In the Upper Valley of Vermont and New Hampshire, while we may be delighted at the arrival of the spring equinox, winter lingers. The real first day of spring is the day of the spring peepers – tax day. On this day millions of male spring peepers simultaneously recover from their frozen winter sleep and in a sudden frantic effort to find a lover, engage is an rollicking concerto of peeps. Their consistent choice of April 15 as the moment to express their lust strikes me as uncanny. No doubt it is related to the melting of ice on ponds and vernal pools, but in Northern New England that moment may vary from year to year and from pond to pond by up to a week, yet peepers are as reliable as the stars in establishing what is realistically the first day of spring in this part of the world.
It is hopeless to try to find a single peeper by following its song, as there are thousands singing unanimously and identically. As you get closer the sound has an increasingly ambiguous location. Since they are little more than an inch in length, weigh less that a 5th of an ounce, hide under grass and leaves, and usually sing in darkness, they present a challenge to anyone looking to create a photographic portrait of a this horny frog.
It has, however, been done. Below is a rare photo of an actual spring peeper. The second is a portrait of a cousin of his (horny to the touch if not in state of mind) — a more willing photographic subject.
Yours from the field,
You can learn more about spring peepers and other wonders of the natural world through our soon-to-be-released apps: the Fieldstone Guides to Nature. Add your name to our mailing list and we will be sure to let you know when they're peeping on an app store near you.
The English language has developed a number of surprising words to identify animal groupings. A few examples for bird groups: a “raft” of auks; a “wreck" of sea birds, a "peep" of chickens, and a “siege" of cranes. Many other creatures are also well named: a “bask” of crocodiles, a “skulk” of foxes, and a “zeal" of zebras. As observers of crows we often find them in groups of three, darkly named a “murder of crows.” Druid legend describes them so. The same is true of their cousins, the three ravens, who famously plot to devour the corpse of a knight slain in battle and protected by his hawk, his hound, and his lady. Shakespeare’s three witches also come to mind.
Three is a strange number for a group of animals. Cardinals hang out as a couple; turkeys, deer and elephants, in groups of a dozen or so family members; wildebeest, buffalo and mackerel among herds and schools with thousands of their species; and humans, with a flexibility peculiar to their kind, alone; or in twos; or with family members numbering a dozen plus; or in sports, lectures, town meetings, churches, in scores; in hundreds of thousands as observers of sporting events or participants in wars; and in cities with, lately, as many as thirty million of their species, but rarely three — Three Stooges, Three Musketeers, Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
Large numbers of a species collect together for excellent reasons: to frustrate predators by confusing them; to have many eyes to spot danger; to become inconspicuous in middle of a large group — sacrificing a few colleagues to protect oneself; to build defensive systems (e.g. woodchucks, mentioned last week); and to create efficient travel systems, such as V-shaped formations, reducing drag by flying in the wing-tip vortex of another bird.
But why three crows? Three is an unstable number, suggesting rivals, jealousies, even murder. I haven’t a clue, and neither does the internet. If you have any suggestions or insights into this question, please let me know.
You will find these and many other animal oddities and delights in our forthcoming digital series, the Fieldstone Guides to Nature, launching later this spring. Inspired by our work as the creators of the classic Audubon Field Guides series, you will have access to all of the same rich content and more, right in the palm of your hands. Join our mailing list and we'll let you know when the new apps have been launched.
When a groundhog lives in Vermont, and there are plenty that do, we call them woodchucks. We have a village of woodchucks still sleeping where our backyard slopes down to the field behind the house at Stone Hill Farm.
Our five-pound pussycat, imagining that it can make breakfast of a eight-pound woodchuck, is hanging out above ground waiting for the first of them to surface. The temperature has soared into the 50s, and she scents, or perhaps hears, the first stirrings below.
The cat is wise, but the woodchuck is wiser. No observer of woodchucks has more acutely captured the woodchuck’s world view than Robert Frost, a native of this region, who, speaking from the woodchuck's point of view, observed:
“. . . though small
As measured against the All,
I have been so instinctively thorough
About my crevice and burrow.”
Later this spring we will release the first apps in our all new Fieldstone Guides to Nature, featuring our volume on mammals including our friends the woodchucks. Like our furry neighbors, we have been in a certain form of hibernation, exercising our own version of instinctive thoroughness in our burrow. As the warmer, longer days return, we join our subterranean friends in looking forward to reemergence. We hope you'll join us. Add your name to our list below and we'll let you know when the new Fieldstone Guides are released.
Wherever the glacier has been, we are blessed with fieldstones. I have a great affection for them. They are so perfectly suited for us humans: not too small to be unnoticed as you walk across the meadow, and not too large that they cannot be moved by the efforts of a man or woman, sometimes with the help of a friend, horse, ox, or a modestly proportioned tractor. Most of them can be picked up and used in a wall or other useful structure, and nearly all can be rolled into position. Iron bars and wooden sledges are helpful in persuading fieldstones to do one’s will.
Only those who work the earth, either to farm it or build on it, are intimate with fieldstones. I was an innocent high school kid when they first came to my attention. A spring crop of fieldstones raised out of the ground by frost and erosion had to be removed. Any Vermont field that was to be plowed that year and had not been cleaned of stones in the recent past had to be cleared of recently emerged stones that were large enough to encumber the plow. A couple of us ignorant teenagers were told to get out there and make friendly to cultivation a particular small field a couple of miles from the barn.
Great fun it was. We had the use of an old but faithful Farmall tractor (a lovely red tricycle of a machine: two large wheels to stern, and two small wheels forward, but so close together that it was unsafe to ride across rather than up or down the face of a hill); a sledge constructed of heavy oak planks fixed to a chain and hauled behind the Farmall; and a six foot long iron bar, weighing some 40 pounds. The object was to toss, roll, or lever the stones onto the sledge and drag them to the edges of the field where they would become new additions to stone walls that had been growing there since the early 19th century when the land was first cleared of forest. It was a full day’s work: 200+ ancient stones taken to their new purpose. And so I became a friend of fieldstones.
Decades later, my wife and I now live among the fields and forests of New England, where there are quarter million miles of stone walls and billions more stones still emerging from the earth. The stones and the stories they tell embody an ancient history, gravity, nobility, beauty, and even wisdom. They have become the perfect metaphor for the next generation of our life’s work. It is these qualities with which we strive to imbue everything we do at Fieldstone Publishing.