My “Arena of Delight”

March is a month of hope and resurrection in the natural world. I carry hope with me as we cycle through days of cold and snow, sunshine and warmth, and I bear witness to a variety of sights and sounds during my daily morning walks.

American woodcock

American woodcock (Photo by Fyn Kynd Photography on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

As soon as we have patches of open field, American woodcocks return from their wintering grounds in the southeastern United States. I stand outside at dusk listening and watching as they “peent, peent,” then fly high in the sky and twitter as they plunge back to earth and start over again. But no matter how many times they perform, it is never enough, and I am outside most evenings, waiting for encores.

On early March days I stand at the top of First Field, straining eyes and ears, watching as hundreds of tundra swans fly northwest in wavering flocks like white angels whistling in the wind.

Shortly afterward, the first turkey vultures rock past, catching the breeze wafting over First Field. Those black scavengers haven’t gone much farther than southern Pennsylvania, a few no more than 20 miles from here, yet we rarely see one after mid-November or before mid-March.

A tufted titmouse singing

A tufted titmouse singing (Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

March is also the official start for birdsong, although resident black-capped chickadees and tufted titmice have been singing off-and-on since late January. Still, I can expect to hear the singing of our wintering migrants in March—American tree sparrows, dark-eyed juncos, and white-throated sparrows—before they move farther north to breed.

Some birds that are migrating through the state, such as fox sparrows, also sing. Song sparrows, those that stayed and those that returned, keep up their relentless “spring is here” song even during cold snaps. But no sparrow song sounds sweeter than that of returning field sparrows and First Field soon reverberates with their downward spiraling songs.

A winter wren singing

A winter wren singing (Photo by Ron Knight in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Winter wrens that have spent the cold months near our stream sing the loveliest and longest song of all, and if we have any Carolina wrens they have been singing their rollicking song all year. Soon enough, eastern bluebirds, American robins, and northern cardinals add their songs to the mix.

It may not be a song, but when I hear the froggy-sounding “fee-bee” of eastern phoebes and see their sleek gray and white selves perching on our electric lines and flicking their tails, it seems as if spring is truly here.

Raptors too make first appearances, and on a warm March day I am treated to the sight of a pair of courting red-tailed hawks over First Field, renewing their monogamous bond by diving, screaming, and dangling their legs. As often as I’ve watched their preliminaries, I’ve never seen courtship feeding, interlocking talons or beaks, and spiraling together toward the ground during their aerial displays.

A cooper’s hawk in a deciduous woods

A cooper’s hawk in a deciduous woods (Photo by William H. Majoros in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Cooper’s hawks also set up territories and call, especially early in the morning, and usually in our deciduous forest. But last March they called from our spruce grove, which has been the breeding choice of sharp-shinned hawks for years. Because the grove is thick, I only know the sharpies are in residence when I hear their warning cries or see a parent perched nearby in a locust tree as I approach the grove, and finally in August when their offspring fledge and call over and over like lost children.

American kestrels are even more secretive, and even though a male returns in early March and sits expectantly on the powerline right-of-way most March days, no female appears while I’m watching. I always hope that a pair will set up housekeeping in one of the many holes pileated woodpeckers have drilled in the power poles, as a pair did back in the 1970s, when my sons and I enjoyed watching the newly-fledged young and their parents flying over the field, but it’s never happened again. They weren’t even tempted by the kestrel nest box we erected one spring.

A barred owl in the spring

A barred owl in the spring (Photo by Mark on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

For decades we had great horned owls courting in January, but over the last several years, as our trees have aged, they have been replaced by barred owls. Those owls breed later than great horned owls, and although they are liable to call all year, they call most frequently here in early March before egg-laying. They even call during the daytime, and I hear them in mid-morning as well as mid-afternoon somewhere behind the spruce grove.

Mammals are also stirring. Woodchucks are out and about, even though the males trotted from burrow to burrow in February to mate with ready females and gray squirrels and foxes courted late in January and early February. Black bears rarely appear until April, but I take in my bird feeders every night once it warms up in March.

