Natural Art

All nature is but art unknown to thee.

~Alexander Pope

Earlier this week, I accompanied some friends on a stroll through one of my favorite local natural areas – Johnston Mill Nature Preserve in Orange County.  This area is managed by the Triangle Land Conservancy and is one of their more popular sites. I love exploring this beautiful tract, especially in early spring when sections are carpeted with wildflowers like trout lilies and spring beauties. But, this time of year, a stroll through the bare forest allows you to notice and appreciate other details of the landscape – tree bark, fungi, textures, shapes, and, on a warm day like last Monday, the early stirrings of insects, amphibians, and other animal life.

mossy tree trunk

Vibrant green moss at the base of a tree trunk (click photos to enlarge)

I appreciate the winter woods for their openness and the ability to see the bones of the landscape – the trees, vines, and boulders that give character to a forest. The trails at Johnston Mill are well-marked and pass through a variety of habitats from bottomlands to beech bluffs to open meadows along a power line. My favorites were the new Aphid Alley Trail (not yet marked on the kiosk maps but available on their maps online) and the Beech Loop. They highlight beautiful American beech trees and some steep slopes along creeks with wonderful vistas.


A beautiful stream flowing through a beech forest is a trail highlight


Boundary lines between crustose lichens on a tree trunk

Beech trees often provide a perfect canvas for a variety of interesting lichens. These flattened colonies of symbiotic algae and fungi are known as crustose lichens. I learned a new word when looking for information on lichen competition online – corticolous. This refers to lichen communities that grow on tree bark (those on rocks are known as saxicolous). Melissa mentioned she had learned in a lichen course that the distinct lines that you can see between some colonies could mark sort of a DMZ between warring lichens and that lichens may use chemical warfare to guard their boundaries. My online search shows some evidence for this but it still seems a bit controversial. It is a bit mind-boggling that these slow-growing assemblages set up zones of defense to ward off intrusions by their neighbors.

lichen patches on tree trunk

Modern art or lichen competition?

Tree trunks rarely get their due outside of winter, and even then, few hikers probably pay them much attention. But I find them fascinating, especially when covered in moss and lichen or when sporting unusual growths like the numerous burls we spotted on a few maples.

gnarly maple trunk

A knotty Red Maple trunk adds modern sculpture to the forest

Burls are a bit mysterious in origin with common causes believed to be infection by bacteria, virus, fungi, and perhaps certain insects.

shagbark bark

Peeling plates of bark help to identify this tree as Shagbark Hickory

The peeling bark of American sycamore and shagbark hickories are another tree trunk treasure easily observed in the winter woods. Once again, the reasons for this phenomenon are not clear cut. Some trees may exfoliate (the term that describes shedding of bark) to rid the trunk of parasites, others to increase gas exchange or photosynthesis of bark tissue, but I’m mystified as to the ecological advantage of peeling plates of bark on a shagbark. Undoubtedly, it makes for good habitat for a host of associated organisms from insects to bats, but I’m not sure what the advantage is to this species of hardwood (I welcome your thoughts or references).

odd hollow tree trunk

An unusual hollow trunk beckons a closer look

Sycaore roots in crrek

The gnarly texture of the root mass of a blown over sycamore along the creek bank

japanese honeysucj=kle vines twisted

Entwined honeysuckle vines

Celtis bark

One of the most noticeable tree textures along the trail – the warty bark of a Hackberry

I have  hard time passing by the knobby bark of a hackberry without pausing to look closely, or rub my fingers across it. I took a few quick images of the layered bark bits and moved on. As often happens, when I was reviewing images and adding some sharpness (I usually magnify the image for this), I saw something I had missed earlier. Even with magnification, I was lucky to notice these ragged shapes hidden among the stacked hackberry bark pillars. After searching online I believe they are larvae of fireflies in the genus Pyractomena. Their distinctive head shape and the fact that they were out this time of year is pretty diagnostic. Larvae from this group are known to climb tree trunks to pupate in late winter or early spring and emerge as the first firefly adults of the season. They apparently hunt snails and other soft-bodied critters.

insects hiding in Celtis bark

A closer look reveals some hidden surprises

lacewing larva

A lacewing larva carries its texture on its back wherever it goes

slime mold reproductive structures on tree trunk 1?

We thought at first that these tiny fruiting bodies were from a slime mold, but experts are now suggesting otherwise…

During a brief pause, I glanced down and saw a line of tiny mushroom-like structures on a nearby tree trunk. Our first thought was slime mold fruiting bodies. My friend, Jerry, submitted some pictures to his local fungi expert who thinks it is probably a fungus, maybe Phleogena faginea. One common name I saw for this species is Fenugreek stalkball. When warmed, the fruiting bodies apparently smell like fenugreek (another new word for me), a curry-like powder derived from a plant of that name.

slime mold reproductive structures on tree trunk close up?

A local mushroom expert suspects these are the fruiting bodies of a fungus,

fungi on log

Patterns of fungi on a fallen log

slime mold?

