The Saga of a Vernal Pool

Warning: Some may find parts of this post disturbing. But it is, after all,  about the circle of life. 

A climbing thermometer in March signaled one thing amidst many others: the time had arrived to check the vernal pool located in the woods behind our house. 

Completely covered with ice at the start of my explorations, I noted puddling on top and knew it was only a matter of days. 

Not wanting to rush the season, though truly I did, I rejoiced when the edges melted because life within would soon be revealed. And what’s not to love about the unique tapestry, a pattern never repeated. 

With keen eyes I’d gaze in, but at first my focus was only upon the reflection offered by the bare-limbed trees above. 

And then one day, as if by magic, the ice had completely gone out as we say ‘round these parts. It was early this year–in late March rather than April. That same night I heard the wruck, wrucks of Wood Frogs, always the first to enter the pool. 

The next day he had attracted his she, grasping her in amplexus as is his species’ manner. 

A day or two later, her deposited eggs already swelled with water, presented themselves like a tapioca pudding popsicle. 

Soon they were joined by so many other globular masses making a statement that living in community is safer than upon your own and might provide warmth when the temperature dips. 

Inevitably it did dip, and one day snowflakes frosted the rocks and ground, sugar-coated the tree branches, and plopped like leaden raindrops, rippling the water’s surface. 

But . . . the embryos still formed.

With each visit it became more and more apparent that a vernal pool isn’t just about Wood Frogs. Spotted Salamanders and midges and beetles and mites and water striders and squirrels and deer and raccoons and snakes and so many others benefited regularly from its nourishment. Even the resident Barred Owl liked to call occasionally. But perhaps the most prolific residents were the mosquito larvae who wriggled and tumbled through the water column. 

Predacious Diving Beetles intent upon creating more of their own, lived there as well. 

One of the curious wonders about those who use a vernal pool as a breeding ground is that they don’t stay around to parent their offspring. If fact, once canoodling is done, they either hop, climb, or fly out and spend the rest of their lives in the forest.  

Despite the lack of nurturing, within two weeks tadpoles emerged. Hundreds at first. And then . . . thousands. 

A month later, as the pool began to shrink significantly because it is vernal, and fed only by rain or snow melt, my tadpoles, so claimed since I’m about the only one who checks on them regularly, started to show off their more adult form in the making.

Suddenly . . . a few sweltering days later and all the water had evaporated. 

Stepping toward the center with hope, I was instead greeted with the horrific odor of decaying bodies and a Flesh Fly confirmed my suspicions. 

Also buzzing all about were Green Bottle Flies and the reason for so much frantic activity: carnage by my feet. 

But I soon came to realize that while not all the frogs had transformed in time to leave the pool, many must have and it still teemed with life–of a different kind.

American Carrion Beetles also stalked this place of death. 

Over and under leaves, the Carrion Beetles moved as they mated. The rotting tadpoles provided a place for them to lay their eggs and a food source for their future larvae. This was true for the flies and even little mites who live in a symbiotic relationship with the beetles and eat fly eggs so the beetle larvae have the carrion to themselves. 

As I watched, one canoodling pair of beetles flipped over and if you look closely, you might see he was on top (or the bottom in this case) and biting one of her antennae as part of their mating ritual. 

At last it was with great sadness that I said goodby to those who could not, but leaving the stench and frantic activity behind, I reminded myself that this happens each year and there’s a reason why frogs lay so many eggs. Without my witnessing it, some, possibly many, did hop away from the pool. And next year they’ll return to carry on the ritual. Until then, the flies and beetles and so many others will bring new life and by November the depression will fill again waiting for the saga of the vernal pool to continue. 

In parting, here’s  a quick video of the sights and sounds. 

The Invitation Stands

It took me by surprise, this change of seasons.

Despite all the clues from fading otter prints . . .

and not so deep moose tracks . . .

to reverse tracks raised above the snow cover as a result of a frozen crust followed by wind and warmer temperatures.

But still, somehow I was fooled into thinking winter would hold its grasp for a wee bit longer because I don’t like to let it go. The faces hiding in the ice knew otherwise.

As did the constitution of pond ice that despite recent brisk days and nights began to react to the sun’s rays and display the tea-stained color of organic matter decomposing in the water below.

Even Winter Dark Fireflies, who don’t carry lanterns like their summer cousins, and aren’t even flies as their name suggests (they are beetles), knew what was happening before I did for in their adult form they’d been tucked under bark in recent months, but in a flash are now visible on many a tree trunk as they prepare to mate in a few weeks.

The same is true of the Winter Stoneflies who only recently started crawling out of the water. and drumming as an announcement that they too are ready to let the mating season begin.

The birch trees also knew before I did and made sure to let last year’s catkins release their scaled fleur de lis, thus scattering the seeds that look like tiny winged insects upon the snow where they’ll join the melt down and eventually find a moist spot upon which to germinate.

And so it is that spring snuck in a few days after St. Patrick’s Day as it always does, but still surprising me and now I join others and anticipate the changes to come.

But . . . there’s something different about this spring. Oh, I’ll still stalk vernal pools until they dry up.

I’ll marvel at each and every tiny bud preparing to bloom like those of Trailing Arbutus.

I’ll spy on spiders and insects for hours on end.

I’ll continue to look for fine specimens of scat, including otter filled with shiny, mica-like fish scales . . .

and coyote that at first glance I might think is bobcat, but the tapered ends offer one hint of its owner . . .

and the sight of bones and toenails tucked within remind me that bobcats are true carnivores who grind the contents of a meal so no bones are typically visible in their deposits, while such do show due to the omnivore appetite of a candid. I will be sure to question the meal based on the color of the fur as well as the contents.

But . . . this spring will be different. Yes, such was the same a year ago when we all moved into our bubbles. Now, though, there’s a glimpse of hope on the horizon and with that comes an assimilation to being with others and I can’t help but wonder, how will I react? I’ve become so accustomed to this forced insulation, and I have to admit that there are parts of it that haven’t bothered me, perhaps because I don’t mind being in my own space.

The question has been on my mind a lot lately and the answer flew in this morning as I listened in on a ZOOM church service. Just as it was to begin a small flock of Common Redpolls arrived to check out our birdfeeders.

“Invite in” were the words I heard another utter on the computer screen.

Indeed. Each day this past week, the variety of birds at the feeders grows, some species arriving at their breeding grounds, while others like the Redpolls pause before passing through. For the most part, our feathered friends accept the presence of others. An over-the-shoulder look being what it is, they remind me that I must behave like them and be open to opportunities.

As the snow melts, I realize that I must share space with all who wander here . . .

including the deer who tried to walk the labyrinth path.

The Invitation Stands. Spring is indeed here and I invite you to join me for a wander when you are able so we can wonder about nature’s communities together. I look forward to welcoming you back with a smile . . . though please don’t expect a hug.

Transformation of a Different Sort

Late afternoon found me heading to the vernal pool behind our home, mostly out of curiosity for we’ve had a week of dry, steamy days and I suspected the worst.

Not only by sight, but also stench did I know that my fears had come true.

There was merely a drop of water left, hidden below the leaves as it were.

I stood in the center for the first time all year, where the odor reminded me of New Haven Harbor at low tide, though the pool was perhaps more rank. The harbor has a mud-flat smell that entered my nostrils as a youth and has remained in my memory since, becoming that upon which I judge all other such scents.

Directly above, the sky veiled only by the canopy, offered a few clouds to occasionally shade the hot sun, but not a drop of rain was to be felt as has been the situation of late.

The source of the stench was my little friends who unfortunately didn’t get to hop out.

I could only hope that a few did leave the water of their own accord, but sadly most were fried.

All that realized, it didn’t mean the pool was a static place. There were Flesh Flies with brick red eyes who found this habitat of tadpole carcasses to be to their liking.

And Rove Beetles who surprised me with their presence, though they shouldn’t have for they also have a preference of feeding upon decaying matter.

Both the Flesh and Rove moved quickly through the neighborhood, but for a brief second each paused and posed, as if it was meant to be.

Others included the metallic Green Bottle Fly,

a cricket,

canoodling moths,

and a spider or two or many. There were also birds in the canopy and I suspected they were waiting for me to leave so they could bring food home to the nest.

In the midst, a splash of color was offered by the wee Northern Crescent butterfly whose presence perplexed me at first . . . until I realized that the pool still held moisture and other nutrients, and it offered just the right habitat for butterflies who need to puddle or suck the fluid and minerals to enhance their breeding relationships.

Right beside the pool I spied another of the order Lepidoptera in the pupal form of a Viceroy butterfly.

As has happened year after year, the vernal pool didn’t follow quite the path I had hoped since early April when the ice went out, but still, it’s a place where transformations of a different sort occur . . . and despite the demise of the tadpoles, life goes on.

As the VP Turns

This drama began in April when the ice started to go out. As always seems to be the case, it’s there one day and buddaboom, gone the next.

Official ice out is considered to be when you can navigate unimpeded from one end of a water body to the other. For this particular pool and its amphibian visitors that day was April 5 of this year.

Those who determined such were the wood frogs for on April 6, their “wruck, wruck” voices chorused . . .

until that is, I approached and then all went silent. This year, for the first in many, the W.F. Chorale had more voices than in the past for so many more had returned to the natal breeding ground than I can previously recall.

According to plan, dance cards were filled out and he, being much smaller than she, climbed atop to grasp her in what was known as amplexus.

By the next morning egg masses had been attached to vegetation and bubbled forth at the surface much like a bowl of tapioca. Slowly they began to absorb water, expanding in size day by day.

As is their custom, the egg masses created a hub about the size of an extra large truck tire for such is the frogs habit of laying and attaching these in the same area, colonial in nature.

Within each orb, life began to take form.

Their life was constantly at risk for other hungry beings knew of their location and paused pool side to consider the choicest treat.

Thrown into the mix were rainy days, which occurred with more frequency at the start of the season, thus providing hope that the water level would remain high for the duration of the story.

