Sunday, June 20, 2010

A Week to Remember

Breeding male Notropis chrosomus, Monroe County, AL

There's been a colorful creature theme this week. In the past seven days I've seen red-cockaded woodpeckers in Coosa County, Red Hills salamanders in Monroe County, and a southern red salamander in Covington County. I was present for the release of 18 eastern indigo snakes in Conecuh National Forest. I watched male rainbow shiners in peak breeding colors in Monroe County, at the exact spot I featured in July 2009.

Two events made the week particularly memorable. The first was the reintroduction of the indigo snakes last Wednesday. You can read more on that here and Dave Steen's account is here. Gator Pond is only a couple of miles from the release site, and it's exciting to think that someday we might actually see an indigo snake there. Good luck to Jimmy Stiles as he tries to radio-track 18 snakes that potentially could range for miles!

Jimmy Stiles

It's hard to top indigo snakes, but Friday was the 50th anniversary of the June 18 1960 discovery of the Red Hills salamander, Phaeognathus hubrichti. Several months ago JJ Apodaca and I started making plans to do something to commemorate the occasion, and we envisioned maybe seven or eight die-hard Phaeognathus biologists making the effort to show up. To our astonishment and delight, a group of about 40 people turned out for the event, and following a lunch and indoor social nearby, we all piled into vehicles and drove through a severe thunderstorm to the type locality off Highway 31 near McKenzie. As the rain subsided, we toasted the likes of Leslie Hubricht, Richard Highton, Barry Valentine, and Ronald Brandon. Two of Valentine's students who participated in the 1963 "rediscovery" of the species, Steve Tilley and David Dennis, were there, as were Auburn's Bob Mount (my old major prof) and his students Ralph "PeeWee" Jordan and Terry Schwaner, both of whom did extensive field work and research on the salamander in the late 1960s. Some of these guys came from afar: Tilley from Massachusetts, Dennis from Florida, Jordan from Tennessee, and Schwaner from Ohio. The list of other attendees possessing what we called "Phaeognathus bona fides" is long: Ken Dodd, who worked on the original 1976 listing of the species and did extensive surveys in the late 80s, drove up from Gainesville, Florida. Bruce Means, who documented the reproductive biology of the species, came up from Tallahassee with his wife Kathy. Jodie Smithem, USFWS biologist from Daphne who is writing the revised Recovery Plan, was there. UA professor Jim Parham, who co-authored a skeletochronology paper on Phaeognathus with Dodd, came from Tuscaloosa with his wife Sarah. AU professor Craig Guyer and his former Phaeognathus-studying master's student, Kristen Bakkegaard, now a professor at Samford, were there. Leslie Rissler, JJ's major professor at UA, came with her two youngsters Aiden and Amelia, much to the delight of our seven-year-old, Ava (they were The Three A's). My wife Karan, who's done her share of Phaeognathus catching for an AU study, skillfully handled the BBQ catering and other logistics, and was key to the whole thing going smoothly. Roger Reid produced his very first APT Discovering Alabama program on the Red Hills salamander about 15 years ago (Phaeognathus launched his TV career, we joked), and he was there with his crew to get some supplementary footage. The Nature Conservancy has recently acquired over 4,000 acres of Red Hills lands for Forever Wild, and we were delighted to have Chris Oberholster and Bill Finch of TNC there. Jimmy Bullock and Sandy Hindman of RMS, formerly of Union Camp and International Paper, respectively, were there, and these guys were instrumental in a couple of major Phaeognathus Habitat Conservation Plans in the 1990s. RMS currently owns the type locality and we greatly appreciated their letting us on the property.

We missed a few folks, like Jim Godwin and Margaret Gunzburger, both of whom have considerable "Phaeognathus bona fides" but also had family obligations prohibiting them from making it. Here's Margaret's. Many of us went to Gator Pond afterward and the tale-telling lasted late into the night. Here was the scene the next morning:

Gator Pond Cabin, 19 June 2010. Left to right:
David Dennis, Kathy Steinheimer, Steve Tilley, Ken Dodd, Bruce Means, JJ Apodaca

Great memories were made around here this past week, but there's more to come. It's getting late in the afternoon this Father's Day, and I've promised Ava that Daddy is going to take her to Gator Pond for some swimming, fishing, and listening to frogs. We might even stay in the cabin tonight now that all's quiet. Definitely time to get away from computers for a while...