Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Toxic Meal Regurgitated

I spent yesterday walking with a landowner on her family land, which sits on the lower slopes of the Doublehead mountains along the East Branch of the Saco River in Jackson, New Hampshire. While it was beastly hot and humid elsewhere, we enjoyed a slightly cooler day on the wooded slope, beneath huge hemlocks, white pines and birches and in butterfly-friendly meadows of milkweed, goldenrod, and other wildflowers. On the drive home, I thought how fortunate I am to visit interesting people and interesting lands across New Hampshire.

Yesterday, under hazy skies we climbed uphill into a cool (in temperature and in scenery) spruce and fir forest, listening to warblers and thrushes and talking about the history of the land and the lives of the trees. At midday we hiked through one of the meadows back to the house for lunch as barn swallows glided overhead and swooped down to the pond for a meal. My host took me by the pond to show me a small treasure left behind on the swimming dock.

Only a kindred spirit would show me a lump of vomit left behind by a great blue heron. This bird had fed in the pond the previous night and roosted overnight on the dock. Before flying off in the morning it regurgitated its last meal. We pulled it apart for a closer look. Here, take a look, what do you see?

Those are five intact (but dead of course) red-spotted newts and maybe a bit of fish. The heron would have swallowed a tasty fish, but the batch of newts ruined the meal. Newts have slightly toxic skin, a somewhat effective defense mechanism, except in this case. We saw a heron lift off from the pond later in the day; it looked like a young bird, perhaps inexperienced in the ways of safe foraging.

The red-spotted newt is the adult stage of a salamander that starts out as an aquatic larva, then changes into a juvenile "red eft" stage and moves to land, where it spends a few years (sometimes up to 7 years) out of water. Eventually the eft returns to a pond and matures into the aquatic adult newt stage. The red eft and the adult newt have red and black spots. The adult newt is typically olive green, while the eft is often bright orange and is a common sight on woodland trails especially after a rain.

I look forward to my next adventure with landowners in the New Hampshire outback. One of my next stops is a property that was seized by federal agents a few years ago, as the then landowner was caught growing marijuana. One of my responsibilities is to help the current landowner decide if the pits dug for growing marijuana should be filled in and restored to the natural surrounding woodland. Stayed tuned for that adventure.


  1. Ellen, I enjoy your Blog immensely. It contains material that is informative and refreshingly unique.

    Although as I type this it sounds somewhat bizarre to say, but I find your posting about heron vomit to be quite fascinating! I don't know if that makes me a kindred spirit, or simply someone with peculiar interests!:-)


  2. John, so glad to have you as a kindred spirit. Occasionally I pause before posting some things, but if I find them interesting I assume someone else (besides my Mom!) must too. Thanks for your kind note.