A Close Encounter with Early Spring in NC

February 23, 2016

Nature Notes by Bill Dunson

I am a huge advocate for enjoying and studying nature wherever you find yourself. So when you make trips to visit family, it is a great opportunity to expand your horizons in understanding of natural history. While watching our grandson in NC in middle February we encountered some very frigid and icy weather but then a touch of spring appeared that lifted our spirits and I am sure those of our wild animal friends. Indeed there is nothing so thrilling as the first arrival of spring in a cold climate.

When we arrived in the Piedmont region of NC in Chapel Hill, the frozen bird bath told it all. The area was in the icy grip of a cold front from Canada and the prospects of local birds seemed grim. We enjoyed watching backyard bird feeders which were thronged by hungry patrons. A robin pecked at the suet. Pine siskins from more northerly climes were especially interested in the thistle seeds. There were even two warblers, yellow rumps and this pine warbler that were feeding on suet, fruit and seeds and not on their usual insect prey.

Some behavioral signs of spring among the birds were a pair of brown headed nuthatches that were working on a nest cavity in a dead pine tree. Two mallard ducks were paired up in preparation for breeding and the male seemed especially brightly colored and thus sexually attractive to the female.

But the most distinctive signs of spring were the calling of chorus frogs from marshy areas and the appearance of egg masses of spotted salamanders in fishless pools. You will not see the adult salamanders unless you go out at night when it is initially thawing and raining. I found an adult male under a log after he had bred. There were many egg masses in a shallow marshy area which would dry up later. In a close up view you can see the individual embryos inside a gelatinous mass. They are in early stages of development so had likely been laid about one week before. The adults are brightly colored with large yellow spots, likely as an advertisement of their toxic skin secretions. They are “mole” salamanders and spend most of their lives burrowing in the forest soil litter.

So take whatever opportunities that come your way to travel, but do not forget to study and appreciate the amazing natural world that is so different in various locations.

Bill Dunson

About Bill Dunson

Bill Dunson, born in rural Georgia, skipped 12th grade and went directly to Yale. Bill subsequent-ly received a PhD in Zoology from the University of Michigan, studying softshell turtles. Bill is Professor Emeritus of Pennsylvania State University thanks to a career spent entirely at that institution, teaching and doing research on the physio-logical ecology and ecotoxiciology of reptiles, amphibians and fish. Always curious about nature, Bill has dedicated his life to learning and sharing his knowledge with others. He has served on many advisory boards here in Southwest Florida to preserve the water that gives life to our region.

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