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Check out the MARA book

Back around Christmas, I treated myself to the recently-published MARA book.

No, it’s not a romance novel about a woman named Mara. It’s an acronym that stands for the Maryland Amphibian and Reptile Atlas project.

It’s a heavy book — in sheer weight as well as information. I got a bit of a workout lugging it with me as I ran my kids around town and read a few pages anytime I got a spare minute. I also got more than a few strange looks from the ladies at the beauty salon when I was getting my hair done. Among copies of Cosmo and People a herpetology book tends to stand out.

So what exactly is an atlas project?

It’s a lot like the name suggests — citizen scientists volunteered their time (29,180 hours to be exact) and combed the corners of Maryland to identify the many kinds and numbers of amphibians and reptiles that live in the state and the places they inhabit.

The project took five years to complete and was co-sponsored by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Natural History Society of Maryland. The MARA book is a compilation of all the data created through the project. It’s one of the most comprehensive studies of Maryland’s amphibians and reptiles.

I consider myself well versed regarding the flora and fauna of Southern Maryland. However, I was pretty surprised by some of the names and pictures of local critters I’ve never seen before, let alone heard of.

For example, did you know there’s an eye-catching snake indigenous to only the westernmost portion of Charles County with an equally fetching name —the rainbow snake?

According to the book, the rainbow snake is both “extremely gentle and passive” and doesn’t bite when handled. Don’t go picking one up, however, as this species is listed as endangered in Maryland and can only be held by folks with the permits to do so.

I enjoyed flipping through the section with all the lizards (there’s a total of six species that live within the borders of our state) and finding the pages about my old friend the broad-headed skink.

These lizards are prolific near my house. I’ll never forget the time I took my daughter Naomi for a walk on a sunny summer day and she told me about a “healthy-looking snake” we’d passed by. She was only 2 years old at the time, so by the time I’d deciphered what she was saying, we’d already gone quite a distance from where she saw it.

Intrigued, we turned back and, sure enough, sunning itself among some fallen leaves was the biggest male broad-headed skink I’d ever seen. After explaining that snakes don’t have legs, I warned her never to pick up one of these lizards. As you might expect, a huge lizard like that has a strong bite, and they aren’t afraid to use their jaws to give a potential predator, or a curious child, a warning to back off.

An astounding 22 salamander species live in Maryland, and MARA volunteers were able to document 21 of them during the study period. Many species are exclusive to Western Maryland, but there are quite a few found in our region including the marble salamander, spotted salamander and eastern newt.

I didn’t know any better when I was a kid, and many eastern newts found their way to my bedroom via a bucket I used to collect them in when fishing with my dad at his favorite bass pond. They say life is a journey and that you live and learn.

The MARA project also seeks to document how the various populations are faring. I can happily report that no special conservation measures are required to protect the eastern newts.

More than 2,000 individuals and organizations contributed to the project, with one volunteer submitting 3,364 sightings. Calvert and St. Mary’s counties were among the top three counties with the most effort-hours and Charles County had the most species of reptiles reported (33). Overall, the top five species documented by volunteers were the eastern ratsnake, eastern box turtle, snapping turtle, common gartersnake and common watersnake.

I’m glad I bought a copy of this book for my personal library.

While guidebooks are handy for identifying animals, a Maryland resident can truly appreciate the book for its photos, specific geographic ranges of particular animals and the comprehensive information about behavior, diet, reproduction and conservation status. Plus, when trying to identify a green treefrog you caught a glimpse of in the woods, it’s helpful to know that odds are you saw a green treefrog, which is prolific in Southern Maryland, and not a barking treefrog, which is found only in isolated pockets on the Eastern Shore.

You can purchase a copy of the Maryland Amphibian and Reptile Atlas edited by Heather R. Cunningham and Nathan H. Nazdrowicz from Amazon for about $57. The Southern Maryland Regional Library also has three copies available for loan.

Bird atlas needs volunteers

If the MARA project has captured your interest, you should check out a similar project that started on Jan. 1.

Maryland’s third Breeding Bird Atlas is right now looking for volunteers to collect information. In this project, our state is divided into blocks where breeding activity is noted using eBird via the atlas portal (not regular eBird).

If you’ve ever participated in the Great Backyard Bird Count, you already have an eBird account. If not, you can easily create an account at

Even if you only have time to watch your feeders and note when Mom and Dad Bird are feeding their babies during the summer, the information collected by citizen scientists is invaluable for documenting the behavior of easier to detect species. You can add photographs to your checklists, too.

This is something the whole family can help with. You can get started now with bald eagles and great horned owls as these birds start nesting as early as December.