The Spirit of Spring

April hath put a spirit of youth in everything.

~William Shakespeare

Things have been so busy at work that I have failed miserably at getting outside with camera in hand to document some of the beauty around me. I made amends Saturday afternoon, and spent a few hours just wandering around the yard, observing and enjoying. I highly recommend it, especially this time of year. It is good for the spirit.

The species name means “spreading”, and, indeed, it does. There are large patches of this beautiful early bloomer in our shade garden.

One of my favorite spring wildflowers, wild geranium can vary quite a bit in the intensity of flower color. The ones in the yard are pale compared to those at work.

When viewed from above, a patch of mayapples looks like a crowd of ornate umbrellas. Kneel down and you see something quite different this time of year. If the plant has two leaves, it can produce a large white flower.

The common name comes from the small, apple-like fruit produced on fertile plants. These fruit are eaten by box turtles and mammals such as opossums, and the seeds dispersed in their droppings. Ripe fruits are edible, but all other parts of the plant are poisonous. Extracts from this species are being used to treat some forms of cancer.

 

This small creeping wildflower is easily overlooked, but is well worth the effort once you find it. I planted some in a soil-filled split in a log and it has now started to spread out on the ground around it.

Wild ginger

Hexastylis arifolia – Little brown jug (also called heartleaf, and wild ginger)

The distinctive heart-shaped leaves always give me pause to scrape away some leaves to see if I can find the flower that gives this widespread woodland plant one of its common names, little brown jug.

 

The flowers are believed to be pollinated by beetles, thrips, and small flies. Seeds are ant-dispersed.

 

This wildflower is quickly becoming one of my favorites. I bought a few plants from the NC Botanical Garden and the combination of unusual leaves and abundant flowers is a great addition to any woodland garden.

The airy nature of its abundant white flowers, coupled with long stamens, gives this beautiful wildflower its “foamy” appearance (and common name). I enjoy watching large bumblebees grab onto the column of small flowers and take a rapid dip toward the ground as their weight bends and bounces the stalk, providing some nectar, pollen, and a joy ride to the foraging bees.

The nodding yellow flowers of this plant have warty knobs on the inside of the petals. The protuberances may help bees get a better grip on the flowers as they climb in for nectar and pollen.

Sometimes, when you take the time to look around you, the familiar things take on a new beauty that helps you appreciate them. A pine cone among the wildflowers caught my eye and helped me appreciate the many patterns in nature.

Tree seedlings are a constant source of work in any woodland wildflower garden. If allowed to grow, they may quickly overtake and shade out many of the plants we hope to grow. But, I occasionally leave some as potential host plants for passing butterflies and moths. One tulip poplar sapling, growing at the corner of the house, managed to entice a passing female tiger swallowtail to pause and lay an egg. This egg seems to have an extra supply of whatever it is she uses to “glue” the egg to the leaf surface. Sometimes, less weeding pays off.

 

 

Spring Things

Now is the time of the illuminated woods… when every leaf glows like a tiny lamp.

~John Burroughs

Sharp-shinned hawk

Sharp-shinned hawk (click photos to enlarge)

Things happen so fast this time of year… it is the time of change. Old things moving on, new things appearing. Many of the birds of winter are heading north and are being replaced by bright and beautiful breeders from the tropics – the first ovenbird yesterday, the first Louisiana waterthrush earlier this week. The juncos disappeared over the weekend, but not before being terrorized by a sharp-shinned hawk one evening out back. There had been a rash of window strikes over the past two weeks, and now I think I know why. This fierce predator appeared late one day and chased a junco and tufted titmouse around and around a holly tree out near one of the bird feeders. The hawk had left some evidence (plucked feathers) that it was the probable cause of many of our yard birds leaving their wing imprints on windows in spite of the reflective stickers that adorn them. But this time, the birds eluded him.

Redbellied Water Snake

Red-bellied water snake (shot with iPhone)

At work, things not seen in many months have been exploding onto the scene. The resident water snake curled next to a path…

American toads in amplexus 1

American toads in amplexus (shot with iPhone)

American toads breeding in a small shallow pool already filled with many tiny black tadpoles from a previous amorous night…

American toads in amplexus

Laying eggs (shot with iPhone)

…leaving strands of eggs stretched across the mud.

Spring Peeper calling

Spring peeper calling

At home, the pleasing high-pitched calls of spring peepers each night. Things must be just right for them this week as the usually difficult-to-find songsters just keep calling, even when we approach them, flashlight and camera in hand.

Foamflower

Foamflower

And, while there are splashes of color appearing throughout the yard (columbine reds and yellows. the blue-purples of phlox), the white flowers dominate our spring woodlands.

Windflower

Windflower

Pinxter azalea

A pale pinxter azalea

 

Tulip poplar leaf unfurling 1

A tulip poplar leaf bursts forth

Soon, the dominant color will be green, the pale illuminated green of leaf out…my favorite woodland color. This is the week…get outside and enjoy the show.

