What wildlife returns to spring woodlands and wetlands?
by Fred Wooley
As days lengthen and air warms, wildlife react to internal clocks triggering seasonal changes in their behavior. Most animals not migrating to warmer climates stay active in our ACRES preserves. Raccoons, squirrels, skunks, deer, fox, rabbits, weasels (the list is long!) hole up or hunker down on only brutal winter days. Early spring thaws nudge snoozing woodchucks and jumping mice from subterranean burrows, and in near-calendar/clockwork timing, amphibians and reptiles reappear above ground.
After a few 50-degree days, spring peeper frogs stir from muddy marsh bottoms and pop to the surface, their piercing “peep!… peep!… peeps!” punctuating the air. They are soon joined by slightly larger (but still tip-of-the-index-finger-size) chorus frogs sounding like fingernails pulled across stiff plastic combs. You can’t miss this welcome sign of spring on the preserves.
As soon as the chorus frog serenade has risen and fallen, slightly larger (end-of-thumb-size) wood frogs begin calling from more wooded wetlands. Perhaps my favorites, wood frogs sound like a gathering of … persistently quacking ducks. Their callings are as ephemeral as surrounding wildflowers, sounding as the ground warms, fading into the background as fast as they appeared.
Like frogs, salamanders crawl from muddy winter slumbers to make their way to vernal ponds to mate and lay eggs before returning to surrounding woods. Although salamanders are not vocal, keen observers will spot balls of gelatinous egg masses attached to twigs submerged in small spring wooded pools (vernal ponds).
You’ll find these pools in ACRES preserves such as Dustin in Allen County, Art Hammer Wetlands in Noble County (pictured left), Wildwood in Kosciusko County, Fawn River in LaGrange County, Beechwood in Steuben County, Mary Thornton in Wabash County.
Pull into the preserve on a warm day to immediately smell spring:the richness of damp earth and decaying organic matter released from the cold, and to hear springbirds above, distant frogs below. (“Distant”? Sneaking up on noisy, male frogs brings instant silence. So you smile, staring into water and mud, hoping patience will finally produce a glimpse of the serenaders.)
Between the vernal ponds, seek signs of disturbed leaves and debris around stumps and fallen logs where larger animals are emerging. I once stumbled upon a mud-covered box turtle whose trail of upturned leaves led to a cavity beneath a rotting tree stump. It dawned on me the turtle had just emerged from hibernation, and I was lucky to see its first steps into the new year!
These first days of spring, the sight of any turtle is exciting. Think about it. Sometime in autumn, water turtles take a last gulp of fresh air before retreating to muddy bottoms of small pools and wetlands where they nestle for months. Absorbing oxygen only through water brought into their cloacae/anal vent, their body processes slow to near death. As days lengthen, they stir from the mud, paddle to the surface, break into sunshine to inhale their first breath of fresh air in months…ahhh…!
Perhaps we can all relate to entering springtime woods and wetlands after a long winter. It’s good to be home again.
You can follow the return of wildlife to the preserves from the trails — and from videos right here on our blog. Share your own preserve wildlife encounters and signs of spring over on Facebook (mention ACRES Land Trust to share to our page) and on Instagram (add #acreslandtrust). Visit the preserves and our social media often for the latest wild homecomings.