Close-up of a porcupine (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

Close-up of a porcupine (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

Porcupines have been active all winter, but one of the first signs of spring is a porcupine eating tree buds high in the only surviving American elm tree in our exclosure. They also graze on grass like woodchucks. The first time I observed this, I thought it was unusual, but I see this behavior every spring. They are so busy eating that they pay no attention as I walk within eight feet of them and watch as they snap off and eat one grass stalk after another. If I get too close to one, it will look up, slowly turn around, and erect its rosette of quills. That’s when I turn around and leave it to its grass banquet.

On an early March day I am sometimes lucky enough to encounter eastern chipmunks mate-chasing. Last March I interrupted a male chipmunk chasing along Big Tree Trail, and when I sat down on a large log to watch, he ignored me. A couple times a female chipmunk ran 30 feet up a tree to a pileated woodpecker hole and took refuge from her male chaser. The many fallen trees provided runways for the chipmunks and included the one I was sitting on. There the pair paused, and it was the female that zipped past my feet and escaped. Two more timorous males that had joined the chase, stopped, waited a couple minutes, took an alternate path away from me, then quickly scented the female and followed her trail. She, in the meantime, had disappeared and they did too. Unlike once years ago, I did not see the mating of the chipmunks.

A wood frog floating during spring mating season (Photo by D. Gordon E. Robertson in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

A wood frog floating during spring mating season (Photo by D. Gordon E. Robertson in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

To witness the culmination of a courtship that happens during March, I spend hours at our vernal pond observing wood frogs. After spending the winter freeze-dried down in their burrows, they rise and hop to their natal pond. The males arrive first by the dozens, and they sound like quacking ducks as they call while swimming in the pond.

One warm, overcast day I encounter 100 wood frogs calling and swimming in our vernal pond as I creep from tree to tree, getting close to the action without being seen. A mating ball of masked, brown, male wood frogs tumble over a larger, pink female with one of her legs high in the air. From a tiny bear wallow 20 feet away, two more male wood frogs leap out and head for the larger pond as if drawn by the frenetic sound and action.

I move closer and closer and sit to watch less than ten feet away. They pay me no attention even as they call above a roaring March wind. A few climb out of the vernal pond and sit on logs in and around the water as they continue calling, their bodies shaking with the effort.

A mass of wood frog eggs

A mass of wood frog eggs (Photo by The Natural Capital on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

On later days the pond is quieter and the few wood frogs left much shyer. Still, when I slowly circle the pond, in its murky depths I see large clusters of jelly-like balls filled with eggs and know that later in the spring day by day I’ll watch the metamorphosis from eggs, to tadpoles, to tiny wood frogs that leave the pond to spend their lives in the leaf litter. Only occasionally do I see a wood frog until the following March when hundreds return to repeat a sight for me that never grows old. A video by Dave captures the spirit of the wood frogs in Plummer’s Hollow.


Sometime on a late, warm, March morning the eastern garter snakes emerge from the ground near our old well. At first the smaller males move around aimlessly, but then a larger female appears and the males rush to form a mating ball around her. I watch as they tumble down our hilly lawn. Only one male will inseminate her then, but it’s difficult to figure out which one because males emerge, join, leave, go back into holes, return, and finally the ball disintegrates as the snakes slither off in all directions.

Late in March the first chipping sparrows return and the first eastern towhees call. Ruffed grouse drum and migrating yellow-bellied sapsuckers mew like kittens. My favorite season is well on its way, and I’m grateful to be alive and able to appreciate my “arena of delight,” as poet Mary Oliver says, that is spring in Pennsylvania.

 

The Ides of March

red crossbill in the rain

red crossbill in the rain by Lynette Schimming (Creative Commons BY-NC)

Ah March! It is the month that raises and often dashes my hopes as it swings from winter to spring and back again until I am dizzy from keeping up with the changes.

