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.

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!

Voles, Moles and Shrews, Oh what shall I do!

At least we can say the March came in like a lion… However, I am still finding it very hard to believe that the worst of our New England winter is over. I know what you are going to say, “What winter?” In my lifetime I cannot remember having this little snow and such warm sunny days. The lack of snow this winter, however, has definitely put a crimp in my winter tracking activities. It has also provided a little bit more of a challenge, and well, challenge can be fun! That said I am looking forward to some winter tracking this weekend!

A wintery day on Beaver Brook Meadow

A couple of weeks ago I went on a “varmint” hunt. Given the lack of snow and some spring “melt,” if you can call it that, I figured I had a fairly good chance of finding sign of some ground-burrowing critters. I started by looking under hanging garden plants and turning over boards or other fixed objects in our back yard. Bingo!

What did I find?   Shrews!   Shrews have been called a lot of things but I think that Sudbury Valley Trustees described them best as “tiny tigers.” They have sharp, spike-like teeth and as the smallest mammal no bigger than our thumb (2 to 4 inches), these creatures spend most of their time running around in above-surface tunnels hunting a variety of bugs and earthworms. They will also eat other shrews, mice, salamanders, snakes and have even been known to kill small rabbits! They may also eat mast, seeds or eggs. Shrews will even cover their “kill” with grass or leaves for a later meal (just like my cats try to do with their food bowls). The shrew does not have grinding teeth and the tips of their teeth have a yellowish color when living, at least in New England.

Skull of a Short-tailed Shrew
Northern Short-tailed Shrew

Their size often allows them to escape our attention even though they are fairly common. They, like other ground-dwelling varmints such as mice, voles and moles are considerably active throughout the winter.

New England Vole

How do you know if you have shrews, rather than one of the other rodents? That is, other than seeing them. Shrews, being the smallest mammal also make the smallest hole (1 inch or less). They do not make meandering ridges just under the surface of the ground under snow like voles or moles or create 6 inch round entrance mounds like moles. If I were to catch one, I would find that each front foot of a shrew has 5 toes, where a mouse would only have 4 front toes.

Shew runway along the base of my garden wall

Behaviorally, shrews and voles are much alike. They both make tunnels or pathways in the grass and these runways can be difficult to discern from each other, especially since they will use another animals’ highway complex.

Traditional Shrew Runway in one of my back gardens

The difference is often the size. Shrew pathways which can be located in grass or leaf litter are usually less than an inch in diameter, whereas vole tunnels are slightly larger and usually only in grass. They also landscape their tunnels differently. Voles nip or cut the vegetation on the sides and bottom of their tunnels, sometimes leaving only bare earth. Shrews are less fastidious and the grass will often just be plowed to the side.

Interestingly, shrews are known to have a putrid, musky odor that makes them unpalatable to predators, so usually the only time they are found is after they have met their fate and been abandoned. BTW this is how I knew I had a good chance of finding them in my back yard… Either the fox or a neighborhood cat had clued me in. It is generally believed that the odor is a reproductive marker as it appears stronger during mating. Some shrews that we will find here in Massachusetts include the short-tailed shrew (Blarina brevicauda), least shrew (Cryptotis parva) and the masked shrew (Sorex cinereus).

Shrews are unusual among mammals in a number of respects. They are one of only two land mammals known to echolocate (the other is a mammal from Madagascar that resembles a hedgehog). Unlike most mammals, however, some species of shrew are venomous. Shrew venom is not conducted into the wound by fangs, but by grooves in the teeth. The venom contains various compounds, and the contents of the venom glands of the American short-tailed shrew are sufficient to kill 200 mice if delivered by intravenous injection. Don’t worry though, it won’t kill a human, but it may cause some swelling. Always best not to handle a live shrew without some protection. Just in case you were thinking about going homicidal on your backyard shrews, think again. Like every other living thing on the planet there is always hidden utility. Shrew venom has potential medical use, as one chemical extracted from shrew venom has been demonstrated to show potential for the treatment of blood pressure. Another compound may be useful in the treatment of some neuromuscular diseases and migraines. The saliva of the Northern Short-tailed Shrew (Blarina brevicauda) contains the peptide soricidin and has accordingly been studied for use in treating ovarian cancer. Another interesting factoid…Amazingly, shrews hold nearly 10% of their mass in their brain, which is the highest brain to body mass ratio of all animals (humans included!)

