Narrative of a Mudpuppy Field Trip with Little Ray's Junior Herpetologists - 3 June 2001

Schueler, Fred. 2001. Narrative of a Mudpuppy field trip with Little Ray's Junior Herpetologists - 3 June 2001. EOBM Almanack 3(2&3):6-7.

At Oxford Mills, a score of Junior Herpetologists were scrambling out of vehicles in the parkinglot beside the dam. As I gave a bit of a speech about creek ecology, I decided that, considering the darkness and threat of rain, we'd do best to work the creek below Oxford Mills School. There everyone struggled into their idea of wading garb, ranging from anorak, toque, and lined slacks (the voice of experience) to thin tee-shirts and shorts. At 15 C and light rain I foresaw an early onset of hypothermia, and passed out such garments as I had in the truck to those who could benefit from them.

It was 11:20h by the time we had all slid down the steep clay bank of the creek, past the Cedars, Burr Oak, and Yellow Birch of the sheltered riverine woods, and stood in an uncertain crowd on the rough-rocky shore of the creek. Some kids were already swarming into the stream, with water at 16.5 C - "Is it warm or cold?" The kids were "I've got a clam"ing over ancient Elliptio complanata, but one clam was a broken valve of a Lasmigona costata: characteristically ribbed, and decorated with snail-shaped sand-cases of Hyropsyche Caddis larvae, and letter-like greyish egg masses of Bithynia tentaculata, the Faucet Snail. Orconectes virilis Crayfish came up too, several big Form II males, fresh-minted from shedding, with gracile chelae, and little colour contrast between carapace and chelae.

On the west side of the creek the walking is easier on a drift of sand, and I began that characteristic Eastern Ontario search for a Unionid clam-that's-not-Elliptio. I was rewarded three times: a Strophitus with its beak all eroded away, an almost-alate rayless Lampsilis, and another eroded specimen, the dead body still present in the gaping shell, that was about the right shape for Alasmidonta undulata. At a big minnow nest, like a wheelbarrow-load of driveway gravel, it took some time to persuade the kids that fish could build such a structure. Red-eyed Rock Bass fanned their fins beneath many of the larger stones, someone picked up a dead strange-mouthed Minnow, which proved to be the first Kemptville Creek Rhinichthys cataractae. A "something with orange underneath" was a Leech wrapped around a dipnet handle.

By now nearly everyone was in the creek, and the rain was pelting down, obscuring the bottom for those of us who were trying to see through from the surface. Those with mask and snorkel saw more clearly, while Little Ray prostrated himself in the shallow water, goggling the bottom as he went along, and turning rocks without standing up. Soon the cry went up: "I've got one!" and then "It's a little one," and a 7 cm Mudpuppy was netted up into the bottom of a bucket, which was passed around among the parties in the water, and then to those on the shore, before it was released to make room for a 20 cm captive.

I went ahead down to the ‘good stretch' where we traditionally find the biggest 'puppies, and stood in the rain, watching the waders and face-maskers come downstream towards me. All my rock turning had not uncovered a single Necturus. Were we going to find enough to compensate the group for all this wetness? Crayfish kept turning up, and I pretty-well knew I had a first Kemptville Creek record of Alasmidonta undulata and Rhinichthys cataractae in the bag (though the ‘Alasmidonta' turned out to be a ‘depauperate' Lampsilis), but we'd come for Mudpuppies, and that was what would thrill junior herpetologists. As they came downstream in little clusters, they continued to just catch Crayfish - kids with bamboo-handle dipnets, parents at the centre of clusters, and Little Ray drifting along like a tee-shirted Crocodyle.

But the ‘good stretch' lived up to its reputation. Soon "It's a big one!" was added to Ray's "What am I doing wrong?" and finally "Come over here there's millions, well, about ten, well, I've seen four," and then, as one 30 cm adult after another was seen or netted, "What are the eggs like?" and my "Like skinned grapes stuck to the underside of the stone" -- but no-one found a nest.

