Death of a Salamander

Great & Northwestern

While I normally like to arrive before sunrise, I got a late start to my visit to the refuge in late February, as I was tired and decided to sleep in, arriving after noon. There was a great egret at the edge of Horse Lake, right at the start of the auto tour, so I pulled over and set up to take portraits since it wasn’t on the hunt.

Or so I thought.

Unfortunately my camera wasn’t set up for action as the egret suddenly struck into the water and brought up this northwestern salamander. I’ve rarely seen these lovely salamanders, and only when they’re being eaten, as the terrestrial form (adults can be aquatic or terrestrial) is usually below ground. During breeding season they move to the water to breed, and I believe late February is prime mating season for these salamanders at sea level, so hopefully it had a chance to pass on its genes before the egret caught it. I’ve never seen one this large, I was rather taken aback when I saw what it was.


When i first saw the white spots running from the head of the salamander down to its tail, I assumed it was part of its coloration and was confused when I later read that this is not the case. I couldn’t see that it could be any other species, but then I read that the white spots are poison that the salamander releases as a defense mechanism.

I don’t know if it explains something I found a little odd, as when the egret first caught the salamander it brought it out of the water and tossed it several yards away into the grass. It seemed rather upset and agitated with the salamander, perhaps I thought because the salamander’s long tail kept thrashing back towards the egret’s eyes, and I thought to myself, “Well, you are trying to eat it!”, but perhaps it was upset because it got a taste of the poison.

The egret grabbed and tossed the salamander multiple times, I was surprised at how long the little thing put up a fight. The egret’s first strike had opened a hole in the salamander’s side and some of its internal organs had come out, so it was going to die even if it managed to get away, so I wished I could tell it to just give up and its agony would end. Eventually it did stop fighting as much and the egret gave it a good dunking in the water, after which the salamander’s body went limp and its legs hung to its sides. The egret swallowed it in one fell swoop. I wonder now, although probably much too large to be killed by the poison, if it made the egret sick, and perhaps it might give the next salamander a pass.

Horse Lake

After I got over the thrill of seeing this magnificent little creature and the shock of watching it die, I reflected on how amazing it is that, just feet from where I have spent many, many hours sitting and watching and listening at this pond, an entire world exists under the water that I have little knowledge of and no way to observe. I would have never known this magnificent salamander was there if not for the egret (this wider view of Horse Lake shows the egret not long before it caught the salamander, just over to its left).

Above the water I can watch and learn, but the things below I see only when they are brought out from the water and into the air, usually as they die. That makes me a little sad, but this encounter did encourage me to learn about the salamanders as I knew nothing about them before, apart from the name. Their numbers declined by one that day, but the northwestern salamander population in general is doing well in its range on the western edge of North America, from northern California up through British Columbia.

Maybe one day we’ll meet on friendlier terms. In the meantime it makes me happy knowing they are there, even if I can’t see them.

It also made me happy to see that, a while back, one of my pictures was used for the good of salamanders, as the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service used my favorite rough-skinned newt picture on their Facebook page to announce some steps they are taking to protect our salamanders from a fungus that is killing them elsewhere. I like how Flickr displays the usage rights I set for my pictures, as I set most of them so they can be used for non-commercial purposes, a long-standing tradition dating back to when I first started putting my pictures online back in the mid-90’s.

Surviving and Not Surviving into the New Year

Surviving into the New Year

A shoveler swims past late in the day on New Year’s Eve of 2014, meaning she likely survived into the new year. The little bullfrog below almost made it into the new year but an egret plucked it from the shadows shortly before sunset. The bullfrogs move pretty slowly in the cold of winter and if spotted are easy pickings for the egrets and herons and bitterns that patrol these shores.

Not Surviving into the New Year

When Two Frogs Love Each Other Very Much …

Two bullfrogs mating while floating in the water

These mating bullfrogs were serenely floating in the water while around them was chaos, with males playing leapfrog and wrestling each other into submission and croaking loudly. The male here is the one on top with his characteristic yellow throat and large tympani (the eardrums, the big circles behind the eyes). The water was mostly still but there was a subtle current and they both used their webbed rear feet to control their speed and balance. They don’t have webbing on their front toes, so the female used her front legs to maintain balance while the male has his wrapped around her body.

Catch, Dunk, Swallow

An American bittern swallows a Pacific treefrog

They say pictures never lie but they can certainly give the wrong impression. This American bittern, swallowing a treefrog it just caught, caught it further away from the water but came down to the water, dunked it, and swallowed it. As adults treefrogs often live near water but spend most of their time on land (and more often near the ground rather than in trees). The bittern has covered both its eyes with a nictitating membrane to protect them as it flips the frog down towards its throat.

An End to Hibernation

End of Hibernation: The Dunk

Bullfrogs hibernate during the winter so their metabolism slows significantly and they aren’t very active but they don’t bury themselves in the mud the way a turtle might. Many bullfrogs at Ridgefield found their hibernation cut short this winter by the herons and egrets and bitterns that worked the shallow channels and ponds of the refuge.

This egret in particular was just walking up and down one such channel, avoiding a great blue heron doing the same, striking at bullfrog after bullfrog, following a familiar process between catching the frog and eating it. First, the frog would be dunked quickly into the water, as shown above. Next, the egret would spin the frog rapidly, presumably causing massive internal injuries to the frog, as shown in the following two pictures. In the first picture, the egret has closed the nictitating membrane in its eyes, a transparent third eyelid that protects the eye from damage while still allowing the egret to see, as water spins off the frog and its clawed feet flail about, while in the second picture the membrane has been retracted.

End of Hibernation: Spin Cycle No. 1

End of Hibernation: Spin Cycle No. 2

Then the egret would toss the frog into the air, catching it in a different place on its body, and either repeat the process again if it caught it by a leg, or perhaps crush it in its beak if it caught it by the body. This would happen multiple times until I gather the frog had died or given up fighting, although with the egret constantly keeping the frog moving it was hard to tell exactly when or if the frog itself stopped moving.

End of Hibernation: Throw & Catch

The final step was to position the frog head first in its beak and swallow it whole. Bullfrogs are voracious predators and, as they aren’t native to the area, have had a big impact on some of the other small creatures in the ponds and sloughs. However I’ve seen the bullfrogs themselves become prey for the larger predators of the refuge, including not just egrets and herons and bitterns but otters, raccoons, and grebes.

End of Hibernation: The End

A Mouthful of Bullfrog

An American bittern prepares holds a large bullfrog in its mouth

Normally I’m pretty good at spotting bitterns at Ridgefield but I saw them on only three out of ten visits to the refuge over the Christmas break. I worried I was losing my touch until I found this bittern on Christmas Eve slowly working the channel beside Rest Lake. I suspect the real reason I haven’t seen as many this year is that the grasses in this area, normally my best spot for seeing them, have been cut lower in places, eliminating cover for both the bitterns and the animals they are hoping to catch.

The bittern snagged a large bullfrog from the water as you can see in the top picture. In the picture below the bittern has swallowed most of the frog with only the rear feet sticking out of its mouth. The bittern has protected its eyes from the frog’s claws with a nictitating membrane, a common tactic in the chaos of swallowing something that doesn’t want to be swallowed.

An American bittern swallows a large bullfrog