Monday, March 30, 2015

Amphibian Egg Progress

The bulk of salamander and Wood Frog egg laying at Blue Jay Barrens occurred between March 13 and March 17.  In the two weeks since egg laying began, air temperatures have ranged from a low of 10oF to 75oF.  Water temperature has not suffered such wild fluctuations, due to the constant inflow of relatively warm spring water.  Despite these varying conditions, development of salamander eggs is progressing at a rapid pace.

Several of the Jefferson Salamander egg clusters show eggs with white colored centers.  This usually indicates the presence of fungus feeding on unfertilized and damaged eggs.

There are still plenty of live embryos in these masses, so there should be no shortage of larvae hatching into the pond.

Jefferson Salamanders concentrated their egg laying efforts on sticks floating in the pond.  Several large sticks are completely covered with Jefferson egg masses.  Streamside Salamanders made heavy use of the hard surface structure I placed in the pond for their use.

The structure was composed of a mixture of clay drainage tiles, bricks, rocks, and boards.  My thought was to see if the salamanders preferred one substrate over another.

Substrate type didn’t seem to matter.  There were eggs everywhere.

Once the lower surfaces were covered with eggs, the salamanders began attaching eggs wherever they could find a hard surface.  Next year I will try placing the material so there are more spaces between the various components.

Wood Frog egg masses are beginning to lose their cohesiveness and spread across the water surface.

Frog tadpoles are becoming free swimming and detaching from the egg masses.

Development of the eggs on the outside of this mass seems to be several days behind those eggs in the center.

Eggs in the top of the mass are most susceptible to damage from weather conditions.  Ice formed over the top of these eggs several times during the past two weeks.  Several embryos seem to have been killed from freeze damage.  Larvae hatching from that top layer of eggs also seem to have a tough time working their way out to open water.  Even so, plenty of live tadpoles will result from this hatching.

Attracted by the movement of hatching tadpoles, one of the breeding pond’s super predators moves in to investigate this newly available food source.  Red-spotted Newts will take their toll on the young salamander and frog larvae.  They can’t eat them all, even though they will try.  Plenty of young salamanders and frogs will live to add their efforts to future annual breeding activities.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Spider in the Hole

Early last November, the Carolina Wolf Spider residing at the edge of one of my vegetable garden beds, sealed off the entrance to her burrow in preparation for surviving the cold winter season.  The earthen seal remained undisturbed through the winter.  On March 16 of this year, the seal was removed and the burrow reopened.

Heavy snow flattened Butterflyweed stalks and effectively erased signs of the burrow entrance.  Had I not placed a white marker stone a few inches from the burrow, I would have had a hard time deciding just where I should be watching for the reappearance of the burrow.

On March 21 I caught my first glimpse of the spider.  I was happy to see that she had survived the winter with no noticeable negative effects.  With no nearby standing cover, it’s hard to get close to the burrow without scaring the spider back inside.  The spider is just about dead center in this shot.

Fortunately, the spider was quick to reemerge from its burrow, so I had plenty of photo opportunities. 

This spider is a female who would have been hatched in the summer of 2013.  She attained her adult size last summer and should have mated sometime in the fall.  That means she should be producing eggs this spring that will hatch in early summer.  I’ll be keeping a close eye on her in hopes of witnessing some of the young leaving the burrow later on.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Prairie Garden Mowing

The tall grass in the Prairie Garden looks a bit battered from the heavy snows it endured this winter.  The combination of strong west winds, heavy snow, and no support outside the garden boundary, caused much of the grass to be laid on its side.  Even though there are acres of similar habitat very close by, birds and other animals spend a lot of time foraging and hiding in this small plot.  This is one of the reasons I leave the garden untouched through the winter.

The new portion of the Prairie Garden has little prairie grass, so the dead stalks of various wild flowers are easy to see.  Birds have pretty much picked the area clean of seeds.

In the spring, I remove the dead top growth.  The process begins by cutting with the brush mower and raking the cut material from the garden.

The clearing away of dead material is done primarily to give me an unobstructed view of the developing plant life.  I intentionally crowded a large number of species into this small space.  They all grow naturally at Blue Jay Barrens, but it takes a bit of a walk to visit all of the areas where the different species occur.  The Prairie Garden specimens make it possible to easily visit the plants every day and follow the various stages of their development.  The recent heavy snow cover has slowed the emergence of many of the common plants.  Some species, such as this Orange Coneflower, Rudbeckia fulgida, were already green and growing prior to the onset of snow.

Monarda has produced this growth in just the week or so since the snow melted.

The invasive Oxeye Daisy, Chrysanthemum leucanthemum, legally designated as a noxious weed in Ohio, maintains a cluster of green basal leaves through the winter.  This is the only specimen found in the garden this spring.  

I’ve been pulling Oxeye Daisy from the Prairie Garden to evaluate the effectiveness of this method in controlling the weed.  I’ve found that the pulled plant can be killed if all segments of the spreading rhizome are removed from the ground.  Fibrous roots don’t seem capable of regrowing the plant, but any small segment of rhizome will quickly reestablish the infestation.  Pulling isn’t a practical method of dealing with fields already filled with Oxeye Daisy, but it can be effective in dealing with new incursions into previously uninfested areas.

After raking, I go over the garden with a push mower equipped with a grass catching bag.  It’s at this stage in my management efforts that some people get the impression that I’m finally getting rid of the weed patch in my yard in favor of a cleanly mowed look.

It is now easy to see anything growing in the garden area.

