Last week I talked about mole salamanders and the ponds they live in. It’s not just mole salamanders using those ponds, though! Today, I thought the ponds themselves needed a post. Mole salamanders, and many other amphibians, tend to breed in what are known as ephemeral ponds, or vernal pools. Whatever you call them, they are just low spots that fill with water at certain times of year, but their temporary nature is what defines them, and what makes them an essential wildlife habitat.
Even though the rainiest season in most of the South is summer, the ponds usually hold water in winter, after the late fall rains. There may be more rain in summer, but it is promptly sucked up by tree roots or evaporated in the heat. In winter, the trees are dormant and the air is cooler, so water is left to saturate the ground and pool in the hollows.
How long the ponds will hold water is an important factor for wildlife. Some of the shallow pools dry in a matter of days. Others have at least a puddle at the deepest point for most of the year. In drought years, almost none of them will have any water at all. Continue reading Ephemeral Ponds
The mole salamander (Ambystoma talpoideum) is not a glamorous-looking creature. It’s small, unassuming, and slippery. It lives in burrows and in small isolated ponds in the woods. It’s mostly dark brown or black, often mottled with a gray or blue lichen-like pattern. It has a broad, flattened head. It looks a little like some artists’ reconstructions of Tiktaalik, and it’s easy to picture it living back when animals were first starting to crawl onto land.
Many southerners will recognize the green anole, aka Carolina anole, aka American chameleon. The scientific name is Anolis carolinensis.
Though sold in pet shops as “chameleons” because of their color-changing ability, they’re not the same as the true chameleons of Africa and Asia.
Green anoles are small, slender lizards that live mostly in trees, but can also be found clinging to window and porch screens. Usually bright green, they can change their color to brown or tan. They have a pink throat fan, or dewlap, which they expand to communicate with other anoles. They are territorial, so what they’re communicating is probably “MY tree! Go away!”
(Arachnophobia: fear of spiders and scorpions. Hemophobia: fear of blood. Ophidiophobia: fear of snakes.)
In any job dealing with wildlife in the field, you’re eventually going to have to deal with things many people find frightening, disgusting, or just plain creepy. I have caught and been bitten by snakes, walked through countless spiderwebs, and waded around in ponds with a thick layer of scum on the surface.
One of my projects in the summer was to trap, measure, mark, and release snakes. To that end, my co-workers and I set up giant X-shaped silt fence arrangements with a trap in the center and buckets as pitfall traps at each end. The buckets were covered with little plywood tables to provide shade. One day I lifted up one of the plywood tops and found this:
That is a pigmy rattlesnake in the bucket. Next to it is a very large wolf spider. On the underside of the plywood is a black widow spider and the dried-out corpse of a scorpion. An arachnophobe’s nightmare.
The way these awards work is like a game. The English translation of Premio Dardos is “Prize Darts” and I think it’s very descriptive. You throw your “darts” in the form of links at other bloggers; then they throw them at more bloggers, and so on. Blog awards are like a chain letter, minus the promises of true love if you forward it on and a gory death if you don’t. I am resistant to threats of gory death from anonymous letter writers. But a compliment from a fellow blogger is another story.
So: Thank you for thinking of me! I appreciate it, but I am going to cheat a little. The problem is, I don’t know enough bloggers who would be receptive to this and who also haven’t already received both awards to write posts for all of these. So, to those who named me for the prizes, I hope you will accept this big combined award post, which gives me an excuse to mention some friendly Blogging 101 classmates who may not write about things that would ordinarily come up on a nature blog. So this is one big, combined, all-purpose award post. I’ll call it the Bethany-Is-Lazy Award, and it’s a one-time thing that nobody is expected to pass on. It also gives me a chance to try out this pagination thing, because this post is gonna be long.
The Bitchy Editor’s post How Your B.A. in English Prepared You for Failure got me thinking about what constitutes failure or success in relation to a degree. I have a B.A. in English. It is my only completed degree so far. I was, by some standards, a success: I actually used it to get a job. It was still a giant mistake.
I was trying to double major in English and wildlife ecology, until I was so burnt-out and broke that I decided to just finish the degree I was closest to and get the hell out. I only needed one more class for English. I was working a string of temp jobs and just beginning what looked like a promising writing career, and I could see myself doing something like writing or editing until I could make a living writing my own stuff. So I took that one class and got out.
I bounced around in temp jobs until I was hired as a copy editor of construction textbooks. I thought, hey, I’m good with words, and I’d like to learn about construction. Perfect!
Not so much. The job killed what little attention span I had, and after staring at a manuscript all day, I found that the last thing I wanted to do when I got home was write. When I did force myself to write, it was not great prose. It was, well, forced. I’ve never been a heavily stylized writer; I aim for an invisible style. But everything I wrote then was as flat as a plumbing manual for vo-tech students. Continue reading How I Succeeded and Failed with a B.A. in English
Pigmy rattlesnakes always look disgruntled, but this one has a really good reason!
It blended in so well, and I was paying so little attention, that I didn’t see it until I was bringing my foot down. I didn’t have time to stop it. I stepped right on it, trying at the last instant not to put too much weight on it.
Next thing I knew, I was standing about six feet away. I think I made an inarticulate squeak as I jumped away.
The snake never tried to strike at me. It just coiled up tighter and glared. I took a quick photo and then I left it alone. Every stick and leaf looked like a snake for the rest of the day.
The gopher tortoise is large, as North American land turtles go, but it does not stand out.
It’s slow-moving, grayish-tan, close to the ground, and when not moving it resembles a smooth, dome-shaped rock. On top of that, it spends a good part of its time underground. The tortoise is most visible when actively digging, as a fountain of sand flies up behind its claws.
The burrow is easier to find than the tortoise itself. The burrow of a mature tortoise can be spotted from a long distance in the hot, sunny, sandy habitat it prefers. A tortoise burrow is a crescent-shaped hole in the ground, with a wide mound of sand called an apron in front. These burrows go all the way down to the water table, so they stay relatively cool and moist in summer, and relatively warm in winter. This makes them an ideal refuge for many other species, and the tortoise doesn’t seem to mind sharing. Over 350 species have been found in gopher tortoise burrows 1. Personally, I have seen frogs, snakes, mice, beetles, and once a skunk.
Blogging 101’s Day 4 assignment is to consider my intended audience. The easy thing to do is say, “Whoever wants to read what I want to write,” but let’s get a little more specific.
When I write fiction, my ideal audience is me. I start writing something I’d like to read. (When I edit fiction, the readers I have in mind are my college fiction workshop professors, which is both helpful and terrifying. Those folks pulled no punches.)
But for Overlooked Nature, my ideal audience is not me. At least not the real me. It’s some alternate-universe version, a me who studied archeology or illustration instead of ecology. Perhaps a me who stuck with the fiction writing and actually made a living from it, instead of getting sidetracked right when she was starting to sell stories.
I want to present things I know, the same way I like for others to present things they know to me. Factual, but memorable. Detailed enough to be interesting, without being too detailed for the curious adult or teen to grasp. I want this to be a visual version of the podcasts about psychology and physics and history that I listen to in the car. I have never taken a class in any of those subjects, but the narrators break it down so I never have trouble understanding, without sounding like they’re talking to children.
That’s what I want to do. So, my ideal audience is the curious layperson. Maybe a recent arrival to the South who wants to know what’s in the creek in their backyard. Or someone who wonders why they should care that the sandhills are being developed so quickly — it’s just some pine trees on a lot of sand, right? (Spoiler: No, it’s not.) Or someone from far away who wants to see pictures of exotic-to-them creatures. And, of course, anyone who wants to read what I want to write.