Three Magic Moments at a Vernal Pool

Now, listen up, for I am going to tell you about three magic moments I experienced on this day!

Heavy winds were expected to arrive at some point in the morning, so when I got out of bed, I did a few things, and then went straight-way to my daily walk. We'd been awakened by a loud KA-BOOM! and a storm with white lightning around 4:30 in the morning, and conditions were about 100% humidity, with bright sunshine. It seemed like perfect weather for amphibians, so I headed to the closest vernal pool in the gamelands that I know of. I wanted to get my walk in before the big winds arrived.

A car was pulling in on the entry road to the parking lot behind me, and I stopped for a second to let them by. There was another car already there, and as it turned out, those cars were carrying Penn State researchers, who are doing a study of several vernal pools in the Scotia Barrens. The sound of amphibian song was deafening as I drew near to the gameland. I got to the pond before they did, and spotted a bunch of wire traps, maybe about 6 to 8 of them, teeming with amphibians!

Within five minutes after I got to the pond, the researchers arrived. There were two men and two women. They began opening the traps and emptying creatures into plastic containers, so that they could sort and count the amphibians. I asked if I could watch and take some pictures, and they said Yes! So I was in my glory: I saw more salamanders in those few minutes than I have ever seen in my life!

The creatures in the photo above are spotted salamanders, and there were simply hundreds of them in the traps! Which amazed me, as I'd never seen a single one in the gamelands before this! The one researcher explained that they would photograph the spotted salamanders, as the spot patterns are unique identifying markers; so they can track the salamanders to see if they visit the same vernal pool each spring.

I also saw many wood frogs, and even a Jefferson's salamander. One trap was opened and only had a few amphibs in it, to their dismay. I wondered if an errant raccoon had happened along, discovered a little meals-on-wheels, and liberated a few tasty snacks.

I left the researchers to their devices, and headed to an even bigger vernal pool I know of, further up the trail. And amazing things were going on there too. For one, the newts were actually walking on water! I don't think that's something I've ever seen before.

The newt was somehow managing the surface tension of the water like a water skipper bug, as though it had a bubble of air around it; it was not swimming, it was WALKING. And there were more of them, doing the same thing! You may see a newt walking on water in the extras. (And what will they do for their NEXT miracle, I wondered.)

There was a green scum on the water at the far end of the pond, most likely pollen, as the air is full of it these days. I decided I wanted to walk around and look at the pollen on top of the water from the other side of the pond. And as I walked around, and the light changed, I started to see colors on the surface of the water. Was I losing it?

It was a combination of the hour (9:20 a.m.), the angle of the light, the humidity, the pollen, and who knows what all else, but magic was happening there, and suddenly, the surface of the pond appeared to be covered in RAINBOWS!

Now, I have seen pollen on vernal pools many times, but I have never seen pollen do THIS before. Please enjoy the photo in the extras. As I was standing there photographing the pollen rainbows, the big winds started to arrive, and the trees suddenly BENT. Yikes! It was time to get the heck out of the woods!

As I walked back down the path, a woman with a coffee in her hands and dark hair with purple tints was walking her black dog. She stopped to talk to me on the trail, and we chatted about the vernal pools and the big amphibian party. She said there were more big pools up above the one I knew of, and I asked her for more details.

She said she and her dog had been out several evenings before, and the bullfrog action had been amazing. Just a few days before, the surface of the big pond was still frozen; what a transformation in just a few days. I asked her if she'd seen the researchers at the lower pond, and she had.

Somehow, she got the misunderstanding that I was with them (was it my Penn State t-shirt and sweat suit that gave her that impression?), and she thanked me for everything I was doing for the amphibians before we parted! Um, but, . . . wait. Too late for me to explain - I am just an amphibian researcher groupie!

I was headed for home now, as the winds were howling and the trees were bending. As I walked past the first pool, the researchers were still there. They were sitting together in a little group, two of them huddled under tarps, doing something with the amphibians. A guy without a tarp was making notes and sorting amphibians into plastic containers. It was awesome. I was in the presence of actual AMPHIBIAN SCIENCE and it was amazing!

Now, in thinking of a soundtrack song for this day, I need to pick something that captures the three miracles I saw. One was the huge collection of spotted salamanders, the most amphibians I have ever seen in one place in my life. Two was the newts walking on water. And three was the pollen rainbows refracting light on the surface of the gameland pond.

So my song is Marc Cohn's Walk on Water. Lyrics that are particularly meaningful to me are included below, as I find myself as a photographer standing on the edges, watching and waiting for the miracles, hoping to spot and share with you the strange and beautiful magic that makes this world run! Are you watching? Don't miss the show!

So are you willing to wait for the miracle
Willing to wait it through
Are you willing to wait for the miracle
Or don't you believe they're true?

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