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

From My Sit Spot

by Pete Angie

SalamanderThe mosquitoes weren't bad this year, I remember thinking out in the woods, and as I worked in my garden. Bug spray, for the most part, stayed on the shelf. There was hardly any rain this summer, so little to no standing water for those whining-winged adversaries to breed and grow in. The creek out back became a memory early in the season. That trickle of water to where I'd cast my eyes from my sit spot, looking in the evening light for raccoon and the hoped-for fox or mink, has been reduced to a winding path of gravel, stones and dried silt. The leaves on the forest floor are crunchy, announcing my comings and goings like a brass band. Grass in some parts of my yard is brown and crunchy too, and the milkweed's leaves hang limply and partially yellowed, without a seed pod in sight. No, the bugs haven't been bad. In fact, there aren't enough of them.

Cornell University issued a campus-wide water use advisory as levels in Fall Creek broke record lows for fourteen days in a row in July. The National Drought Mitigation Center reported that much of upstate New York and much of the Northeast has been experiencing moderate to extreme drought conditions this year. The corn down the street is stunted and abnormally short, and my friend's well ran dry for a month, leaving no water in her home to wash dishes, cook or drink. She went to friends who had water. Her neighbor, low on water but not totally out, bathed in a lake. They adapted like their neighbors that live beneath the trees and in fields, plant and animal alike. When rainfall is low some plants reduce the numbers of flowers they produce, leading to lower yields of berries, seeds and nuts. Browsing animals travel farther to find enough food, often leaving relied upon and familiar home ranges. In times of shortage some brave animals are seen more often in normally unsuitable places, like the bears that raid bird feeders, skunks and possums seeking trash cans, and the raccoon that has been getting into our mud room through the pet door to eat leftover cat food at night.

Fewer seeds and berries mean birds can have difficulty putting on needed fat to survive winter or the long flights of migration. And the depleted mosquitoes, normally an airborne larder, are harder to come by for the bats that wing through the sky all summer and into the fall. Putting on fat is thus harder for the bats too, making this coming winter's hibernation a little riskier. Drought in the natural world is essentially a time of making do with less and diverging from the ordinary, or perishing. Some species are less effected than others, and some more. Amphibians—those frogs that make a chorus of the night, the speckled, bumpy toads my kids love to catch in the garden, and shiny salamanders in their damp hideaways under logs and leaves—are more susceptible to the dangers that drought can bring. The frogs, toads and many salamanders depend on vernal pools that appear with the snow melt and spring showers to last well into the summer, long enough for their gelatinous egg masses to hatch and the tadpoles or salamander larva to mature into adults that can survive on land. When pools dry up too soon the eggs or young are lost. Snakes, birds and others that feed in the pools feel that loss. When dry conditions result in the formation of few or no vernal pools, frogs, toads and salamanders will congregate at larger bodies of water like ponds. Ponds contain fish and other predators that make easy meals out of the tadpoles and larva. Little “fish,” as it were, in a big pond. Spring to winter, drought creates chains of reaction.

I don't depend directly on the woods to survive, don't spend enough time in them to be aware, without the aid of books, of the finer changes the drought has wrought on the workings of the land. I roll a few logs over and feel the ground underneath. It is damp, though I don't find any salamanders; only a frenzied nest of ants and some potato bugs. Salamanders can seek out cool subterranean tunnels and moist fissures in rocks deep under the surface. Studies show adults can survive well in drought this way month to month. It is their young, the eggs and larva, that see die-offs when the nursery goes dry. Sustained drought, therefore, of three or four years, can have profound impacts on salamander populations. I wonder what changes are to come to this forest and what ways the plants and animals within it will adapt, how the populations here might be different in fifty years, as climate change models predict more frequent and more sustained droughts. I wonder too if one of these mature trees is cut down in years to come, what this year's growth ring will look like. Drought make for slowed growth and thin rings. Will that tawny circle of a line—presumably thin—be an anomaly, or a relatively new normal? I've read that in addition to slowing growth drought stresses trees, making them more prone to disease and insect infestation. I wouldn't know by looking at the woods around my sit spot, though, how stressed these trees might be. They feel as tall, green and eternal as ever.

References:
National Drought Mitigation Center, www.drought.unl.edu
Tree Physiology, www.treepys.oxfordjournals.org
Wake Forest University News, www.news.wfu.edu
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, www.dnr.wi.gov