Amphibians


“The February sunshine steeps your boughs and tints the buds and swells the leaves within.”

– William C. Bryant

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Great Blue Heron in an open area of an otherwise icy pond February 25 2017

It feels, temperature-wise, that we are on the cusp of spring, and certainly the landscape is responding to the warmer and longer of February. Right now we are seeing spring try to break out a little early in some areas. It may still snow, of course, but maple trees are tapped at the usual time and birds have begun their morning and evening territorial calls in response to longer daylight periods. Skunk cabbages have been poking their heads up for a while, but it is still winter, and we may see temperatures go down to a more normal range for this time of year.

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Around the state, the spring blooming witch hazel, Hamamelis vernalis is blooming in areas along the Connecticut shoreline and further north in sunny areas. Native to the Ozark Plateau which ranges from southern Missouri through parts of Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma, this witch hazel does well along gravelly or rocky stream banks and moist or dry soils in the landscape. It does best in full sun, but will tolerate some shade. Height is normally around eight feet as a mature plant, and about as wide.

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Hamamelis vernalis blooming on campus at Storrs February 26, 2017

We can tell where the native willows are now as they are starting to bloom now. Other spring bloomers, like the star and southern magnolias, have swollen flower buds. Here’s hoping that we do not have a repeat of last year, when snow and freezing temperatures in the low teens followed and destroyed the flower buds of many of our fruit and ornamental trees.

Whitlow grass, Draba verna, is flowering in sunny areas especially where the soil in lawns has open areas. Whitlow grass is not a grass at all, but a member of the mustard family, and it is one of the first herbaceous plants to flower before spring. It has tiny white flowers that may be mistaken for a chickweed, but this plant arises from a basal rosette. It is a winter annual and can form large mats that are evident in spring when the white flowers appear. Non- native, this plant has been around for over one hundred years.

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Whitlow grass and syrphid fly February 28, 2017

As ice melts from inland ponds, migrating ducks and wading birds may appear at any time. In late February, a great blue heron was in a little open area on a pond otherwise covered in soft ice. Ring- necked ducks and hooded merganzers have been seen also at inland ponds that are along their northern migration route. Song sparrows and cardinals are already singing their spring songs- song sparrows sing off and on all day perched on the tops of shrubs or small trees

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A male song sparrow just finished his song from atop a mountain laurel in the wild

Spring peepers were heard the last week of February when the weather was very warm during the day. I have not heard any since, though. Painted turtles have been sunning themselves on rocks and floating logs during the warmer days as well. And chipmunks are up and running. Woodchucks are also out and about, which is early for them. Unless there are some herbaceous plants greening up, they will probably head down below ground and extend their winter nap.

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Painted turtle getting its first sun bath of 2017

If you have any birdhouses that need cleaning, do it now. Although I have seen bluebirds build a nest on top of an old one in a nest box, which is the exception rather than the rule. Phoebes may be arriving any time, so keep an eye open for this early migrater. They have a distinctive call which you can hear by visiting Cornell University’s link: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Eastern_Phoebe/id

Snow melt and recent winter rains have helped some vernal pools recover from the drought. Streams are also flowing with more water than they had last summer and fall. Check out vernal pools for wood frog and spotted salamander eggs before the end of March.

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Clark Creek in Haddam off Rte 154 has significant flow after February snow melt

And if a garden has been mulched over perennials and they have started growing, do not remove leaves or mulch as that has insulated the plants from the cold. Uncovering them too soon may invite damage if the weather returns to more seasonable temperatures below freezing. Winter is probably not over yet, but it will be soon. That cheers me up considerably.

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Pussy willow

Pamm Cooper                                                  all photos © 2017 Pamm Cooper

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks” John Muir

Air Line trail Raymond Brook marsh area Pamm Cooper photo

Raymond Brook Marsh on the Air Line Trail

In the last three weeks I have visited parts of the Connecticut Air Line Trail and because of what can be found there, I want to share what my friends and I have seen during April and May of this year. Since timing is everything, some of what we enjoyed has moved on or faded, but maybe next year some of you may experience the same excitement of discovery and pleasures of observing flora and fauna in their natural environs.

First of all, this trail was established along an old rail bed that went from Boston to New York and was constructed in the 1870’s. Long gone now, this trail system goes from Thompson to East Hampton and is an easy walk or ride of hikers and bikers. And while all seasons can provide their own versions of landscape interest, I prefer spring and summer.

