Story and Photographs by Joan Herrmann

Whereiwander… today is close to home and into the meadow, the woods and down to the ponds. This is a truly unusual winter. We have lived here for almost twenty-nine years and have never experienced so little snow accumulation or such warm temperatures. There is barely any snow anywhere. I imagine it must be a mystery to all the critters, too. You may have read in one of my past columns how the Wood Frog (Rana sylvatica) will find a shallow depression in the ground on the forest floor. Within the depression, the wood frog will become covered with falling leaves and eventually by a deep snow covering. The wood frog’s eyes will become cloudy, and its organs will no longer receive oxygen or nutrients because its body now begins to freeze solid. The wood frog has the ability to produce large quantities of glucose from the carbohydrates stored in its liver, which acts like a biological antifreeze (glycogen). The fluids outside and between the frog’s cells freeze, but the fluids within the cell do not freeze.

Several other native frogs, such as the Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer) and the Gray Tree Frog (Hyla versicolor), also utilize the same method to survive the winter. We will have to wait and see if the lack of snow and unseasonal temperatures has been detrimental to these species. Those amphibians that choose to winter over by digging into the mud and hibernating at the bottom of ponds probably will not be affected by the lack of snow or warmer temperatures. In our area, that includes the Bull Frog (Rana catesbeianus), Green Frog (Rana clamitans), Pickerel Frog (Rana palustris), and Northern Leopard Frog (Rana pipiens).

One of my favorite reptiles the Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta) shares the pond with the frogs in their winter habitat. Turtles have lungs, not gills, yet they can remain snug in the mud on the bottom of a pond or other watery environment throughout the winter. Under the ice in a pond, the water temperature will remain fairly stable throughout the winter, and the turtle, while staying still, will have a somewhat stable body temperature. There may be several difficulties to overcome, however, in that the turtle may not be able to surface due to the ice covering, to take a breath, and little oxygen can get into the water. Also, there may be many other creatures in the pond that are also depending on the aquatic plants for their production of oxygen. The painted turtle can tolerate this difficulty by actually changing its metabolism to one that requires very little oxygen. This is amazing as long as the change doesn’t last too long. If this metabolic change occurs for a lengthy duration, the buildup of acid in the turtle’s tissues could result in its death.

Researchers have done experiments in their labs and found that painted turtles are able to absorb calcium from their own shells to neutralize any acid buildup. It is somewhat like taking an antacid tablet for heartburn. One of the reasons you may encounter many painted turtles all basking on a log or rock in a pond in early springtime; is that during their brumation (reptilian hibernation) their bodies become desperate to eliminate the acidic byproducts. Reptiles are cold-blooded animals, and the sun’s warmth stimulates their metabolism. Unfortunately, because of their metabolic change, they are usually quite lethargic after their first few outings and may be excessively vulnerable to predators.

Another herptile that may be experiencing some difficulties this winter is the Eastern Newt (Notophtalmus viridescens). It begins its life as an egg, which is laid in the early spring waters. The female newt lays as many as three hundred eggs and each one is laid individually and wrapped in vegetation.

The eggs hatch within three to five weeks; the larvae have gills and will eat and grow for about three months. In late summer or early fall, the larvae reabsorb their gills and start developing lungs. They will leave the pond, and in the next few weeks, their skin will become tougher and change from its olive-greenish color to reddish-orange and will have numerous red spots. For the next two to five years, it will live on land; during this terrestrial stage, it is known as a “red eft.”

Efts are active both day and night and are especially active during and after a rain storm. Their red coloring serves as a warning to predators that they are toxic. They will return to the water when they have reached a mature breeding age. They will reabsorb their lungs and grow back their gills. At this time, they will revert to their previous olive green coloring with multiple red spots. They will retain the toxic chemicals, which will discourage many predators, and it is also effective against predatory fish and crabs. However, their toxic chemical has no effect on bullfrogs or turtles. It will now remain in the water for the rest of its life span, which may range from five to fifteen years.

Our meadow is normally very silent during the winter, especially when it is covered with several feet of snow. Under that blanket of snow, within those three and a half acres, are probably millions and millions of insect and arachnid eggs, as well as larvae, pupa, and some adults. I usually enjoy snowshoeing around the perimeter, and I am always reminded of how much joy this meadow has given me throughout each season. In addition to providing habitat for numerous species of flora and fauna, it has been a wonderful opportunity for photographs and for teaching our grandchildren about the beauty and wonders of nature.

Perhaps the lack of snow and warmer temperatures may offer you a chance to get outside and hike or just walk around your property and see what is happening. Check out the buds on trees, shrubs, and bushes. Perhaps I will see you where you wander.

Joan Herrmann has taught and done programs for Schools, Garden Clubs, Libraries, and Nature Centers for about 38 years as a Professional Nature Photographer, Naturalist, and Outdoor Educator. After moving from the Rochester area in 1995, she began her Photography business, Essence of Nature, and became a co-owner of The Artworks in Old Forge, New York. As a docent at Munson, Williams, Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, New York, she has been educating children and adults for nineteen years.

In 2007, she began working with the Black River Outdoor Educational Program (BROEP). In 2013 and 2014, she did a week-long summer program at BROEP with Mohawk Valley Community College (MVCC).

Using her love of nature and photography, she created a Flora/Fauna outdoor educational program teaching students (ages 6 to 14) the joys of nature and creative photography skills.

Joan’s love of nature has been a lifelong study of Birds, Wildflowers, Mosses, Ferns, Trees, Amphibians, Reptiles, Grasses, Insects, Spiders, Tracks, Scat, and Galls. She has assisted in cataloging all trails used by the hiking Coaches and photographed and identified seasonal Flora.

Since October 2016, she has written a bi-monthly nature column with Adirondack Express Newspaper. In October 2019, she began a bi-monthly column with the My Little Falls newspaper. You may reach her at