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.

This Land Is . . .

My land. I’m sure of it. I don’t own it all, but I walk it often because it’s not posted and I know it well. Well, only just so well. It’s constantly offering me new learnings.

o-Mt Wash

And so once again, out the back door I ventured, intending to head north toward the land of snow–haha. My sister asked the other day if we still had snow. We don’t have any on our land, but this is our view from the power line right of way–yup–we’ve got snow 😉 (in our view).

o-tick

I changed my mind about the direction, however, when I saw numerous dog ticks on the tips of grass as I crossed our neighbor’s field. Though they aren’t the purveyors of diseases such as Lyme disease, Babesiosis, and Anaplasmosis, seeing them still unnerved me and I decided to head in the opposite direction where it isn’t so grassy. Of course, that’s where the deer ticks live. Nightly tick checks are a must every day.

o-early yellow rocket 1

It was in the opposite direction that I was caught by surprise. Behind a local business, where the land had been disturbed a year ago, a wall of yellow greeted me.

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It was a sea of early yellow-rocket that is common along roadsides and fields. Apparently this one spot was the cat’s meow for it to grow so prolifically.

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What was more prolific–the sound.

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Bees and other insects hummed as they worked,

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filling their pollen sacks to the brim.

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Even a fritillary butterfly enjoyed the goodness within.

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Those weren’t the only wings I saw. It was a complete surprise to also discover gaywings or fringed polygala growing deeper in the woods.

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Walking along, I flushed a couple of deer and a ruffed grouse. And though I didn’t see or hear any turkeys, I knew they’d been there by their signature prints.

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And then I slipped off the trail to stop at a vernal pool that I don’t often visit. The water is shallow, but tadpoles are growing.

o-tadpole 2

A week or two ago after they’d just emerged, they were easy to spot as they clung to their egg masses or swam by water’s edge. But they are maturing and I had to stand still or they’d disappear under the leaf cover.

o-water scavenger larvae

While standing there, I spotted another resident I didn’t immediately recognize–the larval form of a water scavenger beetle. According to A Field Guide to the animals of Vernal Pools,  “they are poor swimmers and will hang from the water surface (where they obtain oxygen) or hide in vegetation to await prey.” That all makes sense given their body structure.

o-sugar ant?

On the way back, another insect stopped me. I think they were sugar ants with a white thorax. But why were they on beech leaves? Then again, every insect seems to like beech leaves. I guess I don’t think of them as being sweet, but . . .

o-old gate in wall

As I headed home, I paused by an old wall and gate. This land was farmed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The walls formed boundaries for animals and are owned by numerous neighbors I’ve never met. Thankfully, they let me and others cross–though few will do so until hunting season begins in the fall.

Anyway, it all got me thinking about who owns the land. And then I knew the actual answer. The plants. The trees. The flowers. The insects. The amphibians. The birds. The mammals. They all own the land. We are mere visitors. I thank all of nature for letting me trespass and gain a better understanding of its various life forms.

This land isn’t my land. And it wasn’t even made for you and me. But I have great reverence for it. And for those who have protected it.

Happy Memorial Day.

The Big, The Little and Everything In Between

I stepped out of the shower after a walk around town with friend Marita and heard someone chatting away on the answering machine. Maybe it’s because I didn’t have my glasses on, though what that has to do with it I don’t know, but I couldn’t ID the voice. The male yammered away about something in the snow and it had come last night and I had to get there quickly. For some reason I thought it was our eldest and I  wondered what it was that needed my immediate attention. So, I cautiously picked up the phone and said hello. The voice on the other end continued talking desperately about me going somewhere. “Who is this?” I asked. It was friend Dick and I should have recognized his voice, but maybe not having glasses on is like not being able to taste if your nose is stuffed. Or maybe I’m overthinking as usual. Dick, however, was not overthinking or overreacting. He was excited and knew I would be as well. He was standing in a friend’s yard about a half mile from here and looking at bear tracks in the snow.

b-bear 7

As he knew he would, he had me on the word “bear.” His voice was urgent as he insisted I stop everything and get to his friend’s house. “I just need to dry my hair and then I’ll be right there,” I said. Deadlines loomed before me but bear tracks won my internal war. Dick suggested I just wrap a towel around my head. Really, that’s what I should have done because my hair has no sense of style whether wet or dry, so after a few minutes I said the heck with it and popped into my truck, camera and trackards in hand.

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Yup–bear tracks. Classic, beautiful bear tracks. Even nail marks above the toes.

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And the pigeon-toed gait.

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My heart be still. The bear certainly wasn’t.

b-bear fence

It trampled a garden fence.

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And yanked down a suet feeder that dangled from a wonderful rigging at second story height designed to keep the raccoons from stealing it. We couldn’t find the actual feeder.

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It toppled another feeder and consumed all the sunflower seeds. Oh, the squirrels may have helped, but apparently the feeder was stock full. Not any more. We looked for hair but found none.

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One of the mysteries to us was why did the bear suddenly trot. I’m now wondering if it was startled at some point and ran away.

