Monday, May 27, 2013

April 2013: Blanding's Turtles, never bland, but out of tune?

Last year the ballet of the Blanding's turtles in the East Trail Pond dazzled me. It seemed to be half courtship and half policing territory, all the while soaking in the sun. I'll include a link to the special report I wrote below, but first I want to report on this year's turtle watching.

Providing that the ice has melted on a small vernal pool we call the Turtle Bog that is tucked between two lumpy sandstone ridges, we usually first see Blanding's turtles in March.

I like to think of the chin of the Blanding's as the first yellow flower of the spring,

usually out well before the trout lily.

This year the ice didn't melt until April. Over the years we usually see two large Blanding's sunning on the grassy shore of the bog. One year there was also a Blanding's about half the size of the adults.

On April 15 the ice was fully gone and the sun out in full force. We also check the Turtle Bog for wood frogs, and as we approached a half dozen or so were clucking away. Leslie went first and knew exactly where to look on the west shore of the pool to see a Blanding's turtles. And one was right there. The earth even after a full revolution around the sun of many millions of miles was still well tuned, at least for turtles.

Then after Leslie crossed to the other side of the pool, she started calling, "come here come here!" Things were not as well tuned as we thought. Usually we see the two turtles on the west shore. She was standing above a turtle about 4 feet up on the east shore with its nose facing the foot of the ridge.

She picked it up, saw the convex bottom of a female, and judged it about full size, say a 9 inch bottom shell

Leslie soon moved on and I sat until the turtle on the west shore retreated back in to the water. The turtle on the east shore, which both Leslie and I walked over, didn't budge. I got close to it again to take photos, and it didn't budge.

Two days later we came back to check on the turtles and everything seemed out of tune. No turtle on the east shore, but there were six on the west shore! We are used to walking down the east shore of the pool and used to seeing the turtles stay on shore for our enjoyment. As we crossed to the east shore, three clambered into the water immediately. Only one stayed on shore with head up as usual.

The two others who didn't flee had their heads tucked under birch roots or leaves like they were trying to block out the turtle glut in a pool of water about 120 feet long, 20 feet wide and 2 feet deep and getting shallow and narrow at the inlet and outlet. After I sat for 20 minutes the turtle with its nose under a birch finally got back in the water.

The largest turtle of all remained with its nose in the leaves against a rock. As I sat it moved a little to the right, deeper into the leaves, like it wanted to get more concealed.

Generally when turtles go back in the water, they keep out of sight. Not today. I saw two long yellow chins extend out of the water.

I even took a meaningless video of one chin checking the scene, looking and smelling for I know not what.

Whenever we had a chance we checked the pool hoping that might help us figure out why, for the first time in 14 years of watching, we saw so many turtles there. We also kept checking neighboring ponds and pools, and saw only painted turtles. I did see a Blanding's on May 6 walking along our road about a half mile from that pool.

My other venue for watching Blanding's turtles is, of course, the East Trail Pond. It was chilly went I went to the pond on the 11th. I saw hooded mergansers but no turtles. When I checked the pond on the 24th, conditions were perfect for turtles. But also for beavers who had repaired the dam and the pond had filled with water offering fewer places for turtles to climb up and soak in the sun.

The Blanding's have to share space with painted and snapping turtles.

It's a wonder I didn't see any turtle fights.

The closest turtle island to me had a large Blanding's and a mid-sized painted turtle on it.

Then something began to happen that reminded me of the ballet of last year. A Blanding's climbed up a half sunken log long enough, it seemed to me, to catch a whiff of that other Blanding's sharing an island with a painted turtle. Then it began swimming directly toward that other Blanding's. Adding to my excitement was the periodic croaking of the leopard frogs. But as far as I could tell, the swimming turtle only made it half way to the sunning turtle. In the way there was a smaller painted turtle on a log and just when I thought the Blanding's should be swimming under water there, the painted turtle paddled the water. Could that have scared the larger turtle away?

Good chance I am over interpreting this. As for leopard frogs, I more properly communed with them back in the Deep Pond on our land where there is a shallow grassy area right in front of my chair beside the dam. I got a good look, through binoculars, of the expanding sac of the one frog.

Here is a video of their croaking.

Meanwhile I keep waiting to see what might have become of the many Blanding's turtles I saw in the Turtle Bog on April 18. Because of a dry April the Turtle Bog got shallower and I think all the turtles had to leave. We weren't here last fall and so didn't see how the bog, really a vernal pool, filled up so turtles could find their usual winter home. In early May, I did bump into a Blanding's turtles almost reaching another pond and coming from the direction of the East Trail Pond.

