Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Oregon’s Deadliest Critter–Who Newt?

One of the first tasks we gave ourselves when settled in at Humbug Mountain this summer was the capture of a salamander for our Junior Ranger’s “Secrets of the Salamanders” class.  We’d tell the kids about the many (over 20) varieties of salamanders in Oregon, show them photos, talk about their characteristics, and finish by making a way-cool beaded salamander.  But having a live salamander to show the kids worked so well on our last visit here that we wanted to once again capture a sample, keep it in a terrarium, and have it to show the kids.  So off into the woods we went, and lo and behold, seemingly waiting for us was a lizardly-looking creature, which we later learned, was a Rough-skinned Newt.  A newt, we said, how cool – but about all we knew about newts was the Shakespearian phrase “eye of newt, and toe of frog” from MacBeth.  After doing some research we found out that we were holding (EGAD!) Oregon’s deadliest critter!Natasha Newt1
But not to worry, as we learned in our research, holding a Rough-skinned Newt won’t hurt you, and they can’t bite, scratch, or even talk badly about you.  But…..the definitive story is this:
In the 60s, three hunters went missing in Oregon.  When found, they were all clustered around a campfire, coffee cups in hand, and very dead.  Authorities were mystified – there were no wounds or signs of foul play.  But there was one thing – a dead Rough-skinned Newt in the coffee pot.  Later, a biologist, curious about the event, analyzed a newt and found that it Natasha Newt2contained a toxin 1000 times more powerful than cyanide; enough toxin to kill at least a dozen people.  Apparently the hunters scooped up a pot of stream water not realizing that they had the newt, or perhaps they reheated the coffee that the newt had crawled into.  In another Newt-scare, In 1979, a college student that had been drinking swallowed a Rough-skinned Newt on a dare and died within an hour.  Here’s more Information.
We realized what a great tool our newt could be in teaching the children how to identify it, why it was dangerous, and that they’d need to keep their dogs or cats away from it.  Since our newt was an exotic-looking little creature and we needed a Natasha at Homename, we quickly came up with Natasha, a name that fit her well although she never seemed to learn to come when called.  Throughout the summer, we’d bring Natasha out of her “condo” (complete with pool) to show the kids, letting her crawl over my hand while they watched, fascinated in her movements.  Natasha seemed to enjoy the attention and never went into her threat posture.  We fed her worms and any bugs we found, changed her pool water, and kept her in a shady, cool place at our site. 
Natasha ReleasedBut came the day when we had to return her to the wild.  We located the place where we originally found her, thanked her for her service and released her.  She looked up at us as if to say “what – no more easy food?  And what about my pool?  And each day we wonder if we’ll open our door to find Natasha on our step, looking for her condo, worms, and pool.  We can only hope.

Hucklberry BushThis year we were disappointed by the wild blackberries due to the lack of rain; they were stunted, dried out, and sour.  So I was concerned about the huckleberries, but although the bushes at our park were pretty well dried up, the ones nearer the areas with coastal fog were close to normal.  Huckleberries are my favorite berry – tart, flavorful, Huckleberriesand just the right compliment to pancakes.  But picking them is a chore, they’re small and when you strip them off the bush you end up with leaves, unripe berries, and a surprisingly large number of little bitty spiders that seem to live on the berry bush.  But although each berry ends up being touched twice (once to pick, once to separate from the trash), it’s worth it.  We’ve frozen enough to keep me in Huckleberry pancakes throughout the winter, with some left over for ice cream!
On our last Saturday at Humbug Mountain we volunteered to serve Beach at Battle Rockas “Beach Captains” for a local organization’s beach clean up day.  One of the great things about this area is the quality of the beaches and how people work to keep them pristine.  After four hours, we had very little trash collected; mostly ropes and buoys from commercial fisherman, although one person found a small refrigerator door from the Japanese tsunami.  We met some great people during the day, while enjoying the sun, the breeze, and the great view.
The next day we made a trip to our favorite view point for seals and sea lions.  Simpson’s Reef, located near Charleston, is a gathering place for all four of the Pacific Coast pinnipeds – Harbor Seals, California Sea Lions, Steller Sea Lions, and Northern Elephant Seals.  The reef was rocking with the sound of thousands of barks, grunts, and roars – it was magical!
Simpson's Reef
Finally, when we first visited the area in 2007, we took a picture of this sunken boat at Gold Beach.  The Mary D. Hume has an interesting history and is on the National  Register of Historic Places.  She hasn’t fared well over the years, and we wondered if what is left will make it through the winter storms:
Sunken boat2Sunken boat3

What a wonderful summer we had at Humbug Mountain!  The park, the kids, the area, and the staff – our Interpretive ranger, Greg, all-knowing and ever smiling Laura, and  rangers Paul, Rick, Deb, Danny, April, Lucas, Michael, and all the other hosts we worked with.  We’ll never forget our great times together!
We’ve moved up the road to spend a month at Bullards Beach State Park, where we’ll give lighthouse tours and help in campsite maintenance.  Check back and see how we’re doing!