Almost two weeks after the adult wood frogs had finished calling and exited the pool to return to their upland habitat, where they spend fifty weeks each year, spotted salamanders paid a visit and the males deposited cauliflower-shaped spermatophores upon which they encouraged their lady friends to dance.

As is their custom, he led her to one of these sperm packets and she picked it up through her cloaca, the opening amphibians use for breeding, egg-laying and waste. She then fertilized the eggs internally.

Where the wood frog egg masses consist of a bunch of individual eggs all gathered together in a bumpy matrix numbering up to 1,500/group, salamander masses are enclosed in a gelatinous coating and consist of 50 to 250 individual eggs.

By the next week, tadpoles began to emerge and really it’s all about timing for a larval spotted salamander might feed on the larval frog, thus the latter are granted a brief reprieve in which to develop.

In the midst of it all, others also experience life in their larval form including mosquitoes who first wriggle through the water column and later tumble in their pupal form before hatching into their biting selves.

As the spotted salamander embryos grew . . .

so did the tadpoles.

Within two weeks, the salamanders bodies begin to take shape in their individual homes.

And then a week later, they began to emerge much like their frog counterparts.

Seven weeks after the ice officially went out, the pond teemed with life of those hoping to mature into the future.

Metamorphosis continued as young ones began to take on their adult forms.

But still, there were those with whom which to contend . . . including the larval form of predacious diving beetles.

It’s not just the predators, either, that need to be acknowledged for once the April rains ended, the dry season started and the water level drastically declined leaving stranded egg masses on the edge.

As a hope-filled human, I tried to intervene and moved some to deeper water.

Meanwhile, there were no signs of any salamanders, but the wood frogs did grow.

And fed voraciously upon the green alga that has a symbiotic relationship with developing eggs in one of those “I’ll feed your stomach if you’ll feed mine” manners.

With each new day, the tadpoles took on their adult features. But . . . where were the salamanders?

By today, June 12, despite yesterday’s downpour, the water had diminished significantly and still I hadn’t spotted any of the gilled beings.

And then, I did. They were more leaf-like in color and thus harder to see, but they were there, though hardly as abundant as the tadpoles.

It finally began to make sense, the number of eggs within a mass and the number of egg masses. Really, this pool could be considered significant by state standards for there were more than 40 wood frog masses and more than 20 spotted salamander egg masses, either of those a number to be considered in its own right, but . . . the pool isn’t natural. It was dug long ago to serve the purposes of the farm that once was.

To produce so many progeny makes sense for despite the fact that it seemed to be teeming with life, its own life is short lived. How many will actually hop or crawl out before the pool dries up?

I suppose to that end, it also made sense that some resorted to cannibalism.

What lightened the moment was when a Black and White Warbler stopped by to take a bath.

Drama plays out constantly and I’ve only covered a few snapshots of it . . . as the vernal pool turns.

Aqua World

It’s never the same, any visit to a wetland or vernal pool, and such was the case today when I got my feet wet in three different aquatic habitats.

The first was at the edge of a wetland that borders a local lake and it was there that the crazy little springtails taught me a lesson.

I’d gone to see what I might see and first it was a spider, mosquito larva and a few springtails that caught my eye.

But then, I began to notice white springtails floating across the watery surface. Oh, and a water bug of sorts climbing a submerged twig.

For a bit my focus turned to the latter as I noticed his antennae and legs.

And for a second, I considered him to be a small grasshopper, but that didn’t make sense for he was in the water, after all. For now, he’ll remain a mystery until I gain a further understanding.

But then I turned back to the springtails in pure white form. They didn’t move. How could that be? Was I missing something? Or were they actually the molted skins of some of the slate-colored ones that did jump about? My later learning: Some springtails can molt up to forty times, leaving behind white exuviae. After each molt, the springtails look the same.

While watching them, something else caught my eye–a small circle . . . with a thousand legs.

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a millipede in the water before. Moist places like our basement, yes. But swimming? Perhaps I just haven’t paid attention.

Or perhaps all the rain that graced our world yesterday caught this one by surprise.

With that find, it was time for me to take my leave.

But my next stop brought pride to my heart.

And I found myself promising a hundred million tadpoles that I will keep an eye on them since their parents have left the nursery unattended. As their surrogate mother, I’m going to worry each day and pray the water doesn’t dry up, the garter snake doesn’t return, and that these little ones will be able to mature and hop out.

A little further on at another vernal pool I met more caddisfly larvae than I ever remember meeting before.

Each sported a log cabin built of shredded plant material and I got to thinking about how they carry their houses with such agility.

Each is a wee bit different and some are messier structures than others. As I watched, one actually flipped over a few times and I finally realized it was adding another layer to the building.

A few took it upon themselves to meet at a social closeness we’ve come to avoid of late, for this one long structure is actually three sharing the same space.

Even the mosquito wrigglers, such as the one in the upper-right-hand corner, captured my sense of awe today. And all of these species got me thinking about their good works. Most feed on algae, detritus and other organic material, so yes, even mosquito larva should be celebrated.

Aqua World–it’s a wonder how it works.

I’m in Frog Heaven

The ice went out on the vernal pool in our woods on April 5th and by the 6th the wood frogs were singing their love songs and egg masses had already been attached to fallen branches.

Once I spy such I become addicted to visiting the pool on a regular basis to keep an eye on the activity. As much as I’d love to bring some home, I know that that would interrupt the natural process and so I do the best I can by peering into the water.

One of my great finds early on turned out not to be as extraordinary as I first thought. What I thought were blue spotted salamander egg masses slowly morphed into wood frog masses. They were laid out like sheets on the floor of the pool rather than attached to sticks as is normally the case. But it didn’t all make sense as up to the point that I spotted those masses, I hadn’t seen any salamander spermatophores.

Daily visits to the pool garnered a better understanding and about two weeks later not only had the spotted salamanders left their deposits on the pool floor . . .

and the next day their eggs on sticks . . .

but the so-called blue-spotted suddenly began to look more like wood frog masses with tadpoles developing inside. Perhaps they were laid at the very edge of the pool by young wood frogs just getting the hang of the annual ritual.

With the help of my son who works for a film editing house in Manhattan, I’ve pulled all of this together into a video so even if you can’t get to a vernal pool, perhaps you can enjoy the magic of this place for a few minutes by clicking on the link and watching: Are You in Frog Heaven?

There’s so much more to come and I’ll do my best to keep an eye on the action.

In the meantime, why not create a Frog and Toad Chorus as you stay at home.

In the amphibian world, males sing as a means of attracting a mate and defending a territory.

Here’s how to conduct your own chorus: Assign a species to various family members who will imitate the sound as best they can. Have fun leading your gang as you control who “sings.” And then head outdoors to see if you can identify the species based on your knowledge of the songs they create.

Wood Frog: quacking duck or wruck, wruck in early spring

Spring Peeper: high-pitched peep-peep in early spring

American Toad: sustained trill lasting up to 30 seconds (from your lips or throat), early to late spring

Green Frog: throaty gunk! like banjo strings, late spring – early summer

American Bullfrog: deep, resonant rr-uum, or jug-o-rum, late spring – early summer

Gray Tree Frog: slow, musical bird-like trill lasting 2 or 3 seconds (use your lips or tongue), late spring – early summer

Are you in Frog Heaven? I know I am.

Earth Day 2020

Rounding the corner from the stairway to the kitchen at 6am, dark forms in the field garnered my attention before I had a chance to start the coffee.

What to my wondering eyes should appear but three Tom Turkeys in full display and one deer.

Momma deer looked up from browsing, almost as if she was aware of my presence behind the windows and at a bit of a distance, but the turkeys didn’t care.

They had a much more pressing issue to deal with than the fact that I had just arisen and was gawking. The hen of their utmost attention needed to stop her nit (or was it tick?) picking and look up for a change.

Despite her elusive demeanor, the three continued to display, certain she’d notice one of them.

In turkey terms, to display means standing upright with tail feathers fanned out, wings dragging, and fleshy wattles on the neck, throat, and snood above the beak swollen and bright red. So, to the latter, watch their wattles and snoods as Jen the hen moved back and forth across the field like a tease.

The Toms tried lining up as if to say, “Pick me.”

She told them to take a number. And maybe she’d get back to them when she felt like it.

Two of them began to scuffle in the background, their sense of social distancing far outweighed by their desire for Jen. The third, much more mature Tom, took advantage of that moment to strut his stuff without any competition.

When the other two figured out what he was up to, they quickly scurried over and let their wattles and snoods speak for them. Like an officer checking on his brigade, she did do an inspection. It appeared mature Tom just wasn’t turned on.

And then her friend, Skipper, walked out from the edge of the woods and examined the Toms to see if he could offer any tips.

Again, Jen turned back and as she crossed before the trio once more, they again showed off their excitement.

Still she didn’t seem to care and instead moved over to ask Skipper his thoughts.

But all Skipper really wanted to do was play.

And eat. Meanwhile, the Toms turned as if in a huff.

Apparently Skipper then suggested two of the three as possibilities to Jen and they began to skirmish.

Necks locked together, they moved back and forth as mature Tom watched.

And their molting deer friends browsed nonchalantly behind them.

That is, until Skipper decided that what the Toms were doing looked like play and so he wanted to get into the act.

The scuffle continued across the field first to the left.

And then center stage.

And finally to the right. Meanwhile, Jen and the deer disappeared and mature Tom . . .

paced while the other two continued to fight.

Eventually he took it upon himself to try to separate them but the last I knew they were still at it as they scrambled over a stone wall and into the woods a half hour after beginning their show of dominance. Later, after sipping finally brewed coffee, I went up into the field and then through the woods looking for any evidence of their frenzied behavior but found none.

I did make two other great finds today, however. At the vernal pool behind us, life is beginning to take shape within the egg masses.

And at another vernal pool, this one on Greater Lovell Land Trust property, I scooped up a fairy shrimp.

Call it mere luck, I prefer to think of it as bestowed gifts that upon this day that we honor the Earth, the Earth gave back. She always does, thankfully.

