Eastern Tiger Salamander - Photo Matt Reinbold

It was a warm night for February, and a steady rain punctuated by patches of ground fog was greeting me as I made my way along the back roads in Pickaway County. Most sane individuals would think it a good night to stay in and read a good book or watch their favorite show, but for the Mad Scientists it was the perfect night for a stroll in a swamp.

Salamander Hunting at Calamus Swamp - Photo Tom Sheley
Salamander Hunting at Calamus Swamp – Photo Tom Sheley

I was joining members of Mad Scientist Associates, an environmental consulting firm; Mick Micacchion, Wetland Ecologist from the Midwest Biodiversity Institute; and fellow Columbus Audubon volunteer Blaine Keckley on an exploratory mission to see just what was going “bump in the night” at Columbus Audubon’s Calamus Swamp. After CA Trustee John Finn had introduced Calamus Swamp to Jim Palus of Mad Scientist, Jim had done some research on the Calamus site and saw that it had hosted a population of Eastern Tiger Salamanders in the past. Our goal was to see if there was still a healthy presence of these large native mole salamanders.

As we gathered in the parking lot of Calamus Swamp and pulled on waders, adjusted headlamps and checked our gear, I couldn’t help but reflect on my time as a young boy searching the woodlots and vernal pools of central Ohio for salamanders and never finding my “Holy Grail” of mole salamanders, the Eastern Tiger. So when the opportunity came up, I had jumped at the chance to represent Columbus Audubon at Calamus Swamp this night.

Tiger Salamanders are the largest and most widespread of the North American mole salamanders, reaching over 12” in length and populating much of the continent from Canada to Mexico. In the Midwest, Tigers are frequently found associated with pothole lakes in prairie regions. The remnant glacial kettle lake we know as Calamus Swamp is the perfect habitat.

Eastern Tiger Salamander - Photo Tom SheleyWe explored the western side of Calamus first, along the newer boardwalk added the previous fall. Staying near the edges in knee-deep water, we found some interesting creatures, including isopods, Dobson Fly larvae, tadpoles and water beetles, but no sign of our main quarry. As the night wore on and the temperature dropped, we invested one last effort into a promising looking area of flooded woods adjacent to the main kettle lake. Suddenly, an excited shout from the darkness and a cry for the net led us all to the first Eastern Tiger Salamander of the night. It was a magnificent dark-colored male, and the first Tiger I had ever seen in Ohio. After we made a few notes, it was released and we continued our search with renewed focus. Soon, we all were excitedly shouting our finds of Tigers, as we had finally found their active zone. My own boyhood dreams were fulfilled — a half century late! — when I spotted a tail protruding from beneath some leaves in 18” of water. Soon I was holding the only female of the evening, a beautiful brown and yellow splotched specimen that capped a wonderful February night in the rain.

In the parking lot as we reviewed the night before saying our goodbyes, I realized this was a watershed moment for Calamus Swamp. We had proven the continued existence of a healthy population of Eastern Tiger Salamanders, along with several species of invertebrates found in high quality habitat. These discoveries reinforced our conviction that Calamus Swamp needs to be protected and to be better understood. Our results from the night led to discussions among the CA Calamus Committee and we hatched the idea of having a BioBlitz to establish a base of biological knowledge of the preserve.

We have set a date of May 26 at Calamus Swamp to search, observe and note as many species of plants and animals as possible. This plan will establish our baseline for future study and conservation. If you wish to participate in the BioBlitz, please contact Allison Boehler or Tom Sheley for more information.