Archive for March, 2014

The Wonders of Connection

Friday, March 28th, 2014

I thank my sister Tanya and EARTH CONNECTION subscriber Earline for forwarding me this truly inspiring short video.  It offers very good news and an important lesson.  

The good news is that the re-introduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 has resulted in a vastly healthier ecosystem, with increases in otters, eagles, and many, many other species that had declined during the wolves’  70-year absence from the Park.  

And the lesson I take from this gorgeous video is that everything is truly connected.  We can increase an area’s ecological health more than we may realize by returning a mammal that has been extirpated or nearly so.  And, of course, the reverse is also true.  When a large species is allowed to decline or disappear from an area due to habitat loss or overhunting, untold numbers of other species decline as well.  

The reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone is cause for celebration.  Enjoy the video!–April Moore

Wolves have done wonders at Yellowstone

Apps for Nature App-reciation

Sunday, March 23rd, 2014
I have little aptitude for technology.  But when I saw my friend Elizabeth Cottrell’s recent posting on her website Heartspoken.com, I actually felt that the three apps she described might just heighten my enjoyment of the natural world.
The following is reposted from www.Heartspoken.com, a site where Elizabeth explores ways to strengthen the essential connections of our life:  with self, with others, with God, and with nature.–April Moore

Smartphone users have amazing apps that enhance and facilitate access to information they want when they’re on the go. I’m just discovering some fantastic apps to help me achieve my goal of becoming more knowledgeable and aware of the natural world around me. Here are three of the most interesting I’ve discovered recently. Two of them are pricey, but they’re like having an expert guide right beside you!

iBird1) iBirdPro Guide to Birds by the Mitch Waite Group. $19.99. This was recommended to me by my serious birder friends, and I truly love the iPad version. It’s available for iOS 4.3 or later: compatible with iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch. It’s also available for NEXUS 7 and Android OS 4.3 Jelly Bean. Enter features of a bird you see and its location (coloration details, size, terrain, state, time or year, etc.) and you’ll be presented with a list of possibilities, including terrific photos, range maps, and audio files to hear bird calls. If you want to look up a specific bird, the information is comprehensive on its behavior, range, birds that look and sound like it, and so much more. There’s a $9.99 version called iBird Plus Guide to Birds, and my friend Beth has found it be very robust (see her comment below).

2) NightSkyNight Sky 2 by iCandi Apps. $.99. Aim your device at the night sky to identify stars, planets, constellations, and satellites. You don’t need a telescope. The app adds overlays of constellations on its illustrations. Push notifications even let you know what sky conditions to expect in your area on that night. It’s been too cold to spend much time outside learning Night Sky 2, but I’m looking forward to milder weather so I can identify more than just Orion and the Big Dipper.

iTrack3) iTrackWildlife by NatureTracking.com. $14.99. I’ve used this one often this winter because of all the animal tracks in the snow, and it’s been great fun to speculate on the story that goes with the tracks. Where was this animal going? What was it doing?  Was this a dog or a coyote or a fox? Whoaaa…there was obviously a struggle here, and the blood and feathers on the snow means it didn’t end well for one creature or another. This app includes photographs of each animal’s tracks on various surfaces, information on their gait, and pictures of scat. There’s also a free version, but it only features eight species.

Sometimes a simple tool like an app can make learning so much easier! Have you used any apps for learning about nature that you’d recommend? Please share in the comments below or over on my Facebook Page. 

An Early Spring Thrill

Sunday, March 16th, 2014
vernal pool at Beech Lick Knob--photo by Bette Dzamba
vernal pool at Beech Lick Knob–photo by Bette Dzamba

     I recently joined with some fellow nature lovers for an early March hike in one of the best remaining wild lands of the George Washington National Forest.   Beech Lick Knob is a 17,000 acre tract of beautiful forest–some of it old-growth–that includes ridges and streams.

     The hike was a pleasure, and the day even included a major thrill.  At one point in our walk, I caught up with some who had gone ahead.  They were crouching next to a vernal pool (a spring pool that dries up as the season warms) near the trail.  Because they were looking intently at the water, I also stopped to look.  But all I could see were a few brown leaves dotting the water’s surface;  I had no idea what was holding the others’ attention.

