Sunday, May 06, 2007

The Big Backyard

I have always loved the fact that reporters basically get paid for satisfying their curiosity. Of course, since I'm an editor and not hourly anymore, working on Saturday doesn't actually pay anything. But the paper is going to get some mileage out of a Saturday that was a whole lot of fun for me.

The Small Woodlot Owners Association of Maine had a workshop on vernal pools this weekend, about 20 miles east of town. (Vernal pools being depressions that fill with water each spring long enough that some small critters from fairy shrimp to wood frogs can go through a breeding cycle there.)

I thought it would be mostly small loggers with questions about regulatory compliance, but, as the photo above suggests, it was mostly people who have bought several acres of land and are interested in taking care of it. They weren't all city transplants, and a few genuinely were working their woodlots rather than just living on them. Nearly all, I think, want to improve their property not in the sense of developing it but in the sense of cleaning it up and making it green in the metaphorical sense. (And, as it happens, there aren't a lot of regulations about these things for the timber industry -- it's a matter of them wanting to know how to do the best for the forests, which many of them do want to do.)

Our host for the event was Warren Balgooyen, a naturalist who is active in the county extension and serves on a state committee for the future of Maine's land. I suspect he's one of those people who is more active now that he's retired than he was when he was working. He's got a good sized spread on which he has built several small ponds and, no kidding, a salamander crossing.

One of the issues for the turtles and amphibians in this kind of countryside is the number that get splattered crossing roads. They move from pool to pond to pool over some surprising distances, but their world wasn't set up with automobiles in mind. If you've driven at night in this sort of country, you've seen those nights when the frogs are just teeming across the roads, but apparently that happens pretty much every night to some degree. We'd see the results more if the ravens and raccoons and other scavengers didn't get out at dawn and clean most of it up. But Warren was saying that, if you took all the salamanders in a three acre forest, and all the birds, and piled them up, the salamander pile would be considerably taller.

So he created a crossing under the road near his house by getting a grant so the town could put in a culvert at no cost to the taxpayers, and then threading a soaker hose through it, with the end in a 55-gallon drum of water so it has a steady supply of wetness. And he has seen it work.

We walked around on his property for about three hours and he would just take his net and scoop around and, each time, interesting stuff came up, like this salamander egg mass. Notice how much more cohesive it is than frog eggs, which would be running off the woman's hand.

This is a red eft, which would have been a yellow newt if we'd seen it sooner. They start out living in the water as newts, with external gills, and then they become these land-dwellers and wander off to wherever efts and salamanders go -- nice damp abandoned mouse holes, under logs, down in the duff of the forest floor. Then, after about six years, they come back to the pond and move back in again, which is when they lay their eggs there. Pretty interesting little critter, and this was the first time Warren had seen one scooped out of a pond in its "just about to split for a few years" form.

We also saw caddis flies, damson flies, frogs and a whole lot of other things. And, as we walked down to the final pond, he and I spotted a painted turtle sunbathing on a rock in the middle of it. The turtle quickly scrambled off into the water, but the interesting thing was that Warren didn't know he had a turtle in that pond. So, for all the ones that get mashed on the highway, here was one that found a new place to hang out. (And last year one of his other ponds acquired a turtle from who-knows-where.)

Now, like I say, I'm not really getting paid to go out and do these things anymore. I'm just getting paid to make sure cool stuff ends up in the paper, no matter who actually does it. But needing to get that stuff in the paper, with the accompanying fear of the blank page and empty folders, is a great way to motivate me to get off my butt and go see all this stuff that, otherwise, I would sit around planning to do later, some other time, when I get round to it.

This weekend was a good example of something that I might have done sometime, but did right now, instead.


ronnie said...

How interesting! Especially the great story about the critter crossing. Thanks for sharing it.

Sherwood Harrington said...

Critters crossing is a phenomenon I've been tuned to since working at UC Berkeley's little observatory in Lafayette, California about a million years ago. Along the road to the observatory was a yellow diamond-warning sign that read, "Slow -- Newt Xing," and I always wondered what I was supposed to do, really ... "slow"? Wouldn't that just crunch things more gruesomely?

More seriously -- like, much, much, much more so -- what a GREAT post, Mike! How does it feel to be re-born as a youngster at our advanced age?

Maybe I don't want to know.

Brian Fies said...

You seem to be the right man in the right job.

My old college town of Davis, Calif. built a tunnel under a six-lane road for toads and frogs. Then someone put a minature city at the entrance of the tunnel and named it "Toad Hollow." Cute, although I understand they've had some problems: first, the toads couldn't find the thing and kept crossing the road anyway. That improved after someone installed little lights to illuminate the path, but then birds figured out that all they had to do was sit at one end of the pipe and wait for lunch to deliver itself.... I'm not sure if the Davis toad crossing has been a net benefit or not. Guess you'd have to ask a toad.

Mark Jackson said...

. . .or a bird.