Significant Fairies

We’d made promises in the recent past that fell flat. With that in mind, when the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Nature Explorers, a homeschool group led by Docent Juli, gathered this morning, she was smart and stuck to the life cycles of potential sightings like frogs rather than possibilities.

The group that gathered was large–24 in all with a mix of moms and their children.

Of course, being kids, they were immediately attracted to the water below the mill site at Heald Pond. But after letting them explore for a few minutes, a light whistle pulled them all together again.

At the nearby vernal pool, everyone quickly learned what larval mosquitoes looked like as they watched them somersault through the water column. A few complaints were expressed about future bites, but that was redirected to the fact that mosquitoes feed birds and dragonflies, and in their larval form, other aquatic insects.

Pond dipping became the morning habit and at first, it was only the mosquito larvae that made it into the containers.

But, that led to a quick lesson on the biting insects’ life cycle–one of many teachable moments that snuck into the morning fun.

Oh yes, those larval mosquitoes also feed amphibians and thanks to Juli’s son Aidan for finding a large Green Frog. Notice the ear disc, aka tympanum, that is located behind its eye. Given its size as being bigger than the eye, this was a male. And notice the dorsal lateral ridge or fold that extends from behind the eye down the side of its back (there’s one on either side)–that’s a clue that this is a Green Frog and not a Bull Frog, for the latter’s ridge circles around the tympanum.

As the morning went on, it turned out that today was Aidan’s day to shine for he was also the first to find a Fairy Shrimp.

A what? Yes, a Fairy Shrimp. Do you see that delicate orangish body in the middle of the tray? It’s a mini crustacean that lives only in vernal pools.

The kids all got caught up in the thrill of such a find and within minutes became pros at recognizing them.

And so the dipping continued.

Moms also got caught up in the dipping experience.

And they also found cool stuff, like Kim’s Fishfly. We kept expecting it to eat the mosquito larvae, but it seemed that they preferred to nudge it in a way we didn’t understand.

While Kim focused on her new friend, the kids were also making new friends, testing their balance, getting rather wet and muddy, and having a blast as they sought more Fairy Shrimp.

Their pan began to fill up with one, two, three, four, five and even a few more.

And then other species were discovered, including aquatic beetles and a Phantom Midge.

We’d come in hopes of at least finding Wood Frog and Spotted Salamander egg masses, which the kids quickly recognized. By the time we were ready to leave a few hours later, some of the boys had discovered the best way to spot the masses was from the crow’s nest.

But in the end, our most significant find was the Fairy Shrimp. You see, on a public walk a couple of weeks ago, when we’d promised folks such a sighting, we came up short. But today . . . they made their presence known. And with the find of just one Fairy Shrimp, the vernal pool became a significant one as recognized by the State of Maine.

A hearty thanks to Juli for leading and the moms and their kids for attending. It was such a joy to watch everyone interacting and engaging. I only wish I could have been a Fishfly on the wall at suppertime as they shared their finds of the day with other family members.

Peeking with my Peeps

As has been our custom for the past six years, on a quarterly basis an email is sent out with a date and location and at the agreed upon time any number of grads, teachers, and mentors from the Maine Master Naturalist Lewiston 2013 class gather. Today was one of those days.

The plan was to explore a vernal pool or two at the Cornwall Nature Preserve on historic Paris Hill, but . . . it didn’t take us (Pam, Beth, Alan, Dorcas, and yours truly hiding behind the lens) long to get distracted when we saw green poking through the many shades of brown on the forest floor.

Together, we scrambled through our brains searching for the name. With the season finally feeling like it’s transitioning, we realized we have to dust off the floral flashcards in our minds and start reviewing them. And then it came to us. One year ago, on May 5, we had seen the same at Smithfield Plantation as we celebrated Cinco de Mayo, Naturally. Then, however, we had keyed it out minus the flower. Today, the memory of last year’s ID slowly sifted to the forefront and by its leaves and colonial habit, we felt safe to call it Clintonia borealis or Bluebead Lily.

A few more steps and we started dipping containers into a potential vernal pool that was really too shallow and offered no apparent key characteristics. But . . . there was an owl pellet filled to the brim with hair and bones, the one sticking out by central vein of the leaf a hip bone. (Yeah, so I may sound like a smarty pants, but Dorcas pulled it out and quickly identified the bone by its structure.) Some little mammal, or two, or three, had provided a bird with a meal.

Stair-step Moss (Hylocomium splendens) was the next great find. I would have dismissed it as Big Red Stem or Pleurozium schreberi, and in so doing missed its finer points. Do you see how each year’s new growth rises from the previous, rather like ascending stair steps?

And then there was another new learning, for I’m always referring to this species of fungi as jelly ear or wood ear. But, with Alan the fungi fun guy in our midst, we learned that it’s really Brown Witch’s Butter or Exidia recisa. (Drats–it’s so much more fun to say Auricularia auricula.)

As we admired the Exidia recisa, we realized others were doing the same for we’d interrupted a slug fest. If you bump into Alan Seamans sometime, do ask him about the numbing qualities of slugs. 😉

A few more steps and we began to notice trilliums, especially the reds with their leaves of three so big and blossoms hiding. All of a sudden we know the flowers are going to burst open and we can’t wait to witness such glory.

At last we reached the pool of choice, located maybe a half mile from the parking area. Two years ago, MMNP students from the South Paris class discovered Fairy Shrimp in this pool.

Our best finds today were log cabin caddisflies! At this point in time, the caddisflies are in their larval stage and as such, they construct their temporary shelters from available materials. Think of them as the original recyclers.

Should a predator be about, like a hermit crab, the caddisfly can retreat into the house of needles or leaves or stones or whatever its preferred building material might be. Apparently, it didn’t mind us and we were honored to watch as the elongated body extended forth while it searched for food. In its larval form, these aquatic insects have a hardened head and first thoracic segment, while the abdomen remains pale and soft. Can you see the three pairs of legs?

The cool thing about caddisflies is that though they may use similar construction materials, no two are alike. Beth called them works of art.

I referred to this one as a she for the case included a Red Maple bouquet.

If you look closely, you might also note some filmy gills on the abdomen. And the grayish thing the Mrs. approached and a second later ignored. It seemed rather leech-like in its behavior, but I think it may have been a Planaria, which is a tiny unsegmented flat worm.

As we dipped for insects, we also noted plenty of Spotted Salamander spermatophores sticking up from leaves and twigs. But we could find none of their milky egg masses and wondered why.

We did, however, spy plenty of Wood Frog masses, some with their tapioca structures bubbling upon the surface, but most attached to the stems below.

And then a chiseled tree section across the pool called to us and so we made our way over to check the wood chips below. Of course, we searched for Pileated Woodpecker scat, but found none. Instead, we spotted a dead frog in the water. And just beyond it, a dead salamander.

It wasn’t pretty, but did make us question what had happened. Were the two amphibian deaths related? We don’t know, but we did note puncture marks on the Spotted Salamander’s underside, and even a nip of the end of its tail. Plus it had one slightly deformed front foot. And we learned that salamanders have poison glands in their skin, mostly on their backs and tails. Did the frog go after the salamander and both died from the experience? Or had another predator entered the pool? And then realized it had made the wrong decision?

We never did figure it out, but had fun asking questions. And as we stood there, our eyes keyed in on a bit of color at the end of a downed branch. Again, more questions and the use of our loupes as we tried to take a closer look. We debated: slime mold or insect eggs?

After looking closely and continuing to ask question, a quick poke with a twig provided the actual answer as we watched the spores puff out in a tiny cloud. Slime mold it was. Should we have poked it first? No, for that would have been too easy and we wouldn’t have taken the time to consider the possibilities.

On our way out, there was still one more discovery to make. I could have dismissed this one as a moss.

But, again Alan knew and he explained to us that it was a liverwort known as Porella platyphylloidea. And upon closer examination we could all see its three-dimensional structure as it curled out from the tree trunk.

Almost three hours later, our brains were full as we’d also examined trees, lichens, and other fungi, but our hearts were happy for the time spent in each others company sharing a collective brain.

I’m always grateful for an opportunity to peek with these peeps, even at something as common as a caddisfly because really . . . there’s nothing common about it.

Doubting Spring?

Finicky weather–rain one day and then another, sunshine the next, and then snow in the forecast as it is for Tuesday morning. But still, all the signs are there.

Take for instance the clumps of deer hair that have been shed and now decorate areas where the ungulates do bed.

And the masses of eggs attached to twigs and vegetation within vernal pools, the Spotted Salamander’s a milky white contrasting the Wood Frogs tapioca presentation.

Then there’s the winter firefly in one of his favorite habitats where the water stands still . . . until a breeze ripples across.

And within the water column, the wriggling Larval Mosquitoes continuously somersault, while the Phantom Midge floats as it waits for a meal to pass by.

Drone flies do just that–fly, their compound eyes announcing alarm as they take in every teensy bit of movement in the surrounds.

The sight of a wooly caterpillar might make one think the season is six months out, but a cryoprotectant in its tissues so it can literally freeze solid, has thawed and the fuzzy little bear crawls.

The Saco River with Mount Tom behind was another sign, for over its banks had it flowed.

And then, where previously I’d spotted only the vixen, not one or two, but five kits frolicked.

Mom was nowhere in sight, but I trusted she had sent them out to get some fresh air while she cleaned the den.

A move to another location, brought more sights and scents and sounds, but one of the most delightful was that of the sweet-fern–its spicy aroma suddenly filling the air.

And at a semipermanent pool, a few wrucks chorused by distant Wood Frogs.

But by my feet, Eastern Red-spotted Newts swam about camouflaged by last year’s foliage.

One climbed another, and then slide off, any mating waiting for another time. Curiously it also mounted a Bull Frog tadpole, but quickly moved on when it wasn’t well received.

The chunky Bull Frog larvae had overwintered as tadpoles, but their metamorphosis into adult form probably won’t be completed by the end of this season or the next.

In fact, it can take several years for them to completely develop. In the meantime, they sat motionless basking in the diluted sunlight offered.

