Winter walks can yield odd – and quite amazing – surprises. For example, how about seeing large tadpoles wriggling just under the ice at Bear Creek Nature Park’s playground pond? My husband and I couldn’t believe what we were seeing at first and neither could members of the birding group last Wednesday – but there they were.
About a half dozen of them cork-screwed up to the surface, snatched tiny bits of green Water Meal(Wolffiacolumbiana) floating within a hole in the ice and quickly wriggled back into the depths. Tadpoles in the dead of winter? A first for us and for many of you readers too, I imagine!
After doing a little research, I discovered that this is not as strange as it first appeared. Evidently, Green Frogs (Rana clamitans) lay their eggs from April until autumn. So some tadpoles hatch from their eggs late in the year and overwinter under the ice. It’s not easy. The water under the ice is low in oxygen since no air reaches the surface, and currents can’t mix oxygen into the still water.
When ice forms on a pond, the adult Green Frogs, which is the most common frog at in the Playground Pond, spend the winter resting on the mud below the pond. During hibernation, they can absorb sufficient oxygen through their skin. Their tadpoles, however, can swim and feed during the winter, provided it is not too severe. I immediately wondered, “Why don’t they freeze when the temperature drops?” Well, the North Woodlands website of the North Woodlands Association in New Hampshire explains that it all depends on the harshness of the winter. Tadpoles can move and feed because they have more skin surface related to their body size, or a “higher surface area to volume ratio.” As a result, they absorb enough available oxygen through their skin to power their winter activity.
Also, though the temperature may be 32° near the ice, as the tadpoles scurry back down into the pond, the temperature rises to 38 or 39° and may be 40° on the bottom. Perhaps that’s why I never got a perfect shot of one wriggling at the surface; it’s just too cold to stay there for long. Or at least that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it!
By the way, it’s possible that the tadpoles are Bullfrogs (Lithobates catesbeianus) too. They can often take 2 years to metamorphose into adult frogs. But Green Frogs, like the one below, are the ones I most commonly see at the Playground Pond.
If those tough, wriggly tadpoles survive winter under the ice, they may be getting a jump on the tadpoles that hatch in the spring by being bigger at an earlier date. When the weather warms, the winter tadpoles are ready to metamorphose sooner and grow into bigger frogs. And bigger frogs are better at defending their food territories and finding mates. Maybe we should take that as inspiration for all of us to keep moving in cold weather!
Collecting wildflower seed here in our township is an enjoyable, labor intensive activity that proceeds through several stages in all four seasons of the year. The flowers do all the work in the summer by producing their colorful blooms. Then the humans – volunteers and Parks staff – take over the work in the other three seasons by harvesting, cleaning and sowing the seed.
Since we’ve just completed the cycle for 2018, I thought we’d share how this ancient cycle of work, organized each year by Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our Natural Areas Stewardship manager, happens throughout the year.
Winter and Spring: Spreading Seed
Readers may remember the blog from last April, when Ben, his stewardship tech Alex Kreibel and I spread wildflower seed in Bear Creek Nature Park. We spent a cool spring morning sowing seed by hand as it’s been done for thousands of years.
For larger projects we might spread seed with a special native seed drill or broadcast spreader attached to a tractor.
The seeds we spread take their time for the next few years, sprouting a bit of greenery to catch the sunlight as they grow deep roots. Those roots help them survive drought like all prairie plants. In a few years, when the roots have grown deep, the plants we sow finally bloom and produce more seed. Luckily, nature has also dispersed seeds for countless years. With a little help from us humans through prescribed fire or invasive plant control, native seeds already in the soil will also find their way to the sunlight and grow!
Summer: Blossoms Attract Pollinators
Plants mostly rely on wind and insects – beetles, flies, butterflies – to move pollen from one plant to the next. Pollination is the process by which male genetic material (in the pollen) is transferred from the anther of one plant to the female pistil of another plant (or in self-pollinating plants to pistils on the same plant). If the pollen lands on a compatible plant, it will germinate grow a pollen tube to conduct the sperm to the potential seeds (ovules) in the ovary of the second plant.
