Monday, March 21, 2011

Field trip: meet the critters

Spotted salamander
By Lauren Sims
Photos by Jeff Pippen

Do you know who your neighbors are? I’m thinking about your garden neighbors—have you gotten a chance to meet them? If you’d like a fun introduction, consider a field trip into Duke Forest to learn more about the critters that live just out of sight. You can see skinks, non-biting worm snakes, or beautiful spotted salamanders.

The home garden is full of all sorts of interesting and beneficial critters that populate and preserve your backyard oasis, says Jeff Pippen, an instructor and research associate at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, who’ll lead Duke Gardens’ “Herp Hunt” field studies trip to Duke Forest on April 2.

Meet the skink, for example. Skinks are small lizards that eat various types of insects and tiny creatures. Many of them have yellow body stripes and blue tails when they’re young. Catch a peek quickly, though, because they will scurry off very quickly.

Worm snakes are another prevalent garden companion. They’re very small and incapable of biting humans and they are commonly found under leaf litter in the yard, says Pippen. Fortunately for us, they feed on the small bugs and worms that might harm our plants—a task that toads also take on.

Even larger garden snakes such as the earth snake and ring-necked snake can come in handy in Piedmont gardens, Pippen says.

“Most of them are harmless,” he says. “And most of them are beneficial to have in terms of keeping various bugs or pests in check.”

If you’re interested in meeting your neighbors face to face, try putting down a critter shelter, or coverboard, in your garden.

“It’s easy to just go ahead and lay down a couple of pieces of wood or tin or some type of coverboard that can be made aesthetically pleasing if you have artistic abilities,” Pippen says. “A lot of these creatures are around anyway and this gives you a chance to see and appreciate them.”

A few of our backyard neighbors are even individually identifiable, Pippen notes. Spotted salamanders, found throughout the Piedmont area, spend much of their time underground but can sometimes be found underneath logs or other garden coverboards. Each has its own pattern of yellow or orange spots, so if homeowners pay attention they might find that they are being visited by the same salamanders over and over again.

The Herp Hunt field trip will be from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on April 2. To register, or for more information, please call 668-1707 or e-mail For information about other Gardens events, please see our full events brochure (PDF) at, or our abbreviated list. See more of Jeff Pippen's nature photos.

Sarah P. Duke Gardens creates and nurtures an environment in the heart of Duke University for learning, inspiration and enjoyment through excellence in horticulture. The Gardens is at 420 Anderson St.

Lauren Sims is a graduate student at Duke Divinity School and a work-study assistant at Duke Gardens. This column first appeared in the March 19 Herald-Sun.

Fowler's toad

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