Frog Incognito

At this time of year there are frogs on the move in the woods, but if it weren’t for their occasionally leaping out from under your feet as you walk, you’d rarely notice they were there. Can you spot the frog in this photo?

Some camouflage, huh? Wood frogs (easily identified by the dark mask around their eyes) are perfectly shaded to match the leaf litter.

Leopard frogs were also hiding in the grass.

So handsome!




I Explain Frog Sex for a Living

Yesterday we put on a field trip for a group of fourth graders, and my role involved taking groups of them out on the pond in canoes to look for signs of spring. (Well, they were in canoes, I took a kayak so I could maneuver around more easily.) A thunderstorm Wednesday night brought out toads by the hundreds, and the vegetation around the edges of the pond was full of them, calling and climbing on top of each other and generally working on making more toads. If you’re not familiar with their call, American Toads make a long, loud, mechanical-sounding trill on a single pitch – you can hear them in this recording (not by me) along with spring peepers going “meep, meep, meep.”



For those of you who like learning new natural history words, here’s your word of the day: amplexus. It’s the term for a male frog clinging to the back of a female frog, ready and waiting to fertilize her eggs the minute she lays them. The surface of the water was thick with floating pairs of amplexing toads, and because of the size difference (males are much smaller) the kids kept thinking they were mother toads with babies on their backs. I couldn’t let such a huge misunderstanding of basic frog biology go uncorrected, so I spent the day scooping pairs of toads into my kayak with my paddle (the males stayed fastened to the females even as they hopped around in the bottom of the boat) and paddling around to show them to all the fourth graders and explain what they were doing: “This is the dad, and this is the mom. He’s going to ride around on her back like this all day waiting for her to be ready to lay her eggs.” Most kids were content to leave it at that, but there was one boy who frowned and said, “They’re mating, right? His sperm… is going to go… in…” which is how I ended up explaining internal vs. external fertilization to a ten-year-old while his teacher watched, clearly very amused by the whole conversation.

In the evening, the coordinator of my graduate program was giving a presentation on plant pollination and spring wildflowers, and I tagged along for the outdoor portion. When we came to the edge of the pond, the frogs were still at it – most of the noise was still toads, but peepers, leopard frogs, and tree frogs were also adding to the chorus. When someone asked a question about the frogs, Fran turned to me with a grin and said, “Rebecca?” So I got to explain frog sex all over again, this time to a group of respectable, nicely-dressed middle aged people.

What a day.


International Rock Flipping Day 2011

Today’s the day! It’s not too late to participate – if you haven’t yet, grab a camera and go find some rocks to flip. I have a confession to make, though. I started out flipping rocks and only rocks, determined to play by the rules. But after walking quite a ways flipping rock after rock and only finding dirt, leaves, and the occasional beetle…

…I started eyeing the inviting-looking decaying logs that cover the forest floor here. If I were a small creature in this forest, I think I’d make my home under a log. For one thing, there are many more logs than rocks, and for another, you have all that soft wood to burrow into. The areas under the logs also seem moister, important when we’ve had such a dry summer.

The last straw was movement catching the corner of my eye as I walked: something small and dark scooting off of a log and disappearing into the leaf litter. When I poked around the spot where it had vanished, I found what looked like an entrance to a tiny burrow, and seized by a hunch I reached out and flipped the log that the little whatever-it-was had been on.

Under the log, its long nose quivering, was a tiny shrew. If only I’d had my camera at the ready I could have gotten a pretty good photo, because it sat there for several seconds, stunned by the sudden removal of its roof, before vanishing into the same hole as its companion. Well, there’s something you don’t see every day! I carefully replaced its home and continued down the path. After looking at some pictures online I’d guess it was something in the genus Sorex, but I’m not going to hazard a more specific identification than that.

A little way farther along I found this perfect, irresistible chunk of log. Having learned my lesson, this time I held my camera in one hand as I lifted the log with the other.

At first when I saw the glistening blue-black something I thought I’d found an enormous millipede or worm, but then my brain caught up to my eyes and I realized I’d found the holy grail of rock- and log-flipping (at least as far as I’m concerned.) That’s right… a SALAMANDER!!!