Star Nose Mole often found near wetland areas

Now moles,on the other hand, are just plain funky! The most common foods moles eat include earthworms, insect larva and other soil arthropods. They also eat grubs and plant bulbs but not as voraciously as the vole does. Most mole damage is caused by tunneling in our monotypic lawn, and not by eating plants. Go Moles!!! The most commonly encountered moles are the eastern mole, which causes most of the damage found in yards, and the star-nosed mole, which is mostly found digging tunnels in swampy areas and at deeper levels than the eastern mole. Mole feeding tunnels are usually 2 to 3 inches below the surface.


Okay, right about now you are thinking that I am absolutely insane because I am happy that I have rodents! Probably true. If they were in my house I would be at Agway right now looking at all kinds of unique ways to remove them from my abode. But what their presence in my yard, and especially in my garden, tells me is that my organic gardening practices are working. I attempt to provide a variety of plants for a variety of native insects. I do not use chemicals or fertilizer formulations other than compost tea or a nature-based organic nutrient source. I leave my leaves and plant structure throughout the winter to provide overwintering area and a food source for the critters. The presence of the shrew means that my garden is beginning to function as a miniature ecosystem with a natural balance of both predator and prey, which on a cold snowy day makes me smile.

Fungi are Fun

This entry I thought I would write about something that usually gets little, if any, recognition or consideration in the environment. It is also what I prefer on my pizza, ‘shrooms.

Fairy Stool (Coltricia cinnamonmea)

Over the past few weeks the steadily cooler weather and the frequent rainfall has created conditions conducive for quite a variety of them. Within are some of the colorful varieties I was able to find out and about our town.

Horsehair Mushroom (Marasmius rotula)

Recently I was able to attend an Audubon workshop on fungi led by Larry Millman, the author of “Fascinating Fungi of New England.” Who knew that fungi could be so fun? His book provides a wonderful learning tool for mushrooms with very detailed drawings and sometimes humerous text to boot. His enthusiasm in the field is contagious. If you get the opportunity to participate in such a workshop in the future I highly recommend it.

So what is a mushroom? Most people, if asked to identify what a mushroom is, will say that they are “Fungi.”If further asked to clarify they usually will say Fungi are “plants.”  Well, most people would be wrong. But if you are one of those that have experience in brewing your own adult beverage, you might make the connection between your yeast and other fleshy organisms including mold, rust, mildew and, you got it, mushrooms. Fungi are in a Kingdom all of their own and have much more in common with animal (us) than vegetable. What is the difference? Plants make their own food through photosynthesis but mushrooms get their nourishment from organic material in the environment, just like us.

Gills of Horsehair Mushroom
Golden Spindle (Clavulinopsis fusiformis)

Structurally their cells are also very similar to ours. What we commonly see above ground and call a mushroom is just one half of the organism (it’s fruiting body). Below ground are little hair-like parts called Hyphae which form a Mycelium where most of the real work occurs. It is here that the organism produces and secretes the enzymes that break down its chosen food source into digestible carbs, proteins and lipids. Similarly, the organic material that mushrooms eat do not need to be alive. They will feed on living as well as dead or dying tissue. So, mushrooms are not vegetarian. But do vegetarians eat mushrooms? I will have to ask one of my vegan friends about that one.

Like everything in the ecological system fungi have not evolved in a vacuum. They have developed very specific relationships with certain types of organic materials. This usually means specific tree or plant species or group of species’, dead or alive.  Some behave in a beneficial symbiotic way with a living host and others are parasitic (think chestnut blight or Dutch elm disease). However, fungi are important nonetheless.

The result of this organism’s recycling process is what contributes to the development of our thick New England soil, which in turn is what establishes the base of the pyramid for everything our animal food chain is based upon. Fungi are key in the decomposition process of woody debris.

Rusty-gilled Polypore (Gloeopyllum separium)

The identification of mushrooms is quite tricky and I don’t think I will ever have the patience for conclusive identification. That means no forest-foraging for me as, in many cases, you only get one chance to be right (or wrong). Colors are quite variable and positive identification of a mushroom can come down to the most minute of physical differences. For example this beautiful white specimen below appears to be the “Destroying Angel,” possibly one of the most toxic mushrooms in the world. It is usually found growing around live oaks. This one i found in a mixed oak-pine woodland area.