That same log had a patch of what looked to me like a slime mold…but…

It’s not only upright, living tree trunks, that are adorned with interesting garb, but also fallen logs in various states of returning to the soil. One large log had a variety of mosses, lichens, fungi, and a mysterious orange blob that we thought might be a slime mold. It turns out to be a fungus in the genus, Phlebia (thanks, Van Cotter, for the fungi ID assistance). Once again, when I looked at the image on my laptop in higher magnification, my eye caught something I had missed in my quick field photo. Along the upper edge of the picture are some dark elongate “mini-bugs”. They look like springtails of some sort.

slime mold close up with springtails?

When I looked at the image on my computer, I saw some tiny dark-colored organisms along the edge – Springtails

Springtails are members of the Class Collembola and most are defined by an usual forked appendage called a furcula. The furcula is tucked up under their abdomen and acts like a spring to propel these tiny beasts many times their body length (not all Collembola can spring). These are abundant creatures and play an important role in decomposition and may also graze on molds and mildews. Many species are aquatic and some are active in the dead of winter where they aggregate on the surface of snow (snow fleas).

ceramic fungi (Xylobolus frustulatus))

The aptly named Ceramic Fungus looks like broken pottery

deer skull

An eight-point buck skull found near the trail

running cedar

Discovering a patch of Running Cedar always brings a smile

Spissistilus festinus - Three-cornered Alfalfa Hopper ?

I believe this is a Three-cornered Alfalfa Hopper, Spissistilus festinus

Three-cornered alfalfa hopper

Characteristic shape of this hopper group can be seen from above

spring beauty

My first spring ephemerals of the season, a few Spring Beauties in bloom along the trail

We ended up spending a few hours hiking a little over 4 miles (a naturalists’ pace) and found several mysteries, natural sculptures, and other natural art to provide a memorable sensory experience on a warm winter walk.

This Bud’s For You

There is April, in the swelling bud. There is Spring. There are the deep wonders of this season, not in the flower, but in the flower’s beginnings….the bud itself is the major miracle.

~Hal Borland, Sundial of the Seasons

One of my favorite plants to watch this time of year is the Painted Buckeye, Aesculus sylvatica. It is a common shrub in our woods, and one of the few things the deer don’t seem to bother. It is also our first shrub to leaf out in Spring. We walked the property this weekend, looking for signs of Spring and possible nest cavity trees. Along the way, I stopped to admire and document the various stages of buckeye buds. There is so much life and hope contained in a single bud. I think Spring is finally here…

Painted buckeye bud unopened

Painted buckeye bud, swollen, but unopened (click photos to enlarge)

Painted buckeye bud just opening

A bud that has split open


The twisted emerging leaves surround a developing flower stalk

Painted buckeye bud after opening

Bud scales peeling back and textured leaves emerging


Leaves beginning to unfurl

Painted buckeye with flower stalk

A flower cluster with a swirl of leaves around it

Painted buckeye leaves showing

The palmate leaves eventually spread out and continue to enlarge



The sun’s summons will not be answered overnight, but the answer is inevitable. The first hungry bee at the first crocus hums of June, and the first green leaf forecast cool summer shade. All is in order. Spring is the earth’s commitment to the year.

~Hal Borland

I have been extra busy this year at work and have not had much chance to get out and take pictures (plus the rainy weather has not been too conducive to such ventures). Today was glorious in its sunshine, though the ground still squishes as I walked the yard. But I saw signs of spring everywhere. I was at work for awhile this morning, prepping for a program tomorrow on vernal pools. In a quick walk to check on the nesting red-shouldered hawks, I also found a pileated woodpecker excavating a nest cavity (after a tip from a volunteer). Spring ephemerals have been blooming for a week or so at the Garden (trout lily, hepatica, windflower, some bloodroot). At home, on our north-facing slope, there hasn’t been much action as yet. But today showed me that spring is just around the corner…

Spotted salamander egg masses in water garden

Spotted salamander egg masses in one of our water gardens (click photos to enlarge)

I saw several spotted salamander egg masses one morning a few weeks ago following a couple of nights of particularly heavy downpours. And again, this past week, new egg masses appeared. When I reached down into the water at one of our water gardens, I could feel an almost solid blob of egg jelly reaching several inches below the water. At least something has liked all this rain!

Redbud buds

Redbud buds about to open

I carefully picked my way through the muddy mess that is our yard and found several species of plants ready to explode.

Wild columbine buds

Wild columbines have flower stalks with enlarged buds

Trout lily buds

Trout lilies will soon be blooming

Spicebush flowers opening

Spicebush has just started to bloom

Spring beauty

A single spring beauty is blooming

After a walk around the house, I sat and watched and listened for a few minutes. A male bluebird was serenading nearby and I caught a glimpse of a chickadee checking out one of the nest boxes. I remembered hearing spring peepers in last night’s rain. Melissa found a spotted salamander crossing the road toward a vernal pool last night as she was coming home. It seems as though everything is alive with anticipation for the season. I decided to check the weather for the next couple of days…more rain is forecast for tomorrow, and then a significant drop in temperatures. So much for anticipation. I think I’ll split some firewood.

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.

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.



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.



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…


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



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 ( 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 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.