Male red-winged blackbird

Spring is when you feel like whistling even with a shoe full of slush.  Doug Larson

Following a relatively mild winter, this spring has been a bit of a chiller so far. Forsythia in the north a yellow bud and central areas of Connecticut barely have yellow flower buds showing and star magnolias are just starting to show a few blooms. Spring may be slow to start, but at least it isn’t winter.

Spring peepers are singing, and have been for about three weeks. These harbingers of spring provide a cheery chorus for those fortunate enough to live near ponds. They were joined a couple of weeks later by wood frogs, who have a more throaty but equally welcome spring song.

Spring peepers live up to their name

Painted turtles, the first of which I saw in February on a 60 degree day, can be seen on warmer days sunning themselves on partially submerged logs and rocks. Spotted salamanders have already laid their eggs in vernal pools, and wood frogs should be doing the same now. Check out vernal pools for the eggs of these amphibians, plus you may see some immature salamanders swimming around before they develop lungs and venture onto land.

painted turtle stretching

Painted turtle stretching out

 

Spring azure butterflies, Celastrina ladon, have a single brood, and flight may occur any time between late March and early June here in Connecticut. This is one of our first butterflies to emerge from its chrysalis, and can be seen obtaining nectar from early spring flowers such as bluets and violets.

spring azure on bluet May 19 2016

Spring azure butterfly on a native bluet flower

Another early flying butterfly is the Mourning cloak, easily identified by the upper sides of its large, chocolate brown wings that are edged with cream borders and lined inside that with lavender to blue spots. Imported cabbage white butterflies are arriving from their southern living quarters. This butterfly lays its eggs on members of the brassica family, which includes the wild mustards, including the invasive garlic mustard.

Mourning cloak early spring

Mourning cloak basking in early April

Migrating birds are slow to arrive, but the red-winged blackbirds have been back since early March, although some were even here in late February. Males arrive way ahead of females, which gives them plenty of time to select the best nesting sites in advance. Some warblers may fly through just before invasive honeysuckles leaf out. Palm and black and white warblers are some of the earliest to arrive. Palm warblers flick their rusty tail, much as phoebes do, and they move on northward to their breeding grounds. Many black and white warblers remain here to breed in woodlands.

palm warbler on migration in April pamm Cooper photo

Palm warblers sometimes migrate through before most plants have leafed out

Forsythia and star magnolias are just starting to bloom -later than normal this spring in northern Connecticut, but bloodroot and violets should be blooming any time now. These are important flowers for our spring pollinators. Japanese andromeda, Pieris japonica, has been blooming in some places since late March, and this is also visited by early spring flying bees. Along with pussy willows, this is a great plant for Colletes inaequalis, the earliest ground nesting bee which is active around the time  native willows start to bloom.

Japanese Andromeda flowering in early April 2018 Pamm Cooper photo

Japanese andromeda flowers in late March

Check out streams for marsh marigolds and watercress, and dry sunny, woodland areas for native trout lilies that usually start to bloom in late April or early May. Red trillium, Trillium erectum, sometimes has an overlapping bloom time with bloodroot, depending on the weather.

Watercress (Nasturtium officinale)

Watercress blooming in a woodland brook

 

Raccoons, foxes and many other animals may have their young from early spring through June. Some birds, including great horned owls, may have their young in late winter. Sometimes these owls use the nest that red-tailed or other hawks used the previous year.

baby raccoons June 2

Two week old raccoons in a sunny spot in the woods

 

While the central portions on the United States are having bomb cyclones this week that are bringing heavy snows and severe wind gusts, we should have snow here only in the form of a distant memory. I can live with that.

Pamm Cooper

 

 

 

 

 

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red- winged blackbird male Photo fcps.edu

Here we are on the first day of April and snow from yesterday is just melting away. I am  certain that we all hope that is the last of that stuff until next winter. But as March ends and April has arrived, so have some of the early birds of spring.

Every year the male red- winged blackbirds and the grackles arrive first- sometimes as early as February, like this year. Because of hard snow cover, they turn up at bird feeders until normal food supplies become available as the snow melts. This year there were horned larks again in February in the fields at Horse Barn Hill in Storrs, but snow cover pushed them out, probably to the shoreline. These birds are regulars in March in the fields around Meig’s Point at Hammonasset  State Park. They come and go early, so I time my visits accordingly.

Another early bird is the Eastern Phoebe, a flycatcher that I consider the true harbinger of spring. Once you see one, they seem to appear everywhere. They have a sweet “ peep “ call  and a raspy song that sounds like it is saying its name. I wonder if the bird was named for its call… These birds nest early and like flat sheltered spots like building eaves and bridge supports. These brownish gray birds have white undersides and  have a rather large head that may appear flat on top. They also wag their tails when perched. They are extremely active birds, darting from one small tree to another as they fly-catch. They often return to the exact same nesting site every year, so it can be easy to find out when they arrive.

Another bird making its appearance last week was the yellow- rumped warbler. This colorful bird has its more dapper plumage for the spring breeding season. Named for a splash of yellow on the rump, they also have a yellow and black patch on the

shoulder and a yellow crown. Upperparts are dark gray with black striping on the breast and back. The face sports a black mask and the chin is white. These birds usually travel in groups and can be discovered by observing birds that are foraging on the outer areas of the tree canopy or darting out from the canopy to capture insects on the fly. Listen for their sharp “ pick “ calls, coming from many birds moving through the trees.

In the fall, these birds lose their breeding plumage, but can still be identified by their flycatcing behavior, contact calls, and the yellow splashes on the rump and shoulders.

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Yellow-rumped Warbler in spring plumage Matthew Studebaker photo

 Palm and pine warblers are also among the earliest warblers to pass through our area on their way to northern breeding grounds. As the name suggest, the pine warblers are most often found where there is an abundance of pines. They can be easier heard than seen, so listen for a musical trill ( similar to a chipping sparrow or junco ) as they forage for insects and seed high up in pines. Palm warblers come in about the time when wild honeysuckle is leafing out and skunk cabbage is about eight to ten inches high. Listen for their weak trill and soft “ pick “ as they forage for food in swamps and bogs as well as in moist woods and areas of woodland ponds. They are dull brown on top with a rusty cap and yellow on the face and throat. Like the phoebe, the palm warbler also wags its tail revealing a splash of yellow under the tail.

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Palm warber in spring. Photo Kelly Azar.

I save the best for last- the American Woodcock a peculiar bird that is not soon to be forgotten when seen for the first time. It has a globular head with bill like a long, pointed straw and a plump oblong body. This woodland bird is superbly camouflaged in brown, black, buff and gray tones, and lying on the forest floor, it is virtually invisible. Twice I have almost stepped on one that was sitting on a nest, and only was aware of it as it flew away. Also found in scrubby fields, its diet consists largely of earthworms, which are found by probing the ground with their long, stout bill. Males can be heard in early morning or dusk as they use  a distinctive “ peent “ or “ beep “ call to attract females.

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American Woodcock John Ascher photo

They also have an acrobatic courting flight display that can be seen at dusk and dawn in the spring. After calling for a few minutes, the male takes off to a height a 100- 300 feet and then spirals down to the ground. In our area these birds have the nickname “ timberdoodles “. Some nature centers and birding clubs sponsor yearly outings to observe the male flight displays. The wood line on Horse Barn Hill Road in Storrs is one place to see these birds.

So spring is here at last, and the birds are coming in right on time. And the greener it gets, the more birds we will see. Enjoy!

 

Pamm Cooper