Every high school student who has been forced to read William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar remembers the prophetic “Beware the Ides of March” spoken to Caesar by a soothsayer. For him it foretold the day of his assassination. For me, the 15th of March may be a bright, sunny day foretelling spring, a blizzard concluding winter, or, most likely, something in between. So it was on March 15, 2013.

Even though it was overcast and 27 degrees, I was happy to take my morning walk after many weeks inside because of a muscle tear. My destination was the Norway spruce grove where I hoped to see the red-breasted nuthatches that had been wintering there since the previous October.

As I approached the lower end of the grove, I paused to watch a small flock of black-capped chickadees fly into a black locust tree at the edge of the trail. From there my eyes were drawn to movement at the top of a Norway spruce which was thick with long, dangling cones.

Through my binoculars I first spotted a red-breasted nuthatch and was glad to see that one was still making use of the grove. With the nuthatch was a dark-eyed junco and—could it be—two male red crossbills and one female extracting seeds from the cones. I stood and watched them as long as my back and neck could stand it. Instead of “warbler neck,” as birders describe their discomfort while observing warblers high in the trees, I developed “crossbill neck” and was pleased to do so knowing that seeing these birds here would probably be a once in a lifetime experience for me.

Of course, I had seen that one female red crossbill in the spruce grove during our Christmas Bird Count on December 15, and I wondered if it was the same female that had brought the two males or if the three had merely encountered the grove during their migration. Or maybe they weren’t migrating. Red crossbills are known to breed wherever they find a mature cone crop, beginning as early as late December or early January. Still, that seemed unlikely and, in fact, according to our county report in Pennsylvania Birds, my red crossbills were the only ones observed here in March.

I scanned the treetops to look for white-winged crossbills but saw no sign of them. The red crossbills were silent and difficult to watch as they were often hidden behind the large cones. Still, I felt amply rewarded for venturing out on that dreary day.

buck eating birdseed

buck eating birdseed by CoolValley (CC BY-NC)

When I returned home, I found Hoover outside below the back steps. My husband, Bruce, had whimsically named this spike buck back in November because of the way he “hoovered” up birdseed. We thought he had been shot during rifle season because he had disappeared over the winter. But there he was back again and keeping the ground-foraging birds away this Project FeederWatch day when I count birds for the Cornell Laboratory of Birds. Since I was more interested in counting birds than feeding Hoover, I chased him away several times, but back he came like a bad penny. Finally, I ran after him, holding my broom high over my head. This caused much merriment among the males in my family, but it also discouraged that young buck for the rest of the day.

Most importantly, his rout encouraged 10 song sparrows to fly down and feed on the seed. They, it seemed, were migrating despite the weather.

In the evening our son Dave called me outside. An American woodcock was performing what the late, great conservationist Aldo Leopold called his “sky dance.” I grabbed my coat and rushed down to the barnyard to join Dave in our annual spring ritual. What better way to celebrate the coming of my favorite season.

Standing in the cold and damp, we could hear the woodcock “peenting” across First Field. Then we heard the twittering of his wings, but we couldn’t see him flying high and diving down in the dusky light. We listened several more times to his calls and twittering wings before giving up for the night.

For me, the Ides of March had been a wonderful day, foretelling spring, but for the woodcock it foretold his possible doom. It snowed that night, and the next day, when our caretaker, Troy Scott, drove up our road, he saw the woodcock standing in the corral area. When he drove back down, the woodcock was standing in the road ditch, drenched and disconsolate. The ground had frozen once again, making it impossible for him to poke into the earth and extract earthworms, his favorite food, or other invertebrates.

woodcock in snow

woodcock in snow by sighmanb (CC BY)

That was the last we saw or heard any woodcock last spring because it snowed off-and-on for well over a week and remained bitterly cold. Even the songbirds stopped migrating.

But some springs are better than others for observing woodcocks on our property. One spring a woodcock called so loudly that I heard him through the walls as I sat in our living room reading in the early evening. I crept out on the front porch and traced his calling to the flat area at the edge of the woods down slope from our house. Finally, he fluttered off toward the First Field.