Destroying Angel (Amanita bisporigera)

Many mushroom names can tell you something about their habit or may assist in identification. Others provide interesting folklore. For example the Fly Agaric is believed to stun flies if you put it into a bowl of milk.

Yellow Russula spp.
painted suillus (Suillus pictus)

Many mushrooms will change color or become “grey” with age, much like us. Their color is brightest when new, such as some of the specimens below which I photographed at a forest in Lincoln MA.

Purple Russula spp.

Some grow on live or dead wood like the polypores, others have stems with bulbs and emerge from the ground. Some will grow at the base of trees or occur in concentrated “colonies.”

Some are just downright strange!

Crown-tipped Coral (Artomyces pyxidata)
Yellow Patches Amanita (Amanita flavoconia)
Stinkhorn (Phallus rubicundus)

Responsible Gardening and A Rare Lecture Opportunity

If you have read my previous posts, then you know of my personal war with one of several invasive and non-native plant or animal species in my backyard here in Chelmsford. I would like to think that I am not alone in this endeavor, either locally or regionally. So far I am not disappointed by my on-line excursions.

If you are interested in gardening for wildlife, butterfly gardens, plant or wildlife ecology or are just beginning to develop an inkling of interest in this topic I strongly recommend you take advantage of a rare opportunity to hear one of my top-list authors and a well respected scientist, Doug Tallamy (Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants)  lecture this Wednesday night (October 5, 2011) in Carlisle, MA.  The event is being sponsored by the Carlisle Conservation Foundation, Susan Zielinski Natural Science Fund, and Carlisle Conservation Commission and will begin at 7 pm at Corey Auditorium in the Carlisle Public School.

As many gardeners undoubtedly do, I use my garden as an expression of what is attractive to me as an individual. Also, as I have a strong interest in nature and ecology I seek to do the right thing while expressing myself in this artistic way. I want what I put in my garden to function in sync with the natural environment. Mr. Tallamy who is also a renowned entomologist (insect ecologist) at University of Delaware provides abundant scientific documentation to support that alien plant introductions generally do not have a productive ecological relationship with our environment. This is because they often have different characteristics such as leaf chemistry, time to maturity, or time to bud and flower. What this means is even though they are phisically present in our natural environment, they are not contributing or giving back energy to the system the way a native plant would (just taking it away).

We, as gardeners, do have a choice. Now, more than ever before native alternatives to invasive horticultural varieties can be found.  However, if you are not familiar with the horticulture trade or with these alternatives, it is easy to be overwhelmed and led in the wrong direction by a well-intentioned nursery worker, or even, a less than well-meaning individual who just wants to make money.

Hybrid variety of a native columbine species

For example, not all native plants are created equal. Some so-called native plants are actually naturalized alien plants from other countries.

Alien and Introduced Queen Anne's Lace - Invasive in some New England States

Some nurseries will push these plants as “native” or alternatives to invasive plants. Some plants are cultivar varieties (genetically altered) of our natives which may not possess identical or even similar traits to the native variety, depending upon what it was “crossed” with.

These plants will often be touted in their descriptions as “pest tolerant,” “a caterpillar may eat the foliage occasionally,” “deer resistant,” “disease free,” “mostly allergy free,” good for naturalizing, etc. What a description like this tells me is that the plant does not possess a substantial ecological benefit and it is not contributing much in terms of food to native insects, which are the base of our regional food chain. Any of the descriptions I listed above would be a BIG “red flag” in my book.

As an example, a lot of the statements above will often be found if you search for traits of the common butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii or Buddleia x weyeriana). Now, you are saying wait a minute, isn’t the butterfly bush good because it attracts butterflies? Well let me, and some of my favorite online sources, enlighten you. The butterfly bush is a butterfly magnet and I can often find many butterflies on it during the summer season where they seek the very abundant and nectar-rich flowers which bloom almost constantly from spring to fall. Tallamy’s research shows “not one species of butterfly in North America can use Buddleia as a larval host plant.” In particular, a large number of butterfly species are very plant-specific and will only use 1 or 2 plant types to deposit their eggs and provide food for their hatching larvae (think milkweed and the monarch butterfly folks). Without the presence of a particular plant, you cannot have a particular butterfly. Therefore, without larval host plants you cannot have any butterflies. Taken to the next logical step, if everyone is following horticulture and nursery recommendations to create a butterfly garden with the butterfly bush as its anchor plant, butterfly diversity (number and variety of butterfly species) will undoubtedly continue to decline as we raze additional natural land to build even larger suburban homes and replace these sites with sterile turf lawns.

