The Perfect Predator

One very warm day this summer I was lucky enough to observe a praying mantis (Mantis religiosa) in my back butterfly garden. I watched  attentively for some time as  the insect made himself at home within the stems of the tall perennials. This one was relatively small as a mantid goes, measuring only a few inches at most.  I remember seeing some as a kid that were much, much larger, but I suppose it could just have easily been that I was much smaller. However, I do still remember my amazement when, as a kid, I first observed one turn its head and look back directly over its shoulder at me. Good thing I was not easily spooked. But enough of my detour into childhood memories.

This day, after posing for some pictures on this flowery brightly colored background, this mantis climbed down within the brown speckled stems of my Echinacea and Eupatorium and “became one” with its surroundings. The shape of the insect’s body and its coloration provided the perfect camouflage.


It then proceeded to perch in that position with little movement for quite some time lying in wait for some unsuspecting victim to wander into its attack zone. After about 2 hours (no, I did not sit there watching it for the entire time as there is way too much work to be done in my garden) I was rewarded with the opportunity to watch as a red milkweed beetle rambled just a little too close. In a lightning fast movement the mantis snatched the beetle, grasping it with its spiked forelegs.

Close up showing the powerful front forelegs of the praying mantis
Close up showing the powerful front forelegs of the praying mantis

Since the praying mantis is an insect that feeds on living food it held the struggling beetle securely in its legs and wasted no time in taking its first bite. It brought back memories of those bad horror movies on Hallowe’en eve (you know, the ones that used to air annual on WLVI Ch. 56?). Watching the display it was quite clear that the mantis is quite the fearsome hunter and could be, possibly, the perfect predator.

Some interesting facts about the praying mantis:

  • It is named for the prayer-like position in which it holds its front legs
  • It can turn their triangular heads up to 180 degrees
  • While they are mating, the female praying mantis may eat the head of its mate – not the type for a long-term relationship I think…
  • The praying mantis has excellent eyesight and can see up to about 50 feet away
  • The praying mantis found commonly in New England is not native to this country – it is from Southern Europe. It will grow to a length of 3 inches
  • The European Mantis (mantis religiosa) although not native to this country became the official State Insect of Connecticut on October 1st, 1977
  • The other mantis found in Massachusetts is the Chinese mantis (Tenodera aridifolia) introduced into the Northeast in the 1890s to help control insect pests – it will grow up to 5 inches in length and has been known to prey upon small mammals and birds


White-tailed Deer

White tailed deer  (Odocoileus virginianus)
White tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus)

This is one of the white-tailed deer from the herd that routinely spends time foraging in our yard. They love the edge of the pond as it has plentiful grasses and one of their favorite treats – yellow nut-sedge. This year the herd totaled four; two older does, a yearling, and one fawn. The herd is most frequently seen at dawn and dusk but can be present  any time of day.  This summer they usually could be seen at mid-day during the hottest days of July and August. The abundant shade and food makes our back yard a preferable place to nap and eat (especially when the apple tree is loaded with fruit).

White tailed deer hanging out by the apple tree in the back yard
White tailed deer hanging out by the apple tree in the back yard

Some interesting facts about the deer:

  • They have hollow strands of hair that help them remain insulated from extremes of temperature and also prevent them from drowning
  • Since fawns do not have a scent, they remain undetected by the enemies – this is often why a doe will leave a fawn unattended in a shady/wooded place (or even in your back yard)
  •  There is only species of deer in which the female also has antlers, the Reindeer (Caribou). The male deer or “stag” sheds their antlers every year
  • Deer can be found on all continents, except Antarctica and Australia
  • The origins of the name come from the Middle English word ‘der’ meaning beast and  from the Old English word ‘dor’
  • They have a four chambered stomach that allows them to digest tough plant foods.  Deer will eat quickly without much chewing and will later, as they rest, cough it up (regurgitate) and chew it
  • Exceptional jumpers, they can clear an 8-foot hurdle from a standing position
  • They are excellent swimmers and have been clocked at speeds up to 13 miles per hour
  • White-tailed deer are known to eat over 600 species of plants in North America
  •  Their long noses possess an intricate system of nasal passages with millions of  receptors (up to 297 million). By comparison, dogs have 220 million and humans just 5)
  • They lick their nose to keep it moist. This allows odor particles to stick to it which improves their sense of smell

About Turtles Crossing

Welcome to Turtle’s Crossing. I am happy that you have found my blog and I hope that if the topics you find within resonate with you that you will converse or provide feedback on my posts.

