Jefferson salamanders; more wood turtle notes; begin wetlands documentary with students from Tufts University

In mid-August I returned to the vernal pool in which I had found
abundant salamander egg masses attached in a linear fashion along the
many branchings of a limb that had fallen into the pool, when I was
conducting surveys with Colin Nevins as he documented and journaled
about his family’s 36-acre woodlot for his senior project at Proctor
Academy. I believe I wrote a description of this in a posting from
that time in the season… the egg-mass-lined branches made me think
of branchings in a coral reef. I had never seen such an abundant
aggregate, nor such a style of attaching egg masses. These depositions
were clearly not the work of the spotted salamander (Ambystoma
maculatum) and I at once felt pretty certain that this was a pool
heavily favored by a substantial population of Jefferson salamanders
(Ambystoma jeffersonianum). My adult grandsons Ricky and Michael
Couture live on a property that abuts the Colins’ woods, not far from
this particular vernal pool. In mid-August the three of us ascended
the steep, boulder-studded upland rise that led to where the pool is
situated, to see if we might net a salamander far along enough in its
development to allow a positive identification as to species. As I
kept surveillance over a sunlit patch of the pool I saw a tiny larva
swim along just beneath the surface, and managed to net it. It had
large gill fringes, no sign of limbs; it was too early in its
development to allow a certain identification to species – at least to
me. We decided to bring it back to Ricky and Michael’s house and see
if we could raise it to the point of an identification.

By mid-September the little salamander had developed enough to reveal
itself as all but certainly a Jefferson salamander. It was overall a
grayish color, not very dark, and had a dusting of minute, barely
discernible spots lining the very edge of its ventral surface. It
still had gill fringes, and only very tiny legs had appeared. Although
I now had no doubt as to the species that had committed those egg
masses at thaw, I wanted to return to the pool to see if larvae were
still present and if we could find one even farther along towards
metamorphosis. The pool is surrounded by rocky outcrop and dense
hemlocks and is deeply shaded. It was virtually impossible to see into
the dark water except where slender shafts of sunlight penetrated it.
We waded in and stood watch at these narrow, slowly shifting beacons.
Finally Michael saw a larval salamander surface for a bit of air and
descend, an action so swift in passing that he did not have a chance
to attempt to net it. At least we knew that they were still in the
pool; I had expected as much as the shaded water was still quite chill
and and deep, and metamorphosis would likely be a comparatively
lengthy process. We waited some time, without any further sightings. I
decided to make random sweeps through the thick sunken leaf litter,
and on my second trial I netted a larval salamander that was
indisputably a Jefferson. It still bore gill fringes, though they had
diminished, and the larvae were transitioning to air-breathing. I hope
to return to this pool at breeding time next year to see of I can get
a feeling for how numerous the adults are here. I have found pools
with Jefferson salamander breeding in this region, but numbers of
adults ranged from half a dozen to eight – quite a contrast to the
numbers of spotted salamanders in the same and neighboring pools. (In
SWAMPWALKER’S JOURNAL I describe a quite small pool that supports
breeding by both salamander species, as well as wood frogs, and how
they select different parts of this very restricted breeding habitat
for their egg deposition.) It is also of interest that there appears
to be little or no breeding by spotted salamander in this vernal pool,
something I’d like to get a more certain documentation of.

In recent weeks, as I have continued my daily juggling of drawing,
writing, language pursuits, life in general, and time in turtle
places, I have concentrated on sojourns in my long-familiar wood
turtle habitats. I have not come upon any more hatchlings – the time
of their nest-to-water journeys is long past now, unless there is an
extraordinary case (and one never knows). I have found no further
evidence of hatching and believe that the exit hole I found was the
only successful nest of the season. This leads me to the conclusion
that the second hatchling I found, on the journey, came from that same
nest, in which I found the first hatchling still lodged in the nest
chamber. I will devote myself to one final thorough search of all
known nesting niches one more time before snow falls, to see if I
might find another exit hole – they keep their form into winter and
even beyond, and can provide hard evidence of successful nests.
Eggshells of pipped or failed eggs, and any hatchlings who died in the
nest, provide clutch sizes and the survival figures for the nest.

