Making sure critters count
Volunteers spend the day before Easter scouring wetlands for reptile eggs.
Saturday, April 11 | 11:56 p.m.
BY KATHIE DURBIN
COLUMBIAN STAFF WRITER
Eve Hanlin, 12, of Vancouver studies a long-toed salamander that was found at the Washington State University Vancouver campus Saturday during the 9th Annual Critter Count. (Photos by STEVEN LANE/The Columbian)
A gaggle of school kids and grown-ups went on an egg hunt of a different kind Saturday.
Think gelatinous egg masses, salamanders and tree frogs and red-legged frogs newly hatched from the muck.
On a cool and cloudy morning, the group waded into cattail marshes beneath budding willows at the fringe of the Washington State University Vancouver campus, netting polliwogs of various types and sizes along with one long-toed salamander and one slender yellow-striped Northwest garter snake.
The site was one of four chosen for the annual "Critter Count" of amphibians and reptiles organized by the Vancouver Water Resources Education Center and staffed by volunteer scientists and naturalists.
Before the field work, participants got a course in Herpetology 101 at the Water Resources Center from Char Corkran, author of "Amphibians of Oregon, Washington and British Columbia."
Corkran narrated a slide show to help beginners identify some of the creatures they might be lucky enough to find in the marshes and ponds and along the stream banks of Clark County. She explained the difference between an amphibian and a reptile (reptiles have scales, amphibians don't) and how to distinguish their eggs (reptilian eggs have shells and membranes, while amphibian eggs are protected by that jelly-like mass).
It was fascinating stuff, but the kids in their rubber boots were eager to get going. The large group broke into four subgroups and each headed to one of the four sites: the Ridgefield Wildlife Refuge, the CASEE Center in Brush Prairie, the Columbia Springs Environmental Education Center and the WSU Vancouver campus.
Peter Ritson, a chemistry teacher at Clark College, led the small group at the university site. With its sloping lawns and encroaching subdivisions, it was the tamest of the four.
Yet tucked along the fringe of the campus, the waders with their nets and yogurt containers found pockets of marsh — includa man-made drainage swale built to collect stormwater runoff — that were teeming with polliwogs.
Ritson said the volunteer citizen monitoring group he leads had recently found 20 red-legged frog egg masses in a 15-by-20-foot pond nearby. Although no frogs chose to reveal themselves on Saturday, the unseen tree frogs filled the air with their croaking.
Lisa Peterson brought her Girl Scout troop of 8- to12-year-olds to the Critter Count. One of her scouts, 8-year-old Cambria Keeley, was the first of many to shriek, "I found some tadpoles!" after examining the contents of her net.
Soon after, 12-year-old Eve Hanlin discovered a slender garter snake coiled in a patch of dead leaves. Holding it in her fist, she encouraged it to extend its red forked tongue for the camera: "C'mon dude, say cheese!"
Lyn-Mara Eggleston of Vancouver brought her 5-year-old daughter Isis to the Critter Count in lieu of an Easter egg hunt. She said she told her, "We're going to look for salamander eggs instead of Easter eggs."
As the morning wound down, Ritson took a moment to explain why this particular marsh is important, and has survived.
Peter Ritson, a chemistry instructor at Clark College, leads a group of amateur herpetologists through a wetland area of the WSU Vancouver campus Saturday. (Steven Lane/The Columbian)
One of the biggest things affecting amphibian and reptile populations, he said, is habitat loss.
"In the olden days, they would have just filled this in and put in a pipe," he said. "This is all protected now."
It's important, he said, to document what kinds of life persist in these protected wetlands. That's why data gathered in the Critter Count, now in its ninth year, is sent to a statewide wildlife data base.
They also need upland areas, including forests, he said, and those uplands are disappearing as fast-growing areas like Clark County continue to convert open space to development.
"Wetland get protected, uplands don't," Ritson said. If wetlands like the one at WSU Vancouver get cut off entirely from woodlands and forests, he said, amphibians and reptiles will have no place to go.
Here are some shots Paul took of the day-- notice the images of Eve getting her pic taken by the photographer-- and see the pics in the article above? Love that!
Click to see larger versions...