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How to tell that spring is here, despite the forecast for snow

Early Spring Mountain Color
Early Spring Mountain ColorDorothy Birch, 2012 www.dorothybirch.com

Today is the first day of spring, and it's going to be a beautiful one.

But, in four days, there's a 60% chance of snow blanketing the region . . . again.

Late winter and early spring snow can be discouraging to those who are ready for warmer temperatures and steadier sunshine.

Luckily, Mother Nature provides many clues that spring has really and truly arrived on stage, even though Jack Frost is taking a few extra bows.

Many folks look for blooming hyacinths, tulips, or daffodils to signal that spring is here, but these flowers didn't evolve in this area - they're not native here - and so they can be unreliable as spring predictors, blooming early or late based on other factors.

Wild, native plants and animals take their spring cues from sunlight, instinct honed by millions of years of natural selection and evolution, that when the days get longer, warmth and energy will spread up the food chain, despite a few late cold snaps.

The following slides will help you get to know some of the native flora and fauna that signal spring's arrival, sentinels to look to for hope in the snows of February and March (and sometimes even early April, but let's not think about that).

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Early Spring Mountain Color
Early Spring Mountain Color Dorothy Birch, 2012 www.dorothybirch.com

Early Spring Mountain Color

Ever so subtly, the mountainside trees begin to look less like the stiff hairs on a boar's back and more like artists' paint brushes. 

Mother Nature, the ultimate artist, can't wait to dip those paint brushes in color, and the trees' twigs are suddenly tinged with ruby red, peridot green, citrine yellow, and topaz orange.

The twigs of several species of tree show bold color as winter fades.  The red maple (Acer rubrum) was named for its crimson twigs.  The black willow (Salix nigra) has bright yellow twigs.

The peridot green color comes from the tiniest, earliest leaves. 

Red Maple
Red Maple By Syp (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Red Maple

Red maple (Acer rubrum) is generally the first to blossom in the spring, sprouting tiny red firework flowers.  From afar red maples in bloom look as if they've been liberally sprinkled with rosy red sequins.

After pollination by wild bees and honey bees that suddenly appear on warm late-winter days, red maples will produce the much-loved "whirlybird" seeds.  These seeds, or "samaras" to those in the know, can be colored light green to bright red (and anywhere in between), tumble, twist, and turn, falling through the breeze and making an excellent imitation of spinning helicopter rotors.

Common Grackle
Common Grackle By Bob Peterson from North Palm Beach, Florida, Planet Earth! [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Common Grackle

The common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) arrives in large flocks in late winter or early spring.

This bird is easily identified by the following characteristics:

  1. Its jet black feathers shine like oil in sunlight, giving the bird a sheen of violet, peacock blue, or emerald green. (Sometimes all three at once.)
  2. Amongst all those dark feathers glows an almost neon yellow eye.
  3. In flight, the grackle's long tail is held in a V-shape, and looks like half of a canoe.

Grackles can live in southwest Virginia year round, but are most noticeable in large flocks as they move northward in the spring.  The flocks are quite noisy and can often be heard before they are seen.  To hear what they sound like, visit the grackle page on the All About Birds website.

Grackles are resourceful foragers, able to saw and crack open tough acorn shells in winter and decimate corn stands in summer (scarecrows, perhaps, should be named "scaregrackles").

The large flocks of grackles are usually mixed with other black birds, particularly the bird in the next slide, the red-winged blackbird.

Red-winged Blackbird
Red-winged Blackbird By Plismo (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Red-winged Blackbird

The red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) returns each spring with males showing off their shockingly bright and beautiful red and yellow epaulets.

A bird of marshes, the red-winged blackbird can also be seen foraging for insects in farmers' fields and eating seed from backyard bird feeders in spring.

Red-winged blackbirds are always found in flocks, often mixed with common grackles in spring.  Flock sizes may be huge in the winter, more than a million birds each, but in spring and summer much smaller flocks are found nesting in marshes.

The brightly colored males often mate with many females and, thus, spend a large amount of time courting the ladies and then defending their expansive territory.  This is lucky for the humans who love them, as the males' distinctive, musical conk-a-reee call is a hallmark sound of streamsides, lakeshores, and wetlands.  To hear the red-winged blackbird's call, visit their page on the All About Birds website.

Wild Chives
Wild Chives Dorothy Birch, 2014 www.dorothybirch.com

Wild Chives

The sprouts of wild chives (Allium schoenoprasum) are a sure sign that winter is coming to a close.

These, the smallest members of the onion family, are native and widespread, perennially popping up in lawns and garden beds all over the area.

Though often viewed as a weed by gardeners, chives' leaves are thoroughly edible (and delicious) and can be picked, washed, chopped, adding a delicate flavor somewhere between green onions and shallots.  Even the delicate, light purple flowers are edible, a pretty and tasty garnish for any dish, from soups to salads to scrambled eggs.