In the main I am making searches along the ecotones between tree lines
and mown hayfield, and interior alder swamp, etc., habitats for
terrestrial wood turtles. Some may well have begun to relocate closer
to the banks of the two brooks in which they will overwinter, and even
entered the brooks themselves; but there are wood turtles yet keeping
to terrestrial niches.I returned from a search along one of the highly-
favored swaths of dense grass, sedge, forb, and shrub between the tree
line and the far end of the hayfield just before sitting down to this
writing. Two days of rain and drizzle, and warm, humid – steamy – air
preceded today, which became all the more rain-forest-like with a
thinning of the cloud cover and occasional brief appearances of
sunlight. Such a high-summer spell in early, or even later, autumn,
seems to be something I can count on in this region… maybe a Latin
American summer before an Indian summer. Such a weather pattern can
delude me; I need to glance at the calendar and remind myself of the
season’s overall, inevitable progress. I wanted to have a wood turtle
encounter, and was favored with one. Another feature of the tropical
bearing of the day was a steady, numerous accompaniment of mosquitoes.
There has been a resurgence of them in the northeast following the
deluges of hurricane/tropical storm Irene and subsequent remnants of
tropical storms. Mosquitoes are more of an affliction now than they
have been at any previous time in the year. My reward was finding a
long-familiar female who was an adult when I first came upon her and
is no doubt an older turtle, at least in her mid-forties. She has a
distinct configuration of her carapace at the right shoulder area,
with marginals sweeping up and outward, and what appears to be a long-
healed narrow gash penetrating to the edge of the seam of her first
and second pleurals. It is likely that this is the result of an injury
caused by haymowing equipment, something I have noted with a fair
number of wood turtles here. And for reasons that escape me, such
mechanical wounds seem all but invariably to occur at that right
shoulder area and slanting across the carapace and down toward the
posterior end.
She has intact limbs, only a modest tail-nip, and is one of those
nesting matriarchs of the colony.

On the 10th of September, following a chill night with temperatures in
the low forties, I went out as the sun appeared and reached favored
terrestrial niches of the wood turtles to see who I might find. This
is generally a rewarding strategy as the turtles move to where they
can warm up after such a night, so I time the sun and search the
places where it first strikes the earth. One such niche is a small
corner of dense Bromus grass that is left uncut in the haying. In
times past I have found turtles here regularly at certain times in the
active season, including high summer. There is a narrow border of
sweetfern, the second-growth forest with a dense canopy and no
understory, an open floor that wood turtles eschew, that descends a
long steep slope to the brook. I found a familiar 12-14 year old
female at the very edge of the dense grass, well-hidden, but receiving
the sun fully on her shell. At first I was not sure why there was but
one identifying notch on the carapace of a turtle this young, but then
I noticed that she had five left pleural scutes instead of the normal
four. That anomaly and the one notch would be enough to identify her.
Eleven days and half an hour later, on a morning following a narrow
escape from frost as the temperature fell to 34 degrees, I found her
in the exact same spot, again. The sun’s rays had recently reached it.
Once the current “Green Mansions” weather pattern (as I sometimes
think of such a spell, recalling my readings of William Henry Hudson’s
book of that title in my adolescence) exits, my wood-turtle search
strategy will rely heavily on looking into such niches shortly after
the sun has reached them, following a frosty night, or chill, dark
rainy spell. I will continue with some recent-past wood turtle
observations soon-ish.

I have been contacted by a group of four students from Tufts
University (my alma mater, along with the Boston Museum School of Fine
Arts) who want to produce a documentary on wetland preservation –
development issues and want me to be the main voice. Their intent is
to enter their production in an environmental film festival to be held
at Tufts, I think in the spring. I agreed to do this. They came a week
ago today to do a preliminary filming of me walking and talking
(mostly talking) in a couple of my historic wetland habitats. They
will return in a week for additional filming. I will write more about
this project next time. bis dann, David

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This entry was posted on Saturday, September 24th, 2011 at 2:44 pm and is filed under Site News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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Copyright © 2009 David M. Carroll. All rights reserved.