents, vibrations and other cues that we cannot perceive. Even minor bites should be treated by a doctor, to avoid infection, tetanus and other complications. Large monitors are best reserved for zoos or highly experienced keepers with the space and financial means to properly accommodate them.


While easily managed with proper hygiene, Salmonella, which is generally carried by all reptiles, presents grave risks to certain individuals. Please see the article linked below and contact your doctor for advice.


Plumed Basilisk

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Joseph C Boone

Space: While Leopard Geckos and certain other lizards can make due with moderately-sized enclosures, you’ll see much more of interest if your pet has ample room to explore and forage. Be sure to research (feel free to post below) your lizard’s ultimate size and typical growth rate. And please remember – zoos will not accept unwanted pets and, even if native, they cannot be released into the wild!


Time Commitment: Depending upon the species and size of your pet, its care can range from a short, thrice-weekly task to a major daily chore. Long term care should also be considered – several popular pet species regularly live into their teens, while Leopard Geckos may reach 30 years of age!


Spynx Moth larvae

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by EricM

Most Lizards Need a Highly-Varied Diet: No insectivorous lizard will thrive long-term on a diet comprised solely of crickets and mealworms, even if these foods are powdered with supplements. I’ve done well by relying heavily upon wild-caught invertebrates during the warmer months.  Useful food species that you can buy include roaches, butterworms, calciworms, silkworms, hornworms and sow bugs.  Herbivorous lizards are easier to accommodate, but attention must still be given to providing species-specific variety.


Some monitors do well on diets comprised solely of mice and rats, but many of these are too large to be accommodated in typical private collections.




Further Reading

Feeding Insectivorous Lizards


Pet Lizards: Large, Small and Colorful Insectivores

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