Have you heard the sounds coming from nearby lakes, ponds, and puddles this month? The American toads are singing!
Every spring, the toads emerge from hibernation in wooded areas and hop to the nearest standing water to breed. The sound you hear comes from the males, who are singing to attract a mate. You’ll hear the sound of hundreds of toads at the Kleinman Family Cove for the next week or so, maybe longer.
The toads will pair up and lay a string of eggs in shallow water where it is warmest and rich in food for their offspring. After laying eggs, the adults will return to the woods or shady gardens to look for food, leaving their babies to fend for themselves.
The black embryo inside each egg will grow into tiny tadpoles and hatch in about a week. They will grow and develop into half-inch toadlets over the next few weeks. Then they will leave the water and join their parents in the shady gardens and woods. With any luck, some of them will survive the next two years, developing to full maturity, and return to the Cove to breed.
This is the only time of year to hear the toads singing, so visit the Cove this month. If you visit over the next four weeks, maybe you’ll see some little black tadpoles swimming in the water.
Please resist the urge to collect them to take home. You won’t be able to provide enough of the right kind of food for a growing tadpole or toadlet, and they will die. Watch them grow up successfully in their natural habitat at the Cove throughout the month of May and early June instead!
Spring is here, and the birds are returning from their winter homes. Some birds fly through the Chicago area to their nesting habitats up north, while others return and stay in the area.
Spring is the season for laying eggs, because it gives the juvenile birds all summer to mature and become strong before they need to migrate in the fall. Also, as spring turns to summer, the growing chicks require more food. The trees grow leaves, insects hatch, fruits ripen, and other food sources become more plentiful. The birds’ habits are perfectly synchronized with the seasons.
At this time of year, recently returned birds will be looking for material to build a nest and lay eggs. You can provide some bling for a lucky bird family with a few things you have around your home.
You will need items including these:
A plastic netting or mesh bag, like the kind oranges and apples are sold in
Scraps of yarn or strips of fabric cut 1/4 inch wide and at least 6 inches long (longer is fine)
Optional — dryer lint, metallic thread, any other attractive loose materials
Put all of the scrap materials into the mesh bag. Tease out the ends of the material through the holes in the netting all around the bag so it looks like a bundle of loose stuff. Tie the top of the bag. Hang the bag securely on a tree branch where a bird can perch and pluck pieces of material from the bag.
Watch the bag for signs that a bird is using the material. Look around your neighborhood for nests to see if any bird used the materials to build its nest. And have a happy bird day!
When a coyote pirouettes in the snow, you start to wonder. Where was it going? And what made it turn?
After a big snow, I love looking for wildlife tracks and the stories they tell. The paw prints and other tracks in the snow are among the small wonders of winter.
In a recent blog, we talked about finding awe on winter walks—turning attention outside yourself for emotional well-being. By following animal tracks, you lose yourself in a different world and take a fresh look at the nature that surrounds you. You can do so in your neighborhood or at places including the Chicago Botanic Garden, where I’m director of youth education.
One winter, after a snowstorm, I decided to look for evidence of wildlife near the Garden’s Regenstein Learning Campus. My first sighting was the tracks of at least one coyote running through the snow.
The individual track was not a clear footprint, but it was the right general shape and size to be a coyote.
The tracks formed a few paths across the Campus.
The tracks did not follow the paths that people walk, but instead ran closer to trees. This makes sense for an animal that is trying to stay hidden from other animals. I also found a spot where the coyote seemed to run up, do a little turnaround, and take off in another direction.
This isn’t the clearest picture, but you can still see that the coyote came from the wooded area toward the front of the picture. Then it turned around and sank down on its front paws, right where you see two clear side-by-side holes in the snow. It turned and ran to the right of the picture frame. You can imagine a spirited puppy, running excitedly as it plays in the new snow and leaves tracks like these. Was the coyote playing? Hunting? Running away? If you’re walking with someone, especially kids, it’s fun to come up with a story.
I was also hoping to find evidence of animals interacting. The closest thing I found was this set of rabbit tracks.
Here, the rabbit hopped to the corner of the building, stopped, and then turned around and went back the way it came. Did it possibly see or smell the coyotes that were running around and decide to go back to hiding?
I also spotted squirrel, bird, and mouse tracks. And then I found these strange marks in the snow.
What could these strange lines be? “It’s elementary, Mr. Watson!” These “fingerprints” were left by elementary school students as they dragged their hands along the snow.
Here are some tips on how to look for wildlife stories:
Go out and look when the snow is fresh.
Think about which animals you have actually seen around, and where you have seen them. Look there.
Do a little research on the habits of animals you might see and look for tracks in places where that animal finds food, water, or shelter.
Search around trees and shrubs, especially if there are places a small animal might crawl into for shelter. Watch you head as you duck under branches.
Take photos to compare them to pictures of animal tracks posted online.
And if you don’t spot any animal tracks, no worries. You got in a walk and fresh air and took in the beauty of a winter wonderland.
I was walking under some pine trees near the Learning Campus and I took a picture of the cones I found.
When I was young, I noticed there were two different kinds of cones — some solid cones like the three in the lower left corner of the picture, and others are more like the open, branched cones at the top. I thought the pine tree made two different kinds of cones. Actually, they are different forms of the same kind of cone. I will show you how this happens.
I took three cones that were the same size and shape. Then I soaked one cone in a bowl of water.
Then I let the wet and dry cones sit on my desk overnight. Guess what happened. Try it yourself to get the answer! Go outside and find a pine, spruce, or other conifer tree. Bring pine cones from those trees inside and watch them over time as they adjust to the warm, dry conditions in your home. Put one in bowl of water and see what happens. Let it dry and see if it changes again.
What is going on here?
Pine, spruce, Douglas-fir and other conifers are so named because they produce cones that bear their seed. When conditions are favorable for the seeds to fall and grow, the cones open and release them. The seeds have the best chance to survive when the air is dry and windy, so they can blow to a nice fertile spot away from the shade of the mother tree. When conditions are wet and not so good for a traveling seed, the cones close to protect them.
Though the cones I found under the tree had released their seeds a long time ago, they still responded to the moisture levels of the ground and air. These cones were in between being damp from the rain over the weekend and drying in the sun.
Pine cone history
By the way, all conifers belong to a group of plants called gymnosperms. This means they produce “naked seeds” — seeds that are not contained within a fruit. Conifers do not grow flowers. Before there were dinosaurs on the planet, all plants reproduced by either spores or naked seeds. The seeds of some conifers can take up to three years to mature. Flowering plants (angiosperms) have a much more rapid reproductive cycle. Some angiosperms flower and produce mature seed in just one week. Understanding how cones and flowers have evolved is what Dr. Pat Herendeen is trying to figure out from plant fossils.
Two Garden staffers set out to capture 12 hours of the Chicago Botanic Garden on 12-12-2012 to submit to the One Day on Earth project. It turned out to be an ideal day to capture winter beauty with clear skies and lots of wildlife. We saw the lights at the Lake Cook Road entrance while it was still dark, the sunrise over the Malott Japanese Garden, gorgeous morning sun on the display gardens, the indoor Wonderland Express exhibition, the sunset over the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden, the holiday lights on The Esplanade and the indoor Greenhouses. Wonderland Express is open through Jan. 6, 2013, so don’t miss it!