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.

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 Land, our eyes ever looking for more red backs, 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 red backed 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 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.

Books of May: Vernal Pools

I had two books to choose from and couldn’t decide which one to promote as the Book of May, and so . . . I chose both.

And it seems only right that both should be presented, for though they aren’t about the flowers or birds or leaves that are making our days brighter, they are about one of my other favorite May events. Yes, we celebrate Big Night in April, that night or those nights, when amphibians cross the roads as they return to their natal vernal pools to continue the life cycle. But it’s in May that so much growth occurs within those pools and if we take the time to notice, we can watch it all happen–changing daily. And the more we understand what we are looking at, well . . . the more we get it. (“Stating the obvious again, Mom,” our two twenty-something sons would say if they were to read this. But they don’t so I can get away with it.)

Enough said. The May Books of the Month are . . . the following:

A Field Guide to the animals of Vernal Pools

and

s-MAAR (2)

Maine Amphibians and Reptiles.

The former, A Field Guide to the animals of Vernal Pools by Leo P. Kenney and Matthew R. Burne, is about 8″ x 5″ and fits easily into any pack I decide to carry. Its pages are glossy, so I don’t worry too much about it getting ruined if I get it wet. And though it was written to represent Massachusetts, most of the species described match what Maine vernal pools have to offer.

s-MAAP frogs:toads (1)

After an introduction to vernal pools, their indicator (obligate) species, protection, importance and human impacts upon them, there is a pictorial guide to the adult amphibians and reptiles. This is a quick and easy reference, and especially useful when trying to determine the difference between species, e.g. bullfrogs and green frogs or leopard frogs and pickerel frogs. Besides frogs, it includes salamanders, snakes and turtles.

s-MAAR sallies (2)

And then there are more descriptive pages for each species. These have helped me over the years to gain a better understanding of what I’m looking at.

s-sallie eggs 1

Even today, when Jinny Mae and I discovered these spotted salamander eggs, I loved that we could see that gelatinous matrix that surrounded the individual eggs.

s-wood frog eggs

And the book has helped me recognize the difference between those salamander eggs and these wood frog eggs.

In the field, there’s so much more to see, including the invertebrates that inhabit the pool, and ever so slowly I’m learning to identify them as well–you know, predaceous diving beetles, damselfly larvae, water scorpions, backswimmers, water striders . . . the list goes on. Each of them is featured in the back of the book with a photograph and paragraph or two describing their larval and adult forms.

Maine Amphibians and Reptiles, edited by Malcolm L. Hunter, Aram J.K. Calhoun and Mark McCollugh, is my at-home reference book. Well, sometimes it goes for a ride in my truck, but usually, it’s left at home because it’s larger and offers a much more in-depth take on amphibians and reptiles, their habitats and conservation. Besides a photo gallery, each amphibian and reptile that makes its home in Maine is featured, with thorough descriptions, taxonomic status, distribution, reproduction, habitat, diet, and interactions with people and other animals. There are sketches and maps to further enhance the information presented. And it’s all quite readable.

s-MAAR recordings 2 (1)

One of the best features of this book (and unfortunately, mine is cracked) is the CD at the end. Yes, you can actually listen to the individual species so that when you hear them in the day or night, you might begin to recognize them, much as you would a bird, by their voices before you spy them.

In the past few years, the vernal pool that I study frequently, has dried up before the amphibians have matured. I find solace in the fact that even when the pool dries up, the species growing there still provide nourishment and pass on energy to their consumers.

But . . . maybe this year will be different. We had a lot of snow, and now a lot of rain. Maybe this will be the year the amphibians and insects that reside in the pool will actually mature and hop or fly out.

It all begins with MAY.

The Books of May:

A Field Guide of the animals of Vernal Pools, by Leo P. Kenney and Matthew R. Burne, available through the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife’s Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program.  (Curiously, the copy I own was from the third printing in MAY 2009)

Maine Amphibians and Reptiles, edited by Malcolm L. Hunter, Jr., Aram J.K. Calhoun, and Mark McCollugh, The University of Maine Press, Orono, 1999. (I purchased my copy at Bridgton Books.)

