“The mushroom hunters have been here!” Patrick Terry exclaims as we enter the infrequently visited Leslie Woods Nature Area off Plymouth Rd. The city’s herpetologist points to the clues: crushed grass and snapped twigs. Wild mushrooms (which you’re not supposed to pick in city parks or preserves) don’t make Terry’s eyes light up. But the four-inch, red-backed salamander he discovers–after turning over two dozen logs–does.
“Salamanders are probably my favorite,” he says, turning it over in his hand. (Snakes come a close second.) Terry whips out his cell phone to record the find.
A few minutes later, he’s cradling a baby toad. I step back–a reflex he understands. His younger brother, a talented boxer whom Terry describes as “kind of a scary guy,” occasionally accompanies Terry on his explorations. When a toad Terry was holding leaped out of his hands, the scary guy screamed.
Of medium height, Terry, twenty-six, has short, wavy, sandy-colored hair and is dressed in a light jacket, khaki pants, and heavy shoes (despite such precautions, he’s suffered a couple of poison ivy attacks on the job ). He’s friendly and unabashed in his enthusiasm for creatures like the lowly, unpettable salamander. “I like them because they’re so elusive,” he says, explaining later that “they spend most of the year underground in burrows, holes, and under logs.” And red-backed salamanders like the one he found here “are really important members of the ecosystem”: by consuming insects that eat dead leaves, they keep carbon from being released into the atmosphere.
Hired by the parks department’s Natural Area Preservation unit two-and-a-half years ago, Terry tracks the health and locale of local salamanders, snakes, frogs, turtles, and reptiles. He trains volunteers to help with the counts; he gives talks to schools; and he participates in the parks department’s restorative prairie burns. And almost every week, someone calls or emails him for help identifying the teeny little snake or toad in their yard. He remembers being stumped just once, when someone from Kentucky asked him to identify a snake that lives there but not here.
Knowing Ann Arbor’s 146 parks and nature preserves much better than he does its bars, he’s quick to tell you, “For people who want to see turtles, it’s Gallup! I have found six different species of turtles in Gallup Park. Get in a canoe with some binoculars.”
He also knows but can’t reveal the locations of rare or even endangered creatures–like the Blanding’s turtle. “It’s a really charismatic turtle. It’s got these really bright yellow markings on its shell” but like other rare amphibians is vulnerable to the illegal trade. They’re at less risk here than in other places, he adds, because “we have so many eyes on the ground, because of our volunteers.”
While giant Gallup Park boasts the easiest amphibian spotting, his favorite is Barton Nature Area off W. Huron River Dr. “It has a really good mix of the best natural communities that Ann Arbor has to offer,” he says, mentioning “wet prairies [and] the little oak savannas.” And, of course, plenty of turtles and snakes.
Poisonous snakes don’t live in city-run parks, but other reptiles and amphibians have their own dangers. As an EMU grad student, Terry tested turtles of the Great Lakes for specific genetic traits. In one case, he found himself wrestling “the biggest snapping turtle I’ve ever seen” out of a net he’d caught it in to study it. He successfully maneuvered the turtle by its rear legs to return it to the water, but it was a scary encounter: “I’m not sure I would have had fingers if that turtle bit me.”
A military kid, the oldest of three, Terry maintained an interest in reptiles and amphibians through his parents’ frequent moves. In middle school, he owned a distinctive bearded dragon lizard. But it wasn’t until the family landed at an air force base near Anchorage, when he was fourteen, that the natural world overtook chess and video games as his prime preoccupation. “You have to be crazy not to like the outdoors there! It’s like overload,” he says, recalling the glory of glaciers and the excitement of spotting bear tracks “five minutes from my house.” He earned a bachelor’s in wildlife biology from Ohio University and started at NAP while doing research for his master’s at EMU. (He works ten months a year on a contract basis.)
Having a natural area preservation program is unusual for a city, says longtime director Dave Borneman, though less so than when it was launched in 1993. Its mission, he explains, is “to protect and restore Ann Arbor’s natural areas and to foster an environmental ethic among its citizens.” Borneman administers the controlled burns, which drive out invasive species and encourage the rebirth of native plants. Installing tiny bluebird nest boxes has encouraged the return of the pretty bird; maintaining turtle nesting mounds helps keep that local population healthy.
Hundreds of Ann Arborites volunteer for NAP each year–recently, “all of Community High” cleared out invasive garlic mustard plants at city parks, Borneman says. And the inventories of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, butterflies, and plants they help create are considered when nearby development plans are reviewed.
It’s hard to imagine a lovelier headquarters for a group of naturalists than NAP’s: a former home on E. Huron River Dr. overlooking Gallup Park’s South Pond. The city purchased it from former congressman Wes Vivian and his partner, the late Elizabeth Kaufman, in 2010; NAP moved there two years ago. The former dining room is Borneman’s office, the living room now a meeting space. Terry and his thirteen coworkers explore the two-acre grounds on breaks.
When I visit in May, the first thing Terry does is hand me a pair of binoculars and lead me outside. He points to a tiny island and, as I adjust the field glasses, gestures toward the top of a tree.
“That’s a bald eagle!” he exclaims. “How cool is that!”