Sunday, April 22, 2007

Small Wonders

Yesterday I had the good fortune to see my first spotted salamander egg casings in a small vernal pond on our local State Game Lands. The day was glorious and much too inviting to stay in my yard so I ventured out to see what I could find in one of my old forested haunts. The PA Game Commission, in its unfathomable wisdom, has logged a large tract of what used to be heavily forested land and because it pains me to see it so, I have seldom returned in the last couple of years. Yesterday, however, I was drawn back to the old trails and was curious to see what migrant warblers and other birds might be moving through.

The woods were warm and quiet and still predominantly brown though hints of new life were all around me. Tiny leaves were emerging on the spicebushes and the serviceberry buds were silvery and soft, needing just another day or so to open into the first flowers of the woodland procession. The skunk cabbage has been up for a while now and ran along the streams like a green ribbon against the dry leaves. As I picked my way along the swampy trail, blue azure butterflies and mourning cloaks kept me company, as did several hermit thrush and Louisiana waterthrush. It was a good time for rambling.

I was looking forward to hiking a secluded side trail that meanders through a wooded valley. It had been my favorite part of what used to be a regular loop but the last few times I have tried to find it, somehow or other, the entrance has eluded me. It seemed as if the trail had disappeared altogether. I knew better, of course, and yesterday I decided to try a sneak attack from the rear. My plan was to hike the main trail to where the far end of the side trail intersected and then walk the side trail back from that direction.

It was on the way to that intersection that I passed the ponds. I had known that they were there and have stopped to look at them in the past, but this year I thought that perhaps I might see something new if I took the time to intentionally inspect them. And sure enough, I did. The first pond was about the size of my small kitchen and held an abundance of decaying leaves, mosquito larvae and wood frog tadpoles. The second pond was even smaller, not much larger than our kitchen table, and in addition to the tadpoles, also held three spotted salamander egg masses. The individual round eggs are held in a softball-sized greenish gelatinous balls that were attached to a submerged stick. The whole pond appeared to be in constant motion as the wood frog tadpoles congregated on the egg masses, eating the attached algae and the the mosquito larvae wiggled to and fro. Within the new few weeks the tadpoles will become wood frogs, the salamaders will hatch and mature and all will leave the ponds in search of their adult lives elsewhere. I am hoping to return to the ponds often in the coming days to watch the changes firsthand.

How blessed I am to have been nudged into walking to this spot on this day to see what I have been privileged to see. How blessed to be gifted with the introduction to these small wonders.

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