Thursday, May 7, 2015

Swamping on Halibut Point

Spring evenings, strolling down the path into Halibut Point State Park you're going to be greeted by the peeper frog chorus promoting procreation in wetlands everywhere. Occasionally out of the blackness may come a quacking sound, to my ear more like a crow mutter, indicating wood frogs. That justifies a call to the Cape Ann Vernal Pond Team (CAVT).

CAVT members Rick Roth and Martin Basch came out to see about certifying possible vernal pools. I wasn't sure how their walking sticks fit into the outing since the first pool was only a couple of hundred feet up the path.

Confronting cat brier and sudden depth drops
Rick uses the stick as a depth gauge, and to part the cat brier. From experience he attests that it's better to try to find the bottom with his stick than his body. This is quarry country where water holes can be deep.

Rick wears polarizing sunglasses to help spot amphibian egg masses below the water surface. He collects them onto a floating tray.

Spotted salamander egg mass attached to twigs in pond
Photographic evidence of five egg masses suffices to certify a vernal pool. Since most of the parent species are nocturnal, finding the egg masses in the daytime is an "easier" way to provide evidence. But day or night, all CAVT expeditions are spectacular.

Five qualifying salamander samples
After being photographed the egg masses are returned to the pond to develop into larvae with gills. Like all amphibians salamanders eventually develop lungs for their terrestrial adult life. They can succeed if the pool retains water long enough, at least a couple of months, for the youngsters to get legs and crawl off into the forest.

Life in this niche avoids fish predation. By definition vernal pools preclude fish because they lack moving water from inlets or outlets, and they dry up seasonally. 'Vernal' means 'spring.'

Martin Basch taking a GPS reading
GPS coordinates locate the pool within twenty feet for a map maintained by the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. Certified pools receive State protection of a 25-foot buffer zone, which may be enlarged by local ordinance. Rockport voters have authorized a 50-foot buffer. All of this differs from areas designated wetlands by the Department of Environmental Management with more stringent rules and usage implications, which typically don't apply to vernal pools.

Most vernal pools are tiny, but Rick believes they feed more forest wildlife than any other wetland. The high mortality rate of eggs and newborns means that creatures higher up the food chain are feasting.
Vernal pools are also defined by the presence of  'obligate' species, creatures such as salamanders and wood frogs that breed nowhere else. Peepers, because they breed in many kinds of wetlands, are often present in vernal pools are not  specific indicators. Peepers reproduce with a different strategy, laying singular eggs that drop into the muck bottom to avoid detection while they gestate.
On another occasion Rick highlighted the allure of the hunt, the vibrancy of a forest night in spring and the mostly unseen relationships that briefly come into focus.

Yellow-spotted salamanders swimming
"I'm a salamander guy. To me it's just totally normal....This is ultimately about the health of the planet. To me, it's just makes perfect sense that not only is there this wonderful thing called Nature that includes all these delightful plants and animals but it's also necessary. So to me it's not eccentric at all."

"Look at all these people showing up on a rainy night, and with kids! What's going on? It's a vernal pond field trip!"

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