Bay Journal

Spring is in the air, as well as the Chesapeake’s forests, waters

  • By Kathy Reshetiloff on April 01, 2007
As trees and flowers blossom, there is an explosion of insects. Right on their heels are migratory birds that eat them, such as the prothonotary warbler.  (John and Karen Hollingsworth / USF&WS) The bullfrog is the largest frog in North America.  (Isaac Chellman / USF&WS) Shad are prized for their succulent meat and tasty roe.  (USF&WS)

All around, there is an eruption of life beyond the typical signs of spring like robins and crocuses. The land, skies and waters—quiet and gray throughout the winter months—now sing day and night and burst with color.

In the waters, anadromous fish, like shad, journey from oceans to rivers to spawn. The word anadromous comes from the Greek word meaning “running uphill.”

What’s really amazing is these fish return to the same area where they were born. How they accomplish this remains a mystery. Many scientists believe that this homing instinct may be due to an uncanny sense of smell and sensitivity to magnetic signals, polarized light and unique characteristics of the natal stream or waterway.

Prompted by rising temperature, shad leave the ocean to spawn from March through June. Spawning runs of the American shad (Alosa sappidissima) are particularly famed in the Chesapeake Bay. Native Americans harvested shad and taught colonists how to catch them.

By the 1800s, fishermen caught shad by the ton. Farmers took advantage of this seemingly endless supply of fish, using shad as fertilizer for their fields. Shad are also prized for their succulent meat and tasty roe.

Meanwhile, in the understory of woodlands, another messenger of spring is appearing: creamy white blossoms of the serviceberry tree (Amelanchier spp.). The flowers often appear in mid-April, before other flowering trees, making them quite conspicuous against the background of a still gray forest.

The common name, serviceberry, is believed to come from a colonial tradition. After the spring thaw, clergy would ride a circuit through the mountains to provide services to those who had died over the winter. This usually coincided with the blooming of the serviceberry shrubs. In the East, they are also known as shadbush because they flower around the same time that shad are spawning.

There are about a dozen Amelanchier species native to the United States. They range from low-spreading shrubs to tall trees. These flowering shrubs and trees are a food source for early pollinating insects. The word Amelanchier is an ancient Celtic word for “apple.” The sweet, reddish purple fruits are an important food for songbirds, squirrels, bears and other woodland wildlife.

Besides being an important source of food for wildlife, serviceberries make excellent additions to one’s yard. In addition to the early white blossoms and dark fruits, serviceberries have brilliant fall colors of yellow and orange that deepen to red.

Also in the woodlands and meadows throughout the Northeast, spring rains are creating temporary ponds known as vernal pools. Vernal pools may be small and inconspicuous but they explode with activity as frogs and toads call to attract mates and breed.

The Greek word, amphibios, means “creatures with a double life.” Amphibians spend part of their lives living in water and part living on land. Most amphibians lay soft eggs in water. Toads and frogs eggs hatch into tadpoles, which can only survive in water. As the larvae grow, they go through radical physiological changes, a process known as metamorphosis, transforming them into adults.

Wood frogs (Rana sylvatica) migrate to vernal pools early in the spring. Their call is a hoarse clacking sound, reminiscent of a quack. The wood frog is an explosive breeder, usually laying a large mass of eggs in a few days and leaving soon after.

The spring peeper (Hyla crucifer), a tree frog, follows the wood frog by a week or two. Its unmistakable mating call, the peep, and large geographic range makes the spring peeper one of the most familiar frogs in North America. Its mating call can sometimes be heard up to a half a mile away.

Another familiar amphibian is the American toad (Bufo americanus). Its habitat ranges from mountains to backyards. American toads are found wherever there are moist places, plenty of insects to eat and shallow waters to breed. Despite their warty appearance, their mating call is a pleasant musical trill.

As the landscape gets greener and trees and flowers blossom, there is an explosion of worms, spiders and insects. And right on their heels are migratory birds.

Although they nest in North America, these birds eat foods that are not available in winter—such as insects and pollen—and must migrate to South and Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean. As spring returns to North America, so do these species, following their food sources to the birds’ breeding grounds.

More than 360 species of birds make this annual migration, including songbirds—such as warblers, thrushes, tanagers and vireos—some raptors—hawks, kites and vultures—and a few waterfowl, such as teal.

Some of these birds are common: the American robin, eastern bluebird, ruby-throated hummingbird, gray catbird, purple martin, barn swallow and chimney swift. Others, such as the red-eyed vireo, scarlet tanager, wood thrush and Cape May warbler, may be familiar only to bird watchers.

Like frogs and toads, birds sing to attract their mates. The bold spring colors of males also help to entice females. Birds add color, song and aerial displays as they ready for nesting.

Spring Wildlife

Check out these sites to learn more about spring wildlife:

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About Kathy Reshetiloff

Kathryn Reshetiloff is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office in Annapolis.

Read more articles by Kathy Reshetiloff

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