Alien and Invasive Butterfly Bush - Buddlei Davidii

Now, here’s another little tidbit for you. The butterfly bush is considered invasive in over 25 North American states, including Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island – that is if you go by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Plants Database. I can honestly say that I personally have not had any experience with this plant’s invasive tendencies but I have heard of other wetland scientists that have. It is not currently listed on our Massachusetts Prohibited Plant list and it also has not been evaluated (as far as I know) for noxious tendencies by the Massachusetts Invasive Plant Advisory Group. Other organizations, including the National Park Service, Audubon, and other state and governmental organizations have it on their “Invasive Watch List,” or have outright banned the sale of the plant. It is considered prolifically invasive in Zones 6 and 7 (Mid-Atlantic States such as PA and VA) as well as the Northwest.  It is on the “Most Invasive” species list of the Pacific Northwest Exotic Pest Plant Council. In this region it is extremely invasive in disturbed natural areas such as burn sites and along large streams such as the Willamette River. It has been a huge problem in England, where it is considered one of the top 20 noxious weeds, infesting large tracts of disturbed land 50 years after it was introduced in those areas.

USDA Plants Database - Buddleia Invasive Representation in U.S.

You see every plant has a niche or a microhabitat which it prefers. I for one am not completely knowledgeable about this plant and what its preferred microhabitat may look like (I am NOT a botanist). But I can hazard some broad assumptions (thinking aloud folks…don’t read in more than that) based upon its noxious nature elsewhere.

For example it appears to respond well to fluctuating wet environments where it spreads predominantly by very abundant seedlings. It likes riparian corridors and floodplains, especially such sites that have experienced some level of disturbance. The fact that it likes burn sites AND wet areas could reveal an interesting relationship with nutrient cycling on low pH sites (cold, wet or acidic sites) or the timing of availability of elements critical for plant growth following a disturbance (Nitrogen or Phosphorus).  For example inorganic Nitrogen can be made available through bacterial fixation following a burn event and is often considered a valuable post-fire nutrient source. Another byproduct of fire to consider might be potash (Potassium in a water-soluble form)  The time it took to infest U.K. sites makes me wonder how long the seeds remain viable in the seed bank once they are deposited there?

Research on the Buddleia problem in the U.K. by Oregon State University has revealed that seeds from the plant require a long time to develop and release from the plant. Similarly, U.K. researchers have discovered that flower heads from a previous summer do not release seed until dry weather occurs the following spring. This could be very useful information. It is also possible that climate fluctuations or microclimate condition is sigificant. For example, does PA or VA normally have a dry spring (did we in MA have a dry spring in 2010)? In addition, practical application of this info suggests that pruning all of the spent blossoms from the butterfly bushes in the fall prior to full development of the seed could potentially limit release of the seed to native environments (possibly a best management practice?). Well at this point I am starting to ramble and very loosely hypothesizing with nothing to back it up. Needless to say, I have begun removing the butterfly bush from my gardens.

I think that Carole Sevilla-Brown in her Ecosystem Gardening Blog says it best. We have been down this road before with many of our currently-listed and most noxious invasive plants. She highlights the Bradford pear, purple loosestrife, and multi-flora rose. These are just a drop in the proverbial plant bucket. It is pretty clear that the Horticulture Trade has not learned from past mistakes. The industry’s on-going attempt to create a sterile form of butterfly bush is like déjà vu of the failed attempts at purple loosestrife sterility. If we don’t learn from our past mistakes we will be doomed to repeat them over, and over, and over again. Gee, even the mouse in the maze learns from repetition and will eventually find the cheese…

Anyway, if you have an interest and are able to find time to attend Tallamy’s lecture in Carlisle, I hope to see you there.

