Thursday, March 17, 2016

Signs of Spring

Spring seems a bit out of whack this year.  That's not surprising, considering that we hardly had any winter to speak of. But since it's been so unseasonably warm, why the heck isn't the Skunk Cabbage blooming?  In all my years of wildflower hunting, I've always thought of Skunk Cabbage as the very first flower of spring.  But not this year.  For example, I've already found the sprightly red tufts of the female flowers of American Hazelnut.

And the dangling male catkins of Speckled Alder are already shedding their pollen on the slightest breeze.

And sun-warmed sandy banks are spangled with bright-yellow blooms of Coltsfoot, offering their treasures to visiting bees.

But so far, I've not yet found a single spadix of Skunk Cabbage tufted with anthers spilling their pollen.  And I've been all over, looking for them.  On Monday I went to Orra Phelps Nature Preserve, where in other years the muddy swales would be covered with gaping spathes, welcoming the earliest pollinators to their self-warmed interiors.  I found some swelling speckled spathes, but all were tightly closed.   On Tuesday I visited Bog Meadow Nature Trail, where Skunk Cabbage abounds in the swamp and along the trailside creek.  Same story: Closed-tight spathes.  No pollen.  Then on Wednesday, a sunny warm day that surely would tempt those Skunk Cabbage spathes to open wide their windows, I visited the Spring Run Trail in Saratoga Springs.  It sure was a lovely walk.

And look!  The Skunk Cabbage spathes were opening up, just a bit.  Were the spadices within those Morocco-red bulbous wrappings ready to welcome the flies that would be drawn to those rather odiferous interiors?

Nope.  Not yet. Another walker had stepped on a nearby plant, so I picked up the half-crushed spathe and broke off a portion, wanting to check on the ripeness of the spadix within.  Still very immature.  How strange!  I guess I can't call this the first flower of spring THIS year!

Ah well, I was glad to have walked this very pleasant Spring Run Trail, which follows an old railway right-of-way through wetlands on both sides.  This very handsome Mallard pair were also enjoying this sun-warmed day as they dabbled busily in a trailside flooded ditch and allowed me to gaze at length on their gorgeous colorful feathers.

Well, there are certainly other signs of spring to celebrate, and today, my friends in the Thursday Naturalists and I set off through the woods of the Ballston Creek Preserve in Malta, hoping to see if the Great Blue Herons had returned to their giant nests in tall tree snags along the creek.

And so they HAD! LOTS of them!

Just a day or so before, one of our friends had visited this heronry and had reported no residents as yet.  But this was our lucky day!  We not only were privileged to see many of these giant birds perched on the nests, but we also witnessed them pairing off, making what looked like affectionate gestures and actual matings as they once again laid claim to their breeding homes.

We also delighted in sighting the two pointy "horns" of a Great Horned Owl snuggled down in her nest, one she had usurped from the herons before they returned from their winter migration.  These owls, permanent local residents, start breeding as early as February, and they will be sitting on eggs even before winter's snowy cold and icy winds have ceased.  (We also spied in this same swamp the huge nest that is annually occupied by an Osprey pair, but we saw no signs of them today.)

On every side of us, wherever water had collected in vernal pools, we could hear the loud "quacks" of mating Wood Frogs, one of the earliest sounds of spring.  I crept closer to one of these pools and happened upon this froggy orgy, three males (the smaller frogs) all fiercely clinging to one female.

It didn't seem to matter to these fellows which end of their prize they were gripping.  And the truth is, it doesn't much matter, since froggy sex doesn't include penetration of the female by a male sex organ.  She will expel her eggs in the water and the males will release their sperm in the water to fertilize them.  But the sex drive still compels the males to strenuously grasp the female. The poor girl had to struggle to get her nose above the water!  In fact, females do occasionally drown in mating season.  Since they've already released their eggs in the water, Nature doesn't care if she lives or dies. But I do.  Taking pity on this poor creature, I lifted her (swains attached) to the bank, hoping she might just catch her breath, but she vigorously made every effort to get back into the water.  She had eggs to lay and she sure wasn't going to waste them on dry ground!

We happened upon another little critter of the spring woods, a Red Eft, first one we'd seen this year.  These adorably cute creatures are the terrestrial form of the Spotted Newt, which lives and breeds in water.

Just as red as that little Red Eft was this fungal growth on a rotting log that lay on the forest floor.  None of us knew what to call it, but I later learned (try googling "wrinkly red fungus") that its name is Peniofora rufa.  Or Red Tree Brain.  (Yeah, I can see how it came by that name.)  I couldn't call it a sign of spring, since it had been lying on the ground all winter, but it gave us naturalists a little jolt of joy to come upon something we'd not seen before and didn't know the name of.  Something new!  Nothing better for feeling young than learning something new.


Momo said...

Jackie, what a particularly special and welcome entry heralding the returning Spring with activity of flora and fauna galore!!!! Again, you are a most wonderful sleuth for gems of the outdoors!

Woody Meristem said...

Glad to see that spring's made its appearance. Since there wasn't much of a winter, it might as well be spring.

The Furry Gnome said...

Sounds like a great walk, in spite of the Skunk Cabbages! Love that red fungus.

Anonymous said...

Some great finds on your early spring outing. Great post

Julie said...

Beautiful spring sightings! I think the skunk cabbage blossoming will happen very soon, last weekend I was down a bit south near Rhinebeck and they were opened up!