The Salamanders of Swartswood
The summer shroud of greens along the shores and deep into landscapes contrasted deep blues of the lake. What a contrast to a memory. More than four years ago I had approached a snow covered altar of locked-in frozen lake surface. Appropriate that the ritual of ice fishing introduced me to Swartswood Lake in Sussex County. Swartswood is well known for the hardwater pursuit. But now in 90-degree heat my ten-year-old son Matt, wandering the woods near our allotted campsite, called out, “I caught a peeper frog!”
“Peeper frog!?” I called back. “It’s August!”
“Come see! It has the X on its back!”
The thick underbrush grazed my legs with no lush loam of marshland underfoot. What would a peeper frog be doing here? My son opened his hand, and sure enough, a peeper frog about 3/4ths of an inch long sat in his palm. He let it go, searched under more logs, and found another even smaller. Why they summer back in the dry woods I don’t know. But minimal moisture underneath rotting logs sustained them. I’ve heard millions of peepers in March and April. Throughout New Jersey, anyone can hear them who drives with windows down near any wetland. And as a boy, a number of times I had approached choruses of them, trying to at least catch sight of one. I never did.
My son inspired by his finds, we decided the next day to search the area near the Duck Pond. Matt’s big idea centered on finding snakes, although anything to find he would readily appreciate. Before we crossed East Shore Drive to the pond and the Group Camping Area (empty that weekday), we stopped into Swartswood State Park Main Office and read the wildlife log, a dateline for anybody to record observations. From this we took a clue. Another youngster had recorded his finding of a red backed and a long tailed salamander. Immediately I knew we would turn over logs.
The Duck Pond itself, at least a football field’s length, narrow and very shallow, hosts reeds that poke a full foot-and-a-half above much of its surface. We found indistinct, spongy edges inhabited by green frogs, leopard frogs, and bullfrogs. Matt adeptly caught a number of them, releasing one and scouting down the next to do the same.
We saw no ducks. Nor in the winter, if the water yet remained open, would I expect to see any of the exotic arctic ducks that visit New Jersey. Arctic ducks are divers. The Duck Pond seemed to be so shallow as to accommodate no fish, although Matt speculated that there may be some sunfish.
We were about to discover a real charm. Our sneakers mucked up and dampened, we edged away into the woods to investigate what lay under such logs and large stones. The woods around the Group Camping Area are rather sparsely forested and the underbrush is not so thick as to make walking among trees difficult. Soon happy to have found a redback, my son’s excitement remained contained, since his familiarity with this specie dated a few years. But what knocked my socks off was his sudden discovery of a spotted salamander. I had not seen one of these in the wild since I was his age, in Massachusetts, and I had told Matt so before he turned over a stone and gave his cry of surprise at just that.
With added vigor— but being very careful to exactly replace logs and stones as we had found them— we searched. “Do you think we’ll find a tiger salamander?” Matt said.
“That I doubt,” I said. Tiger salamanders very rare, a few local populations limited to South Jersey, few ever get seen.
Soon we found several long tailed salamanders. Surprised again, we discovered a large number of red efts ranging from the tiny to about three inches. These we had never seen in the wild. It became abundantly clear that the pond served as breeding ground. The way its water melded evenly into ground without a defined bank seemed perfect for the salamanders’ exits and entries. The reedy, weedy shallow waters incubate and protect their eggs. Wave action coming up from depths, such as those of the lake nearby, would destroy them.
We spent perhaps an hour-and-a-half searching out a total of 21 salamanders (including a second spotted salamander), and a very large toad that had embedded itself underneath and inside the rotting humus of a thick, aged log. Every one of these salamanders, and the toad, we carefully returned to the environment, first making sure that replacement of log or stone in as exact position as possible did not harm the creature, which we sometimes placed immediately next to the repositioned cover. We exercised this way long enough to begin to merge into the forest ourselves. Humans are not really strangers to the wild, but after lengthy periods in civilization some reacquainting is needed. Better than detachedly observing while on a walk, it’s productive to be physically active in some way, such as searching for creatures impossible to encounter otherwise.
The salamanders themselves are uniquely compelling, having eyes that appear quite perceptive, and yet their being so small and amphibian separates them distinctly from mammals like us. That gives them the sort of gel-like strangeness that is so fascinating. The narrower-bodied long tailed salamanders are swift, and can run similarly—but not so fast— as a lizard. Even the red efts we found to be surprisingly agile, although most of the time they remained very laid back. Spotted salamanders appear as classic wide-bodied amphibians that give the impression of being a real substantial animal. When I see a picture of one of these, I am reminded of the prehistoric amphibians from my childhood Golden Guide books that so inspired my imagination of prehistoric times. Neither of them we caught exhibited any agility. They plodded about rather slow, but certainly they catch their fill of insects, if mostly larvae.
For two avid fishermen to have left a Swartswood State Park overnight stay much more excited about salamanders than fish indicates an unusual plot twist. These four-legged creatures returned us to a deeper level of time—which is sustained as an ancient constant in forests and other wild lands even as they evolve—than fishing did, as up to date with techniques and our own tackle as we practice. We went into the woods with nothing but our clothes and a camera. And we left it renewed and eager to come back.