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!


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.

Amphibian Nostalgia

When I was in college, spring was amphibian season: one of my favorite professors did surveys for breeding frogs, toads, and salamanders every year, and I was fortunate enough to accompany her fairly often.  Well, it’s amphibian season once again, but this year I’m too busy with work and too isolated from any serious herp people to really spend much time out in the ponds at night.  (It doesn’t help that my waders are at my parents’ house on the far side of the continent, either.)  This post on Jim McCormac’s excellent blog, Ohio Birds and Biodiversity, increased my nostalgia even more because I’m pretty sure I’ve been out salamandering at the very same pond he went to!  I did recently walk down to our pond after dark to see what was calling, and heard a chorus of toads and one lonely leopard frog, but it just wasn’t the same as going out with waders and a headlamp (or, when doing calling surveys, a tape recorder) and doing the thing properly.

The height of my amphibian-love came in the summer of 2008, when I was lucky enough to spend three months at a research station in northern Wisconsin studying gray treefrogs.

For weeks, I was wading in vernal ponds every night until after midnight observing breeding behavior.  Our study ponds were filled not only with treefrogs, but also chorus frogs, bullfrogs, green frogs, leopard frogs, the odd painted turtle… perhaps the highlight was when I happened upon a four-toed salamander swimming past my knees.  (According to Jim McCormac, “Four-toed Salamanders are probably the hardest of the vernal pool salamanders to find, and to successfully ferret them out requires some knowledge of their habitats and a lot of careful searching.”  How lucky, then, that I found one completely by chance!)  Whenever the frogs quieted down for a moment we would hear the calls of loons and owls drifting through the night.  On our way home in the small hours of the morning, porcupines and foxes would dart across the road in front of the headlights of the pickup truck.

The other treefrog student and I were so dedicated that one night we decided to go out despite the threat of a thunderstorm.  Clad in our rain gear, we made a brave effort at collecting data as the thunder grew closer and closer.  Finally a truly humongous clap of thunder sounded practically on top of our heads and sent us both crashing frantically through the undergrowth and back to the truck, terrified.

Sadly the camera I had then wasn’t as nice as my current one, and my photos leave something to be desire.  For one thing, there was no macro setting (that is, I couldn’t take proper close-ups) so none of my frog photos are really in focus.  Still… they’ll give you an idea of what it was like.

I don’t think I’ve seen a salamander since I graduated from college, sadly; I’ll have to turn over a few dead logs next time I think of it.  One of the other naturalists here did find a two-lined salamander this week – or at least she found a salamander that she described as having yellowish stripes down its sides hanging out in a rocky stream, and I’m assuming it must have been a two-lined.