Pungo Spring

That is one good thing about this world…there are always sure to be more springs.

― L.M. Montgomery

As luck would have it, I spent a few afternoons at the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge the last week or so of April. I wish I lived closer, so I could make more impromptu runs down that way, particularly in certain seasons, like spring (although winter isn’t too bad either). Spring on the refuge is usually less crowded, and the stifling heat of summer has not yet arrived. The light green of the emerging leaves filters the sunlight with tints of yellow and shadows that aren’t quite as dark as in a few more weeks. Everywhere you look, there is life – an almost solid band of yellow of ragwort flowers along many of the roads; zebra and palomedes swallowtail butterflies by the hundreds flitting along the roadsides; birds singing and searching for insects in the dense pocosin vegetation; frogs and toads calling from the canals; turtles basking on logs and mud banks; and, of course, bears. Here are a few more images from a great time of year at my favorite refuge…

muskrat

Muskrats seem to be more active this time of year (click photos to enlarge)

late tundra swan

There were still two tundra swans on the refuge in late April

Bald eagle in snag

An adult bald eagle surveys the marsh

Wild turkey in wheat field

Wild turkey are abundant on the refuge in spring

prairie warbler

Prairie warblers were seemingly everywhere in the thick vegetation

prairie warbler hunting for bugs

A foraging prairie warbler looks over each twig for a tasty treat

prairie warbler hunting for bugs 1

It spies something…

prairie warbler hunting for bugs 2

…and grabs it. The quick snack may have been a scale insect of some sort.

American toad calling

American toads called from many of the canals

Eastern box turtle

I’m always amazed that box turtles seem to survive so well here with all the bears

Palomedes swallowtail on thistle

Palomedes swallowtails are abundant in these pocosin habitats

Palomedes swallowtail on thistle close up

Thistle pollen covers a butterfly body

Yearling black bear standing

A yearling cub stands to check us out

young black bear running after crossing canal

Another yearling swam across a canal, climbed up into the road, and decided to go elsewhere when it saw our car

Sow black bear eating grass

A sow black bear contentedly grazes on lush grass along the roadside

 

 

Patterns of Spring

We find the works of nature still more pleasant, the more they resemble those of art.

~ Joseph Addison

This Spring has been incredibly beautiful here in the woods. Always a favorite time of year for me, it has been heightened by the almost perfect weather in recent weeks. The fresh green color of the season seems to sparkle in the sunlight streaming through the leaves. On the ground, there are daily discoveries to be made of something emerging from the leaf litter or starting to bloom. And while I have had plenty of chores and appointments to keep me occupied, I try to walk the yard as often as possible, and notice the players in this ephemeral show. If I pause and look around, there are always colors, shapes, and patterns that affirm that this is the month where new life bursts forth and beckons us to slow down and notice, before it disappears for another year.

Here are just a few indicators of the season from the past couple of weeks…

pawpaw flower and bud

The unusual flower of pawpaw (click photos to enlarge)

trillium leaves 1

Trillium leaves

fern fiddlehead

A fern fiddlehead

mayapple leaves

Mayapple leaves

red buckeye flowers up close

Red buckeye flowers up close

red buckeye flowers on duckweed

Red buckeye flowers that have fallen into the water garden onto a bed of duckweed

foamflower

Foamflower

tent caterpillar silhouette

Eastern tent caterpillar headed down a tree trunk to pupate

Phlox flowers

Phlox flowers

dutchman breech's leaves

The lacy leaves of Dutchman’s breeches

columbine flower

Wild columbine

Woodland Chorus

What is the earliest sign of spring? The motion of worms and insects? The flow of sap in trees and the swelling of buds? Or are there earlier signs in the water? – the tortoises, frogs…

Henry David Thoreau, March 7, 1853

I think the sounds of the coming spring are amongst the first things I notice. The bird songs, the whir of insect wings, the busy rustling of leaves as squirrels begin making their spring nests. Even the breeze sounds different on a warm, late winter day. But one of the surest signs of the warmth to come are the calls of our early amphibians. Here in the forests of the Piedmont of North Carolina, that role is usually handled by Spring Peepers and Upland Chorus Frogs. I started hearing the chorus frogs a few weeks ago, before the last snow and deep freeze. They took a break while their world turned white, but now they are back on duty, proclaiming a change is in the air. I have spent some time over the past several years trying to photograph various species of frogs and toads as they fill the air with their distinctive mating calls. I have had some good success, but one species has managed to elude me – the Upland Chorus Frog, Pseudacris feriarum. I find it both difficult to approach and difficult to observe when calling. They tend to call from shallow water in vegetated pools, often hiding amongst the vegetation as they sing. At my approach, they invariably fall silent, requiring a quiet sit and wait strategy on my part before they call again, if at all. So, I was determined to try again this week after hearing a fair number of them calling in several woodland pools while on my walk this past Sunday. Using binoculars, I watched a few calling at a distance of 30 or more feet in one large pool. I also found several of their small egg clusters attached to some twigs and grasses in the water.