There was so much to see on this day and only so much time, but from the Red Maple flowers falling to the ground to the Tamarack needles growing with new life, I knew that every moment was fleeting.

This is a time to not let life pass you by. Rather–be like the Bull Frog tadpoles and slow down.

Make time to watch. Every. Single. Subtle. Change. For even though the temperature may still feel raw at times and snow is in the forecast, it really is spring in western Maine. Don’t be a doubting Thomas or you’ll miss the transformation.

In the Middle of the Bubble

We were going to go. We weren’t going to go. In the end, we each took a break from work and met at Lakes Environmental Association’s Highland Lake Research Forest.

Alanna said we could get away with calling it work because we were, after all, conducting research–on where the vernal pools were located. And so we listened and followed our ears as we bushwhacked through the woods. Peeps and wrucks and trills filled the air and we beelined their way. Suddenly we emerged beside the Red Maple Swamp.

Of course, the symphony cut off upon our arrival, and so after sitting and standing still for a few minutes, we decided to step into the water and search for egg masses. Maybe it was the lighting. Maybe we didn’t look hard enough, though Alanna did find at least one Wood Frog mass after she crossed over a log.

While she was still on the other side, I headed back up onto the land, and a few feet from the water I was stopped in my tracks by a large snake.

Its mouth gaped in a fashion that could almost have been a smile. For a few minutes I watched and the mouth never closed. That’s when I realized that it was dead.

As Alanna made her way back to see it, she found a deep hole and one of her boots filled with water. Being the person she is, she got out of the muck, emptied it, and . . .

despite the fact that we were both intrigued and a wee bit freaked out about the snake, she picked it up. If you’ve never seen a Northern Water Snake, they are big. And what if it wasn’t really dead, though we were sure that it was. But what if it wasn’t?

It dangled from her hands as over and over again she said, “I can’t believe I’m holding a snake.” Her grinning grimace echoed those words.

Because she’s a collector of fine things like scat, she had brought along a bag and so into it went the snake. Still, she continued to repeat, “I can believe I’m holding a snake.”

Just a few feet away, we found another kill site. A woodpecker had met its demise.

And only feet from that–a deer vertebrae. It became clear that life happens by the swamp; and nearby was an owl pellet filled with bones. We doubted the owl had anything to do with the deer, but what about the snake and bird? Maybe it wasn’t the owl, but some other bird of prey. Why hadn’t the snake been consumed? Or the bird plucked? As usual, more questions than answers. At last we decide to move on because we heard a wetland chorus calling our names on the other side of the next hill.

I followed Alanna until she stopped abruptly. In her path about twenty or thirty feet from the water, another water snake. This one even bigger. And . . . alive. The sun’s rays weren’t strong, but we suspected it was trying to get warm. For a few minutes we stood and watched and then finally decided we could walk by without a problem. And we did. That being said, every step we took after that included a search just in case more snakes lurked about.

The amphibian calls drew us to the area where a river flows through the swamp.

It was there that we found more signs of life including Canada Geese,

Red-winged Blackbirds,

and rather recent beaver works. At that point, Alanna had to depart, but I stayed for about an hour longer and wandered along the edge of the wetland.

My finds continued for where I looked for frogs by a coppiced tree, instead I found a tussock moth caterpillar frozen in time. It had remained attached firmly to the twig all winter because I suspected it had been parasitized by a mummy wasp.

And then it was uphill toward a rocky ledge that I tromped because the ground was carpeted with hemlock twigs. I knew who had cut and dropped them, and wondered if I might spy a den.

Where I thought there was a den below, I was wrong. But . . . atop the downed tree was another kill site. This time it looked like a Junco had been the source of food.

And on a leaf, the bird’s blood stains.

Not far from the feathers and blood, I did find what I was looking for–a porcupine den and its telltale pile of scat flowing forth.

Murder and mayhem you might think. But death is part of the web of life, which also sustains us.

Today, Alanna and I went seeking egg masses and instead found ourselves surrounded by so many other things. It all made me realize I am only one tiny speck in the middle of the bubble.

This Wild Place

There’s no music quite like the Wood Frog’s defiant chorus, sung when the ice is barely off the vernal pool and the ground still covered with patches of snow. Singing together, they sound like dozens of quaking ducks. Wood Frogs are often the first Maine frogs to break winter’s quiet, beating Spring Peepers by a few days or even a week.

Their vocal prowess extends to silence. Once we approach a vernal pool and they sense danger (perhaps through vibrations), they cut off their song altogether, as though timed by some unseen conductor. The purpose of all this calling is finding a mate, of course. Male Wood Frogs, once they’ve called in some unwitting females, can be tenacious in the extreme–even if their suitor happens to be the wrong species.

This morning, as Greater Lovell Land Trust Docent Linda Wurm and I approached a pool on the Heald and Bradley Ponds Reserve, the symphony was eerily still.

And so we began to circle around, our eyes scanning the watery surface for clumps of eggs. Our hope was to either see a male hug a female in an iron-lock grasp, forming the mating embrace called amplexus, or evidence of their date.

And we were rewarded. At least one female had laid eggs fertilized by a male. As is their habit, the female attached the mass to a twig and the tiny black embryo of each egg was surrounded by a perfectly round, clear envelope about one-third inch in diameter. These gelatinous blobs can consist of up to 1,500 individual eggs. Egg-mazing indeed.

The embryos will hatch into small brownish-black tadpoles in a week or two, or longer given how chilly the water was today. As they grow, their rounded tail fins will become translucent–almost mottled with gold and blackish flecks.

Wood Frog tadpoles grow at varying rates depending on water temperature, tadpole density, and available food resources, but tend to develop within about two months to become adults. Unfortunately for them, but in the web of life good for others, tadpoles often succumb to cannibalism, especially to their larger relatives. They are also eaten by predacious diving beetles, salamanders, turtles, and birds.

We only found one, maybe two egg masses, but this pool isn’t known for many. What it is known for is its Fairy Shrimp population and I’m sorry to report that we found not a one. But, we did spy a few handsome hemlock varnish shelf fungi.

And by them some red squirrel middens that made us happy for we saw few of these all winter.

Right behind the fungi and midden, something else in the water caught our attention and Linda focused with a keen eye.

My photo wasn’t the clearest, but upon some leaves and twigs we spotted spermatophores left behind by male Spotted Salamanders. They remind me of cauliflower, their structures consisting of pedestals topped with sperm. Though we couldn’t see any milky masses of salamander eggs, we hope that on future visits we will.

Spotting a Spotted Salamander is a rare treat. With their bright yellow spots on a sleek, shiny black back, they are even more nocturnal and elusive than the Wood Frogs. They are actually mole salamanders and spend most of their time burrowed underground.

As we circled back around the pool, a White-breasted Nuthatch mimicked our searching eyes and probed under some bark, its long narrow beak seeking beetles.

Every few seconds it took a break and surveyed the world that included us.

We, too, surveyed the world, and suddenly at our feet we discovered eggs we’d not seen previously. What were they doing about a foot out of the water?

And to whom did they belong? At first I considered Pickerel Frog, but on closer examination I thought they might be Wood Frog.

And then Linda shifted one clump a wee bit with a stick and we found what may have been the entrails. Life happens in vernal pools and this one was no different. Had a predator stopped by? Perhaps a raccoon or skunk or chipmunk or raccoon? But, why didn’t it eat the eggs? Again, so many questions.

With the field microscope, we looked at the eggs again and were almost one hundred percent certain that they were Wood Frog.* We did place some of them back in the water, but wondered if they were viable.

For all the eggs that are laid, it’s hard to believe that only 10% will survive. But the truth is that most die before transforming into adults and leaving their pools. The reasons are varied: the ponds dry up; or they are hunted down by predators: or they die of diseases.

After a few hours, we pull ourselves away, grateful for the time to explore this wild place–full of life . . . and death.

*I’ve reached out to Dr. Rick Van de Poll about the eggs out of water–if, by chance, he responds, I’ll update this post so stay tuned.

And now from Rick:

Hi Leigh!

Fascinating find! Having just seen a few predated egg masses today I can definitively say they are spotted salamander eggs. The blackish coloration is likely imparted by the stomach acids of a raccoon, who apparently gorged and threw them back up, along with a few frog parts. Again, while its not too common to see this kind of things around vernal pools, it does make for for a pretty good ‘who-dunnit’!

Rick

Birds of a Feather

My intention was to check the condition of several vernal pools as I tramped into the woods today. Only a few years ago I was taking photographs of wood frogs on this very date, but I knew that would not be today’s focus.

As I approached the first and saw that it was still snow covered, though the northeast side displayed the pastel bluish hue of slushy ice, I began to wonder what would draw my attention.

And then I looked down by my snowshoes and suspected I’d found the answer. That answer, however, brought other questions to mind. To whom did the feathers belong? What had happened? Were there others? How did they get there? And when?

Beside the pool and just below a hemlock, I found another. The hemlock’s needles provided perspective for they were only about a half inch in length.

As I moved onto the pool, my eyes cued in to a feather here and a feather there and occasionally a cluster in the mix.

While most were slate gray, I began to note some with tints of brown on the outer fringe.

There were even a few that I thought might be tail feathers, but really my bird knowledge needs to increase greatly. Again, however, with their orientation beside the beech leaf, it was obvious that the bird of choice was not big.

With so many feathers on display, as minute as they were, I wondered who had dined. Or rather, who had snacked for it hardly seemed like a full-fledged meal (pun alert) had been consumed. I found the tracks and then scat of one of the neighborhood deer and knew it was intent on the hemlocks beside the pool and small birds were not on its menu.

In the melted water by the scat were a a couple of feathers of lighter colors. And then it occurred to me. All had been plucked.

Finding no other evidence of tracks other than deer and turkeys, my mind began to gaze skyward for I considered a bird of prey as the predator. The pool is surrounded by a mixed forest of beech, maples, oaks, hemlocks and pines. Several would have been fine candidates for a feeding tree.

