Early saxifrage (Micranthes virginiensis) is well named – it flowers early in the spring, and is often found growing in or on rocks. (The name saxifrage derives from the Latin words “saxum” meaning rock and “frangere,” to break. When the small seeds of saxifrage lodge in rock crevices and germinate, the plant looks as though it split the rock.) If you look closely you’ll see that early saxifrage’s flower stalk has many hairs – they are glandular and their stickiness is thought to deter ants from taking nectar from the flowers, so that it can attract more efficient pollinators.
Hepatica has finally opened its hairy buds and greeted the world with its beautiful white, pink, blue and lavender blossoms. Typically the only wildflowers to appear earlier than this member of the Buttercup family are skunk cabbage and coltsfoot. Like many flowers, hepatica blossoms open on sunny days, and close at night and on cloudy days. This prevents rain from washing out the pollen and nectar which help attract pollinating insects, including early-flying bees and flies.
Silver maple (Acer saccharinum) is second only to skunk cabbage when it comes to early spring flowering. Even with our nights still well below freezing, silver maple trees are bursting with blossoms. This close relative of red maple bears its male (pictured) and female flowers separately, sometimes on the same tree and sometimes not. Silver maple’s sap can be tapped and boiled into syrup, but the yield is much less, and it’s only about half as sweet as that of sugar maple.
Many mammals have two molts a year, producing a winter and summer coat. Moose only have one annual molt, and it occurs in early spring. Their winter coat consists of long (up to six inches on neck and shoulders), hollow guard hairs and a thick undercoat. In early spring the faded and ragged winter hairs are shed and replaced with short, dark, shiny hairs. Molting starts on the shoulders and proceeds along the sides of the neck and back over the moose’s body. Adult bulls molt first, the cows and yearlings shortly after. Pictured is a beaver-cut tree which was used by a moose to scratch off loose winter hair.
Winter must be on the wane, as a tufted titmouse was recently singing its fast-repeated, clear whistle song, “Peter—Peter—Peter,” in nearby woods. Male titmice repeat this phrase over and over, up to 11 times in succession. Occasionally females sing a softer version of this song. The calls of tufted titmice, on the other hand, are very nasal and mechanical-sounding. Songs are typically more musical and complex than calls, and are often sung only by males during the breeding season, to attract a mate and claim territory. Calls, on the other hand, have many purposes – there are calls for aggression, warning, identification, flocking, hunger and to announce a food source, among others.
Even though black-capped chickadees are named for their chick-a-dee-dee-dee winter song, it is their so-called spring song which resonates most with many of us. It seems as if chickadees are immediately aware of when the days start to get longer, as their mating song begins as early as January. Sounding to some like “fee-bee” and others as “hey-sweetie,” this delightful song consists of two whistles, each about half a second long, with the second whistle a lower pitch than the first. Although these cavity nesters won’t actually be breeding until April, we will continue to be serenaded by their courtship song throughout the winter. As birdsong expert Donald Kroodsma so aptly describes this song, “It is the purest of whistles, this promise of spring.”
Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) is one of our earliest woodland wildflowers to blossom, and thus an important source of nectar and pollen for the earliest foraging insects. Pink lines (“bee guides”) on each of its five petals lead pollinators to the center of the flower, where the nectar is located. The pollinator in this image, Andrena erigeniae, is one of the more common species of bees that visits Spring Beauty in the early spring. Notice the slightly pink pollen she has gathered into the pollen basket on her hind leg. If you’re interested in spending time observing the series of different insect pollinators that visit Spring Beauty as the season progresses, there’s a golden opportunity for you. If you go to http://springbeauties.wordpress.com/ you can participate as a citizen scientist volunteer and participate in their survey.
Marsh Marigold’s (Caltha palustris) common name is partially accurate – it does grow in marshes, but it is not closely related to marigolds. It is also known as Cowslip, a name which is also misleading, as it doesn’t refer to cows losing their footing when walking on this plant. According to The Secrets of Wildflowers by Jack Sanders, the word literally means “cow slop,” or cow dung, as both the English cowslip, for which it was named, as well as cow paddies were found in the same pastures. People used to believe that butter derived its yellow coloring from the Cowslip flowers that cows ate. In fact, like many other plants in the Buttercup family, it contains irritants that cause most grazers, including cows, to avoid the plant. Humans do eat the young leaves, but boil them several times to rid them of acrid irritants that could be poisonous.
When red fox kits are roughly five weeks old, not only do they begin spending time outside of their den, but they also start eating solid food and weaning begins. This mother is still nursing her young, but soon she will start discouraging them by not always giving them access to her milk through tactics such as lying on her stomach when they approach her for a meal. Within three weeks the kits will be completely weaned.
All members of the Poppy family have milky or colored sap, and Bloodroot (Sanguinarea canadensis) is no exception. Its sap is as red as its petals are white, and was used as a source of dye by Native Americans (for clothing and baskets) as well as for paint and as an insect repellent. The individual flower of Bloodroot lasts only two days, but on these two days, it reigns supreme amongst the early ephemerals.
The Eastern Phoebe, a member of the flycatcher family, is one of the earliest nesting songbirds to return to New England after spending the winter in southeastern United States. It is easily identified from its perch, where it typically wags its tail up and down repeatedly while waiting for an insect to fly by. The Eastern Phoebe is the first bird ever banded in North America – in 1804 John James Audubon tied a small circle of silver thread around the legs of phoebe nestlings and documented their return in successive years.