My Unusually-Colored Summer Garden Guest

What the... An orange spring peeper?

As most gardeners do, I find it a spiritual experience to play amongst my garden beds and flowers. Imagine my surprise the other day when I saw what appeared to be an orange poison dart frog in my butterfly garden. Come again? Okay, not really a tropical rainforest tree frog, but the resemblance was a bit striking, right down to its little sticky toe pads. With an email to a few herpetologist friends I was able to confirm that what I had was indeed an orange spring peeper. The coloration is a bit unusual, but apparently not unheard of. It seems that the peeper has a chameleon-like ability similar to that of the grey tree frog that does allow it to darken or lighten, depending on its mood or its surroundings. Orange varieties do seem to be more common further south (VA and NC).

The Northern Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer) is a small chorus frog found throughout the eastern USA and Canada. The peepers that we usually find here in Chelmsford MA  are often some shade of tan/brown or grey in color, sometimes with a dark cross on their back (from which the latin name “crucifer” is obtained).  They are usually very small, between 1″ or 1.5″ and compare in size from a nickel to slightly larger than a quarter (females are usually the larger of the two).

Northern Spring Peeper USGS Photo by Brad Glorioso

When I have a severe case of the winter blues and the first crocuses are just beginning to break ground, it is this critter that I truly yearn to hear. On the first warm rainy evening (if you can in your right mind call mid-40 F warm) as the last remnant of snow and ice is disappearing from the wetland edge, the male peepers come a-calling. I can usually be found up to my knees in cold (VERY cold – brrrrr)  water, head lamp on and camera in tow. As they are nocturnal and of minute size they are more often heard than seen. See and hear a video of a Calling Peeper by J. LeClere at HerpNet.net

Some interesting peeper factoids:

  • Only the male of the species calls and it does so by pushing air out of and drawing it back into a sac on its throat.
  • Spring Peepers produce glucose (sugar) in their liver that functions as an anti-freeze to keep their key organs from freezing.
  • Other body parts, such as their appendages, may form ice crystals and freeze and they will while away the winter in this partly frozen state under soil, leaves or logs.
  • They spend the majority of their time on land as carnivorous insect eaters, but do require water (normally shallow wetlands or ephemeral pools) to reproduce.

Unfortunately, most amphibians including frogs are experiencing catastrophic declines world-wide that have biologists significantly concerned. The reasons are not fully understood but major contributors are believed to include disease; habitat destruction, modification or fragmentation; pollution; pesticide use; introduced predators; and climate change. This should be a concern to us all as amphibians are very directly sensitive to external environmental parameters and often considered indicator species (“the canary in the coal mine” so to speak) that directly reflect the quality of our overall environment. Maybe this will be a subject of a future blog…

For more information on these wonderful critters visit these links:

Vernal Pool Association

Rhode Island Vernal Pools

MA DF&W Natural Heritage

UMASS Amherst Natural Resources

Welcome to Turtles Crossing

It is  summer in the northern hemisphere and I, like the turtles, am basking in the bright glow of the sun’s warm rays. As I move wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of compost and wood chips from one side of my deceptively large yard to the other, I try to focus on my overarching vision and forget the rivulets of sweat rolling down my neck and back and the endless buzzing sound of mosquitoes in my ears. I am busy expanding my continuously growing hummingbird and pollinator gardens. You see, the outdoors and everything within it are a passion of mine. Another of my interests is learning, so whenever I can combine this with something dear to me it is a real treat! I so envy educators because they always seem to find the best way to share their enthusiasm and what they know with other people in a fun and informative way. I often find it is easier said than done…

So with the lazy days of summer almost a memory, it seems like a great time for the birth of this blog. What you don’t know is that anyone who knows me fairly well is laughing their #@%! off right now, because there is usually not more than a few minutes to spare in my overly booked day to add something like a blog (oh, did I also say I was technologically illiterate and have no idea how to “create” a blog?). Well, just add blog author to the existing list of full-time mom, wife, environmental professional, church and community volunteer, and whenever I have a free-moment gardener for wildlife. That said, the objective of this effort is to be a creative outlet for me with which I can share the wonders of the natural environment with anyone who will listen and, hopefully, develop a friendly and informational forum both locally and regionally on gardening for wildlife and suburban conservation.