Spring feels like the most fleeting of seasons. It often keeps one foot planted in winter through much of April, then leaps into summer sultriness as early as May. Don’t waste another moment: get outdoors and enjoy the transience of spring by discovering its transients — the wild plant and animal life that is flitting through our fields and forests, even as you read this sentence.
and it’s / spring / when the world is puddle-wonderful
— E. E. Cummings
Once the ground thaws but before the leaves of deciduous trees unfurl, a unique group of native perennials emerge from our woodland floors. Known as spring ephemerals, they take advantage of this brief window of sunlit opportunity to sprout, flower, and reproduce. Some bloom for but a few days, then disappear completely until the following year. Fleeting and delicate, they slake our winter thirst with dainty sips of floral beauty.
Spring ephemerals may be purchased from reputable suppliers (don’t collect them from the wild — you can harm habitat and endanger plant populations!) and incorporated into cultivated gardens, but are truly best when enjoyed in their natural setting. The earliest of the ephemerals to flower is Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica); its sweet white blooms striped with dark pink cluster pertly among its grass-like leaves. The feathery, dusty green foliage of Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) dons charming pantaloon-shaped flowers that inspired the common name. The pristine blooms of Nodding Trillium (Trillium cernuum) bow reverently beneath a whorl of three leaves, while its funky cousin Purple Trillium (T. erectum) proudly displays its foul-smelling maroon flowers above the foliage — all the better to be seen and smelled by the carrion flies that act as its pollinators.
Vernal pools are ephemeral wetlands that form in shallow depressions in the landscape. Fed by spring precipitation and snowmelt and generally dry by late summer, they provide critical breeding habitat for many amphibians and invertebrates. Search forests, meadows, even your own backyard for one of these fleeting aquatic nurseries — or just grab a flashlight and follow the chorus of serenading Spring Peepers, Grey Tree frogs and quacking Wood Frogs on a warm, rainy night. Like Spadefoot and American toads, they move from forest to pool to mate and lay their eggs. Mole salamanders such as the spotted, marbled and Jefferson (all of which are either threatened or of special concern in the Northeast) emerge from their below-ground winter hideaways and make their way — sometimes up to half a mile — to the pools as well.
Return by day to look for the outcome of the noisy nights of amphibian passion: eggs, either in bead-like strings or massed around submerged vegetation, and the resulting tadpoles and larval salamanders. Gently plumb the pools with a dip net (being careful not to dislodge egg masses from their attachments) to find fairy shrimp, dragonfly and damselfly nymphs. You may even uncover the caterpillar-like larva of the caddis fly, which fashions protective tubular cases from twigs, leaves, tiny pebbles and other found materials.
Just passing through…
Of the more than 450 bird species seen in New York State, only about 245 actually nest here, meaning that many are just passing through on their way to other breeding grounds. Even those that do remain in the region, such as the vast variety of warblers, become much more difficult to spot once the trees leaf out. Now is the time to grab some binoculars and a field guide — or better yet, join a bird club and accompany some experienced birders — to catch a glimpse of our feathered vernal visitors.
In spring, even a young bird’s fancy turns to thoughts of love, and no bird displays its romantic side more dramatically than the American woodcock (Scolopax minor). This month, find a forest clearing or grassy field adjacent to a moist woodland, settle in quietly at dusk, and you may be lucky enough to witness the woodcock’s most unusual courtship ritual. After some vocalizations — a repetitive nasal peent — the male begins its flight, spiraling upward as high as 200 – 300 feet, its flight feathers producing a high-pitched twitter. Following an abrupt fluttery descent, the woodcock begins the process again and may continue the pattern for thirty minutes.
Now you see ’em, now you don’t
Spring is here, in all her ephemeral beauty! Unpack your child-like sense of wonder from the mothballs, and start exploring. And try not to blink.
To Learn More…
Books: Visit your local independent bookseller and get yourself some field guides; no household should be without them!
Native Knowledge Conference
Great info on the creatures you’ll find in
these ephemeral wetlands
To locate your local bird club
A wealth of bird info and opportunities to participate from home in Cornell Lab of Ornithology research