Saturday, March 23, 2013

In Search of Spring

As a child I’d frequently say things like “I wish Christmas was here”; “I wish school was out”; “I wish it was time for us to go on vacation”.  My mother would gently tell me “All in its own time.  Don’t wish your life away.”  I find myself recalling those words of wisdom now as I catch myself saying “I wish spring was here.”  I can’t help it.  I want to see the earth awakening from the uncertain winter.  On the days when the sun is shining and temperatures rise above freezing I take little walks around our yard looking for signs of spring.  My senses aren’t yet attuned to the subtle transition to this season.  I know the signs are there but I don’t see them easily. 

On the day before an overnight freezing rain was forecast I saw bright red buds on the Chokeberry.  I took a picture thinking the next day would provide the opportunity to digitally immortalize that deep red growth in a case of ice.  It got cold for sure, but the ice didn’t come.  Maybe this is a telltale sign. 

As I continue my search I see numerous divots in the yard.  Eventually I find the reason for the soil disturbance.  The squirrels are cashing in on last fall’s winter preparation.  How they are able to find the exact spot they buried those walnuts will forever remain a wonder to me.  In the coming year I know I’ll find small Walnut, Hickory, Buckeye, and Honey locust seedlings marking the bounty they didn’t need or couldn’t find.  I chuckle as I wonder if I could ever guide them to bury their unwanted seed where I want new trees to grow.  This doesn’t seem like a signal of impending springtime. 
I continue my trek through the landscape and see signs that the deer enjoy their short stay on our suburban wooded lot.  These intriguing herbivores must have awfully sharp teeth.  The shrubs have been more cleanly trimmed than if I had used a sharp pruning tool.  It becomes more and more frequent that we see deer in our small backyard woodland.  We never tire watching them.  Nonetheless I can’t help but cringe whenever I see them browsing on the native shrubs I’ve purchased and planted.  To protect the plantings until they’re better established I’ll have to put small fences around the remaining Witch Hazel and Spicebush shrubs.  The deer have obviously enjoyed munching these down to the nubbins.  Maybe their presence is due to the recent flood of fisherman wading into the nearby Maumee River in hopes of catching Walleye.  Surely this is a sign of spring. 

First growth of Bloodroot
One morning I walk out to a sunny but cold 27 degrees Fahrenheit wondering if spring will ever come.  Today ceretainly  won’t be the day I see anything to keep me from wishing time would temporarily speed up just a little.  On a whim I crouch low to the ground in the front entrance bed.  Lots of eaten acorns and hickory nut shells lay on the ground.  The squirrels have been busy here too.  A few acorns have small holes where insects had made an entrance and perhaps camped out for the winter.  Wait, what’s this?  It’s cold.  I can see my breath for Pete’s sake.  But there it is.  A small shoot of a Bloodroot has poked above the frozen ground.  And there’s another.  Is this right?  It’s dang cold and the ground is frozen.  And there’s a few more little spits of Bloodroot.  My records indicate that last year was a freakishly unusual 80 degrees around this date and these gorgeous plants had already bloomed.  This newly discovered growth will keep emerging, bloom with large snow white flowers for a short week or so, and then spread large scalloped leaves.  (The banner to this blog is a summertime picture of the resulting greenery from years past.)  But today, this is my first true sign of spring. 
Searching for Skunk Cabbage
A few days later, I joined a small group of fellow Wild Ones members on a spring wildflower walk.  We were led by our chapter president, Denise Gehring, and a colleague of hers, Kim High, an extraordinary naturalist with the Toledo Area Metroparks.  We were out to find signs of spring; namely Skunk cabbage, Hazelnut, Bluebirds, and Woodcocks.  It’s so nice to walk with knowledgeable people who are so eager and willing to share their knowledge.  I won’t go into the wonders of the Skunk cabbage plant that creates its own heat; enough warmth to melt snow and ice around it.  You can read about it in a wonderfully written Nature Institute article written by Craig Holdrege.  He describes the technical details of this amazing plant in such easy to read prose that even a scientifically challenged layman like me couldn’t put it down.  On this particularly cold evening on the first official day of spring, we find the Skunk cabbage in a small ravine among the crunchy dry leaves covering the ground .  They’ve undoubtedly been up for at least a few weeks; but yes, this is a most certainly a sign of spring. 

Adjacent to a paved park trail Kim points out a thicket of American hazelnut.  Someone takes a close look and points out tiny red flowers on the bare stems.  The shrub is in bloom.  On a nearby branch, the male catkins are getting ready to open and make their pollen available to the wind.  Kim says it would be fun having a table in front of the plants with Nutella and Hazelnut coffee.  This would help people easily connect with this native shrub.  Even without the tasty offerings, this early flowering event is yet another sign of spring. 
It quickly got colder and dusk began to set in.  Several Bluebirds flew across the trail and perched in some taller shrubs.  We walked a little way to a raised viewing platform.  The scene over the restored prairie was striking.  Several deer made their way into the surrounding thicket.  In an ode to spring we took turns reading a small excerpt from Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac.  He was poetically describing the spring courtship ritual of the American woodcock.  The tiny “peent” sound of the male is to be followed by the “sky dance”.  As Leopold says:

“Suddenly the peenting ceases and the bird flutters skyward in a series of wide spirals, emitting a musical twitter.  Up and up he goes, the spirals steeper and smaller, the twittering louder and louder, until the performer is only a speck in the sky.  Then, without warning, he tumbles like a crippled plane, giving voice in a soft liquid warble that a March bluebird might envy.  At a few feet from the ground he levels off and returns to his peenting ground, usually to the exact spot where the performance began, and there resumes his peenting.” 
It was getting colder and darker.  Several people had to leave.  A few of us remained, carefully listening to every little sound.  Not a peent was heard.  We started heading back to the parking lot and stopped at the end of the prairie for one last listen.  “Peent”, “Peent”.  It was the woodcocks!  It was almost totally dark then and very windy.  A bird glided in to land close by.  It was a woodcock.  Another glided in from the darkness.  More “peents” and more birds quietly landed.  Squinting into the darkness we never saw the spiraling “sky dance” that night.  It probably was just too cold and windy for them to rocket up, rolling into the night sky to perform the ritual.  Perhaps we would return in a few days when it becomes a little warmer and still.  But it is spring!  I didn’t have to wish my time away.  It is spring! 


Unknown said...

Not quite Spring here in Wisconsin yet, but I look forward to seeing what you've been seeing.

I've always admired Bloodroot, but am yet to attempt planting any. It's amazing how different this years bloom dates will be compared to last year.

Sand County Almanac never gets old.

the Native Plant Neophyte said...

Hi Nicholas - This will be my second spring being aware of native wildflowers. So it's going to be chock full of personal discoveries. And this year when we're up at the anuual Wild Ones meeting in Appleton, we're going to spend some time at the Leopold Institute. Love your blog. Cheers - Hal