The Jareds were primed and ready for The Great Saturday Salamander Search, both of them displaying a genuine enthusiasm for the task at hand (and foot) at The Parklands of Floyds Fork.
So was Jackson Barnett, a precocious, blond-haired six-year-old who was prone to saying whatever was on his mind – and, boy, was there was plenty of that.
The eventual star of the evening was Danilo Mendoza, 10, who found a genuine Southern Two-lined salamander in a place least expected just when it seemed the evening’s sixty of so salamander hunters might be shut out.
But let’s take all this in the natural order of events.
The Parklands host a lot of events designed to get kids – and their parents – up off their social media equipment and into the Great Outdoors, including designated night hikes, wildflower hunts, and yes, Squirrel Appreciation Day.
The pitch for “Salamander Night” included hands-on classroom activities designed to teach attendees about salamanders and then a trek in the darkness to go find them – with flashlights and rain boots replacing the cell phones and iPods.
Helping to make the events more informative, Olivia Kaiser, a Parklands interpretive ranger, had already captured a few salamanders and had them on safe display beneath a pile of wet leaves in glass tanks.
The visitors were met at the PNC Center by The Jareds – actually Parklands naturalists named Jared Smith and Jared Norvell – who led the preliminary discussion about salamanders based on questions the children had written on large sheets of paper hung on the big glass windows, or salamander facts the kids had brought with them.
Comments such as “They are amphibians,” and “They like to live in water,” and another, an attempt to explain the salamanders breathe through their skin that read: “Salemandrs breth thru scin.”
It is the thought that counts.
As Moms, Dads and their children gathered around The Jareds dropped some other salamander facts that had led to all of them being there.
- There are about 35 species of salamanders in Kentucky and six that live in the almost 20-mile stretch of The Parklands, including the “Zig Zag”, “Cave”, “Streamside”, “Jefferson”, “Spotted” and the “Southern Two Line”; each with different colors and sizes; some with special habitats.
- Salamanders have a remarkable survival-skill, the ability to break off a leg or tail when being pursued by a predator – the appendage disappearing into the predator’s mouth – and then regenerate a new leg or tail in just a few weeks.
- Salamander skin is highly sensitive to environmental pollution and anyone who handles them must first moisten clean hands before holding them.
- Salamanders lay their eggs in gelatinous-like bags that will hang in the water like big pearls.
- There are about 500 salamander species in the world varying in size from one inch to the six foot Chinese giant salamander that can live up to 55 years.
- Some salamander tongues – a means of hunting food – are twice as long as their bodies, up to 12 inches long in the smaller species.
When asked about his favorite salamander attribute Jackson Barnett was ready with his answer; “They’re slimy.”
The Jareds then led the group from the PNC Center out into the dusk – one Jared in front in the other in the rear – with one strong admonition: Have fun!
The walk wound around over Floyds Fork, then into the Humana Grand Allee as evening settled in all around. The variety of salamander searchers soon stretched for about 100 yards along the allee and ranged from 68-year-old Karen Waters to 11-month-old Dayden Bowen, who was securely fastened to his Mom, Danielle Bowen.
All were met by a high-pitched chorus of spring peepers, the roughly one-inch frogs with larger vocal aspirations that filled the night with their continual screeching.
An interesting creature itself, the peepers can see their body fluids frozen at temperatures as low as minus eight degrees and then celebrate their survival in spring song.
The salamander searchers thundered across the wooden boardwalk over a shallow lake, turned left toward the marshy bottoms lands, and then the fun really began.
It was wet in there. It was, well, marshy there. It was great fun as the kids and adults suddenly transformed into kids tromped through the wetlands in pursuit of salamanders – with voles and crawfish other distinct possibilities.
The search has hopefully been eased a bit as small pieces of plywood had been laid in select places to serve as salamander hiding places. The Jareds took turns lifting each piece of plywood as the searchers gathered round, flashlights at the ready.
There were no creatures under any of the first five or six pieces of plywood although Jackson Bennett did have an observation about one piece of evidence: “It’s just poop.”
As everyone tromped off into the wetlands in the darkness there was a flurry of excitement as someone thought they spotted a vole playing dead.
After thorough examination the consensus of opinion was the vole was actually dead – or at least totally immune to gentle pokes and prods.
Still, it was a lot of fun out there; kids and adults happily winding their way through wet slop without fear recrimination, or even minor penalty.
When the marshlands proved to be bereft of findable salamanders, the group – now broken into two groups led by a Jared apiece – wandered over toward a big pond behind an old barn that had once been the Bell farm.
Once there they worked hard at the search, creeping close to the water’s edge where the only find was a giant bullfrog, eyes bulging, certainly wondering what the fuss was all about.
The party worked the shore for about 20 minutes, flashlights gleaming above the water in what was then full night. Whatever disappointment at the lack of prey was more than adjudicated by the just being there; the search itself; the memories made in shared darkness.
Then, as everyone began walking back on the hard road back toward the PNC center a shout went up: Salamander!
The happy finder was Danilo Mendoza, who had spotted it on the edge of the road. A dozen kids with flashlights circle the creature – which was then actually on the asphalt.
One of the Jareds – first being careful to apply water to his hands – spent a few fun minutes trying to capture the salamander as it hopped around at surprising speed.
Once safely in his cupped hands he carefully took it back to the center where it would be temporarily joined up with its other captured brethren before all would be released.
Back at the center, Danilo Mendoza announced the Two-lined salamander – so named because of the two tan-to-light-yellow stripes along its back – had already been named “Pebble” because it had been found next to the road.
“I’m so glad,” said Danilo, “that people were able to see Pebble.”
So were the people.
Photos by Ted Wathen. Click here to view more photos from this event.
About the Author
Former Louisville-Courier columnist Bob Hill is a historian for The Parklands of Floyds Fork. He travels Floyds Fork writing of the people, the places and the history of the stream within the 20-mile park system – all of which is to be preserved in the Filson Historical Society. Some of Hill’s stories appear in A Landscape and its Legacy, the commemorative book for The Parklands of Floyds Fork project. Hill has also compiled a Floyds Fork “Places & Faces” presentation that adds imagery to the words.