Wild Ideas: After a slow start, spring pops

After creeping along, spring is finally busting out all over.

With our summer-breeding birds now arriving from the north, territorial and courtship sounds are filling forest and field. I’ve been engaging in my own annual spring rite of refreshing my bird-song memory, using phone apps and the Macaulay Library online.

Some songs are easy to identify, such as those of two year-round residents: phoebes, which sing out their names (and are now building nests), and the Carolina wren. The one in my yard has been insistently singing “teakettle, teakettle, teakettle” at a volume that belies his tiny size.

Among the birds migrating in, the field sparrow’s song has also been easy to pick out in the meadows, as has that of the indigo bunting who’s been having a conversation with himself in the woods next to my house: “fire fire, where, where? here here.” A brown thrasher, with his diverse mix of songs and calls, has been belting out his greatest hits from high in treetops near my house.

Our summer avian visitors are back, including this eastern towhee, which showed up at Larry Sherertz’s bird feeder.
Our summer avian visitors are back, including this eastern towhee, which showed up at Larry Sherertz’s bird feeder.
Larry Sherertz

Larry Sherertz reported seeing a brown-headed cowbird and an eastern towhee at his bird feeder, his personal signs of spring. I hope to hear the towhee’s lilting song (“drink your tea, drink your tea?”) in the forest behind my house again this year. A lone male cowbird stopped briefly at one of the feeders I’d filled to attract migrating birds moved on. Goldfinches have also been showing up there, the males now morphing from their drab winter attire to their glorious gold breeding plumage. Although I’ve yet to spot a hummingbird, they should be around by now, so I put out my hummer feeder.

From seeing only a few eastern comma and mourning cloak butterflies at the end of March, I’m now regularly spotting a variety of lepidoptera. Along the Rappahannock River this past weekend, I had my first 2015 sightings of eastern tiger and zebra swallowtails. Dozens of tiny spring azures were also flying low on the trails and gathering in muddy areas to feed on minerals.

On warm days, clouds of midges form in the sun near my windows. And large female carpenter bees, maneuvering slowly in the fierce spring winds like hymenopteran Zeppelins, have been scoping out my deck for possible nesting sites.

The only sign I’ve seen of bears so far this spring was a small pile of fresh scat on the trail above my house last week. Its pale-brown color and pieces of hard mast (acorns and nuts) in it indicated the bear that had left it had yet to get into the skunk cabbage. In the spring bears love to chow down on this early-emerging, high-fiber plant for its nutrients and to get their digestion back on track.

Sows with new cubs should be emerging from their dens soon. Jaime Sajecki, Black Bear Project leader for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, wrote in an email that, although it’s too early to tell, she assumes they did better this winter than the one before “because, if they had a rough fall and winter, we would have seen some emaciated/underweight yearlings by now and we haven’t yet.” We can chalk that up to the improved mast crop last fall.

While wood frogs seemed to have ended their courtship, spring peepers continue to chorus, now joined by the creaking-hinge call of pickerels at the ponds where I live and at Avon Hall in the town of Washington. This time what sounds like crickets calling in wet areas may instead be tiny cricket frogs. Toads are likely to be trilling on any warm, wet night, and gray tree frogs should start calling soon if they haven’t already. (To hear frog calls, go to the Virginia Herpetological Society website.)

Spicebush is leafing out in the forest, and serviceberry has been blooming for more than a week. I thought I was done with my cedar-pollen allergy for the year, but cedars (and other junipers) are still spewing pollen, with maple and elm are now joining them.

In low, damp areas, skunk cabbages that were barely peeking up out of the mud in late March shot up with the temperature and unfurled their leaves. Ferns are now uncurling their fiddleheads, and cut-leaf toothwort is blooming in the woods. Bloodroot came and went early in April where I live, but I found it still blooming along the Rappahannock this past weekend. Redbud and Virginia bluebells are ready to pop there, too.

Soon the signs of spring will be coming so fast, it will be hard to keep up.

© 2015 Pam Owen

Public invited to Rappahannock River discussion

Update (April 24): This event has been canceled. If you are interested in this initiative, contact Maggi MacQuilliam at the Piedmont Environmental Council (mmacquilliam@pecva.org).

Several conservation groups are inviting the public to join them next Sunday, April 26, for a “casual gathering” to discuss work they’re doing together “toward ensuring the healthy headwaters of the Rappahannock River through land and water conservation and community engagement,” according to the Piedmont Environmental Council website.

PEC has joined with John Marshall Soil and Water Conservation District, Friends of the Rappahannock (FOR), Virginia Working Landscapes, Rappahannock Rapidan Regional Commission, RappFLOW, the Rappahannock League for environmental Protection, Old Rag Master Naturalists and Orlean Community Trails Systems in this initiative.

For those of you who missed “Rappahannock,” FOR’s film on the river, at last week’s Film Festival at Little Washington, you’ll get a chance to see it (for free) at the meeting. While it does a great job of covering the lower part of the river — its cultural and economic importance, history and ecology — the film doesn’t include much about its upper reaches. According to FOR’s spokespersons at the Washington screening, more coordination with private landowners upstream would be needed for that, although there is public access to headwater streams in Shenandoah National Park.

Discussions have been ongoing for years within the conservation community about bringing together stakeholders upstream and downstream to address the health of the whole river. Before the film, the initiative’s partnering groups will give an update on their activities, then talk about how to become more involved in the Rappahannock’s conservation: what and how to plant in your own backyard. managing forestland and controlling invasive plants, tools and techniques for enhancing small acreage and paddocks, and where to enjoy historic and cultural sites, river access, parks and trails. Avid paddler and native-plant specialist Brent Hunsinger, who starts a paddling trip down the length of the river that Sunday, is also scheduled to stop by.

The meeting is from 2 to 5 at the Orlean Volunteer Fire Department (6838 Leeds Manor Rd.). PEC asks that those wishing to attend register by next Friday, April 24 on their website. For questions, contact Maggi MacQuilliam at 540-347-2334 ext. 7065 or mmacquilliam@pecva.org.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 346 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.”