Under the stealth of a rainy night, subterranean-dwelling spotted salamanders migrated to their ancestral breeding pools this week. Groups, or “congresses,” of males gather, followed by females. Once a female locates a congress of males, she eventually pairs up with one of them. The pair of salamanders then engages in a courtship dance ending with the male depositing a tiny white packet of sperm called a spermatophore on the bottom of the vernal pool. If he has sufficiently stimulated the female, she picks up this packet into her cloaca, or vent, and fertilization takes place. The next morning the only sign that spotted salamanders have been and gone are the unclaimed spermatophores scattered on the leaves that lie on the pool bottom.
Many shrubs really come into their own in the spring when they flower — not necessarily big, flashy flowers, but more subtle and delicate blossoms, with beautiful colors and designs. Beaked Hazel (Corylus cornuta) is such a shrub. Its female flowers are now blooming – exquisite little maroon flowers with magenta highlights and pistils that curl this way and that in hopes of catching pollen. One advantage to flowering before leaves are out is that there is less interference with pollen dispersal. The entire flower is less than 1/4” in diameter.
The welcome sound of the “Morse Code woodpecker” is once again reverberating through our woodlands. Although many woodpeckers drum against hard surfaces with their bills, yellow-bellied sapsucker drums are distinctive — they usually begin with several rapidly repeated strikes in an “introductory roll” followed by a pause, then more strikes in an irregular pattern which some people liken to the Morse Code. These birds, like most woodpeckers, communicate with each other by drumming on different surfaces – often dead snags, but also metal signs and roof tops. They communicate over long distances, so the louder the drum, the better. Males are arriving back on their breeding grounds and establishing territories with the help of this drumming before the females arrive. Females arrive back about a week later than males, at which point, drumming will assist male sapsuckers in obtaining a mate. Females also drum, but less frequently, more softly and for shorter periods of time. Photo is of an adult female yellow-bellied sapsucker.
Recently Common Loons have been seen on several Vermont lakes and ponds. Spring arrival on nesting lakes depends largely on the timing of ice-out. During migration, Common Loons have what are called “staging” areas — lakes as well as rivers, where many loons congregate as they proceed northward (southward in the fall). Reconnaissance flights are usually made from open water north to territorial waters to see if the ice is on its way out.
The bright yellow splashes of Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) amidst the drab brown landscape this time of year are eye-catching, to say the least. Like Hepatica, Coltsfoot began blooming about a month early this year. Easily mistaken for a Dandelion, Coltsfoot usually flowers first, and unlike Dandelion’s leaves which appear before the flowers area evident, Coltsfoot’s leaves don’t appear until seeds have set.
Hepatica, a member of the Buttercup family, is one of the first woodland wildflowers to appear in the spring, sometimes when there is still snow on the ground. It is currently flowering in northern New England, as much as a month earlier than usual. Hepatica’s stem and flower buds are covered with dense, glistening, silvery hairs. Some botanists theorize that these hairs may, in fact, help the plant retain heat during cold March and April days and nights. Others see them as a deterrent to crawling insects, such as ants, which steal their nectar, given the chance — flying insects, including early flies, bees and butterflies, are more efficient pollinators. (Even if Hepatica isn’t visited by insects, it can fertilize itself.) Named after the Greek word for liver (“hepar”),due to its three-lobed, evergreen leaves which resemble the shape of a human liver, Hepatica, also known as Liverwort, was thought to be effective in treating liver disease.
After noticing the sudden loud clacking chorus at a nearby temporary woodland vernal pool, I went down to investigate, and there were dozens of wood frogs floating on the surface, as they croaked their duck-like quacks in the hopes of attracting female wood frogs. As far as I could determine, they were out of luck on this, their first day at the breeding pool, as I don’t believe the females have arrived yet. One clue was the relatively small size of the floating frogs and it seemed as though every frog was calling (only males call). Plus, time after time a wood frog would swim up to another wood frog and attempt to grasp it only to have the object of its desire utter a “release” chirp (a call made only when a male clasps another male) and swim rapidly away.
A few hooded mergansers, small fish-,insect- and crayfish-eating ducks of wooded ponds, can be found year round in northern New England, but their numbers swell in March and April, when many migrant birds return to breed, and others stop over on their way further north. Standing dead trees, or snags, provide nesting cavities for these beautiful, “hammerhead” crested ducks. (Male hooded merganser on left and female on right in photograph.)
Although some ponds have had open water in spots all winter, many have remained frozen over until the recent warm weather started to melt the ice. The first open water often appears close to the lodge and along the dam of a beaver pond. It doesn’t take long for resident beavers to detect an opening, for it’s a ticket to fresh food! The first plant that beavers head for, if it’s growing in the area, is skunk cabbage. Being the first wildflower to push up through the snow, it’s usually available when ponds first open up. Aspen, willow and alder leaves, grasses, the rhizomes, leaves and flowers of water lilies, sedges, ferns, fungi, berries, mushrooms, duckweed and algae are eaten in the spring and summer by these large rodents we think of as strictly bark eaters. Photograph by Kay Shumway.