Appalachian Nature



An American White Water Lily in the rain. 


During breaks in my studies, I explored the state parks of the Poconos. The Poconos are one of the distinct geographical and cultural regions in the huge Appalachian mountain chain. The Poconos are located just north of the Lehigh Valley, where I am studying. The Appalachians were once as high as the Rockies, but being much older, they have eroded through time. They are still beautiful and formed quite a barrier for early American settlers to cross into the rest of the country. The Poconos are full of resorts and it is a popular tourist destination because of its proximity to the big population centers in New York and New Jersey. I am staying in the highest borough in Pennsylvania, Freeland, and although being close to Bethlehem, it has a very different feel.



An Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) waits for us to leave Lake Francis parking lot. 


On a rainy Friday morning, I took the kids on a hike in the Nescopeck State Park. The state started buying properties in 1971 and today it is a nice little natural area, which in time will become even wilder. Without the state preserving land, the entire region would be private homes, as people have the desire to live in the country, surrounded by trees in 1-acre plots. In my opinion, I think people should live in towns, near one another so more land can be conserved as forest.


Wild Turkeys have been reintroduced to the park. 

No blog post on the northern Appalachian region would be complete without a photo of the Rosebay Rhododendron (Rhododendron maximum). It is the dominant plant of the central Appalachians. It forms a dense understory, inhibiting other plants from growing. Rosebay maintains its foliage year-round. It is a fascinating subject of study because scientists are unsure if it is retreating or spreading due to human interference. Due to less precipitation, it is dying out in elevated areas, but due to the lack of indigenous burning, it seems to be spreading into areas that it never colonized. When there is a lack of large trees, it forms a thick mass, and early settlers called them “Laurel Hells” or “Laurel Slicks” because it was so hard to go through. They are also known as the mountain laurel, but this is also the name of a similar species.


We also spotted lots of Red-spotted Newts (Notophthalmus viridescens) on the trails. Only adults were found on this trip. A couple of years ago we found the “red eft” juvenile stage specimens as well.


Getting to know the Appalachian region is stimulating in my a desire to hike the famous Appalachian trail someday…


Clouded Monitor


We spotted this clouded monitor lizard (Varanus nebulosus) on our hike yesterday. It was about 70 cm long and foraging for insects through the leaf litter on the side of the trail. I managed to snap a couple of photos with my iPhone before it slipped away through the forest and down the hill. They can grow up to 1.5 meters and are adept tree climbers. Earlier in the day we spotted the darker, Malaysian Water monitor lizard along side the reservoir while Oliver and I were kayaking.

Since my telephoto lens was scratched, I have not been posting much on my nature blog. I hope to get a new lens when I return to Japan in late January and do more nature blogging.


I photographed this beautiful Dwarf Poinciana (Caesalpinia pulcherrima) in the gardens of the Mac Ritchie Reservoir park. I love tropical garden plants and I remember the dwarf poinciana from my many years in Latin America. It goes by many names, like the Pride of Barbados where it is the national flower. It is native to the Caribbean islands and tropical Latin America. This legume looks like a miniature version of the Flamboyant or Royal Poinciana tree, but it is a distant relative.






Japanese Fire Belly Newt


We spent yesterday along the Kanzaki River, east of Lake Biwa in the Shiga prefecture. The forested rocky cliffs along the river were prime habitat for the Japanese Fire Belly newt (Cynops pyrrhogaster). I found two 2-3 meter long / 50 cm wide ponds in crevices in the cliffs with 4-5 newts in each. I easily caught the newts, photographed them and then released them unharmed back into the pool. Most information online is geared towards the pet trade, and I read where they have toxins on their skin. I did not feel the effects, but being so easy to catch, I would guess the bright orange belly warns predators that they are deadly to eat.


They are commonly found in Japan and are studied by researchers because of their remarkable ability to regenerate not only limbs, but eyes and other body parts. It would be wonderful to eventually learn how they do this and replicate it in humans. That is a long way off. Research is highlighted in the video below.

The ultimate prize in salamanders/newts still eludes me however, the Giant Salamander. I hope to be able to see this special creature before I leave Japan.

Besides the fire belly newt, I also caught this Japanese Brown frog (Rana japonica). I love the leafy, reddish color.


Red-eared Slider


I was looking for a lapwing type bird I saw in a recently flooded rice paddy when I spotted one of the most invasive species in the world, the red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans). Red-eared sliders are originally from the southern United States and northern Mexico, but due to their popularity as pets and because people release pets in the wild, they have conquered many habitats throughout the world, including an irrigation pond in my neighborhood in Osaka. The importation and sale are banned in many countries, but not in Japan until 2020. Because of their behavior, they outcompete local species. They can live for up to 40 years so if Japan wants to get rid of them, they have a lot of work to do. The ministry of the environment estimates there are 8 million individuals and they outnumber local turtle species, 8 to 1. In Japan they are known as midori gane

Tiger Keelback Snake


Yesterday when we were leaving the Aichii River and heading back to the 421 highway, we encountered the poisonous Tiger Keelback Snake, or Yamakagashi (Rhabdophis tigrinus). At the time, I didn’t know what species of snake we were following, but it did have an unusual, cobra-like raised head as it slithered off the road and into the woods. It had a piece of lizard or frog in its mouth and so apparently, we interrupted its meal. It moved rather slowly, allowing me to get close enough for a photograph.

It is a beautiful snake with the green/olive head and orange flanks. Despite being poisonous, it is not too dangerous because it has small back fangs and it needs to chew to deliver the poison. I read on someone’s blog that there was one death from the snake in Japan in the 1980s. It is commonly found throughout Japan, eastern China and Korea.

The Tiger Keelback has a fascinating way of defending itself from predators as seen in this National Geographic video below. I guess that the orange marking evolved because it alerts predators that it is not a safe meal.

Japanese Grass Lizard

Two weeks ago we went for a hike in the Minoh National Park. We were near the #8 trail head, which is a nice picnic area. As we were heading back towards our car, Oliver noticed this Japanese Grass Lizard (Takydromus tachydromoides) moving across the ground. I eventually caught it so we can photograph it. We never would have noticed the bright yellow color on its belly.

It is one of only three lizards found on the Japan islands. In Japanese it is known as kanahebi, and hebi means snake, although it is not a snake. They feed on insects and arthropods with pillbugs (roly-polys) being one of its favorite meals. This specimen was quite easy to catch and I made sure to grab it by the body, not the tail which it can drop to escape. I released it after the photo.

Asian Common Toad

Like its name, it is the common toad of Asia. Tonight I went for a walk in the Parque de Mong Hu in Macau and spotted several of these toads. It is the only green spot in this part of the city, so it was nice to get a bit of nature in the most densely populated country on earth.

The Asian Common Toad (Duttaphrynus melanostictus) can be identified by the black bony ridges around the eyes and snout and spiny warts on the back. They do well in urban and disturbed habitats and breed and feed in stagnant pools and puddles. They can grow up to 8 inches, but I only saw smaller specimens. They were easy to pick up. The Common Asian Toad ranges from Pakistan and India to Malaysia and Indonesia. They are not found in Japan, most likely due to the cold winters.