Friday, April 25, 2014

Salamander Buzz

A field trip with Rick Roth 
As a kid I collected things with my critter buddies, snakes, dragonflies, whatever we could find that hopped, crawled or flew. We waded into vernal ponds with our peanut butter jars before anybody knew they had a name. About twenty-five years ago I began going out again and wound up starting the Cape Ann Vernal Pond Team. Massachusetts was the first state in the country to give them protection. Now, when we take people out there, the spectacle is so interesting that they ask, "How can I help?"
Rick Roth with helper
There's going to be good frog action tonight, I can guarantee it. We're not going to disappoint all these families that brought their kids out on a rainy night. Hear that croak, the quacking sound? Wood frog. Yeah, there it is. It's one of the indicator species of a vernal pond, meaning it's dependent for breeding on ponds that dry up in the summer. It's a race against time for the tadpoles to develop legs and lungs so they can hop out as miniature frogs before the ponds go dry.
Wood frog
"Hey, Rick. Over here! We found one! A salamander. Dad! Mom! Look at this. It's moving."
Okay, cool. Check this out, everybody. Thanks for the heads-up, you guys.
Yellow-spotted salamander
Our friends here only come out on rainy nights in early spring. They're in the mole salamander group, because they spend most of their lives underground where it's damp. See that crevice? I've seen them lined up in there waiting for it to rain. They won't cross twenty feet of ground to the pond unless it rains.
There's one now. It probably just came out. Salamanders can congregate in cold weather in these deep crevices and under stumps, where the frost can't reach them. It's called a hibernaculum. Wood frogs don't usually go down that deep in the winter. They're one of the only known land vertebrates that can actually freeze solid and survive ice crystals in their cells.
Salamander leaving hibernaculum
There goes the salamander, headed for the pond. Wetlands are the hotspot for forest activity. I always look for water if I'm looking for critters.
Swimming salamanders
The males show up first and deposit their part of the bargain on twigs and leaf litter in the water, in those little popcorn-like clusters you see called spermatophores. The salamanders can stay submerged indefinitely because they can take in enough oxygen from the water through their skin evidently by osmosis.
Salamander eggs
When the females arrive they find the spermatophores to fertilize their eggs, which they attach underwater to twigs. That's the little dots you see in the middle of the jelly. The larvae have gills on the side of their heads. Unlike tadpoles they're born with legs. They grow to about half an  inch before they hatch from the egg cluster. They're about 2" long by the time they're ready to crawl out of the pond into the woods.
Rain drops and cliff drops
"Hey Rick, up here. Should we pick this guy up before it falls over the cliff?" No, it'll be okay. I've seen salamanders  go right over the edge of the quarry and swim away. It doesn't seem to bother them. They know what they're doing.

I don't think my interests are eccentric at all. This is ultimately about the health of the planet, saving open space so that the trees can make more oxygen. The forest is not just trees, it's a symbiotic relationship with all these animals. To me, it just makes perfect sense that not only are these wonderful things that we have called Nature, that includes all these delightful plants and animals, but it's also necessary. 
Our certification program aims to register and protect all the vernal pond habitats on Cape Ann. We welcome newcomers to this fun and important activity. Take a look at our website,

Friday, April 18, 2014

A Day at the Pond

Inch-long peeper frogs blow the Gabriel's Trumpet of spring. They're perched in wooded wetlands heralding the thaw exuberantly. I approach their cricket-like mating melodies through the darkness amidst a thousand soliloquies shouted with the ardor of adolescents at a rock festival. The revelers rise above a din that, as a bystander, I find hard to take.

On returning next morning I enter a quiet as profound as the noise of the night. The pond and the air are absolutely still. Yesterday's sunshine matches the mood by transitioning to cool mists. My senses decelerate.

Misty morning
With the nocturnal creatures withdrawn an alternate logic envelops the pond, restorative and protective. I appreciate the stillness as a dynamic pause rather than an absence, a necessary phase of non-action. The visible world waits and offers compensations.

Lichens and hemlock
 Lichens and mosses glow themselves into prominence on rocky surfaces. As the sponges of the terrestrial world they prosper when the diffused light and watery air of an "Irish day" make life on bare granite verdant and decorative. They lift the biological world into notice in a continuum of organisms from tiny to towering that both colonize and create niches.

A scamper away from the pond a crevice opens to subterranean recesses where salamanders lodge in domiciles that never freeze. I imagine myself in miniature spelunking through their caverns with a miner's lamp. A massive approaching amphibian shakes the ground and walls. I scatter distasteful repellants and stand aside. The repellants will biodegrade harmlessly in an hour, plenty of time to get myself back to the land of giants.

I emerge from underground and meander to the shore. Moisture condensing on an overhanging tree drops to the water, radiating ripples across the pond. I climb aboard a leaf to spin hilariously in the ripple surf, a final allowance of the mode in miniscule.

Elevated once again to manly stature I look down at the ripple patterns caroming through each other, playing with forest reflections on the surface of the pond like fluid glass bull's-eyes, like novelties metamorphosing into consciousness from dream states in our creative core that sustain new ventures in the realm of achievement. 