So Many Quacks

Stepping as quietly as possible through the woodland, my heart quickened when I heard a particular chorus vibrating from the vernal pool.

v-ice 2

Three days ago a thin layer of ice still covered half of it.

v-ice 3

But I was happy to note that despite last week’s frigid nighttime temperatures, the wood frogs had been active.

v-many heads

While I stood and waited on Sunday, there’d been no movement or sound and I thought that the frogs had already moved on–mission accomplished. My ears and then my eyes knew differently today. I heard the quack of the males and then saw a number of heads on the water’s surface. Quickly, I snapped a photo–the little balls of light represent those precious heads.

v-ripples

They sensed my approach and began to make waves. Water rippled as they dove under the leaf cover below. And all was silent.

v-eggs 3

The community of egg masses, however, showed that their efforts continued to be fruitful.

v-egg masses 2

In general, each mass laid by different females is attached to a twig or branch. They tend to take advantage of the same site for attachment and usually in a sunny, warm spot. Already, some floated to the surface. Eventually, they’ll gain a greenish tinge from algae, which actually helps to camouflage them. One of the many wonders is that any given mass may contain up to 1,000 eggs–from a two-to-three-inch frog.

v-egg mass 1

A couple of masses were positioned independent of the rest, like this one–embraced in oak and maple leaves. It’s almost out of the water, though yesterday’s rain helped, but I questioned whether or not it will be viable.

v-frog and sally eggs

Then again, will any of them? Last year, the pool dried up before the tadpoles reached maturity. And it isn’t just tadpoles that begin life in this pond. Notice the white, gelatinous masses below those of the wood frogs? Spotted salamanders had also returned to this small body of water.

v-sally 3

They, too, attached clusters to vegetation. Smaller in number of individual eggs, salamanders lay 30-250 within each clear or opaque white mass. As they absorb water, the masses enlarge.

I walked around the pool looking for spermatophores produced by males and left on the leafy bottom, but saw none. Earlier today, my friend, JVP, and I walked along the Narrow Gauge trail and saw them in several pools. Unfortunately, though I had my camera in tow, I’d left the battery at home–still sitting on the charger. Oy vey!

v-beech leaves

As beech leaves continued to cling and blow in the slight breeze over the pool, I finally settled down at the edge and waited for action.

v-diving beetle

Moving with aquatic beetle speed, predaceous diving bugs swam about in constant motion.

v-water boatman

Also calling this small pool home were numerous water boatmen.

v-peaking out:blending in

But what I most wanted to see–the wood frogs themselves. Ever so slowly, they began to emerge from the leaf cover.

v-frog 1

Once by the surface, they floated.

v-frog 5

As long as I didn’t make any sudden moves, they stayed–showing off the dorsolateral ridges that run from the back of their eyes toward their hind legs.

v-frog 4

Color variation was evident–from rusty browns to gray and tan.

v-frogs hanging

Sometimes, several floated near each other–probably wishing I would leave so they could continue their serenade.

v-2 frogs

And then there were two that seemed intent upon one another.

v-2 frogs 3

I’m sure they spoke–probably cursing my presence.

v-2 frogs 1

With the flick of a frog leg . . .

v-2 frogs depart

they suddenly went their separate ways.

v-love 1

One couple, however, did hug. So that brings up another curious thing about wood frogs. Males cannot identify females by sight or sound, so he has to clasp the other frog. If the frog is thin, it’s either  another male or a female that has already released her eggs–thus he’ll release it quickly. Yup–females are generally fatter because they carry eggs.

My eyes were as wide as the frogs I watched–I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing so many in this particular pool. And I was sure that due to the ice, all the action was completed a few days ago. But the multiple chortles I heard upon my initial approach created a racket today–and sounded, of course, like a bunch of mallards. I rejoiced over the sound of so many quacks.

 

 

 

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.