Specifically, a blue-spotted salamander, Ambystoma laterale. I’m not sure what it is about finding salamanders that is so amazingly exciting, but I know I’m not the only person that feels this way. Salamander, salamander, salamander! This was the first one I’d seen in over a year, actually, and I was pretty dang happy.

So, I’m sorry that I technically broke the rules by flipping over non-rocks, but it was worth it. Actually… come to think of it, I’m not sorry at all. See you next year for International Rock Flipping Day 2012!


Ribbit, Ribbit

For a while now I’ve been thinking that whenever I was due to write a post and short on time or ideas, I’d just walk downstairs with my camera and get some photos of the treefrogs that hang out on the walls of the building after dark.  Because, let’s face it, treefrogs are adorable.

Here on the coast of Georgia, there may be a serious lack of the Dutchman’s breeches, spring beauties, trilliums, trout lilies, hepatica, etc. etc. etc. that everyone up north is posting photos of right now.  But, at least I live in a building where treefrogs climb the walls every single night.  I’m pretty sure these are squirrel treefrogs, Hyla squirella, a species we didn’t have in Ohio.  (They really go more “quack, quack” than “ribbit, ribbit.”)

On the clock for over twelve hours tomorrow, and we’re predicted to have thunderstorms in the afternoon (again).  Deep breath…



When I was a kid, at the back of our backyard was a ditch along which, in the summer, plants with yellow flowers grew wild.  After they were done blooming, the flowers grew into fat, translucent seed pods which would explode spectacularly when they were poked or squeezed.  They were known universally among the neighborhood kids as “poppers” and as summer wore on we would occupy ourselves for hours with finding and popping the ripest seed pods.

In addition to simple-minded entertainment, these flowers gave me my first lightbulb moment about natural selection.  While watching bumblebees visiting them one day I noticed that they were exactly the right size and shape for bumblebees to fit inside.  In fact, a bee came and crawled into this flower briefly while I was taking photos, although I didn’t react fast enough to get a shot of it.

It wasn’t until much later that I would learn this plant’s proper name: jewelweed, or Impatiens capensis.  (The touch-sensitive seed pods have also conferred on it the alternate name “touch-me-not.”)  When the seedlings first emerge in the spring they’re very distinctive, with big, round cotyledons.  They grow spectacularly and now they’re the size of shrubs.  Some of my coworkers swear by jewelweed sap as a remedy for itchy bug bites, though I haven’t tried it myself.

Incidentally, while I was photographing jewelweed flowers a greenish-gray lump on the stem caught my eye.  It was this.

And then when I started back along the trail I noticed something else, a big, pale shape among the leaves.

A luna moth, the size of my hand, settled down into torpor for the day.  You never know what you’re going to find when you go for a walk in the woods!


Young Two-Lined Salamander

Last week when I took my group of campers to look for critters in the stream, one girl turned out to be a salamander-finding machine – in addition to an adult long-tailed salamander, she found several of what appeared to be young two-lined salamanders, judging by their markings.

Admittedly this isn’t the world’s greatest photo, but if you look closely you can see that it still has gills on the sides of its neck.  Is there a term for this stage of a salamander’s life cycle?  I feel like it’s not an adult if it still has gills, but it’s not what I could call a larva either.  A juvenile, maybe?  In any case, this was at the exact same spot where I found what I guessed might be two-lined salamander eggs back in April, so I thought it was cool to come back now and find these.


Long-Tailed Salamander

Yesterday after dinner a coworker and I flipped over a log outside the dormitories and found this.

It’s a long-tailed salamander, which is apparently fairly common here but was new to me (I think they’re significantly less common farther north in Ohio, where I’m originally from).  What a gorgeous creature!  After we caught it, coworker and I sprinted back to the office, where I frantically pawed around in her cubby for a container to keep it in while we identified it.  Finally, through the combined application of a Peterson guide and a booklet on the amphibians of Ohio, we figured out what it was.  It stayed in its container, with plenty of water and mud and moss to keep it moist, for about two hours, and then we released it back by the same log where we found it.

