Today being that post-Thanksgiving-pre-Christmas-better-get-shopping-for-everyone-on-your-list Day, I knew I needed to head out the door.
But I’m a postpone-it-as-long-as-you-can type of shopper and so I didn’t get as early a start as I probably should have because I just wanted to hang out at home for a while.
A few hours later, however, I decided to join the crowd because I was pretty sure that the best deals worth my time and money awaited.
And, of course, they did. First there was the well-chiseled Pileated Woodpecker tree with a sign indicating I could save up to 50%. Into the cart it went. I was thinking perhaps JinMe might like this on her mantel.
Surely Faith and Sara will enjoy this ice sculpture–that is really a bunch of hidden pictures. I won’t let on how cheap it was, but even if I did, I suspect they wouldn’t care because, after all, it’s the thought that counts.
For Pam, there was that one-of-a-kind bird nest decorated with curly wisps of paper birch bark and enhanced with an acorn. I know she loves a mystery and suspect she’ll enjoy trying to figure out who created such, cup-shaped and located in the crotch of maple sapling.
For the other Pam, I put a limited-supply pond-scape photograph on layaway. It will serve as a memory of that day long ago that we passed by a barn, followed the S turns on a snowmobile trail, crossed over a number of water bars, looked for the point when the trail started to feel like we were descending rather than ascending, found a hemlock grove (or did we?), and looked for a sign we never saw, but decided to bushwhack instead to the edge of a certain pond. I couldn’t afford the entire price of the photo today, but with weekly payments, I should be able to wrap it in time to place it under her tree.
Four hours of shopping later and I was done in, not being much of a shop-till-you-drop person. I have so many others on my list, but in due time I’ll again force myself to join the crowds and snag further discounts and get something to show my appreciation for all.
I was just about to head to the check-out when I learned of a limited-supply item. You rarely find brand new products on sale so soon after being released, but there it was, a bear nest in a beech tree, that spot where a bear sits high up in the tree and snaps the branches to pull it inward in order to dine on beech nuts. I knew I had to get it for Bob. He really wants a partridge in a pear tree, but I think this doorbuster sale will suffice. Or maybe it’s a treebuster doorbuster sale. 😉
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:
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’!
Thankfully, the prediction for 8-12 inches of snow for today didn’t come true. But it did snow, rain and sleet. And the birds were on the move.
The moment I stepped out the door to fill the feeders and spread seed and peanuts on the ground I was greeted by the kon-ka-reeee of the red-winged blackbirds who stopped by for a few hours. Their songs filled the air with the promise of spring.
And with them came a few friends. Or were they? It seemed the cowbirds may have been scheming.
Mrs. Cow perhaps choosing others who might raise her young one day soon.
Another recent visitor also added its song to the chorus and its streaked breast to the landscape–such is the manner of the song sparrow.
American tree sparrows, on the other hand, have been frequent flyers all winter. This one paused long enough to show off its bicolored bill and white wing bars.
And then there were those who chose to visit from a distance–the American robins appeared as ornaments in the oak and maple trees.
Meanwhile, a crow stood sentry–allowing all to eat in peace as it was ever ready to announce any intruders.
And so they came and went–some upside down like the white-breasted nuthatch.
Others waiting patiently for a turn,
confident in the knowledge that the wait was worth the reward.
But not all . . .
that waited . . .
The juncos gobbled the seeds . . .
and the peanuts.
And like siblings, they squabbled . . .
with attitude . . .
Of course, there was always a winner.
I love these plump winter visitors with their head and flanks completely gray, contrasting white breasts and pale pink bills–making the junco an easy ID.
They weren’t the only gray birds to visit the feeders. Oh, you mean a gray squirrel isn’t a bird?
Nor is the red. Don’t tell them that.
The same is true of this dear friend, who first spied some action in the distance . . .
and then turned its eyes on the bird seed and me. But with one periscope ear, it still listened to the action to my right.
And then as fast as the birds that feed here all day, but flit in and out when they hear the slightest noise or sense a motion, the deer turned and flew off as a car drove up the road.
I played the role of a fair-weather naturalist today as I watched my feathered friends from indoors.
With friends in mind, I dedicate this post to my mom’s dear friend, Ella, who passed peacefully in her sleep the other day. I trust Mom has put the coffee pot on and she, Aunt Ella and Aunt Ruth are watching the birds out the kitchen window.