Did you know that the Southern Appalachians are home to the most biologically diverse salamander population in the entire world and spring is a great time to see them on the move? I sure didn't until I attended my first Wildlife Workshop & Walkabout as an intern for Defenders of Wildlife's southeast field office! Workshops & Walkabouts are events that offer a hands-on approach to learning about the wildlife wonders that surround us in the Southeast. They are composed of a "workshop" session where you learn valuable skills and information about a particular animal or conservation issue and a "walkabout" session where you go out and test your new skills in the wild. Helping to develop and execute this spring's program was one of my first projects on the job - not a bad start.
The workshop was held in our field office in downtown Asheville on a Thursday evening and it featured Dr. Graham Reynolds of UNC Asheville who (quite literally) wrote the book on Tennessee salamanders. He gave an excellent talk on the various salamander species of the Southern Appalachians - including imperiled species like the Eastern hellbender - and their ecology, conservation status, and identification. I was amazed by the number of salamander species and the level of uniqueness we have just outside our doorstep. I grew up in Southern Appalachia catching salamanders and never thought twice or knew about how special of an experience it was to grow up in the salamander capital of the world. After Dr. Reynolds finished his talk, Defenders' Southeast Program Director, Ben Prater, gave a presentation on how to create salamander sanctuaries in our own backyards. We learned how by creating a sanctuary, we could help to protect and conserve, (and hopefully observe!) these incredible creatures that make living in Southern Appalachia that much more special.
On the following Saturday, we were off to Rocky Fork State Park in Unicoi County, Tennessee for the walkabout. Rocky Fork State Park is a gorgeous park located only 45 minutes away from Asheville. It features miles of hiking trails along pristine cascading streams and through forest containing many important species including the peregrine falcon, Yonahlossee salamander, woodland jumping mouse, and many native wildflowers. Unfortunately, it is also threatened by a proposed road-building project. We are working alongside local communities and other organizations to prevent the destruction of this critical habitat. We walked along Flint Creek and found so many salamanders it was hard to even look at one before someone else yelled out that they had found another. Our search yielded nine different species including the two-lined salamander, seal salamander, and common mudpuppy. Along the way, we also collected eDNA samples from the creek that will be examined for hellbender DNA to test our hypotheses that North America's only giant salamander resides in Rocky Fork State Park.
The two halves of this experience opened my eyes even more to the wonder of Southern Appalachia. From an engaging lecture and lesson by Dr. Reynolds and Ben Prater to a wonderful day in the field, the Wildlife Workshop & Walkabout was a terrific experience I would recommend to anyone. I am very grateful to Weiler Woods for Wildlife for graciously sponsoring our 2019 Wildlife Workshop & Walkabout series and making this experience possible so that Defenders can share a love and concern for wildlife and wild places with those living in the area. I highly encourage anyone interested in learning about the natural world that surrounds us to attend the upcoming programs on the Carolina northern flying squirrel (July 18th and 20th) and Monarch Butterfly Migration (September 26th and 28th). For more information please contact Tracy at firstname.lastname@example.org and join the Carolinas Facebook group to stay up-to-date on these events and more!