I walked up First Field Trail past our garage following more “peenting” and had an excellent view of his flight skyward, but he landed far up the field toward the spruce grove. By then it was almost dark and I knew that he would be finished soon and resume in the early dawn light.

The following evening, I had stepped off our veranda to listen and first he called from the springhouse area, then on the trail above the garage, and again concluded far up First Field.

Another spring our son Steve and I watched a performing woodcock on the same trail above the garage, but that time the bird was so engrossed in his display that he kept landing and “peenting” a mere 20 feet from where we stood, giving me the best view ever of a singing woodcock.

Other than singing here in March, we’ve never found evidence of nesting even though our old field, small wetland, and forest edge should be ideal nesting ground. But the females are adept at hiding their nests, and while the polygynous males move on, females choose nesting areas, construct their ground nests, brood, and care for their young.

But at noon, one early August day, Bruce slammed on our car brakes to avoid hitting what appeared to be a young woodcock at the bottom of our mountain road. It continued bobbing its way up the left hand track of the road until it was stopped by a drain spanning the road that it couldn’t cross. That’s when it flew off. According to some researchers, August is the time when broods break up, and young woodcocks go their solitary ways, which is why I thought that the woodcock might be a youngster still learning how to survive on its own.

However, last spring, like Julius Caesar, the Ides of March did not bode well for at least one woodcock. March was a starvation month not only for our resident species, like the spike buck, but also for birds that returned too soon. Only the red crossbills had found sustenance here.

Woodcock at Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge

Woodcock at Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge by Tom Tetzner/USFWS (CC BY)

Vernal Pond Adventures

The largest of our vernal ponds in early April.

The largest of our vernal ponds in early April.

Once again I’m sitting beside our mountaintop vernal pond and wondering if this will be the year the wood frogs will make it out of the pond before the water disappears. A wood frog’s life span is about seven years, and for six years the pond has dried up before the wood frogs’ have fully developed. Some years their eggs are left high and dry; other years their tadpoles are.

A vernal pond is a temporary, fish-free wetland that fills in late winter or early spring and dries out by early summer in a good year. This pond is only several yards across and several yards long, depending on rainfall, and, unlike the tiny, 6-foot-wide pond at the base of First Field, I can’t get close enough to watch the courtship and mating of the frogs. I can hear their quacking calls, though, and I enjoy watching a wide variety of wild creatures that visit it even when I’m sitting quietly beside it, my back against an oak tree.

I find it incredibly peaceful to watch the pond as it reflects the trees in its still water. But this early March day a skim of ice over it glitters in the sunlight. Its surface has a medley of half circles and triangles artistically rendered by the ice-maker overnight.

On the thirteenth of March, as I near the vernal pond, circles appear in the water. I wonder if they can be disappearing wood frogs. I study the still, dark water and spot one small mass that I look at through my binoculars. A golden eye returns my gaze. I move closer and see a male wood frog stretched out in the water. Next to him is a stick with two clumps of wood frog eggs clinging to it. This unusually bold wood frog dives into the water but quickly resurfaces. Since I am still standing there, he sinks back under the water.

The vernal pond has already contracted, and I hope that the dark clouds rushing across the Allegheny Front will drop some rain on us and fill up the pond. But it doesn’t happen. Nevertheless, two days later, I find two wood frog egg masses in different areas. The gelatinous, fist-sized blobs contain several hundred eggs with black embryos.

By the 22nd of March, I count four separate egg masses, but the vernal pond is still shrinking. If the rain comes soon enough, the eggs may survive. And come it does, raining hard from 1:00 a.m. until mid-morning on March 24, filling up the vernal pond again.

The vernal pond in mid-March.

The vernal pond in mid-March.

