A Reflective Spot

It's been years since Kent County, Massey Pond and the tiger salamander first made their amphibious assault on Charlie Stine's senses. They're shown no signs of letting go.


The sun rises big and bright and wintry and the wind blusters cold off the low fields when Charlie Stine dons his waders and stomps through the last thin ice on Massey Pond like Indiana Jones in search of the Lost Ark.

On this clear sharp morning as winter ends, the Eastern Shore landscape has the spare beauty of a Rembrandt etching of Holland in winter. Charlie Stine -- Dr. Charles J. Stine in the catalog of the Johns Hopkins University School of Continuing Studies -- loves this place. He's been coming to this corner of Kent County for nearly 50 years, drawn by the mysterious ways of the very elusive Eastern tiger salamander.

He found his first tiger salamanders in these parts before Massey Pond was even here, back in 1952, off Black Bottom Road at a crossroads called Golts. Massey Pond appeared serendipitously in 1957 when a road construction crew dug a pit for gravel on Route 330, then a dirt road.

"The amazing thing about the Massey Pond was that the year after they took the gravel out, it was alive with tiger salamanders and all the things they feed on," he says.

But the tiger salamander is now an endangered species in Maryland. The Heritage Conservancy Fund of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources is spending $293,000 to buy 130 acres around Massey Pond to preserve the salamander's habitat here.

The tiger salamander is a charming creature with a blunt head and a wide, smirking smile. They don't seem to do much, except eat and breed, which may account for their smirk. They're amphibians with elongated bodies (7 to 13 inches) and four stout legs. They're marked with olive-yellow splotches on dark brown-black skin, more leopard-like than tigerish to this layman, but who's to argue with biologists.

These salamanders spend most of their lives underground, eating worms, grubs and similar delicacies, emerging in January to migrate to their breeding ponds. For years Massey Pond has been their major reproductive rendezvous in Maryland.

"None of the other ponds where this animal has been found have ever equaled the population," Stine says. "This has remained the one substantial continued breeding site with a good steady population," which he figures has ranged between 50 and 100 over the years.

He had known salamanders were in the neighborhood when he first visited Massey. Back in 1952, he discovered egg masses in a tiny, wet depression in a farmer's field east of the pond. Dry now, the field is patrolled on this day by a dozen turkey buzzards. But tiger salamanders from this field may have been the pioneers at Massey Pond.

"I have a theory that, with any population, whether it's humans, insects, vertebrates, that there are some members who are explorers," Stine says. "There's a Sir Edmund Hillary in every population."

So the Sir Edmund Hillary (who with the Sherpa Tenzing Norgay first reached the summit of Mount Everest) of tiger salamanders found Massey Pond.

"There are small Everests ... a lot of little places and little things to discover," Stine says. "And that's true of salamanders. "A pond was created and the salamanders came. If you build it, they will come."

Stine is himself an explorer of small places, and some pretty big ones, too. He's just back from Iquitos, Peru, which is way up in the headwaters of the Amazon River. He surveyed the possibility of arranging eco-tourism to the vast nature preserves in the Amazonian jungles for the BioTrek Naturalists group he founded two years ago.

But plunging through the high-bush blueberries into Massey Pond, he looks more like Henry Jones the professor father than Indiana the adventurer son. His hair is white under his baseball cap and he wears a short, bristly, neatly trimmed white beard.

He is in his early 70s now, one of the deans of Maryland naturalists. But if he has lost a step over the years it's hard to see where.

"In the early days," he says, "I liked to come down here and sit behind those trees and just watch the pond and the life that was goin' on there. That's kind of a reflective moment.

"To me, the pond is a metaphor for life. I've seen the pond go through a lot of changes, as I have had a lot of changes. Some days it's windy. Some days it's nice. Some days there are predators. Some days there's love."

And you have attendant pleasures when you watch the pond at night, which Stine often did until the dawn. "One of the most beautiful things you see in the pond is the fairy shrimp." Thousands of the tiny, almost transparent crustaceans will follow a flashlight beam in an underwater ballet.

The wedding dance

Stine doesn't really expect to see salamanders on this day. They have returned to their burrows. They spend most of their time underground replenishing their reproductive juices. They don't hang around much after completing their rather complicated courtships, which they undertake in January.

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