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Red-winged blackbird male staking his territory

This spring was especially interesting because of the cold weather. Many migrating birds were found all at the same time- both those passing through and those returning to breed. On one Saturday morning in early May, along a marsh in the Colchester area, birds were abounding in both color and song. We heard and saw the following in just a hundred yard stretch of the trail: Orchard and Baltimore orioles, yellow warblers, warbling and red-eyed vireos, kingbirds, red-winged blackbirds, song and marsh sparrows, common yellowthroats, black- throated green, black and white,Northern parula and yellow-rumped warblers, redstarts, veerys, wood thrushes, red tailed hawks and more. Within a few days, most of the warblers had moved on to northern breeding regions, with the yellow warblers, common yellowthroats, American redstarts and some black-throated green warblers staying on to raise their young here.

yellow warbler singing copyright 2015 Pamm Cooper

Male Yellow Warbler singing in the morning

 

Blueberries abound along the marshy areas of the trail, so of course you would find catbirds and other fruit- loving birds in those spots. This year seems to be a good one for blueberry. Much like last year, the bushes are loaded with flowers and the bees pollinating them, so a bumper crop may follow.

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Blueberry flowers

limber vine honeysuckle Pamm Cooper copyright 2016 - Copy

Limber honeysuckle- a native vine

Along the trail, keep your eyes open for interesting plants, especially along stream and marsh edges. This trail abounds with black chokeberry, limber honeysuckle, pink lady slippers, red and nodding trillium, wild sarsaparilla, tall meadow rue, native geraniums and native azaleas- the Pinxter flower azaleas. There are also the invasive autumn olives and Japanese honeysuckles, but these are sources of pollen and nectar for native pollinators, butterflies and hummingbirds. A hummingbird spent a lot of time visiting these two plant species, and was in the oak woods finding lots of insects and spiders as well. There is a stretch where the native geraniums- Geranium maculatum grow like a hedgerow along a ditch, and are visited by many bees and early- flying butterflies. You need to go off trail and into the woods to find, as we did, the elusive nodding trillium, which blooms later than the purple species. This trillium is white, and the flower dangles down below large leaves so that it can be easily missed, so it was a nice surprise to find it.

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Nodding Trillium

Raymond Brook Marsh is one of the most extensive inland wetlands complexes in eastern Connecticut. In the evening, just before dusk, beavers are busy getting started for a night of foraging here. You can see them on both sides of the trail, and sometimes they may surprise you with a slap of their tail if they are alarmed. They often climb out of the water on one side of the trail and slide down into the other side, often using the same spots that look like mud water slides. They will swim along and occasionally climb up a on a bank to nibble on various shrubs, like blueberry, that grow along the water.

Beaver after dining

Beaver taking a break after eating a small branch

There are also turtles that can frequently be seen crossing over the trail from one side of the marsh to the other. Besides the ubiquitous painted and snapping turtles, you may also occasionally see a stinkpot (musk) turtle or a spotted turtle as they crawl across the trail. The Cranberry Bog portion of the trail and the Rapallo Viaduct in East Hampton offer a resting spot beside a pond and a spectacular view from above, respectively.

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Musk turtle carapace

Musk turtle plastron

Musk turtle plastron

 

There are many other parts of the trail that are worth the walk, so bring both a camera and binoculars. Although spring is my favorite time to walk this trail, summer and fall are equally impressive. But I do miss all those spring birds…

 

Pamm Cooper           all photos copyright 2016 Pamm Cooper

Male and female gray tree frogs.  JAllen photo.

Male and female gray tree frogs. JAllen photo.

To my delight, I came upon this pair of gray tree frogs (Hyla versicolor) on the sidewalk at a convenience store one morning this May.   I nearly missed seeing them and was VERY glad I did or I would have stepped on them!  Gray tree frogs have the ability to camouflage themselves, changing color to blend into their background as much as possible.  On the gray sidewalk, the female, larger frog on the bottom had changed to a palette of gray and black tones as you can see in the photo.   The smaller male on top has retained more green coloration.   The species name of this beautiful frog, ‘versicolor’, comes from its ability to change coloration.

Finding this charming pair made me interested in learning more about their biology and habits.  Nocturnal for the most part, these two probably got caught out in the open by mistake, after leaving their usual tree-top environment for mating.  After finding them on the sidewalk, I moved them off to a moist, shady area in the grass, closer to the trees nearby.  I didn’t want them to get stepped on or fried by the sun when it reached their resting spot.