It’s almost a month before I return to the pond. At the beginning of April, while hiking on Sapsucker Ridge with my sixteen-year-old granddaughter Eva, she steps on a branch and I trip over it, my left leg landing hard on a pointed rock. Nothing is broken or fractured the doctors tell me, but my leg and foot swell up and turn black and blue. I have, after all, injured my tibia, the bone just below my knee. After days of being veranda-bound and more days of slow, short walks, I finally make it back to a vernal pond seething with insect life, most notably water striders walking atop the water and looking for mosquitoes resting on the water just after they have emerged from their “wriggler” larval stage.

Various species of diving beetles also swim in the water on the hunt for invertebrate and vertebrate creatures, including the wood frog tadpoles. I have always marveled at how these insects find a vernal pond, especially this one, isolated on a mountaintop half a mile from the nearest stream and that one intermittent near its source. Apparently, they are able to fly to it from such water. But some species of diving beetles actually overwinter in the basin formed by a dried up vernal pond.

The wood frog eggs have long since disappeared from sight, colonized by the symbiotic algae Oophila amblystomatis, which turns them green. It’s been cold most of the month, delaying the hatching of the eggs. But near the pond I stop to admire the patch of spreading spring beauties, the only place they grow on our property. This is an open, mixed-oak forest close to our neighbor’s logging operation that took place several years ago. Not much has regenerated and the vernal pond is not as shaded as it used to be.

It’s now the fourth of May and torrid summer weather has returned. I practically stumble over a porcupine as I approach the vernal pond and send the creature scrambling up a large red oak tree. The vernal pond is a veritable tadpole soup—tadpoles by the dozens wherever I look, floating near the surface to warm themselves up now that the trees have leafed out and are shading the pond. They need the solar heat to develop quickly into frogs before the pond dries up. First they graze on the symbiotic algae still clinging to their gelatinous cradle, and then they feed on algae and leaf material on the pond’s bottom. They also may feed on each other, those that hatched first preying on the latecomers.

Three days of hard, cold rain follow, and once again the vernal pond is overflowing and seeping over into a series of wallow-sized pools. My pond-watching becomes an almost daily discipline as I sit and watch the tadpoles eating, swimming, and basking in patches of sunlight. In mid-May I hear clucking as a hen turkey circles behind me. Maybe she is hoping to catch some tadpoles for brunch.

water striders

Water striders

Often the tadpoles join in aggregations of ten on a submerged stick. Then there is a sudden flurry and they separate, but in a few seconds they gather together again, performing their own watery tadpole ballet. In addition to basking in the sun, perhaps they are finding refuge from predators in a crowd like flocks of birds do.

By the twentieth of May a few of the larger tadpoles are developing back legs. I sit close to the water and watch as the tadpoles continually surface to feed on the detritus floating on the water, then submerge, each tadpole swirling the water into a circle. I try counting the circles to figure out how many tadpoles still inhabit the pond, but the confusion of circles quickly confuses me. Instead, I settle back and enjoy the ambiance of the pond and surrounding woodland having long ago learned to tune out the occasional train whistle and the constant traffic noise on Interstate 99 at the base of the ridge.

A mourning dove sings without ceasing. Red-eyed vireos, eastern wood pewees and a scarlet tanager frequently add their songs to that of the doves. Water striders skate along the water. A common green darner dragonfly buzzes over the pond. Then an American crow flies in like a kamikaze fighter plane, veers when it sees me, and silently retreats.

There are more days of rain and again the pond overflows. The pond water is so dark that I can’t glimpse the tadpoles, but dozens of circles that gradually subside as I sit in front of the pond indicate their presence. Sitting beside the pond, a sudden nearby gunshot startles the tadpoles as much as it startles me. Not only do they have sharp eyes but sharp ears too.

Near the end of May, I’m serenaded by a robin and scolded by a hairy woodpecker while I sit beside the pond. I also see a dark-eyed junco, which should have been breeding farther north on the Allegheny Front or beyond by now. A mourning dove flies in to catch insects from the pond and goes off in a flurry when it realizes I am there. A black-and-white warbler sings. Chipmunks scold. Mosquitoes that probably have hatched in the pond circle me and force me to move on after I catch a glimpse of a few more tadpoles with back legs.

