The highs and lows of salamander photography

_DSC4496Readers of this blog can be forgiven for thinking that I’m bear photograph obsessed. While grizzlies are usually my primary focus (when I’m in grizzly country), I’m equally enamoured by non-charismatic megafauna.

Point and case: the eastern tiger salamander.

During the great beaver photography search/debacle of 2012, Jill and I found ourselves wandering Riding Mountain National Park’s Ominnik Marsh trail. While beavers were the focus, the real show-stopper was the salamander.

On our last morning in the park, I knew we needed to hit the road as early as possible to make it to our evening’s destination, but Jill kindly offered me one last visit to the marsh in search of my then-elusive beaver photograph.

As my allotted time drew to a close, I wandered back to the car only to stumble across a salamander, manoeuvring through the dewy grass.

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I have seen salamanders before, but never when I’ve had access to my camera. And, frankly, I don’t think I’ve ever stopped to appreciate them.

It was a salamander epiphany; it was time to give them the love they deserve.

Noting its location, I raced to the car to switch to a macro lens and asked Jill for five more minutes in the field.

Five minutes turned into a half hour – and probably would have turned into a full day had Jill not dragged me to the vehicle.

There is something about lying down on wet grass in the early morning cold in order to study a creature you’ve never really watched before that establishes a special bond.

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As I snapped away, I fell in love with this wee salamander.

Over the winter, as we plotted our next photographic excursion, Riding Mountain became a must-visit on our journey home because of this amphibian.

However, in 2013 we had no luck in finding the salamander…until, to Jill’s chagrin, the last morning.

Driving away from Riding Mountain, I put away my camera, thinking that I had taken the last photos of summer.

But about five kilometres out of the park, I spotted my salamander friend.

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Or should I say friends.

There were dozens. All over the road. Most of them dead.

Like so many areas in Canada, amphibians are being decimated by cars. They cross the road in the early morning sun and are extremely difficult to avoid hitting. With more and more amphibians and reptiles entering the ranks of endangered species, some regions are creating a net-and-tunnel system for the creatures to cross safely.

Where Banff National Park has become a world leader in creating successful animal underpass-overpass systems to protect grizzlies and wolves from car mortality, Waterton National Park is perfecting a similar project for snakes and salamanders.

In Manitoba, the eastern tiger salamander enjoys a healthy population – the only region where the species is not threatened, according to Riding Mountain National Park officials. But unless safe passage mechanisms are put in place in areas known for high mortality, amphibians here too might join the endangered list.

While Jill and I stand ready and willing to volunteer our time to help these creatures if someone smarter than us can come up with the tools to implement a Waterton-like protected crossing, I will continue to do what I did on our last morning of photography in 2013.

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Upon seeing a few living salamanders slowly, methodically crossing the road, Jill pulled off the highway and I started moving them one-by-one, by hand, to their destination and out of harms way.

I know my impact was minimal. I helped them in one spot on one morning in what, doubtlessly, is a daily ritual.

But trust me: after you lay on the ground and stare into their eyes, a bond is formed and no matter how irrational it might seem, you are compelled to do something – anything – to help the eastern tiger salamander.

– D. Simon Jackson | GhostBearPhotography.com

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One thought on “The highs and lows of salamander photography

  1. I’m with you Simon. I love those guys. Thank you for your wonderful story and photos.

    We bought 2 of them for a movie I had to do for a textbook company. They don’t show any affection but they are so cute!! I bought crickets along with the salamanders but they got lost in shipping and arrived, to Gardiner, MT, dead. Panic! I read about what to feed them and found out they like earthworms. We went to the store in Emigrant and bought earthworms that are normally used for bait. Then I worried they wouldn’t be able to eat something that big. I carefully washed an earthworm and offered it to one of the salamanders. He jumped up and grabbed it before it even got close. I had to pick up the other salamander to keep it from eating the first one’s worm. By the time it was all done I had made several trips to the worm store and had some pretty fat salamanders. Those salamanders now reside in a nature center in Texas.

    P.S. Years ago, while we were staying at Slough Creek Campground, we returned to camp well after dark one night. We began to notice eyeballs in the gravel road leading to the campground. We got out and realized the road was covered with salamanders, western tiger salamanders. I started walking the road and picking them up and moving them over to the side they were heading. Then a ranger drove up, killing salamanders as he drove. We asked him what was going on. He didn’t have a clue. I have since read they migrate in the spring to find mates. There aren’t as many salamanders along that road now as most of the ponds have dried up.

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