Getting situated for the summer is not necessarily easy for turtles, but usually they always win the race, though some year I'd like to figure out exactly where they are racing to and why.

See how far I got to answering such questions last spring. Turtle in the East Trail Pond

Thursday, May 23, 2013

April 2013: Beavers Disappearing, Lounging and Lurking

At the end of my March 2013 journal I related how we got a trapper to take away his traps from our pond after having the heart stopping moment of seeing one of the beavers swim right by one of the traps before our son could remove them.

After that rescue, we had to go away for 3 days and, of course, when we got back, we kept an eye on the pond for the beaver and signs that the beaver was still there. We saw the ice on the pond slowly dissolve but as water continued to flow through the dam weakened by the freeze and thaw of the winter and a hole otters probably dug through it, we saw no signs that the beavers had any interest in patching it.

Walking around the pond, I saw stripped sticks along the shore.

While it looked like a beaver just did this, when the ice on a pond melts, the meals of winter can collect in patches of just opened water and look as bright and fresh as the first flowers of spring. To make a long vigil short, through April we saw no sure signs that beavers were still there: no fresh dollops of mud on the dam or shore, no gnawed sticks up on the bank that we knew were not there the day before, and what mud we saw in the pond could be attributed to the activities of two muskrats. Then the trapper told us he put traps around the beaver lodge on the north shore of White Swamp about a quarter mile away and near where the outlet creek flows into the huge swamp. Finally, one of the 6 brothers who grew up at the end of the road, who had told me he saw two otters in our pond during the winter, now told us that one of his brothers shot one of the otters on White Swamp.

When we bought our 52 acres of land in April 1998, we decided not to mow any fields, even around the pond. Flowers slowly began to recover and honeysuckle bushes spread, but there was no great growth of trees. What trees that began to grow were cut by beavers before they could amount to much. As a result, especially in the winter, everybody who drove by could see what was happening in and around our pond. In a sense it was fair enough. Forty years ago the pond had been made when a steam shovel struck a spring as it was digging dirt for road fill. However, recalling seeing otters and beavers in the spring in secluded ponds, I resolved to begin planting pines between the pond and the road so that people driving by could no longer get a bead on otters and beavers using the pond. Too many of those trucks had rifles in them.

I felt a new Truth welling up inside me prompting me to action: Beavers and Otters needed cover to thrive, even during the bare days of early spring. A few days after that epiphany, back on Wellesley Island, I checked on the beavers in the portion of the East Trail Pond where they still thrive. My guess was that the beavers in our Deep Pond had left looking for cover and food down at White Swamp. I worried that the beavers in the East Trail Pond might leave for the same reason. Ha. Here's what I saw:

I am pretty sure that was one of the adults, and meanwhile the yearlings were not exactly pining for shade. They had a close encounter with each other and dived, which may be emblematic of the trouble with my epiphany about beavers wanting cover. They mainly want to keep other hungry beavers out of their pond. Of course, the two yearlings were playing and went about their feeding peacefully.

What is impressive about the pond is how deep it is now. On March 12, using the camcorder zoom I got a pretty good measure of how a beaver sized up with the dam before all the holes in it were patched.

Here is how a beaver measured up on May 15:

Here is what the pond looked like on April 18:

All to say that the beavers explored all areas of the pond foraging along the shore with their butt safely in the water or wrestling logs up on remaining islands of mud where they also found some new spring shoots to eat.

The beavers seemed to have no interest in cover. That adult beaver seemed to have no interest in anything. My son, who was with me and had the binoculars at that moment, saw it yawn. One of the yearlings finally got a whiff of me and swam over and slapped its tail. Adults seldom flee for cover in reaction to alarms from such young tail, but given my new theory, I at least expected it to open its eyes.

At the same time that my visit to the East Trail Pond on Wellesley Island destroyed my Beavers Need Cover theory, my visits to nearby Lost Swamp Pond caused me to doubt whether the beaver on our land actually left at all. I found evidence that a beaver is once again lurking in the Lost Swamp Pond. What I mean by a lurking beaver is one that stays in a pond but doesn't cut down or girdle trees, doesn't collect branches and twigs on shore for its meals, doesn't mark the shore, and when it does do something, you have to carefully compare your new photo with old photos. As the ice and snow thawed, I got the usual enchanting photos of curves at the Lost Swamp Pond.

