Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Sunning Salamander

It is late November, and most days have brought the cold air of winter, light snow fall, and the smell of wood fires, of decaying leaves, of fall. But today feels marvelously closer to spring; snow has melted off the trails, and there is a freshness in the air that we usually associate with springtime. It is sunny and 64 degrees here in Billings today!

We are not the only creatures fooled by this late November warm spell. Today we found a Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma tigtinum) sunning itself by the nursery here at the Center. In the winter, salamanders hibernate deep underground, below the frost line. In spring, they will emerge and return to their ancestral breeding grounds, usually a pond, glacial pothole, or stock reservoir. Some tiger salamanders will become sexually mature without metamorphosing out of the larval, aquatic form, to the terrestrial adult form. These individuals are called paedomorphs. They breath underwater with three pairs of external gills.

Tiger salamanders are nocturnal, spending the daylight hours underground in burrows or under logs and rocks. At night they hunt for crustaceans such as snails and small crayfish. Some larval forms of the tiger salamander are cannibalistic and feed on other larvae of their species, which can account for up to 80% of their diet!

We felt lucky to watch the salamander amble along the ground in the sunshine today. He provided a good reason to get outside, to marvel at the natural world, and to give thanks for it all.

Posted by Heather Ristow, Education Director

Werner, J.K., B.A. Maxell, P. Hendricks, and D.L. Flath, Eds. (2004) Amphibians and Reptiles of Montana. Mountain Press Publishing Company: Missoula, MT.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Evening adventures

Tonight we went for a hike with 13 young nature adventurers for our Friday Nature Night, which we are hosting once/month for children in 1st - 6th grades. We set out for Norm's Island under a close-to-full moon, in search of owls, bats, beavers, and other nocturnal creatures. Looking behind me, I saw flashlights twinkling like stars, or possibly fireflies, as the children bounced along the trail.

We had just made two brand new bat houses, and were on our way to look at a few older versions. As we crossed Wendell's Bridge to the Island, everyone spoke in hushed tones, in hopes of seeing or hearing wildlife. At the first bat house we approached, even I was surprised to find it occupied. Not by a bat, but by a Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus). This industrious woodpecker had taken up residence for the night in order to stay warm. It was easily identified by its long, pointed tail feathers, and stripes under its tail. It didn't move an inch as the 13 young explorers each took a turn to peak at it.

Returning to the Audubon Center, we were grateful to have seen some other wild creatures, perhaps not bats and owls as expected, but wildlife none-the-less. Night hikes give us opportunities to explore the little-known night-time world. Even when we are indoors, snuggled under our blankets in bed, the world outside is yet alive.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Icy waters and fresh snow

Friday November 4th when I arrived at the Center I observed a layer of ice on all of the ponds. It was a very thin layer, one that would break if a rock was thrown on it or as soon as the mid-morning sun reached high enough in the sky. But it signals the start of the winter season none-the-less. Soon the open waters will disappear and the ducks will move over to the Yellowstone River, which remains largely ice free during winter.
Today we woke to a fresh coat of snow, nearly one inch by ten AM, and still falling gently. A lone great blue heron (Ardea herodias) stood at the edge of the new beaver lodge in Deep Mill Pond. The great blue heron (affectionately know as a GBH) is one of the few, hardy birds that stay in this part of Montana over the winter. Populations of GBHs over most of the north-central states do migrate south in the winter. However, central and western Montana are host to these stately birds in rain, sleet, and snow.
The great blue heron is an adaptable bird, not only coping with cold weather, but also with a varying diet. They primarily eat fish, but also dine on voles and other small mammals and amphibians as necessary. They are usually seen alone, but may migrate or roost in small flocks. It is the largest heron in the US, and its large size and gray color make for unmistakable identification.