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."
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.
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.
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.
For memberships and updates, see:www.capeannvernalpond.org