Upland Chorus Frog eggs

Upland Chorus Frog eggs  (click photos to enlarge)

I even saw a pair in amplexus, that amphibian embrace where the male clasps the female from above and fertilizes the eggs externally as she releases them. But, the calling frogs were either too hidden in thick vegetation or too far out in the pool for a good photograph. Walking down through the floodplain I soon heard another loud chorus coming from behind a ridge line that angled toward the stream. As I climbed over the top for a look, I saw a small pool that contained a dozen or more calling frogs.

Woodland pool

Woodland pool with Upland Chorus Frogs

I sat and watched and decided this pool had potential – there was a large tree on one edge that wold provide a bit of cover. The pool was small and the sun would be coming over my shoulder late in the day, so the chances for good photographs seemed likely. Even though the frogs had started calling again shortly after I initially walked up, I was a bit concerned that when sitting against the tree trunk, I might be too close, and that might really spook them. So, the next afternoon I brought my Kwik Camo blind (http://www.outdoorphotogear.com/store/kwik-camo-photography-blind.html). I thought it would allow me to better blend in, so the frogs might start calling again even after I brazenly walked into their concert hall. The blind fits nicely in a belt pouch and is lightweight, so it is easy to strap on and carry for long hikes. Plus, it drapes over my camera, tripod, and my human form, and turns me into an amorphous bush that hopefully looks less threatening than a person armed with photography gear.

As suspected, my approach and settling in quickly silenced the almost deafening chorus, so I got situated under the blind, leaned against the tree trunk, and waited. And then waited some more. About thirty minutes went by without a sound except for leaves blowing in the wind. And I could still only see one frog in the pool, and even that one was low in the water and partially hidden by a stick. I decided to try to coax a reaction by using my phone to search the web and play a recorded call. I used the Amphibians and Reptiles of North Carolina web site created by Davidson College at http://www.herpsofnc.org/. I played the call twice. No response. I looked through my viewfinder at the one visible frog and played the call again. This time, that frog raised up so that the top half of its body was out of the water. I suppose he was trying to figure out where this caller was hiding. But he did not answer.

Upland Chorus Frog checking the scene

Upland Chorus Frog checking the scene

So, I waited some more. Another 15 minutes went by and I was beginning to wonder if I had simply tried to get too close and they were having nothing of it. Then a sound – a partial call. The call of the Upland Chorus Frog sounds something like the noise made by running your fingers over the teeth of a comb – a regularly repeated “crrreek”. This was just one crrreek. But that was enough to stimulate another, then another, and soon the pool sounded like a bunch of busy fingers in a comb factory. Ten or more heads suddenly appeared from the pool and started calling, with the tell-tale enlargement of their vocal pouch keeping time with their crrreeks. The first few callers were partially hidden, either barely out of the water or using some nearby object as cover.

Upland Chorus Frog calling barely out of water

Upland Chorus Frog calling while barely out of the water

Upland Chorus Frog calling 2

Upland Chorus Frog calling with a leaf shelter behind it

But, in less than a minute, it was a frog calling cacophony.

Upland Chorus Frog calling side view with stick

Upland Chorus Frog calling

Upland Chorus Frog calling with foreground leaf

Upland Chorus Frog calling out in the open water of a shallow pool

Here is a short video so that you can share in the amazing sights and sounds of this anuran symphony.

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.

Northbound

The story of bird migration is the story of promise – a promise to return.

~the movie, Winged Migration

A week ago, we had a snow storm that crippled much of the south. Today, the temperatures soared into the 70’s. Less than two weeks ago, I stood in awe as thousands of Snow Geese swirled overhead and then landed amongst thousands of Tundra Swans feeding in a field at Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. Two days ago, I could only find 8 Snow Geese amidst a flock of a few hundred swans. And even more telling was the view from the observation platform when we arrived.

Pungo Lake with no birds

Pungo Lake after the birds have gone (click to enlarge photos)

Where thousands of white specks had dotted the lake only a couple of weeks ago, there was now not a single one. No duck, goose, or swan could be seen anywhere on the lake. We altered our plans to hike and drove through the refuge looking for birds. A few swans flew overhead, but we only saw two eagles – on my last visit there had been over twenty. The eagles follow the flocks of large birds when they are on the refuge…no eagles, no flocks.

We drove to Mattamuskeet to see if that refuge was more to their liking. Crossing the lake, we could see a few Canada Geese, but no swans. But the impoundment along Wildlife Drive was full of ducks, more than I had seen in there all winter.

