Winter’s Last Licks

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The signs are few and far between, and far from obvious. But if you look and listen carefully, you will see and hear some signs of spring.As I write this, the red-colored buds of the swamp maple in my front yard are noticeably swollen. Snowdrop and crocus shoots are more than an inch tall, while the daffodil’s pale green stems are nearly 3 inches in height.

Red-winged blackbirds are back. Jim Monaco noted several at Long Beach, Noyac, and Ceal Havemeyer reports that she spotted her first male of the year in Bridgehampton on February 23. Ceal also mentioned that they are late this year; her earliest record of them is February 5.

The cardinal, a southern bird that has extended its range north in recent times, is now found here on Long Island throughout the winter. Juliana Duryea heard a male cardinal singing its territorial song last week.

My resident chipmunk emerged from its winter quarters over the warm weekend and scurried around the backyard, to the consternation of my four hens.

The Rhode Island reds are a very hardy breed, but they have been a miserable lot this winter, refusing to venture out onto the snow-covered ground even on the warmest days. They also refused to lay for two months. But this past weekend, they were all out of the hen house, scratching through the leaves and warm earth for fresh greens, seeds and grubs. And they are back to laying.

Last week’s big thaw and heavy rains created small pools in many of our woodland kettleholes and swales, and covered our low-lying forests and marshes with a sheet of water. The rain was followed by several days of clear, sunny weather, with daytime temperatures well above freezing.

These were perfect conditions to entice one of our most secretive and unusual creatures to emerge from its underground haunts: the mole salamander.

Mole salamanders—including the tiger, spotted, blue-spotted and marbled salamanders in the Ambystoma genus found here on Long Island—are so-named for their fossorial habits. These smooth-skinned, delicate-looking animals seem very out of place in the winter landscape, but they are surprisingly hardy, often venturing out onto the snow to make the annual migration to their breeding pond, which may be covered in ice.

This remarkable episode does have its advantages. Mole salamanders have evolved to utilize vernal, or temporary, pools of standing water to mate and fertilize eggs. The fact that the pools of water are temporary means that they are devoid of fish predators, a benefit not only to the large, slow-moving, terrestrial adults (they are so relished by fish that they are used in some areas of the country as fish bait), but to the eggs and larvae.

Of course, the downside to this breeding strategy is that the pool may dry up before the larvae have sufficiently developed, are ready to metamorphose into their adult terrestrial form, and can exit the water.

To maximize breeding success and minimize the chances of the breeding pool drying up before juveniles have left for terra firma, most of our mole salamanders set their breeding schedules for late winter and very early spring. Tigers are first to breed, next are the blue-spotted, and, finally, the spotted. All three have generally laid their golf-ball-to-tennis-ball-sized egg clusters by the end of March.

The marbled salamander utilizes a somewhat different breeding strategy. As with the other species, it avoids the vernal pools during August, when they are most likely to have dried up. But the marbled adults move toward their preferred breeding pools in the fall, and mate and lay eggs even if the pool has no standing water. The eggs are laid in the moist soil and begin development and hatch when the pool fills with water. In some years, if the pool remains dry through the fall, as was the case at some locations in 2013, the eggs might not hatch until spring.

Earlier this month, actually the last day in January, a colleague happened upon an unusual track in the snow. The mystery creature had emerged from a quarter-sized hole and traveled about 10 feet over the crusty surface, where it sat, as if contemplating its next move.

Its next move was to get back into the relative warmth of the snowpack. The overall track was distinctive in its extremely short “stride,” or distance between each footprint, relative to its “straddle,” or width, identifying it as an animal with legs shorter than its body is wide.

I was shown the track the following day. I had never seen anything quite like it, and could only envision a millipede-like creature with tiny legs splayed out to its sides. It was a spotted salamander—not here on Long Island but in southern New Hampshire. It wisely decided to head back underground and delay a trip to the local breeding pool, which at that time was frozen solid.

Amazing! To learn more about these incredible animals, and actually see one in the field, check out the offerings at the South Fork Natural History Society: www.sofo.org.

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