And so I began to wonder if there was more evidence somewhere near the pool. With that in mind, I climbed out of it, and still here and there tiny clumps or individual presentations caught my attention.

With that knowledge, I made a plan. I began on the northern edge looking south and then turned around and walked out, scanning the ground and trees, both at eye level and above, looking for evidence.

I’d walk out as far from the pool as I found evidence, also checking every tree well on the way. Do you see the bits of gray?

Any feathers were more scattered the further from the pool I went, but still they were present. And if you’ve noticed, all were atop any other ground debris. That was significant.

At the point where I saw the last of the feathers, I’d turn around and approach the pool again at an angle, thus zigzagging in and out as I circled it. The furthest away that I got was about 15 snowshoe lengths.

By the time I reached the southerly shore I realized that there were no feathers. That also proved to be significant.

While I was searching, or perhaps because, I found other things of interest like the jelly ear fungus, Auricularia auricula-judae.

It’s one of my favorites this time of year and I love its rubbery and gelatinous feel.

But I digress. And so back to my bird. I didn’t encounter feathers again until about half way back on the westerly side. That lead me to make some conclusions that may be totally wrong, but I’ll put myself out on limb (oh geesh, another one) with my findings: 1. The perpetrator had dined from high up in one of the trees on the north side and I suspected a pine or oak. 2. And if it had dined from above, then the predator was a larger bird 3. The meal was rather recent for all of the feathers were on top of the surface, rather than having sunk into the snow or appearing from under any other debris. 4. I suspected the victim was a Dark-eyed Junco. While the Juncos were everywhere in the fall, once the snow fell in early November, we didn’t see them for a couple of months. And then in mid-January a few found our feeders. This week, the flock has increased substantially as they migrate north and I counted twenty on the ground and in the trees by our home, which isn’t far from the pool.

I never did make it to the other vernal pools today, for so taken was I with trying to figure out the mystery of the feathers. Another thing about Juncos is that though many we see are slate gray, females may be a bit buffy on top of their head, back, and wings.

The other thing about Juncos is their countershadowing coloration.

Looking at the bird from the ground, it tends to blend in with the sky, especially on this gray day. And if you were to look down on the bird from above, it would blend in with the ground. That is, unless of course, you have snow on the ground as we have had for quite a while. It’s beginning to melt, especially in this afternoon’s rain and fog, but it does make the wee birds an easy target for the bigger ones.

Yesterday I saw a big one, but not in my backyard. Well, in a way I guess it was for I saw it near our camp. And I should have recognized it for I spent all last summer watching an immature and adult in the very location but it’s coloration threw me off.

When I first spied it, I thought it was an eagle or an owl. But the closer I got (mind you, I wasn’t as close as this may seem given that it’s a telephoto lens on a Canon Powershot), the more the white spots on those wings confused me. So, I settled for a hawk–either an immature Broad-winged, Red-shouldered or Red-tailed. But . . . . for once I did what I should always do–and reached out to those who know more than me.

Thank you to Alan and Linda Seamans and the Stanton Bird Club for they all agreed that it was a sub-adult Bald Eagle. Notice the mask. According to the Cornell allaboutbirds site, which I visited at least a hundred times yesterday: “Third year birds [Bald Eagles] have a mostly white belly, with some brown mottling, a brown chest, and a broad brown mask on the face.” Said my friend Alan, who is also a Maine Master Naturalist, “The huge schnozz is being noted by all, much too big in proportion for a red-tailed.”

Thank you also to the birds who continue to teach me about their life stories every day. I don’t always interpret what I see correctly and I admit I may be wrong about thinking the feathers belonged to a Junco, but I do enjoy the journey. Birds of a feather, they keep me wondering.

Cinco de Mayo, Naturally

The hour and a half drive to Litchfield, Maine, was worth every second on this fifth day of May. The spring tapestry that spread before my eyes had me oohing and aahing around each bend in the road for such were the colors–so many shades of greens, mixed in with reds and magentas and pinks and yellows. It was almost intoxicating.

But . . . a photograph will have to wait for another day for I needed to reach my destination and catch up with my peeps–fellow classmates from our 2012-13 Maine Master Naturalist class. For the last five years we’ve tried to get together quarterly. It doesn’t always work out, but this year we’re making a concerted effort.

s1-Smithfield map

Today’s destination was the vernal pool at Smithfield Plantation, a 103-acre property the town of Litchfield conserved. If you look carefully, you might see a reflection of Sharon, who has lead many a school group along the trails and knows the property intimately.

s1a-Sharon T

Before we headed to the pool, she oriented us to the site.

s2-moose wood

One of the things Sharon explained was that a Boy Scout had created an interpretive tree trail and so we paused at one of his stops to admire the craftsmanship.

s2b-moose wood maple leaf

Indeed, right behind the sign, a striped maple, aka moose maple, shared its newly emerged pastel buds and leaves.

s2a-moose maple

And then we lifted the lid to reveal the information. OK, so there were a few typos for the grammar police, but on each of his cards, he included a joke. What a great idea as that would certainly appeal to the younger set. It definitely appealed to those of us who are still ten years old in our minds.

s4-hobblebush

And on the opposite side of the trail, we spotted another type of moose wood–hobblebush just beginning to flower. Both striped maple and hobblebush are favorite foods of moose, thus their nicknames.

s3a-clintonia

Onward we walked until a patch of leaves stopped us. And our brain-sharing began. We thought we knew what the plant was, but then questioned ourselves as it wasn’t in flower yet. Each season, we need to relearn some. Despite the lack of flowers, we decided to key it out in Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide using two other descriptors–leaves both basal and entire.

s3-clintonia 1

For those familiar with Newcomb’s that meant of the three numbers in the locator key, we didn’t know the first, but went with 22 for the second and third representing basal leaves and entire leaves. Then we tried, 122, 222, etc.

s3b-clintonia buds

And landed on our first suspicion: 622–Yellow Clintonia or Bluebead (Clintonia borealis).

s6-vernal pool

The trail wasn’t long, but as one might expect, it took us a while to reach the vernal pool. And then we were stopped in our tracks and didn’t approach it right away.

s7-solitary sandpiper

Instead, we stood back and spent a while watching a solitary sandpiper on a downed tree.

s7a-solitary sandpiper

As we watched, it bobbed its tail. And at one point we were sure it took a mid-morning nap. Eventually, the bird flew to another part of the pool and a few minutes later departed.

s10-setting up camp

And so we set up camp, dropping some of our gear on the bench.

s10a-setting up camp

And more of it on and beside a log. We had macro-invertebrate charts and vernal pool pamphlets and books, plus all kinds of containers for pond dipping.

s9-Pam's journal

Pam was the smart one and she’d packed her sketch book and colored pencils. That’s one skill we all appreciate for it slows us down and makes us really notice. I, for one, haven’t done enough sketching in the past year and so this was the perfect incentive for the future.

s8-mosquito larvae

As we looked into the pool and Sharon told us what we might find, we immediately noticed the most abundant residents–mosquito larvae doing their whirligig dances.

s11-first fairy shrimp

But on her first dip, Sharon pulled up the crème de la crème–a fairy shrimp. Bingo–a significant pool it was as she knew, though not so documented with the state.

s12-examining the fairy shrimp

With her loupe, Jen took a closer look.

s13-five fairy shrimp

On Sharon’s next dip she pulled up not uno, not dos, not tres, not quatro, but cinco fairy shrimp.

s13-Pam sketches the fairy shrimp

And so Pam settled in to sketch them in all their glory.

s13-Pam's sketches

And added a caddisfly larva for we’d also captured one of those.

s14-female fairy shrimp

One of the cool things that Sharon pointed out, the brood pouch at the end of the abdomen, so indicating a female. How cool is that?

s15-caddisfly larvae

And here is our caddisfly, his casing created out of fallen hemlock needles. Caddisfly larvae that create their bodies from woody material are the log-cabin variety. We watched it move about in the tray, sometimes extending its soft body out of the case.

s17-spotted salamander egg mass

The dipping continued and a spotted salamander egg mass was pulled out, but only for us to take a closer look. And then it was returned from whence it came. Notice the individual eggs within the greater gelatinous matrix.

s18-egg mass

After that, Sharon found another reason to celebrate. She’d worn her waders and so was able to go deeper into the water than the rest of us.

s18-tadpoles

A quick dip and she’d pulled up an egg mass that almost melted as life burst forth–tadpoles. The first of the season for all of us.

s20-predacious diving beetle larvae

One last dip revealed one not so kind to all the other species we’d located. Known as a water tiger or toe biter, you can tell that it’s one mean little thing. This was the larval stage of a predacious diving beetle and the tadpoles had everything to fear for like its adult form it was a predator.

s23-Cinco Amigas

After that last find, it was time for us to pack up our gear and leave the pool behind. But, we took with us memories of a delightful spring morning spent exploring together. And . . . we had a chance to catch up, show each other field guides we thought might be of interest, share experiences of our volunteer opportunities, provide suggestions for ways to make a nature program work be it for kids or adults, and realize that we were not alone in any obstacles that may cause an issue during those programs.

What a naturally wonderful way to spend this Cinco de Mayo . .  . con cinco amigas. Thanks Gaby, Beth, Jen, Sharon and Pam.

 

 

Mayday Alert

Each time we explore a Greater Lovell Land Trust property, we have no idea what we might discover and this day was no different. For today’s Tuesday Tramp I suggested we visit the Cohen Property near the Lower Bay of Kezar Lake, which was the last acquisition under the direction of the late Tom Henderson. We’d only been there once before–and that was a few months ago when we explored via snowshoes. At that time we discovered ice-covered depressions and so a journey to check them out as vernal pools seemed apropos.

m2-moose print ID

There are no trails yet and so after parking, we followed the road back a ways to the area of our winter expedition. And what to our wondering eyes did we spy on the road? Moose prints! One should always look through a magnifying glass to make certain the ID is correct. Wes confirmed our suspicion.

m2-scooping

We found sitting water and running water and began to wonder about the wetland and whether what we thought might be a vernal pool really was, for we knew that a v.p. shouldn’t have an inlet or outlet. As the first dips of the day were made, black flies began to swarm around us. We hoped to pick up their larvae in the moving water, but instead we found many springtails.

m3-what did you catch

And a few mosquito larvae as determined by Caleb, Linda and Nancy.

m5-blob and algae

In another spot, we also found a mystery. At first we thought it might be some sort of egg. And maybe it was, but how was it related to the algae that seemed to be a host? We didn’t know, but now that we’re aware of it, we’ll continue to wonder and perhaps become enlightened.

m6-pool?

