Newts from the Field: Springing Ahead

 

Look to the forest floor for some of the first signs of changing seasons, writes Shelby Perry, Stewardship Director of Northeast Wilderness Trust

In the first week of March I start, even though I know it is too early, but the anticipation pulls me like a magnet.  In my snowshoes I climb the hills outside of town, follow the folding topography to the low spots, and check on them regularly.  The effort is not wasted, for I get to enjoy other harbingers of spring as I go.  At first the signs are subtle: slight swelling of buds, the staggering tracks of skunks in soft snow, heat wells around the trees in the snow pack, a change in bird song.  Then the more obvious signs begin, and my excitement grows: bear tracks, drumming grouse, bits of green, mud!  By the time I trade in my snowshoes for mud boots my path to the vernal pools is well traveled.

Vernal pools begin to come to life in the Northeast anywhere from mid-March in the south, to as late as May in the north and higher terrain.  In central Vermont, where I live, activity in the pools usually gets going around mid-April, though this year could be a bit later because of the deep snow and lingering low temperatures. 

An immense vernal pool at the Muddy Pond Wilderness Preserve in Kingston, MA, protected by Northeast Wilderness Trust in 2018

What makes a pool a vernal pool?  Two things, really: first it fills with water in the spring and dries up completely by late summer; second, it has no permanent inlet or outlet.  These characteristics are important because generally this means that the pool cannot support a population of fish.  Fish gobble up amphibian eggs and larvae, so pools without these voracious predators give the baby amphibians a better shot at making it to adulthood. 

What makes a vernal pool amazing?  So many things!  They are positively teeming with life.  Eastern toads, wood frogs, eastern newts, leopard frogs, spotted salamanders, fairy shrimp, fingernail clams and more can inhabit a single pool no bigger than a parking space simultaneously when activity is at its peak.  Many of the frog and toad species call from the pools, and the chorus can be heard from quite a distance if you approach quietly.  If they hear you coming first though, the calls will cease and not begin again until you leave. 

Wood frog. Photo: © Susan C. Morse

Usually the first arrival at the pool is the wood frog, and they are a fascinating case study of life in the pool.  Wood frogs over-winter in the leaf litter at the ground surface.  They concentrate sugars in their blood just before winter, a process which allows them to freeze solid for over four weeks at a time without sustaining the kind of cellular damage that kills most living things that freeze.  This adaptation allows them to become active as soon as the ground surface thaws in the spring, and as soon as they can move they make their way to the pools, mate, and lay eggs. 

Frog eggs in a vernal pool framed by eastern spotted newts. Photo: © Susan C. Morse

The eggs that don’t end up in the belly of a newt, bird, or mammalian predator hatch in a few weeks and the pool fills with tiny tadpoles.  Nibbling on leaves and algae, the tadpoles start out mostly vegetarian.  Remember though, these pools have no permanent inlet, meaning that when the rains and meltwaters of spring subside the pools begin to shrink.  Naturalist and ecologist Bernd Heinrich once conducted an experiment where he raised wood frog tadpoles in a tank, as long as he kept plenty of fresh water and food for the tadpoles, they stayed tadpoles, for about 8 months!  As soon as he let the water level drop though, and things got a little bit crowded, the tadpoles turned on each other, and swiftly metamorphosed.  Heinrich concluded that when conditions in the pool concentrate the tadpoles, the resulting cannibalism triggers metamorphosis into frogs.  

Spotted salamander. Photo: © Susan C. Morse

Many of the mechanisms that have evolved to allow vernal pool species to survive, including how metamorphosis is triggered in wood frogs, are still poorly understood.  There is so much left to learn from these fascinating little creatures, but sadly amphibian populations are declining around the globe.  A mind-boggling array of factors, from road salt to climate change, habitat fragmentation to invasive pathogens, are all contributing to the detriment of our amphibian neighbors.  The conservation of large, intact blocks of wild forest protects the stage on which the drama of amphibian life unfolds. 

Vernal pool in the proposed Bridgewater Hollow Bramhall Preserve, a landscape that Northeast Wilderness Trust is working to protect in 2019.

Northeast Wilderness Trust is currently working to protect the Bridgewater Hollow Bramhall Preserve just outside of Woodstock, VT.  The property hosts at least two productive vernal pools, and maybe more.  Conservation of the acreage surrounding these pools as wilderness is the best possible outcome for their springtime inhabitants.  Wilderness means no skidder treads will ever crush the frozen frogs in winter, no new roads will crisscross their habitat, and no chemicals used to control weeds or melt snow will ever foul the waters of the pools. 

Please consider making a tax deductible gift today to support the conservation of the Bridgewater Hollow Bramhall Preserve as wilderness.  The frogs and salamanders will thank you!

Keep It Wild,

Shelby

 

Portraits of wilderness

 

Accomplished photographer, scientist, and wilderness advocate, Brendan Wiltse, shares a tale from adventures in conservation in a wild (and as yet unprotected) corner of New York’s Adirondack Park.

