Saturday, January 24, 2009

Raining for the Homeless

Imagine you are holed up underground waiting. Waiting for a decent home. One where you can start a family and get on with your life. It's been months, yet still you wait. Waiting for the steady pitter-patter to wake you from your stupor and start your sturdy legs churning for your new home. Mid-January, it seemed that you might not leave your hovel at all this year.

A week later, finally, rain came to California. Rain and fog and hail for days. Ponds started to fill and the amphibians were on the move. Dirty noses, feet, then tails emerged from rodent burrows, rotting logs and rock clefts. But will the rain be frequent enough in the next few months to allow the frogs and salamanders to lay eggs, the eggs to hatch, and the larvae to develop into adults before the water dries up? For amphibians in California, it's a gamble with the weather to successfully reproduce.

<---"Where is my watery palace?"---

Since California's climate is basically a wet season and a dry season, wet-dependent animals like amphibians have had to adapt. They spend the wet season frolicking in ponds, rivers and creeks, but once the rain stops, many of these dry up and the water babies have to find alternate lodging. The larval forms of the frogs and newts get legs, and lungs or lung substitutes to join their adult compatriots on the outward-bound crawl. As the wet areas disappear, they seek out climate- and moisture-controlled terrestrial homes where they can wait out the dry season in a state of estivation.

There are four ponds on the Dipper Ranch that play a role in the reproductive cycle of amphibians. All of the ponds were originally created by the ranchers out of natural springs. They pushed pipes into the hillsides and drainages where springs slowly seeped, scooped out basins and pushed up earthen dams. These stock ponds held the dripping water for longer periods of time and thus kept the cattle watered. Ironically, after over 100 years of repeated and large scale human development across the mountain landscape (timber harvest, ranching, agriculture, transportation, flood control and housing development), these stock ponds are often the remaining reservoirs where the native amphibians species still hold court.

---Plum Pond---
The Plum Pond is a small pond in grassland. Even with cattle drinking, this pond retains enough moisture to support a thicket of cattails in the center, where red-winged blackbirds nest, with an outside ring of open water in the wet season. Last year, we saw coast range newts, Pacific treefrogs and California red-legged frogs at the Plum Pond. This year, the newts reappeared at the Plum Pond on November 11, 2008 when it started filling after the second rainstorm of the year, and you can currently hear a few treefrogs starting their breeding chorus.

--Mallard Pond--
The Mallard Pond is a medium-sized pond surrounded by forest. It always has some open water with a fringe of cattails and willows on its sides, a small man-made island in the middle and a rotting rowboat on the shore. Last year, we saw newts, treefrogs and red-legged frogs in this pond. This year, I started seeing newts mating in the Mallard Pond on October 6, 2008 after the first decent-sized rainstorm. Treefrogs are peeping there now.

---Newt Pond---
The Newt Pond is a small, highly seasonal pond that drains quickly. With patchy weather, it can partially fill and dry out several times during the wet season. Last year, it was full of newts and their eggs with a few treefrogs, but it dried up before anything hatched. This year, the Newt Pond started to fill on November 2, 2008, then was dry for the next seven weeks. So far this year, we saw about 10 newts in the Newt Pond the day after Christmas, and many newts were mating there by January 11, 2009, but the pond was dry again by January 20th and the newts were gone.
---Woods Pond---

The Woods Pond is a small pond in the woods fed by a slow seeping spring, and it is also directly adjacent to a steep seasonal drainage. It is mostly filled with cattail vegetation and a few small willows. Last year, we saw treefrogs and newts at the Woods Pond. Twice, we have seen a California giant salamander in the drainage above the Woods Pond. This year, I saw a newt heading towards the Woods Pond on November 11, 2008 after the second precipitation event of the season, but there still is very little standing water in the Woods Pond.

Over the next few months, I will make many trips to these ponds and will share their watery ups and downs. We will see how lucky the amphibians will be this year in their reproductive gamble with the winter weather.

PS: The Newt Pond is my favorite because it changes so much and you can see the struggle of life up close. Its oval shape and sloped berm remind me of an amphitheater, or should I say amphibian-theater?

Coast range newt, Taricha torosa torosa
Pacifc treefrog, Pseudacris regilla
California red-legged frog, Rana draytonii
California giant salamander, Dicamptodon ensatus

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