When not writing this blog or attempting to function as a parent, I spend most of my time during the day as a wetland scientist and regulatory project manager in Concord MA where I have worked for 11 years. I have a degree in Fisheries Science and after over a decade with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found myself changing course based on new and developing interests. I am a member of the Society of Wetland Scientists (SWS), Association of Massachusetts Wetland Scientists (AMWS), CT Association of Wetland Scientists (CAWS) and a recent corporate member of the Ecological Landscaping Association (ELA) with Cascade Designs Inc. I am also an avid gardener, especially for wildlife, and a volunteer with the Chelmsford Conservation Commission in my home town of Chelmsford, MA. This blog is the convergence of many of my personal and professional interests and experiences. In it I hope to share my love of the natural environment with you all and perhaps even excite some of you to consider inviting mother nature’s creatures into your own back yard.

I look forward to sharing my journey with you!


P.s – Oh, and this is the part where I add the requisite disclaimer. 🙂 Although I attempt to ensure that the information I include in my blog is technically accurate and supported by reliable scientific reference, any and all mistakes are mine and mine alone. Any opinions that I express are also mine alone, and not representative of my employer, the Chelmsford Conservation Commission or any other organization with which I may be affiliated.Image

The Walkway Garden

The front walkway garden in April before many of the herbaceous perennials had begun to make way.

It is almost midsummer at least astronomically. On Wednesday of this week the season is in full swing with the passing of the summer solstice whereby the northern hemisphere is closest to the sun and we experience the longest day. That’s right, tomorrow is the summer solstice! Never mind that we are going to be experiencing 92+ degree heat. Wow, where has the time gone? The normal tradition of a solstice bonfire may not be the best idea this year even if you believe the hype and it may be the last summer solstice ever!

Annual Celebration with a Solstice Bonfire

My blog posts, as usual, have been few and far between as the weather has continually improved and I spend more time outdoors either in my garden, in the field doing ecological evaluation and survey work or in other people’s yards assisting them with their projects. This spring I spent some time working on the walkway garden that Billy, my project collaborator from Cascade Designs Inc., and I installed last fall. Although bloom timing has been skewed by the very mild winter and abnormally warm early spring things are starting to fill in nicely.

The area of the walkway bench in late April.

Prior to the new walkway the entrance to our recently purchased home consisted of an “L-shaped” broken brick walkway with no aesthetic appeal and very little function. My goal was to provide a welcoming entrance with sensory appeal for myself and my guests, both visual and olfactory (oh, and to eliminate some of the ecologically functionless lawn that came with the front yard, much to my lawn-loving husband’s chagrin).

Aerial photo depicting front yard and lawn with poorly designed front walkway and absolutely no interest at all.

This was my first foray into this kind of design as my previous gardens have been more for the “birds and bees” and for this reason they sometimes lacked defining detail for the “human” eye. Being an ecologist and not a landscape architect I attempted to take into consideration common design principles including shape, flow, function, line, texture and color while still keeping the ecological function of the project a major component. This actually meant that I allowed myself to stray from my native plant philosophy to some extent and I also allowed myself to use cultivars (go figure…). However, in many cases I used plant material I “sourced” from my other growing areas so many of the preferable natives appear again and again within the overall palette.

I used boulders including a standing stone or lithe to help define the overall shape and provide interest.

Standing stone placed at one of the cardinal points along the walkway

Also, during installation of the walkway and the bench circle I was looking for something different. Billy came up with the idea of using a boulder to encroach into the stone walkway as an interest feature. He meticulously cut the circle stones to fit around the boulder. Loved it!

Encroaching boulder for interest on the opposite edge of the bench circle
Another view of the “encroaching boulder.”

