Wild Ideas: Spring limps on

Despite the continuing cold and snowy weather, spring limps on, and, as a nature writer, I’m busy trying to keep up on the many changes among our native flora and fauna this time of year.

I usually put my hummingbird feeder out the second week in April, which is later that the ruby-throated hummingbirds usually arrive. This year, I put it out earlier, on March 31, but there are still no takers as of Tuesday (April 10). The hummers also seemed to arrive late, and were fewer, at the feeder last year, and I’m still trying to figure out why. Reports of hummingbirds arriving elsewhere in the county started to come in this week, so I’m sure mine are on their way or lurking out of sight somewhere nearby.  Meanwhile, American goldfinches are now swapping out their dull winter attire for their bright-yellow breeding plumage.

Last Monday (April 2), I wandered up the forested part of the mountain above my house to a stately rock outcrop to see how spring was progressing. On the way up, I heard saw a bunch of what birders call LBBs — little brown birds that are too alike to easily identify from a distance. They were too high up for me to see, and their twittering sounded like so many other birds that I gave up trying to identify the species.

Here and there, hepatica was blooming here, as was spotted wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata), aka striped wintergreen or striped prince’s pine. The latter, a low-growing perennial evergreen herb, doesn’t bloom until June. Several inches above their three deep-green, striped leaves, some were waving tiny round, brown, pumpkin-like seedpods atop thin stems.

The winds of Winter Storm Riley had blown down many white-oak acorns. These are the most nutrient-rich of all oak mast and, with no squirrels in sight, the acorns were free for the other small rodents, deer, beers, turkey and other wildlife to enjoy.

White-pine seedlings and saplings, most less than two feet tall, are plentiful up there, now growing amid their parents’ branches and cones, also brought down by Riley. These seedlings will grow more quickly now that so the loss of so many big trees has opened the canopy, allowing more of the sun’s light to reach the forest floor.

The trail that should have taken me down the mountain on the other side of the outcrop was buried under the many large trees that were blown over in the fierce winds of Riley. With all the downed trees and all the debris around them, I decided to go back the way I came up. Later in the day, on a nearby trail, I spotted spicebush now sporting its tiny yellow blooms. Like more early-blooming trees and shrubs, its flowers appear before their leaves.

Last Wednesday (April 4), temps rose past 60 degrees. Checking for activity at the lower ponds, I saw a frog jump in but couldn’t identify the species in time. A week later down there, I heard a pickerel frog calling, sounding like a door with a rusty hinge slowly opening. The next day, with temps having fallen again to below 60 degrees and the sun playing hide-and-seek, I was walking along a forest trail near my house and spotted basal leaves of cranesbill (wild geranium) starting to emerge on the forest floor.

As I was looking for more, a spring azure quickly flew by, the first I’d seen this year of this tiny butterfly species. Butterflies are supposed to need ambient temperatures of around 80 degrees to fly. While, even in the sun, the temperature was only around 60 degrees, butterflies can convert the sun’s radiant energy to boost their internal temperature 20 degrees.

The butterfly was likely looking for muddy spots in which to “puddle” — chow down on nutrients not available in flower nectar, such as salt. Clouds of them can gather in such spots this time of year.

On Saturday (April 7), amid snow flurries, I headed back up the mountain. A mix of LBBs were foraging in the almost-dry stream bed along the trail up. I couldn’t get close enough to identify them — except for one little winter wren. The next day, with temps in the 50s, I headed back up the mountain, binoculars in hand, to search for the LBBs I had seen previously, but none were in the drainage. Could it be that the snow the day before spurred the foraging, and the warmer, sunnier weather made food hunting less urgent? The LBBs I had seen in the canopy further up the mountain seemed to have disappeared as well.

By Tuesday, skunk cabbage leaves were well up in the wetland near the lower ponds. I found one plant whose blooms had now gone to fruit inside their cowl (spathe) — the single large, curled leaf that shoots up first and contains the tiny flowers. Nearby, in the same wetland, I found lovely marsh marigold, its golden flowers contrasting with the green skunk cabbage.

With these ponds about 100 feet lower in elevation than my house, the plants down there get a bit earlier start in the spring. Star chickweed and cutleaf toothwort was just starting to bloom last week, the flowers of some of the latter looking worse for cold-weather wear. Mayapple was coming up, its umbrella-like leaves still tightly furled on most of the plants. This week, all this plant activity started happening up around my house. Some of the mayapples have knob-shaped flower buds sitting on top. Once unfurled, the leaves will rise above the buds, the latter opening in the shelter beneath the leaves.

Although we don’t have any on the property, serviceberry is blooming in other places in Old Hollow. The cool temperatures this spring have not stopped other early-blooming trees from spewing pollen. Maples and elms have now joined the junipers (including eastern red cedar), driving the pollen count to high, according to Pollen.com.

This week temps are forecast to finally rise, all the way to the low 80s by Friday, then back down to more seasonable levels. The forecast for May through June is warmer and wetter weather than the historic averages. After the drought that started last summer and the cold weather so far this spring, we could use both.

© 2018 Pam Owen

How skunk cabbage keeps warm

Despite its name, skunk cabbage is in the arum (Araceae) family, not the Brassicaceae (cabbage) family. The amazing thing about skunk cabbage, besides its bizarre appearance, is its ability to bloom before spring even officially arrives, often coming up through snow. Like butterflies, it does this through thermogenesis, generating its own heat, as the Northern Woods website explains:

“Plants respire just like animals do, and skunk cabbage produces energy from starch that’s stored in the roots. During their pollination phase, skunk cabbage flowers consume as much oxygen, by mass, as a shrew or hummingbird. As air temperature falls, the skunk cabbage responds by increasing its metabolism and heat production.”

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.”