A Week in Winter

If one could take the cover off the ground in the fields and woods in winter, or have some magic ointment put upon his eyes that would enable him to see through opaque substances, how many curious and interesting forms of life he would behold in the ground beneath his feet as he took his winter walk.

~John Burroughs

I spent a lot of time outside this past week enjoying our woods. The trail cameras definitely help me spend more time exploring, walking slowly, or simply sitting and watching as I try to find new places for them or go every couple of days to open the surprise gift that is the record caught on the memory card. The week started sunny and mild (you remember that thing called sunshine, right?) and ended wet and cold. On those bright cloudless days, I spent some time observing the grosbeak frenzy at the feeders and tried to capture some more moments of birds in flight. I came close to getting the shot I had hoped for, the dueling grosbeaks in mid-air, but focus was a tad off. Here is a sampling…

A pair of male Evening Grosbeaks discussing who should or should not be on the feeder (click photos to enlarge)
A male Evening Grosbeak approaching the feeder in great light.

Melissa participated in a museum live event yesterday with cameras on the bird feeders to make observations for the Great Backyard Bird Count. I spent some time watching the behaviors and tried to estimate the time it takes for a grosbeak to eat one seed. After many trials, it averaged between 4 and 5 seconds for an Evening Grosbeak to pick up, open, swallow the kernel, and discard the shell of a single sunflower seed. No wonder our bird seed budget has tripled since they showed up.

Waiting for an opening, this male Purple Finch bides his time on a nearby branch
A Pine Siskin heading for the seed while the grosbeaks are gone

Throughout the week, we have spent time walking the winter woods, appreciating their quiet and beauty.

We have been spending more time on our sunny south-facing slope after creating another sit spot next to a huge oak tree
Dried stalks of Beechdrops (Epifagus virginiana) at the base of one of our large American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) trees. This parasitic plant obtains its nutrients from the roots of the beech tree. It flowers in late summer, but the dried stalks usually remain throughout the winter.
The outdoor dining area for a Gray Squirrel that was feasting on hickory nuts
This avian crime scene was on a bent over tree trunk parallel to the ground. It looks like the work of an Accipiter (Sharp-shinned or Cooper’s Hawk) that had caught a Downy Woodpecker. A Cooper’s Hawk has been frequenting the yard the past few weeks, hunting the many birds that have been crowding the feeders.
Another Round-lobed Hepatica (Anemone hepatica) about to bloom along the creek
A beautiful fungus (I believe it is a False Turkey Tail) on a fallen tree branch
A textured land snail creeping along a rock
There are four Raccoons living in this huge Tulip Poplar just outside our deer fence. Three seem to use the dinner-plate-sized hole just below the fork, while one squeezes into the top of a long narrow slit in the trunk below. This is from one of our trail cameras pointed skyward.

With the apparent onset of the monsoon season these past few days, it seems a perfect time to go out and search for lovelorn amphibians. Our friend, Alvin, called us Thursday night to remind us it was an ideal situation for the salamander run. Spotted salamanders breed on cold, rainy nights from January through early March. They migrate from their upland underground hideouts to vernal pools (that are fish-less) to breed. See a previous post for more on this fascinating behavior. We bundled up and headed out, and immediately found a group of swirling salamanders in one of our small pools out front. They are hard to see in the vegetation in this pool so we wanted to check some other likely places. We drove a couple of miles to a spot where they traditionally cross the road (or at east try to) to reach a nice vernal pool. We found some egg masses and one salamander near the pool but no large gathering. We did manage to help several across the road and saw a few that did not get any relief from oncoming traffic. I texted a neighbor to see if we could check his pool and when he welcomed us over, we stopped and walked up toward this created wetland. As we got close, we started seeing salamanders marching with us toward the water.

A large Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) crawling toward a breeding site

There were dozens of writhing salamanders in the water in what is known as a breeding congress. We were mesmerized by all the action. I was able to count 37 at one point but I’m sure there were many more out of sight in the fallen leaves and aquatic vegetation. Wow!

I’ll leave you with this short clip of action in the pool as an amphibian reminder that, in spite of it all, life goes on and we should enjoy what time we have on this magical planet. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Trending Now…Spring

No matter how long the winter, spring is sure to follow.

~Proverb from Guinea

It has been a busy couple of weeks, both at the office, and in the Garden outside. Temperatures have swung widely – 60+ degrees a couple of days ago, a nice fire in the fireplace last night, a pretty typical February in North Carolina. But the natural world has its own schedule, its own to-do list. It starts start slowly, and then erupts – it is the arrival of spring. One of the first signs is an auditory one. On one of the warm mornings last week, I noticed birds starting to sing (especially the Northern cardinals, Carolina wrens, and Eastern bluebirds).