From the sensory standpoint the walkway is surrounded by a heady mix of sensual smelling plants including lavender, thyme, marjoram, sage, evening primrose, roses and lilac. For the birds and bees I made extensive use of some of my favorites including Penstemon digitalis ‘husker red'(Beardstongue)

Penstemon digitalis ‘Husker Red’

Liatris spicata (Blazing Star); Aruncus aethusifolius (Goat’s Beard); Echinacea purpurea (Purple Coneflower); Rudbecki hirta (Black Eyed Susan) and its cultivars ‘indian summer’ and ‘angustifolia’;

Black Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

Agastache (Hummingbird mint); Monarda didyma ‘Jacobs Cline’ (Red bee balm); Eupatorium purpureum (Purple Joe-Pye); Chrysanthemum leucanthemum (Ox Eye Daisy); Achillea millefolium and Achillea lanulosa (Yarrow);

Yarrow ‘Terracotta’ (Achillea millefolium)

Asclepias tuberosa (butterfly weed); Aslepias syriaca (Common milkweed); Aster Novae Angliae (New England Aster); Aster Novi Belgii (New York Aster); Salvia nemerosa (Sage)

Salvia nemerosa (Sage)

including the varieties ‘may night,’ ‘indigo spires;’ and multiple varieties of Salvia offinalis including ‘tricolor.’ The larger wood specimens were picked for their form and shape including the weeping cherry, weeping Norway spruce and holly.

The weeping cherry in the walkway garden after installation last fall and before the majority of planting was completed.

These shrubs repeat the triangular design of the boulders embedded within the garden.

The weeping Norway spruce shortly after being planted last fall.

On a warm evening it is wonderful to sit in the rocker on the front porch and enjoy the scent. Also, the front yard wildlife do not seem to have any complaints either,

An Eastern chipmunk (Tamias striatus) likes to use the lithe as his personal dining area.
though, the chipmunk’s recent habit of dining on the standing stone is somewhat tantalizing for the neighborhood Cooper’s Hawk.
A rodent’s idea of gourmet dining?

Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis)

But, being a gardener I am already planning on what needs to be moved and to where, and of course I am already onto my next project which is the expansion of my back butterfly garden along with design and integration of a new sitting patio into it. Gotta love the gardening bug!

Why Did the Turtle Cross the Road?

So, why did the turtle cross the road? To get to the Shell Station, of course!

O.k., really…what makes a turtle, or any other critter for that matter, attempt such a feat as crossing a busy local road or even a 6 lane interstate highway? Regardless of what we may think it is not because the animal kingdom is secretly conspiring to inconvenience the human race.  In the case of the turtle it has had over 230 million years to hone its survival instinct which can best be described as conditioning for preservation of the species. Through adaptive evolution the female turtle has been programmed to leave the watery environment where she spends most of her life and seek out the best upland areas with sandy or gravelly soil  (including my butterfly garden and various locations within my back yard) where she is most likely to successfully produce the next generation of turtles.

This painted turtle ((Chrysemys picta) visited my yard today to dig her nest and lay her eggs

This is problematic for all turtles when their nesting habitats, which typically consist of open, sandy, well-drained upland, are bisected from their watery environs (which, again, varies from species to species) by a road or other manmade impediment. A related phenomenon which causes mortality occurs where causeway construction, or road maintenance, has created sandy open areas suitable for nesting habitat immediately adjacent to the road shoulder or in the case of J.F.K Airport in between runways. In this instance, turtles are often killed after incidentally ending up on the road surface while scouting for a preferable nest site. In the summer of 2011  runway 4L was closed due the spawning migration of the diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin).

Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) crossing a road.

Journalist Natalie Angier in a 2006 NYT science article states that in man-kind “this Mesozoic era creature may have at last met it’s mortician.” Most experts agree the cause of world-wide declines in turtle populations includes habitat loss, either by outright conversion or indirect fragmentation (can’t get there from here) and a high rate of decline from road mortality and harvest for importation to the Far East as a gourmet delicacy and for traditional medicinal purposes. Basically the slow and steady reproductive pace of turtles, some which may not be physically capable of producing offspring for 40 or 50 years, just cannot keep up with the high rate of adult mortality.

