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Field Notes

The weather was unusually warm and dry last week promising to jump start us into springtime. A little bit of rain fell on Sunday, just enough to inspire the early amphibians to come out and play.
The Wood Frogs had come out earlier in the week as they headed to their breeding ponds and announced their presence with the loud croaking/quacking that they do to attract others of their kind.
Sunday evening as a power failure blacked out Arbovale, with no TV and not enough light from candles to read by, it seemed like a good time to see what other amphibians may have shown up for the dance.
So, dressed in muck boots and rain gear and equipped with multiple flash lights, I headed down to my favorite swamp spot. This shallow pond near the observatory is barely three feet deep and sometimes goes completely dry in the summer. It is void of fish or minnows, but it will be home to various salamanders, frogs and toads and their larvae over the course of the spring and summer. That night, spotted salamanders were the main quarry.
Spotted salamanders, also known as Ambystoma maculatum, are members of the Mole salamander family who spend most of their life underground in tunnels or damp leaves. They are slate to black in color with two rows of irregular, round, yellow spots on their back. They are seldom seen above ground except when they come to the breeding areas in early spring.
Spotteds have stout bodies up to eight inches in length and must be strong diggers as they pursue and eat earthworms, slugs, crustaceans, insects and their larvae.
It was pitch black as I neared the pond, but the flashlight first found a spring peeper. Soon the calling from this thumbnail size tree frog with the X on the back will be deafening as hundreds more arrive to search out mates. So far very few have arrived as they begin to mark out their territories.
Working my way around the pond, a couple of mid-sized frogs, probably early arriving leopard or pickerel frogs, dived for cover. No Spotteds to be seen here.
Several water beetles and striders were active in the still water as were the Newts which can be found there year-round. Even one leech was found hanging onto the pond weeds.
Nearly completing the circuit around the pond, suddenly the surface was broken by a small head as one of the Spotteds came up to gulp air. Then another. And another.
Altogether, nearly two dozen Spotted salamanders lay on the bottom in an area no bigger than one square yard. It appeared to be a party going on there, maybe a meet-and-greet or a mixer. No ladies were present yet, or possibly one down there had everybody’s attention. All were breathing hard, making continuous trips back to the surface to gulp air. They usually don’t spend a lot of time in the water and all had walked overland a long way to get here.
This rite of spring will soon be over for the Spotteds, and other salamanders and frogs will converge here as is their seasons. Left behind will be hen’s eggs size white clumps of eggs that will hatch in 45 to 50 days, and this next generation will eventually leave the pond for the forests and fields underworld.
Dave is a retired telescope operator at the Green Bank Observatory and can be contacted at

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