Early saxifrage

Early saxifrage in bloom at the NC Botanical Garden (click photos to enlarge)

The first wildflowers of the season make a quieter appearance. Early saxifrage, Micranthes virginiensis, is easy to miss when walking the paths at the Garden, my mind full of things to check off my to-do list. Luckily, someone alerted me to the first flowers, but I still had to look hard to find them. The generic name means small flower. an appropriate name for a a plant with tiny white flowers less than 1/2 inch across. Ironically, the common name, saxifrage, bestows a more powerful status to these tiny plants. It means stone breaker. Many species of saxifrage are plants of rock outcrops, with the tiny plants often nestled in soil deposits of the cracks and crevices of boulders. People once believed these plants to be responsible for the splits in the rocks where they grew.

spotted salamander egg mass in turtle pond

The first spotted salamander egg masses of the season

Some early spring amphibians are also on the move as the days lengthen. The first spotted salamander egg masses appeared in the pools at the Garden and in my home woods last week. Not a huge run of salamanders as yet, but a sure sign that warmer weather is on the way.

Upland chorus frogs in amplexus

Upland chorus frogs in amplexus

While salamanders and saxifrage can appear without fanfare, the frogs of spring can’t be missed. Last week, we heard the first trills of our earliest frog breeder, the upland chorus frog. Instead of the vernal pool, their favorite dating hot spot last year, they were calling from the artificial “stream” at the back of the herb garden. This species is normally quite shy, and will quickly cease calling as you approach their breeding habitat, disappearing beneath the leaf litter or vegetation in the shallows. But at this location, the water is contained within concrete stream banks with little leaf debris, making it harder for these cryptic callers to vanish. You can usually locate one by a slight ripple in the water when they duck under the surface. Indeed, they all quit calling as I walked over, so I scanned the water’s edge, and found a pair in amplexus (the mating position of frogs and toads, in which the male clasps the female about the back and fertilizes the eggs externally as she deposits them). Unfortunately, I only had my macro lens with me, but I eased closer anyway, hoping to get at least one image. To my surprise, I was able to creep up, kneel down and get a close-up portrait without disturbing them The next evening I could hear more calling as I walked to my car. Then, two nights ago, the first spring peepers of the season were calling in the vernal pool in the woods next to the parking lot. It is coming…the eternal march of the seasons is quickening its pace. Get ready, the great greening of the landscape is not far off.

Nature in the ‘Hood

There is something that can be found in one place. It is a great treasure which may be called the fulfillment of existence. The place where this treasure can be found is the place where one stands.

~Martin Buber

Indeed, there are beauties all around us, so it really doesn’t matter where you stand, or live. I have not posted as much lately as I would have liked, and one of the reasons is that I have changed that place where I will stand and live. It is not far from my beloved Roads End (yes, I really did live at the end of Roads End, hence the name of this blog) and it, too, is a place of beauty, but without quite as much habitat diversity as the power line corridor at Roads End provided. The woods are older here, comprised mainly of towering Tulip Poplars, White Oaks, and various hickories. One added natural feature is that there is a little water here – some woodland pools and an intermittent wet-weather stream. With that, and the appropriate upland habitat, comes a special group of animals.

Salamander egg mass

Spotted Salamander egg mass (click photo to enlarge)

I had seen a few Spotted Salamander egg masses in the pool right before all the cold weather hit and was anxious to see how they would fare after their home was frozen for the past 2+ weeks. Since the female salamander had attached most of the egg masses to twigs well below the water surface, almost all of the eggs seem to have survived quite well. I lifted one of the twigs to show the egg mass for the photo above. This is a great sign of things to come here in these woods.

And, as if to help in the transition, there have been a few other special wildlife moments – a Red Fox trotted through the woods behind the house during the snow; a Barred Owl was hunting one morning in some trees near the porch; and this morning when I drove in, an adult Red-shouldered Hawk flew from a perch above the salamander pool. The hawk was surveying this mini-wetland for a possible amphibian meal, no doubt. All good signs indeed of the treasures to come. Now to capture some with my camera. Stay tuned…

Salamander Jelly

I shared an early sign of spring about a month ago when I posted some images of Spotted Salamander spermatophores (Salamander Candy) in a woodland pool near my home. Last week I checked out that pool, and a few others, looking for the next step in the recipe for creating a full-baked Spotted Salamander – the egg masses.

early egg mass

Recently deposited egg mass of a Spotted Salamander (click photos to enlarge)

These jelly-like blobs usually contain 50 to 200+ individual eggs. When first deposited, they are about the size of a golf ball. Over the next few days, the gelatinous mass absorbs water and grows much larger, often almost attaining the size of a somewhat elongate softball.

Spotted Salamander eggs no flash

Early development of embryos from shady woodland pool

Most of the egg masses I saw in the shady woodland pool were still in the “nub” stage – the developing embryos are not yet recognizable as salamander larvae.

