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Goodbye to winter—small sigh—hello to real spring

March 20, 2014

This Spotted Salamander, one of a pair of males spotted on the night of March 12, gets the honor of being the first of his species to emerge from hiding and appear at the ridge's premier vernal pool.

Full disclosure: late last weekend, when it became abundantly clear that Winter Storm Wiley would not exert its wiles on our fair land, I did not react with glee, relief, and shouts of “Thank you, Lord... thank you.” Instead, I greeted the news with tears, and they were not tears of joy. I was, in all honesty, sad that Wiley would miss us, and when I looked out at an increasingly snowless ridge, I was tempted to wail about the unfairness of it all.

Now, I’m pretty sure I was the only person in our region who reacted in this way, and I dare say that readers will probably be writing to ask my editors for my new address at the “Home.” Save your stamps: I’m still at the same place on the ridge, and if I was disappointed that I wouldn’t be getting the opportunity to continue cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, well, the angst was short-lived. I stowed the skis. I put the snowshoe bag on its storage hook. And in a final display of resignation, I moved the snow shovels from their hallowed spot by the cellar door to their rack in the shed.

Winter’s over. The groundhog got his extra six weeks, and it’s now finis. The Westerly Morris Men have danced their time-honored sunrise celebration of the start of the vernal equinox on March 20, and that same day, at precisely 12:57 p.m., according to the Druids at the U.S. Naval Observatory, the sun crossed the celestial equator, the days and nights were approximately equal, and spring—astronomical spring—began.

Of course, as is often the way, spring in the natural world, which is to say, the start of the growing and migration seasons, had already begun.

In last week’s edition of the Journal, I’d mentioned the arrival of a pair of signature migrant pioneers—Red-winged Blackbirds and Woodcock—and over the past weekend, I spotted both species in new spots. So did many other local observers, who, according to the RI Rare Bird Alert newsletter, saw a number of northbound travelers, including Tree Swallows, Osprey, American Oystercatchers, Wood Ducks, and even an Eastern Phoebe, to name several on the list. These are species that will stay with us through the breeding season, and they represent the migrant vanguard whose numbers and varieties will be growing in the coming weeks.

I haven’t yet spotted, much less photographed, any of these latter birds yet, but I did manage to see a newcomer that was not on the list. Last Friday was not a promising day for migrants. The temperature dropped overnight to the single digits, and when I headed off at noon for my daily “voyage of discovery,” winter remained in command of the ridge. However, where the Green Falls River crossed under the local road and widened out into a trout pool, the ice was in retreat, and a trio of Hooded Mergansers were happily diving into the ice-free but still icy water in search of fish. I watched them in their elegant work until they detected my presence and flew away downstream.

But the ducks weren’t the only avian presence in that locale. After their departure, I heard a scurrying in the hedgerow underbrush. In truth, I didn’t pay much attention, since I figured the commotion was being made by either Robins or White-throated Sparrows.

I’d seen both species often in the past couple of weeks, and I had my share of good pictures. But while good was fine, better was always a possibility, so I decided to focus in on the birds. Eternally glad I did, for when I got a decent look, I realized that all the reckless throwing of leaf litter and other debris was being done by a Rufous-sided Towhee, a familiar bird I hadn’t seen since its departure last October.

Towhees are among my favorites. They’re good looking birds, with, in the males, black heads, a nicely contrasting white breast, and, of course, those signature orange-red sides. They’re also inquisitive and wonderfully mouthy, with an easy-to-recognize “chewink” call note and a memorable song whose transliteration is “Drink your tea-hee-hee-hee-hee.” Usually, I hear this as a reminder to make more iced tea—towhees sing throughout much of the summer—but with the temperature barely nudging the freezing mark, we remained in hot tea territory.

The towhees were unfazed by the chill, and by last weekend, they and other critters were reveling in near-April warmth. The first crocuses and the Winter Aconite, both of which started to bloom on the 11th then shuttered their blossoms, purple and yellow respectively, in the cold, came back to glory in my garden. The Lenten Roses have heard the post-Mardi Gras message and begun their floral display.

I’ve yet to hear peepers or Wood Frogs, but on a monsoonal evening on the 12th, I forced myself into the rainy, mid-40s night and was rewarded with a wetland-side-seat of the grand opening of this year’s Spotted Salamander breeding sweepstakes. To be sure, I only saw two of the handsome, yellow-spotted amphibians, both of which were males, and I haven’t seen these or other “spotties” in the vernal pools I monitor close to my house

But on a recent walk to another promising vernal pool area nearby, I had better luck. While the main temporary pond in a place known as the Babcock Ridge Preserve was, like my pond, still covered in ice, another vernal pool complex close to it was largely ice-free. There, in the center, was proof-positive that “Macs”—the Latin name of the Spotted Salamander is Ambystoma maculatum—had awakened. A section of leaf litter about a foot in diameter was covered with quarter-inch-sized specks of off-white “cotton”: the sperm packets, or spermatophores, deposited by male Macs intent on fertilizing any females in the area that could be induced into accepting this “gift.” Since I found no eggs in the vicinity, I can’t be sure any male—or males, for they often court in groups—was successful, but in the same area, I discovered incontrovertible evidence that at least one guy, albeit a member of a closely related species, hit the jackpot.

In the fall, Marbled Salamanders (Ambystoma opacum) court and mate in dry holes that will eventually fill with water and become vernal pools. Given our extended autumn drought, I feared that no marbleds had been able to foster the next generation. But in a strand of angel-hair-algae proliferating in the vernal water was a dark, slender, inch-and-a-half-long shape, complete with the frilly external gills it uses to breathe under water. At least one marbled had made it. More amphibian larvae and tadpoles would soon join it.

Even though I had really wanted a bit more winter, it was time to put away the cold weather gear in favor of waders and hip boots. Perhaps, in the coming days, I’d even be able to stash the long underwear.

A Note to Readers: If you’re in the North Stonington neighborhood on March 26, I’m leading a vernal pools walk on Babcock Ridge at 6:30 p.m. For more information, e-mail me:
fellnature@sbcglobal.net.

 

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