American toad eggs are hatching, and as they do so, thousands of tiny, black tadpoles attach themselves to underwater vegetation and hang vertically, with their heads up. In a week or so, they will crowd the edges of ponds in dense aggregations. Research shows that the tadpoles from the same egg mass tend to stay together as a “school” during this stage. In roughly three weeks, they will begin to transform into tiny toadlets.
The female chipping sparrow builds her nest in three or four days. It’s usually made from rootlets and dried grasses, and lined with horse or other animal hair and fine plant fibers and is so unsubstantial that you can often see light through it. The 2 - 7 pale blue-to-white eggs hatch after about two weeks, and the young fledge in 9 to 12 days. As you can see in this photograph, the colorful, open gaping beaks of the nestlings make easy targets for food-bearing adults. (To see an adult chipping sparrow, go to http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/chipping_sparrow/id)
Wolf spiders capture prey by hunting them, not by catching them in a web. Two of their eight eyes are enlarged, giving them excellent eyesight with which to locate prey. Typically wolf spiders are solitary, and hunt alone. The females carry their white egg sac with their spinnerets, which are located at the tip of their abdomen (and are also the structures through which silk leaves their body). You can tell them from similar looking nursery web spiders by how they transport their egg sacs. Nursery web spiders carry their egg sacs in their chelicerae, or mouthparts and pedipalps (front appendages which resemble legs).
Although spring peeper courtship in Vermont peaked about two weeks ago, they are still calling with gusto in flooded meadows and on the edges of ponds. Two different calls can be heard – one is aggressive, as the peeper is defending a territory roughly 4 to 16 inches in diameter (a trill of varying length) and the other is advertising for a mate (a single high note). Researchers have found that a male spring peeper repeats his advertising call about 4,500 times on any given night during the breeding season.
Because of all the rain we’ve had, little orange salamanders are everywhere! These red efts have a fascinating life history. Eggs are laid in a pond,
and hatch into larval salamanders referred to as eastern newts (previously
called red-spotted newts). Eventually the larvae shed their gills, grow lungs, turn reddish-orange and crawl out onto the land, where they are called red efts.
After spending three to seven years on land, they turn olive-green
(still maintaining the red spots they possessed as red efts) and return to the
water, where they spend the rest of their lives and are referred to once again as
Morels are probably the best known and most sought after of all the edible fungi. They fruit in the spring, and all species are edible. The chambered head, or cap, of a morel consists of pits and ridges, giving it the common name “honeycomb morel.” This is where its spores are produced. The pictured morel, Morchella esculenta, typically appears in May. In my opinion it is as much a feast for the eyes as it is for the stomach.
A beaver consumes between 1 ½ to 4 ½ pounds of bark, twigs, tree leaves and herbaceous vegetation every day. By far the most preferred tree is poplar, or aspen, an acre of which would produce enough energy for 10 beavers for over a year. It is very amusing to watch a beaver eating the bark of branch. It holds it in both hands, and rotates the branch as it eats it, much as we eat an ear of corn. Smaller twigs are stuffed into their mouths and eaten whole. A beaver can digest only about 33% of the cellulose taken up; hence, the fibrous, wood chip-filled appearance of their scat (which is always deposited in water).
The most recent nest check confirmed that there are two red-tailed hawk nestlings in the nest previously mentioned on this blog. Long periods of time go by with the female perched nearby, but not in, the nest, awaiting food delivery from her mate. A rough estimate is that the chicks are about two weeks old, giving us another month to enjoy watching them in their nest.
Given the number of predators that eat American toad eggs, it’s not surprising that female American toads each lay between 4,000 and 12,000 eggs. Even though toads often avoid breeding in fish-inhabited ponds, there are plenty of other egg-eating creatures, including eastern newts. If you live near a pond where you’ve heard toads trilling recently, look for their three-foot-long double strings of eggs in shallow water, intertwined in vegetation. Chances are great that you will find something dining on them.
I was recently interviewed on a Vermont Public Television program, Profile. If you wish to watch it, you can find on their website at http://video.vpt.org/program/1303502213/ .
Until April 2006, Vermont was the only state in the contiguous United States that lacked breeding bald eagles. (Numbers went from a few hundred breeding pairs in the 1960’s to nearly 10,000 in the lower 48 states in 2007 and as a result, the bald eagle was removed from the Federal Threatened and Endangered list in 2007.) A three-year bald eagle recovery effort at Dead Creek WMA in Addison, Vermont from 2004 to 2006 released 29 captive young eagles. Bald eagles had been absent from Vermont as a breeding species for almost 70 years when, in 2006, one pair successfully hatched young, although they did not survive long enough to fledge. In 2008, a nesting pair of bald eagles succeeded in raising young that left the nest. Proof of the recovery effort’s success is evident in the 2010 bald eagle nesting results: 9 pairs nested and produced 5 eagle fledglings. It looks like the ban on the pesticide DDT as well as protection and conservation efforts have paid off. Hopefully this trend will continue so that the bald eagle can be removed from Vermont’s endangered species list.
All the trilling he did paid off for the male American toad in this photograph (top toad), as he succeeded in attracting a female. The smaller male toad climbs on top of the larger, reddish female toad, clasps her behind her front legs, locks his thumbs together, and externally secretes his sperm on her eggs as she lays them. This mating position is referred to as “amplexus.” The female’s eggs (there are usually several thousand) are laid in two strings, one from each of her ovaries (eggs are vaguely visible to left of toads). Within a week they will hatch into tiny, black tadpoles.
