When the first warm spring night occurs with a gentle rain, hundreds of spotted salamanders converge on the vernal pool of their birth for breeding. (Ed Robinson photo)
I admit the title above is a shameless pun. By playing off the trademarked phrase for the NCAA basketball championships, I am hoping to lure you into reading this column. The women put on quite a show in this year’s tournament, far more exciting than the men, but you can enjoy real drama taking place in wetlands around town for many weeks this spring. The action is nonstop, 24/7, with no interruptions to review disputed calls, and tickets are free!
The worst of mud season is behind us, with snow and ice banished for six months. Our March snows resulted in plenty of water in vernal pools and wetlands, just in time for one of spring’s rituals. Water holes of all sorts are great places to view wildlife throughout the year, unless ice shuts things down. As spring’s evening temperatures climb into the 50s, you have the chance to witness the march of the amphibians. A variety of wetlands play host to the mating rituals of frogs, salamanders and spring peepers, plus many songbirds and insects.
A critical habitat for amphibians is the vernal pool. These seasonal bodies of water form when snowmelt and spring rains gather in shallow depressions. Some of them will dry up as temperatures rise in May; others will last well into summer.
Vernal pools host a unique mix of plants and animals because of their short life span. The key point is that the pools do not last year-round, so the pools cannot sustain fish and other creatures common to ponds and lakes. This allows amphibians and insects to lay eggs in the water of vernal pools with a good chance that some of the resulting larvae will survive to adulthood.
As the light fell yesterday afternoon, I went out for a brisk walk and immediately heard the bell-like calls of northern spring peepers from a nearby pond. These tiny creatures weigh less than 1 ounce, but they belt out a high-pitched song that can be heard from hundreds of yards away in calm conditions. Winter was spent in leaf litter, under downed logs and in the mud, sometimes frozen in place, although a natural antifreeze protects them from cell damage. When spring arrives, the peepers are looking for love in all the wet places, particularly the wetland where they were born. Once their calling begins, it can go on for hours each day into June.
Northern spring peepers weigh less than an ounce, but their song can be heard from hundreds of yards away. (Steve Byland photo/iStock)
Another amphibian joins the spring wetland chorus: the diminutive wood frog. At 3 inches long, the brown-to-green wood frog is larger than the spring peeper and has a raspy call that sounds more like a quack. While you can find this species as far south as Alabama, they are more creatures of northern waters and the only frogs found in Arctic regions.
Again, thanks to a natural antifreeze, the wood frogs spend most of the winter frozen in place. When they thaw out, they are hungry for early insects, and keen to breed. Starting in mid-March they will sing for hours each day, pair up for mating, and deposit large egg masses along the edge of a pond or marsh.
One of my favorite wetland creatures is the spotted salamander. With their long tails they can reach 10 inches, but they are silent visitors to the spring waters. Their bodies are generally dark in color, but they display large spots that range from yellow to orange.
Salamanders are invisible for most of the year, hiding under logs and rocks, or buried in forest debris. But when the first warm spring night occurs with a gentle rain, hundreds of salamanders will converge on the vernal pool of their birth for breeding. I have seen their migration twice in recent years and it is a sight to behold. They add their egg masses to the water and return to their hiding places, hoping that a few of their offspring will survive a range of predators.
In the past, mankind went to great lengths to drain or fill small wetlands that are critical to the cycle of life around us. Finally, we learned to protect such places and the wonderful species they host. Wetlands also play a role in filtering water for our aquifers, sequestering pollutants and controlling runoff. So, while the show is still running, find yourself a local vernal pool or pothole and enjoy the chorus!
Ed Robinson’s latest book, “Nature Notes from Maine Vol. II: Puffins, Black Bears, Raccoons & More,” is available from the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust. All profits support HHLT’s conservation and education efforts.