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Bluebirds and Wood Frogs

Notes from a Naturalist

Eastern Bluebirds begin their arrival in Rhode Island by early March.  Venture to the Francis C. Carter Preserve in Charlestown and witness the flash of brilliant blue and warm chestnut, and the sweet warbling song of the male during his nuptial displays.

Notes from a Naturalist, March 2012

Three streaks of blue flashed over the sandy grasses and olive-brown cedars. My spirits jumped: bluebirds were back at the Francis Carter Preserve!

Flitting away from me, leapfrogging each other to low perches a safe distance away, the bluebirds gleamed in the afternoon sun. They were checking things out, maybe already looking for tree cavities in which to nest and raise a brood.

They settled down in a brushy thicket between field and forest, an area that The Nature Conservancy cleared in 2008 for the benefit of woodcocks, warblers, and yes, bluebirds. We had peeled back a dense canopy of pine trees, and in doing so, allowed highbush blueberry, bayberry, and huckleberry bushes to re-establish themselves, after having been shaded out years ago.

Even four years after we began that project, it’s still a thrill to see a bluebird sing out cheer cheery charley over the new shrubland. I couldn’t help but take his song as a sign of approval on behalf of all the other songbirds, small mammals, and other critters that live there now.

Just a few days earlier, wood frogs had started calling from the Carter Preserve’s dozen or so vernal pools. Males and females both wear black masks across their eyes, evoking either the Lone Ranger or a bank robber, depending on your worldview. They blend right in with the leaf litter on the forest floor, where they spend virtually the entire year. But when wood frogs emerge from hibernation with the first warm rains of March, they head out on a half-mile, over-land hike to reach their breeding ponds.

Some years, these pools are still frozen when the frogs arrive, or they might re-freeze overnight, leaving the impatient amphibians to hop around on a thin sheet of ice. With remarkable, antifreeze-like blood in their veins, however, they are well adapted to handle the starts and stops of a New England spring. By the afternoon, any ice has usually melted, and the males strike up a chorus of loud, snapping hidd-dick squicks, beautiful music to the female frogs, and to human observers eager to leave winter behind!

In one location, five or six male wood frogs gathered in a sunny puddle, separated from the rest of the pool by about 15 feet. Curiously, the territory they had staked out was near the top of the round depression, at what would be the pool’s edge, if it were filled to the brim. Were the frogs drawn to the slightly warmer water in the isolated puddle? Or were they stubbornly insisting that they were in the right spot? The pool should come to them!

Will the females lay their jelly-like egg masses right where the males were calling, and if so, will there be enough rain to raise the water level to reach them? Perhaps they’ll try to coax the boys into deeper waters.

Rhode Island’s woods are still pretty quiet in late February, but Spring is on its way. Keep an eye (and an ear) out for hints that the cycle of growth and renewal is in motion for another year.

 

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