My vigil continues in June. By then, I wonder if those tadpoles will ever change into bandit-masked wood frogs. On June 8 many heads pop up from the water and stay up even though most tadpoles still have tails. Two male robins hold a song fest while a female chases all comers to the pond as her spotted youngster bathes. Later a tufted titmouse takes a bath. Chipmunks chase around the pond and one scampers up to me, pauses at my feet to look, and then continue its race with its rival. A pileated woodpecker pounds on a nearby tree trunk.

Wood frog in mating season

Wood frog in mating season (in the tiny, spring-fed pool at the bottom of First Field)

All the while a pleasant breeze blows, keeping biting insects away. The pond is slowly shrinking, but it is still a bathing and watering hole for birds and mammals alike.

The following day I spend another session at the vernal pond serenaded by the same two robins. Little mouths surface to catch detritus spread atop the pond, and once I see a tiny froglet hopping over a small section almost as if it could walk on water. Froglets are supposed to be between a half and 7/8th of an inch when they metamorphose. Their watery life is ending and none too soon.

A chipmunk approaches me with much trepidation, and when I don’t move, it goes to the pond and drinks. Then it scampers off.

Suddenly, the robins begin high octane scolding as if, after half an hour, they finally notice me. On and on they scold, but at last they subside.

When I am too stiff to sit any longer, I get up and walk back to the field path. There I find an enormous pile of fresh bear scat that wasn’t there before. It looks as if the robins were scolding a bear.

A couple days later, as I’m sitting by the pond, I hear crashing in the woods that sounds like a bear. Sure enough, one approaches the pond, and I ponder my position. It’s obviously hoping for a drink and doesn’t see or scent me. At last I stand up, and the bear looks up, sees me, and flees.

The vernal pond continues to fill every time it rains, and slowly the froglets depart, although I don’t see them. But there are fewer circles in the water, less little heads surfacing, every time I visit. How wonderful that after so many springs when the pond dried up too soon, our aging population of wood frogs will finally get some newcomers. The young frogs will spread out, traveling up to several hundred meters in all directions, making new homes in the leaf litter, and preying on a variety of arthropods.

But even as the pond shrinks and the froglets leave, I still seek quiet time beside it. One day, late in June, I encounter an eastern box turtle, floating in a couple inches of water, its eyes closed. At first I think it is dead, but when I touch it, it opens its eyes. Later, I learn that eastern box turtles like to soak and feed in vernal ponds.

Wood frog found under a rock in Plummer's Hollow Run in September

Wood frog found under a rock in Plummer’s Hollow Run in September

On another day, two doe wander past me and water at the pond while I sit a few feet away. Then they continue on their way. They never do detect my presence.

I can only wonder how many other wild lives are impacted by this small pond. Even though knowledgeable foresters will steer logging operations away from such places, most loggers either don’t know or don’t care about such refuges. Or they begin their logging operations in the fall when the ponds are dried up and they don’t recognize them for what they are.

My own life has been enriched by our vernal pond this water-full spring. Even after it is completely dried up, in broiling hot, droughty July, I wander back to sit under the oak shade. Where have all the wood frogs gone?

One day, on my daily walk, an adult wood frog hops across my path.

“There you are,” I say out loud as it hops quickly out of sight.

A Balmy March

eastern phoebe on lilac branch

eastern phoebe on lilac branch

Ah March! How eagerly we await it as we look for signs of spring between blasts of freezing winds and occasional warm days. On one windy day in mid-March, the first returning turkey vulture flies along Sapsucker Ridge. A calm, warm day brings back a singing field sparrow or eastern phoebe. As the earth thaws, American woodcocks perform their sky dance over First Field. By the end of the month, the first wildflower, a coltsfoot, lifts its golden disk sunward.

