Wild Ideas: Perplexing pollinators and pickerels   

As temperatures soared in July, more butterflies and other pollinators started showing up in my gardens, while tadpoles down at the ponds were developing into froglets.

As I mentioned in my July 14 column (online at rappnews.com/wildideas), few large butterflies had shown up at that point, although clouds of eastern tiger swallowtails were puddling along Old Hollow Road in the spring. With the native phlox in one of my gardens now fully in bloom, several spicebush swallowtails are now nectaring on them at any given time during the day. They join other pollinators, such as eastern carpenter bees, hummingbird clearwing moths (a hummingbird mimic) and ruby-throated hummingbirds. The hummers have been especially active in the garden since I moved a hummer feeder there. Eastern tiger swallowtails are still scarce but should be more plentiful here soon.

Meanwhile, the small but lovely blooms of the short-toothed mountain mint in the same garden has attracted other pollinators, including yellow perplexing bumblebees, tiny harlequin-colored wasps that I haven’t identified yet, and an even tinier black-and-red beetle in the genus Macrosiagon (wedge-shaped beetle).

Photo by Pam Owen
A perplexing bumblebee enjoys the tiny blooms of short-toothed mountain mint.

A lot was also going on with anurans by mid-July. Down at the trout pond, shortly after the tadpoles of eastern American toads hatched out this spring (see my May 19 column), I noticed some larger tadpoles swimming among them. From their general coloring and timing, I assumed they were the larvae of pickerel frogs (Lithobates palustris). I found a dead tadpole floating in the pond that had developed all four legs but still had the stubby head and long tail of anuran larvae. It had a pale, indistinct stripe running over, and extending back from, each eye, which was similar to a stripe I’d seen on the less-developed large tadpoles recently.

This was the first year, in the six I’ve lived here, that I’ve seen amphibian larvae in that pond, let alone juvenile frogs, although eggs have been laid there. I think my landlords’ systematically moving the bass and bream out of the trout pond to the pond next to it has enabled amphibian eggs to finally come to fruition instead of being devoured by those voracious fish.

When I’d walked around the pond in mid-July, lots of tiny frogs would jump into the water. In the brief glimpses I got of them, I noticed they had dorsal stripes similar to, but more distinct than, the stripes on the large tadpoles. However, they also looked darker and greener than adult pickerel frogs, and didn’t seem to have the leopard-like spots of the adults. Checking photos of young pickerels online, I found the stripes and some other markings on them matched up with the tadpoles and frogs at the pond, so I was pretty sure I was seeing pickerels in various stages of development.

On July 15, I found a tiny frog hopping around in my yard. This frog also had the dorsal stripes and the same general coloring of the tiny frogs at the pond. Pickerels, like wood frogs, are among frog species that become terrestrial once they transform from tadpoles to fully formed frogs, returning only to breed. I’ve found several in my yard over the years.

Perplexing Pollinators and Pickerels slideshow:

​Since the tiny frog at my house was on the move and I wanted to get a better look at it and take some photos, I caught it and put it in a sprouting jar. This jar has a plastic mesh lid that allows air in, so it also makes a great temporary bug jar, which is what I use it for. I added a bit of grass and a twig for cover and sprinkled everything with a little water. Then I put the jar in the shade on my deck, among some potted plants, so the frog would feel less exposed. I then left the frog alone for awhile, giving it time to settle down a bit.

After the interval, I carefully removed the jar’s lid, jamming my camera lens into the opening before the frog could hop out. I took some photos that way, and also, from the outside, of the frog clinging to the side of the jar next to the embossed label. The juxtaposition enabled me to also determine the frog was 1.75 inches long. I had measured the four-legged tadpole, excluding tail, and it was one inch, so I figured this froglet had only recently left its breeding pool.

Done with the photos, I let the frog out near where I’d found it. Fortunately, it sat unmoving for a few seconds before hopping off, enabling me to get a few more shots before it disappeared in the grass. In checking my references later, I confirmed that the little frog was a pickerel froglet. In observing and photographing it, I had noticed that it did have spots like the adults, but they were dark green against brown. More mature pickerels have brown spots against a light-beige background color. Now I have shots of pickerel frogs in various stages of development, which will help in identifying them in the future, although that can be tough, sometimes coming down to different mouth shapes.

I found a dead tadpole with a different mouth shape when I found the four-legged tadpole, and, judging by the state of development (no legs), I’m guessing it is a green frog (Lithobates clamitans), which usually starts breeding at the ponds right after the pickerels.

So what happened to the toad tadpoles, which had disappeared from the pond edge a couple of weeks after they hatched out? My landlord thought he’d seen toadlets jumping around when he was trimming around the pond, but so far I’ve only seen one — at my house a couple of weeks later.

© 2017 Pam Owen

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 287 Articles

Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term “biodiversity,” “Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”