As we emerge from winter, the skies, waterways and land are bursting with plants and animals heralding the coming of spring. Plants are the first indicators that seasons are changing. Tightly packed buds begin to slowly unfurl their green treasures.
One of the earliest plants, skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) can appear as early as February, often popping up through snow. In fact, respiration from skunk cabbage often creates enough heat to melt any snow surrounding the plant.
Skunk cabbage is a low-growing plant found in swamps, wet woods and stream borders. The name comes from the plant’s large, cabbage-like leaves and strong, fetid odor emitted when certain parts of the plant are touched or bruised. The plant’s putrid smell attracts flies, which help to pollinate the plant.
Another, more familiar plant is also found in damp woods and swamps. Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arapaima triphyllum) appears as early as March. It sports a purple and green mottled hood, known as a spathe (the pulpit) enveloping club-shaped spadix (the Jack) of male and female flowers. Flowering occurs later than skunk cabbage, usually March through June. The fruit, a cluster of red berries on the spadix, appears late in the summer through fall and is relished by pheasant, turkey and wood thrush.
Another sign of spring is the creamy white blossoms of the serviceberry tree (Amelanchier spp.). Its flowers appear before those of other flowering trees, making them quite conspicuous against the background of a still gray forest.
There are about a dozen Amelanchier species native to the United States. They range from low-spreading shrubs to tall trees. The downy serviceberry or shadbush is a small tree that begins blooming in March.
The name serviceberry is believed to come from a colonial tradition. After the spring thaw, the clergy would ride a circuit through mountainous regions to provide services to those that had died in the winter. This circuit usually coincided with the blooming of serviceberry shrubs. Also known as shadbush, the flowering occurs around the same time as anadromous fish like shad return to their springtime spawning grounds.
Anadromous literally means swimming uphill. Most of the year, these fish inhabit offshore Atlantic waters. Warming temperatures and lengthening days prompt them to swim up the Chesapeake Bay to freshwater to spawn, usually returning to the same river in which they were born. How they do 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.
Alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus), hickory shad (Alosa mediocris) and American shad (Alosa sapidissima) generally spawn from March through June while blueback herring (Alosa aestivalis) begin in April.
Still other types of wildlife are returning from long migrations. Absent from buoys, bridges and channel markers, ospreys (Pandion haliaetus) are returning to the Chesapeake Bay. Like many other migratory birds, they spent the winter in the Caribbean, and Central and South America.
Ospreys usually mate for life, and will use the same nest site year after year. Upon returning to the Chesapeake Bay each spring, reunited pairs begin the task of nest building or repair. Younger, first-time nesters must first attract and court a mate. Spring courtship marks the beginning of a five-month period when the pair works together to raise their young.
I know that spring has officially arrived the first time I hear spring peepers (Hyla crucifer crucifer). Like other frogs, male peepers sing to attract females. The mating call, a high-pitched ascending whistle, can sometimes be heard up to a half-mile away. From February to March, spring peepers leave the trees to mate in open water. Temporary ponds in forested wetlands are the main breeding sites. These ponds may last a few days or a few weeks but are critical to the life cycle of peepers and other amphibians.
Peeper breeding actually follows the wood frog by a week or two. But the peeper’s unmistakable mating call and large range make it one of the most familiar frogs in North America.
These are our harbingers of spring. It’s hard to imagine our world without them. No matter how common they seem, however, their survival is not guaranteed. As long as we continue to protect and restore the wetlands, uplands and waterways that wildlife needs to live and breed, they will continue to return to grace our lives.