Spotted Salamander eggs with flash overhead

Macro shot of egg mass using twin flash

The amount of detail you see depends greatly on the light used to illuminate the egg mass. It will probably take another week or two of warm weather before these hatch.

road side ditch

Roadside ditch containing salamander larvae and eggs

That same day, I traveled to an open roadside site near Jordan Lake where I found salamander eggs in the past during my amphibian workshops for the museum. The site has been altered since I last visited and is smaller now due to some bulldozing nearby.

Spotted Salamander egg mass in net

Egg mass from roadside ditch

To my delight, there are still salamanders hanging on at this site.

egg mass before hatching

These are much further along in their development. They may have been deposited at an earlier date than those from the other location, but since this site receives full sun most of the day, these eggs probably develop faster than those from the shady woodland pool.

egg mass before hatching flash

Egg mass using flash

Again, the angle and type of lighting gives a much different look to the art of the egg mass.

Here are a few close ups of the developing larvae…

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The embryo lengthens after the “bud” stage

early embryos in whale stage

At this stage they remind me of tiny whales or manatees encased in glass bubbles

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You can see a larval form now including the “balancer” under the chin – one of two fleshy appendages the larva has for a few days after hatching that help it maintain position in the water column

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The last stage before hatching. Note the two layers to the egg (all of which is also embedded in a gelatinous matrix with the other eggs). You can also see the symbiotic green algae in the egg layer.

The gelatinous matrix begins to deteriorate right before the larvae start hatching so you get these individual, greenish salamander globes in the water. I think this may be my favorite part of the recipe.

Salamander Candy

Spring is here. Maybe not in its totality of warm days and flowering plants, but there are signs – signs of new life. This week I heard the first dawn chorus in my woods – the songs birds sing, especially in spring, at the first light of day. The lilting notes of the Bluebirds are particularly noticeable after having been so quiet for many months. And the first frogs have been heard calling from what should be woodland pools full of water after our wet winter. Sunday was one of the first spring-like days we have had in these parts in quite some time, so it demanded a walk in the woods. My walk ended up along the creek that flows across the power line a half mile or so from the house. In its lifetime, the creek has created several oxbows and pools in the floodplain and these are home to some of my favorite living things, the creatures of vernal pools. These often ephemeral pools are home to a host of amphibians and invertebrates that are found only in waters that contain no fish. One of the most interesting to me is the Spotted Salamander, Ambystoma maculatum.

spotted salamander

Spotted salamander in woodland pool (click photos to enlarge)

These large woodland salamanders make their way to vernal pools on warm, rainy nights in late winter and early spring, to breed and lay eggs. They are most easily seen by flashlight at night or by gently turning over logs near the edges of the pools. During the breeding frenzy, male salamanders deposit specialized structures, called spermatophores, on the bottom of the pool. At first glance, the spermatophores may look like bird droppings littered about on the leaves in the pool.

Spermatophores in pool

Spermatophores in pool

But a closer look reveals something quite different. I remember thinking they resembled a gelatinous Hershey’s Kiss the first time I picked one up. These salamander candies are about 6-8 mm tall, with a clear, gelatinous base, and a multi-pronged whitish stalk on top of which is a cap containing the sperm.

spermatophore 1

Spotted Salamander spermatophore close up

I have watched pools and noticed that usually about two to three days after I first see the spermatophores on the bottom, I find the first egg masses. After the courtship bout, the female salamander picks up the spermatophore in her cloaca and about two nights later starts laying egg masses.

Spotted laying eggs

Spotted Salamander laying eggs

The heavy rain had been on Friday night, but the pool I saw on Sunday contained no eggs and it was getting very shallow, so it started me wondering about the spermatophores. I had always assumed the female picked up the entire gelatinous packet. But I decided to check it out before posting something about this whole process. I quickly turned to an excellent salamander resource on my bookshelf, Salamanders of the United States and Canada, by James. W. Petranka. I had a chance meeting with Dr. Petranka at sunrise this past winter on the viewing platform at Pungo Lake. After observing and discussing the birds for a few minutes, he introduced himself, and I excitedly blurted out, “Oh, you’re the salamander guy”! His book is an amazing compilation of detailed information on the life histories of salamanders and I have referenced it countless times, so it was an honor to meet him in person, and he was gracious to not laugh at my enthusiasm. Petranka referenced the females “picking up sperm caps”. That implies that maybe they do not take in the entire spermatophore. So, I emailed another excellent resource on all things natural history, Jeff Beane, Collection Manager for Herpetology at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. He responded saying the female squats over the spermatophore and takes up seminal fluid from the top with her cloacal lips, leaving behind most of the gelatinous structure. She may do this with several different spermatophores. And the gelatinous base may remain visible in the water for a few days afterward before decaying. Mystery solved. Yesterday, three days after the presumed breeding bout during the rains of Friday, a few spermatophores were still visible in the pool. These may either not have been utilized by a female salamander, or, they may just be the bases slowly decaying. Later this week, I will check that and other nearby pools to see if there are any egg masses. I always look forward to seeing the “globs of jelly” that result from the nights of salamander candy.