Research indicates that unlike all other animals studied, the organs of turtles do not age or become less efficient over time. Even after a century and a half the vital organs are indistinguishable from that of a juvenile. Researchers have even gone so far as to say that a turtle may live indefinitely (if not lost to disease or trauma). How ironic it would be if humankind, having spent its entire existence on earth seeking immortality, were to destroy the one thing it has always sought due to a selfish lack of consideration for another living organism?

Eastern snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina). Photograph by Paul Sattler

So PLEASE watch out for mother turtles crossing the road as they are now seeking out higher ground to lay their eggs. Please avoid hitting them and if possible, help the turtle cross the road. BUT REMEMBER to always move the turtles in the direction that they were originally heading. If they are moved back to the side from which they were crossing they will just try to cross the road again.

Also, once the eggs hatch in the late-summer to early fall, be on the look out for baby turtles crossing the road to go back to the wetlands and ponds.

Juvenile Painted turtle found on April 14, 2012 desiccating on a roadway in Chelmsford MA
Following 30 minutes of rest in a shallow bucket of water the little turtle was ready for its trip to the nearby pond

One hotspot in Chelmsford to be aware of is the crossing at Smith Street right before the Steadman Street intersection. Unfortunately the Turtle Crossing signs that the Chelmsford Conservation Commission had placed here didn’t make it through their first summer thanks to vandals.

Vandals removed the Turtle Crossing sign off of Smith Street in Chelmsford MA last summer.

So remember,”and the turtles of course…all the turtles are free, As turtles and maybe all creatures should be.  Dr Seuss from Yurtle the Turtle.

What’s in a Name?

So I have had several people ask me why I called my blog “Turtle’s Crossing” if it is not only about turtles? Well, this title seemed to ring true to me for a couple of reasons.

First the original idea for this blog was born one night while I was participating in my very first meeting with the Chelmsford Conservation Commission. I had recently moved into this new community and was feeling a little disconnected. One of the topics to be brought forth for the Commission to consider that evening concerned the loss of turtles that occurred every season when juvenile hatchlings encountered a vertical roadway curb in a residential neighborhood.

Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) crossing the road

The situation reminded me of Aldo Leopolds ecologically-based “Land Ethic” in A Sand County Almanac (1949), a work I had not thought of since college (trust me, a very long distant memory). In this ground-breaking effort Leopold argued that there was a need for the evolution of a philosophy that would include consideration of nonhuman members of the biotic community which he collectively referred to as “the land.”  He stated the basic principle of his land ethic as, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”  In his approach we (Homo sapiens) go from a “conquerer” of the natural world to an equal member in something larger than ourselves, where  we recognize the inherent worth of other beings (not just their utility for our purposes) and respect all forms of life and the community as a whole.

A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold

Leopold’s work was one of the first philosophical pre-cursors to an ecological or systems approach such as the contemporary philosophy of “deep ecology” that emphasizes the interdependence of organisms within ecosystems and of ecosystems to each other. It deviated from the dominant philosophies of the day which included utilitarian, economic, egalitarian or libertarian, all of which are still very prominent today.

The concern made me feel “welcome” in a new community with the awareness that an ecological land ethic was alive and well in Chelmsford. It reaffirmed for me that there are people out there that still care and possess the energy to find  a solution and it is still possible to reach out with encouragement and mobilize these individuals or groups to make a difference.  Unfortunately the turtle crossing signs installed to give motorists forewarning of the turtles did not survive the summer (that’s another story).

But I digress. To finish answering the previous question, it seems that I, like the turtle during it’s breeding season, am being compelled by some unseen force of nature to take this literary journey. I am being driven by some innate biological ability similar to the turtle’s homing instinct to navigate in a particular direction towards a location such as a home territory or breeding spot.  I clearly don’t quite know where I am going or why, just that I am heading in the right direction and that somehow I will know when I arrive at my destination.

So here’s hoping that with a little luck maybe I won’t run into any curbs on my way and the trip will culminate in something nearly as special as the successful migration of the turtle.

