Mar 28, 2012

"Wild Ideas" in the Rappahannock News





Pickerel Frogs are now breeding in the Virginia Piedmont.
Photo by Brian Gratwicke, licensed under the
The Rappahannock News, which publishes my "Wild Ideas" column in its print edition, will now be publishing the column online most weeks, even if there isn't space in the print edition. The paper has had a page dedicated to the column, where you can find current and older columns. Last week's, about my reentry into Frogwatch USA monitoring and the progress of amphibian breeding down at the ponds at the base of the mountain where I live, is available exclusively in the online edition.

Pickeral Frogslots of themare calling down at the ponds at this point, although I managed to climb up to the pond further up the mountain one evening and was almost deafened by the Spring Peepers' chorusing up there. More about that, with a recording included, later this week.

Red-spotted Newts have also been exhibiting breeding behavior down at the lower ponds, but so far only one egg mass looked like theirs. Then again, some of the egg masses, likely the Pickerels', that were there one day disappeared the next. With lots of predators in and around the pond, that's not a huge surprise. For more about the Pickerels and frog monitoring, check out my column in last week's Rappahannock News online edition.

Mar 20, 2012

Happy Freaking Vernal Equinox, and Welcome Herps!

It's fully spring now here already in the lower elevations of the Blue Ridge, two weeks ahead of schedule generally in the county. Here on the morningside of a steep mountain, we tend to run behind, so I guess it all evens out to being mostly ontrack with what would be a "normal" spring if we weren't in the shadow of a mountain.

Bloodroot led the way to the bloom season here up here, with Eastern Redbud and other early bloomers soon following suit when this current spell of above-average temps (in the 70s) hit last week. It keeps threatening (promising?) to rain, but so far no go. Maybe today... The clouds are piling up, and thunderstorms are predicted.

A mass of amphibian eggs—probably of a
Pickerel Frog, from the shape and color,
and the fact that those are the only frogs
calling down at the ponds right now.
Coming back from the post office with the dog in tow, I stopped at the ponds at the base of the mountain to see how things were coming along down there on this day of the vernal equinox. I've been a huge fan of herps (reptiles and amphibians) since I was a kid, and spring meant the frogs were calling, blobs of jellylike eggs filled ditches and pools, and the hunt was on.

I'd seen Red-spotted Newts in amplexus (sort of an amphibian mating hug that can go on a long time, with or without any actual egg fertilization) a week ago down in the lower pond. Today I saw several kinds of egg masses in the upper pond and in a nearby drainage ditch, where the spring that normally fed the pond, through a series of pipes, had been diverted through a hole in the pipe up the hill, so the water was still, cloudy, and bacteria filled.

Not sure which amphibians are involved. The masses I saw in the pond looked like Wood Frogs', but I hadn't heard any this year and they will not lay their eggs in any body of water that has fish - and this pond is well stocked with good-sized bass and Bream.

A Pickerel Frog, common to Virginia and
 one of my favorites. They're starting to
breed here in the Blue Ridge, a bit ahead of
schedule because of the mild winter and
current unseasonably warm temperature.

Photo by Sam Hopewell, licensed under the
GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2.   
Although the eggs didn't look like those of a Pickerel Frog (Lithobates palustris), at first inspection, I did hear one Pickerel calling and figured I'd check it out later. One of my favorite frogs because of their wonderful markings, Pickerels spend most of their lives on land at the edge of ponds or pools, jumping in to avoid predators and to breed.

My landlord said he'd seen a large green frog in the stagnant ditch across the drive, but when we went over to see it, it went underwater before I could ID it. When I moved in last June, all I heard were Green Frogs, but they start later and have a long breeding season. The American Bullfrog, which is what my landlord thought he saw, judging by the frog's size and color, doesn't breed until much later, but that doesn't mean there aren't any in the pool. There were masses of eggs in there, looking very funky from the heavy load of bacteria in the still water. It was hard to tell which herp they came out of.

Taking a walk around the pond, I saw some turtles sunning themselves on logs in both—probably Eastern Painted Turtles, but I couldn't get close enough to be sure. I'll have to start taking my binoculars with me.

All this herp activity convinced me that I should sign up again for FrogWatch USA, a national monitoring program now managed by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. I got a slow start doing this this year because I just hadn't heard any frogs on the property yet and was busy with other things. However, I've heard Spring Peepers way off in the distance since this later warm spell.

