Vernal pools: Lots of critters are springing up in these puddles
March 18, 2017 12:00 AM
Spring peepers can be found in or around vernal ponds in our city parks.
A Jefferson salamander; left, and a spotted salamander found on a vernal pools hike.
During last year's spring hike in Forbes State Forest, hikers visited this vernal pool.
Participants on a past Vernal Pools Hike at the Montour Woods Conservation Area.
By Bob Batz Jr. / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
To most people who venture into the woods in early spring, they look like nothing more than mud puddles or little ponds.
But to many creatures, this water left by snow melt and rain is a very specific, if temporary, habitat critical for breeding and eating and thus for survival.
Meet vernal pools.
Vernal comes from Latin for spring, as in the vernal equinox, the moment — happening in Pittsburgh at around 6:30 a.m. Monday — when the sun crosses the imaginary line above the Earth’s equator from south to north. It is the Northern Hemisphere’s first day of spring.
Early warm weather has brought some early action to some vernal pools in Western Pennsylvania. Last week, Sean Brady checked on some pools in the Montour Woods Conservation Area in Moon and saw masses of eggs that he knows will turn into Eastern wood frogs.
From 2 to 5 p.m. April 2, Mr. Brady will be happy to show the pools, eggs and other signs of new life on a Vernal Pools Hike. This will be the fourth year that the executive director of the Hollow Oak Land Trust has helped lead this Venture Outdoors trip with Western Pennsylvania Conservancy zoologist Ryan Miller. They’ll lead an easy 2- to 3-mile walk in the Montour Valley, stopping at various pools to look for frogs, including spring peepers, and salamanders who breed in these waters that are here today, gone by summer.
“That’s the distinction,” he says.
In an actual, year-round pond, fish and other predators would decimate the eggs of amphibians. That’s why they breed in the pools. Mr. Brady has even witnessed spotted salamanders “porpoising” -— that is, jumping above the surface — to catch the attention of females.
“Once these things start going hot and heavy, then you can hear them and see them thrashing around,” he says.
They’ll also be looking for Jefferson salamanders that live in these woods; they’re 6 to 8 inches long, so they’re not hard to see when they come out of the ground where they spend most of their lives.
The best time to see their breeding activity is the first warm rain of March. At night. By flashlight. Vernal pool hikers must not be afraid to be muddy.
Mr. Brady will lead another such hike for members of the Hollow Oak Land Trust later this spring (watch the group’s Facebook page for details).
They always find some amphibians, whether as tadpoles or adults, and interesting insects, he says. “No matter what they see, everyone leaves with more knowledge than they came with.”
“People leave empowered to actually do this stuff on their own.”
Cost for the Venture Outdoors Vernal Pools Hike is $12 or $8 for members, and space is limited. To register, go to the activities calendar at ventureoutdoors.org.
Another chance is the annual Signs of Spring Hike in a section of the sprawling Forbes State Forest east of the city. Rachael Mahony, one of just two environmental education specialists in the state Bureau of Forestry, will lead this year’s hike on the Grove Run Trail on Laurel Ridge near Linn Run State Park from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. March 25. The hike is free, but you must register in advance at email@example.com or 724-259-2201.
She expects hikers will see not only amphibians in a vernal pool or three but also early wildflowers such as coltsfoot, spring beauty and trout lily.
“It’s a great way for people to stretch their legs and learn something new about the forest.”
Speaking of which, Venture Outdoors is marking the first night of spring with a Vernal Equinox Hike through North Park at night -— from 7 to 9:30 p.m.
“We will wind our way along the wooded trails and view the star-studded sky while enjoying the first spring evening of the year,” according to the group’s website, you can register to take part. Cost is $12 or $8 for members,
Bob Batz Jr.: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1930 and on Twitter @bobbatzjr.
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