Nature Spring: peepers have sticky toes



In spite of these unnecessary late snow storms and wintry weather, nature moves along in the spring schedule. Migrants are returning. Winter wrens are singing lustily in the Maine woods. More will be heard as we move on in April.

The wren, a very small bird, is quite like a feathered ping-pong ball, bouncing about in the wood piles and thickets. It seems always full of energy and is in good voice.

The winter wren is tiny and tough and it is the smallest of the American wrens. Not only is it bouncing around in the thickets, it always has its tail sticking straight up in the air. It moves fast and can disappear in a hole or under the bark. Its color and actions remind you of a mouse, but no mouse can chirp and sing as the winter wren does.

The winter wren will be seen nesting when May is half done. They nest early, for they normally have two broods before heading south in the fall.

Look for these fascinating little birds in the cool forested surroundings many of us enjoy here in Maine. The mother bird hatches the young and then is joined by the male in feeding and teaching life lessons to the youngsters. Keep watch for them this year. They are fun to see.

On wet nights that come along this month, look out for amphibians moving on our roads near the small, wet areas and shallow ponds on the island. On the first warm rainy nights many amphibians move about. Drive carefully if you see them crossing the roads.

The spring peeper may be a small frog able to sit on a nickel, but his loud call is very welcome after a long winter. Few frogs, in proportion to their size, can make more noise than this one. Standing on the edge of a pond where a chorus of peepers is going full blast can be deafening! Without the interference of any wind the sound may carry for almost a mile. A chorus of peepers to me sounds like sleigh bells ringing.

Even though there may still be piles of snow here, and there peepers will start to call when the temperature rises. The Latin name of the peeper is Hyla crucifer, meaning “bearing the cross,” for the design on the back of this small frog is in the shape of an irregular cross.

When the males call they are advertising for a mate. The feet of the peeper are not webbed and the toes and fingers are equipped with adhesive discs on the tips — real “sticky toes.” Peepers do not climb trees but these sticky toes do help them climb about on low shrubs, stalks and plants growing around small ponds and other wet habitats.

Although peepers are more often heard than seen, you can find them if you go out with a flashlight and search quietly and carefully where you hear them calling. The sound we hear is made by trapping air within the male’s body and then forcing the air back and forth between the lungs and vocal sac which enlargers the throat. It is this bulging vocal sac that can be seen as the call is made.

A friend of mine was watching some juncos in her yard not long ago as they made small holes in the snow and actually disappeared into them. Soon, tiny debris was tossed out as the small birds scratched on the ground beneath them. These juncos seemed to be finding something to eat and the behavior is interesting to watch.

Another friend on an island dock recently had nice sightings of a Glaucous gull feeding and resting there with the more normally seen herring and black-backed gulls.

Glaucous gulls are winter visitors. This white gull is larger than the herring gull we see often throughout the year. My only sightings of this bird have been at the town dump as a Glaucous gull joined other gulls one winter in the everlasting search for something to eat.

Dumps are not very scenic but often they are good places to see birds. On many birding trips I have been on in this world, the groups frequently visited local dumps where we always saw special birds and sometimes other wildlife of interest. I’ll never forget seeing many caimans resting in a filter bed in the tropics and one very large crocodile in another.

Fisherman friends of mine often tell me about special sightings. Their life centers on the sea and they see some interesting creatures going about their daily lives. This past winter a friend told me about a harp seal he had noticed swimming upside down in the icy water while it grabbed chunks of ice to eat. For at least half of the year harp seals keep close to the edge of the ice in the North Atlantic. Otherwise they are gregarious and migratory. They are found from the arctic coast to Cape Henry in Virginia. Breeding takes place in late March.

Send any questions or observations to teahousetrio@wildblue.net or call 244-3742.

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

Columnist
Send any questions or observations to teahousetrio@wildblue.net or call 244-3742.

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