Signs of Spring

Terry Krautwurst shares the signs of spring and first sightings of frogs, flying kites, wild orchids, woodchucks and tree sap that occur when winter weather turns to spring warmth.

| April/May 2002

Signs of spring to watch for, from plants and animals to sights and sounds. 

Let me be the first to greet you happy new year. No, not the first of sullen January, a day only calendar watching human could consider noteworthy, Nature's new year, the real deal: spring, Take a look around. See? The signs of spring are everywhere.

Spring Frogs: Little Big Chorus

In some regions beginning as early as March, in others as late as May, evenings ring with the shrill pipings of spring peepers. Collectively the chorus rises and falls, a lilting, pulsating chiming at once delicate, like tiny bells, and deafening: The music can be heard for more than a quarter of a mile. The voices are the mating calls of males singing to silent females. Just how a female singles out Mr. Right from among the choir is a mystery, though the male's age is thought to be a factor. Larger, older males sing faster and apparently more fetchingly. Listen carefully and occasionally you may hear sharper trillings, the notes and cadence more emphatic. These are "back off" calls, warnings to other males trespassing on a singer's territory of 4 to 14 square inches-a tiny bachelor pad, but big enough for a frog only slightly larger than a human's thumbnail.

Flying Kites in the Sky

Hovering, swinging left, then right, dipping earthward, rising buoyantly again: In April and May, falconlike Mississippi kites — aptly named for their graceful, floating flight — return to our skies from wintering grounds in Brazil and Argentina. Nineteenth-century naturalist Alexander Wilson first spotted the swooping, insect-eating raptors on a Natchez plantation in 1810 — thus the Mississippi designation. Actually they're common throughout the southern Great Plains and are found elsewhere in varying numbers east and west, from Arizona and Colorado to South Carolina. Loss of original habitat, described by Audubon as along "rivers, lakes and bayous," and especially in bald cypress swamps, has forced kites to seek nest sites elsewhere, often in trees in notably human habitat such as golf courses. Kites defend nests fiercely, diving at and sometimes striking people who venture too close. Watch a kite sweep the skies for large insects such as grasshoppers, cicadas and dragonflies. With a screaming high-pitched phee phew the bird plunges rocket-like at a concentration of insects, brakes to snatch a victim, then glides as it gobbles its meal on the fly.

Wild Orchids: Deceptive Ladies

Think of orchids and you probably envision exotic tropical blooms. But orchids are the largest family of flowering plants, with at least 25,000 species described, and many grow in temperate regions. Among our largest and most common are the pink lady's slippers, which in early spring pop up like pink-chiffoned prom dates on a bare gym floor, brightening otherwise drab pine-oak forests across most of eastern North America. The plants get their name (and their nickname, moccasin flower) from the shoe-shaped lower petal, a bulbous pouch with a deep ridge in the front: an enticing, one-way path for pollinators. Lured inside by droplets of sweet fluid (lady's slippers don't secrete true nectar), the pollinator, most often a mining bee, can escape only through one of two small exits at the sac's rear. To get there it must push its pollen-covered back beneath the plant's stigma, or female part, thus pollinating the plant. On its way out, a fleshy, green disc showers its back with pollen for the next come-hither orchid. Not all lady's slippers-in-waiting are pollinated before they wither. But just one mature seed pod produces 10,000 seeds, helping to ensure future generations.

Lumbering Lotharios: Groundhogs

You'd think a veggie-loving animal that had slept three to six months without eating-and lost 40 percent of its body weight in the process-would head straight for the nearest salad pickings. But woodchucks awakened from their long winter's naps are driven by hunger of another sort. Males immediately go burrow-hopping in search of females, which in turn do not play hard to get. The brief period during which a pair mates is virtually the only time adult woodchucks share a burrow. The male soon moves on; the female gives birth a month later to four or five blind, furless, toothless pups. At three months the young leave to establish their own burrows and gobble all the food they can before winter.

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