The gray tree frog is native to much of the eastern United States and parts of southern Canada.  It is not found in southern Florida or in most of Maine.  Look for them in forested areas that are near water or that contain either seasonal or permanent bodies of water.  They leave the trees for mating, which is most active in spring but extends into August, so this is the best time to see them.  Gray tree frogs mature and begin to mate at the age of 3 years.  Females lay as many as 1800 to 2000 eggs on the surface of shallow water.  Bundles of 10-40 eggs are attached to vegetation.  Tadpoles hatch in 4-5 days and metamorphose into little green frogs after about 2-2 ½ months.  As the little frogs grow, their color changes from bright green to various shades of green and gray, usually mottled.  Adult frogs have rough, bumpy skin.

Gray tree frog tadpole (Univ. of RI photo)

Gray tree frog tadpole (Univ. of RI photo)

Females are larger than males and have a lighter colored ‘chin’. The male chin is darker because they have sacs in their throats for calling during mating season. Females do not have a call. Listen to the call of the gray tree frog! The inner thigh is bright yellow-orange and is visible during jumping. This can confuse predators and hopefully deter them! There is also sometimes a dark-edged light spot just below their eyes. Adult frogs are 1 ¼” to 2 3/8” long at maturity.

Newly metamorphosed gray tree frog. Univ. of RI photo.

Newly metamorphosed gray tree frog. Univ. of RI photo.

Gray tree frogs can survive cold temperatures as low as -8° C (17.6° F) and overwinter under logs or debris on the forest floor.  In addition to moving to a protected, insulated place, they keep some of their blood from freezing by producing ‘antifreeze’ in the form of glycerol.  About 40% of their bodies and fluids can freeze without harmful effects.

While gray tree frogs are not considered an endangered species, frog and toad numbers are steadily declining in many areas due to pollution and habitat loss.  It is important to monitor their populations and work to preserve their habitats. In Connecticut, the decline of the gray tree frog was noted as early as 1937.  A main reason for this is the loss of shrubby swamps which is their preferred breeding habitat. When land is developed for residential or commercial use, there is a legal requirement not to lose wetland acreage, but often the desirable shrub swamp habitat is either drained or converted to ponds and small lakes in this process.  These new wetlands often contain fewer species of amphibians and reptiles that are hardy enough to adapt to the new environment.

J Allen

reflections in a vernal pool showing spotted salamander eggs left, wood frog eggs top, and spotted salamander larva to the right. April 10, 2013 Photo Pamm Cooper

reflections in a vernal pool showing spotted salamander eggs left, wood frog eggs top, and spotted salamander larva to the right. April 10, 2013 Photo Pamm Cooper

Vernal pools are seasonally fresh- water flooded depressions, usually filling with water in the spring as water tables rise in the spring. Although some depressions are filled in the fall, and may be referred to as “ autumnal pools “, the vernal pool in Connecticut contains water for about two months during the growing season. It typically has no outlet stream, and no fish populations are found in them. Most years, vernal pools dry out completely by late summer.

Vernal pools are rich breeding areas for many amphibians. Some of these amphibians need to complete at least part of their life cycle in the pools before reaching adulthood. Look for eggs of the various amphibians that will be born there starting in late March through early April. Among them are wood frogs, spotted salamanders, marbled salamanders and gray tree frogs, and to some extent spring peepers, American toads and red-spotted newts.

Spotted salamanders and wood frogs lay their eggs in vernal pools in the spring, and the nymphs need time to develop into air- breathing amphibians before the pools dry up. A droughty spring can mean disaster if the early stages of the amphibians still have gills and the pool dries up. This spring started off droughty, but recent rains may have helped prolong the length of water retention in Connecticut pools.

If you are adventurous, spend some time looking under logs and leaves in areas surrounding vernal pools, even after the pools have dried up. You may be rewarded with some good finds. On one recent log rolling venture, my sister and I uncovered many red- backed salamanders. The day after a rain you may find red- spotted newt efts and box turtles, especially near woodland vernal pools.

The red- spotted newt has a complicated life- cycle. It hatches from an egg laid in the spring under decaying leaves in a pond, then lives as a carnivorous larvae with a finned tail and gills, much like the spotted salamander. But the red-spot undergoes metamorphosis into an eft form later in the summer where it has lungs and lives outside the water for several years. Then it undergoes a second metamorphosis into its final adult form where it finishes its life in the water.

