Appearances in April
Mother Nature can be capricious at times. The April 1st snowstorm here in the Northeast is an example of her volatile nature. After a long, cold, snowy winter, we were already anticipating the appearance of spring, eagerly awaiting those elements that mean spring in New England. Crocus, daffodils and other spring plants were emerging, and other perennial plants were shrugging off their winter torpor and showing signs of activity. Then, BAM! A heavy wintry mix of the dreaded white stuff, which had pretty much disappeared in spite of the almost record snowfall of the past season. It's a good thing we New Englanders are of sturdy stock, and able to take such teasing stoically. Even so, we knew that spring was almost here - you just needed to look for the signs.
The catkins of the pussywillows in my yard (a variegated form of Salix) had burst out of their branches in late Feb., one of the first harbringers of spring. The lower branches of the plant had been chewed and gnawed in places. Research told me that likely culprits were red squirrels, muskrats, beavers or snowshoe hares. Since the willows are very near the pond, it seemed that it must be either muskrat or beaver damage. By mid-March, the furry ctakins had already started to turn from a furry gray color to a more luminous yellow tinged with red, signifying the beginning of pollination. The pussy willow is dioecious, meaning there are male and female trees. The males are the ones with the showy catkins that we prefer to use for decoration. The picture below shows the catkins as they have begun to put out pollen.
Earlier than even the pussywillow is the native skunk cabbage (Symplocampus foetidus), which begins its procreation when snow and ice have still locked most plants in a wintry embrace. The strange looking hooded spath emerges from its wetland location - a reddish-purple spire breaking through ice and snow. Skunk cabbage is pollinated by carrion- feeding insects, and the plant has the ability to generate a temperature 15 to 35 degrees warmer than the surrounding air. This helps lure flies and bees to its pungent aroma. Breaking a leaf of this plant as it matures will give you an understanding of why it is called "skunk cabbage". It has been used medicinally, particularly by Native Americans.
A traditionally preceived first sign of spring is the robin (Turdus migratorious). Though migratory, meaning it winters in southern locations and returns to breed in the northern reaches of its range, there are some colonies of birds staying year-round in the Northeast, so some of the first sightings may be of those "natives", It was a custom in Quebec that the first person to see a robin in the spring meant good luck for the year. The colonists encountered this bird when they first arrived in the New World, and associated it with the robin red-breast of England. Their robin, however, was from the flycatcher family, and only a distant cousin of the American robin, which is from the thrush family. However, they called it robin, and the name has become permanently attached to this perky bird.
A truer avain sign of spring is the arrival of the red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoenicius). This true migratory bird usually appears in early March, and its distinctive call - sounding like "look at me" - cheerfully calls from the tops of shrubs and reeds, raising its wings to emphasize its beautiful red and yellow shoulder pads.
But my favorite spring phenomenom is the chorus of the spring peeper (Pseudacris crucifer). This tiny little frog, only about 3/4 inch long, belts out a mighty croak, calling in the night and into early morning. This serenade begins one night with one lonely call, and multiplies nightly into a resounding chorus of "peeps" - a remarkably loud vocalization for such as small creature. The earliest i have heard peepers here is March 16, and even a light snowfall doesn't deter them. This year, they waited until April 3, and I open my bedroon window to be able to enjoy the show.
After such a long winter, these wonderful plants and animals are a joy to behold, as they manifest the beginning of the spring season and our entrance into a new phase of the year.
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