Sunday, March 27, 2022

Some Spring Sightings at Herrontown Woods

There's been lots of activity at Herrontown Woods over the past few weeks as nature begins to stir.

At last week's Sunday morning workday at the Barden (Botanical ARt garDEN), some middleschoolers really enjoyed picking the seeds of wild senna that had stayed on the stalks through the winter. This Sunday, we'll cut last year's stalks to make way for new growth.

Herrontown Woods caretaker Andrew Thornton discovered a bloodroot flower blooming just off the trail. Bloodroots and the very rare hepatica are early bloomers. March 20 for the bloodroot, which leads with the flower before generating a leaf.

Anyone who looks skyward at the Barden may see willow blossoms--one of the "keepers" we found amidst all the invasive shrubs cleared to create the Barden. The blooms of willows and red maples are an important food source for early stirring bees.

On warm, wet nights, salamanders navigate through the leaves to reach vernal pools to lay eggs for the next generation. Vernal means spring, as in vernal equinox.
Vernal pools are also the place for wood frogs to mate and lay eggs. Thanks to Lisa Boulanger, who took these two beautiful photos three weeks ago.
We first noticed our black vulture had returned on March 15. A pair of them raise their young each year in the corncrib near the Veblen Cottage. We used to think they were bad omens, but have gained respect for them as parents and for their ecological role in the community. 
Someone's been busy over the winter building a village in a little out of the way spot in Herrontown Woods. It appears to have avenues, skyscrapers, and some bricks that may represent schools or a hospital. Maybe it's a fort, given its walls. 

Coincidentally, public library staff are talking about doing a reading of the children's book Roxaboxen at the Barden in a month or two.
The boulders along the ridge are rounded, composed of diabase, which in my experience is associated with rare plant species that thrive in the particular kind of soil generated from the weathering of these rocks. The boulders were not deposited here by glaciers, but instead formed from molten upwellings from below. 
In Herrontown Woods and Autumn Hill Reservation there are numerous little abandoned quarries where some of the larger boulders were split into chunks and hauled away. 

Springtime is a great time to figure out where we need more stepping stones along trails. Because the rocks along the ridge are chunky and rounded--of no use for steps through muddy sections of trails--we make frequent trips to rock piles generated nearby, just off the ridge, where a developer has dug a basement. These conveniently flat stones are from the sedimentary deposits that the molten upwellings pushed through to create the ridge. 

One plant that doesn't look like much but which I've always been curious about is what is this low-growing grass. I call it soft fescue, and wonder if it was common long ago, and later became the first lawns around houses. Many old lawns still contain this mounded grass. Here's a patch of it growing along Herrontown Road.
At Veblen House, the remnants of Elizabeth Veblen's garden still cycle through the seasons, with sweeps of snowbells giving way this week to the many daffodils she spread across the grounds.


Saturday, March 12, 2022

A Night-time Visit to a Vernal Pool Along the Princeton Ridge

Vernal pools are the place to be right now, if you're a wood frog, spring peeper, or a spotted salamander. Vernal refers to springtime, and vernal pools are generally small bodies of water that form in winter in depressions in the forest. Some quickly fade as spring progresses, but a few good ones remain long enough in the spring to allow amphibians to complete their reproductive cycle. The underlying hydrology and precipitation need to be sufficient to sustain water until the tadpoles mature. A lake or pond with water yearround might seem a safer bet, but would contain fish interested in eating the amphibians' eggs.

On warm, wet nights, the frogs and salamanders migrate from surrounding forest to the vernal pools to breed. Leaves from the previous fall provide cover, as in this photo of a spotted salamander. Thanks to Lisa Boulanger, who lives up near Herrontown Woods, for sharing these first couple photos. Last year she raised some salamanders from eggs laid in her backyard swimming pool. 

Oftentimes, and sometimes tragically, roads stand between the amphibians and their vernal pools. The Sourlands Conservancy has a well-organized program in which trained volunteers with flashlights and reflective clothing monitor roadways on wet, warm nights in late winter, posting warning signs along stretches of roadway and helping the amphibians cross the road. They make sure their hands are free of lotions that might affect the amphibians' skins. 

Though we made preliminary inquiries about doing a similar initiative in Princeton this year, it didn't go beyond our checking one stretch. Surprisingly, the two live frogs I saw on the pavement were sitting there, oblivious to danger. Perhaps they are soaking up some heat from the pavement, or are confused by the curious surface. I was able to hasten their crossing just by approaching them. 

By the time I had gotten there, however, soon after nightfall on March 6, many had already been run over, despite the minimal traffic along Herrontown Road. Returning a few days later, I found the remains of fifty. This is yet another example of how people can do harm without the least intention of doing so. 

Here are a couple wood frogs in what's called "amplexus," with the smaller male holding onto the pinkish female. It looks all very ordered and peaceful, but when we visited a vernal pool in Herrontown Woods a week ago, the competition between males for females was intense, to the point of imperiling the females.

In this photo, by Mark Manning, the tussle looks pretty benign.

Elsewhere in the pool, a female looked to be in trouble, with about ten males trying, persistently despite their lack of success, to dislodge the other male from the female's back. The female's head, a lighter brown, can be seen in the photo. In this mob scene, the female will literally not be able to come up for air. 

Insects are active in the vernal pools as well. One of Mark's sons brought me this predatory water stick-insect.

Interestingly, while the salamanders and frogs hadn't even laid eggs yet, there were already large tadpoles swimming in the water. These, according to Mark, are green frogs that have a different timing than the wood frogs.

It was Mark's birthday, which says something about his passion. Deep in woods, peering into the still waters so rich in life, we all felt like we were in the presence of a great gift.

Thanks to Mark, Fairfax and Lisa for their photos, their knowledge, and their initiative.

Lincoln Hollister Leads a Geology Walk (POSTPONED)


On Sunday, March 13, the Friends of Herrontown Woods will host a geology walk led by Princeton geology professor emeritus Lincoln Hollister. He will explain the geological features and history of the area. If you thought the boulders along the Princeton Ridge were deposited by a glacier, you're in for a surprise. 

The walk is at 1pm. A limited number of spots are available. Click here to sign up.

Also at Herrontown Woods this Sunday, and just about every Sunday of the year, volunteers gather from around 10:30 to 1pm to work in the Barden and elsewhere in Herrontown Woods, weeding, cutting down invasive species, and improving trails. 

On first Sunday's of the month, from 10am-noon, FOHW hosts May's Barden Cafe, serving coffee, tea, and pastries in the tradition of Elizabeth "May" and Oswald Veblen, who donated Herrontown Woods back in 1957.