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.
Under the stealth of a rainy night, subterranean-dwelling spotted salamanders migrated to their ancestral breeding pools this week. Groups, or “congresses,” of males gather, followed by females. Once a female locates a congress of males, she eventually pairs up with one of them. The pair of salamanders then engages in a courtship dance ending with the male depositing a tiny white packet of sperm called a spermatophore on the bottom of the vernal pool. If he has sufficiently stimulated the female, she picks up this packet into her cloaca, or vent, and fertilization takes place. The next morning the only sign that spotted salamanders have been and gone are the unclaimed spermatophores scattered on the leaves that lie on the pool bottom.
Many shrubs really come into their own in the spring when they flower — not necessarily big, flashy flowers, but more subtle and delicate blossoms, with beautiful colors and designs. Beaked Hazel (Corylus cornuta) is such a shrub. Its female flowers are now blooming – exquisite little maroon flowers with magenta highlights and pistils that curl this way and that in hopes of catching pollen. One advantage to flowering before leaves are out is that there is less interference with pollen dispersal. The entire flower is less than 1/4” in diameter.
The bright yellow splashes of Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) amidst the drab brown landscape this time of year are eye-catching, to say the least. Like Hepatica, Coltsfoot began blooming about a month early this year. Easily mistaken for a Dandelion, Coltsfoot usually flowers first, and unlike Dandelion’s leaves which appear before the flowers area evident, Coltsfoot’s leaves don’t appear until seeds have set.
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)
After noticing the sudden loud clacking chorus at a nearby temporary woodland vernal pool, I went down to investigate, and there were dozens of wood frogs floating on the surface, as they croaked their duck-like quacks in the hopes of attracting female wood frogs. As far as I could determine, they were out of luck on this, their first day at the breeding pool, as I don’t believe the females have arrived yet. One clue was the relatively small size of the floating frogs and it seemed as though every frog was calling (only males call). Plus, time after time a wood frog would swim up to another wood frog and attempt to grasp it only to have the object of its desire utter a “release” chirp (a call made only when a male clasps another male) and swim rapidly away.
I heard my first peeper on March 18th, roughly two weeks earlier than in past years. These tiny members of the treefrog family begin mating rituals shortly after the end of hibernation. The males gather at small pools by the hundreds. Each male establishes a small territory and begins calling the familiar high-pitched “peep” quite frequently. The louder and faster he peeps, the better his chances are of attracting a receptive female. Males usually compete in trios, and the male with the lowest-pitched call usually starts the vocal competition. If you look closely at the peeper in the photograph you can see some snow fleas hitching a ride.
Although some ponds have had open water in spots all winter, many have remained frozen over until the recent warm weather started to melt the ice. The first open water often appears close to the lodge and along the dam of a beaver pond. It doesn’t take long for resident beavers to detect an opening, for it’s a ticket to fresh food! The first plant that beavers head for, if it’s growing in the area, is skunk cabbage. Being the first wildflower to push up through the snow, it’s usually available when ponds first open up. Aspen, willow and alder leaves, grasses, the rhizomes, leaves and flowers of water lilies, sedges, ferns, fungi, berries, mushrooms, duckweed and algae are eaten in the spring and summer by these large rodents we think of as strictly bark eaters. Photograph by Kay Shumway.
The return of song sparrows and their energetic songs tells us spring has definitely arrived. The males sing a sequence of notes, including clear whistles and buzzy sounds. According to nature recordist Lang Elliott, each male has about ten songs in its repertoire and tends to repeat one pattern for several minutes before changing to another. Although other birds may produce more musical songs, you’d have to search far and wide for more enthusiastic outbursts than those of a song sparrow.
After spending several months hibernating in the mud at the bottom of ponds, painted turtles are out, basking in the sun. Because they are ectothermic, or cold-blooded, they are the same temperature as the air around them. In order to warm up and also to properly digest their food, painted turtles bask in the sun, and there is great competition for safe basking locations, such as rocks and floating logs. When these ideal basking sites are limited, the turtles will pile up one on top of the other, staying that way until the bottom turtle gets good and tired of supporting the turtles on top of it, and wobbles enough to make the turtle tower tumble.
Hard as it is to believe with half a foot of snow remaining in the woods, this northern green-striped grasshopper (Chortophaga viridifasciata) was hopping around in the dry grass of a south-facing field in Hartland, Vermont yesterday. Most grasshoppers overwinter as eggs. They hatch in the spring, and the immature grasshopper nymphs look like miniature versions of their parents, except they lack wings and sexual organs. Northern green-striped grasshoppers, however, overwinter as nymphs in the northeast, which is why the one in the photograph is as large as it is (1/2-inch) this early in the season. (This grasshopper is one of the “band-winged grasshoppers,” which typically possess bands, or stripes, on their wings, as does the adult northern green-striped grasshopper.)
2-29-12 Beaver Sign of Spring
Anyone who buys and consumes the pale, relatively tasteless, store-bought tomatoes in the winter, and then, finally, can eat their own garden tomatoes right off the vine, will identify with the winter and spring diets of beavers. While they are locked under the ice, the beavers’ entire winter supply of food is a pile of branches they store at the bottom of the pond near their lodge. Once the ice on the pond begins to melt, beavers take immediate advantage of any escape holes, enlarging them if need be, in order to make their way to fresh, nutritious food. While their preferred spring food, herbaceous plants, are not yet up, the fresh cambium of living trees is most likely a welcome change from their water-logged winter food. It is always fun to come upon signs of their activity when there’s still snow on the ground – it’s one of my favorite signs of spring.
Eastern bluebirds have already been seen checking out nest boxes – behavior that usually isn’t observed for another month or so. Interestingly, even though most people religiously clean out their bluebird boxes every year prior to the nesting season, experiments show that bluebirds prefer nesting boxes containing old nests. While breeding has not yet begun, it won’t be long before males will be trying to attract females to their nest site by carrying material in and out of the hole, perching, and fluttering their wings. After the males choose the nest site and perform for a mate, the females actually do the hard work of building the nest.