We checked out “pool” after “pool” and found not one egg mass (except for a false start that fooled us momentarily), which rather disappointed us. Were these really vernal pools? We suspected so as they were shallow and looked like they’ll dry up in the summer, if not before, plus they supported no fish. Were they significant vernal pools? Definitely not. To be a significant vernal pool, the body of water must contain one of the following obligate species: 1 fairy shrimp or 10 blue-spotted salamander egg masses or 20 spotted salamander egg masses (yellow spots) or 40 wood frog egg masses. Fairy Shrimp? No. Salamander egg masses? No. Frog egg masses? No.

m7-examining species

Despite the lack of indicator species, we scooped up water to determine what did live there.

m8-mosquito larvae

The most abundant residents found–mosquito larvae. And do you see the small jar in Ellie’s hand? She created a mosquito larvae aquarium and discovered that they seemed to like the algae she’d added. Perhaps they’d found microorganisms we couldn’t see.

m8a-pointing out antics of mosquito larvae

Watching the acrobatics of the larvae entertained us for a while. They twisted and turned somersaults and wriggled in the water and we soon realized that eggs left behind by last year’s females who had sucked our blood before breeding, must have remained dormant all winter until the snow melted and spring rains began.

m9-chironomid midge larva

We did find another species to admire, that also wriggled in a constant state of contortion–this one being a chironomid midge with blood-red coloration. According to A Field Guide to the animals of Vernal Pools, the color is “due to a hemoglobin-like pigment that helps them retain oxygen. This pigment allows the larvae to survive in water that is very low in dissolved oxygen, as is common in vernal pools as drying proceeds throughout the seasons.”

m10-Trailing Arbutus--May flower

Because I had to meet someone at noon, and Dave knew that it would take us at least a half hour to make the short trek back to our vehicles due to our incessant nature distraction disorder, we had to cut our journey short. Dave was right–as he often is–and we were forced to stop several time, including to sniff a couple of mayflowers, aka trailing arbutus or officially: Epigaea repens.

m11-ribbon snake 1

We finally reached the spot where we’d parked with fifteen minutes to spare when Linda sighted movement beside the tires of my truck and our hearts jumped with joy.

m12-ribbon snake captured

We didn’t want to run it over as we backed out and so Heinrich captured it. What is it? An Eastern ribbon snake, which is a species of special concern in Maine. According to the Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife website, “A species of special concern is any species of fish or wildlife that does not meet the criteria of an endangered or threatened species but is particularly vulnerable, and could easily become, an endangered, threatened, or extirpated species due to restricted distribution, low or declining numbers, specialized habitat needs or limits, or other factors. Special concern species are established by policy, not by regulation, and are used for planning and informational purposes; they do not have the legal weight of endangered and threatened species. The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife reviews the list of special concern species at the beginning of each calendar year, and, based on criteria in the Maine Endangered and Threatened Species Listing Handbook , revises the list as appropriate.”

m13-ribbon snake 2

And that is why it’s so important to protect the land. I knew Tom was smiling down upon us due to this find. Interestingly, we also spotted a ribbon snake at the John A. Segur Wildlife Refuge on Farrington Pond Road in early May 2015.

m14-paper birch superhero

Finally, we all departed and I was only ten minutes late for my quick meet-up, after which I headed back down Route 5 to reconnect with my favorite little naturalists at the Kezar River Reserve across from the Wicked Good Store. There’s a tape across the road, which I suspect was put in place by the local snowmobile club when the ice was questionable on the river, but it remains, which given the recent rain is probably a good thing. We’ll take it down soon, but it has prevented the road from becoming more rutted than normal.

Anyway, Wes climbed out of the family’s vehicle with his paper birch armor. He’d spied it in a V between to birch trees on our morning trek and his mom climbed up to retrieve it for him.

m15-brother bomb

Birch Man posed again and again, until his older brother Aidan, sporting a missing front tooth, jumped in front.

m16-root art

The boys stood on a hump of earth beside a tree root. And it was through their eyes that we noticed some interesting finds among the tree’s former life support.

m17-canister cover

We found pottery and cast iron and realized the tree had grown upon an old dump site.

m19-VW

And that hump of earth–the four siblings were sure that it hid a Volkswagen Beetle.

m23-Kezar River

It took us a while to walk down the “roadway” and then the left-hand loop. We made a few discoveries, including coyote scat filled with bones, and the kids did some trail work. At last we reached the canoe/kayak landing at the Kezar River and noted some otter scat and a few slides, plus some fishing lures and line stuck in the trees. It was at that point that the family had to leave, but before they left they asked me what I’d do before I had another meeting in the afternoon. I told them I planned to hike the second loop, which happens to be longer and dips into an interesting ravine.

m23-salamander eggs

That never happened. As it turned out, I stood at the boat launch for about an hour. First, I spied one small clump of salamander eggs.

m24-equisetum

And then realized that the raft before me, which filled the small cove, was equisetum. Where it came from I didn’t know for I couldn’t recall ever seeing it at this property.

m24-Mayfly 1

But, regardless, it provided a perfect camouflage for aquatic insects. It took me a while to key in on the species before me, but I knew they were there because every once in a while, one took flight. Do you see the mayfly subimago that had recently emerged? The teenager stood atop its nymph exuvia. Mayflies are unique in that after the nymph emerges from the water as the subimago (that fishermen call a dun), they seek shelter before shedding their skin for the final transformation.

m25-mayfly 2

I really had to focus in order to spot them.

m27-Mayfly

But once I did, they were . . .

m28-mayfly

everywhere.

m29-mayfly larva

And in all forms, including a nymph.

m30-Mayfly up close

The cool thing is that thirteen mayflies are also on the list of species of special concern. Was this one of the species? I have so much more to learn.

m31-water scorpion

As I continued to watch, there was an incredible amount of activity. And then I saw a predator that was about two and half inches long. Do you see it? Not atop the vegetation, but rather under it in right-hand center of the photo. Behind it, almost to the right edge of the photo, was a bubble at the end of its long breathing tube.

m33-water scorpion

As I watched, it continued to swim forward, the vegetation providing it’s favorite type of habitat. Again, you have to look carefully.

m34-water scorpoin

And again. It was a water scorpion with an oval-shaped abdomen. Do you see it?

m35-ribbon snake

Finally, it was time for my next meeting, but as I walked back up the trail I reflected upon the wonders of the day and the work of the land trust under Tom’s leadership. Creating corridors is important for mammals, but also for all critters that share the various habitats.

There was no need to put out a distress signal today. Indeed. With others and alone, I was thankful for the opportunity to be gifted with such sightings: Mayflowers and Mayflies! And a water scorpion. Topped off with a ribbon snake. May Day Alert of the best kind.

 

 

 

 

Sallie Savers Celebrate Big Night with LEA

The initial email was sent by Mary Jewett of Lakes Environmental Association in Bridgton, Maine, on Tuesday:

Hello everyone!

Many amphibians have already crossed and laid eggs but there are still some waiting in the woods. Tomorrow evening looks like it will be perfect conditions for an amphibian migration and I would like to get a group together to go out with me. My plan would be to meet at the office at 8pm. With sunset being at 7:40 I really wouldn’t want to start any earlier since the frogs and sallies won’t move when it’s light out.

I want to get an idea of who would be able to come out with me. I have a reporter and videographer coming out from the Bangor Daily News and they would like to get shots of actual people (not just me) and possibly get some quotes from participants. I know that it’s tough to get out with kids since it starts so late but I hope that we can get a diverse group. We also may have the opportunity to check out egg masses that are already in the water!

And then this afternoon, Mary sent this follow-up message:

I have heard from a handful of people who are able to come out tonight so I’m going for it. Here are some details:

Meet at the LEA office building (230 Main Street) at 8pm
We will caravan up to the Masonic Hall and walk to Dugway Road from there.
Bring high powered flashlights/headlamps
Wear warm clothes and rain gear. It looks like the rain may be pretty heavy when we are out there. Good for amphibians but not so great for people trying to stay dry.
Wear reflective clothing if you have some. I have vests available if you don’t have your own.
Do not wash your hands with soap or put on hand lotion or hand sanitizer.
I have spoken to the police and they are going to try and send someone out. They have a training program this evening so we might not see them. This makes it extra important that kids stay with their parents at all times!

b3-amphibian crossing sign

And so we did just that–met at the LEA office first, and then moved on to the Masonic Hall to park before beginning our journey into the wet and wild world of the amphibians.

b1-redbacked

Right away, we noticed worms. And even better, a red-backed salamander. Red backs don’t use vernal pools to mate, but they sure do love rainy nights that offer great opportunities to roam about seeking food.

b2-red backed salamander

We crossed the field from the Hall to Memory Lane, our eyes ever looking for more redbacks, but instead we noted a kazillion worms, each the size of a young snake. And then, after only a few minutes on the road another redbacked graced us with its presence.

b4-Mary explains rules of the road

Finally, we reached Dugway Road, our destination, and Mary took a few minutes to remind folks of safety rules. Some years the Bridgton police are able to join us and either shut the road down or at least slow traffic. Such was not the case tonight and so it was important that our crowd of at least twenty ranging in age from four years old to 70+ be cautious.

b4-walking the road

And then the real fun began. We spread out across the road with flashlights and headlamps, walking with care as we tried to notice the little things in life who chose this night to return to their natal pools in order to mate.

b6-spring peeper

Right away, the good times got rolling as we began to spot spring peepers. Really, it was those with eagle eyes who spotted the most, which wasn’t easy given the asphalt conditions. Though we knew better, we did have to wonder if the amphibians chose this road because it provided good camouflage.

b5-first catch- spring peeper

Being the first of the night, Mary demonstrated the fine art of capturing the peeper, explaining first that her hands were damp and had no soap or cream upon them.

