Wrapped around a submerged tree branch, the egg mass blended into the dead leaves and muck at the bottom of the woodland pool. I would have missed it if I hadn’t been specifically searching for frog and salamander eggs. I’d been checking the pool for weeks in hopes of some activity.
I knelt down for a closer look, and as I focused on the dark, velvety eggs — perfect spheres, each floating inside a clear protective ball — they began to appear alien and so very obvious.
Such is the case with many things in nature. Even the most colorful and intricately patterned birds can blend into their surroundings if you’re not actively looking for them. That’s why observing wildlife and other things in nature usually requires a person to slow down and study the landscape like a “Where’s Waldo” drawing.
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That day, my husband, Derek, and I found several clusters of eggs. At first, they appeared to be from the same amphibian, but on closer inspection, there were slight differences in the egg masses. So I did some reading when I returned home and learned from several sources — including a very detailed and helpful blog post by the Orianne Society — that we likely found both frog and salamander eggs in our local pools.
You can tell them apart fairly easily, I learned, because frog eggs have just one protective transparent layer surrounding each egg. Salamander eggs have two protective transparent layers: the layer that surrounds each egg, plus a layer that surrounds the whole cluster.
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Based on the time of year, I think we found wood frog eggs. Maine is home to nine species of frogs and toads, and their reproductive cycles are staggered. Wood frogs and spring peepers emerge first to lay eggs in early spring. I haven’t heard any peepers yet, but I’ll keep watching these egg masses to see how they develop. I could easily be wrong.
I also think we found salamander eggs, though I’m not sure what kind of salamander. To learn a bit more about what salamanders we have in Maine, I skimmed “ The Amphibians and Reptiles of Maine,” which was published in 1992 by The Maine Amphibian and Reptile Atlas Project. The resource is available for free online through the University of Maine library. It lists nine different salamander species in Maine. I had no idea.
Back in the forest, leaving the pools behind, Derek and I walked along the streambed with our dog, Oreo. At a sandy bend in the waterway, I noticed (what I thought was) a fish struggling in the sand. But as I drew closer, I noticed four tiny little arms extended on either side of the creature’s brown body. It was a salamander, though I couldn’t tell you for certain what kind. My best guess is the two-lined salamander, which is “the smallest, most abundant and most widely distributed” of the three “brook salamanders” according to “The Amphibians and Reptiles of Maine.” “Two-lined salamanders are so abundant they can be found in virtually every stream, rocky seep, and watershed in Maine.”
The other two “brook salamanders” are the dusky salamander and the spring salamander. If I’d gotten a closer look, maybe I could say for certain which one we found, but just as I drew near to the animal, Oreo splashed into the stream and scared it off. The salamander swam swiftly away.
In addition to amphibians, reptiles are starting to emerge, I’ve noticed. Just a few days ago, I visited a few nearby ponds to find dozens of eastern painted turtles sunning on half-submerged logs. I also came across a large garter snake, which appeared to be drinking water from a puddle in the middle of a hiking trail. It didn’t even notice me until I was inches from it — with my camera, of course.
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Garter snakes are Maine’s most common snake, but I find them interesting because they’re always slightly different in color and the distinctiveness of their pattern. This particular garter snake displayed a lot of yellow.
As for my backyard birds, the eastern phoebes have stuck around as I’d hoped, and they’re starting to get used to me. Of all the species of birds that frequent my yard, they approach me the closest, perching on nearby branches to sing their two-note song.
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But perhaps the most exciting event this week is my interaction with a northern flicker — a beautiful woodpecker with a spotted chest and bold colors that include bright yellow on its tail, a strip of red at the back of its head, and a peach face. If you read my column last week, you’ll know that in several years of photographing birds, I’d never managed to snap a photo of a northern flicker. Well, I finally did it.
Last week, two northern flickers swooped into my yard to briefly land on a tree. I ran outside in my socks to photograph them, but they flew away, leaving me to wonder if I had imagined them. But just yesterday, as I sat beside a woolly bear caterpillar, watching it crawl across a stone step in front of my house, a northern flicker landed near the top of a tree nearby and announced himself with a loud, long call. I had my camera on me — as I was filming my weekly video — so I managed to snap a few photos before he flew away.
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I can officially add that species to my birding “life list.” And now that I can identify it’s call, I realize that I’ve been listening to northern flickers for several days. In fact, I can hear it right now, as I write this column in my at-home office.
So all in all, it has been an exciting week in nature. That’s spring in Maine for you. I’m happy that I’ve the opportunity to observe it, in bits and pieces. It seems I learn something new every time I step outside.
Aislinn Sarnacki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Facebook: facebook.com/1minhikegirl, Twitter: @1minhikegirl, and Instagram: @actoutdoors. Her guidebooks “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine,” “Maine Hikes Off the Beaten Path” and “Dog-Friendly Hikes in Maine” are available at local bookstores and wherever books are sold.