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Earth Almanac

Splendor in the Grass
Hidden Beauty
Marathon Migrant
Whistle Pigs
High-Country Cushion
Merry Thieves

Splendor in the Grass
From the Canadian Maritimes south to the Carolinas and west to a line from Minnesota to Texas, pickerel frogs are hauling onto land on new legs. Now they’re no bigger than the first joint of your forefinger, but over the next two years they’ll grow to strikingly handsome, medium-size frogs. Nearly as terrestrial as toads, they’ll spend the rest of their lives hunting invertebrates in grassy floodplains of cool, clean streams and ponds, reentering the water to escape predators, breed, and thermo-regulate. The pickerel frog’s spotting pattern is somewhat similar to that of the pickerel fish, from which it derives its name. Spots are brown, rectangular, and arranged in pairs—as opposed to the closely related leopard frog’s irregular and scattered spots. The male pickerel frog’s snoring call—heard in spring, sometimes even when he’s submerged—issues from internal vocal sacs. It’s difficult to determine the frog’s sex. Perhaps the best clue is the male’s thick thumbs, with which he grasps the female during mating. Stressed pickerel frogs emit a toxin that discourages predators and, as many a child has learned, will kill other frogs if they’re placed in the same bucket.

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Hidden Beauty
Sometimes when we search for beauty in nature we nearly step on it as we gaze into the distance. So it is with the penny-size butterfly called the coral hairstreak, now entering its flight period. You will almost never find it with its wings open. And if you see the typical hairstreak tail on each hind wing, you’re not looking at a coral hairstreak, because it doesn’t have them. As you ramble through meadows, pastures, and open woodlands most anywhere in our nation save the extreme South and West, look down and you’ll eventually find this butterfly nectaring from the blossoms of New Jersey tea, dog bane, sulphur flower, and butterfly weed, or depositing eggs, one at a time, on such larval food plants as choke-cherry, saskatoon, wild cherry, and wild plum. For once nature has not bestowed the most beautiful colors on the male of the species. If the orange spots along the outer margin of the hind wings are bright and prominent, you’re looking at the female. In late afternoon watch for the drabber males as they perch on shrubs, waiting for potential mates.

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Marathon Migrant
Having finished breeding on the headlands and nearby islands of Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, Chile, the Falkland Islands, and Cape Horn, sooty shearwaters are plying earth’s northern seas in numbers that challenge the imagination. “I do not think I ever saw so many birds of any other sort together, as I once saw of these behind the island of Chiloe,” wrote Charles Darwin. “Hundreds of thousands flew in an irregular line for several hours in one direction. When part of the flock settled on the water the surface was blackened.” Populations have diminished since then, perhaps from introduced predators on nesting islands, but the sooty shearwater remains one of the planet’s most abundant birds. Look for them as they “shear” the wave tips with stiletto wings, and watch as they swirl and dip like coal smoke over breaching whales and crashing predator fish. It’s hard not to laugh when, with wings stretched and heads bobbing, they scamper back and forth across the surface in pursuit of fleeing baitfish. So feeble are their legs that they can’t stand erect on land, not that there is a need outside the breeding season. Sooty shearwaters spend most of their lives in the air or on the water. In 2006 researchers at the University of California-Santa Cruz awarded them the record for long-distance migration. Geolocating tags revealed that they fly about 40,000 miles a year—roughly twice the estimated trek of the previous record holder, the Arctic tern.

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Whistle Pigs
In most of the East, a wide swath of central Canada, and even a patch of eastern Alaska, woodchucks—our largest squirrels—are piling on weight for hibernation. A big chuck can weigh 12 pounds, and it will consume a third of its weight in vegetation a day. Unfortunately for woodchucks, the plants they most relish include green beans, squash, zucchini, lettuce, spinach, peas, and cucumbers. But as Thoreau observed as he contemplated his ravaged bean field: “Do they not grow for woodchucks partly?” Gardeners who disagree can save both their vegetables and woodchucks by erecting a fence of stout, four-foot-high poultry wire. Nothing but a fence works; shooting or trapping just provides room and opportunity for other chucks. Don’t forget to bury the bottom foot of wire and fold the edge outward because woodchucks are accomplished diggers. While excavating its elaborate burrow a chuck will move as much as 700 pounds of earth. There will be a leaf-padded bedroom, a bathroom, a front door, and as many as four back doors. Abandoned burrows provide important escape and denning habitat for all manner of wildlife, including snakes, rabbits, skunks, weasels, opossums, and foxes. Woodchucks are among the few relatively large mammals that are out and about during full daylight. Sneak up on one, and it will utter its alarm call—a shrill whistle, by which the woodchuck acquired its alternate name—whistle pig.

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High-Country Cushion
Martian vegetation, if it exists, might well resemble the moss campion, now blooming on Eurasia’s and North America’s alpine tundra. Like unrelated plants that share its harsh habitat, it hugs the thin, barren soil in a low cushion, protecting itself from wind and allowing insulating snow cover. Now a profusion of bell-shaped flowers—each about the size of the nail on your little finger and usually lavender or pink (occasionally white)—shine through the soft, green carpet. Despite the altitude and cold climate, the plant is pollinated by insects. In the United States you’ll find moss campion mostly in Alaska and the Rockies. In New England, where it’s imperiled, it’s thought to survive at only two sites in New Hampshire’s Presidential Range. In Canada and Alaska, where it’s common, Eskimos eat the raw root skins, and Icelanders cook and serve the whole plant as a vegetable.

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Merry Thieves
Along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, laughing gulls are incubating eggs or feeding newly hatched young. Now the parents have shed their drab winter plumage and sport handsome black hoods, white arcs around the eyes, black wingtips, and red bills and legs. There are few things laughing gulls won’t eat. Noisy, quarrelsome swarms follow fishing boats and ferries, feasting on bycatch and lunch items, respectively. They’ll consume berries, pick flying ants off the water and out of the air, and orbit dock lights at night, catching moths. What laughing gulls lack in fishing skill they make up for in aptitude for thievery. Their calls, similar to human laughter, set the mood at seaside restaurants. Answering guffaws from a human diner may accompany the first (rarely the second) theft of a French fry from plate or fork. Even ornithologists have a hard time being clinical when they observe what they call “kleptoparasitism.” A laughing gull will alight on a pelican’s head, and as the pelican opens its beak to dump water and reposition its catch, the gull will reach in and help itself.

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