The cliffs of Eagle Mountain and the setting for the author’s story. Brendan Wiltse

Hunkered down below a bush I peer over the cliff’s edge, scanning an adjacent rock face, looking for signs of a Peregrine Falcon nest. My heart is racing, not only because I may have the opportunity to capture an enigmatic shot of a bird family that just may help save them, but because I absolutely cannot let myself get caught. I’m trespassing. Not from the perspective of the landowners of this cliff face, but from the perspective of the falcons themselves. They are extremely sensitive to disturbance and will not tolerate a potential predator so close to their nest. I spot signs of droppings on the cliff, a tell-tale sign that a nest is just above, but there is no way to get clear sight of the nest without giving away my position.

Twenty-five feet behind me my dog Khyber is laying down. Normally, I wouldn’t take him on an outing to photograph wildlife, but today was more about scouting than getting a specific photograph. He’s a ten-year-old black Labrador retriever, and with many years of training, is the most well-behaved dog I have ever had the pleasure of calling my partner. I retreat to his side, momentarily assessing where we are headed off to next. I notice him sniffing over his shoulder, away from the cliff face. I stand to continue on, away from the nesting falcons. As I do, a face appears over a downed log twenty feet away. A black bear is peering back at us. It seems as though we’ve been caught trespassing after all.

Black Bear. ©Susan C. Morse

Khyber rises, spots the bear, but stays still. He knows he hasn’t been given the go ahead to roam freely and as tempting as it is to greet the bear he stays put. At the same time, I hear a noise further in the distance, three cubs scamper up a tree. My heart begins racing again as I realize I am between a cliff face and a mother bear with cubs. Khyber and I slowly circle the mother and her cubs, she keeps herself between us and them, as they watch from above. Once we no longer have the cliff to our back, we move away. The cubs scamper back down the tree and head down the opposite side of the mountain with their mom.


Peregrine Falcon. Brendan Wiltse

This was my experience two hours into my first visit to the Eagle Mountain Preserve. Just a few months prior, Northeast Wilderness Trust’s Deputy Director, Cathleen Maine, had reached out to me about a photograph for a report. What started as a fairly standard business email, turned into an opportunity to help tell the story of an incredible opportunity to create a Wilderness preserve.

Photography has always been a passion of mine and for the past five-years has been a full-time side gig. Conservation photography is what I am particularly passionate about. I’ve spent years sharing photographs of the natural world online, building connections between people and wild places. Along the way, I’ve worked with non-profit conservation organizations, helping to advance their missions to protect the Adirondacks. The opportunity to help with the Eagle Mountain Preserve is by far the most exciting. If Northeast Wilderness Trust is successful, and I have no doubt they will be, the homes of those falcons and bears will be forever protected.


As I sit on the summit of Eagle Mountain, reflecting on my recent encounters with the wildlife that call it home, a Peregrine Falcon lands on a dead tree in the distance. I pull out my telephoto lens and lay down in a prone position. I smile as I capture images of the falcon looking over its home. I hope these images will help tell the story of this incredible place, inspiring people to help protect it.

Khyber and I regroup and retreat down the opposite side of the mountain, taking care to not go in the direction of the mother bear and her cubs. As we reach the low valley below the light is fading. I check my map and realize we may be able to make it to nearby Copper Pond for sunset. We take off running, arriving as the last rays of light streak across the sky. I quickly setup for a landscape photograph. I have a hard time focusing on my camera setup as I take in the majestic beauty of this small pond. It is surrounded by steep hills, cliffs, and I can hear a waterfall flowing into it from the far shore. I barely get the photograph, but I’m nearly certain it will be a good one.

Sunset over Copper Pond. Brendan Wiltse.

For more than a year I have continued to explore and photograph the Eagle Mountain Preserve. I am very lucky to receive support for my conservation photography work from a small group of loyal supporters on Patreon. Patreon supporters help cover my expenses for capturing images of this magnificent landscape so that Northeast Wilderness Trust can focus on raising the money needed to protect it. I look forward to this incredible landscape opening to the public, so others can appreciate its beauty on a personal level that isn’t possible through a photograph. Until then, I hope my images inspire support for this worthy and important project.

— Brendan Wiltse

Brendan Wiltse is the Science & Stewardship Director for the Ausable River Association and a professional conservation photographer. He holds a Ph.D. in Biology from Queen’s University in Canada. While not out on the water studying Adirondack lakes and streams, he is often roaming the Wilderness with his camera and dog. You can view is photography at www.brendanwiltse.com


Your gift is critical to ensuring a forever-wild home for the black bears, Peregrine Falcons, and native brook trout of the Eagle Mountain Wilderness Preserve. Time is running out to reach our $1.8 million fundraising goal. Every dollar counts. Can you give $50 for Eagle Mountain? $500 protects one acre. $5,000 protects 10 acres. Please join our community of wilderness supporters by donating today.