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Before leaving, I enjoyed one more look. How sweet it is. And how thrilled I was to have seen it–especially knowing that it wouldn’t last long. The. Big.

b-feathers in circle

When I arrived home, I knew I needed to work, but figured a quick walk to check on the vernal pool was a great way to celebrate the bear tracks. And on my way–feathers. Long black feathers.

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Most were about a foot long.

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They appeared to be torn out rather than cut.

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I know the neighborhood cats hang around our bird feeders all day–ever hopeful. But I don’t think they got this crow. I’ve a feeling a hawk was the culprit. The. In. Between.

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It’s my neighborhood, so I always cast an eye toward the Mount. The. Big. Again.

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The water level seems about the same as last week and a wee bit of Tuesday’s snow still decorated the  western shore.

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Though the lighting wasn’t great at that hour, it was obvious that the tadpole population had increased.

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And the salamanders continued to grow within their protective covering. The. Little.

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I did finally settle down to work. And then it was lunch time. My guy and I weren’t the only ones dining.

b-woody lunch 1

After I finished two assignments and before I walked to a meeting, I decided to visit the pool again and capture the action in the late afternoon light. But first, an examination of the woodchuck’s feeding site. Yup, those leaves were nibbled.

b-woody lunch 2

And so were these. The. In. Between.

b-vp no snow

And then it was back to the pool, where the snow had melted. But, I have to share a finding along the way. Or rather, a non-finding. I intended to grab the crow head because I wanted the skull. Not. It wasn’t in the path where I’d seen it in the morning. I poked around and couldn’t find it anywhere. Who stole it? Maybe one of those darn cats.

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In the warmth of the sun at the eastern side of the pool where most of the egg masses were laid, the population continued to increase.

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I felt the same glee about all of these little critters as I felt about the bear tracks earlier in the day.

b-tads on sallies

Tadpoles and salamanders. I may not see bears tracks every day, but for a brief moment in time, I’m honored to watch the transformation that takes place in the vernal pool. The. Little. Times. Two.

Giving thanks for the ability to wonder. The Big. The Little. And Everything In Between. Especially Everything.

Observing the Cycle of Life

The Maine Master Naturalist class of 2015 graduated last night and for the second year in a row I had the privilege of helping students focus their eyes and develop a strong foundation about the natural communities of Maine. And now, they are ready to go forth and educate others.

In some ways, the year reminds me of life in a vernal pool.

And at the vernal pool I’ve been visiting on a regular basis since March, the transformation continues. I know I’ve included it in several (probably more than several) posts, but today seems like a good day to reflect upon its life cycle.

VP March 25

March 25: A snow-covered depression with some indecipherable tracks crisscrossing the surface.

VP April 4

April 4: Snow, water and slush. Something caused a disturbance.

VP April 12VP April 12 A

April 12: Freeze and thaw and freeze again, trapping newly fallen beech leaves.

VP April 21

April 21: Three days ago, this was still covered in slush. Suddenly, open water.

VP woodfrog eggs, April 21

April 21: The wood frogs didn’t waste any time.

VP April 24

April 24: More and more egg masses appear–attached to the branches or each other, as is their habit.

VP April 28

April 28: Though most are wood frog, there are some spotted salamander egg masses in the mix. All are taking on the green tinge from the algae with which they have a symbiotic relationship.

VP Predacious, April 28

April 28: Meanwhile, not even bothering to lurk in the shadows, a predaceous diving beetle swims about.

VP frog May 2

May 2: A well camouflaged wood frog still hopes for some action.

 VP wood frog, sally, May 4

May 4: Wood frog egg mass at top; spotted salamanders mass at bottom.

VP Babies May 4

May 4: Tadpoles at last.

Swarm

May 4: With communal living comes warmth.

VP, larvae, May 4

May 4: Mosquito and other larvae flip-flopping around.

VP, drying up, May 5

May 5: A sign that the pool is beginning to dry up–egg masses suspended in midair.

VP, life, May 5

May 5: Meanwhile, in the water, life continues. Tadpoles and others feed on the algae.

VP, May 12

May 12: Due to a lack of rain, the pool size decreases.

VP, lower, May 12

May 12: I can only hope that these blobs are just the remains and that most of the tadpoles have hatched.

VP, May 12, more life

May 12: A peek into the variety of life below the water.

May 14

May 14: Shrinking more and more.

VP, May 14, drying up

May 14: Some masses are left high and dry.

VP, May 14, tadpole:sally

May 14: A tadpole visits the salamander embryos.

VP, May 14, peanuts

May 14: Peanut shells. What? There hasn’t been much evidence of any person or critter visiting the pool . . .  until this.

vp 1

May 28: Almost completely dried up.

wet spot

May 28: The only wet spot left.

tadpoles

May 28: Tadpoles make the most of the wee bit of water.

tadpoles galore

May 28: The wet depression boils with action.

peanuts

May 28: And peanut shells are everywhere in the pool, but only one on the snowmobile trail. Another mystery.

With the end of class, eighteen new master naturalists are heading off into the woods to teach others. I hope the tadpoles have a chance to continue their development so that they, too, can hop away from the pool.

As for the vernal pool–vernal means spring and though spring isn’t over, unless we receive a substantial rainstorm, it has almost completed its cycle of life.

Thanks for wandering and wondering with me today.