As a couple of friends and I exited Rappahannock Cellars’ tasting room after enjoying Friday Night Flights last week, a sound I’d been waiting to hear for weeks came from the vineyard a few yards away. It was a warmish, damp evening, and out of the dying light came the beeping sound of an American Woodcock looking for a mate: “peent . . . peent . . . peent.”
We walked over to the vineyard to try to get a glimpse of the bird. If we were lucky, he’d found a potential mate and would be doing his bizarre courtship flight. First, the male flies about 10 feet straight, then, with wings spread, twirls down like an out-of-control helicopter. Unfortunately, we couldn’t see the male in the dark and apparently no female was around to marvel at his aerial skills, so we wandered on home.
Keeping to the back roads as much as possible as a light rain fell, I had my first frog sightings of the year on Fodderstack Road just outside of the town of Washington: One at a time, tiny spring peepers were venturing from their woodland homes to their breeding grounds. A few minutes later, as I entered Old Hollow, more peepers, along with toads and what looked like pickerel frogs, also appeared on the road near wetlands along the river.
While the frogs hopped, one toad stretched out its legs cautiously one at a time, keeping its profile low. They were gambling with their lives to return to where they’d been born and perpetuate their genes. I drove as slowly as possible, trying to avoid the herps. As I passed some pools along the river, peepers were chorusing.
The next day I awoke to a male phoebe calling near my bedroom window to claim his territory, which mostly consists of my yard. Other birds of various species chimed in as the sky lightened. Another relatively warm but wet day had brought them out — late in the year for some to get started, but I welcomed them nevertheless.
Later that morning I ventured down to the wetlands near the lower ponds to see how the skunk cabbage was progressing. The leaves of some were unfurling from inside their strange blooms; a few were now at least six inches long. Other skunk cabbage blooms were still just starting to poke up from the muck and leaf litter. I ventured further into the wetland to a the narrow, shallow stream that ran through it and spied some lovely yellow blossoms rising out of fleshy, heart-shaped leaves of plants growing in the water.
Although it’s a bit early, and the petals of the flowers were a bit narrow, I thought these might be marsh marigolds, or kingcup (Caltha palustris). With the changes in climate, “normal” has become an increasingly illusive term, so it’s harder to base identification on bloom time.
Unfortunately, after consulting with some experts from the Virginia Native Plant Society, I found these early bloomers were another, less welcome member of the Ranunculaceae family, which also includes buttercups — the lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria), a nonnative, invasive lookalike.
I had noticed in my rambles around the county last week and during the warm spell the week before that the buds on some of the trees had started to swell. I tend to think of early spring as being pale green, with tender new leaves growing out of stems. But the earliest color we see in trees here is their flower buds, which bloom before the leaves make their appearance.
Buds actually form in the fall. As trees draw down the water for the winter, the buds dehydrate, which protects them from destructive ice crystals forming during the cold winter. Now the trees were starting to reverse the process, putting water back into the buds, making them swell and grow. Eventually they’ll open up to allow release of their pollen.
The buds and flowers of these early-blooming trees come mostly in shades of red and white, from the tiny red ones of the early-blooming red maples, to the redbud (which, despite its name, has blossoms that are more pink than red), to the dogwoods and serviceberry, whose flowers offer lovely white accents to the forest.
On the forest floor higher up on the mountain where I live, I found only the tiny transparent blossoms of some moss. The larger, beautiful white blossoms of the low-growing bloodroot, another early bloomer, have yet to appear, nor have I seen any other wildflower up here. After this cold, snowy winter, they can’t blossom soon enough for me.
© 2014 Pam Owen