Updates to this journal
may be sparse for a time.
Please dip into the 140+
existing posts and pages.

Teeming tadpoles

Harsh winter apparently having removed the usual resident (bullfrog tadpole, dragonfly nymph) predators, and late spring delayed the arrival of visitors (ring and garter snakes), these teeming wood frog tadpoles moil about near their empty egg masses in a thin layer of sun-heated water above slightly submerged oak leaves and arising lily pads:

S0324034fp

Organized by instinct, chemical signal or simply closest packing, small eddies and patterns emerge,

S0294031fp

while their dolphin gray and halfway-between forms, contrasting with the algae-painted husks of their former homes, make patterns of a delicacy to equal any from Pixar or Hubble:

S0274029fp

 

Till the fat bullfrog sings

Nearly four weeks past the calendric end of a winter that won’t, a few warm days have induced certain unwary shrubs into premature display. Now comes an ice storm—a mild one, that breaks few branches and imperils few travelers, yet enough to freeze fully opened buds into limp pink shreds when eventually they thaw. While this glazing was followed by leaden skies rather than brilliant sun that other times makes of each twig and bud a glistening gem, still the sight is pleasing, even dramatic on a small scale

DSCF3333fp

DSCF3336fp

with suggestions of exotic insects in strange pursuits:

DSCF3350fp

DSCF3342fp

 

Things that go bump

Day and night, this area abounds with sounds of all sizes, shapes and axiological attributes, from burgeoning private-jet traffic and manic leaf-blowing to cheerful spring peepers and intimate mourning dove plaints, and from unsubtle thunder to the liminal whisper of careful footsteps in soft snow.

The howl of coyote packs—terrifying to our forebears and still alarming to caretakers of outdoor pets and small children—is for most of us a charming reminder of Western films and a hopeful sign that the largest host to Ixodes scapularis and most aggressive predator of yew and rhododendron may be brought under control without human intervention. The shriek of a hawk, rousing prey from cover, for us gives convenient direction to follow its high spirals. The scariest noises, generally, tend to be the loud, the infrequent and irregular, and the unidentifiable. (One family, new to our suburbs, asked some former housemates about the moose dwelling in a South Lincoln swamp. Said housemates, puzzled but polite, gently explained that this is not moose territory, and asked for an imitation of the sound that inspired the query. The newcomers were chagrined that another neighbor had so duped them with the aid of a few bullfrogs.)

Particularly startling to the uninitiated (or rudely awakened) is the banshee scream of fighting raccoons. At least coyote packs sound intentional, focused and rational. The wrathful raccoon is a berserker, as three large and athletic young men proved a few years back coming home bloody after a sporting evening corraling one into a cardboard box just for the challenge. Another awe-inspiring sound is the groaning of sheet ice under wind-induced pressure differentials. Farrar Pond displays this phenomenon particularly well; its narrow length, high sides and near-alignment with prevailing westerlies create a strong wind-tunnel effect. Hearing (and feeling) this when far from shore reminds one that even a shallow pond is dangerous given freezing water, a sucking-mud bottom and limited cellular reception. But that kind of heaving and cracking really poses little risk to ice-walkers, at least until near the time of spring break-up.

Among the loudest biogenic sounds one is likely to hear inside a house comes, surprisingly, from this tiny and exceptionally tame jewel, our native gray treefrog:

P1100734fp

Digital image with Hyla versicolor and Albizia julibrissin

For reasons of its own, this rugose beauty prefers to lurk in the crevices of partly open windows. At an otherwise quiet moment, it will let loose an extended, ululating shriek of such raucous intensity as to chill the bones. At close range it can outperform the klaxon that, from high on Bedford Road, once dispatched Lincoln’s volunteer fire department.

And yet, each of these emissions is self-evidently of a natural character, hence more intriguing than concerning—compared, say, to the hiss of steam from a rusting-through radiator, the crash of a baseball-catching window or the burnt-toast call of a smoke alarm. And sometimes the strangest noises come from the intersection of nature and technology.

In this time of avian mating activity, an exceptionally loud, metallic banging seemed to indicate yet another downy or hairy woodpecker smashing expensive holes in house-siding as both visual and auditory territory marker. But repeated inspections showed neither new holes nor a maker of same. And woodpeckers tend to peck wood, by preference. After a few days, the culprit was revealed as another member of the same family, capitalizing on new technology.

The yellow-shafted flicker is welcome for its beauty and its helpful function in aerating lawns. Though feeding primarily on bugs in soil and snag, it will occasionally dine at a feeder when permitted by the regular clientele:

S0663278fp

S0693294fp

S0693295fp

S0693297fp

In this case, a male (note the black moustache) had discovered that one of two capped chimneys is rarely in use at this time of year (the then-active one in this mid-winter picture),

IR_1103

and taken it as his coign of vantage:

 

S0573099fp

One, seasonally, is OK. If a drum circle gets up, countermeasures may be indicated.

 

Heron rising

Farrar Pond invites some very large birds. Young, not-yet-bald eagles pass fairly regularly, scribing steady circles that drift with the wind, occasionally stooping for prey mainly in shallow water. Adult coloration seems increasingly common as well, among individuals both aloft and—less often—perching high above water’s edge. These are birds that prefer to stay close to the sky.