Apparently these are closely related to two-lined salamanders, and can be told apart from other similar-looking species by the fact that their spots coalesce into little vertical marks along the sides of the tail, which is over half as long as the body.

I love salamanders.  Love them.  They are seriously my favorite animals.  Now I’m going to want to flip over that log every time I walk past it, just in case.


dragonflies are hard to sneak up on.

A coworker recently told me that there were a ton of dragonflies at the pond and that I might be able to get some good pictures even with my tiny point-and-shoot camera.  I went and checked it out over the weekend, and while there were indeed a ton of dragonflies (and as an added bonus I flushed a woodcock on the bank), I was not able to get any good photos with my camera.  I had been naïvely thinking, all I have to do is wait for one to perch somewhere where I can get at it, creep up on it, and snap the picture, just like I did with that snipe fly.  Well, let me tell you something: it’s impossible to sneak up on a dragonfly.

This is the best I managed to do.  I believe it’s a Twelve-spotted Skimmer, Libellula pulchella.  There were also Eastern Pondhawks (excellent name for a dragonfly)… and… a lot of other species I couldn’t identify.  I’m only just starting to dip my toe into the wide world of butterflies, odonates and the like.

Happily, there were plenty of things to distract me from the frustratingly skittish dragonflies, like this little guy I found lurking next to my foot.  Probably a toad, but I find it hard to tell when they’re this tiny.  He’s lucky I didn’t crush him accidentally – he was only a couple centimeters long!

There was also this striking red-and-blue insect hanging around on the daisies, which made for nice pictures.

I thought it was some sort of fly, and decided to post the photo on the BugGuide site to see if anyone could tell me anything more specific.  Well, within about five minutes two different people had replied telling me that 1) it was a bee, not a fly, and 2) I needed to crop my image more before posting it.  Um… oops.  I sheepishly fixed the image, feeling kind of humiliated.  Finally someone else came along and told me it’s a sweat bee in the genus Sphecodes.  Isn’t it pretty?

Anyway, summer camp training starts this afternoon, so I probably won’t have time to post anything else until the weekend.  Have a great rest-of-the-week!



I recently got a letter from a former student in which she said her favorite places here were the waterfall, because of the sound it made, and the pine forest, because of the sound of the wind in the trees.  Those are part of the daily soundtrack of my life here.  I can barely remember what it’s like to live somewhere where you can hear traffic going by.  I haven’t lived on a real road in a year now.

In the past few days some new birds have shown up in the woods, including the singer behind one of my favorite bird songs: the wood thrush.  (If you don’t know what a wood thrush sounds like, you can listen to it here.)  Every morning I wake up to the songs of thrushes, wrens, warblers, towhees, sparrows, peewees.

In the evening, after dark, the treefrogs take over with their insistent trilling – not to mention the calls of the barred owls, great horned owls, and screech owls who live here at the raptor center.

And sometimes, the only sound is the rain, or the wind rushing in the tree tops.


Things You Find Under Rocks

This afternoon I tagged along with another naturalist who was teaching a lesson called stream study, which is exactly what it sounds like: students do some tests on the stream that runs through our property to assess how healthy it is.

The final (and most fun!) part is sampling for macroinvertebrates.  We flip over rocks on the stream bed and see what we find (specifically whether we find pollution-sensitive species).

Mayfly larvae can be identified by their three butt prongs.  I really need to learn the technical term for “butt prongs.”

There were also a lot of little freshwater clams.  It was so cool to put them in our containers and watch them open up.  How often do you actually get to see live clams wiggling around, doing their thing?  Not very often, if you’re me.

The coolest find was salamander eggs, which I photographed, showed to the kids, and then returned carefully to where they were.  I looove salamanders, so this pretty much made my day.  I’m far from an expert on salamander egg identification but my best guess would be two-lined.

Conclusion: our stream is pretty darn healthy.  Anyway, I have a job where I get paid to poke around under rocks and look at interesting things.  How awesome is that?