Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Babies, Babies, Babies!

by Brittany Friedel, Outdoor Education Intern

Spring has finally, if begrudgingly, sprung in Ohio!  This means warmth, flowers, and babies!  This annual rite of passage is always met with anticipation from wildlife and nature enthusiasts.  Who doesn't audibly sigh at the sight of a cute fuzzy duckling or a wobbly fox kit?  Who can resist smiling at a newly-hatched tiny turtle, or a timid curled up fawn?  
Watching the cycle of birth to adulthood is a time honored tradition that can inspire anyone to reveal their inner naturalist.

Many Ohio mammals, birds, amphibians, and reptiles are already in the process of finding mates, nesting, nursing, or incubating their eggs. There is much to see if you know where and when to look.  With Easter right around the corner, now may be the perfect time to brush up on your baby and egg identification.  

As mentioned in an earlier post, now is the perfect time to get out and see salamanders, frogs, and toads migrating to vernal pools.  For frogs and toads, the females will lay their jelly-like eggs in the water and the males will fertilize them. 

Salamanders reproduce similarly, but some species differ in that the females will take male sperm packets into their bodies to internally fertilize, before laying their jelly eggs.   Although they walk on land, these animals are tied to their evolutionary aquatic roots for reproduction.  In the coming weeks, tadpoles and juvenile salamanders will grow, develop and continue the cycle in years to come.  

Many resident birds are engaging in the frenzy of preparing their nests and laying their eggs.  Summer breeding birds are migrating back from their winter roosts and working on establishing nesting territory with their partners.  Great blue herons have been seen carrying and placing sticks in their rookeries, while peregrine falcons have already finished courting and moved on to laying and brooding their eggs.  Our year-round cardinal residents are beginning to breed and nest as well. 

Barred owls are currently sitting on two to three eggs, which will hatch in early to mid-April.  Great horned owls begin nesting earlier than any other bird in Ohio, typically laying eggs at the end of January.  Eggs hatch late February, early March, so right now, great horned owlets are clambering around their nest site, practicing their balancing and maneuvering techniques.  Remember to look up when you’re walking in the woods and you may just see a couple of bright baby owl eyes watching you!           

This time of year is prime time for red fox kits to be born, but don’t be surprised when you don’t see any.  Vixens, or female foxes, dig dens about four feet underground, and nurse them until the young are able to accompany the parents on hunting trips in the summer.  Reynards, or male foxes, will bring food to the female during this time.   

Gray foxes, on the other hand are just ending their mating cycle, and won’t have young until late April or early May.  Red foxes live in prairie, grassland habitats, whereas gray foxes prefer wooded areas.  

Striped skunks are also in their mating phase and will give birth to litters of three to ten young in about two months. You can read about skunks' romantic exchanges in this previous blog post.  

Beavers are just starting to give birth, after mating in January or February.  Beaver young are precocial, which means they are born fully-furred, eyes open, and are able to swim just 24 hours after being born!  Squirrels are born in leaf nests anytime in late February, early March.  Unlike the beavers, squirrels are slow to develop, making them altricial; they're born hairless and their eyes do not open until about 36 days after being born!  In about a month the young will start eating solid foods, and a couple weeks after that, they will clamber outside of the nest to explore.  Those leaf clusters at the tops of trees may hold more than meets the eye; see if you can spot a mother going in and out to nurse her babies.  

Whitetail deer are currently with fawn, and do not give birth until mid-May, early June.  

Right now is peak breeding time for Eastern garter snakes.  These snakes are unique in that young emerge alive from the mother (viviparous), unlike most snake species that lay eggs to hatch (oviparous).  An average of 20 young are born anytime in July through October and are self-sufficient immediately, requiring no care from the mother.    

Northern map turtle, Eastern musk turtle, midland smooth softshell turtle, and the red-eared slider are all examples of turtles that breed in the early spring. Gestation times vary, but generally last a couple months.  One fascinating fact of turtle gender is that it is dependent on the temperature of the eggs while developing.  Female turtles will bury their eggs in the ground and the surrounding soil temperature affects the growing embryos.  With the exception of the softshell species, all Ohio turtle species exhibit this fascinating trait.   

There is much to see as you venture out into Ohio this spring.  Wetlands, prairies, and forests are all awakening after their winter slumber, as are the animals that inhabit these areas.  

