Signs of Spring

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Male peepers songs serve as territorial markers, a pointed message from creatures slightly larger than a human thumbnail.
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Sounds of the season include the rise-and-fall chorus of male peepers serenading for mates.
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These delicate orchids are the ladies-in-waiting of spring. Pink lady's slippers get their name from their shoe-shaped petals, which also inspire their nickname, moccasin flowers.
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You say woodchucks, I say groundhogs. Either way, their fleeting connubial bliss is a dependable sign of spring.
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A handsome ruffed grouse emerges to search for the girl grouse of his dreams.

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.

Tree Sap: A Sugar Rush for Spring

Its true that sap rises with the coming of spring. But sap
falls, too, and moves side ways within a tree’s elaborate
circulatory system. Sap flow is hardly the sole domain of
spring. Throughout the growing season, hollow vessels in a
tree’s sapwood, or xylem, conduct water and nutrients up
from the roots to the leaves. Meanwhile, water laden with
sugars and other products of photosynthesis flows downward
from leaves to the branches, trunk and roots through
pipe-like cells in the phloem, or inner bark. In summer,
transpiration-the loss of water vapor through leaves-is the
pump that powers this two-way system. But the flow slows
when a tree loses its leaves in autumn. Sugars are stored
as starches in the trunk and roots for the winter. Then
spring. Just before leaves unfurl, the starches change back
into sugars, and root pressure-caused by water sucked from
the soil-pushes a rush of sugary sap up through the tree to
feed new plant parts. It’s this short-lived gush of
concentrated, pent-up sugars we humans eagerly tap into for
syrup. Within weeks, freshly photosynthesizing leaves
produce enzymes that make even a sugar maple trees sap less
palatable.

Gardeners know too well the groundhog’s gluttony and often
welcome the animals with a .22-gun salute. But there’s a
good side to woodchucks, too: Their burrows provide homes
for all manner of other wildlife, including rabbits,
turtles and toads. Groundhogs also influence community
plant diversity. By nibbling away perennials in the areas
around their burrows, they provide nursery beds for
seed-producing annuals, which supply food for birds and
small mammals.

Drummer Boys: The Ruffed Grouse

The ruffed grouse, named for the black ruff feathers the
male puffs up like an over size fur collar during courtship
displays, is the most widespread native game bird in North
America: a forest resident in nearly three dozen states and
all of Canada’s provinces. In the Far North it shares range
with the spruce grouse, a bird otherwise known as a fool
hen for its unwise habit of standing in the open and
gawking at ap approaching humans. The ruffed grouse, in
contrast, is secretive, elusive and quick to take flight
hikers and hunters seldom get more than a glimpse.
Sometimes, though (and in spring, often), you can hear the
male’s distinctive love call, a drumbeat that starts with a
slow thump . . . thump . . . thump, and then quickens to a
baritone roll. The sound was once thought to be produced by
the bird’s wings beating against its chest or a hollow log.
But stop-motion photographs revealed the sound is made by
the bird’s cupped wings rapidly striking and compressing
the air.

Of course, there’s another sure-fire sign of spring, too: a
distinctly human phenomenon known as spring fever. Like
leaves bursting from winter buds, we throw open our cabin
doors and breathe anew. Ah, spring at last: fresh, honest
air, amiable weather, a clean slate, a whole new go at
exploring life. Happy new year, indeed.

Terry Krautwurst, a former senior editor for MOTHER EARTH
NEWS, is a nature writer who explores the world from his
home in the mountains of western North Carolina.

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