Tuesday, March 4, 2008

A special evening, part II

It really isn’t much to look at—that old farm pond on the top of the hill. Most summers it goes completely dry—the only water, rainwater and runoff from the small grassy ring surrounding it. Muskrats have moved into the banks, painted turtles bask in the summer sunshine, but with another “real” pond so close, this relative puddle seems unnecessary.

We’d thought, in fact, about flattening it several years ago—running a bulldozer across it several times would’ve given us a lovely expanse of field here.
Instead, we have what is probably the county’s greatest population of spring peepers—and a snarled mat of grasses lining a basin of cool water where a mockingbird regularly enjoys his afternoon bath.

A warm night rain falls here, following a day of unusual spring warmth—70 degrees. The ground has become an enormous sponge, saturated and oozing mud from countless mole holes erupting in the softened earth. Boot-sucking mud on a cloud-thickened night.

Unlike the murky clay-painted water in the big pond, this little pool is clean and clear. Squatting at the rim, my boots barely pressed into the soft edge growth, I can scan the bottom easily with the beam from my flashlight. It is brown and still. The only motion--drops of rain sprinkled across the black surface. They must not be here—the salamanders I’d hoped to find--tonight.

My ears ring with the thousand voices of spring—each little male peeper clinging to his water-level perch in his 4 by 4 inch world. They call incessantly, not concerned that I sit inches away, watching. Waiting.

My study pool is not this one.
I’ve stopped here only to immerse myself in the deafening sounds of so many, before walking deeper into the woods. And wonder if I’ve fooled myself into hoping salamanders will be here at all, in this area so rapidly changing.

Amphibians are an indicator of the environment’s health. Their permeable skins so susceptible to the toxins we spread on the earth, their breeding sites, the wetlands, disappearing daily, a maze of heavily-trafficked roads between them and their breeding pools.
Mole salamanders live solitary lives in total darkness, tunneling underground except for this brief period of nighttime migration to breeding areas—vernal pools. They are seldom seen except in early spring.
And never by me.

The rain has become heavier now, my jacket’s waterproof claim being tested—and failing. I can feel tomorrow’s cooler weather approaching in my chilled fingers. As I stand to return to the house, my flashlight beam catches the misty warmth of my breath.

On the berm behind me, he marches slowly forward in the wet grass.
A spotted salamander.
He has come home.
And behind him, nine more!

Spotted Salamander, Ambystoma maculatum
March 3, 2008
Butlerville, Ohio

Jefferson's Salamander, Ambystoma jeffersonianum
March 3, 2008
Butlerville, Ohio.

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Kerri Farley said...

WOW! That is SOOOO NEAT! I need to be on the "look out" for these guys too!

Anonymous said...

I am soo excited that you found these guys! I have never seen the Jefferson's! I think you are about 2 weeks ahead of me!

Cathy said...


March 3, 20008

You'll be telling this to grandchildren, years hence.

It was a dark and rainy night . . .

Mel said...

Yesss!!! You found them!!!
What a great surprise! Congrats!

Mary said...

Nina, I like Cathy's comment. You will be telling your grandchildren... Congratulations on your great find! They're very CUTE.

cestoady said...

To be standing in the rain on a dark,spring night and witnessing the march of mole salamanders to their breeding hole must be one of the great field experiences naturalists yearn for --- now we all have some of that thrill through your expressive writing. I had goose bumps by the time I came to the end of your night gaunt.

Anonymous said...

Today I told 1st graders the story of my first visit to a vernal pool. They sat in suspense... You're story makes me anxious for our salamander nights... soon... It's become an annual necessity!

kate said...

The Spotted Salamander is adorable ... what an exciting time it must have been to see this.

SLW said...

Great hunting-- and awesome storytelling! I've never actually tried to find these guys (our local equivalent, that is, A. tigrinum)-- but sometimes they find me! They are indeed wonderful, and surprisingly long-lived, 20 years or so...

Thanks for this inspiring adventure.

Unknown said...