Only slightly smaller in span, and standing even taller as they wade, is the great blue heron. Competent flyers, but more ponderous than the eagle as they move from pond to pond in hunt or migration. And starting usually with feet at (or below) surface level, takeoffs seem almost as effortful as those of the strong but biomechanically marginal turkey. As with the massive mute swan, getting airborne entails an extended run, percussive flapping, and finally smoother lift after speed-gaining level flight in ground effect at about a wing’s-span above the surface. One is reminded of the sadly extinct SR-71 Blackbird, which needed refueling immediately after each takeoff to replenish its energy reserves from exhausting maneuver in an aerodynamic regime far from its high, thin and fast optimum. The sea-eagle that feeds on wing and at speed, and soars in between; the swan that paddles about in its vegetable soup; the wading frog-spear: like reef fish, each body plan is optimized for efficiency in the regimes in which it expends the greatest energy and the most time. The aquatics fly well but do not soar; the raptor is ungainly afoot, an occasional toe-dipper but no swimmer.

It is perhaps natural, then, though not so often seen, that a heron might wish to pause on the way between pond below and cloud above, as did this one

S0952735fp

that made one long, slow spiral turn a good hundred feet from shallows to top of a pond-edge pine, looked around for a few minutes—seeking travel companions, testing breezes, resting muscles?—

S0073007fp

then lofted again: without apparent effort, aided by a good headwind

S0103010fp

and headed southwest, perhaps to an assignation at Sherman’s Bridge.

Incentive to travel

S0232523fp

A long, sharp winter indeed, and pond ice slow to clear. But edges melt first, due in part to a constant inflow of sub-surface water thermostatted to about 55°F.

S0312531fp

So as soon as vernal and other upland pools are themselves accessible, frogs go on the prowl. Preferred conditions are temperatures in the 40s or above, rain to keep skin hydrated, and dark to avoid predation. But even the first two may be relaxed; it was on a dry 38° night that the first shift of wood frogs appeared here, with more arriving the following night. Lek began two days later:

S0782692fp

After just a week of bright sun and relatively warm weather, two dozen or so egg masses, most in one large cluster, are already covered in algae fueled by the metabolites of growing embryos:

S0223136fp

For reasons unknown, the usual armada of bullfrog tadpoles apparently did not survive this harsh winter; suffocation seems more likely than actual freezing. So unless some other aquatic predator appears in the short time before hatch-out, this pond may enjoy a bumper crop of wood frogs.

Sunset on winter

Just before the ice finally (?) leaves Farrar Pond for eight or nine months (maybe), a pleasingly late sunset illuminates reeds and weeds on a half-awash island

S0122506fp

where, once fox and coyote can no longer approach, one or another species of water-bird may soon be nesting.

Empty larder

Spring is sprung, temperatures are (for the moment) well above freezing, sap riseth and green shoots peek out everywhere. But for critters used to more concentrated food sources, it will be some while yet before flowers, eggs, pupae and other rich dishes are again widely available. So the persistence of this squirrel in clawing up a silicone-slick plastic window-frame and—after several falls—squashing itself into a “squirrel proof” feeder is not so surprising.

0402_1019 DSCF2473fp

Somewhat more remarkable is the pain this animal is willing to suffer for its pleasure: with these sunflower hearts are mixed an almost equal volume of mammal deterrent. The proprietor of a local Indian grocery store, asked for the hottest chili powder in stock, proffered a bag marked “XXX” with some Hindi script in warning red. Queried “Is there anything even hotter?” she took a long look at the customer, shook her head, and retrieved from the back room a box of something presumably still more incendiary.

It takes squirrels here about a month of hard winter to nose into such a mix. (Birds are not affected by capsaicin, and like early Mesoamericans, may even benefit from the extra vitamins.) Then, if the food be worth it, they tuck in—afterward furiously brushing face and whiskers free of the red scourge.

S0032494fp

Perhaps they become accustomed to the kind of endorphin rush that brings some humans back to habanero and bhut jolokia? Perhaps this ordeal has taken its place among sciurid rites-of-passage? Or perhaps they are just very devoted to collecting calories for the benefit of soon-to-arrive offspring.

Shaking all under

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water…

Not depicted on the Geography page are the rock formations underlying all those soils and topographic features. Several maps are available, including static and interactive ones from various federal and state agencies (key here); the Physical Resources > Bedrock Geology entries in OLIVER are as beautifully rendered as they are revealing to the informed eye.

Local geology remains an active topic for academic research. Even within the past decade, a new map (excerpt shown here) has been in preparation:

Prelim-map-1

Though research is incomplete, and this map still very much an evolving project, one striking feature may be of special interest to area residents and visitors—the Sedge Meadows Fault, passing right beneath Pincushion Island:

Prelim-map-2

While this and intersecting Bloody Bluff Fault do not appear to pose any immediate danger, it is well to consider the living memory of 1940’s Ossipee earthquake and the more consequential 1755 Cape Ann temblor, widely perceived by victims as an act of divine retribution for Boston’s errant ways.

Our own higher standards in both morality and building codes would likely limit damage were such a catastrophe to strike this semi-rural area, though the downtown financial district might not fare so well. However, it is not always seismic shock and sustained shake that cause the greatest damage to persons and property. In the case of Farrar Pond, the relatively well-hydrated high banks of the southeast shore might loosen and slip, displacing most of the water in the pond. This churning tsunami of malodorous meadow mud could rush the length of the pond, shooting across the Sudbury River to wreak havoc at Nashawtuc Country Club and the southern reaches of Nine Acre Corner, even imperiling the hallowed ovens at Verrill Farm.

Various early-warning and other defensive measures are under consideration by responsible parties.