Good Mamas

Motherhood: All love begins and ends there.

~Robert Browning

It has been a good few months for new mothers at work with several new babies among the staff. So, it seems only appropriate that I share a couple of extraordinary mothers from the Garden’s animal kingdom as well. First, an update on the amazing green lynx spider that I wrote about last time. You may recall she had been sitting with her egg case for a couple of months in the top of some rattlesnake master seed heads in our Piedmont Habitat. Her spiderlings emerged around October 20 after having their egg sac already guarded for about a month by their attentive mom.

Green Lynx spider with yellow jacket

Green lynx spider with a meal of yellow jacket last week (click photos to enlarge)

I have been keeping an eye on her off and on since the eggs hatched and am amazed at her site fidelity, even after most of her offspring had seemingly dispersed. Last week she caught a yellow jacket on one of the warm days when flying insects were out and about. This is the first prey I have seen her capture in all this time, although I heard from some other staff that she had caught a couple of other insects during her ordeal.

Green lynx and young on Dec 1

She is still at it on on December 1…amazing!

I made a special visit to see her last Friday, on December 1, to confirm that she had made it into another month. She is still at it and to my surprise, when I checked my photos, I saw one of her offspring sitting next to her on the egg sac (zoom in on the photo above). It looks like it has molted at least once since I photographed the group in October because the shape and color pattern now more closely resembles the adult female. I plan to keep tabs on this dedicated mom, but I don’t expect her to last much longer, with another wave of freezing temperatures headed our way later this week. She has been guarding this egg sac since late September, a truly amazing feat of motherhood.

Salamander pool in winter NCBG

The salamander pool was high and dry last week

While looking for some trees to use in an upcoming activity last week, I decided to check out the salamander pool in the woods near my office. When I started work last winter its water surface was probably 5o feet across and was a hotbed of activity of animal life, shifting from spotted salamanders and upland chorus frogs in winter to American toads and dragonflies as the seasons progressed. With the lack of rainfall this fall, it was no surprise to see it totally dry last week. This is typical for many vernal pools, and is one reason they are such hot spots for breeding amphibians (due to the lack of fish). I gently lifted a few of the smaller logs lying in what had been the water-filled area this summer, hoping to find some salamanders.

Marbled salamander eggs

Marbled salamander eggs under a log

After turning a few, I found part of what I was looking for – an egg mass of a marbled salamander, but minus the attending adult female. Females typically lay their eggs in September and October in these parts, usually under a log near the edge of a low-lying area that fills with water in the winter and spring. She stays with her eggs until rains begin to fill the pool and cover them (usually late October to December) and then she heads back to her woodland home nearby, leaving the eggs to hatch with hours or days of being inundated. If the rains don’t come, she may head back to the woods before they hatch. I wrote about this interesting species in a post a couple of years ago when we found a very late clutch of eggs (in March) that was finally about to be covered by water. I think the thing that surprised me the most that day was how quickly one of the eggs hatched after I placed it in a small container of water. It hatched within just a few minutes! As reported in my bible of salamander biology (Salamanders of the United States and Canada by James W. Petranka), this is  caused by the release of digestive enzymes (from hatching glands on the snout) that dissolve the egg capsule and allow the embryo to escape.

marbled salamander guarding her eggs 1

An adult female marbled salamander guarding her eggs under a different log

Turning over a nearby log, i found a large female marbled salamander curled up around her egg mass. Studies have shown 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. I carefully laid the log back in place, and wished her well and for rains to soon fill this pool. Another case of a dedicated mother.

newt under log in dry vernal pool

Red-spotted newt under another log

Lastly, on a non-motherly note…the last log I looked under had a somewhat crumpled-looking red-spotted newt laying under it. At first, I thought it was dead, but looking a bit closer, its eyes were open, so I presume it is just lying in a protected spot, waiting for the waters to rise. Let the rains begin…

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.