But last March wasn’t March as I have known it for the 40 years we have lived here on our west central Pennsylvania mountaintop. While the songbirds returned on schedule, the plants responded to the early, almost continual, May-like temperatures, by breaking all our previous blooming records. Instead of the steady spring progression of wildflowers, from late March to mid-May, most were blooming by the end of March.

It began on a balmy, warm March 11 with coltsfoot, which flowered four days ahead of its earliest date back in 2000. As the month progressed, the gap between the previous earliest date for many wildflowers, shrubs, and even trees, such as shadbush, widened.

I couldn’t keep up with all the changes. Because of that, some of my dates were probably a day or two behind where they should have been. For instance, round-leaved violets are usually out a few days before hepaticas and trailing arbutus, but by the time I checked on the violets, the hepaticas and trailing arbutus had been blooming for at least five days, beginning on March 18. Rue anemone flowered on March 24, a full month ahead of the previous year, and at least two weeks ahead of any other year. The following day swamp buttercups, long-spurred violets, and purple trillium appeared also a month before any previous year. Red maples, spicebush, and shadbush blossomed by the third week in March and red-berried elder, wild black cherry, blackberry, and striped maple leafed out.

All of the previously mentioned plants, except coltsfoot, are natives. But the non-natives and invasives were also way ahead of schedule. Our crocuses were a week early. Forsythia, daffodils, and hyacinths bloomed in our yard by mid-March and privet, multiflora rose, Japanese barberry, and garlic mustard burst into leaf.

The incredible warmth lasted until March 26. Then we had what we had feared—a killing frost. Our several hundred daffodils flopped to the ground and the forsythia flowers wilted and never recovered. The leaves of privet and multiflora rose similarly went limp but not those of Japanese barberry. However, all of them eventually rallied except for some of the daffodils and the forsythia blossoms.

bee-fly on an early coltsfoot blossom

bee-fly on an early coltsfoot blossom

The natives stood up to the 22 degree Fahrenheit temperature and continued to open. Lowbush blueberries dangled their pink and white, bell-shaped flowers on the powerline right-of-way, common blue violets blanketed the path through Margaret’s Woods, and early saxifrage blossomed on the Far Field road bank. Not one early wildflower drooped.

But on March 29, when the temperature shot back up to 70 degrees, our pear trees bloomed. That’s when I began to seriously worry about our warm March. I knew a frost would kill the blossoms and the possibility of fruit in late summer. And that’s what happened on the thirtieth of March.

Throughout April, the temperature waxed and waned but the plants, once started, seemed unable to stop despite the colder days, and I continued to record record-breaking dates for all of them. In early summer the lowbush blueberry crop failed. In late summer there were no wild apples, pears, or wild black cherries for the wild creatures on our mountain, and in the fall there were few wild grapes or acorns. Our black walnut trees did produce a bumper crop probably because they are the latest of trees to leaf out and flower, but the hickory trees in the woods did not have any nuts.

Our local orchard in the valley didn’t fare well either. Although cooler April temperatures did slow down the blossoming of some trees, hard frosts near the end of April froze the cells of the new leaves and blossoms. Because of that, they had no apricots, sweet cherries, or pears, very few sour cherries and plums and half the usual crop of apples and peaches to sell. But they do grow several varieties of peaches and apples so the trees didn’t blossom all at once. Diversity, both in wild and domestic crops, was the key to withstanding, to some extent, the unusually warm March and cold April.

Apparently, keeping records of blooming dates for plants and the emergence or migration dates for insects and birds makes me an amateur phenologist or someone who studies phenology, which is defined as the study of the effects of seasons on plants and animals.

Phenology was studied as early as 974 B.C. by the Chinese, but it was the Swedish taxonomist Carolus Linnaeus, who lived from 1707 to 1778 and recorded flowering times for 18 locations in Sweden over many years, who shared the title “Father of Phenology” with Englishman Robert Marsham (1708-1797). Marsham kept systematic records of what he called “Indications of Spring.” From 1736 until 1796 on his country estate Stratton Strawless in Norfolk, England, Marsham recorded 27 signs of spring including the flowering dates of four species, the leafing dates for 13 tree species, the arrival and first songs of migrant birds, and signs of the breeding activity of rooks, frogs, and toads. His descendants kept up the tradition until 1958 when his last descendant, Mary Marsham, died.

