Wild Ideas: Spring fauna sightings  

The forest canopy has closed, and most spring ephemeral wildflowers are done blooming and have disappeared under understory plants that are rising and expanding their foliage. Having enjoyed upland Virginia’s amazing spring wildflower show, it’s time to move on to my first love — critters.

Spring has been tough for some fauna, with unseasonably cold, dry weather getting them off to a slow start. Then came deluges of rain. While it’s sorely needed, rain in this quantity can be difficult for wildlife, as one snapping turtle recently found out. I’d spotted this turtle several times over the last few weeks basking on a log at one of the lower ponds. When the heavy rains came, the springs from up the mountain, which feed the ponds, sent a torrent down, adding to the rain coming directly from the skies.. The torrent apparently sent the turtle toward the overflow pipe, and the suction from the pipe turned the turtle into a stopper, albeit not an efficient one.

The turtle would have died there had my landlord, Tom, not seen it. He managed to free the turtle by provoking it into snapping onto the hook at the end of a long pole he had with him to clear debris off the pipe, then shoving the turtle off the pipe. I’ve yet to see the turtle after this incident, so perhaps it moved on to less scary waters.

Other reptiles are also out, including box turtles. A few five-lined skinks have also been hunting and basking in warm spots on the walls of my house and on my deck. This means snakes have also likely emerged, so I take extra care when navigating through high grass or the tangle on the forest edge.

On the amphibian front, pickerel frogs have bred and the banjo-like calling of green frogs is now coming from some of the many vernal pools on the property. Gray treefrogs are also trilling and hanging out at every tiny pool they can find, including the one in my landlords’ Scanoe. The boat fills up every year from spring rain, and every year at least one hapless male treefrog decides to claim that potential breeding pool, not knowing just how ephemeral it is.

Gray tree frogs are trilling now near small pools in forested areas, including this one in a boat filled with spring rain. By Pam Owen

This species spends most of its life alone on trees. To attract females to the tiny, scattered ephemeral pools they often use for breeding, males have developed a loud call — amazingly loud for such a small species. Before my landlord emptied the water out of the boat, I took photos of one male calling from under the seat.

On the insect front, carpenter bees have been hovering on my deck for weeks, looking for mates and chewing holes in which to lay eggs. Swallowtail butterflies have been out for weeks, since they mostly rely on shrubs and trees that bloom and leaf out early for good and places to lay their eggs. After rains, I often see swallowtails “puddling” at mud puddles along roads and trails.

With wildflowers starting to bloom in open areas, including native phlox along roads, butterfly activity is picking up. The viburnum and wild hydrangea next to my house are about to pop, and the meadow phlox scattered around the yard should soon follow, all of which attract myriad pollinators every year.

Hundreds of Chinese mantis nymphs have been emerging from egg sacs I rescued earlier this spring. (More on that in an upcoming column.) I’ve found huge millipedes — two to three inches long — on the forest floor, and ants busy building or renovating their nests in varied places.

Migratory songbirds have been passing through or settling in to breed. On April 13, a week later than usual, I sighted the first hummingbird at a feeder I put out a couple of weeks before. As is usually the case, the male was joined by others, then by females a couple of weeks later. Vying over food and access to females, the hummer males soon created a war zone around the feeder. Three males and two females appear to be sticking around, which is about the usual number here.

Myriad other birds are singing in the forests around my house early in the morning and in the evening. Familiar songs include the eastern towhee’s “drink-your-tea,” the indigo bunting’s “fire-fire, where-where, here-here” and the haunting, melodious song of the wood thrush.

With other, less-familiar birdsong coming from high in the canopy or deep in foliage, I’ve been spending a lot of time with my binoculars trying to spot the singers, using my birding apps to nail down identification. A spring migrator new to me showed up in the copse next to my deck — a magnolia warbler. Its bold black, yellow and white feathers made it stand out against the green foliage in which it was hunting. Like many other spring warblers, it soon moved on, probably to its species’ breeding grounds further south.

Gray tree frogs are trilling now near small pools in forested areas, including this one in a boat filled with spring rain. By David Hamilton Cox

I spotted another male warbler that is more familiar, an American redstart, in the copse near my deck, where this species has been breeding in recent years. Again, its distinctive coloring — black, orange and white — helped it stand out from the surrounding foliage.

Spring fauna slideshow:

A scarlet tanager and a pair of Baltimore orioles also stopped by, likely on their way to the more-open areas in which they breed. In open places elsewhere in the county, I’ve seen rose-breasted grosbeaks, red-wing blackbirds, cowbirds and a host of other migratory songbirds that prefer that environment to the forest surrounding my house.

By April, male American goldfinches were starting to molt into their bright-gold breeding color. Other year-round residents, such as the northern cardinal, the Carolina wren, tufted titmouse and eastern phoebe add loud but less-melodious notes to the morning and evening choruses.

Woodchucks are busy raising families, and whitetail does should be dropping their fawns soon. Above my yard, bats have been going after the numerous winged insects that have how taken to the skies. To see some of these and other critters I’ve spotted so far this spring, check out the slideshow at rappnews.com/wildideas.

© 2018 Pam Owen

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 344 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.”