Reptiles and Amphibians

By Derek Stoner, Conservation Project Coordinator

The first Wood Frog egg masses of the season, observed in the Ashland Marsh on March 12.  Notice the tiny black dots, each of which is an individual Wood Frog egg.   Image by Derek Stoner.

The first Wood Frog egg masses of the season, observed in the Ashland Marsh on March 12. Notice the tiny black dots, each of which is an individual Wood Frog egg. Image by Derek Stoner.

The rains and warmer weather this week brought out the amphibians at Ashland, with Wood Frogs headlining the show.  On Tuesday there were dozens of male Wood Frogs lining the edges of the Ashland Marsh during the rain, uttering their distinctive “chuck-chuck” call.

By the end of the day, the quiet female Wood Frogs had laid the first egg masses of the season, and I counted at least 11 masses in one cluster.  Each female Wood Frog lays one ball-like cluster of eggs, which may contain up to four hundred individual eggs.  So the image above shows the potential for more than 4,400 tiny tadpoles to be produced!

Jim White, DNS Associate Director for Land and Biodiversity, and author of Amphibians and Reptiles of Delmarva, will be following up this post with a great blog about the Wood Frog mating activity.  For now, we encourage you all to get to the Ashland Marsh in the next few days to witness this spectacle of Wood Frogs– they don’t stick around too long!

In other Signs of Spring news, the first Tree Swallows of Spring were observed flying above the Ashland Lodge on Wednesday, March 13.

By Derek Stoner, Conservation Project Coordinator

To continue a fun tradition begun two years ago, the Delaware Nature Society invites you to participate in the Third Annual Signs of Spring Challenge.   The basic rules are simple:  All Signs must be observed on the grounds of the Ashland Nature Center, in order for this to be a fair contest.  Come visit the center and help us discover the first flowers, the first frogs, and the first turtles of the season!   

We also encourage you to keep a blank form at home where you can record the observations you make in your own backyard or local park.   The most fun part of this contest is that you are primed to be looking and listening at all times for these signs, wherever you are this Spring.  Write down the date and location of your first observations.  You will learn a lot and become a better naturalist by being part of this challenge.

Bloodroot is one of the first wildflowers to bloom in Spring in our region. Look for it to appear in the next month! Image by Derek Stoner.

The selected Signs of Spring include these six flowering plants: Snowdrops, Skunk Cabbage, Bloodroot, Spring Beauty, Trout Lily, and Violet.   The first bloom of these flowers found at Ashland is declared the first of Spring for this contest.

To participate, simply download the entry form:  Signs of Spring Contest 2013

Two Signs have already occurred this week:  the first Groundhog and the first blooming Snowdrops!  These emergence dates are already marked on the entry form and everyone gets these two guesses correct.

Fill out your guesses as to which of the remaining 18 species will occur each week, and send this form back (as an email or fax) to Derek Stoner ( by Monday, March 4. 

If you would like some hints as to possible timing of these Signs of Spring, check out the past two year’s results:  

Signs of Spring Contest 2011 

 Signs of Spring Challenge 2012 Final

Good luck and enjoy observing the Signs of Spring!

By Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Program Team Leader

Photography by Jim White, Associate Director, Land and Biodiversity

In late May, Jim White and I traveled to the South Carolina Lowcountry at the invitation of the Lowcountry Institute on Spring Island.  The objective?  To develop a new travel program for the Delaware Nature Society.  Jim and I think we have a fantastic trip in the making for you to participate in next spring. 


Joe checking out the scene in the ACE Basin, which is a 350,000-acre Lowcountry wild area of made up of several S.C. Wildlife Management Areas, a National Wildlife Refuge, and many large private natural areas southwest of Charleston. Wildlife abounds here.