Wind-pollinated plants like grasses and some trees produce lots of pollen and cast it to the wind, taking a chance that a few grains will land in a receptive flower on another plant. But our insect-pollinated plants use a more targeted method to transfer pollen from one flower to the next. These plants create tempting blossoms full of color, scent, nectar and, of course, pollen to attract and reward pollinators, ensuring that some will be transported to another flower on the insect courier.
We’ll follow the three insect-pollinated plants below, from various parks, through our seed collecting cycle: Joe Pye (Euthrochium maculatum), Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida) and White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima). [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]
Autumn: Voilà! Fertile Seeds Ready for Harvesting
Here are the same three wildflowers in their seeding phase in the early autumn. (Please note that two of the three photos below were generously provided by iNaturalist photographers, Ken Potter and mikaelamazzeo94.)
And again, some readers will remember from a November blog that while nature was dispersing seed through wind, water and gravity this autumn, we humans were out among them, snipping selectively. Good stewardship requires gathering some native seed so that 1) the seeds get to spots that need native seed, often our active restoration areas where seeds might not reach on their own; and 2) so that the township can save a bit of money on expensive native wildflower seed!
Winnowing Out the Seed by Hand – and Foot!
On December 6, 2018 the final stage of our seed collecting came to fruition as Ben taught us techniques for separating the seed from the plants to get them ready to spread. Volunteers and staff gathered at the Parks Department pole barn on Buell Road on a cold winter morning to push the dry stalks through various sizes of screening.
For some plants, that meant wearing leather gloves to rub the stalks against the screen so that the seed would fall into the tub underneath, as we did with White Snakeroot(Ageratinaaltissima) shown below.
For plants with sturdy structures, like the round heads of Bee Balm(Monarda fistulosa) below, it meant putting a screened box on a plastic sheet on the floor and actually treading on the seed heads to help loosen the seed!
Once the seeds were separated, they were turned over to Ben’s current stewardship specialist, Alyssa Radzwion, and volunteer Dena Scher who poured the seeds into bags, labeled them with their scientific names and recorded the information.
So here is our haul for this year!
If we have more volunteers to gather seed (hint, hint…), we could harvest even more in 2019! So consider the ancient pleasure of sowing seed in the spring, gathering seed on an autumn day, and cleaning seed at a good old fashioned work bee next December. The hum of voices, the laughter, the earthy fragrances of different seeds – it’s a fun way to meet neighbors and help nature grow more of those beautiful wildflowers that are beginning to carpet our restored prairies. And to top it all off, you get to feel like a kid again as you rub, stomp and get covered in tiny silk parachutes!
Well, the longest night of the year, the winter solstice, is behind us, but the nights are still long, aren’t they? We pull the curtains against the blank, black windows as the sun sets, click on a lamp and if we’re lucky, light a fire. Porch lights suddenly glow along our streets. We escape from the dark, fending it off with relief, as if we are warding off danger.
But what if we welcomed the darkness? What if we paused before pulling the curtains and just looked at night coming on? Sunsets around here can be quite dramatic this time of year. Winter is a time to look for “sun pillars,” when vertical beams of light occasionally appear near the sunset, caused by light reflecting on tiny ice crystals suspended in the atmosphere – like this one at our home one winter evening.
And although I’ve never caught “wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings,” I have caught geese flying splashed with the pink of a sunset.
Even a stray chunk of ice can look quite magical when it catches a ray of orange light as dusk settles.
Perhaps we could learn to stand in the dark on a snowy night and listen for the low hooting of the Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus). According to the Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior Vol. 3, they mate during the winter. But it’s difficult to hear their plaintive, long distance courting through tightly closed windows and doors. Maybe open the door a crack now and then, set your ear to it and listen.
It’s mating season for White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) as well; unfortunately we are aware of that from all the heedless deer on the roads. But on foot, it’s magical to see a young doe covered in snow beneath your bird feeder in the evening…
or smile at a pine tree topped by the full moon like the star on a Christmas tree!
