Wild Ideas: As sunshine returns, animals get back in gear   

After days of cool, wet weather, the sunshine is back and temperatures are rising, boosting animal activity.

On Sunday (May 14), I visited the two lower ponds where I live to check on the little black tadpoles that were the results of the recent breeding of Eastern American Toads there, I wrote about this in last week’s column, which is exclusively available online and includes a slideshow and video.The tadpoles had now grown to a whopping three-quarters of an inch or so (including tail) and were busy munching on the buffet of algae and plant matter in the warm, shallow area of the trout pond.

A few larger tads (about 10 times the size of the toads’) that were a pale greenish-brown with darker spots, along with some eastern newts, were hanging around among the toad larvae. None of these species seemed to pay much attention to the others. Larger tadpoles, along with newts, will sometimes eat the larvae of other amphibians, along with that of insects, but most avoid those of toads, which have toxins in their skins.

Photos by Pam Owen

I hadn’t been tracking the arrival of the various species to the pond but knew which had shown in the previous few years. Considering their size and coloring, the larger tadpoles are likely the larvae of pickerel frogs, among the earliest to breed there in the spring (starting in April). Since tadpoles of many species have similar coloring, the best way to sort them out is by their mouths, which are more distinct, and I wasn’t prepared to do that the day I was there but may try later.

Another clue is how developed the tadpoles are, which can indicate where that species lies in the frog-breeding timeline. Green frogs, which normally start breeding in May, shouldn’t have tadpoles that big yet, and bullfrogs are just getting started.

The next day, with temperatures still rising, I stopped by the trout pond again. Scouting the other side of the pond, which is generally deeper, I found lots of the larger tadpoles there, running for cover. I had never seen any tadpoles in that pond since I moved to the property, and I think my landlords’ trying to move all the sunfish, including bass, over to the other pond, may be cutting down on larvae and egg mortality.

At the other pond, I found what was left of a large bass on the bank — another animal buffet, but this time for insects. On the outside were several species of fly, and what may have been a tiny wasp. And more than a dozen large American carrion beetles (Necrophila Americana) were scurrying around inside and on top of the fish. According to BugGuide.net, the adults of this beetle species mostly feed on fly larvae left on carrion, but also eat some carrion. Their larvae eat carrion, maggots and beetle larvae, and may prefer dried skin and bits of flesh after maggots have departed.

American carrion beetles and an assortment of flies use what’s left of a large bass for food and deposit their eggs. By Paw Owen

Despite its unsavory role in life, this beetle is quite beautiful. In the scarab family (held sacred in ancient Egypt), its bumpy, thick outer wings are a shiny black. The adults have a lovely yellow pronotum, a prominent plate-like structure that covers all or part of the thorax of some insects, including shield bugs, such as the brown marmorated stink bug. In the middle of the pronotum is a cross-like black spot, the source of the beetle’s other common name, “crusader carrion beetle.” This beetle prefers hanging around carcasses larger than a rat, according to BugGuide.net, but I once found a flattened green frog that seemed to have been reanimated, until I saw these beetles coming out of it.

Speaking of brown marmorated stink bugs, on the side of my house I saw a spider slowly sucking the life out of one of the bugs (literally) from its rear end. A lot of small flies were in attendance, likely waiting for the leftovers or a host to lay their eggs in.

A spider (bold jumping spider) eats a brown marmorated stink bug, with flies apparently waiting for leftovers. By Pam Owen

The spring peepers are still calling near the various pools on the property, especially in damp weather, and I heard my first gray treefrog calling as well, and American bullfrogs should also be getting in the mood.

Birds have also become more vocal. Among the newly arrived summer breeders I’ve seen on the property is a wood thrush, whose haunting song I eagerly listen for each spring, and American redstarts, white-eyed and red-eyed vireos, and indigo buntings. An eastern towhee has been singing his “drink your tea” song on and off for the last couple of weeks, perhaps the same male I spotted foraging in the forest litter about a month ago. More species have undoubtedly arrived. I just haven’t seen them yet or sorted out their songs.

The first female ruby-throated hummingbird of the year arrived at my feeder last week, but usually I’m seeing more by this point in the spring. The first clutch of fledglings start showing up at my feeders in June, so why am I not seeing more females by now?

The first males, most of whom were probably passing through to the north, arrived as soon as I put my feeder out, in mid-April. I soon observed several doing something that was new to me. I was sitting on the deck having a beer one evening, feeling guilty about not yet having removed a patch of garlic mustard just below, on the edge of a small stand of trees. This introduced plant is highly invasive and releases chemicals that can affect the soil, endangering whole ecosystems, so I’m trying to be more diligent in getting rid of it.

Three male hummers were flying up and down vertically, like little helicopters, among the mustard, but they were not trying to nectar off the flowers. I had also noticed earlier in the day that the mustard was attracting some very small flying insects, mostly flies from what I could make out, and I think the hummers were feeding on them. These tiny, high-energy birds are known to feed insects to their young because of their high protein value, and adult hummers also take advantage of this food when they first arrive on their breeding grounds, often well before native plants can provide nectar.

Now that the sun has returned and the heat is rising, more animals, especially insects, will be active, and I’ll be doing my best to document their activities, using my cameras and nature journal.

© 2017 Pam Owen

More ‘Wild Ideas’ online

Sometimes, when space is tight, “Wild Ideas” or parts of it (especially sidebars) do not make it into the print edition of this newspaper, and I almost always have more photos than will fit. To see more information, photos, slideshows and videos (as for my last column, on toads breeding) and even the occasional audio clip, go to rappnews.com/wildideas. Almost all my columns since I started writing “Wild Ideas” in 2010 are available there, too.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 340 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.”