When I got back to the house, I registered for FrogWatch. It's a great monitoring program for us lazy folks. You just listen for who's calling for three minutes twice a week (if possible, although you can set your own schedule) throughout the breeding season and record the amount of calls in general terms and the species producing them. With only a few species here in the county, it's about as easy as wildlife monitoring gets, and should be even easier here, considering there's already a nice, comfortable chair down by the pond. I'm thinking frog monitoring would go well with a nice cold beer or glass of sauvignon blanc.

I waited until a half hour after dusk to go do my first monitoring. Ironically, Spring Peepers were finally calling on the property...up in the pond near the top of the mountain, above my house. I heard them down at the base, too, but not near the ponds there, except for one lonely voice. What were calling were Pickerels—and plenty of them, so I duly noted them after listening for the required 3-minute period. The temperature was in the upper 60s, and slight breeze was blowing—a fine night all the way around, although clouds had been building and we're supposed to have thunderstorms eventually. We need the rain, but I doubt we'll get much, if any.

As I started to drive back up the mountain, a good-sized American Toad crossed the driveway, so I stopped the car and got out to see him. I should be hearing their trilling soon. My landlord told me that there used to be practically an infestation of these guys, so he hauled a bunch off to other places. I can't imagine having too many toads, although I did have a bumper crop of toadlets at another place I lived in the county, down near a river. The little guys were everywhere. It wasn't a problem, considering what good insect control they offer, just tricky to avoid squashing them any time I was out in the yard.

Mar 3, 2012

Spring Marches On

Spring Peeper, one of the earliest and smallest 
frogs to breed in Virginia. 
Photo from US Geological Service.
I finally heard the Spring Peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) calling, although not on the property where I live. Reports had come to me from several people in my county and to the south that the chorusing had started, but I hadn't heard the chorusing anywhere in my hollow here in Rappahannock County.

When it got up to 70 degrees a few days ago, I joined a friend at a local cafe for coffee. On the way home through my hollow, I drove really slowly with my windows down and radio off. Sure enough, I heard a full chorus about a mile into the hollow, where there's a pretty extensive wetland, so I wasn't surprised but was a little relieved. It had been so quiet at my place, except for the increasing birdsong as migrants came back to claim their territory and the overwintering birds were joining in.

It seems strange that, although we have plenty of what appear to be potential breeding spots on the property where I live, no peepers are in evidence. It may be that it's just still too cold. The sun goes down quickly on this "morning side" of the mountain this time of year. We also haven't had much rain or snow, so the small wetland isn't brimming with vernal pools. I hadn't heard any Wood Frogs, which will only breed in vernal pools (a hint of fish, and the females are outta there), anywhere in the county but again had gotten a few reports. I had heard reports of them calling in February, and likely their breeding season is over by now.

Last June, when I moved in, and throughout the rest of the breeding season, I only heard and saw Northern Green Frogs down at the pond. The Northern Green Frog, Lithobates clamitans melanota, is a subspecies of Green Frog and also listed as Rana clamitans melanota in the evolving frog taxonomy, It is the most abundant frog species in Virginia and is common throughout much of northeastern North America. Further south is its cousin, the Southern Green Frog (a.k.a Bronze Frog), Rana clamitans clamitans. Green Frogs are not picky about where they breed, which is probably why they are so common.
Female Northern Green Frog. 
Photo by Matt Reinbold, licensed under the Creative Commons
I'll be listening more closely down around the ponds this year and am even thinking of participating in the FrogWatch USA monitoring program again, now that I'm on property that does have frog habitat. The last house was on a dry ridge, so I could only hear most species from a distance. FrogWatch, now managed by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, is an easy citizen-science program in which to participate. Here in Virginia, we only have to learn a few calls, and sound files of those are available from Virginia Herpetological Society and other places.

On the way home from running errands today, I stopped at the pond as I usually do when my dog is onboard. With temperatures hovering in the low 50s and an intermittent breeze, insects were not as prevalent as during the warmer temps of just a few days ago. No sign of amphibian eggs anywhere in or the ponds or few shallow vernal pools.

A bunch of Red-spotted Newts were hanging around in the sunnier shallows of the ponds, looking a bit flirty, and a few minnows swam by, but that was about all the action down there. It's supposed to be even cooler tomorrow but steadily warming in the week ahead, so maybe my herps will get more cranked up. I'd love to hear frogs romancing but am unlikely to hear their calls filling the air until the Green Frogs start their thunking, banjolike mating calls later in the spring.

In the meantime, maples have joined cedars and junipers in spreading pollen, putting a damper on my enjoyment of spring. However, with or without allergies, warming weather always cheers me, and I look forward to more pleasant rambles around the mountain as spring progresses.