We stayed on Spring Island, home-base for the Lowcountry Institute, an environmental non-profit organization charged with environmental education and conservation in southeastern South Carolina.  Spring Island is a nature reserve first, and a residential area second.  In fact, you really don’t see houses on the island.  You see forest, tidal marsh, freshwater ponds, and lots of wildlife.  According to Thomas Blagden, Jr., author of Spring Island: Rhythms of Nature, the island…”is a quintessential Loucountry marsh island.  Perhaps what distinguishes it most is its status as the visionary domain of a group of private residents who have placed the quality of their natural surroundings as their highest priority.”  Luckily, and coincidentally, Matt Sarver, President of the Delmarva Ornithological Society, has in-laws that own a property on the island, and that is where we stayed.  Matt accompanied us on our trip and was our host, tour guide, and chauffeur.  Not bad!

Jim and I toured many areas to get a feel for the natural aspects of the Lowcountry.  Matt and the staff at the Lowcountry institute developed a schedule and accompanied us on our tour.  We visited ACE Basin, Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, various private nature preserves, and a tern and pelican nesting island on the Georgia/South Carolina border.  Our trip next year will include all of these destinations and much more.

ACE Basin is huge.  It is where the Ashepoo, Combahee, and Edisto Rivers combine to form one of the largest undeveloped estuaries on the east coast.  This area attracts many bird species that are more commonly known from south Florida.  We saw Roseate Spoonbill, Reddish Egret, Mottled Duck, Black-bellied Whistling Duck, and American White Pelican.  Vast wetlands attract shorebirds, wading birds, and raptors like Mississippi and Swallow-tailed Kites.  Reptiles and Amphibians abound. 

One of the highlights of our trip was a large American Alligator that growled just feet in front of us at Bear Island Wildlife Management Area in the ACE Basin.

The bird-life was amazing here.  If you have ever seen Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in the height of shorebird migration in late summer, that is what it was like.  Everything depends on water levels, however, and we struck avian gold at Bear Island on our trip, which had just enough mud and just enough water to please a wide diversity of species.

Were we in Florida? No, Bear Island WMA in the ACE Basin of South Carolina. We saw a single Roseate Spoonbill at this location on our trip.

Savannah National Wildlife Refuge was another highlight of our trip.  With 29,000-acres of wetlands and bottomland woodlands along the Savannah River, there was no shortage of bird-life.  Swallow-tailed and Mississippi Kites swirled above us as Purple Gallinules scooted across lily pads on the water.  The refuge has a wildlife drive that we enjoyed, plus we were given special permission to access an area closed to the public where we searched for reptiles and amphibians.

At Savannah NWR, Common and Purple Gallinules are easy to find. These odd, but colorful members of the rail family look a bit like a duck, but have huge feet for walking across lily pads and through vegetation-choked water.

We were lucky to be escorted by Chris Marsh, Executive Director of the Lowcountry Institute and an expert naturalist, and Tony Mills, their Education Director and a well-known herpetologist and co-author of the book, Lizards and Crocodilians of the Southeast.   

We found 3 Cottonmouth snakes on our trip, including this one at Savannah NWR. Having two expert Herpetologists in the group, Jim and Tony, was a great learning experience. Plus, they LIKE handling poisonous snakes, and know how to do it properly.

Finally, we took a boat excursion to Tomkin’s Island, which is an island made of dredge spoil on the SC/GA border.  A huge number of birds were resting and nesting on the island.  A large breeding colony of Royal and Sandwich Terns occupied this man-made place.  Brown Pelicans were nesting there as well, and some non-breeding American White Pelicans kept them company.  A wide range of shorebirds were stopping by to feed on their migration, including Red Knot, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Marbled Godwit, and many others.  On the way back to the mainland, Dolphins swam to the boat to take a closer look at us.

Royal Terns nest on Tomkin's Island in huge numbers. They are joined by their smaller cousin, the Sandwich Tern.

And I can’t forget the Dolphins…

In the back marshes near Hilton Head Island, Bottlenose Dolphins came over to investigate us.

This trip is still in the draft phase, but you can experience these sights yourself when we offer this for next spring.  You can expect to visit all of these locations, as well as the historic cities of Charleston, Savannah, and Beaufort, plus the Webb Wildlife Area for Long-leaf Pine ecosystem and the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker, as well as the historic Magnolia Gardens and Plantation…one of the most famous and beautiful plantations of the south.  Jim White will be leading the trip, and we look forward to sharing it with you.