Outstretched hands of one of the younger set awaited a transfer.

b5-pass off

The mission was to help the peeper get to the other side of the road. Typically, once captured, we transport them to the side in which they were headed.

b5-final pass off

The release was made into the youngster’s hands and then onward the child holding frog went. Lucky for the frog, there was a culvert at the side and that seemed like the safest place to release it.

b14-into the vernal pool

Further down the road, the songs of the wood frogs and peepers were almost deafening. As we looked into the vernal pool that was still half covered in ice, there was some movement, but the frogs all continued to sing despite our presence, unlike what happens when we approach a pool during the day and they dive under the leaf cover for a few minutes.

b7-spotted salamander

We found enough peepers, but the stars of the night were the spotted salamanders.

b8-sally and worm

The youngest among us picked up one of the ubiquitous worms that marked the night and laid it down beside a sallie.

b9-sally eyes

Sallie didn’t care. It was on a mission and just wanted to move on without our interference. There was only one thing on its mind and we suddenly stood between it and that goal.

b12-salamander

It had a dance to perform before the sun rose and we had a heck of a nerve for getting in the way. I’m always in awe of these creatures who spend at least 11.5 months under the leaf litter and maybe a week or two in the pool. Our rare chance to catch a glimpse of them is on such a rainy night as tonight.

b10-sally on card

Our intentions were in their favor. We only wanted to help save them from the vehicles that passed by.

b11-sally's world

In the end, though, I had to wonder–is this what the salamander’s world looked like as we scooped it up and helped it across.

Possibly, but still, it’s always a thrill for tots, tweens, teens, and all the rest of us to celebrate Big Night with the Lakes Environmental Association. We are the Sallie Savers.

Dear Earth

Dear Earth,

In your honor, I decided that on this Earth Day I would head out the back door and travel by foot, rather than vehicle.

e1-Mount Washington

My journey led me down the old cow path to the power line right-of-way and much to my delightful surprise, Mount Washington was on display. It was so clear, that I could even see the outline of buildings and towers at the summit. Thank you for providing such clarity.

e2-vernal pool

Rather than walk to the mountain, I turned in the opposite direction and found my way to the vernal pool, where ice still covered a good portion. You know, Earth, as much as I want this to be a significant vernal pool because it does usually have two qualifiers (and only needs one): more than forty wood frog egg masses or more than twenty spotted salamander egg masses, I know that it is not. I believe it was created as part of the farm based on the rocks at the far end, not exactly forming a retaining wall, but still situated so close together in a way that I haven’t found anywhere else in my extensive journeys of the hundreds of acres behind our house. Plus, it dries up much too quickly to be a natural pool. And each year I’m surprised to find wood frogs, their egg masses, spotted salamander spermatophores, and their egg masses, given that the water evaporates before the tadpoles finish forming. If these species return to their natal vernal pool, Earth, then how can that be since no one actually hopped or walked out as a recently matured adult? Or were these frogs on their way to another pool and they happened upon this one? You know me, Earth–lots of questions as I try to understand you better.

e4-dorsal amplexus

Whatever the answer is, each year you work your magic and on a visit yesterday afternoon, I spied a male wood frog atop a female in what’s known as amplexus, aka, mating. According to Maine Amphibians and Reptiles, edited by Malcolm L. Hunter, Aram J.K. Calhoun, and Mark McCollough, “When mating, the male clings tightly to the females back. Visible contractions of the female’s body signal the onset of oviposition, at which time the male’s hind feet are drawn up close to the female’s vent. As the eggs are expelled, the male releases sperm into the water and strokes the egg mass with his hind feet, which presumably aids in distributing the sperm more evenly.” I looked this morning, but didn’t find any sign of eggs. Don’t worry, Earth, I’ll keep looking because perhaps they were there but hadn’t absorbed water yet.

e5-dead frog

One other thing I saw yesterday that greatly disturbed me was a dead frog in the water. Last year I also found such. My concern is that it was caused by a virus, but perhaps it was old age. Or some other factor. I do have to confess, though, Earth, I intervened and removed the body from the pond. I know, I know, it’s all part of the cycle of life, and I should leave nature to its own devices, but disease was on my mind and I didn’t want others to be affected. I may have been too late. Only time will tell.

e7-leaf variety

When I arrived this morning, I’m happy to report that I didn’t see any dead frogs. For the longest time I stood upon a rock–you know the one I mean, Earth, for you’ve invited me to stand there before. It’s sunny in that spot and the frogs know it well, for that is where they’ll eventually deposit their eggs. As I waited, I looked down at the leaves on the pool’s bottom and noticed how they offered a reflection of the trees above, beech and oak and maple and pine and hemlock. All still displayed their winter colors, but when the pool does dry up, they’ll turn dark brown and form a mat that will provide nutrients for the plants that colonize the area. You’ve got a system, don’t you Earth.

e8-frog 1

I knew if I stood as still as I could, I would be rewarded. While beech and oak leaves, the last to fall from their trees, danced somersaults across those already on the ground and matted by the past winter’s snow, red and gray squirrels chatted and squawked, and chickadees sold cheeseburgers in their songs, my eyes constantly scanned the pool. And in a flash, a frog emerged from under those leaves.

e8-wood frog 1a

For a while he floated, allowing the breeze to push him to and fro within a two square-foot space. But then he decided to climb atop a downed branch. Perhaps he was trying out a calling sight to use once I left.

e9a--wood frog 3

And then, there was another. And after that another. Yesterday I saw a total of six. Today only four. But that doesn’t mean the others weren’t hiding until I left, right Earth? I hope that’s what it meant. One thing you have taught me via the frogs is patience. If I stand still long enough at least one will swim to the surface. And they, too, are patient as they wait: for me to leave; for the gals to come. Well, maybe when the gals do come they aren’t all that patient.

e10-mosquito larvae

I actually returned to the pool a second time today and more of the ice had melted. While in the late morning I couldn’t see any insects on the move, in the early afternoon I eyed thousands of mosquito larvae. Everyone moans about mosquito larvae, Earth, but . . . they provide food for salamanders and the adult form for birds. I’m just trying to look on the bright side.

e11- snowmobile trail

This afternoon, I waited and waited for the frogs to emerge, but either my eyes didn’t key in on them or they decided to wait until I left. So . . . I finally did just that, and did head toward Mount Washington after all, following the snowmobile trail. As you well know, Earth, it was a bit tricky between the snow, soft mud, ruts and rocks exploding from your earth.

e11a-boots

My right foot managed to fall through the icy snow into a hidden rut filled with water that covered my Bog boots. And then my left foot found some mud that squelched with glee. Or was that you squealing with delight, Earth? I had one wet sock, but ventured on.

e11b-Mansion Road

At the junction, I turned to the west, following the log road and remembering the days of yore when my guy and I, as well as neighbor Dick Bennett, used to work up a sweat on a winter day following a snow storm, for it was our duty to you, Earth, to release the snow from your arched gray birch trees. And then, a few years ago, the road became the main route to the timber landing/staging area again, and all of those trees we’d worked so hard to protect year after year were cut to make way for machinery. As much as my heart broke, it does give me time to watch forest succession in action, and I gave thanks that you have such a plan in mind.

e14-deer dance

It also provided a blank stage upon which the does danced and left behind their calling cards.

e12-buck

And Buck sashayed each partner across the floor. The deep dew claw marks and cloven toes indicated he’d made quite an impression.

e11c-coyote scat

All along the way, upon raised rocks in the middle of the “road,” coyote and fox scat was prominent and in the sandy surface I also found their prints.

e18-vernal pool near landing

At the left-hand turn that led to the landing, I was surprised when I shouldn’t have been, for suddenly a million “wrucks” filled the air. I knew the water was there but it had slipped my mind. Thank you for the song of many more wood frogs. Thanks for filling my ears with joy.

e15-wood frog egg masses

And the chance to spy their good works. Thankfully, you make sure that life continues. At least in the form of wood frog egg masses.

e17-wood frog egg mass

I loved their gelatinous blob-like structure, all bumpy on the outside they were. Actually, I believe what looked like one mass, was several, but I didn’t dare step in to check and disturb the frogs that hid below.

e16-wood frog 5

Again I stood as still as possible, and again I was rewarded. For a bit I thought that the frog before me had no arms, but then I realized that they were just plastered to its sides.

e19-wood frog under log

A squirrel sounding bigger than itself caught my attention briefly and I turned unexpectedly. When I turned back, the frog was no longer at the water’s surface, but appeared below a downed gray birch. For a while the two of us remained still. I hoped another frog or two or three or three thousand would pop up, but that wasn’t your plan, was it? It’s okay. One was enough.

e21-log landing

I finally left my one, oops, I mean your one frog alone and continued on to the log landing, noting all the mammal tracks and looking for other signs. There was more scat, but I was disappointed not to find bobcat or moose prints. Where were you hiding them? I suspect the moose had moved to the swamp below.

Rather than go much further, for major ruts from the logging equipment were filled with water, I turned around just beyond the landing and headed back across it. Twenty-five years ago it was a much smaller clearing with a few pine trees. Over the years, I’ve watched it change and the mammal activity as well. And then, about five years ago it was converted back to a landing and I can’t wait for it to fill in again, but my desire and your plan are not necessarily the same, are they?

