Wild Ideas: The spring weather rapport

Spring may have gotten a late and fitful start, but by the first week in April amphibian eggs started appearing in pools where I live on Oventop Mountain. Being on the morning side of the mountain, spring typically comes a week or two later up here.

Spotted salamander egg masses, about six inches long each, appeared recently in a former concrete trout tank near where the author lives. The clarity or cloudiness of the jelly surrounding the eggs comes from genetic variations among the salamanders.Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
Spotted salamander egg masses, about six inches long each, appeared recently in a former concrete trout tank near where the author lives. The clarity or cloudiness of the jelly surrounding the eggs comes from genetic variations among the salamanders.

The first evening in April I finally heard peepers chorusing up here on the mountain, a week or so after they started down along the river. I ventured across the yard to a trail that runs through the forest, stopping where a small spring crosses it.

After a few minutes, I heard one lone peeper behind me along the spring give out a slightly rusty, tentative trill. No answer came back. Then another started a few feet away. Finally these two started their more familiar call-and-answer chorusing, the calls of each varying in pitch.

As evening closed in, I headed up the trail behind my house, which leads to two concrete tanks and a small manmade pond that were once used in a fishing operation. The week before, the trail had been covered with snow. One of the tanks is too damaged to hold water, but the other, following the thaw and spring rains, now had a little over a foot of water in it; the pond had several feet.

These two pools, because they have no predatory fish in them, make great vernal pools. In nature, such pools form naturally from winter snow melt and spring rains and usually dry up in the summer, making them unsuitable habitat for fish. Wood frogs will only breed in such fish-free pools, and some other amphibians, including spotted salamanders (Ambystoma maculatum), prefer them.

As I reached the tank, I could hear peepers chorusing but also a single, distinctive clack of a wood frog. Carefully peering over the edge of the tank, I saw a wood frog jump into the water. In the water on the other side of the tank were masses of frog eggs, attached to fallen tree limbs that stretched from the bottom of the tank to the hill above.

A lone wood frog rests on a partially submerged branch in the tank.Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
A lone wood frog rests on a partially submerged branch in the tank.

Identifying amphibian egg masses is tricky, with many looking quite similar. The timing of their appearance helps in determining their species, and, when spring gets a late start, some species can breed out of order, making identification even more difficult.

Looking around in the tank, I found a dead wood frog, and lots of live tadpoles with the undistinguished looks of wood frog larvae. Some were quite large — almost an inch in body length — and had obviously hatched a while ago. With all this evidence at hand, I felt pretty sure that the masses of eggs at the edge of the tank were those of wood frogs.

The tadpoles appeared to be feeding on submerged moss and algae, and also on the jelly surrounding some other egg masses — those of a salamander. Oval and about six inches long, most of these masses were so cloudy it was hard to see the embryos inside. Like the other eggs, they were attached to submerged branches.

Judging by the time of year, the location of the eggs, and the species of salamander likely to be breeding there, I figured they had to belong to the spotted salamander, another early breeder. Named for the adults’ bright yellow spots, this terrestrial species, like many amphibians, comes to water to breed. The cloudiness or clarity of the egg jelly comes from genetic variation within the species.

Helping to confirm the ID were tiny, white, jelly-like packets of sperm I found stuck to twigs at the bottom of the tank. Spotted salamanders breed en masse and, according to “A Natural History of Amphibians” by Robert Stebbins and Nathan Cohen, both sexes, when in breeding mode, engage in “love play,” but, unlike many other species of salamanders, they don’t engage in amplexus — a mating embrace common to some amphibians in which a male grasps a female with his front legs, delivering sperm directly to her. Instead, the females, unguided by the males, use their cloacas — multipurpose openings in their rear ends — to pick up the spermatophores left by the males.

Walking up from the tank to the pond, I found at least two dozen more of the opaque egg masses lying on its bottom. Likely there were also plenty of peeper eggs in the tank and pond, but peepers lay only one egg at a time, usually under leaves or other debris, so I decided to save that search for another time.

Wood frog tadpoles, some with bodies almost an inch long, were found also found in the concrete tank.Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
Wood frog tadpoles, some with bodies almost an inch long, were found also found in the concrete tank.

In subsequent visits to the tank and pond, I found a single wood frog — probably the one I’d heard on the previous visit. Hearing a full chorus of peepers up at the pond, I walked up there. Peepers launched themselves into the pond as I walked around to the far end of the dam. There, amid the tangle of growth, I found masses of what also appeared to be wood frog eggs, some fully submerged and covered with muck that was likely churned up by the heavy rain the day before.

In a later visit I sat and listened to the peepers and also heard the intermittent, low muttering of a wood frog, a sound they often make when they’re not in full breeding clack. I’ve found recordings of this at the Macaulay Library, which features sound and video recordings; the Virginia Herpetological Society also has recordings and a lot of other information on amphibians. I looked around the pond edge with my binoculars and spotted a large wood frog calmly sitting at the base of a tree, looking out over the pond.

Wood frogs and spotted salamanders are both forest animals and, after breeding, will head back to their terrestrial lives, the latter disappearing into burrows. Other amphibians also use the tank and pond, so I plan to keep an eye on their activity over the spring and summer. With luck, I’ll be able to see some of the fully grown young climbing out of the water to start the terrestrial phases of their lives.

© 2014 Pam Owen

Sidebar: Early April brings more signs of spring

In addition to the amphibians I found, I spotted a couple of tiny hepatica blooming along the forest path above my house, their delicate blue petals and long white stamens brightening up a still mostly bare forest. Within a couple of days, bloodroot was blooming in the forest along paths and bordering the yard.

Mayapples are opening up their little green leaf umbrellas down around the ponds, but it will be a while until they bloom; a friend noted trout lilies were blooming at her place. Field cress emerged and bloomed so fast that I barely had time to pick a few leaves to sauté before they turned bitter, as they do once they bloom.

Delicate little hepatica were the first to bloom in the forest above the author’s house.Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
Delicate little hepatica were the first to bloom in the forest above the author’s house.

Spice bush was bringing a soft green haze to the bush level in the forest ahead of the other native shrubs and trees. In the lower elevations of the hollow, serviceberry just started blooming.

The female of my pair of eastern phoebes is now busy repairing their nest above the kitchen vent, using moss, leaves, grass and mud. Indigo buntings are also back and singing in the forest behind my house. I’ve also seen my first groundhog of the year, foraging in a pasture.

At the lower ponds, newts had been engaged in amplexus for a couple of weeks, but no eggs yet. Eastern painted turtles are now basking on logs on warm days; soon they’ll be digging holes in which to deposit their eggs in the ground around the pond.

Late in March, on a warm afternoon, I heard a lone male pickerel frog croak out his mating call, often characterized as a “snore,” but it reminds me more of a door with rusty hinges opening. At that point, it was too early for this guy to get a response, but in visiting the lower ponds near midnight last Friday (April 11), several males were calling.

In visiting the pond a couple of days later, my landlady pointed out some egg masses that were attached to debris close to shore. They were not quite close enough for an easy ID, but the embryos looked more brown than black, which would make the eggs those of pickerels, not wood frogs; with the recent calling of pickerels, I’ll bet that’s who laid the eggs. Of course, the ponds down there are loaded with fish, so I’ve yet to see a tadpole in them.

Among the more noteworthy insects, I’ve seen mourning cloak and eastern comma butterflies, two of the earliest to emerge in the spring, flying around. With temperatures now climbing into the 80s, at least temporarily, the air is starting to fill with flying insects. Not all the tiny critters that are emerging may be welcome. On my last foray up the mountain, I came back with a hitchhiker — my first tick of the year.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 329 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.”