Lime Hollow Nature Center
Covered Bridge at the Lime Hollow Visitor Center

From My Sit Spot

by Pete Angie

SalamanderThe lure of fairy shrimp pulls me out of bed at eleven p.m. I’ve just read that the tiny crustaceans can be found crowding the waters of vernal pools, rising up and down like iridescent apparitions, their transparent bodies seeming to glow in the beam of a flashlight. Replacing my pajamas with a heavy coat and waterproof boots, I step out into crisp, twenty seven degree air. Walking down the road, I know that this search may be in vain. Some years fairy shrimp will fill seasonal waters, and the next year will be absent, leaving behind drought resistant eggs that can hatch after a decade of dormancy.

The ground in the woods crunches and crackles beneath my feet, saturated as it is by so much melt water, which has re-frozen in the chill air. With the light of the full moon as a guide, I locate a large vernal pool in the woods and am disappointed when no fairy shrimp rise to meet the beam of my headlamp. I hope to make another kind of foray here soon, when the land is shrouded in complete darkness and the first rains of spring are falling. Then, with luck, salamanders will be migrating to these waters en masse from their homes under logs and rocks, from within labyrinths left by rotted tree roots or abandoned burrows, to mate and lay eggs by the cover of night. Vernal pools like this one, which dry up in the summer, provide a critical breeding ground where the eggs can be safe from the hungry mouths of fish, who cannot survive in such seasonal waters. Tonight, however, the salamanders are hidden and the pool lies still under a paper thin cover of clear ice.

A gargantuan fallen maple marks this spot for me as the portion of the pool where I saw mink tracks this winter, imprinted in powdery snow. At this moment, the solitary, agile mink may be hunting mice or anything else it can get its pointy teeth on. It may be swimming in a pool like this, looking for amphibians or aquatic insects, protected against the icy water by dark, thick, musky fur. If female, she could be pregnant, or attending to a brood of soft, white furred young, comfortable in one of the many dens that dot her home range. Like the fairy shrimp and salamanders, I yearn to catch a candid vision of this beautiful creature, but the only signs of one are tracks in my memory.

Crouching over the glassy skim ice, I stare into the brown mosaic of suspended, decomposing leaves at the pool’s bottom. At first the water appears vacant, and I wade in, breaking ice with each step, until I see small movements. Wrigglers, no more than a quarter inch long, contort their small, grayish, tube-like their bodies into question marks and o’s, propelling their selves. Each one has a bulbous head that is fringed around the base like a collar. At the end of the tail another fringe stands beside a small siphon, the breathing tube. These larvae will molt four times in the next couple of weeks, then go through a short pupa stage before taking flight. They will hum and whine beside my ears, and the females will attempt to make a meal of my blood. No doubt, several will succeed, thus nourishing themselves to lay a raft of eggs into any available water. These curious animals are mosquito larvae.

While the mosquito larvae mature, the world around them will be rapidly changing. Soon wood frogs and spring peepers will come to the pool, their raucous songs filling the nights. Minute life forms of astounding complexity, like horse hair worms and predacious diving beetles, will carry out their lives in these temporary waters. On shore, skunk cabbage, trout leaf and trillium will thrust upward from the soil. Buds will swell on the trees and open, hanging delicately like suspended green snow fall. My breath curls like smoke in the moonlit air as I head home, thinking how the spastic dances of the mosquito larvae sure are a quiet, beautiful herald of this on-rushing pageant of life.

References:
Caduto, M. 1990. Pond and Brook: A Guide to Nature in Freshwater Environments. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.
Carroll, D. M. 1999. Swampwalker’s Journal: A Wetlands Year. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Wrigley, R. E. 1986. Mammals in North America. Winnipeg, Manitoba: Hyperion Press Limited.