Archive for the Category ◊ Seasons ◊

• Friday, March 11th, 2011

There is a magical event that happens in the early spring. No one knows what triggers it and no one knows exactly when it will occur. It’s a surprise. Don’t you just love surprises? It is a secret trek of the Spotted Salamanders to their breeding pools.

Vernal Pool in New Jersey

In what seems like impossibly cold weather, these amphibians have waited underground for the first warm evening spring rain. Warm being a relative term because it is still only about 45 or 50 degrees. But without fail, as the rain falls, spotted salamanders come up from their underground burrows and march sometimes by the hundreds, to vernal pools where they’ve been breeding for decades.



Vernal pools are shallow depressions in the earth where water collects in the spring but dries up by late summer or early fall. Salamanders will not breed in traditional ponds where predators such as fish loom.

Male spotted salamander. Spots are unique like finger prints.

Male salamanders migrate to their breeding pools and hang out in bachelor groups called congregations. But when the females arrive, the party really starts. 40-50 Spotted Salamanders gyrate, rub against each other and rotate their tail in hope of attracting a female’s fancy. If all this foreplay works, she’ll follow him out of the crowd as he swims away. He’ll then deposit a gelatinous sperm packet called a spermatophore. The female will trail him and pick up the spermatophore in her genital opening thus completing fertilization. Within a few days, she’ll deposit 2-3 jelly-like balls with 50-100 eggs in each. The egg sacs resemble snowballs that are attached to underwater sticks. After completing this task, both male and female adult salamanders leave the pool and return to their underground burrow until next spring.

The egg sacs remain underwater for 5-6 weeks when they hatch into tiny, gilled tadpoles. After feeding on small aquatic insects through the summer, the tadpoles metamorphose into miniature adults and leave the water by the fall.



Category: Amphibians, Seasons  | One Comment
• Monday, January 03rd, 2011

See this Philadelphia Inquirer article where Pam from Nature by the Yard is quoted on ways to attract wildlife to your yard in the winter, including placing a “nature-trimmed” Christmas tree outside.
Link to article.

• Thursday, January 21st, 2010

I love to walk through woods and meadows in winter to spot unusual features of plants that I missed when I was distracted by flowers and leaves. So many subtle treasures exist when you look carefully.

For many trees, it is easier to identify them when they have leaves or fruits, but there are a few that have such unusual bark, all you need is a quick glance to identify them.

Often found growing along stream banks,IMG_0371 the mottled bark of the American sycamore Platinus occidentalis, is easily spotted through a forest of trees or from a distance.

I have always used loose bark as a clue to disease, but the bark of the sycamore peels all year, revealing the brown, tan and green new bark underneath. In mid summer, the bark falls off in large pieces, larger enough to write on. I wonder if native people used this bark as a form of paper.

IMG_0355Though it goes by many names, the American hornbeam Carpinus caroliniana has distinctly sinuous bark which may explain why is it sometimes called muscle wood.

Hornbeam is a very dense wood, probably the densest in the mid-Atlantic forest and it is extremely hard. I once bent a pair of loppers on a limb. When I returned them to the store, the sales person asked me if I was cutting a steel cable with it. No, just ironwood.

Clues of herbaceous plants gone dormant can also be seen around the woods. There are a few species of woodland ferns that are evergreen, but my winter interest has also been to find the remains of the fertile fronds from ostrich and sensitive ferns.IMG_0362

The feathery plumes of ostrich ferns are a rich chocolate brown against newly fallen snow. And the tiny dark beads on the sensitive fern frond remind me of grape clusters.

IMG_0364Fruits as well as seed pods provide winter interest as well as important food sources for resident birds and mammals. The berries on red chokecherry Prunus virginiana burn bright against a blue sky signaling their ripeness to hungry birds.

The American hazelnut, a rare treat to find becauseIMG_0341 of they are a favorite of several mammals including fox, squirrel and raccoon as well as many larger birds like turkey and blue jays, are exquisite in their clam shell shaped sheath.

• Sunday, September 06th, 2009

IMG_0196The monarch butterfly is probably one of the most recognizable insects, but many people are unaware of a mysterious life they lead at the end of the summer.
For its size, no other insect, bird or mammal migrates like this butterfly. A North American monarch can travel up to 80 miles a day, totaling nearly 3000 miles over the course of 2 months.
Monarchs caterpillars hatch from an egg laid on their host plant, milkweed and proceed to eat the leaves, absorbing the toxins within the plant. These toxins persist in the caterpillar’s body and are transferred to the adult butterfly. Depending on where the caterpillar is from, there may be as many as 3 broods or generations in a season.

After going through a series of molts, the caterpillar sheds its skin for the last time into a chrysalis.
The butterflies that emerge in the fall are biologically and behaviorally different from those that emerged earlier in the season. They are called the Methuselah generation and live 7-8 months instead of the normal 4-5 weeks. In human terms, that is equivalent to having your children live to be 525 years old!

IMG_5413The Methuselah generation don’t mate right away, but begin their trek south to the mountains of central Mexico, feeding on nectar plants along the way. Arriving between mid October and early November, these monarchs will hibernate en masse until mid February.
As temperatures rise and humidity falls, they wake, mate and begin to travel north again laying eggs on milkweed along the way.
Those that return to Mexico the following year will be the great, great, great grandchildren of those that left the previous year.

• Wednesday, June 24th, 2009

I heard this song the other day that made me smile. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Oooo, That Smell”. I never understood the meaning of that song, but it must have been written in summer.

I was walking my son home from school a few weeks ago and as we passed a neighbor’s house, he said, “Mom, what’s that smell?” We looked up to find we were standing under a black locust tree in full flower. The white hanging flowers present a strong sweet smell for anyone inclined to notice. It got me thinking. Summer really smells! Most good, a few not so good, but there are some very distinct smells you only encounter in the summer.


For me, newly mowed grass, low tide at the beach, the first rain on hot pavement, and ripe, warm strawberries are all nostalgic smells of summer. Sweet smelling Japanese honeysuckle conjures up images of my childhood, where my friends and I would pluck the flowers, pinch the back, draw out the filament and lick the tiny droplet of nectar. Fun and yummy. Not all the smells are as sweet as that though.


The flowers of the Chinese Chestnut are a real nose wrinkler. The long white blooms release a pungent semen-like smell. And Boxwood shrubs often are described as smelling like cat urine.
The reason for scent in flowers is obvious. Flowers release a smell to attract an insect, which in turn pollinates the flower, so it can make seeds. Without pollination, most plants would be unable to reproduce. Bees and moths are attracted to sweet smelling flowers while flies and beetles are often attracted to foul, putrid smells.

Next time you’re out, stop and smell the roses or honeysuckle, or even the Chinese Chestnut. Hmm, maybe not the chestnut.

Enjoy all of nature’s gifts.