It all seemed like so much destruction, but I had to remind myself that I am part of the equation, with my own needs for power and wood and food and everything that you provide. And cuts do bring about a change, sometimes for the better, for the trees and the mammals and the birds and the plants and the decomposers and the consumers and all who call this place home. Am I convincing you, Earth? Am I convincing myself?

e22-frog 7

As I passed by the lengthy vernal pool again I decided to revisit the egg masses. I stood on the rock and slowly scanned the area. No frogs. On second glance, there was one right beside the rock on which I stood. And it looked like the same one I’d seen previously. I wondered why. Why didn’t I scare it? Was that you, Earth, taking a peek at me?

e23-Mourning Cloak butterfly

I had one more surprise on my journey–the first butterfly of the season, a mourning cloak. With its wings closed, it wasn’t all that attractive.

e24-mourning cloak

But upon opening them, I saw its beauty hidden within–another lesson, eh Earth? Oh, and your sense of humor. For yes, that was coyote scat on which the butterfly sucked as it sought amino acids and other nutrients. A fly also dined. Yum.

What a day, Earth. Your day. Dear Earth Day. May I remember to treat you so dearly every day.

Sincerely,

wondermyway

 

 

 

 

 

 

Craning My Neck

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about living in the moment lately, a concept that really drove itself home during the years that my mother dealt with dementia and I was forced to realize that each time I left the room, my return was a new visit; a new adventure. And now, so many friends are dealing with issues that make every second precious and I realize once again the importance of slowing down and noticing and making the most of being present. Now.

f1

Such was the case this afternoon when I joined two friends who had pulled in from their winter home in Florida this week. We met at one of the parking lots for the Mountain Division Trail in Fryeburg, Maine, a rail trail that makes one feel like you could walk to the White Mountains in a matter of miles. But, to get back to the moment, the original plan had been to travel the trail with two different friends and then one had to back out and I found out that the Florida friends had returned and so I invited them to join the other and me, and then my other friend had to back out and so it was the Florida duo and me. And it was so fabulous to spend time with them that we walked rather quickly, which completely surprised me when I thought about it for I know that they love a slow journey. But we had much to catch up on and because the trail is paved we didn’t have to think about foot placement and perhaps that’s what spurred us on.

f2-tamarack 1

At last, however, it was spurs that stopped us, for one of them spied a branch with upward facing cones and little spurs and she wondered what it was. The cones certainly looked like hemlock cones. But why were they upright? And what happened to the needles? When I explained that it was a tamarack, she again questioned it for she’s always been here in the autumn when the needles are a brilliant yellow and she thought those needles stayed on all winter. Not so, I explained, for a tamarack (larch, hackmatack–take your pick of common names) is our only deciduous conifer in northern New England. The golden needles fall the same as maple leaves.

f11-pussy willows

We also put on the brakes when she spied pussy willows–a sure sign of spring in their Zen-like presentation.

f20

Onward we marched, catching up on past months. But then, as the day would have it, first he had to turn around and head back to the parking lot and then a short time later she had to do the same. And that got me thinking about how the walk had evolved. I was sorry that the two I had originally planned to share the trail with couldn’t join me, but equally thankful for the two with whom I did travel. Living in the moment means embracing a change in direction.

f3-evening primrose basal rosette

The rail trail is four miles long in one direction and I turned around at the 2.5 mile marker. On my return, I was entirely surprised by the offerings that had escaped my attention previously, like the beauty of an Evening Primrose’s basal rosette.

f4-pitch pine cone

It’s fractal fashion was reflected in the pitch pine cones I spotted on the ground and surrounding trees.

f5-pitch again

The pitch pines always draw my fancy and I was especially intrigued by the past, present and future–as I tried to live in the moment. It’s not as easy as it sounds for we so often get caught up in what was or what could be.

f8-red oak

The past produced fruits long since deployed.

f10-speckled alder catkins

The future grew longer before pollinating the shorter.

f7-trailing arbutus in bloom

But in the moment–I spied the first blossoms of Trailing Arbutus.

f9-spotted salamander spermatophores

My return journey was much slower than the first leg, for there was so much to see. Included in the expedition was an examination of a small vernal pool. And what to my wondering eyes did I see? Spotted salamander spermatophores–those little chunks of sperm left behind by males atop cauliflower-shaped platforms.

f14-wood frogs quaking

As if that wasn’t enough, further on I heard a familiar quack and knew wood frogs were active though I couldn’t see them.

f15-wetland

And still further I discovered a wetland I’d never noticed before. Spring peepers sang from the far edges. It was all a surprise for on the walk out I’d told my friends from Florida that I hadn’t seen or heard any vernal pool action yet.

f15a--chipmunk

I just need to spend more time listening and waiting and letting it all play out before me, the same as the chipmunk that was sure I couldn’t see him.

f16-Canada geese

After a three-hour journey, I found my way back to the truck and then decided to take some back roads home. As I passed through farmland where cornfields are prolific, I noticed movement. I so wanted the movement to be another bird, but it was a huge flock of Canada Geese that attracted my attention. Again, I had to live in the moment and enjoy what was before me.

f17-sandhill cranes

And then I turned into the harbor, and was pleasantly surprised for suddenly my eyes cued in on those I sought who stood tall.

f17a--sandhil cranes

And preened.

f18-sandhill cranes

And craned their necks. Sandhill Cranes. In Fryeburg, Maine. They have returned to the harbor for at least  the past five years, probably more and I’ve had the privilege to hear them fly over several times, but today was the first time I was honored to see them. Thank you, Parker, for the tip.

I craned my neck and gave thanks for the moments spent in their presence and lifted up several people who will benefit from a dose of this medicine–Tom, Jinny Mae and Lifeguard Wendy: this one is for the three of you.

 

 

 

Eyes of Wonder

On the first and third Tuesday of each month since the snow first flew in 2017, I’ve had the privilege of tramping through the woods with our Tuesday Trackers group. As it happened this month, we were also able to tramp together today–the fourth Tuesday.

Each week, the participants vary as they come when they can. But no matter who shows up, by the end of our two-four hour exploration, we are all wiser for the experience–and filled with gratitude for the opportunity to spend a winter morning in the Maine woods. We are also grateful for the wonder that is right in front of us, not only materializing in the form of mammal tracks, but all manner of things that make up the web of life.

j1-otters romping across the snow

Usually the age of our attendees ranges from 50-something to 80-something. But today we were joined by four little otters who reminded us what it’s like to be a child again as they bounded across the snow’s crust, and rejoiced at the sight of any and every little thing that presented itself from squirrel and chipmunk holes to fungi.

j2-squirrel prints

Of course, we were there to track and though most prints were bleached out from the sun’s March rays, we did find a few that showed well their finer points such as toes.

j14-measuring straddle

And with any discernible prints, the kids reminded us to take time to measure straddle, in this case that of a gray squirrel. We also found what we believed was a bobcat track based on the round shape of the somewhat melted print and the stride.

j3-ice and water

Most of us began the journey with snowshoes, but soon joined the kids and shedded them as we moved from frozen snow to bare ground and back again. And then we discovered water. Actually, a few of us were a wee bit behind, when one child ran up to her mom and said, “A vernal pool.” If it does turn out to be a vernal pool, we feared it will dry up too soon, but that doesn’t mean the amphibians won’t take advantage of the spot in a few weeks. It was half covered in ice, which offered a challenge because two of the boys wanted to break through it with a stick. The third boy did break through–much to his dismay. But as his calm mom said, ” Well, now he’ll know next time.” (Juli–I can’t help but smile–you are the best.)

j4-helping hands

Fortunately, for his sake, we came upon a maple tree with a huge burl on which he sat while others on the journey came to his aid and squeezed a gallon of water, or so it seemed, out of his socks. His mom had an extra pair of mittens in her pack and those covered his toes for the rest of the trek. He wore his boots, of course. While we were there, we wondered about burls and tried to remember what created them. I suggested insects and another thought perhaps fungi. It turns out we were both correct. They may also be caused by bacteria or a virus. What the young lad sat upon was a reaction of the tree to the infestation which resulted in abnormal growth due to changes in the tree’s hormones. Think of its vascular system as a twisted ball of yarn.

j5-sucker brook outlet into Kezar Lake's Lower Bay

After the sock ringing and mitten fitting episode played out, we turned around to take in the beauty of the Sucker Brook Outlet at the Lower Bay of Kezar Lake for we were on the John A. Segur East Wildlife Refuge on Farrington Pond Road.

In the distance, one lad spied a beaver lodge. You might see it as a brown dot on the snow-covered ice directly above a swamp maple snag in the center of this photo.

j6-wintergreen and spring tails

We also looked at our boots, where we rejoiced in the site of wintergreen plants evolving from their magenta winter coats. And spring tails jumping about on the leaf litter like performers in an unorganized circus.

j9-squirrel table

Upon a downed birch tree, a certain young lady found the perfect spot to set up a dinner table for a squirrel. She was kind enough to include a dessert treat by stuffing pieces of a wintergreen leaf into an acorn cap.

j10-ice bridge

Much to the delight of the younger set, they next discovered an ice bridge and took turns walking across it. The rest of us decided to pass on that opportunity, sure that we’d ruin the effect.

j11-tree stump examination

Getting up close and personal was the theme of the morning and everything drew their attention and ours, including a decaying trunk of a hemlock that was downed by a lightning strike several years ago.

j12-tree holes

Because we were curious, we noted holes of the tree’s decayed xylem, the system of tubes and transport cells that circulate water and dissolved minerals. One of the boys decided to see if it worked and poured water onto the stump, which immediately flowed into the holes. We’ve viewed tree stumps and rings many a time, but this was the first time we recalled seeing the holes. No tree stump will go unobserved on our path from now on.

j13-lodges reflect mountains

Our turn-around point was at another spot along Sucker Brook where three beaver lodges reflected the mountains in the backdrop.

j21-beaver lodge

A few of us walked across the ice for a closer look because one appeared to serve as this winter’s home site. We trusted the family within included their own young naturalists.

We were certainly thankful for our time spent with four children who allowed us to look at the world through their eyes of wonder.

(On behalf of Joan, Dave, Steve, Dick, Jonathan, and I, we thank you, Caleb, Ellie, Aidan and Wes. Oh, and your mom as well, or especially–thank you Juli. We’re all in awe of you and the gifts you’ve passed on to your kids.)