Old Ideas With a New Twist

As a parent of an elementary age child something that is always not far from my mind is how to infuse in my son a bond with, and respect for, our natural world. We live in such a different society than we did when I was a child. There was a freedom for creative and natural play that just no longer exists. Growing up, my favorite past-time by far was to disappear into the woods and wetlands near my house for hours at a time. Seasonally I would wander through the extensive meadows and fields associated with the farm at the end of my street; watch the dragonflies and damselflies do their summer aerial acrobatics at a kettle-hole pond; catch tadpoles, frogs and salamanders from the woodland vernal pools; climb the tall oak and maple trees; ice skate on the isolated cranberry bog and create an adventure out of following the animal tracks through the dark woods in the snow. At the age of eight I was one with the environment and its natural calendar. Unknown to me at the time it was an escape, a healing experience and an invitation to learn and be sensually motivated by what I experienced. Even more amazing that feeling I internalized would be with me my whole life.

Nature Play for Little Kids Photo by Severson Dells Nature Center

Now I am concerned because I see our kids, whether they are growing up in urban, suburban or rural areas, mostly wired to technology with little to no time or even inclination to freely experience nature or the world around them. They spend much less time outdoors then previous generations ever have. That is not to say they are not educated about nature in the classroom, but they are continually distracted by endless technology and unfortunately classroom education is designed to meet standardized testing requirements with less hands-on understanding and tactile learning.

What’s worse, in many communities outdoor play as we knew it is no longer allowed. I actually read recently that three 12-year kids in the U.K. were arrested, DNA tested and locked up for climbing a tree and breaking branches with the intent of constructing a tree house. Here in New England before we moved to Chelmsford we lived in an association-dominated community where leaving bicycles or playthings in the front yard was prohibited, a toddler riding a tricycle on the sidewalk was a pedestrian safety concern and the noise from  bouncing a basketball was considered a public nuisance. Allowing an unchaperoned child outdoors could easily brand you an unfit parent. Even without these community limitations the opportunity for outside free play is minimal giving the loss of vacant lots and free space due to urban sprawl and/or dense development. We now live in a society where backyard tree houses are regulated by local ordinances, fishing or catching tadpoles in a neighborhood pond is a safety or liability issue, as is climbing a tree in a public park.

Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv (2005)

This lack of opportunity for outdoor play has been receiving a lot of attention lately, and for good reason. Child advocacy expert Richard Louv and the author of a book I am currently reading entitled “Last Child in the Woods”  provides alarming documentation that directly links the shortage of nature in the lives of today’s wired generation to some of the most disturbing childhood trends including obesity, attention disorders, and depression. He calls it Nature Deficit Disorder. He is one of the leaders in the recent “Leave No Child Inside” movement and founders of the Children & Nature Organization.

Stone Pit Trough at the Aspetuck Land Trust Weston, CT Natural Playground

Many proactive communities are taking this information in stride and and designating areas for constructive outdoor free play. One term used for them is Nature PlayScapes. What is it? According to one site  they are landscapes consisting mostly of natural materials such as water, plants, rocks, earth, branches, or sand that are designed to create a dynamic and interactive play experience.

Aspetuck Land Trust Photo of Bear Den in the Natural Playground at the Leonard Schine Preserve in Westport, CT

Although they have been around a while they are a tool to be used in spirit of the leave no child inside initiative and they are places that provide kids, families and adults the opportunity to reconnect with the natural world.  Another growing initiative and one that I strongly feel should be given a lot more consideration in every school system is the creation of outdoor science classrooms or natural schoolyard habitats. One such example is the Milton, MA Outdoor classrooms. This Massachusetts town was one of the first to implement a school-wide outdoor classroom program in the late 1990’s. The goal of their program is to create easily accessible natural areas where students have an opportunity to discover their connections with the natural world through hands-on experience. The learning experience is directly linked to the school educational curriculum. The program here, and elsewhere, has been a very successful initiative for rallying the community towards protection and stewardship of its natural resources.