A couple otters dug a hole through the dam in the winter and the water was draining out. I expected to have the chance to make a leisurely observation of the otter hole once the pond drained down to its level. I began preliminary investigations on April 2 and while noting how cavernous the hole in the dam was -- animals could live in it -- I saw what looked like recently cut and stripped stick stuffed in the hole.

I decided it was simply an ageless stick. Beavers always add mud to their patches and I saw no fresh dollops of that, and the water was still running out. Then in successive visits over several weeks, I saw that the lodge in the middle of the pond was growing. I give you the snow covered lodge on March 21, again on April 24 and finally in May

All this happened without any signs of beavers along the shore and only minimal repairs on the dam. I saw similar changes in the lodge last summer, but with leafy honeysuckle boughs pile on the lodge. I saw some nibbled sticks on the shore, but never saw the beaver. The last time I saw a beaver at this pond was June 16, 2011, and I think this same beaver is still there, lurking.

I can only think the lurking beaver lives off the thick vegetation in the basin formed behind the dam that's probably about 8 feet deep. The beaver at the pond on our land lived off lily roots the first year it was there and rarely gnawed a tree. It spent this winter in the pond with another beaver and that one, I assume, cut a good bit of nannyberry and honeysuckle around the pond (not particularly good food for beavers). Maybe that bark-lusting beaver left and the root eater remained in lurking mode? Well, I really didn't think so. Finally, on May 12 a beaver returned to our pond at the land. I saw it as I took a morning walk. Although that it isn't the usual time to see beavers, the beaver seemed quite at home in the pond and acted like my old friend, even seemed to get a whiff of me, and groomed on the shore where anyone going down the road could see it. Then the beaver waded into the tall green grass on shore for a meal.

That day I began my planting project and put in two small pines, some button bush, and managed to separate a 12 foot tall willow trunk from a group of four willows rooted along the shore of another pond. The pines would block the view year round and a thick stand of willows would be great cover and food. Yes the beaver would cut it every spring but more sprouts would shoot up, just as they do at the other pond. The next morning I walked around the pond to see how the beaver marked its return. I saw some fresh scent mounds,

and I found that freshly planted willow, roots and all, cut up and a bit beaver gnawed on the bank not far from where I had seen the beaver grooming.

Monday, May 13, 2013

April 2013: Spring Hot -- Peepers and Snowfleas

Amidst the plethora of spring, the peeps of the peepers is a force best applied when some self-appointed know-it-all tries to explain what spring is all about. Turn up the volume. Let the truth peep out. Authentic and Transcendent, a religion entire. But what recourse do you have when that know-it-all writes? Let the image of the peeper, an X on every little frog back, blur all words.

That's a small frog, none smaller, adhering to the edge of a 2 gallon empty kitty litter container next to my cistern pump. That photo was taken on August 4, 2010, when everything was hot. This blog is about a chilly April when most everything else was cold but the peepers congregating around vernal pools, small ponds, and other damp places and peeping hours on end, during the day at first and then into and through the night. Here are snatches of the peepers taken as night fell on April 15. This year some wood frogs joined the chorus but as night falls the peepers high C over them.

But these tiny uptempo frogs never seem to find the beat. There is as much a pattern of avoidance as there is of concordance. Or so it sounds to my ears. The point seems to be to create an attractive mass of sound (only the males are peeping) and at the same time give each peeper its own space.

Usually the exuberance of animal mating rituals are ascribed to males of the species competing for the favors of the females. In the case of peepers I think groups of males are competing with other groups around other pools. On our 52 acres of woods and fields, there are more or less 7 pools around which peepers peep. The peeper spends most of its life in the woods. It's called a tree frog after all, though whenever I've seen one it's hopping on the leaves and litter like the peeper below that I saw on October 17, 2007.

The pools where the peepers will leave their eggs are more out in the open. The female and other males find strength in numbers and can't be quiet about it because they want to attract more peepers.

This spring I more or less spent my limited peeper time, about a dozen evenings in April and May thinking about why peeper males come together only to stay apart; thinking until, fortunately, I was rendered thoughtless by the peeps.

Oddly enough I got a lesson in swarming from a surprising source, snow fleas. They were dotting the snow just a month ago, a sight so familiar I no longer take photos much less study the hops of the insect also called the springtail. Here is a photo of them in the snow on February 25, 2008

I once saw a small ball of them in the snow on January 26, 2001.

Then this April in the midst of peeper season, as Leslie walked by the area where we had boiled maple sap in March, she thought she saw soot on the rocks. She tried to wipe it off with her feet and saw that all that soot was alive.

