Forest Explorations

April in the Fells

Another month – another EwA Fells walk! Each forest exploration walk brings its load of wonders and this April’s walk wasn’t any different. April is an exciting month: vernal pools have thawed and are welcoming frogs and salamanders to breed, and the forest floor exhibits the colors of its first bloomers. Anticipation builds up, and hope for a more clement time is on our mind, maybe even more so this year than previous years.

Once a month, Claire and Kathy lead a biodiversity walk in the Fells. It’s a free-form activity of ours whose only purpose is to explore what Nature wonders are in season: what is flowering, fruiting, passing by, living here? Here are highlights of what we enjoyed this time!

These days we are all ‘on pause’ waiting feverishly for that call or that email notification that you’re finally eligible to be vaccinated. This has been such a long winter–such an incredibly long year! So, any opportunity to get out, to forget the times, and to enjoy new faces and discoveries is always welcome. This time our group was small, giving Joe and I the chance to get closer to our guests (yet at a distance). As usual, we mused along the trails and rapidly the conversations turned to lighthearted chats among friends in the forest.

An Invitation to Notice

I started the walk by stating that I would attempt to lead us all straight to a pool situated deeper in the forest at a short 10 minutes’ hike. I intended to make a single stop along the way to admire a patch of early spring wildflowers. Of course, as it always is, I could not deliver! Every mark, track, cavity, and unusual growth on a twig is a distraction for us. They are also each an excuse to share and marvel at what we can find right there at each step along the way. Our walks illustrate that the journey is as important, or even more important, than the destination. Indeed, the EwA walks are an invitation to notice, to wonder, to be in the moment, and to discover that the gift of the walk is in those steps that we take together to be closer to nature, to our new friends, and to our true selves.

Black-capped chickadees are secondary cavity nesters. At the very beginning of our walk, we got to observe this little one chipping away a cavity to make it the perfect home for a family | © Joe MacIndewar

So on our way to the pool, we looked at the feeding holes that a yellow sapsucker left on a birch spent some time observing a chickadee building a nest (photo above), discussed the impact of informal trails and how they affect plants and wildlife, and stopped at the sight of a few fungi and lichens on their host substrate. Then after all those halts, we finally made it to our first intended wildflower stop.

Ephemeral Beauties

Early spring is the time to enjoy those delicate flowers that have a very short life cycle: spring ephemerals. In the Northeast, common native ephemerals to look for count the yellow trout lily, bloodroot, wake-robin, and spring beauty. They bloom early and for a very short time, providing the much-needed first nectar and pollen to the first emerging pollinators, such as queen bumblebees and specialists including mining bees, and carrion flies. By early to mid-summer these flowers die back to dormancy. 

What we were looking for precisely was the round-lobed hepatica (Hepatica americana), a little wildflower from the buttercup family in the genus Hepatica. This is the time of the year when its delicate flower opens to the world. Indeed–as expected–our patch had just started its flowering phase (this post’s banner shows a young flower). Last year, we recorded a first flower of this species on April 1st, and a first bloom on April 6th. This delicate wildflower does not grow more than a few inches above the forest floor. The flower comes in a diverse range of shades from pink, or purple to lavender-blue. They have 6 “petals”, which actually aren’t true petals but sepals. The flower itself is surrounded by protective hairy bracts. The leaves are simple 3-lobed leaves that grow at the base of the plant. The leaf shape is what gave the wildflower its name, hepatica, as it resembles (more or less) a liver. Those leaves that you see when the flower blooms are actually last year’s leaves. They will wither away after the flowering phase is complete and be replaced by new leaves that will overwinter and gather food for the future flower to grow next spring.

Round-lobed hepatica flowers | © Claire O’Neill

Round-lobed hepatica leaves | © Claire O’Neill

What fascinates me about that little beauty is how delicate it is and yet so sturdy and brave to pop out that early in spring when it is still rough and cold out there. Actually, if you look closer you would see that it is a hairy wildflower: its stem and sepals have a fuzz. It is said that this fuzz helps keep the plant warm from the cold and windy spring days. The flower also closes at night or when it rains as a way to protect its fragile pistils and stamens (the female and male sexual organs of the flower).

Also fascinating is how hepaticas (as well as trillium, violets, anemones, and wild ginger) evolved to form a symbiotic relationship with some species of ants to disperse their seeds. The process is called myrmecochory from the Greek myrme (ant) and cochory (circular dance). It is an ecologically important plant-ant interaction that happens pretty much everywhere in the world. How does this process work? The hepatica produces a seed that holds an elaiosome which is a kind of appendage or fleshy structure on the seed that is rich in oils and sugars. This attracts ants who collect the seed and bring it to their nest–more exactly to the nutrient-rich waste disposal area of the nest (filled with ant-frass and ‘past’ ants). The ants will then consume the elaiosome and discard the seed as its shell is too hard for them to break through. You get the idea of what’s next: The discarded seed is in a rich environment where it can then germinate. Voilà!