Pintails in impoundment

Large flock of ducks in impoundment at Mattamuskeet

Most were Northern Pintails, although there were also large numbers of American Wigeon, Northern Shovelers and Blue-winged Teal. A few Tundra Swans were mixed in, but it appears as though most have headed out from here as well.

Swans at Mattamuskeet

A few remaining swans at Mattamuskeet

Driving through Mattamuskeet, we spotted several Great Egrets, Great Blue Herons, Black-crowned Night Herons, more ducks, a few more swans, and a sizable flock of White Ibis.

Immature and adult White Ibis

Immature and adult White Ibis

Most were actively feeding, probing the soft mud and shallow waters with their long bills, looking for small fish, or crayfish, worms, and other invertebrates.

White Ibis and reflection 1

White Ibis feeding

A few were off by themselves and were busy bathing and preening.

White Ibis bathing

White Ibis bathing

White Ibis bathing 1

White Ibis splashing and bathing

Ibis scratching

White Ibis scratching

White Ibis preening

White Ibis preening

White Ibis in flight

After preening, a White Ibis flies off to feed

Driving back to Pungo on the way home, we saw a few flocks of swans returning to the lake for the night, but no Snow Geese. Looking back at my notes from the past few months, I found that I had seen the first of the Snow Geese back on November 23. That was a lone bird mixed in with a flock of Tundra Swans, who had started arriving a few weeks earlier. Thousands more arrived soon after, providing myself, and many other visitors, with incredible sights and sounds all winter. Now, in mid-February, most were gone. They are returning to their nesting grounds in northern Canada and Alaska, a few thousand miles from here.

Another amazing season of wildlife spectacles at Pungo and Mattamuskeet has drawn to a close. And a new season begins. This morning I heard a loud dawn chorus of birds in the woods outside my house. Last night, the calls of Upland Chorus Frogs filled the night air. It is one of the things I love most about this region, the progression of the seasons and the accompanying ebb and flow of life. I’m sure I will find something to keep me occupied until next winter when the first Snow Goose wings its way south and lands at Pungo Lake. Just as the waterfowl are flying north, our spring is moving north and will be here soon, bringing a new burst of life to my woods. Be sure to make some time to get outside in the next few weeks and enjoy its return.

Marbled Salamander eggs

Marbled Salamander eggs

Marbled Salamander eggs under log

Two friends from the Museum, Megan and Melissa, invited me to tag along with them yesterday, as they did some fieldwork for a future workshop. Megan made a great find as she and Melissa were turning over logs at the edge of a vernal pool, looking for salamanders – some viable Marbled Salamander eggs. It seemed really late to us for this species to still have viable eggs (when she looked closely, she could see the well-developed embryo moving inside the eggs) so she grabbed a couple to photograph.

Marbled Salamanders have an unusual reproductive strategy compared to many other species in that the eggs are laid in the fall (usually October and November in this area). The female often scrapes out a little area near or at the edge of a vernal pool.  Vernal pools are fascinating and important habitats that may be dry much of the year and then fill with autumn and winter rains. The key is they have no fish, which makes them critical habitats for a number of species of amphibians, invertebrates and other animals. She then will stay with the eggs for some time (often a month or more) waiting for the water to rise so the eggs will hatch. If it remains dry for an extended length of time, she may abandon them and return to her underground burrows in the nearby woods until the next breeding season. Studies suggest that egg clutches where the female remains with them until they are covered by water have a higher offspring survival, perhaps because she helps protect them from predation or getting too dry.

Marbled Salamander eggs

Marbled Salamander eggs

The 50 or 60 eggs Megan found were under a log at the edge of a large vernal pool. It was very moist under the log but the standing water was still a few inches away from the eggs. Embryos develop to the hatching stage within a couple of weeks after being laid, but do not hatch until covered by rising water. So these eggs were very well developed. You can see the front legs and feet, the larval gills, some of the diagnostic lateral spots, and the eyes in the waiting “larvae”. My salamander reference (Salamanders of the United States and Canada by James W. Petranka) states, “when covered by water the embryos become oxygen stressed…this triggers the release (from hatching glands on the snout) of digestive enzymes that dissolve the egg capsule and allow the embryo to escape”. Amazing!

Marbled Salamander eggs

A closer look

We put a couple of eggs in some water in a bug box so I could photograph them. Megan called Jeff Beane, a herpetologist at the Museum, and told him about the find. He said he did not recall seeing any viable eggs this late in the spring so he wanted to document the location. We walked down into the woods to show him, photographed the eggs and then walked back to the car. In those 40 minutes or so, the two eggs had hatched. The reference said it usually takes a few hours to a couple of days after flooding for the eggs to hatch. Guess these guys had waited long enough. The last picture is one of a larva from last year that I pulled from another pool. It was much older and larger than the ones from yesterday.

Marbled salamander larva

Large Marbled Salamander larva