Vernal Pool Cooperative of Virginia

Rob Beaton writing down observations on the habitat and organisms that live in a vernal pool. 

Maple Flat Ponds

Each spring, as wood frogs and salamanders across Virginia make their way to vernal pools, so too do avid Vernal Pool Monitors. This presented an opportunity for me to connect with an extraordinary citizen scientist and Master Naturalist by the name of John Holden. If you ever get a chance to attend a hike, wildflower walk or numerous other guided outings led by John, do yourself a favor and your life will be enriched for doing so.

It was a cool 41-degree sun filled morning and my mission was to meet up with John at the Maple Flats Vernal Pools in George Washington National Forest. The pools are located in southeastern Augusta County and are largely on U.S. Forest Service property and encompass 272.8 hectares. It is home to a wide array of flora and fauna that will surely sidetrack you from your original mission as it easily did me.  John has monitored these specific pools for more than 10 years and has clearly immersed himself in the surrounding area as he frequently gives tours/talks to students and other groups on wildflowers, butterflies and numerous other native species that reside in this area.

Our day started off with a 30-minute informal training and informational session on the seasonal pools and the ecological services provided by the pools. This session contained numerous handouts, guides, maps and equipment that he considered necessary for a new vernal pool student to be successful in becoming a monitor in the future.

These sinkhole ponds are unique to the western base of the Blue Ridge in our area and form when limestone dissolves locally beneath a mantle of colluvial soils which washed off the mountains. A layer of clay forms several feet below the surface of this area and creates a perched surface water table that reaches up into the sinkholes during the wet season. Due to different hydrologys, some of the sinkhole ponds may have ground water connections, while others fill from surface runoff. They start to fill with water in late fall, then dry up in the summer. Since they are not permanent, fish cannot survive in them. This is significant for many species of amphibians as fish can eat their eggs and larvae.

On this day, we set out to survey and monitor five of the thirteen pools and wetland areas John monitors. Our mission for the day was to observe the various life stages of seasonal pool indicator species. Specifically, three species of Salamanders, the Spotted, Marbled and Eastern Tiger Salamanders and other vernal pool residents such as the Fairy Shrimp, Wood Frog and other indicator species. Our search mostly resulted in the egg masses and older larvae of the Spotted Salamander. In one specific pond, we were excited to observe over 40, mostly Spotted Salamander, egg masses that appeared to be already hatched out. The number of hatchlings observed confirmed this and John seemed happy with the results.

Though we did not find any adult salamanders, not due to a lack of turning rocks and logs on our part, the invaluable training, education and stories presented by John were enough to fill those gaps. I did however, find a few Red Spotted Efts and Red Backed Salamanders. Though not our target, they were a first find for me.

We completed our trip with an out-brief and John presented me with some further information and an invitation for anyone in the HMN Chapter who is interested to attend another guided training event at the Maple Flat Vernal Pools. While volunteers like John work to verify potential vernal pools as part of the mapping project, repeated monitoring of known pools is essential to establish a baseline of data with which to compare future changes, and to increase our body of knowledge about these unique wetlands. The success of this project depends on committed volunteers who will visit “adopted” pools a few times each year to assess biological and physical metrics. A day well spent and a new friend made.

– Rob Beaton, Cohort VIII, March 2023

All photos courtesy of Rob.