By 12:30h some of the clusters were drifting back upstream towards the cars, and a couple of kids were complaining of cold, so I sounded the retreat and stood guard as the stragglers got over the sight of their last catch, the last photos were taken, and the last captives released. Some walked up the rocky shore, some came up on the bank and pushed through the wet bushes and low branches to the cars. Little Ray proclaimed an "executive decision" to return to the zoo rather than seeking a site for the planned outdoor barbeque, but I countered with a proposal to crowd everyone into our kitchen around the wood stove.

After a flurry of changing into dry clothes, a caravan of cars wended its way to Bishops Mills. There was none of the "you steam the Goutweed and fry the mush and I'll get the Lambsquarters and Dandelions -- and I suppose you can have a mouthful of that doughnut" that's the usual Sunday lunch menu here: prepackaged meats and pseudo-meats and white-flour buns were produced in abundance, while parents dredged canned soda, condiments, and "no-we-haven't-got-any-marshmallows" from bags and boxes. Soon the summer rubble of jars and plastic was swept off the Finlay Oval, a blaze of waste paper and Maple warmed the room, and meats and pseudo-meats were sizzling on the griddles.

Stunned by the density of visitors, the Dog was on her best behaviour, and was rewarded by a pseudo-hotdog in its bun. Kids shuttled up to the "they've got mobs of Guppies and a Snake in the" washroom, parents were satisfied about the identity of the Hawkbill Turtle hanging beside the door, and soon no wet clothes were to be seen. A Gatineau eft visiting in rubbermaid and the Blue-spotted Salamanders from the windowsill were taken out and admired. The congestion relaxed when kids swarmed out to see the "ooh-mom-they're-huge" Rabbits as the rain subsided. Everyone was fed, warm, and dry, and then it was time to leave, the caravan headed north to the 416 and Bank Street, and there was once again room to look across the kitchen.

Other field trips this spring have included: 1) heeding a call to a pristine brook near Clarence threatened by subdivision-loading of sediment and pesticides (finding what may be the only place in Ontario east of the Shield where Pickerel Frogs persist); 2) sampling after-Zebra-Mussel drifted Molluscs in the South Nation River at Casselman to match samples taken in 1997 before Zebra Mussels invaded; 3) surveying Chorus Frogs from Moose Creek to Morrisburg (confirming that they persist in sites surveyed in 1996-1999); 3) dashing to the Bruce Peninsula and back (a Stinkpot Mud Turtle turned up in the Tay at Perth, Chorus Frogs seem extirpated on the outer Peninsula, & potentially invasive Phragmites Reeds are infrequent along Hwy 7); 4) touring land snail sites on the Burnt Lands east of Almonte with a group from the Ottawa Field Naturalists Club; 5) determining the direction of Leopard Frog migration all around Kemptville, Bishops Mills, and Merrickville (Junior Naturalists Club); 6) rushing, too-late-in-the-season, to Packenham Mountain, looking for Wood Frog eggs for CWS testing of the toxicity of a dry-cleaning chemical; 7) taking a Grades 5 & 6 ‘stream study' to the Castor River and making the first field identification of what Isabelle Picard is recognizing as Elliptio crassidens (this is an in-progress new species of Unionid for Canada!); 8) leading the Ottawa Reptile and Amphibian Association into Kemptville Creek, showing many herpetoculturalists their first Mudpuppy nests and Mink Frogs; 9) checking out Rideau River Provincial Park for the EOBM's planned 24 June biotic demonstration, and finding the first Rideau drainage specimen of the paper-shelled Unionid Utterbackia imbecillis; 10) repeatedly driving auditory transects for Frogs and Birds between Brockville and Kemptville... And everywhere we went we gathered Neohelix snails for Isabelle Picard's morphometric work, recorded where we heard Chorus Frogs, and helped migrating turtles across the road or memorialized their deaths in the database.