The Farmscape Ecology Program * KYPP Nugget 25
April 10, 2012

KYPP Nugget: Spring Calling

This Week in The Columbia Paper: "Spring Calling"
While we normally space the timing of our columns and the corresponding Nugget, this month we are doing both at the same time due to the seasonal nature of the subject.

Spring Calling: Background
Spring Phenology Poster

The Farmscape Ecology Program's Spring poster documents the annual timing of different Spring happenings.  It is currently hanging in the Hawthorne Valley Farm Store alongside a log where people are invited to record their own observations of Spring happenings.

The Wood Frog Life Cycle

The early Spring quacks of the Wood Frog that fill the air around vernal pools signal the most conspicuous stage of this species' life cycle.  These are the breeding calls of male Wood Frogs, who arrive first from the dispersed forest areas where they have hibernated, and use their calls to attract the females.  During a brief week or two of breeding, the eggs are fertilized and laid in gelatinous masses attached to sticks and other substrates in the water, as can be seen in the below photo taken by Claudia this Spring.

Wood Frog and Spotted Salamander Eggs

The eggs develop and some (if lucky) will hatch into tadpoles, then metamorphose into frogs in the small window they have before the vernal pool dries up later in the summer.  This is a risk worth taking for the Wood Frog and vernal-pool amphibians like the Spotted Salamander, as ephemeral pools cannot sustain many of the aquatic predators that eat amphibian eggs.  The juvenile Wood Frogs disperse into the forest, where they spend the majority of their life as terrestrial creatures.  It is only when they have reached breeding maturity after a year or two that these frogs will migrate, en masse, back to the water - often the same vernal pools where they were born.  

For a photo essay of the Wood Frog life cycle, click here.

Wood Frog

Claudia spotted this Wood Frog by a vernal pool this March.

Spring Changes Around Hawthorne Valley

If you are interested in some of the spring changes that Conrad and Claudia have been noting around Hawthorne Valley (including more Wood Frog pictures), or are interested to report findings of your own, please visit our blog, Natural & Agricultural Observations In & Around Hawthorne Valley.

Conrad studies unidentified flowering plant
March 22 - Conrad studies an early flowering plant that he was asked to identify by a curious teacher.

Spring Calling

by Anna Duhon

March 2012 - It seems everywhere I go these past few weeks, the signs of spring are being noted.  While waiting for a train this warm March morning, for instance, I overheard a woman exclaim – “my Apricot trees are already blossoming!”  It’s been that kind of spring. 

Blossoms, warmth, and a general greening are how I usually first notice spring, but that has been changing in recent years – in large part due to the frogs.  Three years ago I happened to be walking in the forest one early spring day and inadvertently stumbled into a calamitous riot of quacking that I could only assume was some squadron of ducks or geese about to crest the hill.  None appearing, I shifted my gaze from the blue sky, to the forest, to the ground around my feet as it slowly dawned on me that the great commotion seizing the forest was coming from a pool full of frogs.  It was a realization both shocking and thrilling.

I have since come to learn a little more about the life of these Wood Frogs, who along with the Spotted Salamander and other amphibians, await a warm, rainy night in early spring to migrate en masse from their respective winter forest homes to the vernal pools where they gather - with raucous quacking calls - to mate and lay their eggs.  Now with the first hint of warming days each year, an anticipatory frog-shaped question mark begins to form in some deep part of my mind, and I look for rainy nights and wonder if the frogs have moved.  It is for me the first sign of spring.

The Wood Frogs have been a good reminder of how much of the world around us we do not see, unless we happen to stumble upon it or know to look.  My colleague Conrad, for instance, knows the vernal pools in a wholly different way: at night, with the beam of a flashlight shining on the backs of incoming amphibians.  Speaking of the spring amphibians, he said, “I think the most thrilling part of the process for me is to actually see them arriving…the big Spotted Salamanders are almost dinosaur-like when they’re coming to the pond and you see them so rarely the rest of the year…so to go with a flashlight and see them all descending from the hills….”

My experience with the Wood Frogs, and being around biologists, has also showed me one entry point into a deeper world of seeing – noting the cyclic happenings (the “phenology”) of the plants and animals as they move through the seasons.  Many people, from Thoreau to the biologists whom I am fortunate to work among, have made a practice of noting these changes and thus deepening their relationship with the natural world.  As Craig Holdrege, the director of the Nature Institute, explains, “By every year attending to things and writing them down you are more expectant and more observant…you go into each a season wondering, ‘when are my old friends going to appear?’ and it is - it is like going out and meeting an old friend.”

Each year my colleagues Conrad and Claudia hang a spring phenology chart in the Hawthorne Valley Farm Store that records the “first” observations for a long list of ‘old friends’ - spring happenings - from the first call of the Spring Peepers to the flowering of the Spicebush.  Looking at this chart, one glimpses a rich spring world missed by many, myself included.  When I ask Conrad and Claudia about their favorite things to look for this time of year, they speak of flying ants, the teapot-shaped male Woodcocks that shoot up into the air then whoosh down in an energetic mating display, and the flowering Red Maples that provide early nectar to the emerging bees.  Another favorite is the first appearance of the butterflies – both the ones that hibernate, such as the Mourning Cloak or Comma, who come out on a warm day to take their first drink from the sap trickling down the Maples, and those, such as the Cabbage White, that overwinter as larvae or chrysalises. 

When I ask Craig Holdrege about his favorite spring changes, he speaks of the emergence of the early flowering Skunk Cabbage that warms and melts the snow and ice around it (though not this year), the returns of the bigger flocks of geese flying north, the first Bluebirds looking to nest, the Wood Frog chorus, and a procession of spring flowers:  “I always like to go out in the woods in the next weeks and follow which of the wildflowers come up in the woodlands…in the more rocky, somewhat dry areas, Hepatica will be flowering soon…by contrast down in the bottom areas where the soil is richer, Bloodroot will be coming up soon, with lovely big white flowers.  I always wait for them as wonderful harbingers of spring, and then everything begins to follow.” 

Spring is assuredly here, and it has many calls – whether the Wood Frog chorus or the unfurling of flowers – that invite us to note the new life and greet the ‘old friends.’