A young spotted salamander sits on a green leaf. GETTY IMAGES PHOTO

Nature: Treasure is under our feet



April is a month full of wildlife stirrings and plant life awakenings after the long, cold winter. Just being outside is a new adventure not to be missed!

Coltsfoot.
GETTY IMAGES PHOTO

Watch for new flowers every day along the road, even in the ditches. Don’t miss the coltsfoot that looks a lot like a dandelion at first glance. Coltsfoot flowers bloom before the leaves.

Arbutus is budding in the woods along the carriage roads. The lovely white aromatic flowers grow very close to the ground. It’s worth getting down on your hands and knees to smell the sweet aroma, but NEVER pick it.

Land-dwelling salamanders by the end of the month will have laid their eggs in inland ponds. I have found them by April 25 some years. The eggs are laid in a gelatinous milky mass and attached to underwater sticks.

There are six species of salamanders living on Mount Desert Island. They are the large-spotted salamander, the red-spotted newt, spotted salamander, red-backed salamander, four-toed salamander and two-lined salamander.

Spotted salamanders are the most colorful and bizarre looking for they are a glossy black speckled with large yellow dots. They always look as if they are dressed for Halloween!

Spotted salamanders are a rather large salamander compared to the others found here, measuring 6 inches to almost 8 inches long. These amphibians are shy and they need always to stay moist and out of the sun. Because of this, they usually prowl around in the night and on rainy or moist days and nights.

Their food consists of earthworms, ants, cutworms, spiders and moths. If you find one of these critters in a pool or water hole, give it a lift out. They don’t bite. Put it in a moist and shady location.

In April, many of our local ponds will be a bubble of activity as the courting salamanders swim over and around each other. Males deposit sperm-like packets on the pond floor. When the female is ready, she swims over the spermatophores and picks them up one by one into her body. The gelatinous mass she then lays will measure from 2.5 to 3.5 inches. With any added water, that will swell to twice the size. One female will probably lay three masses, each containing 25 to 250 eggs. They will hatch in 31 to 54 days. Don’t ever bring one of these masses in to watch the process for bringing one in usually results in the death of all of them. Let them hatch in their own environment.

The wet weather in April makes mosses and lichens especially lush and beautiful. British soldiers is one of my favorite lichens, probably because my naturalist mentor in New Canaan, Conn., first pointed it out to me. The little red caps on this lichen lends itself to the fanciful name. Look for it on logs and stumps. It’s a favorite one often put in dish gardens.

Lichens are the slowest-growing and longest-lived plants to botanists. Some species are very sensitive to air pollution and will not grow while there is too much sulfur dioxide in the air. They can, however, withstand extreme heat and cold, rain and drought, and severe winds.

Several lichens absorb their water directly from rain and dew. Pollutants in such an environment will find ways directly into the plant. Watching certain specific lichens can keep us aware of the conditions where we live here on MDI.

Lichens are the world’s most primitive terrestrial plants. They have been thriving here on earth for millions of years. They are a treasure under our feet.

Juncos are trilling their spring song. Stand outside and listen to any new birds singing. If you have an indigo bunting somewhere nearby, his lovely song will be coming from a high perch.

Watch now for flickers returning from the south to join resident woodpeckers for their summer nesting. Watch island fields and other open places for returning killdeer.

Skunk cabbage on a riverbank in early spring. GETTY IMAGES PHOTO

Don’t miss the blooming of our local skunk cabbages. In the spring, skunk cabbage has a gorgeous and bizarre maroon blossom in all island swamps and wet places. It’s NOT to be missed. The rest of the year, this plant is pretty much ignored and known only for it strong and unpleasant smelling leaves. The flower of the skunk cabbage is absolutely beautiful.

In my temporary place at this moment in South Carolina, it is wisteria blooming time and the world is turning purple. I almost expect to see purple rain!

Send any questions or observations to [email protected].

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

Columnist
Send any questions or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.

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