The salamander forest
(Please note: amphibians are all strictly protected in France and, unless you have a prefectoral authorization, it is forbidden to disturb them, touch them or disturb their habitat. Thank you in advance for their protection).
The first time I heard about the Salamander Forest was from Rémi Benoît, photographer for the Toulouse magazine Boudu, during an interview. "If you're an amphibian lover, you must already know about it..." he said with a hint of puzzlement. Well, believe it or not, that information hadn't yet reached my ears. "It's an extraordinary forest. It's called the Little Amazon. You'd think you were there. It's very popular with photographers." To make sure I wasn't mistaken, Rémi had been kind enough to email him the name of the place. I had consulted the Internet to find out how to get there and had put it right at the top of my list to visit with Dirk on a weekend when we had time.
So it was with great interest that on that Saturday evening in Bagnères de Bigorre I heard the name mentioned by Renaud, our guide for the following day. Saturday was a busy day in Campan, and above all, I met some very warm and generous people, and came away with a host of new acquaintances (see here). This weekend event organized by Binaros around my book is already a success in every respect. But of course, the prospect of running into salamanders has me excited! Saturday was a little damp, nothing too frightening for an ecologist interested in amphibians, but the weather forecast for the following day was much worse. "This way, the forest will protect us. And with the rain, the likelihood of seeing a salamander will be all the greater."
We're up early, just long enough to pack our gear and, above all, our rain gear. The sky is low. It's raining cats and dogs, and the clouds don't seem ready to let up. As on the previous day, only the bravest were present: Brigitte, Renaud, Sylvie, Jean and me. I'm a little angry at myself for dragging them into this mess, but Brigitte reassures me. "I've suggested this hike to the walking club several times, and every time they say, 'No, not the Gourgue d'Asque again. They know the route by heart, I don't." Phew, the motivation's there.
The forest unfolds before me, dense and gleaming with a multitude of greens. We're the first to climb. We've barely had time to get going, when at the first picnic tables, Renaud points to the ground. I rush up: a spotted salamander waddles between the grasses, and yet another a few paces away. Emotion overwhelms me. I feel like a little girl at the foot of the Christmas tree on Christmas morning! The salamander is magnificent, plump, very yellow, almost fluorescent yellow. A salamander of the fastuosa subspecies! Just great! I don't have time to dwell on its beauty. I've got to be quick. I pull out my equipment, which I'd kept on hand. First the gloves... difficult to put on when your hands are wet... they stick to your skin and make your fingertips blister. Too bad, I'll have to make do. Then I pull out my famous swabs. The first salamander is cooperative. I take the opportunity to explain a little how I should proceed. Quick, quick, change gloves. The second individual, on the other hand, is showing his displeasure: he's excreting mucus containing toxins, so I don't feel like swallowing him whole. It's not easy to hold him steady while I rub his body, cloaca, feet and hands with my "cotton bud". I hurry to set him free as quickly as possible.
I've barely had time to get back on track when my acolytes have already unearthed more salamanders. What a crack team! My accomplices follow the salamanders with their eyes as they flee and hide under moss, ferns and tree stumps. Thinking they've escaped us, the animals stand still and watch, but all I have to do is bend down and pick them off. Incredible! Each salamander is even more beautiful than the last, determined, with big, round, soft eyes and shiny skin. With a smile on my face, I admire its unique combination of yellow and black. As I packed my backpack on Friday evening, I had put on swabs and gloves "just in case", not expecting to use them all. "If I make 15 swabs, it'll already be great". How naive. This forest is the perfect habitat for salamanders, extraordinarily humid, with moss and ferns everywhere, if it weren't for the temperature you'd think you were in the Amazon.
As far as my eyes scan the forest, all I see is green, green, green. And the weather is ideal: it's been raining for days! I realize that I probably won't have enough gear with me. I ration out the gloves straight away - one hand is enough to hold the salamander!
My fellow-travellers are so efficient at tracking salamanders along the way that my 15 swabs are gone in no time. Record shattered! That's it, I'm out of a job. On the one hand, I'm a bit frustrated by my lack of anticipation, as I could have swabbed even more individuals. On the other hand, my work is now done and I can fully appreciate the moment, enjoy this splendid forest, soak up this exceptional atmosphere, take photos, chat, watch the salamanders just for fun, in short, enjoy.
Thank you to the members of Binaros for an unforgettable weekend!