The intriguing thing about being out in the darkness is that it’s often not as dark as it seems from inside those black windows. The moon and the stars do shine, after all, and anything white – flowers in summer, snow in winter – catches that silver light and reflects it, creating patterns we miss if we aren’t looking.
So this winter, perhaps we should consider venturing out into the dark – maybe with a friend to feel more comfortable at first. Or perhaps parents can take children out “owling” on a snowy night – and if you’re considering it, have a look at the gorgeous picture book Owl Moon by Jane Yolen for inspiration. Or just take them on a stroll around the lawn while scouting out Orion overhead or other constellations. Even a walk down a long driveway can be exciting on a moonlit night. You can sing to yourself for courage if the possible presence of nocturnal animals makes you nervous; they most often run away at the sound of a human voice. Or if you are intrigued by them, follow fox tracks in the moonlight.
Maybe you could make it a personal or family ritual to just take a few minutes once a week to sit with a cup of cocoa, turn off the lights and stare through a darkened window. Watch the moon as it changes; perhaps record its phases on a calendar with your children or grandchildren. Open your door and listen to the song of wind in the pines and how it differs from songs “sung” through bare limbs. If you hear a coyote outside, consider calling your children to the door to listen to their song – and then howl along!
Perhaps if we can become familiar with the velvet black of a winter night, its sounds and sights, we’ll be more comfortable with it. Let’s befriend the night and see the beauty that lies out there in the winter darkness.
During the holiday season, I’m reminded of traditions and the wonderful cycle of changing seasons. Every year we share meals, laughter, tears, and gifts with our families, showing them that they are important to us through the time we spend together. Creating these family moments year after year, memories are passed on and traditions are born.
This holiday season I hope some of the memories you make and the traditions you continue (or start!) include the gift of nature. A simple walk in the woods, skating on a pond, or moments admiring the frosty crystals on the edge of a leaf take on special meaning when we do them with the people we love. Here at Oakland Township Parks, we are thankful for the moments in nature we’ve been able to spend with you. Thanks for reading Natural Areas Notebook and being part of our community!
Natural Areas Stewardship Manager
I’m happy to share this blog post from Dr. Dan Carter, an ecologist and botanist who currently lives in southeast Wisconsin. Click the link below to read the full blog post, complete with beautiful pictures of his native lawn! Dan has been gardening with native plants in his home landscape for twenty years, where he actively experiments with alternative native lawns. His alternative lawn incorporates native plant species that can handle foot traffic and can be mowed occasionally, making them functionally the same as a conventional lawn.
Unfortunately, our high maintenance, low diversity, non-native, chemical-soaked lawns are the largest irrigated crop in the United States, to the detriment of butterflies, bees, and other beneficial insects that support our food web. There is a lot of social pressure to keep a non-native lawn, but I hope this article will help you think twice about why you maintain your lawn and inspire you to try an attractive, native lawnscape. The butterflies will thank you, and I bet you’ll enjoy the buzz of life that returns to your little corner of the world. You can read more of Dan’s thoughtful blog posts on his website at prairiebotanist.com.
– Ben VanderWeide, Natural Areas Stewardship Manager
For most of us, home ownership carries with it the management of at least a small parcel of land, and usually this means maintaining a lawn. For the ambitious, this might also include perennial borders, shrubs, and trees. We all need outdoor space to recreate in. Our neighbors all have lawns. People seem to like them. Right?
I killed our bluegrass and fescue lawn. I have methodically replaced it over the last five springs, summers, and falls with species native to North America. Why? I’m an ecologist, and I see irreplaceable natural communities and ecosystems being degraded and destroyed every day and almost everywhere I go. Oftentimes, these types of environmental problems are large and intractable, and working against them is like screaming into the wind. One thing I can do is live my values at home. I also just like to be around plants and all of the organisms they attract. More than 500 North American plants are established on our half-acre lot […]