Photos and story by Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Program Team Leader

A group of 8 birders accompanied me this morning on a walk around Ashland to look for birds and other natural wonders.  We observed migration, a recently hibernating animal, courtship, a secretive mammal, edible plants, poisonous plants, nest building, and lots of birds.  Once spring starts unfurling, its progress is quick.  Day to day, plants and animals race forward with growth and reproduction.  This morning, we enjoyed being  witnesses.

All eyes were glued to nature this morning, as there was a lot to see around Ashland Nature Center, and spring is revealing itself quickly.

Today’s group contained every skill of birder, from a past President of the Delmarva Ornithological Society to someone who had never gone birding.  When a new birder comes on a walk, it is exciting for everyone.  People want to share in the excitement when someone sees a Bluebird or Tree Swallow for the first time.  It is fun to help less experienced birders locate something they have never seen and hear, “Wow…thank you!”.  Everything gets attention, even a European Starling building a nest, which we saw today.  Starlings are gorgeous this time of year.

Even plain-looking birds have a litte extra zip in the spring. Look for the slight bit of irridescent gold on the neck of this Mourning Dove. The powder blue eye ring is also a nice touch.

It was a surprise to see a Box Turtle out and about today.  I don’t recall ever seeing one in March.  Usually at this time of year, they are hidden somewhere, still deep in hibernation.  Then again, this spring is not typical.

We came across a groggy Box Turtle on the walk today. It was a male that had not even opened his eyes from his winter sleep. If you recall, we have a Box Turtle marking and recapture program at Ashland that is over 25 years old. This turtle was unmarked. Was it new on the scene?

Small mammals are usually very hard to find and see in nature.  During the walk today, I heard some rustling in the leaves within a blackberry patch.  I thought it was going to be a White-throated Sparrow scratching for food.  It turned out to be a small mammal called a Meadow Vole.  This rodent is smaller than a rat and looks like a fat, overstuffed mouse with a short tail.  Meadow Voles are rather cute, as you can see below.  It was tough to get a photo of this one deep in the thicket.

The Meadow Vole is one of the most common mammals in our area. It is a major source of food for hawks, owls, foxes, and other predators.

WARNING:  The following content contains explicit material that has to do with courtship and mating animals.  Proceed only if you are: 1. over 18 years of age, or 2. a salamander.

Upon reaching the wetland at Ashland, we searched for tadpoles and frogs.  We found plenty of Wood Frog tadpoles, and very tiny tadpoles of the American Toad.  Then we discovered the Red-spotted Newts.  Newts are large salamanders that live in the wetlands and pond at Ashland.  We found two of them that were engaged in some kind of ritualistic activity. 

These Red-spotted Newts were up to something. But what??

According to Jim and Amy White’s book, Amphibians and Reptiles of Delmarva (published in 2002 and available for sale at the Delaware Nature Society), this is what our newts were doing…”The more typical type of courtship behavior (of Red-spotted Newts) occurs if a male encounters an unresponsive female, in which case the male swims above the female, grasps her with his enlarged hind legs just in front of her forelegs, and then whips his tail erratically [the hula dance] and rubs his forelegs alternately on pitlike glands on the side of his head and on the female’s snout, presumably transferring chemicals that stimulate the female to mate.  In this type of coursthip, the male may remain clasped to the female for several hours before he finally releases her, deposits one or more spermatophores, and then tries to guide her over the spermatophore so that she can pick up the sperm capsule with her cloacal lips”.  This was on page 53 of a book you seriously need to purchase.

There will be free bird walks at Ashland Nature Center every other Thursday at 8am on these dates: April 12 & 26, and May 10 & 24.  Alternately, there will be free bird walks at the Middle Run Natural Area (Possum Hollow Road entrance) at 8am on April 3 & 17, and May 1, 15, & 29.

Of course, we saw birds on today’s bird walk as well.  If you want to see the list, please click this link: