Sunday, September 14, 2014

Big Night

10:05 on the night of April 30th, on the road near the LRC—a group of students slowly sweep the lights from their headlamps back and forth, back and forth across the road, searching for treasure. A warm drizzle falls softly through the forty-five degree air, and those who listen closely can hear the gentle susurration of the rain as it hits the ground.  Whoever listens that closely also hears the far-off calling of hundreds of peepers and the occasional chorus frog.  But something even more special awaits those who not only listen, but look closely as well.
Suddenly, I see the shape we are all searching for.  Hours earlier, seeing that there would be a warm rain that night, I predicted this would happen. But my excitement for this event has been building for months. Before dinner, I and a few other students had requested and received the permission for everyone to head outside and experience this remarkable, once-a-year event for 45 minutes after study hours.  It turns out to be a magical 45 minutes, as part of one of the Northwoods’ greatest natural events should.

The shape on the road is a salamander—a gorgeous Blue-spotted Salamander, the first of dozens of these beautiful creatures that we will see in the ensuing 40 minutes.  The salamanders are on the march.  I have always thought of this as one of the most anticipated natural events of the year, and I am thrilled at the opportunity to experience it in the Northwoods. This is the reason we are out here.  It’s BIG NIGHT.
Big Night, especially this far north, occurs for at most 12 hours out of every year, but it is not to be missed.  It happens during the first nocturnal warm rain of the spring. This sign of spring is felt by thousands of amphibious bodies holed up in their burrows, under their rocks and logs, and wherever else a salamander may have chosen to stay last winter.  They quickly warm up—they have no time to waste—and embark on a long journey to the ponds where they must mate and lay eggs.  And they can’t travel to just any pond—they need vernal pools: seasonal bodies of water that fill in spring from snowmelt and other runoff, and dry up during the hotter summer months. Most importantly, vernal ponds are fishless, therefore lacking one of the most devastating predators of salamander eggs and young.

Salamanders often need to travel 300 yards or more to reach a suitable pond, a staggering distance for a creature as small as 1.5 inches in length.  The males face yet another challenge—if they don’t get there quickly enough, they don’t get to mate. For the males, the march to the vernal pools is a grueling race over hills, sticks, rocks, and other such things that would hinder a little salamander’s travel.  Most get there eventually, unless there’s a high-traffic road or large farm field standing in their way.  Fortunately, Conserve School has neither.

Not long after finding the first salamander, we find a gigantic Spotted Salamander near the TC parking lot.  He’s a monster!  I’ve never seen a Spotted Salamander so big. Later on we find another one, almost as big, near the Green Machine. The real stars of the show, though, are the Blue-spotteds. They are everywhere—big and small, bright and dull, young and old.  We find an outstanding total of at least 21 Blue-spotted Salamanders.  We are witnessing the Northwoods Big Night at its best.

I believe that this experience relates to Learning Goal #5 for two reasons. First, I recognized an opportunity to show and educate people about a remarkable natural event.  Second, I and several others pursued that opportunity by requesting and being granted the special permission to go out after study hours and watch it in action.  Big Night was certainly one of my favorite experiences ofthe semester so far.

A Big Night indeed!

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