Jackpot! What a wonderful, special surprise!
I started reading this earlier this morning but didn't have time to finish.

I have always liked to think that when I see something unusual in nature, something someone else would probably miss, I have been "sent" this special thing. What would a shrink say to something like that?!
Thanks for sharing.

RuthieJ said...

Oh Nina, that's so neat. I can see why you're so glad you still have that little pond. So these salamanders are easiest to find at night? I'd like to try finding some at the pond in our neighborhood once spring arrives.

Lisa at Greenbow said...

This is just awesome Nina. I have never seen any kind of Salamander in the wild. WOW My heart went pitty patter just looking at your pictures.

Crayons said...

From a bookish crayonist, "Grossss!" How can you hold that in your hand?! Sorry!

But I really enjoyed that fine piece of writing. I'd like to know about your process. Do you write quickly and then hone? Do you write carefully and publish? Do you let the idea steep for a day, and then do you write?

I was right there with you on this one. So excellent!

nina at Nature Remains. said...

Kerri--I've hoped to find them for years--the timing is so critical--I was finally lucky!

Monarch--I found 10 spotted and only 2 Jeffersons, maybe that's a similar ratio to what's out there? If so, good luck--I could have easily stepped on the Jefersons--he looked just like a brown stick!

Cathy--you're exactly right--these days go down in family histories!

Mel--surprise is right! There was nothing like seeing him plodding uphill through the grass on a misted night--like something from a dinosaur movie!

Mary--They are CUTE--and slow and gentle.

Cestoady--it's these successful experiences that make all the cold, wet, rainy nothings bearable.

Jennifer--what a great event to promote to children. Environmental education is the future.

Kate--isn't he sweet?

SLW--I was just so pleased to find them here--an indication that our land has treated them fairly well so far--or they've endured despite the changes.

Greeny--I understand exactly--I feel the same--a gift that has been sent to me alone is so fleeting.

RuthieJ--Yes, they're underground dwellers, and move out only under cover of extreme darkness--some even say the moon is too much light, need a cloudy night, in fact, an WET to protect their soft skin.
And ponds with NO fish are their destination, so eggs are not eaten before hatching by predators. It's the standing water that disappears by summer that they're drawn to--I'm sure you could find a good spot--it's such a treat--they're generally only seen on these migrations.

Lisa--me neither--you must wait and watch into the night. And, I'm a chicken when it comes to being in the dark.

Crayons--not "gross", just cold and wet. And looked at me very helplessly--I returned him to pool immediately after photos--which I need to document my findings. Salamanders actually shouldn't be handled because their skins are so delicate and susceptible to any lotions or "toxins" we may spread to them. But I was having a problem getting him into enough light to get a good picture. My hands were pretty clear of anything-- as you can see my fingers are "pruney" from being out in the rain all night. The writing--it is pretty much a narrative of thoughts that flow through on the spot. I do read it a LOT as I write it (out loud) to find a rhythm that seems natural--and I fine tune words at the very point of publishing, just to be sure the picture I'm painting is clear.
I believe that a good story must be read aloud. If I like what I hear--I push publish.

SLW said...

Well, they are enduring, but I'm sure your care for the land is a big plus... And they are charming dates!

You've inspired me to post my own salamander story... hope you like it.

Sandpiper (Lin) said...

Great story! I've just had the best time catching up with your last few entries. Fun to read! Thank you!

I think spring is FINALLY on its way here. Yippeeeeeeeeeeee!!!

Tom said...

One of the best posts I've had the pleasure of reading in a long time.. your enthusiasm for your surroundings and your writing style leave me wanting more.

Glad you found your Salamanders

NW Nature Nut said...

Thanks! I love the Monday posting, leading us to believe you are preparing for a hot date. It was fun to read about the salamander adventure!

Dorothy said...

I loved to search for salamanders when I was little. And I also would check the waters' edge of our pond for evidence of frog eggs.
It's been said...The first *day* of Spring and the first *sign* of Spring is often 30 days apart.
So I sit and wait for the warmth..