Newport This Week

NATURE in the NEIGHBORHOOD

The Ides of March

Above: The American Oystercatchers on Rose Island. (Photo by Ed Hughes) Left: The Northern Spring Peeper. (Photo Courtesy of Audobon Society of Rhode Island)

Above: The American Oystercatchers on Rose Island. (Photo by Ed Hughes) Left: The Northern Spring Peeper. (Photo Courtesy of Audobon Society of Rhode Island)

The Ides of March, March 15 boded well this year, despite a reputation for doom and despair. Capt. Eric texted this to me from the seal watch boat, “the American oystercatchers are back on Rose Island.” This is always a sign that spring has arrived. It was a long, dark winter in so many ways that every renewed glimpse of life that nature provides gives me hope.

Around town, the crocuses and snowdrops are blooming and the daffodils are sprouting from the damp earth. The willows trees are showing their yellow branches and the maples are beginning to turn red at the tips.

The red-winged blackbirds and common grackles are arriving in large flocks, filling the evening air with a cacophony of noise. The American robins have run out of berries to eat, but as the ground thaws, the earthworms become accessible for these birds to feast upon instead. Soon, every male robin will claim a lawn for himself and begin luring a mate with his beautiful song.

Last Thursday evening was warm and rainy, perfect weather for salamanders and frogs to begin emerging from their winter hiber­nation lairs to breed. I put on my boots and raincoat, grabbed a flashlight and headed out to see if I could find any amphibians in a nearby wetland.

 

 

Heading down the trail, I first came across a number of small piles of dirt pellets on top of the ground. Called worm castings, this is the nutrient-rich waste that worms leave behind after they munch on dead plant material. Where there are piles of this worm poop, there are worms! Good for both robins and gardens.

As I got closer to the wetland, the sound of the spring peepers reached my ears. The smallest of frogs in Rhode Island, measuring two to 3.5 centimeters, these terrestrial amphibians move to shallow wetlands in spring to breed. The males establish and defend calling territories, but to human ears their peeps and trills sounds like a loud well-orches­trated chorus.

Like birds, male frogs sing to attract females. In his new book, “Amphibians of Rhode Island,” biologist Chris Raithel explains that scientists think that since the quality of a male’s calls are related to its physical traits, that the fe­male frogs choose a mate based on “vocal conspicuousness.” What works for rock stars seems to work for frogs, as well.

Nature lover Lauren Parmelee of Newport is senior director of education at the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.

Nature lover Lauren Parmelee of Newport is senior director of education at the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.

Off the trail, under the trees, were a number of shallow pools of water primarily created by melted snow and rain. These seasonal ponds, called vernal pools, are one of the places amphibians like the spotted salamanders and wood frogs come to breed. There are no fish in this type of wetland that might prey on amphibian larvae, but there are plenty of insects and fairy shrimp to eat.

Spotted salamanders belong to a group called mole salamanders, because they spend much of their life underground, only emerging in spring to seek out a mate and lay eggs. According to Raithel’s book, they are the largest salamander in Rhode Island, measuring 11 to 20 centimeters in length and ap­pearing “robust and chunky.” They vary between dark gray to black or brown, with two rows of large yellow spots down their back and a sprinkling of yellow spots on their nose, tail and limbs.

The males arrive at the pools first, often waiting several days be­fore the females arrive. Courtship is described as elaborate, with lots of physical contact. When there are large numbers of salamanders in a pool, their courtship has been described by poet-scientists as a “nuptial dance.” All this romance results in gelatinous egg masses about the size of a fist often at­tached to a stick or vegetation.

Like frogs, salamanders go through a process of metamor­phosis as they grow. Once laid, the eggs take about a month to hatch into aquatic larvae. The light brown or greenish-yellow larvae have frilly gills that allow them to breathe under water, and a broad tail for swimming. After several months of eating and growing, the larvae will lose their gills and emerge from the pool as juvenile salamanders. It will be several years before the juveniles are ma­ture and ready to breed, but since they can live up to 30 years, they have plenty of time to join the dance.

As you drive down back roads on warm, rainy spring nights, watch out for frogs and salaman­ders crossing in front of your car. Amphibians are sensitive to toxins and chemical changes in the en­vironment, and are vulnerable to traffic and development. If you stop to help one of these creatures cross the road, just like with turtles, always put them in the direction they were heading.

I didn’t find any salamanders that night, but as I emerged from the woods and approached a field, I was fortunate to witness another glorious sign of spring. Dusk was just turning to dark when I heard a loud buzzy “peent” noise. Over and over came the sound, fading a bit, as the American woodcock danced in a circle. Then the noise suddenly stopped as he flew high into the air doing a “sky dance” as he rose, then with a twitter of the wings and a series of chirps, he landed on the ground to begin again.

Like the oystercatcher, the stout- bodied woodcock, with its long bill, is part of the shorebird family. Unlike the oystercatcher, which actually lives on the shores of Nar­ragansett Bay, the woodcock lives in old fields and woodland edges. Also known as timberdoodles, woodcocks conduct their aerial rituals every night in spring even as they migrate north. The dancing bird I witnessed that night may be simply practicing as he moves north to his summer territory, where he will make it official and breed with a female.

Once again, worms are part of the story on this warm, spring night. American woodcocks rely on earthworms and other inverte­brates for food that they catch by probing their long beaks into the moist earth. Warmth, water, worms and woodcocks. It’s all connected.

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