Silence muffles the edges of time. Submerged salamanders lower their respiration and breathe through their skins. A slow pulse disperses energy to the miracle of life.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Night Sounds, Pond Sights

While it's true that spring grants us more minutes of light each day, the nights hum eventfully too. The night arena expands proportionally with a shift of our primary sensor from eye to ear.
I was promised an evening introduction to the woodcock's lyrical courting ritual.  Walking to the appointment through Seaside Cemetery I heard a whirring-clicking sound in the canopy above and hoped I was being treated to a woodcock overture. "No, that was the screech owl in the oak tree," said my friend when we met up. "We'll listen for woodcocks up ahead."
From the dusky sky came the kissy sound of a woodcock pirouetting to the turf in hopes of liaison with a female waiting noncommittally in the meadow. I thought the background whispers of breeze and surf might contribute to his amorous appeal. Spaces of silence added elegance to the nocturnal motif.
Laura Meyers photo
As temperatures warmed over the next few days  the first salamander alert arrived from the Cape Ann Vernal Pond Team: Meet at Walgreen's parking lot at 8:30. Nighttime, that is. My initiation to pond prowling began comically in waders, floppy clothes, and flashlights at Gloucester's center-city mall. 

From the assembly point we caravanned to Nugent's Stretch at the Rockport line where billboards were once erected by the State DPW to protect adjacent wetlands, then replaced in the nice sane scale of today's Vernal Pond signs. We started walking down a trail in a hushed file toward the amphibians. I supposed that silence would help achieve the element of surprise, but a chorus of peepers filled the air with frog song. Occasional solo chirrups distinguished themselves melodically, warnings from one male to another to keep his distance. Could our own species assert its bravado accordingly? 

We noticed a quacking sound from the darkness. Wood frogs, headed to the ponds to make tadpoles. 

Vernal ponds are by definition shallow and temporary, big puddles, really. The water stays in them long enough to support the life cycle of creatures that hop, wiggle, or fly in to lay eggs. Since they dry up in the summer predatory fish are excluded. But all manner of other consumers will come in to feast.
Rick Roth and Big Bertha

Team leader Rick Roth turned on Big Bertha, his satchel-sized torch with a red filter adapted from stage lighting. He reasoned that the red light was less likely to spook the critters. The pond did indeed take on a theatrical aspect with six- to eight-inch spotted salamanders gliding through the submerged leaf litter.
Spotted salamander
Males make their appearance first. We could see the popcorn-like sperm clusters they deposited on the bottom. When the females arrive they'll cozy up to those clusters, lay their eggs, and the next generation of salamanders will be on its way.
Sam Bevins
A stir of excitement followed Sam Bevins' discovery of a newt. The newt joined us companionably on a carpet of moss while we watched fairy shrimp attracted by our flashlight beams.

We trudged back to the road with the satisfaction of an audience at a privileged venue. A couple of men greeted us on the trail with fraternal urgency. "Are they here? We saw your cars." The timing of the ten-day salamander spree varies from year to year according to the weather. Scouting reports help get out the word. 

The team warmly invited me to join them on a rainy night when amphibian migrations and courtships will be at full flourish. I'll be watching for the notice. I hope to be able to recognize the participants individually next time. Even bundled up Rick and Sam have distinctive flashlight silhouettes. Tracy and Colleen I may have to recall by ear, the sound of their cordial and informative presence. 

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Friday, April 4, 2014

The Head of the Cove

Let's return to the earliest available picture of Folly Cove, a stereopticon view of a fisherman preparing his trawl lines alongside Granite Street.

(1) "Baiting Lines," by flake yard, 1860s
Over his shoulder sit mid-nineteenth century houses at the head of Folly Cove. By enlarging the photograph (2) some interesting details come forward: a fishing dory pulled up on the rocks, a vegetable garden in the foreground, and a barn to the right. These signs of  local self-sufficiency could be augmented by salted fish from the flake yard sold for cash.  

Granite Street brings us here from Rockport. We're close to the Town Line where it changes name to Washington Street as it runs between these rows of houses, continuing seven miles to Gloucester Harbor. Carts and carriages conveyed people to town in those days.
Just visible in the photograph below is a gabled building on Mason Square that eventually became an inn. Back then Mason Square was a segment of the main road preferred to the steeper grade on Washington Street.

(2) Head of the Cove
It's interesting to speculate about the orderly wall at the tide line in the photograph. Presumably yesterday's ocean rearranged stones as readily as does today's. In picture (3) a team of men and horses is hauling stones away on a sled. They may be clearing up after a storm or engaged in construction. Or both.

(3) Samuel Seppala and team hauling stones
Samuel Seppala operated Sunnyside Farm  at Folly Cove from 1919 to 1943. Though his actual land area was small, he made pasturing and haying arrangements in the neighborhood.

(4) Samuel Seppala and son taking cows to pasture
The dairy herd walked back and forth to pasture daily. Here they are crossing the Gloucester-Rockport line indicated by the sign beside the road, probably in the 1920s after the trolley tracks have been removed.

(5) Hay ride
Uno Seppala, Richard Seppala, Marjorie Wheeler,
Martha Koski, Vera Seppala, Hilda Ross
There was time for a little fun on the farm.

(6) Dories on the rocks, 1939
G. Newton Morgan, lobster fisherman
Ensio Ronka, son of Finnish Lutheran minister
The beach at the foot of the farm was and continues to be a public landing. Opening to the northeast, the Cove has always proven unpredictable as a mooring, which may account for its original name of Gallup's Folly Cove. Small boats have to be carried above the tide line over tricky footing.
Photographs from the collection of the Sandy Bay Historical Association. Photos (3-5) by Gabrielle DeVeaux Clements. Captions (3 - 6) by W. D. Hoyt, Jr.