Robert Marsham portrait by Johann Zoffany

Robert Marsham portrait by Johann Zoffany (courtesy Wikimedia Commons – public domain)

Marsham was especially enamored of trees and planted thousands, most of which were cut down during the two world wars, but a giant cedar remains that he planted in 1747 as well as an avenue of ancient oaks.

He also corresponded with fellow Englishman, the Reverend Gilbert White, who kept similar records on which he based his seminal nature book The Natural History of Selbourne, published in 1789, which was accompanied by his The Naturalist’s Calendar. Thus began in England a tradition among amateur naturalists to keep phenological records that naturalists in other European countries imitated.

Here in the United States, naturalists, both amateur and professional, have kept such records, but most are buried in herbaria, museums, archives, and family papers. One researcher, Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie, is studying such information in the herbaria and archives of Acadia National Park in Maine. She hopes her research will track the ecological effects of climate change on plant communities over time.

More formally, The Lilac Network, funded by the United States Department of Agriculture, began in the late 1950s in the western United States. Using the non-native common purple lilac plant (Syringa vulgaris), volunteers recorded “first bloom,” “full bloom,” and “end of bloom” in an attempt to use phenology “to characterize seasonal weather patterns and improve predictions of crop yield,” according to their website.

In 1961 the central United States and in 1965 the northeastern United States joined in, and volunteers observed the cloned plants of the lilac cultivar Syringa chinensis “Red Rothomagensis” and added dates also for “first leaf” and “95% full leaf.”

Today, as climate change accelerates at an unprecedented rate, phenology is more important than ever. That’s why the National Ecological Observatory Network launched Project BudBurst in 2007. According to their website, “We are a network of people across the United States who monitor plants as the seasons change by timing the leafing, flowering, and fruiting of plants.” Thousands of folks from all 50 states—school groups, backyard naturalists, gardeners, seniors in retirement communities, scout groups, college professors and their students, hikers, botanists and ecologists, and visitors to botanic gardens, national parks and wildlife refuges—are producing data that scientists can use “to learn more about the responsiveness of individual plant species to changes in climate locally, regionally, and nationally.”

Mayapple blossoms where the coltsfoot bloomed a month earlier

Mayapple blossoms where the coltsfoot bloomed a month earlier

Their website has a list of targeted plants by state that volunteers can use. The plant groups include wildflowers and herbs, grasses, deciduous trees and shrubs, and conifers for Pennsylvania. Both natives and non-natives, even invasives like Japanese knotweed, are included. Under wildflowers and herbs are such plants as jack-in-the-pulpit, large-flowered trillium, mayapple, and Japanese knotweed. Deciduous includes forsythia, common lilac, shadbush, red maple and flowering dogwood, and conifers are eastern red cedar and eastern white pine. Volunteers can choose one or many plants to monitor using either the Project’s suggestions or plants of their own choice.

While I have been contributing to a variety of citizen science bird-related studies over the years, I have never been involved in submitting plant-related data. I have always hoped that my nature journals and records will be of value to researchers in the future, especially as our climate continues to change, so Project BudBurst looks like a program I can sign on to, and mayapple will probably be my chosen plant. We have several huge patches on our property. Last spring the first flowers opened on April 27 but the first bud appeared on April 18. The cold of April did hold back that wildflower more than most, but still it bloomed a full week ahead of time.

Project BudBurst sums up their mission statement in haiku form that they hope will inspire more people to volunteer:

People watching plants
Contributing to research
Join BudBurst

For more information on Project BudBurst, you can consult their excellent, informative website.

Photos by Dave Bonta (click for larger versions)