A reminder to all educators who would like to bring the outdoors into their classroom this spring, no person can take or possess native wildlife without a license or permit.  This includes wild animal parts, nests, eggs, mounts, skins, and live wild animals. If you would like to qualify for an Ohio education permit, which allows educators to possess some of the above for educational programming or display, contact the ODNR Division of Wildlife Headquarters, permit coordinator at 1-800-WILDLIFE (945-3543).  

Monday, March 16, 2015

Searching for Sallies!

My daughter and I and our neighbor friends went out this past Saturday morning on a Salamander and Vernal Pool hike at a metropark here in Central Ohio.  Someone asked me how I found out about the program, to which I said "Please! Any park district worth its salt is doing vernal pool programs right now!"  So if you're looking to find one, check out your nearest park district or nature center.

What is a vernal pool hike? Well, let me first answer by telling you what a vernal pool is.  Vernal pools are low, wet areas in the woods that hold water each spring (hence the term vernal) long enough for a variety of amphibians and aquatic insects to reproduce in them.  These pools provide CRITICAL breeding grounds for these creatures.  And they are in significant danger all over the country due to lack of knowledge about these seasonal wetlands.  So a vernal pool hike is when you get to explore these amazing little areas of romance and reproductive action.  Plan to get wet and muddy because you have to get down and dirty to see all the cool things that are in the water.  This is yours truly helping my daughter and her friend explore a restored vernal pool at the park.

Me, Katie and Cassidy looking for sallies.
 Every naturalist does their hikes a little differently, but most include an opportunity to walk out into the pools.  You might be asking "doesn't that damage the habitat?" Obviously, some damage does occur, but as long as you're not bringing large groups in every day for the week or so that the action is taking place, these areas can easily withstand a group or two without any major detriment.

Shortly after this picture was taken, I had to "rescue" my daughter
from the mud as she went in over her boots.  It happens!

Almost all the programs offer a chance for participants to handle the salamanders, or sallies as my daughter calls them.  With hands clean and wet, giving kids and adults alike an opportunity to hold these unique and, let's face it, adorable little creatures is key to gaining their interest and appreciation. A friend once told me that his "threshold experience" was exploring a creek and turning rocks and finding salamanders when he was a kid.  These kinds of experiences are what bring out that passion for nature in children, and adults!  Just look at the expressions on their faces!

Trying their best to take turns, and learning how to
hold the sallies properly.
She told me later that this was her favorite part. :-)

I love her multi-painted nails. She certainly didn't mind getting them dirty. :-)
No fear of these slimy little creatures!

And it's also fun to find all the other creatures that live, breed, and hunt these vernal pools.  We had a veritable gold mine of finds on our Saturday morning hike, including predaceaous diving beetles, isopod larvae, spring peepers,

Spring peeper belly

and even a dandy of a garter snake.  The group got distracted for a good 15 minutes by this beauty!

Beautiful garter snake

So, if you're looking for something to do in the next few weeks, get yourself and your kids out and explore a vernal pool near you.  Be sure to work with a knowledgeable person, have permission from the property owner, and handle those critters gently and with clean, wet hands.  Hopefully, it will be the threshold for a love of all things nature for both you and your kids for years to come.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Insect Exploration

By John Windau, Wildlife Communications Specialist, District Two

The Ohio Division of Wildlife has quite a few educational loaner kits which are made available free of charge. These kits can be borrowed for two weeks at a time from your district office. They are a great resource to bring wildlife education into your classroom using hands on learning activities. There are a wide variety of trunks available, and each district may be slightly different. Contact your District Communications Specialist if you are interested in borrowing any of these trunks.

Red-spotted Purple

As the days begin to warm, scores of those little crawly creatures we call insects will begin to appear. Their abundance and variety, both during the day and at night, makes this a perfect time to start thinking about borrowing the Insects Backpack. The backpack is great for picnics, camp outs, and other outdoor activities with smaller groups of kids. Included in the backpack is an insect net, as well as bug jars to hold the kid’s specimens. The bug jars have built in magnifiers, so kids can easily examine the unique features of their discoveries. Also included are several books and field guides to help educators and parents answer questions and guide kids in their learning. Posters and field guides are included and are an excellent way to highlight different types of insects for kids. There is also an activity book, “Insectigations,” with 40 hands on learning activities centered on insects, perfect for budding entomologists.
12-spotted Skimmer

If you are interested in this trunk or any of the other loaner trunks, please contact your district Communications Specialist for more information and to check for availability. To find your district’s contact information,  visit the Division’s webpage at www.wildohio.gov

Imperial Moth