     As I neared the water’s edge, however, those ‘leaves’ came into focus.  And they weren’t leaves at all, but frogs!  Here and there, dotting the surface of the pool were brownish frogs, prone, hind legs splayed, all completely still.   Suddenly one of them darted forward.  Stillness again.  Then another.  Stillness.  And another.  These frogs were very much alive!

frogs visible--photo by Bette Dzamba
frogs visible–photo by Bette Zamba

     Then one of our fellow hikers pointed out two frogs clasped together at the water’s surface, close to the edge where we were standing.  The male held the female close from behind, using the ‘nuptial pads’  (thanks to fellow hiker Bette Dzamba for introducing me to this cute term!) on his ‘forearms’ to hold her close.  The two held completely still until suddenly, still in a tight embrace, they darted down into the murk of dead leaves and mud.

Frogs mating--photo by Bette Dzamba

Frogs mating–photo by Bette Dzamba

     A little research after the hike reminded me that frogs don’t actually mate in the ‘conventional’ way;  the male does not enter the female.  The male holds the female, as we saw, sometimes for days.  And at some point during that long embrace, the female releases thousands of eggs in a mass.  The male then, shoots sperm into the egg mass, fertilizing the eggs.

     As we all stood around the pool, discussing the mating habits of frogs, we noticed a spongy looking mass below the water’s surface, not far from our feet.  It was perhaps six inches in diameter.  Then we noticed another mass nearby, and another and another, here and there below the surface of the pool.  I am guessing that these egg masses had been very recently laid because we saw no dark spots, or yolks, in them that would indicate developing tadpoles.  Instead, the masses appeared to be undifferentiated blobs.  

     Those eggs that survive to develop and grow will hatch 6-21 days after fertilization.  And vernal pools, like the one where we witnessed so much action that day, are the perfect places for frogs to lay their eggs.  Since vernal pools are seasonal, they do not support fish.  Thus, frog eggs are relatively free from predation.  And vernal pools are generally still waters, so developing tadpoles are not buffeted about.

     Suddenly, the frogs began to make sounds!  But it wasn’t a call that was familiar to us.  We all agreed that these calls resembled the clucks of chickens!  Within a few minutes, the pool had gone from a silent place to one full of these chicken-like calls.

     Thanks to Bette Dzamba’s post-hike research, I feel confident that the frogs we observed were wood frogs.   Everything Bette learned about wood frogs seems to fit with what we observed:  wood frogs are brownish;  the female is larger than the male;  these frogs breed very early, usually from late-February to early-March;  and the male’s call is described as a duck-like “cra-awk,” which is consistent with what we heard.  

Wood frog–photo by John Howard

      What a treat it was to stumble upon this vernal pool at just the right time to see wood frog reproduction in action!–April Moore

 

Juncoes and Winter

Friday, March 7th, 2014

Something about juncoes has long puzzled me.  So I decided to look into it. . . . 

     Since moving to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley more than 20 years ago, I have come to look forward to our annual winter visitors, the  juncoes.  When the weather starts to turn cold, these plump little grey and white birds appear.  All winter, I enjoy their soft murmurs and cheeps, emanating from the bushes.  And I love watching these little birds do their forward-and-back ‘dance’ on the cold ground as they try to stir up something to eat.  When spring comes, the juncoes disappear.  

     I have read that juncoes spend the summer months in Canada.  Then when the weather up there starts to turn cold, they fly south, fanning out across much of the United States for the winter months.

     This migratory pattern has puzzled me.  I can well understand why juncoes would want to head south as the cold Canadian winter gets underway.  But why do many of them choose Virginia as their winter destination?  Why wouldn’t they keep right on flying until they reach a much warmer place like Florida or Mexico, as many other bird species do?  After all, our winters here in the Shenandoah Valley are cold, and the forests where the juncoes flit about are often snowy.  Surviving a Virginia winter looks like work to me, especially for such small birds.

     So I consulted an ornithologist.  He explained to me that, unlike some birds that spend every winter in the same precise location, juncoes have a large geographic range.  When they fly south to escape the Canadian winter, there are many areas in the U.S. where they can find enough food and shelter to survive the winter.  Virginia is one such place.

     From an evolutionary perspective, it seems that perhaps juncoes have developed an effective survival strategy.  Since they have proved capable of surviving fairly cold winters, they do not need to fly farther south as some other species do.  By halting  their migratory flight here in Virginia, they don’t face a lot of competition for food and shelter.  There simply aren’t that many birds around here during the winter months.   If juncoes were to fly much farther south, say to Central America, where many, many bird species spend their winters, the competition for food and shelter would be great.  

     Besides, a very long migratory flight to a winter home is arduous.  Thus, it can be advantageous to birds not to have to fly such a long distance.  If juncoes can find what they need to survive closer to their summer breeding grounds, they opt for it.  And it seems to work.–April Moore

 

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