It was our last day of surveying for hellbender salamanders in southwest Virginia, and as we approached the stream, my heart sank. There was no question about it – the stream was raging. The last few weeks of rain had flooded this watershed, and it would be incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to catch a slippery salamander under 3 feet of rushing water. On top of it, a group of high school students were meeting up with us to see their first hellbender in the wild. I was determined to make it a memorable experience for them… come hellbender or high water.
Despite the tough conditions, my field crew (who you met in my last blog post) was ready to go. Warren and I fought our way upstream, while Elliot stayed behind with the students to collect stream bugs (more scientifically called macro-invertebrates). We planned to bring the bugs back to the National Zoo for Lauren Augustine, who wants to know how they compare nutritionally to the diet that we feed our young captive hellbenders. Lisa, meanwhile, dashed back and forth between the groups to photograph the students’ enthusiastic bug surveys and my seemingly-futile efforts to find a hellbender.
After nearly two hours, I gave up. There was no way we were going to find anything, and I would just have to tell the students that nature is not like cable TV – you can’t get anything On Demand. Warren and I decided to turn around, and he suggested we check a few rocks the opposite side of the stream on our way back. Still no luck. Then we came to a boulder about the size of my kitchen table top. I knew we couldn’t lift it, but stuck my hand under anyway… and felt the familiar slimy squish of a hellbender!!! After 2 hours of battling the raging stream, we finally found a hellbender in the one place we couldn’t catch it! I didn’t know how we were going to do it, but I was determined not to leave this boulder empty-handed.
To be continued…