Saturday, February 22, 2014

Watching Winter Melt (Part I)

Winter is nearly three quarters through, and these past few days have brought a sneak peek of spring. With over 22 inches of snow on the ground just a week ago, today the temperatures were in the high 40s (F) causing quite the melt off! My trusty snow stick shows 'only' 11 inches left to go, but winter returns next week with the possibility of several more inches of snow. So today I ventured out into the still-snow-covered river hills to check on my favorite spring places, vernal pools and old canals, soon to be bursting with frog song and egg masses. 

Vernal pools are temporary ponds found in the woods. As depressions, they fill with winter rain and snow, and provide a safe refuge for salamanders and frogs who will deposit millions of eggs in strings and balls in a fish-free environment come late winter/ early spring. This is one of my favorite vernal pools to visit and as of this week it has transformed from walkable ice to slush with a layer of water on top. As I was leaving this site, a wood frog quacked loudly from the far end.

The old canal that runs along the Susquehanna is water-filled in many places. The mule paths atop (for going south) and below (for going north) the canal are now human trails through the river woods. Unlike a vernal pool which is watered from rain and snow, the canal is fed from hillside springs and streams, sometimes flooding when the river rises with snowmelt. Come spring and summer, the shallow warm waters will persist long past the lifespan of a vernal pool. Not many egg masses or tadpoles will survive here as these are ponds filled with hungry turtles, wading birds, watersnakes, and garter snakes. 

This tiny spider was my first arachnid sighting of the year! He looks like he's walking on a pane of glass, but in fact is walking on the surface of the water bubbling up from a hillside seep. Smaller than a pencil eraser, I had to switch to my macro lens to capture this tiny guy!

For most of the winter the streams and little creeks have been locked in ice, but today they all ran free for the first time since New Years! Gunner's Run was especially loud and musical as it tumbled off the Piedmont into the river valley. Even the rhododendron leaves have unfurled in sun's heat. 

Hiking up Gunner's Run ravine to the top of the plateau, the trail had only been broken once by someone in snowshoes this past week. I was having a hard time staying in his tracks and when I strayed, I sunk knee-deep into the slushy snow. I wish I'd worn my gaiters! Maybe not the time to pack away the snowshoes just yet, but watching winter melt certainly brought excitement for spring to come and stay!

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