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April stirs nature’s pot in woodlands and wetlands

April 10, 2014

Spotted Salamanders will soon be taking their leave of the vernal pools and heading back to a life underground in the surrounding forests.

There are a few things stirring in the soil, and after a long absence of any notes in the Journal about anything green, I can happily report the appearance of rhubarb aboveground. (Alas, no pies yet, but hope is enough.) The daffodils and red maple buds are close to opening, and with any luck, we’ll have Bloodroot and Dutchman’s Breeches in flower soon, perhaps as early as the time you read this. And those wildlings in bloom are reminders that I need to get to certain places in the woods to look for other blossoms, particularly those on the Trailing Arbutus, the Hepaticas, and the Virginia Rockbreaker.

Early to mid April can be a soul-trying time of the year—a time when it’s tough to believe that real spring will ever get here—but the presence of those courageous flowers in an other brown landscape is nature’s Easter and Passover: assurance that rebirth is not only possible, it is already underway.

Of course, the best way to acquire a measure of hope that the vernal equinox marked more than a date and time in the calendar is to travel to the wetlands. Life gets going first in vernal pools, marshes, swamps, bogs, and every other kind of watery landscape.

We’re now past the initial heated rush of Wood Frogs and Spotted Salamanders to the trysting spots in the temporary ponds, and while the odd quacking calls of the batrachians will soon cease, the waders-clad visitor—the water is very deep these days—will be able to find egg clusters: signs that both species had been present and had successfully accomplished life’s continuation business.

In fact, on warmer evenings when there’s rain, you might even hear the Wood Frog chorus cranked up again and see both black-masked batrachians and “spotties” as they return for another round or two of courtship and egg-laying, albeit lessened in numbers and intensity. Decades ago, when I was first learning about vernal pool ecology, the revealed wisdom was that the amphibians came to the temporary ponds en masse during the first correct weather conditions—temperatures in the 40s and lots of rain—in March, did what they came to do in a night or two, then all left for the year. The term for this cold-blooded-creature orgy was “explosive breeding,” and I’m afraid I’m guilty of not only accepting the concept but passing on the lore through both nature walks and the Journal.

But 30 years of observing the same vernal pool complex has taught me that while many of the critters come out all at once on what we call a “Big Night,” the season doesn’t end there. If the weather cooperates, there may be several weeks of Not-So-Big Nights. On a recent walk, a group I led got to experience one of these special evenings—and hold a Spotted Salamander that hadn’t read the textbook.

Fairly soon, however—and if the lore is correct, this coincides with the time the Garter Snakes come out of hibernation—these two amphibian species will head back to the upland forest, zigzagging along routes about 150 feet wide, until they return to their home turf for rest of the growing year. At their exit, the vernal chorus will consist largely of Spring Peepers and, in the right places, American Toads.

The toads are not yet singing—look and listen for them starting around Earth Day—but the peepers are everywhere, and over the weekend, their bell-like voices, along with their scale-ascending trills, directed my boots to a wetland crafted by beavers. In the 1970s, Castor canadensis began to return to our area and reengineer the landscape, damming local creeks and causing them to turn into broad wetlands that offer perfect habitats for amphibians and lots of other organisms. It’s hard to actually see beavers—they’re nocturnal—but it’s easy to see their handiwork: teeth-gnawed shrubs and trees, some of which are remarkably large; constantly reworked dams; and the dome-shaped lodges, built of mud and interlaced branches, they call home.

One of my favorite beaver-shaped areas is the Avalonia Land Conservancy’s Donald R. Henne Memorial Tract along North Stonington’s Shunock River. This is about a five-minute drive from the ridge, so it’s a frequent and highly recommended destination. I’ve led walks there, and on a trip last weekend, I spotted both Osprey and Great Blue Herons engaged in all sorts of courtship rituals and nest building activities. With the peepers making a racket in a still-chilly wind, the Canada Geese were also stretching their necks in pre-mating poses.

But the highlight of the day was the return of the Tree Swallows. They weren’t present in the Henne on March 28, my last trip there, but on April 6, these exquisite fliers filled the air, something they hadn’t done since leaving on migration to Florida and Central America last September. Tree swallows are true early birds, insect eaters endowed with the seemingly magic ability to switch to seeds and other plant materials when the weather turns unspringlike and the bugs aren’t around. Being able to alternate between food groups gives them the wherewithal to arrive well before other migrants who are after a particularly uncommon piece of real estate: tree cavities required for nesting. The swallows can’t excavate these, so they come “home” early to usurp cavities crafted by woodpeckers in trees often killed by beaver-caused flooding.

Even though I had to keep my jacket zipped up and wear light gloves to stave off a biting chill, the presence of swallows made my spirit, if not my body, warm. The osprey whistled. The geese honked. The Great Blues gronked, and the peepers rang their tiny bells.

There is a stirring in the wetlands, with green shoots starting to emerge from the water, and an Eastern Phoebe, another early-bird, which rasps its common name over and over in the surrounding woods. On the dry leaf litter, a rather ragged-winged Mourning Cloak butterfly soaked up the sunshine. Mourning cloaks are usually the first true butterflies—there are already plenty of moths on the wing—to appear in our area. Nymphalis antiopa overwinters as an adult, hiding from the cold under tree bark and similar shelters, then emerging as soon as the temperatures are warm enough. This particular newcomer had wings whose margins looked like they’d been the targets of bird attacks—perhaps earlier today, perhaps before the critter had gone into hibernation—but the butterfly seemed otherwise fine, as it enjoyed a fine almost-springlike day and waited for a potential mate to alight nearby. It, too, felt a stirring, that near-universal April imperative.

Note to Readers: The Naturalist is leading two free and open to the public walks this month: April 12 and 26, both Saturdays, 10 a.m. to noon at the Babcock Ridge Preserve. For more information, e-mail fellnature@sbcglobal.net.

 

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