Wild Ideas: “April, come she will”   

April come she will
When streams are ripe and swelled with rain . . .

—Paul Simon

Spring reproductive activities among native species are now ramping up exponentially.

The forest around my house is leafing out, more wildflowers have bloomed or are emerging, amphibians are breeding, and birds are filling the forest with a diverse chorus. In the past two weeks, I’ve visited some areas at lower elevation and more-open habitat, including naturalized meadows and cow pastures. They host different and more diverse species of birds, particularly, than where I live, 1,000 feet up in Appalachian forest.

Wood frogs didn’t manage to do much breeding here this year, but toads have been trilling in lowland areas elsewhere and peepers chorusing everywhere, although intermittently up here. Recent rain helped bring both out. Pickerels and green frogs are showing up to breed, and eastern newts are numerous in the ponds here. In walking up the mountain this Monday (April 15), I found newly laid globular egg masses salamanders. It’s a bit late for spotted salamanders, which bred there weeks ago, but with 15 species of salamander “known or likely” to inhabit the county, according to the Virginia Herpetological Society, I’m not sure I could ever sort them out.

The most exciting bird arrival here is that of Louisiana waterthrushes, which are warblers, not thrushes. I managed to guess who was singing by their distinctive song but used my netBIRD app to confirm that this was not another warbler. Viewing the spectrograms has helped me visualize the song and remember who sings it. Using this visualization tool has also hyper-focused my brain on the song. Driving down through Old Hollow, I hear it everywhere, with at least three males of the species singing just along our driveway.

Local bluebirds have started laying their blue eggs in nesting boxes put up along bluebird trails. By Pam Owen

Spotting Louisiana waterthrushes is a different story. They tend to sing from high up, but not at the top of, large trees, rarely move and easily blend in. I’ve spent hours just trying to narrow down which tree they are in, but even that is hard. I was fortunate when I first heard one, a few years ago, in that he was singing just a few feet over my head in a small tree at the edge of my yard, an unusual choice for this species.

The Louisiana waterthrush, a warbler, is often heard but rarely seen along forest streams in early spring By William H. Majoros via Wikimedia

Now able to sit on my deck without three layers of clothes I’m enjoying trying to recognize, coffee in hand, bird songs and the birds making them. Last week, five tiny blue-gray gnatcatchers arrived, chasing each other around in apparent territorial disputes. They move so fast when hunting insects, flitting from branch to branch and tree to tree, that it’s hard to track them, let alone get a photo. Eastern towhees and a lot of our year-round residents are now adding to the dawn chorus.

Our pairs of eastern phoebes started nesting early, as they usually do, getting a jump on many of the other songbirds with their breeding. And, better late than never, the first ruby-throated hummingbird, a male of course, showed up at my feeder on April 13, a week later than usual. I’m now getting brief visits daily from a male, possibly the same one, or others migrating through.

In fields at lower elevations, I’ve seen savannah sparrows, red-winged blackbirds, tree swallows, warblers and few other birds that breed here. The winter wren that was singing near my house appears to have moved on to its breeding grounds further north or west, while the white-throated sparrows are still hanging around but should also leave to breed in colder climes soon.

Over the weekend, as I was enjoying the diverse bird chorus while having my morning coffee on my deck when a pair of mallards, sounding quite annoyed, flew overhead. They were coming from the direction of the upper pond. Knowing that my dog, Mollie, had just headed up that way for her morning swim, I have an idea of what bothered the ducks.

Lots of insects have emerged, too many to track, but among the butterflies are the eastern tiger swallowtail and tiny spring azures. Male eastern carpenter bees have started buzzing around on the deck looking for mates, hovering in front of Mollie and me, which drives the dog nuts and leads to the death of ones that get too close to the dog.

On the flower front, the thousands of bloodroot that bloomed here this year have shed their petals and formed their spear-like fruit. Cutleaf toothwort is now the star of the spring ephemeral show up and down the mountain. Mayapple having emerged and spread out its umbrella-like leaves in many places but not yet blooming, and the ubiquitous Christmas fern is unfurling its new hairy fiddleheads. (For a slideshow of some of the signs of spring I’ve found so far, see below.

Lots of other wildflowers are about to pop, including Robin’s plantain — a fleabane that grows in the yard, risking decapitation from mowing every spring. In the forest, golden ragwort, wild ginger and showy orchis have emerged and will soon bloom. Among the trees, most of which are now leafing out, redbud started blooming last week, with dogwood not far behind.

Still no mushrooms emerging in the usually places here, not even a jelly such as witches’ butter. They feed on dead wood and usually appear first, since they don’t have to wait for the ground to thaw. After the recent heavy rain and with warm temperatures forecast to return this week, I’m hoping fungi will start blooming in the usual places.

© 2019 Pam Owen

Rappahannock County salamanders

Blue Ridge Spring Salamander (Gyrinophilus porphyriticus danielsi)

Eastern Red-Backed Salamander (Plethodon cinereus)

Four-Toed Salamander (Hemidactylium scutatum)

Jefferson Salamander ((Ambystoma jeffersonianum)

Marbled Salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum)

Northern Dusky Salamander (Desmognathus fuscus)

Northern Red Salamander (Pseudotriton ruber ruber)—official state salamander of Virginia

Northern Slimy Salamander (Plethodon glutinosus )

Northern Spring Salamander (Gyrinophilus porphyriticus porphyriticus)

Northern Two-Lined Salamander (Eurycea bislineata)

Red-Spotted Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens viridescens)

Seal Salamander (Desmognathus monticola)

Shenandoah Salamander (Plethodon shenandoah)

Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum)

Three-Lined Salamander (Eurycea guttolineata)

White-Spotted Slimy Salamander (Plethodon cylindraceus)

Source: Virginia Herpetological Society

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 341 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.”

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