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Some signs of spring, continued...

Happy spring. There actually are signs of spring despite persistent snow, and granddaughter Hayden and I have launched a photo project to document them. We’ll do up a book of photos with brief narrative. She’s in most of the photos.

She suggested we do summer, too, after spring. We’ll see. High-energy anticipation for spring is hard to match.

First photo for the project is shown here. Our visit to the maple sugaring operation at Dublin School included a drink of syrupy sap that was about halfway boiled down to the final syrup.

Hayden shared the drink but with reluctance.

Her cousin Imogen photographed another sign of spring when she heard about the project: the first indoor ants. She also suggested a frost heave sign. We agreed that a photo of Imogen and her brother Ezra by a frost heave sign would be a good addition to our “Hayden Discovers Spring” book.

We’re having fun on a project I recommend to anyone who spends time with youngsters, many of whom take decent photos with a family cell phone.

Snowmelt relates to another sign of spring and a project that relies on volunteers: the Vernal Pool Project here in Peterborough and open to all.

Modeled after a project in Keene, volunteers attend two training sessions (one indoors; the other a field trip to a vernal pool) and then go into the field to document vernal pools that have been mapped by an analysis of aerial photographs.

I did the training and helped document a bunch of vernal pools last spring and can’t wait to do more. As often is the case, going forth into the great outdoors — whether birdwatching or fishing or vernal pooling — is all about getting out there, observant, shaking off indoors habits. It helps to have a purpose, and helping document vernal pools is a good one.

The training is available in both Peterborough (April 17, 7-9 p.m. at the Town House) and Keene (April 18, 7-9 p.m. at Keene State College); the outdoor sessions are the following Saturday. For more information, contact Brett Thelen at thelen@harriscenter.org; 358-2065. Brett oversees the projects and is a compelling advocate for the little ones that rely on vernal pools as breeding habitat.

Brett also is doing a “Salamander Crossing Brigade” training tonight in Keene and Saturday morning at the Harris Center. Certain amphibian road-crossing locations have been identified in the region, and salamander crossing guards assist what can be a perilous crossing on what’s called “Big Nights,” when rain and warm temperatures combine to trigger a massive amphibian migration from upland to wetland.

If you don’t have enough “big nights” in your life, consider joining a brigade.

As part of the Vernal Pool Project mapping of conservation lands here in Peterborough, I gained another layer of appreciation for the workings of the natural world, including the critical timing that helps it all work.

Timing is important for vernal pools. The result of snowmelt and spring rains, they are temporary and therefore don’t support fish that would feed on salamander and wood frog eggs and fairy shrimp — all indicators of a vernal pool. Absent major predators, vernal pools support a rich diversity of wildlife.

I remember well the excitement of finding the first egg mass, small, white and seemingly aglow, submerged in dark, tannic water.

I was part of a team exploring potential pools alongside the Contoocook River, north of town, and went out several more times to document other pools. Topographic features that showed up as potential vernal pools on aerial photos turned out in most cases to be the real thing.

Fifteen people took part in the training last spring and we’re eager to lure others this year including landowners eager to know their own land better. I surveyed our land in Lyndeborough and was pleased as can be to discover a few vernal pools.

Teams of two go out, for the most part. There is a trick to photographing the pools and filling out the data sheets, and in general it’s a lot more fun to share the adventure.

In the meantime, a great way to find vernal pools is to listen for the quacking of wood frogs, one of the handful of “obligate species” that confirms the presence of a vernal pool.

Wood frogs are cold tolerant and start hopping from upland home to vernal breeding pools while there’s lingering snow and ice — well before the Big Night or Nights that trigger amphibians by the thousands.

The males’ distinctive courtship call has fooled a lot of people to thinking “ducks!” —not frogs.

And speaking of ducks, the Harris Center’s annual Connecticut River duck safari is this Sunday. Some participants will meet Phil Brown at 8 a.m. in Charlestown center, one town north of Walpole on Route 12; and others will meet Eric Masterson at the Home Depot parking lot in Keene at 8 to carpool to Hinsdale. As Phil’s group works its way south along the river, Eric’s will head north. Both will meet for lunch (BYO) midway to swap tales of birds seen and not seen. Return will be early afternoon.

Spring arrives early along the Connecticut, and birds migrate north along that corridor. Ducks in all their colorful diversity are the target species, but we also encounter a nice mix of land birds.

Part of the tradition is stopping for coffee and cider donuts at Allen Brothers across the river in Vermont. I usually bring home some pansies, too, inspired by spring.

Come on along!

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

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