Monday, March 13, 2017

What is She thinking?

By Beth Sullivan
Mother Nature must have an amazing sense of humor. At least I’d like to think it is humor and not some angry punishment for our human transgressions against her.
As I sit here and try to think of an upcoming trip to a warmer place, I am looking at a lovely, but at this point unwelcome landscape of beautiful, fluffy white snow. You cannot deny the beauty of a snow fall that sticks just enough to cover branches, to transform the woodlands. It is not yet cold enough to be uncomfortable for the clean-up nor are the winds howling(yet), so it really isn’t a bad storm. The kids were happy. My dogs are happy.
A few weeks ago we got hopeful.

Early Spring

But about 3 weeks ago, on one of those unusual, warm, February days, I was walking through Pequotsepos Preserve, and stopped not believing my ears, when I heard a PEEP of a solitary Spring Peeper in the woods. I was near a vernal pool off the trail; part of it was still ice covered. But the sunnier south facing shore was totally thawed. As I poked into the leaves at water’s edge with a stick, just messing around, as I have done all my life, I disturbed a small, larval salamander. At this time of year it is the Marbled Salamander whose larvae inhabit the shallow vernal pools At only about an inch long with no markings on their black skin, they are identifiable by their feather-like gills.
The larvae of Marbled Salamanders exhibit feathery gills. Photograph by Bruce Fellman.

Then two weeks ago, while driving on a rainy, warm night after an unusually warm couple of days, we noticed Spotted Salamanders and more Peepers. They were making their way across the wet roads from their woodland hibernating areas to the newly filled and thawed wetlands on the other side of the road. For me, the first spring emergence and crossing by the salamanders is a date to be celebrated. But this early event was a little worrisome.
Some Spotted Salamanders already made the trek to breeding pools.

Yesterday, a friend was walking at the Henne Preserve. Those of us who consider ourselves Naturalists are a bit obsessed about getting out and looking for those first signs of spring, especially in the face of the impending return of winter . Some of us even seek out very specific places where we have come to count on a particular species making a first appearance. At Henne, he was serenaded by a chorus of Wood Frogs, quacking happily in the pond near the entrance to the trail. He also looked for and discovered the first Mourning Cloak Butterfly in a spot we have come to know must have a special winter hiding place for them. These butterflies actually hibernate in cracks or crevasses to emerge when the temperature moderates and the sap rises in the trees. I am sure it is tucked back in today-and will be for a while.
Many of us look for Mourning Cloaks in the same places every year. Photograph by Bruce Fellman

Wood Frogs have the ability to survive freezing temperatures due to changes in their cellular fluids. Photograph by Bruce Fellman.

Back to Winter

So, spring has tried to make an appearance. More than once. Those creatures out prematurely have wonderful adaptations for being able to re-enter a hibernating state, dig into mud, or literally adjust their body chemistry so they can freeze without rupturing their living cells. Amphibian eggs will survive in the vernal pools. Those early risers will survive to rise again.
Some flowers were just making it through the last snow.

We may think Mother Nature has gone whacky, but she has given her creatures amazing adaptations to survive her whims.
We don fleece or fly south, even now.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan, unless otherwise indicated.

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