Tree swallows mate about a week before the female lays her eggs. Among other things, courtship consists of the male doing a “flutter-flight” in front of the female as she sits on top of her nesting box or near the nest hole. Mating involves the male making rapid “tick” calls as he flies towards the female, who is perched with her back and tail held horizontal. The male lands on the female’s back, and, using his wings for balance, grabs her head feathers in his bill. He then pivots his tail under the female’s and transfers his sperm as the two birds’ cloacas, or vents, touch (referred to as a “cloacal kiss”). Blink and you’ll miss this brief connection. However, it is not a one-time thing — after the male flies off, he quickly returns to copulate again, and repeats this sequence several times.
Field horsetail (Equisetum arvense) is the most common species of Equisetum. The popular and widely used name "horsetail" comes from the Latin words equus (horse) and seta (bristle), from the peculiar bristly appearance of the jointed stems of the plants. Its relatives, some of which were 100 feet tall, dominated the understory of the late Paleozoic forests nearly three hundred million years ago. This group of non-flowering plants reproduces from spores, not seeds, and is closely related to ferns. Field horsetail has both fertile and vegetative stems. The fertile (tan), short-lived stem terminates in a spore-bearing cone. The vegetative stem bears whorls of green leaves.
There are several species of trillium in the East, but painted trillium is my personal favorite. The deep pink center truly does look as if it were painted on its white petals. Being a member of the Lily family, many of painted trillium’s parts (leaves, petals, sepals, stamens and carpels) come in sets of three. It has just started blossoming in central Vermont and New Hampshire – look for it in acid woods and bogs.
The common yellowthroat is one of the easiest warblers to recognize, as both its appearance and song are very distinctive. Referred to as the “lone ranger bird” by birders over a certain age, the male yellowthroat has a black mask over its eyes. Females lack this mask and their yellow throats and underparts are paler than the males’. You’re more likely to hear the male than you are to see him – listen for his “wich-i-ty, wich-i-ty, wich-i-ty” song coming from thick, tangled vegetation, particularly in wet areas. You can also hear it by going to http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Common_Yellowthroat/sounds .
flower deserves to be looked at under a hand lens, but perhaps none more so
than Miterwort, also known as Bishop’s Cap (Mitella diphylla). The delicate arms radiating out from the
flower’s center bear an uncanny resemblance to a 4-pointed snowflake. The fruit
of this member of the Saxifrage family resembles a mitre, or bishop’s cap;
hence, its common names.
This male Baltimore oriole spent an entire morning foraging for food among the opening buds of several trees. It went to great lengths to reach insects and spiders hidden amongst the foliage – even suspending itself by one leg and balancing itself with one wing while it extracted a tasty morsel from the base of a leaf. We are indebted to this colorful songbird for its dietary preference for tent caterpillars, gypsy moth larvae and fall webworm caterpillars.
Red-tailed hawks are impressive predators, consuming large numbers of mice, voles, rats and cottontails. Occasionally birds and snakes are also eaten. This particular red-tail had just caught a common gartersnake (the hawk looks like it is holding on to a stick, but trust me, it is very much a living reptile) when it perched on a white pine in order to get a better grip before flying off, perhaps to recently-hatched nestlings. A typical red-tailed hawk is about 19” in length, if that helps you estimate the size of the gartersnake.
The splashes of white that you see along the road and at the edges of woods right now are most likely the blossoms of our earliest white-flowered shrub, shadbush (Amelanchier canadensis), also known as serviceberry. (It flowers when the shad run, and when services for people who died during the winter used to be held). Because shadbush flowers before its leaves have fully expanded, its white blossoms are very noticeable. Blueberry-like shadbush fruits mature by midsummer, and are eaten by many creatures. A minimum of twenty-two birds (including Baltimore orioles, crows and hermit thrushes) and eleven species of mammals (including beavers, red foxes and eastern chipmunks) eat the fruits or browse the twigs and foliage of shadbush. Rumor has it that shadbush pies and muffins are delectable.
They’re back! Male ruby-throated hummingbirds have started appearing at feeders in northern New England, having spent the winter in Central America. Many of them flew nonstop over the Gulf of Mexico during their migration north, no mean feat for a creature weighing 3 ½ grams! Once females arrive, keep an eye out for the male’s courtship display. He makes a looping, U-shaped dive starting from as high as 50 feet above the female, swooping down in front of her and then back up again. If she perches, the male then switches to a side-to-side flight while facing her.
From the edges of ponds the musical trills of male American toads have begun in earnest. Unlike birds, toads don’t set up and defend territories with their songs; however, like birds, they do use their song to attract a mate. By closing their nostrils and mouth, and pumping air over their vocal cords, these amphibians produce a very long trill – up to 35 seconds, which is quite long for any toad or frog call. You can hear toads trilling from quite a distance away thanks to their vocal pouches which are inflated in order to act as resonating chambers. Note that toads sit upright in the water when calling, so that their pouches are above the surface of the water and can fully inflate.
geese are among our earliest nesting birds, and are already sitting on
eggs. Typically their nest site is near
water, on a dry and slightly elevated site.
Recently I discovered a Canada goose incubating eggs on an abandoned
beaver lodge (look carefully and you will see her head on the left side of the
lodge in the first photograph). From her
down-lined nest she had good visibility, which is advantageous for all
ground-nesting birds, due to the easy access predators have to the nesting
birds’ eggs. Even so, this precaution
did not prevent the goose’s nest from being raided, most likely by a raccoon,
as is evident in the second photograph, taken two days after the first. She may well re-nest within two or three
weeks, even though Canada geese normally have only one brood.