That Which Creepeth: Herpetelogical Explorations in Oaks Bottom

January 14, 2009
By Sonja Rosas, Portland, OR

On 13 December 2008, a soggy, chilly, slate-grey morning, seven brave and adventurous souls ventured into the murky depths of the Portland, Oregon wilderness. Expertly outfitted in boots, jackets, sweaters, hats, gloves, and ever-essential bottles of water, the team was ready for whatever the day had to offer. Their mission was a noble one, that which only the strongest and incorrigibly intrepid (some say slightly foolish) would accept. They were determined to let nothing, not wind, nor rain, nor a thousand bloodthirsty midges, stand in their way.

They were going hunting for amphibians in Oaks Bottom Park that day. And what a day it was.

The seven us, Molly, Bryanna, Francisco, Zach, Lucie, Jessica and myself met at Mt. Scott Community Center an hour before noon. We were met at Oaks Bottom by our guides: environmental educator Kelly Simpson and herpetologist Katie Holzer.

As Katie explains with a laugh, “A herpetologist is someone who studies reptiles and amphibians, not herpes!”

“The name actually comes from a Latin word that means ‘gross, creepy-crawly thing’,” Simpson adds before beginning to relate the history of Oaks Bottom to us. “Before people realized the ecological importance of wetlands they were thought of as just useless, gross, soggy places that weren’t really good for anything. They were usually filled and built on or used as dumping grounds by people, which was what happened at Oaks Bottom.”

Indeed for years Sellwood-Moreland Neighborhood residents myopically disposed of trash, yard waste, vehicles, and used appliances down the site’s steep walls. Perhaps most outrageous of all, during the construction of Highway 99W workers tossed 400,000 cubic feet of debris into the park (Portland Parks and Recreation, 2008), wantonly contributing to the denigration of the site.

Today Oaks Bottom is managed by the city as well as environmentally-conscious citizens, a welcome change of pace for the park and its inhabitants. Restoration has been taking place for several years now, the park’s most recent improvement serving as the first stop on our visit: Tadpole Pond, an artificial pond built as its name suggests for frogs such as the Red-legged frog (Rana aurora).

Jessica and I suited up in unquestionably attractive chest waders and carefully picked our way into the center of the pond to collect a water sample and record the water’s temperature. Together our group used testing strips and reagents to determine our sample’s PH (a measure of how basic or acidic a solution is) and nitrogen levels. As Katie explains, “Nitrogen is present in many really nasty agricultural pesticides. But it also comes from the waste products of living organisms, so if you were to go take a potty-break in the woods you would be contributing nitrogen to the environment!” After completing our water tests, Jessica and I shed our waders and our team carried on towards the river’s edge.

From an observation point we looked out over Ross Island, shrouded in mist and hazy sunshine, and took turns admiring the nest of a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) visible through the bare branches of trees along the island’s banks.

“Osprey nests are used year after year by a bonded pair and added-to each year until they become this huge mass of sticks, twigs and other debris,” Simpson tells us as we admired an impressive osprey (Pandion haliaetus) nest constructed on one of the many power lines lining the Springwater Corridor.

We meandered back onto the earth trails which quietly crisscross the park and began searching under moist logs and loosely-seated rocks for salamanders. Our first find was an impressively camouflaged Long-toed salamander (Ambystoma macrodactylum), a lovely fellow, black with a yellow squiggly-line down his back. Tangentially we moved in the direction of the park’s entrance, continuing our hunt, and being amply rewarded with findings of several more Long-toed salamanders and an Ensatina (Ensatina eschscholtzii).

Unlike warm blooded (endothermic) animals like you and I, cold blooded (ectothermic) amphibians cannot maintain a steady body temperature, and so have evolved an incredible way to avoid succumbing to the cold during freezing periods.

“Think about sucking on an ice cube and a popsicle,” Holzer begins. “You’re likely going to get a whole lot more fluid from sucking on the popsicle because of all the sugar in it. These little guys fill their cells with sugar, which keeps the water in their bodies in liquid form and keeps them from freezing to death during the winter.”

Sooner than any of us would have preferred we found we had picked our way to the edge of the paved path leading to the parking lot. We bid goodbye to the park and its charming inhabitants and thanked our guides. Piling into our van we headed back to the community center grateful to have been fortunate enough to spend the day uncovering the park’s hidden treasures.

Oaks Bottom is a gorgeous and incredibly diverse park, 140 acres of wetland floodplain and deciduous forest, home to an impressive number of small native North American mammals, amphibians, reptiles and birds (including many migratory species taking their annual holiday from Europe, or South America). With breathtaking views and charming hidden thickets and hideaways, it is a wonderful haven in the city to while away a day or an hour. If you’re ever in Portland, OR be sure to swing by for a visit.

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