Wild Ideas: Early spring wildflowers bloom, retreat, bloom . . .  

The progress of wildflower and amphibian reproduction has been an on-and-off affair this year, starting unseasonably early in mid-February during record warm stretches, then stopping when temps plunged, and then resuming when spring finally seemed to arrive for good.

Photo by Pam Owen
Bloodroot, one of the earliest spring ephemerals, got an even earlier start this year.

By the second week in March, I was seeing dozens of bloodroot blooming along a path near my house and up Oventop Mountain from there. It was a few weeks earlier than usual, and well after I had noticed the first hepaticas in bloom on a nearby hill deeper in the forest.

Photo by Pam Owen
Blooming since a warm spell in February, this hepatica drooped during a cold snap in late March.

But after the brief snowstorm we had in mid-March and bitter temps that followed, the bloodroot disappeared. When warm weather returned the next week, a few appeared, only to retreat again during the next cold snap. By the third week in March, only a few buds had reappeared.

Then, on Mar. 26, the temperature shot up again into the upper 60s, and I could hear spring peepers chorusing up on the mountain. The next day, I hiked up to see how the amphibians and wildflowers were doing. The temperature had dipped again, down to barely 50, and the mountain was silent.

Despite the recent snowstorm, and light rain, the springs on the mountain were down to trickles and the ground was much too dry for this time of year. The concrete trout tank where I had found wood frog eggs in February still held much less water than in previous years. The wood frogs had finished their breeding, so now the larvae should be hatching out. Although the eggs looked empty, I didn’t see any tadpoles swimming around.

What I was really looking for was the globular masses of spotted salamander eggs. This salamander is one of the earliest to breed, usually in March, so often its eggs show up about the same time as the wood frogs’ and in the same vernal pools. These shy, nocturnal salamanders spend most of their lives underground, coming up only after rains to forage or, in the spring, to breed. I could find no salamander eggs in the tank and wondered whether the lack of water there this year might be the cause.

Going further up the hill to the pond, I found the rafts of wood frog eggs laid there in February were also hatching out. And globular egg clusters, likely of spotted salamanders, were now all over the bottom of the pond. The thick, jellylike outside layer of each cluster was milky white, although they can also be clear.

Although peepers have been calling up at the pond for weeks, I could find no eggs that looks like theirs. Peepers typically breed in March, often overlapping the breeding time of wood frogs. Peepers and toads are the only anurans I’ve seen evidence of breeding here around that time. The eggs of each species can be distinguished from each other by their size and color, and the shape of the egg clusters.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources , the wood frog lays its eggs in a large globular mass, 60-100 mm (2.3-4 inches) in diameter, attached to submerged plants near the water surface, with 500-800 dark-colored eggs per mass. Wood frogs also usually lay their eggs next to clusters of others of their species, creating a “raft.” The egg masses of the northern spring peeper, on the other hand, have 800-1,000 small white eggs, 1 mm (0.04 inches) in diameter, singly or clustered in twos or threes attached to grass or vegetation, according to the DNR. Toad eggs are in long strings, looking like a beaded necklace, so easy to distinguish from the those of the other two early-breeding amphibians.

Photo by Pam Owen
Star chickweed, another early bloomer, also started to make an appearance toward the end of March.

Leaving the pond, I hiked up the hill to look for hepatica, which had started blooming there during the February warm spell. This time I had to look for quite a while to find any — and those were mostly lying prostrate on the forest floor, likely from the recent cold weather. Nearby I found and one star chickweed already blooming and lots of cutleaf toothwort about to bloom.

Photo by Pam Owen
Cutleaf toothwort started popping up in the forest in early March, blooming by the end of the month.

That night a gentle rain started to fall. Nothing makes amphibians more romantic than rain, and even though it was still cool, the peepers cranked up again. The next morning, with temperatures near 50, they were quiet but bloodroot was blooming all along the Spring Road and up the mountain again. The delicate blooms of spicebush, which had also started opening early, then stopped with the cold snap, had resumed, adding a lovely pale-green hue to the forest’s mid-story palette.

By noon, the temperature had risen into the 70s, with sun breaking through the clouds for extended periods. Hiking once again up to the pond, I found hepatica, cutleaf toothwort and bloodroot now all blooming along the trail.

Photo by Pam Owen
A male eastern newt grasps female in amplexus during breeding.

Stopping at the tank again to look more closely, I found a couple of eastern (red-spotted) newts apparently in amplexus during breeding, although it looked like the egg-stuffed female was more interested in escaping than in breeding. This is the first time I’ve seen this species in the tank, although they do inhabit the pond. The female releases her eggs one at a time, unlike the spotted salamander. These newts could have been partly responsible for the lack of wood frog larvae, since they feed on the eggs.

It looked like spring was more or less back on track.

© 2017 Pam Owen

Nature events

See returning ospreys at Chesapeake Bay: The Weather Channel reports that the bay is home to the highest concentration of ospreys in the world. Ospreys usually mate for life, returning to the same nest site every year. They migrate into the Chesapeake Bay area in March to mate, nest and raise their young. Eggs are typically laid by the third week of April, hatching thirty to forty days later. With spring ramping up, this is a great time to visit the bay with binoculars in hand to look for these magnificent raptors and other birds now migrating in to breed there or further north.

Bluebells featured in VNPS Second Sunday Walk (Apr.9, 10 a.m.): The Piedmont chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society repeats its annual bluebell walk at Calmes Neck. This walk, through lime-rich wooded uplands and an alluvial plain along the Shenandoah River near Boyce, features not only huge drifts of bluebells but also other spring ephemeral wildflowers.

Photo by Pam Owen
Join the Piedmont chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society for a walk through lush drifts of bluebells and see other wildflowers at Calmes Neck on Apr. 9.

As I wrote about last year’s walk (Apr. 21 column), I managed to check off most of the 71 plants on the “short” checklist the chapter handed out, including dwarf larkspur, sessile trillium, twinleaf, jack-in-the-pulpit, squirrel corn, blue cohosh, trout lily, Dutchman’s breeches, Virginia saxifrage, wild ginger and several species of fern. For more information, go to the VNPS calendar at vnps.org/events or send email to piedmontvnps@gmail.com.

VCE offers forest-management online course (May 15-Aug. 4): The Virginia Cooperative Extension is offering a 12-week webinar course on woodland options, part of the Virginia Forest Landowner Education Program (VFLEP) On-Line Woodland Options for Landowners. Private forest landowners of any acreage are invited. According to the VCE website, “the course is not intended for forest landowners who have substantial experience working alone or with natural resource professionals in the management of their forests” but “teachers, local leaders and interested citizens are also welcome to join.” The course is designed “to gain an introductory level understanding of basic forest management principles and techniques and to use this understanding to become better land stewards.” View the syllabus and register for the course on the website. Cost is $45 per household.

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Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 281 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”

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