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Followers of Maine’s weather patterns have had a lot to talk about this year. It’s been hotter here longer than in most places in the normally-sultry South and yet we’ve had so much rain that it’s not at all dry or crunchy in the woods.
On a whim this week I made a special trip to one of the unique vernal pools that exist in this area and was quite amazed to find that not only was it still there but it was full of water and loaded with turtles, frogs and other wiggly things. Because these pools tend to dry up in summer there are normally no fish in them, which is great for the many insects, invertebrates and crustaceans that utilize them for breeding areas. There were a number of frogs gulping along the edges of the pool, a testament to how much rain we’ve had this spring and summer.
Normally, this pool (which in normal circumstances is actually two separate pools) is just inches deep and surrounded by blueberry bushes and assorted wetland plants. In dry seasons the pools are empty but obviously different from the surrounding woods; rather spongy and flat-looking. This year there has been so much rain that both pools are combined and so full of water it would be easy to paddle a canoe around the resulting pond.
As luck would have it there’s a short series of ledges along the north side of the pool, a perfect place to stop and set up shop. I got my tea pot going and put my binoculars around my neck just in case. Where there is water there is wildlife, and sure enough, I had barely sat down when I began noticing critters high and low, in the water and in the tree tops.
Ripples in mid pool caught my eye and my binoculars revealed a trio of spotted turtles sitting on a dead, dry branch in the middle of the pool. How they got there or where they came from is anyone’s guess, because the nearest “normal” body of water is miles away. Turtles do move and meander as suits their needs, even if it means crossing a busy highway in rush hour, but I was glad to see them taking advantage of the food and water the pool provided.
A group of nuthatches showed up and worked its way around the pool, using the blueberry bushes as a highway. Their unique call, “Heh, heh, heh,” reminds me of PeeWee Herman whenever I hear it. Behind them came a troupe of chickadees, and in one of the nearby dead pines a pileated woodpecker busied himself hammering holes in the punky bark.
On the hillside surrounding the pool the ground was covered with low-bush blueberries, and every so often I’d see a cedar waxwing flit in and out, taking advantage of the abundance of fruit. Last year was a great one for blueberries but this year seems to be even better! I filled my tin cup with them in about a minute, and enjoyed a nice snack of blueberries and tea while I watched the goings-on at the pool.
While picking I noticed a plethora of animal tracks in the moss and mud nearby, most obvious being signs of moose, deer and bears. One bear track I found was clean, clear and very big –made by a bruin easily weighing over 200 pounds. The moose tracks were big by deer standards but small as moose go; perhaps a calf or yearling. I’m sure the cow and her partner were nearby as well.
The deer tracks were plentiful and varied, with everything from this year’s fawns to wide-hooved bucks leaving their sign behind. The tracks showed that deer were using the pools for water and food, but also as a travel route from the adjoining farm fields to the thick, swampy cover near the top of the ridge. The tracks showed a clear, deep trail along both shores of the pool with dispersal trails heading off in all directions. Perhaps the deer come to the pool to drink or browse on their way to and from the crops, and then wander back into the woods to rest. Needless to say, the pool will be on my list of places to sit and wait for a deer come November!
Water attracts more than just frogs, turtles and deer. In the pool’s muddy outlet I found tracks of mink, fishers, raccoons and a blue heron, which I imagined wading the shoreline looking for frogs and other prey. A couple of tracks were tough to identify but I’m suspecting they were made by opossums, squirrels or weasels, all of which are commonly found near water. In fact, while I was having my blueberries and tea a gray squirrel came out and ran along the hardwood ridge just above the pool. No doubt he saw me, my tin cup and my backpack and decided he’d be better off elsewhere.
I followed the pool’s outlet flow for 100 yards or so and saw several frogs and salamanders, plus one small spotted turtle that didn’t seem the least bit disturbed by my presence. All around were lush green ferns, blueberry bushes and wildflowers; always a sign that water is nearby. In dry seasons that same area seems flat and lifeless, but add a little water (and heat) and you’ve got the makings of a jungle!
As I left the wetland behind I could see (and feel) the difference. Suddenly all was dry and rocky, and the humidity felt like a weight on my shoulders. It had been cool and comfortable around the vernal pool, but as I moved farther away from it the heat was measurable.
I’m not a fan of heat and humidity and won’t miss it when it’s gone, but it is interesting to see the changes in wildlife abundance and vegetation wherever water is found. These pools are very active sites in the sweltering heat, yet just yards away there’s nothing but dry, sandy ground, rocks and brittle sticks. It is possible to survive summer’s worst conditions, you just have to take a tip from the wild things and spend more time near the water. Any newly-hatched spotted turtle knows that!
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