At this time of year one would expect to find Leopard Frogs lying on the bottom of a pond, partially but not completely covered with leaves or mud as they hibernate their way through winter. Because of the depth of a pond, and the fact that in winter the water temperature is around 39°F., ice isn’t an issue at the bottom of a pond, and the frogs and turtles that overwinter there don’t usually freeze.
However, sometimes ponds freeze over before amphibians or reptiles that overwinter in them arrive at their hibernacula. Apparently this is what happened to these Leopard Frogs, and they took refuge in the only open body of water they could find – a large but shallow puddle about 10’ wide by 20’ long in a dirt road. Shortly after they arrived temperatures dropped and the frogs were trapped under (and eventually will be encased in) the ice. Unlike Wood Frogs, Spring Peepers and Gray Treefrogs, Leopard Frogs are not freeze tolerant, so their demise is inevitable. (Thanks to Kelly Maginnis for photo, and Jim Andrews for his herpetological expertise.)
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Solitary Sandpipers (Tringa solitaria) nest in the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska (in the abandoned tree nests of several different song birds!), and winter in the tropics, from northern Mexico south through much of South America. Individuals started their nocturnal migration south in June, which is both inland as well as offshore. In the fall, some birds appear to fly southeast over New England towards the Atlantic Ocean, as if on direct course to South America, while others follow the eastern coastline. Although their migration over New England peaked in July, you can find them through mid-October on the shores of ponds, resting and feeding during their long flight. As their common and species names indicate, they migrate singly, not in flocks like most migrant sandpipers.
The Eastern Phoebe, a member of the flycatcher family, is one of the earliest nesting songbirds to return to New England after spending the winter in southeastern United States. It is easily identified from its perch, where it typically wags its tail up and down repeatedly while waiting for an insect to fly by. The Eastern Phoebe is the first bird ever banded in North America – in 1804 John James Audubon tied a small circle of silver thread around the legs of phoebe nestlings and documented their return in successive years.
Recently Common Loons have been seen on several Vermont lakes and ponds. Spring arrival on nesting lakes depends largely on the timing of ice-out. During migration, Common Loons have what are called “staging” areas — lakes as well as rivers, where many loons congregate as they proceed northward (southward in the fall). Reconnaissance flights are usually made from open water north to territorial waters to see if the ice is on its way out.
Great Blue Herons are returning to their breeding grounds in northern New England, where they typically nest in colonies. Unlike the nests of songbirds, heron nests are re-used year after year. While an individual heron does not usually choose the same nest every year, they usually return to the same colony. While some colonies are active for only a few years, some have been known to be active for over 70 years. Because nests can be located up to 100 feet high in a tree (typically a dead snag in the Northeast), you rarely have a bird’s eye view of nesting activity. However, if you go to Cornell’s new live great blue heron web cam site (http://www.allaboutbirds.org/page.aspx?pid=2433 ) you can see every movement made by the great blue herons currently nesting in Sapsucker Woods in Ithaca, NY.
Although named for the chestnut band, or ring, around its neck (barely discernible to most eyes) this diving duck does have a distinct white ring around its bill. Vermont and New Hampshire are on the southern edge of the ring-necked duck’s breeding range, so while they do breed here occasionally, we’re much more apt to see them during March and April, when they are migrating further north, and again in October and November when they’re headed to southern U.S. and central America to spend the winter. (male on left, female on right in photograph)
Right on time, the second week of March, Turkey Vultures are back in central VT/NH. Recognizing them is not too hard – they’re bigger than any other raptor in New England except for eagles. At a distance Turkey Vultures look all black, but a closer look reveals that the undersides of the flight feathers, along the trailing edge and wing tips, are lighter in color than the rest of the bird, giving the wing a two-toned appearance. (Black Vulture wings are solid black with silvery tips.) The feathers at the wing tips are often separated, which some birders refer to as ‘fingers.’ In addition, vultures hold their wings slightly raised, forming a ‘V’ or dihedral shape in the sky when viewed head-on. Turkey Vultures soar in circles as they ride the thermals, using their sense of smell to locate tasty carcasses on the ground.