As a wildlife photographer I travel all over to get shots of some pretty spectacular wildlife such as grizzly bears, spirit bears, wolves & whales. Not just the big predators either, I can get pretty excited about photographing birds and when you’re out in the bush waiting for one of the aforementioned predators to turn up, even the small stuff can seem quite intriguing such as voles and even inch worms.
But sometimes, especially with living on Vancouver Island, I don’t have to venture to far to find wildlife and on occasion I even find it right on my doorstep. One evening I found just such a critter, literally on my doorstep. I spotted it as I was closing the garage door and wondered what on earth it was. With my camera close at hand, I grabbed a few shots, before it was too late and the long skinny amphibian disappeared.
Now one thing I really enjoy about my wildlife photography is learning about my subjects and also being able to pass that information on to others to help them learn and hope it can promote an interest and desire to learn more and help protect the said bird or animal. Usually, I try to learn as much as I can about an intended species before I head out in to the field, but, as on this occasion, I sometimes have to learn about the target of my lens after I return home.
On this night, the new species I had found to add to my ever growing list of new sightings turned out to be a Northwestern Salamander (Ambystoma gracile). As it turned out, there are in fact six species of salamander to be found here on Vancouver Island (and 9 in all of BC) – the Northwestern, Clouded, Long-toed, Western Red-backed and Wandering salamanders along with the Rough Skinned Newt.
The northwestern salamander, sometimes called the ‘Brown Salamander’ can grow to over 20cm in length including the tail, with the female being the larger of the two adults. They have a preference for living in dark, moist forest environments and can more often be found under felled trees, rotting logs or underground in holes or the burrows of other animals rather than on garage thresholds. Also, what can be clearly seen in the picture here are what I thought were ribs, but are actually furrows along the body known as ‘costal grooves’.
If you should see one of these salamander rubbing it’s chin on the head of another then this is a good sign of a mating ritual taking place. The young are born from from eggs that resemble large frog spawn in a green algal jelly attached to vegetation in deep ditches, lakes, ponds, slow running pools etc. around late spring or early summer time and they can have a lifespan of around 5 years all being well. Once hatched, young salamanders quickly resemble tadpoles but have large gills and leave the body of water of their birth after 12 – 24 months depending on elevation. Having moved to a terrestrial life, salamanders adopt a rich and varied diet which can include, but is not necessarily limited to spiders, slugs, insects and worms.
Northwestern salamanders can kill an adversary when they have to, thanks to glands on their backs, heads and tails from which they secrete a sticky poison. Northwestern salamanders are the only salamanders in BC to have these poison secretion glands know as parotid glands. This sticky substance, combined with an offensive ‘head-butting’ posture – often accompanied with a clicking or ticking sound, acts as a great deterrent to would be predators such as garter snakes, shrews, large frogs and certain fish. I wouldn’t recommend you should try it, but the poison is reported more as an irritant rather than a poison to people.
As with all wildlife in British Columbia, the biggest threat to the NW Salamander comes from mankind. Although not classified as endangered – urbanization and industrialization causing habitat destruction and loss such as from draining of watersheds and riparian zones, mining and logging can have big impacts on populations. Climate change can also impact on salamander survival – the sudden flooding or drying up of habitat at crucial periods in their lifecycle can be severe.
Spring time isn’t too far away, in fact, here on Vancouver Island it feels like it is here already, but this will be a great time for people to head out and try a little amphibian photography of their own. It can be really rewarding and as I said, learning about your subject is the key and one of the most interesting parts of wildlife photography. As with all wildlife though, please don’t go disturbing salamanders unnecessarily by touching them or moving them for better light etc. and please leave their habitat and surroundings as you found them – ensuring any lifted logs or rocks are returned carefully.
All Photographs Are © Steve Williamson
Steve Williamson Photographer Bio
Steve Williamson is an award winning wildlife photographer and conservationist living in British Columbia’s Comox Valley. He spends a lot of his time working along the BC coast and when possible works with conservation charities in the Great Bear Rainforest & with the eco-tourism industry. Working with these organizations has enabled Steve to see many of the amazing sights and wildlife presented in his photographs. It also allowed him to learn a great deal about the spectacular scenery and wonderful wildlife he was seeing, whilst at the same time being able to give something back to the environment and the area in which he was working. Steve is also a trained bear viewing guide and has lead tours to view & photograph wildlife, as well as being the former general manager of a bear viewing eco-tourism lodge.
Steve’s interest in photography grew when trained by the Royal Navy to conduct photography work as an additional part of his ship’s duties and was further broadened by a college diploma in the late 90’s. Steve’s work has been published on websites, in newspapers, magazines & calendars. It has also been used in commercial advertising. has featured in promotional video presentations, national slideshows and has been retained in government and scientific databases for reference and referral archiving. Today, working with and photographing BC’s wildlife is his passion.
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