Tucker Elementary School Plan for Outdoor Classroom in Milton, MA

Natural classrooms provide a unique opportunity to provide applied hands-on learning in a safe environment without the additional cost of travel or loss of classroom time. In today’s highly scheduled learning system it seems a win-win all around. All it takes is a little bit of initiative, some creativity and community collaboration.

Other initiatives I have run into include edible landscapes for school yards and community garden learning programs for children. All wonderful ideas that deserve some thought. So if you are as concerned as I am, lets keep shipping the Leave No Child Inside movement!  Unplug your children, take them outdoors and share your love of all things wild with them and anyone else who will listen.  Lets nurture and grow the natural stewards of tomorrow.

Hiding in Plain Sight

If you are lucky enough to live near a body of water such as a pond or a wetland you, like me, are  experiencing the chorus of spring peepers and maybe even wood frogs. Over the past two weeks the male frogs of both species have returned to their native pools or ponds and are calling enthusiastically in their attempt to attract a mate. My evening backyard walks usually include a game of “stalking” the calling frogs where, head-lamp installed, we play a game of hide and seek. In most cases the frogs win but it is still a worthwhile game for me. Using the frogs’ vocalizations I can often zoom in relatively accurately. Every once in a while if all the stars align into their proper position I am able to obtain some excellent photographs.

Wood Frog (Rana sylvatica) adults range from 1.5 to 2.5" in size and are usually only associated with water during the spring breeding season.

It is quite amazing how these little critters can find a way to hide right in plain sight. That said, recently I read a New York Post article by Lisa Foderaro about  the discovery a new frog species. Now you are saying yeah, they are finding new species all of the time in the rain forests. Why is this news? Well, what was really interesting about this find was that it was not in a remote area of South America, Australia or even Madagascar. It was on Staten Island! Yeah that’s right, they found a new species in New York City! The frog is a heretofore unknown species of leopard frog which physically looks very similar to the Southern leopard frog. Its only known identifier other than genetics, at this time, is that its call is a single “cluck” rather than the Southern frog’s repetitive “chuckle.” Listen to it here. Since the original discovery three years ago the new leopard frog species has been found south to Trenton, N.J, north to Putnam County, N.Y and in some areas of central Connecticut. Not a large geographic area but still not one small localized wetland either. The moral of this story is that  even though we see we may not be “seeing.”

New York Times Photograph by Brian Curry of New Species of Leopard Frog found in New York State

What is exceptionally troubling, however, is that although we are still just beginning to learn about and investigate much of the natural world around us, our discoveries cannot keep pace with the alarming rate of biodiversity loss and species extinction due to our mindless greed and need to tame and reengineer everything around us. As a result, over one-third of the greater than 6,000 species of amphibians in the world are currently threatened with extinction. And the amphibians are by no means alone. This is very sad from an ecological perspective but it also of concern for sociological reasons.

For a wide range of diseases, many of our most promising avenues of medical research have been found as a result of our study of animals or plants with unique physiological traits or adaptions. The loss of habitat and the species that live within threatens the discovery of many new medical treatments. Just to name a few are a new generation of antibiotics, treatments for a variety of cancers, thin bone disease, mascular degeneration (leading cause of blindness),  kidney disease, end-stage renal disease, Type I and II diabetes and obesity.

One rare fish known as the zebra fish found, among other places, in Lake Victoria has the ability to regenerate damaged heart tissue at an amazing rate. Most recently, a drug has been isolated from the fish that suppresses the growth of human prostate cancer cells and it has also been effective in the lowering of cholesterol.

Rare zebra fish photo, Daily Nation U.K. by Stella Cherono and Gatonye Gathura

Another example that did not have a happy ending involved gastric brooding frogs found only in the undisturbed rain forests of Australia in the 1980’s. This frog had the unique adaption for raising the young frogs in the female’s stomach where, in a normal world, the baby frogs would be digested by enzymes and stomach acid. Preliminary research revealed that the baby frogs produced a substance that inhibited acid and enzyme secretions while the young were present. Unfortunately the rain forests were cut down and the frogs perished before protection could be established and the research could be continued. In a recent United Nations Environment Programe (UNEP) book on the impact of species extinction entitled “Sustaining Life,” Harvard Medical School researchers and the book authors suggested that research on these frogs likely could have led to new insights to treat peptic ulcers and other stomach-related illnesses that effect 25 million people in the U.S. alone.