These were not the only small things swarming. Along the St. Lawrence River the midges begin emerging in April and if there is enough heat and not much wind they can begin swarming over the trees in the evening. I didn't notice that happening this windy April, but one warmer afternoon my legs looked to be walking through smoke, actually three small swarms of the tiniest midge-like flying insects I've ever seen.

Small things swarm. A great way to remind themselves that they are here and en mass a considerable force of nature and that there is one way to keep that going. The peepers are small too but much bigger than insects and much louder. A swarm of midges can make a hum above the trees. The springtail swarm we saw was silent. Of course, my argument is that the peepers use their voice to maintain their distance and by varying their beat five a grander impression of the given group of male peepers. Towards the end of peeper season in early May, peepers seem less shy about my wandering around them. A roving raccoon can bring instant silence around a peeper pool, and generally my walking around creates a moving pocket of silence though most of the chorus keeps going.

One night I sat in my chair and a peeper behind me kept going. In the dark video below, with its unsophisticated audio, I tried to present the general chorus and then I got as close as I could to the peeper behind me.

Doesn't it sound like that peeper is trying to find it own space in a sphere of similar sound? Or just lean back buoyed up by the sounds and if you are lucky instead of the usual stars you will see an X in the sky.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

April 2013: Spring Cold -- Spotted Salamander and Wood Frogs

Spring here can have a very cold beginning and this year most of the Third Pond was ice covered on April 1, but a spotted salamander made the most of it. I last saw salamanders here as the pool dried under the hot July sun.

The salamander hatchlings outlined the adult better than the pollywogs, but wading raccoons ate them all. Many grew fast enough between April and July to walk away from certain death. Proved not by my seeing them but by the April return to the vernal pool of that seven inch beast yellow spots and all.

Salamanders spend the winter under the leaf and bark litter in the woods and then when the snow melts they head for vernal pools to lay eggs, and mate too I suppose, not that I’ve ever seen that. That temperature of that water the salamander swims in is just above the freezing point. Perhaps those many suns on its skin propel it through the cold spring. It hardly looks like it’s swimming. In the video the salamander lumbers and disappears under the ice looking more dutiful than love-seeking as if obeying a Biblical injunction to return to the pool of its birth, though it was heading to the edge of the ice where we saw another salamander lurking.

One July I saw an adult spotted salamander in the woods, quite dormant despite the heat,

and also got a close-up photo of its small forelimbs.

Its forelegs looked incompetent to even raise that big head. I poked it with a stick to see if it was alive. No reaction. Not until I took it on a stick to a nearby beaver pond did it, in a leisurely 10 seconds, expand alive and hide in the wet detritus at the edge of the pond. A final note, at the suggestion of our son Ottoleo who first saw the salamanders this spring, the Third Pond will now be call Spotted Salamander Pond.

Is it spotted like a clown? It takes a sense of humor to survive the cold of spring. The other amphibian we see jumping right in despite the chill is the wood frog. Of course amphibians don’t have a sense of humor but wood frogs can strike a mock heroic pose that makes me think they do.

In the video below an enterprising water bug is a beacon of action as the wood frog floats along.

Of course the frog was reacting to me. Before I hiked up to the vernal pool we call the Turtle Bog, I could hear the croaking of a half dozen wood frogs.

Wood frogs can be in the water before the ice melts. I discovered that when I went down to Boundary Pond. Before beavers dammed the valley in 2008, there was a vernal pool here. I never heard wood frogs there in the spring but I rarely gave a listen and wood frogs only court and croak for a couple weeks. I did watch the beaver pond that formed behind the dam every day in the early spring and never heard wood frogs. But the beavers now have been gone two years and there is only a small pool of water behind the leaking dam. As I walked down the valley on April 9, I heard wood frogs. Since there was still ice in one corner of the shallow pool, I didn’t have much trouble finding that part of the pool where the wood frogs were croaking and jumping.

When I got too close they stopped, but they didn’t get out of the cold water. Here is what that section of pool looked like on April 2, a week before I heard the wood frogs.

There was hardly any water under that snow. The wood frogs made a marriage bed out of snow melt. On March 24, 2010, I got a photo of a wood frog just outside a cold vernal pool high on the ridge east of Boundary Pond

Here is a beast with an "unfolded character" (a phrase I picked up from an appreciation of Robert Burns written by Thomas Carlyle) durable and always ready with its rough song during those brief cold months of early spring.