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A lull in the natural world

March 27, 2014

Red Maple buds have been growing fatter and brighter in recent days, and just waiting for some meteorological encouragement to blossom.

These are the times that are beginning to try my soul, and, in truth, I was sorely tempted to start out this edition of the Journal with one of those probably, by now, infamous “A Note to Readers” phrases that ask forgiveness for the recycled column that will appear instead of some fresh account. In truth, I always hate having to do this, but there are occasions when, because of early deadlines, impossible to resolve conflicts with work, a vacation that finds me out of Internet range, or, I suppose, my being in a coma, I have no choice but to mine the archives for something appropriate. It’s that or, well, offer a blank space.

But editors frown on the practice, so I’ve always refrained going the latter route. Still, there are times, soul trying times, when “nothing”—as in, “nothing’s going on, gentle readers, so here’s an account from bygone days when there was actually something natural happening that was worth reporting”—would be close to the most appropriate word to sum up the past week. Last week was one of those times, and it was, from this writer’s point of view, close to agony.

This is, to be sure, made all the worse because the week started out on a high note appropriate to this time of year, the season of renewal. I’d found the first Spotted Salamanders of 2014, and while they weren’t ready to begin their courtship rituals on the ridge, I had, in another temporary pond not too far away from our neighborhood. discovered spermatophores, the little-fingernail-sized packets of sperm that the males deposit on the bottom of vernal pools. This was a sure sign of good things to come and to write about, because once the “spotties” start to arrive, the Wood Frogs—those black-masked batrachians that have spent the entire winter in a state of suspended animation—will soon be joining the breeding party.

In what is certainly the closest thing the natural world has to resurrection, Lithobates sylvaticus survives the winter by flooding its body cavity with protective antifreeze then shutting down all of its organs to the point at which the animal has no heartbeat, pulse, breathing, or brainwaves. This is a condition that the casual observer would call, um, death, but, like the assessment of Mark Twain’s end, the report of a Wood Frog’s demise, based on its winter “frogsicle” appearance, would definitely be an exaggeration. With the arrival of consistent temperatures in the 40s and plenty of rain, the frog thaws and, miraculously, its systems turn on, one by one. Within less than 24 hours, the born-again amphibian is ready to head to the vernal pools to court and mate. (Readers with an interest in Latin names will perhaps be scratching their heads over the scientific name I’ve used. But in a nod to the findings of molecular biology, researchers have decided that Old World frogs of the genus Rana, which is where the Wood Frog used to be located, now merit separation from their New World counterparts. So, along with numerous other changes that appear in the official “Scientific and Standard English Names of Amphibians and Reptiles of North America North of Mexico, with Comments Regarding Confidence in Our Understanding,” Sixth Edition, you’re just going to have to embrace the 2008 dictates of the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles that was published in Herpetological Circular No. 37 and purge Rana sylvatica from your memory banks in favor of L. sylvaticus. Fortunately, at my age, forgetting is all too easy, so I’ll probably have scant trouble getting on board.)

Indeed, it looked like everything was in place for the start of the amphibian season. The last of the snow had disappeared. The ice on the millpond melted, first in the center and finally around the edges. The waterfall roared, and little streams and creeks, long muffled by the seemingly eternal cold, had voices. Except for a few obstinate frozen spots near the center of the vernal pools, these temporary bodies of water were ready to host visitors.

As if to nod in agreement, other facets of the natural world were saying, it’s OK, let’s get going. The winter aconite—let’s call it the spring aconite—was, with the early crocuses, flowering in ever more abundant numbers. The Lenten Roses were starting to appear, along with numerous green shoots in the garden. And in the wetlands, the first of the Skunk Cabbage leaves poked aboveground and got ready to unfurl. Mosses, the greenest of plants at this time of year, started making their reproductive sporophyte generation, and I, a would-be moss-o-phile, grew ever more frustrated over my inability to master the intricacies of bryophyte identification. (But this is a good frustration to have, because it goads the naturalist to learn something new.)

On newly opened ponds and lakes, constantly shifting casts of waterfowl visitors are appearing, and in the farm fields, squadrons of Canada Geese are fattening on winter rye and corn kernels in preparation for the northward migration that some, at least, will soon undertake. All this activity is transpiring under the watchful “eyes” of Red Maple buds, which are swelling and, any day now, will soon blossom.

Or so I would have predicted.

Last Friday afternoon, at about 2:15, the first of the Wood Frogs, by whatever Latin name you choose to call them, started to chorus, a decidedly unfroglike collection of notes that sound like the mutterings of annoyed ducks. The amphibians weren’t singing with any enthusiasm, however, and within a couple of hours, when the temperature dropped into the 30s, silence returned to the vernal pools. I was in New Hampshire the following day for my grand-daughter’s fourth birthday party—silence most certainly did not reign there—so I can’t vouch for the state of the singers on the 22nd. But on Sunday, once it got into the 40s, the frogs mustered a modicum of enthusiasm, although not enough to lead to egg-laying.

That night, with the return of frigid temperatures, any reproductive urges disappeared in the amphibian population, and the next morning, as I despaired of things to report, there was skim ice on the vernals, the sound of frog silence, and a blizzard watch on the horizon. These are the times that are trying the soul, the souls of amphibians, at least. As to the Naturalist’s soul, well, there was wood to gather, shovels and skis to take down from storage, and courage to engage. Whatever arrived, the observer and the observed would just have to deal with it. Long experience had given us plenty of practice, and on the plus side, next week, with warmth and snowmelt, there’d be something less trying to write about.


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