The Naturalist's Journal

March debuted with a serious cold snap that turned local waterfalls icy, but, for readers hoping for an early spring, the bitter weather was short-lived.


Contributing Writer

In the upcoming week—on Thursday, March 19th, at precisely 11:49 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time (you did set your clocks ahead one hour on Sunday the 8th, right?)—the sun will cross the celestial equator, the hours of day and night will be approximately equal, and we’ll have more or less recovered from the excesses of too much green beer, corned beef and cabbage, and sad songs and tales from the Emerald Isle. On the summit of Lantern Hill, weather permitting, a crowd of hearties will have trekked to the roof top of southeastern Connecticut at sunrise to watch the Westerly Morris Men once again dance to the plaintive music of concertina—if group founder Peter Leibert is up to the task—recorder, bells, clacked sticks, and the occasional raven in a dawn celebration of the advent of the vernal equinox. And, as early as it’s arrived since 1896, we’ll greet the first day of spring.

Of course, the festivities on the 19th are a mere formality—the recognition of the astronomical passage of one season into another. The end of 2019 and the start of 2020 essentially featured either an extended autumn or an exceptionally early spring... and almost no sign of winter. This may become typical in the future: a solstice that no longer ushers in cold and snow and, instead, features a December, January, February, and March during which outdoors enthusiasts have to pry off deer ticks throughout the months these pests should be being killed by bad weather conditions or, at least, rendered inactive.

Tick bites were certainly a highlight of my winter, a season that departed way earlier than astronomy dictated. On the ridge, the first spring day is often quite a bit ahead of the first formal day of spring, and this has been undeniably true in 2020. All of the venerable spring harbingers, from the opening of the skunk cabbage flowers and “winter” aconite blooms to the appearance of Red-winged Blackbirds, a variety of migrating ducks, and a host of raptors, from the Red-shouldered Hawks to the Bald Eagle I reported last week. (Alas, the great bird seems to have abandoned our area.) Then, there were the well-ahead-of-schedule insects: the super-hardy flies—the first pollinators to take advantage of the flowers—along with the so-called, and here I hope this is not misinterpreted as sacrilegious, “Jesus Bugs,” a.k.a., the water striders that can “walk”—actually, skate—on water, and the first of the Winter Fireflies, those dark beetles that have given up their bioluminescent lanterns.

When the start-of-March cold snap that turned local streams and waterfalls to ice departed and temperatures rocketed into the 60s, I was greeted with one of the surest spring-day signs: the appearance of the year’s first Painted Turtle. On Monday, March 2nd, I had stopped at the local pond that had yielded the Bald Eagle the previous week, and, in addition to looking for the marvelous bird, I scanned the water for newly arrived ducks and spotted a recent migrant called a Baldpate, a.k.a, the American Wigeon, whose common name is a reference to the white feathering atop its head. While I was looking, I noticed a familiar old tire that had been a pond fixture in a shallow spot for years. It’s dark, smooth, and a great sun spot for reptiles, and taking advantage of the warmth was a member of the Chrysemys picta clan. “Sunnies,” the most commonly seen turtles in our area, are so-called because they delight in spending their days soaking up the rays. They’ve been hibernating in the mud since mid-November, and the fact that one had surfaced was a sure harbinger of good weather ahead.

The next day I received an even surer sign.

On March 3rd, the morning air quickly lost all of its bite, and by about 10:30, the temperature topped 80 degrees in the sun—at least, according to one very inaccurate thermometer. In response, a long-awaited and familiar sound began welling up in the wetlands below our home. To the casual listener, the notes seemed to be the vocal product of a flock of annoyed ducks, and if I’m out with a group after dark to show them the natural history wonders of vernal pools, someone inevitably asks what the heck less-than-happy waterfowl are complaining about at night.

But this chorus isn’t the product of birds in a bad mood. Rather, the singers are amphibians—specifically, a small, black-masked batrachian known as the Wood Frog. Scientists now call this remarkable animal Lithobates sylvaticus—many of us grew up using the name Rana sylvatica, but the DNA police discovered that members of the Rana genus are European and genetically distinct from their North American cousins, so we old naturalists had to learn something new. There are worse things.

By whatever scientific name they go by, Wood Frogs get through the cold weather in the most amazing fashion imaginable: they freeze solid and spend their days and nights in a kind of suspended animation. No heartbeat, no breathing, no brain activity... nothing resembling life in the slightest.

But come the return of warmer, wetter weather, the frogs miraculously thaw, and the sugar solution that had protected their internal organs serves as fuel to power up the reinvigorated amphibians bent on one thing: reproduction... typically in the very ponds they were born in a year or more ago. The animals make a beeline to the vernals, and, once there, the guys start quacking like mad—only the males “sing”—and the females gather in the shadows to evaluate the performances. There’s something in the sound that’s a proxy for good genes, and when she hears what she likes, she swims towards the singer and, in effect, chooses him as her partner. He quickly climbs aboard her large back—females are bigger than males—and wraps his front legs around her upper body in a close-to-death-grip known as amplexus. The couple then swims off to a communal nursery and she deposits a golf-ball sized clutch of tiny eggs that absorb water and swell in size. When the week or two of frantic breeding activity is over, this “cumulus” may contain hundreds of egg clusters that, collectively, can act like a mammoth solar cooker and raise the local temperature enough to hasten egg development.

There is, however, a darker side to this dark-night project. When she makes her mate choice and the couple, well, couples, they are never alone, and the losers rarely allow the pair to simply head off to the nuptial suite for their brief moments of what passes for batrachian bliss.

The point of amplexus is that the favored male gets to deposit clouds of sperm on his mate’s eggs as soon as they emerge, thereby ensuring paternity. But the unchosen can fertilize their share of children simply by being in close enough proximity to the female, and often enough, a stray male or two... or three... or four... or more—I’ve counted up to a dozen—grabs hold of the amplexed pair and makes sure they’re close by when the eggs finally appear. It’s an apparently sad situation, and you can often hear the beleaguered female uttering a characteristic “please release me” distress call.

Here’s hoping the ladies survive the ordeal and succeed in leaving the next generation to watch the vernal equinox roll in. They’re sure to have plenty of company. The Spotted Salamanders have started to move towards the vernals. The Spring Peepers are about to begin ringing those batrachian bells. There’s a stirring in the mud—and in the blood. There’s definitely a spring in my steps. I might even dance… well, tap my feet a bit.

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