Eft stage of the red- spotted newt photo by Pamm Cooper may 13, 2013

Eft stage of the red- spotted newt photo by Pamm Cooper may 13, 2013

Spotted salamanders on the other hand spend little of their time in the water. Eggs are laid in large clumps in vernal pools after adults migrate from burrows in the wood during winter rains. The aquatic form of this salamander can sometimes be mistaken for polliwogs by the casual observer. Their development into terrestrial forms depends upon the water temperature. The warmer it is, the faster these salamanders develop into the land- dwelling form. After they move to land, they are seldom seen as they are of a nocturnal habit, dwelling in hardwood forests and swamps. This salamander depends upon vernal pools or wetlands where no fish are found that would feed on the eggs and larvae.

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Wood frogs are among the first breeding animals to arrive at the vernal pool. Listen for their loud quacking and shortly after look for their Wood frogs lay eggs prolifically in vernal pools. The egg masses of wood frogs are usually attached to vegetation near the surface of the water and may-cover the surface of the pool if wood frogs are in abundance. They can survive in pools that dry up by August as the tadpole stage typically is completed by mid- June to mid-July in Connecticut.

Egg string of the American Toad Picture taken April 20, 2013 by Pamm Cooper

Egg string of the American Toad Picture taken April 20, 2013 by Pamm Cooper

There are many other things found in and around vernal pools that we can observe and appreciate. The next time you here incessant quacking in the woods in early spring, remember the wood frog. And think about all the drama about to unfold as the melting snow and rising water table provide the perfect environment for the unheralded amphibians of the woodlands.

Pamm Cooper

All pictures Copyrighted 2013 by Pamm Cooper

Cutting back the perennials was much more exciting than usual this year!  As I was cutting back a dense patch of Hosta, I noticed a striking, shiny black surface.  Looking closer, I noticed yellow spots and quickly realized that I had come across a spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum)!   I was quite excited about this because I have always enjoyed finding little creatures like this, even as a child.   I felt quite sorry to have disturbed this one, and moved it to a sheltered spot nearby.  It was mid November already and I was afraid this would no longer be a suitable place to spend the winter, because of exposure to both cold temperatures and predators.   Here’s a picture:

  Joan Allen photo

Spotted salamanders are in the family of salamanders commonly known as mole salamanders. This name comes from their habit of living underground in the burrows of other animals or in protected places such as under rotting logs.   Adult salamanders spend most of their time on land but they need moisture.   They are nocturnal and emerge at night to feed or to breed.

In March to April, the adult salamanders migrate on rainy nights to the vernal pools where they were born to mate and lay eggs.  Males leave small white, gelatinous masses of sperm (spermatophores) on the pool bottom.  Females pick up the sperm to fertilize their eggs which are laid in gelatinous masses attached to stems or sticks underwater.   Egg masses are milky white and up to 4” across.  Algae grows on the mass and provides a source of oxygen and camouflage.  It was even recently found that the embryos have a symbiotic algae growing inside them!

Eggs hatch in 4-7 weeks.  The larvae look a lot like tadpoles but have feathery gills.

http://www.vernalpool.org

Spotted salamander larvae eat tiny aquatic creatures.  They will even eat each other if food is scarce.   It takes 2-4 months for larvae to develop into 2-2.5” adults.   The adults emerge from the pond and can live for up to 20 years.  The adult diet consists of insects, slugs and snails, centipedes and millipedes, and worms.  Predators of the larval stage include fish, turtles, aquatic birds and insects, frogs and crayfish.   Adults are eaten by skunks, raccoons, squirrels, opossums, and snakes.  The adult salamanders are unique among vertebrates in that they are able to regenerate lost limbs and even some organs.  If a leg is lost to injury or predation, it will regrow within about 3 months.   These amazing little animals can even regrow  a part of their brain or the lens from an eye.

National Geographic has a great video of leg regeneration (and other info) on their website for kids.  I think it’s a great website for all ages.   Another informative website is from New Hampshire and it has great photos of all spotted salamander life stages, even the spermatophores.

The spotted salamander occurs throughout the eastern United States and into eastern Canada.  It is not endangered, just sometimes hard to find.  While its numbers are currently stable in most of its range, local populations are sensitive to changes in ecology and habitat loss.  Wild salamanders should not be kept as pets.

The spring migration of most kinds of salamander to their breeding pools is an event worth seeing!  Sometimes local nature centers or groups have opportunities to go to known sites at this time, both to observe the salamanders (sometimes numbering in the hundreds) and also to ensure their safety as they cross roads that are in their path.    If you’re lucky enough to find a salamander of any kind, be sure to leave it where you found it so it will survive.

J. Allen