Obviously, not all resources are created equal, but in most instances we don’t know which ones are key to medical research until it’s too late. Some species are considered higher value candidates than others though. They include snails, non-human primates, sharks, amphibians, bears, gymnosperm plants and horseshoe crabs. Also, don’t forget the venomous shrew from one of my previous blog posts and its potential connection for the treatment for high blood pressure. Not that I personally condone animal testing, because I certainly don’t, but science is continually improving its ability to humanely extract the materials necessary for much of this research.

If clean air, water, healthy children, and a balanced sustainable environment are not enough motivation to control greed, reconsider unsustainable use of our natural resources, or curb endless sprawl and impervious development then maybe, just maybe, the “carrot” will be the promise of a longer life.

That said, now that amphibian breeding is in full swing if you have an inkling to learn  more about these wonderful critters or the world they live in I invite you to join me and some of my fellow Conservation Commissioners (that is if you live in or near the Town of Chelmsford, MA) to come visit some of our local vernal pool breeding areas and see them for yourself. If not find one near you and get out and enjoy the unique gifts that mother nature has to offer.

Vernal Pool site walk in Chelmsford MA, Saturday March 24 10 am at 105 Mill Road - Russell Mill Town Forest. Meet in the rear parking lot by the Soccer Fields. Hope to see you there!

Spring Has Sprung!

On Tuesday morning as I dragged my sorry self out of bed something felt different.  I couldn’t quite pin it down. It wasn’t until as I juggled briefcase, purse, coffee cup and keys did it click. The red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) were BACK!  I heard a cacophony of conk-la-ree! song from the meadow.  Aside from the obvious prolonged daylight that results when the Northern hemisphere is once more beginning its lean towards the sun, the blackbird is one of my indicator animals for the onset of spring.  I usually equate them with the week of the spring equinox. This year, however, they are back about 2 weeks earlier than normal. Now I should probably qualify my statement above, because some avid birdwatcher will call my bluff and say that the red-winged blackbird is a winter visitor in this part of MA. That is indeed true for some subset of the population and if I wanted to go looking for one I would be likely to find one in a feedlot or crop field. It is their March return to the marshes and other wet areas that I refer to when I say they are “back.”

Male and Female Red-winged Blackbird

It’s not that the blackbird is unusual. In fact it is downright common although the colorful picture that the males make with their red-and-yellow shoulder badges is still pleasing to the eye. By comparison the female is nondescript and her behavior mirrors her camouflage of color.  The behavior of the male reminds me, on the other hand, of a college frat boy. One reason is because the male redwing is territorial and very aggressive in protecting its boundary. I have seen them attack and chase crows, hawks and even ospreys.  They also are very vocal and have been known to dive-bomb people when they approach active nesting areas. I can personally attest to this by the way and strongly recommend avoiding kayak excursions into an active territorial area. Another is their common tendency for polygamy where one territorial male redwing will have many female mates. Now guys, don’t take offense here, I am not casting one-sided aspersions. It turns out in the end that many of the young end up being sired by an individual other than the territorial male.

Male Red-winged Blackbird showing his colors

Redwings build their nests in a variety of habitats though a marsh, swamp, or wet meadow appears to be preferred. The female will weave an intricate nest platform out of cattail, rush, sedge, buttonbush, willow or other vegetation. They prefer this water-loving vegetation for the placement of the nest as well.

Typical Design of A Red-winged Blackbird Nest

Now, I have seen other signs that I equate with spring such as full thaw, fog, and burgeoning leaf buds. Then there is the sweet sound of the black-capped chickadee’s spring song of fee-bie or sweet-ie. I have also observed the gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) cutting and dropping the early buds and/or twigs from the silver maples (Acer saccharinum) in my neighborhood which means that the sap is running. The squirrel like us has a sweet tooth and when the sap begins to flow they clip the branches and buds to lick the sap from the cuts that they have made. So don’t forget to get out and enjoy the spring air, but watch out for falling branches.