Feb 22, 2012

Signs of Spring

Red-spotted Newts return to the water as 
adults to breed.
Photo by Pam Owen.

After days of working on client projects and, even more exhausting, marketing my own writing, I decided I needed a break today. Although I couldn't tell it from inside my tight and at this point rather stuffy little house, the temperature had climbed into the low 60s. My dog and I had been suffering from cabin fever, and I was curious about whether signs of spring were popping up outside, so I roused myself out of my lethargy, grabbed the hiking pole, called the dog, and walked down to the ponds.

Although I'd been down there just a few days ago, a close examination now revealed harbingers of spring that I hadn't noticed before. Spring was obviously underway alreadynot surprising considering how warm the winter has been generally.

At the upper pond, while my dog sampled some delicacies left by passing wildlife, I examined the water for any signs of amphibian life. Although on warm days for the last couple of weeks, I'd seen some Water Striders that had been roused from their winter slumbers, that and a few small flying insects had been all I'd seen that maybe winter was on its way out.

The Red-spotted Newt lives
part of its life on land. Its bright
red coloring at this stage led to
its being 
known as a Red Eft.

Photo by Pam Owen.
Now, walking slowly around the pond, I noticed a flurry of activityRed-spotted Newts (Notophthalmus viridescens viridescens) were starting off their spring breeding, although there was no sign yet of the jellylike clusters of eggs (resembling frog eggs) they'll soon produce.

This species has long been a favorite herp of mine, because of its interesting life cycles"one of the most complex and variable life cycles of any North American salamander," as the Virginia Dept. of Game and Inland Fisheries' Fish and Wildlife Information Service website puts it. That's because it has three life stages after hatching, rather than the usual two of most salamanders. It starts as a tadpole (aquatic larva), as most salamanders and frogs do, then emerges to live on land in upland forests. In this terrestrial stage, it takes on a bright red hue and is known as a Red Eft. The interesting part is that the salamander then returns to the water as an adult to mate and reproduce.

Two Water Striders appear to be mating while 
a Red-spotted Newt, a predator, lurks below.
I took this photo last August.

Photo by Pam Owen.

Continuing my walk past the lower pond, which also had a lot of newt activity near the edge, I decided to explore the wetland beyond to see if Skunk Cabbage was finally coming up. I hadn't ventured over there since I moved onto the property last June, since I didn't realize the wetland was part of the property until I asked my landlords. I was glad to finally check out the boggy area, although it's drier than it should be this time of year. With little snow and not much rain either this winter, everything was drier down there than it should have been.

Nevertheless, I found plenty of Skunk Cabbage already starting to bloom, which comes before the leaves appear.

First blooms of Skunk Cabbage (top and middle) on Feb. 23. By later March, the leaves should create a green carpet (bottom, from last year in a different location).
Photos by Pam Owen.
Coming back up the mountain, I found a black, woolly caterpillar in the yard (below). Looks like it belongs in the tiger-moth (Arctiidaefamily, as the Woolly Bear (Isabella Tiger Moth) does, but without the orange banding that every school kid in Virginia would recognize. In fact, other than barely discernible lightening at the tips of the longer set of bristles, this guy is totally black. Looks like I need to whip on my deerstalker hat, for the game is afoot. First stop: BugGuide. I've already posted the photos there to see if I can get some help from fellow creepy-crawly lovers. Look for more on this in future posts.

Black, woolly  caterpillar, likely in the tiger moth family, like the Woolly Bear  caterpillar (Isabella Tiger Moth).
Photos by Pam Owen.

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