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Backyard Birder: Earth Day is ripe time for activism

  • U.S. Senator Edmund Muskie speaking at Fairmount Park, Philadelphia on Earth Day, 1970. Courtesy photo


Thursday, April 20, 2017

Earth Day is this Saturday. I remember the first one, back in 1970, as one of an estimated 20 million people participating nationwide. It was a festive day, joining others to stand up for the planet.

The time was ripe for grassroots activism.

Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” had sounded the alarm that pesticides were poisoning birds and waterways, and people, too, of course, as carcinogens. Detroit’s Cuyahoga River had caught fire; there was a huge oil spill off the California Coast; sooty smog in cities. . .

Congress shut down so that members could be in their home districts to take part. None wanted to be seen as insensitive to environmental perils.

Within the year President Nixon by executive order created the Environmental Protection Agency, and a few years later signed the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts passed by Congress.

And today, all are in danger of being set way back. Times change, but not perils to the planet, pesticides included.

I often quote Meade Cadot at the Harris Center who gets a bit prickly at the concept of one Earth Day a year. As the bumper stickers say, “Make Every Day Earth Day.” That’s his point.

Meanwhile, April showers are bringing amphibian migration, frogs and salamanders. Wood frogs are the first to depart their forest homes. They’re known as “explosive breeders,” an interesting concept.

Heeding a signal only they know, off they hop in a mass migration aimed for vernal pools formed by snowmelt and spring rain. The males’ chorus sounds like quacking ducks, and females heed their call. Male clasps female who lays eggs that are fertilized externally.

In quick order, frogs and salamanders that lay eggs in vernal pools return to their forest homes.

Because vernal pools are temporary, the clock is ticking. Eggs through larvae (tadpoles) through to adult transformation and pool departures—quick before the pool drives out.

Vernal pools, being temporary, lack fish that eat amphibians at all stages. That’s their great value as amphibian nurseries.

I knew wood frogs were on the hop last Thursday when I found a female plump with eggs in a bucket that collects rainwater and snowmelt off our roof. She’d jumped a good 16 inches up and into the bucket. I don’t know of a vernal pool nearby, and remain curious about her success once set on her way.

Sunday afternoon, suddenly, the spring peeper chorus was deafening. Hard to believe how males the size of a finger tip can emit such a sound. Somehow, without the classic “rainy warm night in April” that triggers migration, peepers made their way across dry earth. Evidently migratory urge trumps travel conditions.

Peepers mate in permanent wetlands, not temporary vernal pools, and they males will chorus for weeks now as they’re not pressured by the time constraints.

I always associate Earth Day with spring peepers after scheduling a woodcock walk on Earth Day many years ago as my way of helping to mark the day.

It was at the Fremont Field town conservation land off Old Jaffrey Road in Peterborough, a great place to witness the male woodcock’s improbable courtship display.

Two were displaying that evening, as light faded, but spring peepers were so loud that only people attuned to the woodcock male’s series of insistent “peent” notes could hear them.

Field neighbor David Baum reports he heard a woodcock this morning, Monday.

Good news given persistent snow cover that must have made finding food hard to impossible. Woodcocks live on worms. They don’t have much of a Plan B if they arrive to frozen, snow-covered fields.

As yet, we have no woodcock displaying from our back field.

David also reported hearing an American bittern, the only bird I know that belches out its territorial and courtship song repeatedly, “ooonk-ka- choonk,” with physical contortions that resemble a very big belch. A YouTube search delivers you to many bitterns caught in the act.

Both bittern and woodcock favor the crepuscular hours, dawn and dusk.

These past few days have brought a lot of action, amphibian and avian, and of course black flies are on their way, adults emerging from cold, clear streams, the females in need of a protein meal (blood) that nectar just does not deliver.

Looking on the bright side, here is how Gale Lawrence sums it up in her “Field Guide to the Familiar”: “Actually, they perform a useful service in helping us balance our attitudes towards the seasons. Just when we might be thinking that spring is much preferable to winter, black flies emerge in blood-hungry numbers to remind us of winter’s cold and bug-free glory.” Whatever the season brings, may every day be Earth Day, but this Saturday it’s OK to do a little something special to help the planet out.

Backyard Birder by Francie Von Mertens appears every other week in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.