Finding Spring

This year’s transition from winter to spring has felt decidedly odd in the Washington, DC area. We’ve had eighty degree February weather, a windstorm that literally blew away the Potomac River, and alternating bouts of warmth and snow. Last Saturday I took a walk and was sleeted upon; Sunday I hiked for hours in temperatures approaching sixty degrees. Tuesday brought more sleet, which transitioned into several inches of snow on Wednesday almost all of which melted on Thursday. I’m paraphrasing my wife in saying that this March came in like a lion and went out like a second, bigger lion that ate the first lion.

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The weather, and some other obligations, have kept me from spending as much time exploring nature as I’d like in 2018. So, I made an effort last weekend to hunt spring deep into all the darkest corners where it might be hiding. Good news! Despite the weird weather patterns, it’s not really in hiding. I just needed to go outside and pay attention.

IMG_6003What did I find in my search for spring? Mostly the expected. Spring migratory birds haven’t really returned yet (although some of the earliest arrivals, like eastern bluebirds and tree swallows, are starting to pop up). I haven’t noticed any amphibian eggs. So, the signs of spring are mostly relegated to plants. The perennials in my own yard are starting to come back. Red maples are blooming abundantly now, making an odd cranberry accent to the snowfall. Skunk cabbage is up; daffodils and crocuses are emerging. Lesser celandine is blanketing the streamside woods and choking out native plants. Snowdrops are a lovely non-native that is also in bloom. Perhaps the most exciting are the nascent Virginia bluebells I found along the Northwest Branch Trail. I didn’t recognize them at this early stage, but a passing jogger remarked on them as I was lining up a photo.

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I was less than thrilled to find just how many of these early-blooming flowers and other plants are non-native. I already mentioned the lesser celandine and snowdrops, but the daffodils and crocuses are also escaped ornamentals. I also came across lenten roses (Helleborus sp.), Japanese spurge, garlic mustard, and ground ivy. I know the mile-a-minute and porcelainberry explosion is well on its way. Oh, and English ivy is a whole thing, too. It’s enough to make me want to sign up for every single invasive plant removal event, or maybe even start my own vigilante effort.

A gimmick I used to get myself going is the iNaturalist smartphone app. I had downloaded it some time ago but never really used it. It allows one to upload photographs and crowd-source the identification. You can suggest your own ID (or not) and other naturalists will weigh in. You can also explore existing photos in a given area for guidance and help others firm up their IDs. Various citizen-science (and some just-for-fun) projects are available to join. Virtually all of my observations so far have received corroboration or clarification the same day, so the community is definitely active enough to make it worthwhile.

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A patch of Japanese spurge – a plant helpfully identified by iNaturalist.

I suspect this will be a tremendous tool for expanding life lists, especially plants, as it can effectively serve as a hyper-localized field guide. It has already helped me identify species from more than twenty old photos that had been bugging me, and resulted in quicker and easier identification of some new photos. I think I have already helped others with a few, too. If naturalism is your bag, I highly recommend using this app. That recommendation is partly motivated by self interest, to be sure. The more data points I can talk others into providing, the better tool it will become for all its users.

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A nickernut tree (Guilandina bonduc) in the Everglades. iNaturalist made this identification possible for me years later.
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drooping star-of-Bethlehem (Ornithogalum nutans), another retro-ID

In other spring news, this year’s crop of seedlings is well on its way. This process always feels a little like grabbing spring by the scruff of its neck and dragging it into place. This year I’ve got heirloom tomatoes (a line Laurel’s grandfather started in Maine), morning glories, and sunflowers. I’m also trying to start a few more perennials – various milkweeds, bee balm, goldenrod, and New York ironweed – for the butterfly garden. I cleared quite a bit more space in the fall so I am looking to fill much of it this year. I also bought a butterfly feeder (basically a stand with a bowl and a sponge for nectar). I think this year’s garden is going to be very close to the full vision I had several years ago.

12 Months of Nature: April

Early Spring Wildflowers/Blue Ridge In Blossom

As always, this month’s journey was selected from Seasonal Guide to the Natural Year. The advantage to “early spring wildflowers” as a topic is that one can experience them more or less anywhere, without the need to target a specific destination. I chose Shenandoah National Park (specifically Big Meadows and the Mill Prong Trail) because it’s one of my favorite places and because it happened to coincide with another chapter in the book: The Blue Ridge in Blossom, also wildflower-related. Laurel, Frosclin and I hopped in the car on Good Friday and made our way there.

I have to admit, when we arrived at Big Meadows the wildflower prospects did not look quite like I had hoped…

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Yeah. I later learned that this was a “prescribed” burn, meaning it was initiated and controlled by the Park Rangers. This is good for the environment but bad for people hoping to spot some exotic wildflowers in the meadow. Instead the meadow was charred and desolate at first glance. However, it was bursting with song sparrows (somehow still able to hide quite well) and other birds. At the woods’ edge one could almost feel the life poised to spring back out onto the open plain as soon as the time was right. Seeing the place like this was a mixed bag of emotions. We’ve been there in all four seasons and it shows stark differences from one to the next. Now we can add “fire season” to that list. It was fascinating, and I know the fire wasn’t “bad,” but I couldn’t help feeling a little bit wistful standing there among the ashes.

Things immediately returned to normal once Laurel chose the Mill Prong Trail as the locus for the bulk of our trip. At first I thought we’d be looking at a bit of a thin selection of flowers while seeing mostly not-yet-flowering plants. It was a little early and despite the mild winter the mountains of Shenandoah tend to lag a couple weeks behind the DC area in blooming. For the first half-mile or so of our hike that rang mostly true: we found dandelions, purple and downy yellow violets, more bloodroot, cutleaf toothwort, and spring beauties in bloom alongside the greenery of mayapple and false hellebore (and some other green plants I lack the skill to identify without their flowers).

I was having that exact conversation with Laurel after spotting some trilliums that were just not quite ready to blossom when suddenly these kinds of plants began to give way to large-flowered trillium and trout lilies. scattered among them were a few wild geraniums and a smattering of star chickweed. Then we happened across a small patch of golden ragwort. Clearly spring had truly come to Shenandoah, and clearly Franklin had some sort of ragwort-related apprehensions.

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trout lily
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large-flowered trillium
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golden ragwort, one needlessly wary dog, and one regular dog

Rounding out the blossoms as we approached the Rapidan Camp (more on that in a minute) were buttercups, mock strawberries, wood anemone, chickweed (of the non-astral variety this time), garlic mustard (boo), phlox, red maple, redbud, and one bush with tiny yellow flowers which I couldn’t quite identify.

The Rapidan Camp, which I had either never heard of or at least not known its significance, is a collection of cabins on lovely grounds just a few miles south of Big Meadows. This was apparently Herbert Hoover’s retreat during his Presidency and it is now largely as it was then. Apparently one of our worst Presidents at least had good taste! We happened upon an archaeology class there and chatted for a few moments about their project and our dogs. It was all just a wonderfully pleasant pause before we commenced our return hike.

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redbud in bloom on the Camp grounds

Prior months of nature:

January – Bald Eagles
February – Winter Beaches
March – Tundra Swans