Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Some Signs of Spring As We Head North

In middle April a sizeable proportion of the human population of the Englewood, FL,  area either have left for their northern summer homes or soon will do so.  We got a preview of what is in store for us with a quick trip to the coastal plain of NC the first week of April.  It was still cool at night but warm in the afternoon and a wonderful springtime was in full swing.  We spent one night in Greenville, NC (home to East Carolina University), and I was very impressed by the Greenway along the Tar River which flows right through town. 

Plants are the typical harbingers of spring and nothing reveals this more than the emergence of the intensely green leaves of bald cypress.  Large cypress are many hundreds of years old and very impressive monarchs of the swamp.  But the wildflowers on the forest floor reveal spring in all its beauty.  The coral honeysuckle is a classic hummingbird nectar source with a long corolla tube and bright red color. 

The dogwood illustrates how a white flower can be beautiful.  Actually the multiple tiny flowers pollinated by bees are clustered in the middle with showy white bracts around them.  It is a classic example of fruit abortion whereby only a few of the fertilized flowers produce fruit.

The may apple is toxic but produces an edible fruit when ripe if it has two leaf stems. 

The yellow buckeye is also toxic and has become quite common in eastern forests where deer have eaten most of the rest of the understory plants.   The flowers are pollinated by bees and the nuts can be eaten after roasting to detoxify them.

One of the beautiful butterflies that become common in spring is the tiger swallowtail, here shown "puddling" in a group while drinking salt rich fluid from animal feces.  The nectar diet of butterflies is quite deficient in salts so they seek out sources of minerals such as sodium wherever they can find them, and obviously they are not too particular!

The cool nights and warm sunny days encourage basking behavior in reptiles such as these yellowbelly sliders.  Since their body temperature can only be raised and their bodily processes accelerated by external sources of heat, they actively seek out basking sites.

Both American and southern toads tend to breed early in spring in shallow fishless ponds, and lay long strings of eggs, that hatch rapidly into small black tadpoles.  These gather together in groups of siblings and are thought to be toxic to predators.  The trilling calls of toads are one of the true signs of spring.

One of the many signs of spring are birds migrating and beginning to breed.  I happened to find this yellow throated warbler picking up nesting material along a river.  Since this species spends the winter in our FL yard, it was exciting to see one breeding in NC.

So enjoy this most marvelous time of year, since nothing in the natural world quite compares with the excitement of the spring season.

Bill Dunson


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