The sulfur compounds produced by chives, found distasteful by some children (who can be chased around the yard with a handful of the "stinky" leaves for extra fun), are also a deterrent to many insects, and are often used in companion plantings to protect other prized edibles.

Wood Frog
Wood Frog By Ontley (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Wood Frog

The wood frog (Rana sylvatica or Lithobates sylvaticus), able to freeze solid as an ice cube over winter without any harm to itself, defrosts as early as late February in southwest Virginia, leaving its winter hiding spot under fallen logs or leaf litter and hopping to the nearest waterside.

After the first warm spell, wood frogs can be heard filling woodlands and swamps with their quacking call.  Visit the wood frog's page on the enature website to hear their duck-like croaks.

Though diminutive in size, growing up to just three inches long, these sturdy frogs are the only frogs that can live north of the arctic circle, due to their amazing ability to freeze solid safely all winter.  To see a frozen wood frog "defrosting", check out this YouTube video.

American Robin
American Robin By Sujit kumar (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

American Robin

The appearance of the American robin (Turdus migratorious) foraging in fields and yards is one of the most well-known signs of spring.

Though they can live in this area year-round, they spend most of the winter roosting in trees, and their re-appearance in the yard is quite noticeable in late winter (February and early March).

Though often called "robin redbreast", their breast feathers are actually a deep orange.

Other than a quibble over color, though, this classic worm-puller of children's books has not been wrongly portrayed.  They are happy to eat earth worms for breakfast, but will also enjoy a meal of snails or insects.  They prefer an afternoon meal of berries or fruit, however, and have even been known to get "drunk" on honeysuckle berries in the fall.

Unfortunately, because of their preference for yards, lawns, and open spaces, robins are highly susceptible to poisoning by pesticides.

Spring Peeper
Spring Peeper By brian.gratwicke (Spring Peeper) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Spring Peeper

Within weeks of the wood frog's reanimation and calling, spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) join the party, adding their high-pitched peeps to the nighttime soundtrack of the spring wetlands.

Even smaller than the wood frog (see previous slide), the spring peeper only grows to about an inch long.  Recognizable by its tiny size and the large X on its back that contributed to its scientific species name (crucifer means cross).

These nocturnal singers spend the night eating flies, bugs, and beetles, with only males peeping to attract a mate.

The male frogs make the peep sound by filling a large, stretchy area of skin under their chin, called a vocal sac, with air and then pushing the air out to make a loud peep.  These peeps can be heard up to a mile away and males can peep as quickly as once each second.

Some sources say that the lady peepers prefer males that can peep loudest and fastest.  To watch a male spring peeper do its singing thing, check out this video on the Encyclopedia of Life's spring peeper web page.

Eastern Redbud
Eastern Redbud By OKtag at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Eastern Redbud

The Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) was aptly named for its dark fuschia buds, but when it bursts into bloom it would be better named "pinky purple spring awesomeness tree". 

Native to this area, the redbud can be seen throughout the understory of mountainside forests, splashing the still-gray landscape with an orchid purple that cannot be missed.

The Eastern redbud is also a favorite of home landscapers because it thrives in the yard, growing 15-30 feet tall and about as wide, bringing a striking spring display and also great wildlife value.

The early blooms on the redbud help both wild bees and honeybees by providing pollen and nectar in the early spring.  The little, brown Woodland (or Henry's) Elfin butterfly is also known to sip redbud nectar.

Those pollinators, in turn, become food for birds that are storing much-needed energy for spring mating.

As leaves emerge, not only the Woodland (Henry's) Elfin, but also the Spring Azure butterfly and the Io Moth will lay their eggs here so that their caterpillars can munch and grow on redbud.

Flowering Dogwood
Flowering Dogwood By Fritzflohrreynolds (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Flowering Dogwood

The flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) blooms around the same time that the Eastern redbud does, and when both are in full bloom, there can be no doubt that spring has arrived.

This native forest understory tree also makes a great landscape plant because it is fast growing, loved by wildlife, and absolutely gorgeous when it blossoms in early spring.

The large "flowers" of the dogwood are generally white or pink, and are not really its flowers, but modified leaves called bracts.  The actual flowers of the dogwood are the many, small, green and yellow structures clustered at the center of the bract.

The fruit of the dogwood is a striking lipstick-red drupe (the scientific descriptor for fruit that has a "stone" in the center, such as a peach or cherry) that is eaten by many animals, including:

  • Northern cardinal,
  • Eastern bluebird,
  • American robin,
  • Wild turkey,
  • Raccoon,
  • Red fox,
  • Eastern chipmunk,
  • Common grackle,
  • Gray squirrel,
  • Beaver, and
  • White-footed mouse