Up around my house on Oventop Mountain, the spring wildflower show started last week (Mar. 24), when five bloodroot buds popped up along a trail dubbed the Spring Road, a few starting to bloom.
The first bloodroot flower buds that emerge are tiny — most less than a quarter-inch in diameter — and open into small, often asymmetrical, flowers. The plant’s large, five-lobed leaf is wrapped around its stem, eventually spreading out and laying flatter to absorb sunlight as days warm.
By the next day, dozens of bloodroot had emerged and bloomed, and by the weekend, hundreds, perhaps thousands, opened their gorgeous white blossoms along the trail and elsewhere on the mountain. As the bloom period progressed, I found blossoms measuring almost 2 inches across.
The blooms of bloodroot, like those of many early bloomers, open in sunlight and close at night, protecting themselves from the cold snaps that often occur this early in spring. In walking my dog before dawn, I’ve been seeing a sea of white ovals against the dark forest floor in the beam of my flashlight.
Among the bloodroot were some budding cutleaf toothwort, and leaves of other herbaceous plants were emerging from the soil. On Friday (Mar. 29), I went up the mountain to check on frog and wildflower activity around a pond up there. On my way up, I found more bloodroot and one hepatica blooming along the path.
As I climbed over the dam of the pond, I saw only two wood frogs in the water. I found two clusters of wood frog eggs among the many ghostlike globular egg masses of spotted salamanders deeper in the water. While hundreds of frogs have shown up at the pond to breed some years, leaving masses of eggs around most of the pond edge, this may be the only eggs of theirs I’ll see this year. Their breeding period will soon come to an end. More active for weeks were the water-strider pairs skating across the pond while breeding, the male on the female’s back.
Moving on up the mountain, I soon found hundreds of hepatica in various stages of blooming. Among them were more budding cutleaf toothwort. The toothwort formed denser patches near the brook that feeds the pond, with a few blooming bloodroot mixed in.
Bushwhacking down to a patch of the forest above the Spring Road that typically yields a lot of wildflowers (including the ones mentioned here) and mushrooms, I found more bloodroot and cutleaf toothwort but no mushrooms . . . yet. When I got to the trail, I checked the base of a large tuliptree just above it for showy orchis, which bloomed there the last few years. What appear to be this native orchid’s leaves were emerging.
By Monday (April 1), the toothwort was starting to bloom. Driving down Old Hollow Road, I noticed the serviceberry and black cherry trees had suddenly started blooming. Redbud and dogwood are also about to pop.
The flowers weren’t the only one busy with reproduction. After hearing few sounds at dawn all winter, I now welcomed the start of the chorus of birds warming up their breeding songs, including one mystery singer that took a while to identify. (see the sidebar for how I solved the mystery). With only a few American goldfinches appearing this winter, dozens were now congregating around the forest edge, their soft, sweet murmurings now outnumbering the songs of other birds warming up their courting songs.
The goldfinches were also preening and scratching a lot last week, a sign of molting. Within a few days, the males’ drabber winter plumage was being replaced by the bright-yellow courting plumage.
While I only sporadically feed birds during the winter, I decided to put a little out to try to chum in some birds migrating through or into our area to breed. One year, rose-breasted grosbeaks, indigo buntings and bluejays showed up. So far this year, the only migrators I’ve seen at the feeders are three brown-headed cowbirds, but I’m hoping for other migrating visitors. (See a slideshow of some of my spring sightings below.)
© 2019 Pam Owen
Solving the mystery of the dawn triller
Within the dawn avian chorus now underway, I’ve been hearing the loud trilling of a bird from the top of a small, vine-covered tree near my house. The bird’s song goes up and down the scale rapidly, like a piccolo player playing “Flight of the Bumblebee.” In the dim light, I couldn’t spot the singer. Because of the trill, I started trying to identifier him by checking wood-warbler songs on my Sibley bird app, but none quite fit.
The second morning, I recorded the song with my phone and finally managed to see singer. He was small and dark, although in the dim light I couldn’t make out the color. What I did notice was the way he moved, hopping along the top of the tree, which the vines had bent into a horizontal position. I immediately thought “wren.” As soon as the light increased enough to identify the singer, it took off into the forest across my driveway.
The Carolina wren, which is common here, is too large and has a different song, and I haven’t seen a house wren, although it is closer to the size and sound of the bird in question. That brought me to the winter wren, many of which spend the winter here, usually leaving by April to breed further north or in higher elevations in the Allegheny Mountains to the west. I’d never heard any singing like this, and I thought they had already departed for their breeding grounds. In checking audio clips of the house and winter wren in my birding apps, I still wasn’t sure but leaned toward the latter, since they have been gleaning bugs off my window screens for the past few winters.
I finally tried my newly downloaded birdNET app, produced by Cornell Lab of Ornithology and partnering conservation organizations. It’s designed to analyze bird sounds in the field, but I had yet to try it. I couldn’t find a way to transfer my recording to the app, nor a way to play the song from my recording app while having it analyzed by birdNET. I ended up putting a copy of the audio file onto my laptop and playing it back as I ran birdNet on my phone.
Within birdNET, I selected several instances of the song it had recorded from my audio file, and the app analyzed all of them as coming from a winter wren. Although I benefited from trying to work out the song through other methods, I now know that I have a backup app when needed, especially in the field.