These coming weeks, you can be sure that I’ll be looking for more of these flowers, as well as for other spring ephemerals that pop out in the Fells. Bloodroot, trout lilies, trilliums… Here I come! One note though: be careful not to trample these beauties when looking for them. They are small and live at the very surface of the forest floor–many still hidden under the leaf litter at this time. Let’s give them a chance to live their short lives to the fullest!

Pool Life in Spring

After leaving our patch of Hepatica, we headed down the slope towards our destination: the hemlock pool. During the last EwA walk, we had spotted a few fairy shrimp right from the edge of the pool, and Joe and I wanted to see if we could see them again. We did indeed, but we also saw more: for a very brief moment, we got a chance to see a yellow-spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) swimming just above the submerged leaf litter. Spotted salamanders are elusive and hard to spot. In a split second, it gifted us of its presence then hid back under a leaf. What a treat for us and our guests!

We were lucky because spotted salamanders (and vernal pools) were the intended theme of the walk. It does not happen often that we get to see what we plan to observe: Nature does not work that way, but it always offers something to be astounded with.

Seeing this young sal (field short-hand for ‘salamander’) was the perfect ‘prop’ to reveal many details about the life of those beautiful amphibians and of their habitat. It all starts when they emerge from their hibernaculum and get to their pool…

Early spring, on the first or second consecutive rainy night when the temperature has reached a consistent 7 to 10 °C (45-50 °F), yellow-spotted salamanders make their annual journey to the nearest vernal pool (in short, a pool usually devoid of fish and therefore suitable for breeding). There, they will dance briefly with their mate and do what they came here for: start the next generation of sals. That very special night is known as ‘the big night’ when most spotted salamanders migrate to their pool to mate and breed. Every year–that is, about 20 times throughout their lifetime–they migrate to their home pool. This ‘pool fidelity’ and the need of this species for connected forest are two of the many reasons why it is so important to help protect any of those vernal pools wherever they may be.

Each female salamander lays about 10 egg masses a year. Each egg mass comprises about 50-250 eggs encased in a gelatinous blob that holds those eggs together and can be as large as a grapefruit. It usually rests attached to some woody structure below the surface of the pool in the middle of the water column. Often the mass gets a greenish hue from algae that develop rapidly within it. It is now thought that these algae benefit the larvae, speeding up their development into healthy salamanders.

The eggs take about a month to develop into gilled larvae. The larvae roam the pool for another four months or so–the time it takes for them to develop lungs. During this time they feed voraciously on everything from caddisfly larvae and nymphs of other aquatic arthropod larvae, to fairy shrimp–a species whose life cycle depends uniquely on vernal pools. Then, on another rainy night, young adult salamanders leave their birth pool to start a life ‘in the open’ (sort of). Adult spotted salamanders are recognizable, and individually identifiable by the pattern of their yellow spots on their back (see the record on the left | © Daniel Callahan).

For most of the year (and of their adult life of about 20 years), spotted salamanders have a terrestrial life. They live secretly underground, often using the burrows and tunnels of rodents and shrews, and hide under rocks and logs where moisture still holds during dry and hot summer days.

Habitat degradation–including disturbance, fragmentation, erosion, compaction–and climate change are harming species such as salamanders and frogs that need a clean wetland and a healthy undisturbed ground habitat suitable for moving around freely and dispersing out of sight within their small territory and home range. Next time that you see a pool, a log, or a rock, imagine one peeping out to check on you. For every log that you want to inspect, think of turning only one and letting the other nine remain mysteries. Be happy to know that you spared its potential inhabitants of unnecessary stress and helped them to survive.

Until the Next EwA Walk…

There is so much that we enjoyed during our April walk. If you’re curious about our other sightings, you can check them out here.

Green Frog (Lithobates clamitans) | © Joe MacIndewar

If you weren’t with us, explore on your own by staying on the DCR trails and give wildlife a chance. 🗺️ We’ve made a map to help you protect the many habitats of the Fells while you’re hiking. Click on the EwA Fells Legit Trail map, and you’ll see where you are in relation to the DCR trails right from Google Maps.

Thanks again to all who joined us this month! It was wonderful to see both familiar and new faces. We will be scouting the woods again this spring. The month of May is the time when our bird friends return from their winter ground to feast here in Massachusetts. Come explore with us the natural beauties to be found in May: 📅 Join us.

Biodiversity Documentation & Forest Explorations

April, 16th 2020 | by Claire O’Neill

The photos of species in this article are visual observations that the EwA team recorded during the walk, or as part of the EwA biodiversity and climate citizen science program (© Claire O’Neill, © Joe MacIndewar, © Daniel Onea, and © Daniel Callahan ). Click any photo and see the corresponding record in EwA’s iNaturalist Biodiversity project (and its author). Photos are licensed under Attribution-NonCommercial (CC BY-NC).

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