The material removed from the Prairie Garden is hauled back to the vegetable garden and used as mulch between the raised growing beds.  By next fall, the material will be well composted and will be incorporated on top of the beds.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

2015 Salamander Breeding - Third Wave

Salamanders have once again been stimulated into a flurry of egg laying activity at Blue Jay Barrens.  This has been an odd weather year that presented the salamanders with limited opportunities to safely travel overland to their breeding pools.  A light rain on January 3 brought in the first of the Jefferson Salamanders, but no egglaying activity was noticed.  A storm on February 1 gave us a third of an inch of rain and Streamside Salamanders joined Jeffersons in the pond.  Water level was still very low and only a few egg clusters were produced.  The pond quickly iced over.  Snow then covered the ice and the pond remained hidden from view for nearly a month. 

Finally, over two inches of rain fell during a 24 hour event beginning March 3 and ending March 4.   The pond filled and salamander breeding resumed.

Following the rain, fresh Jefferson Salamander eggs appeared on twigs throughout the pond.

The rain fell on soil that was already saturated by snow meltwater, so nearly the entire two inches moved overland to the creeks.  This carried numerous sticks and other debris that entered the pond and was used by the salamanders as an anchor for their egg masses.  Now these loose batches of eggs are being driven by the wind and are in danger of being left high on the shore as the pond water level slowly drops.  I make periodic circuits of the pond to relocate eggs in danger.

I found a couple of Jefferson Salamanders out of the water and heading away from the pond.  Some of these guys have been in the pond for over ten weeks, so I guess it’s about time for them to be getting back to their underground burrows.

The Streamside Salamanders also got busy laying their eggs.   Streamsides attach their eggs on the underside of submerged objects such as rocks and boards.

Instead of being contained as a group within a mass of jelly, Streamside Salamander eggs are individually attached. 

Wood Frogs also emerged with the warm rain.  They have spent the past several days producing large egg masses.

A few frogs and salamanders took advantage of the branches hanging below my floating jug and attached their eggs to this safe location.  Weather conditions made it impossible for me to float the branches prior to the arrival of the breeding amphibians, so my success in keeping the eggs safe from fluctuating water level was not nearly as successful as last year.

Many of the eggs were laid near the shoreline where a falling water level could leave them hanging in the air.  If our spring rainfall is less than normal, I’ll just have to relocate all of these egg clusters to deeper water.

Friday, March 13, 2015

The Almost Final Last of the Season Cedar Maintenance

This aerial map shows the roughly three acre field in which I am currently completing cedar maintenance.  Red outlines indicate the areas of the field that have so far been completed.  A small area to the right is yet to be done.  The portions labeled B-2 and C were completed back in early February.  Work was then halted when a series of storms buried the field in snow.  Snow exited the field a couple of days ago, but it wasn’t until yesterday that the soil dried out enough for me to resume work.  Section D was completed yesterday afternoon and E is what I could get done this morning before heavy rain moved in.  I would not normally be doing this type of work in March, but I just couldn’t leave the field partially completed.  If the rain ends tomorrow as predicted, it will probably be the middle of next week before the soil will be dry enough for me to finish the last bit of this field.

The aerial view makes it appear that this field is heavily occupied by large Eastern Red Cedars.  The view from ground level shows that the cedars are spaced widely enough apart to allow plenty of sunlight to reach the ground.  Where soil conditions allow, a thick grass cover is present.

The slope steepens rapidly at the south end of the field.  The last 15 feet are an almost vertical plunge into the creek.  The last of the snow is still holding on along the top of the creek bank.

Field blends with woods at the steep north end of the field.  One October, about 20 years ago, I mowed a path through the tall grass.  The deer, which always seem to take the easiest option while walking, immediately began following the mowed path.  They still follow the same path and are responsible for it becoming a muddy trail.  As deer numbers increased through the years, they developed paths in other directions through the field and now this is just one in an expanding network of deer highways.

This is considered to be a south facing field.  Unlike the previous field I discussed, this one is dissected by a network of surface depressions that drain water in many different directions.  While the field is still generally south facing, there is a wide variation in slope steepness and direction.  This gives the field an interesting collection of microclimates within its boundary.

Saturated soil is still releasing water into the center of the drains.  The presence of water on the surface is short lived, but a gradual movement of subsurface water along this same route may persist for a couple more months.

Small cedars thrive in these areas of increased water availability.  This eroded area was practically bare when I bought this property.  Prairie grasses are slowly stabilizing the soil.

Between each drain is a ridge.  There is a drastic difference in the amount of water available to plants on the ridges as opposed to the drains.

This section of the field suffered soil slips that resulted in a stair step arrangement of bare patches on the slope.  The slipping stopped long ago, but the poor quality of soil exposed in each step is making it difficult for vegetation to become established.

Lichens are the pioneer species in these bare areas.  In time, grasses take root in the soil stabilized by the lichens.

Lichens become established on any stable surface.  Here they have encrusted an old cedar stump left from my initial clearing of the field.

The deep snow mashed down the fine grasses, making it more difficult to find the small cedars.  Even in the best of conditions I miss a few, but there were probably many more like this that escaped my search this time.

I found several patches of the uncommon Purple Triple-awned Grass, Aristida purpurascens, scattered about the field.  This grass was represented by only a few small clumps at the time this field was originally cleared.

The grass gets its name from the three long filaments, known as awns, projecting from the end of the seed.

I found collections of Blue Jay feathers beneath three different cedars, evidently the work of a Blue Jay predator.  I couldn’t tell if the feather piles represented three different birds, of if the predator moved the bird a couple of times while dining.  This batch included a section of leg bone.  I’m guessing this was the work of a Cooper’s Hawk.  The Cooper’s Hawks around here seem partial to Blue Jays and Mourning Doves.  It’s not unusual to find piles of feathers from these two species.  Even with the hawk whittling down their numbers, the Blue Jays seem just as abundant as ever.