Wild Ideas: Signs of spring 

STIFF CLUBMOSS, a low-growing, primitive plant, runs along the ground in damp forested areas.
Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
STIFF CLUBMOSS, a low-growing, primitive plant, runs along the ground in damp forested areas.

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Wrigglings in the pond, weird blooms emerging from wet ground, bug bites and inflamed sinuses:  Spring is on its way.

I have a certain amount of ambivalence when it comes to spring. It’s a gorgeous time of year here in Virginia, with plants leafing out and blooming, and the feeling of renewal in the air. The Appalachians are particularly stunning, with dogwood and redbud blossoms in the forest canopy and orchids and other ephemeral wildflowers in the understory. As a kid, I saw all the flowers as a gorgeous backdrop to my real interest – wildlife. I couldn’t wait to head for the ponds to hunt for frogs and frog eggs.

However, I also suffered, and still do, from pollen allergies this time of year. It took me well into adulthood to figure out why my “spring” allergies usually started in mid-February. After some research I finally nailed the culprits down to cedars and junipers. These evergreens kick off the pollen season and can make those of us allergic to them miserable for weeks before other allergen-producing trees – such as oak, maple, box elder, birch and hickory – get started.

In the third week of February, we had a warm stretch over several days in which temperatures climbed to the low 70s. I was waking up with a stuffy nose, so I knew the cedars and junipers were starting their reproduction cycle. I figured the warm weather would also trigger spring activity in other plants and animals, so I went down to the pond to check. The earliest signs of spring are more likely to start in such low, damp areas.

The first thing I noticed down there was something wriggling in the ponds. The Red-spotted Newts had emerged from the mud at the bottom, where they overwintered, and were everywhere – most likely looking for mates. As temperatures rise, their jellylike egg masses, similar to those of frogs, should start to appear in the shallow areas of the pond.

I caught a glimpse of something jumping into the lower pond, probably a Green Frog, one of the most common frog species in Virginia. I’d heard them calling regularly around the ponds last year.

Water Striders skated on the ponds’ surfaces, likely hunting the other smaller insects flying above them, occasionally alighting. The striders had been appearing on warm days for weeks, so this was no surprise. I’m sure the newts enjoyed their presence, since they were on the amphibian’s menu.

SKUNK CABBAGE pokes its strange flowers through the mud and leaves in a forest wetland. The pointed growth alongside the rounded blooms are the leaves, which once unfurled can stretch to four feet long.
Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
SKUNK CABBAGE pokes its strange flowers through the mud and leaves in a forest wetland. The pointed growth alongside the rounded blooms are the leaves, which once unfurled can stretch to four feet long.

What I really wanted to check out is the wetland in the forest beyond the lower pond to see if any Skunk Cabbage was emerging yet from the mud down there. This plant’s flowers are not something that you’d think of putting into a bouquet. If you’ve never seen one, you probably wouldn’t recognize it as a flower at all and mistake it for something from “The Little Shop of Horrors.”

In the boggiest part of the wetland, I found plenty of these bizarre blooms emerging. The muddy environment down there was perfect for them. The leaves were also just starting to poke up but wouldn’t unfurl and stretch out to full their full size of up to three or even four feet until after blooming was well underway. The vitamin-packed roughage the leaves offer is welcomed by wildlife, particularly bears and deer, which eagerly chow down on them after the winter’s scarcity.

To get some photos, I carefully navigated around the mud and Roundleaf Greenbrier vine (which I grew up calling by its other name, Catbrier, because of its nasty thorns) that was also everywhere down there. The sun kept going and coming, so I had to squat down and stay really still to get sharp photos. That’s when I discovered another sign of spring – mosquitoes. I couldn’t remember the last time I got mosquito bites in the winter.

I got the photos I wanted and started heading back, only to accidentally step onto some clubmoss. Despite the name, clubmosses are in the plant class of Lycopodiopsida, not Sphagnopsida, the class of “true” mosses. Clubmosses are small, creeping evergreens. Some look like little miniature pine forests. I really feel like I’m looking at the beginnings of plant life on Earth when I see them, considering they date back to the Carboniferous period (about 360 million years ago), before dinosaurs walked the earth. There they grew to the size of trees and were the main donors to the coal deposits found today.

I wasn’t familiar with this particular clubmoss, which was about six inches high. After some research I concluded that it is likely Stiff Clubmoss (Lycopodium annotinum), which is common in Virginia.

The next morning at dawn I woke up to bird song – not the usual calls and chattering of winter, but the more musical sound of a male claiming his territory or looking for a mate. The sound was a ways off in the forest and indistinct, so I couldn’t tell the species. By the time I got myself and my dog together to go outside, the singing had stopped.

That day we had thunderstorms, and then a cold front bringing a dusting of snow swept in. The bird activity went back to the usual winter chattering, but a couple of days later a warm front returned and I started to hear bird song all over. By the first day of March, the temps rose into the 70s and I finally heard Spring Peepers chorusing down the hollow. Spring would likely come in fits and starts, but it was definitely on its way.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 343 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.”