Exploring natural history one itsy bitsy spider at a time...

Exploring natural history one itsy bitsy spider at a time...

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Time flies! It’s almost spring again!

Great Horned Owl

Each season miraculous changes take place all around us in nature. Have you watched buds on a tree swell until they burst into tiny leaves? Then watch the leaves grow into one of over forty-three unique leaves found in Maryland? Then weather the summer, change colors, and fall to the ground in autumn? Have you watched your garden be devoured by growing caterpillars, and then decorated with butterflies? Have you found the tiny eggs they've laid on branches and leaves? It's a busy world out there, who's watching?

As the frost subsides in spring and the ground thaws, the forest begins to turn green again from the ground up. Wildflowers break through decaying brown leaves as buds pop on shrubs and vines. Soon the canopy will shade the forest with new leaves. Where sick trees have fallen in a storm, the sun coaxes baby saplings into teenagers. Skinny black bears, raccoons, and squirrels nibble on the freshly grown grasses, leaves and buds.

Wild turkey toms fly down from their roost in the trees and begin calling, "il-obble-obble-obble", early each morning to attract females. If you're lucky you might catch males fighting over females or strutting back and forth trying to look handsome. Male turkeys bite each other in the neck and drag their competitors to the ground. I suggest taking a quiet walk in the early morning to catch a glimpse of turkey mating rituals and feuds.

Listen for male mockingbirds and brown thrashers, two birds in the mimic thrush family. They begin singing their repetitious calls to attract mates and establish territory in March and April. Mockingbirds and brown thrashers alone could sound like an entire forest by mimicking the songs of crickets, frogs, cardinals, flickers, and other birds. Listen very carefully and you might catch them mimicking your squeaky garage door, or wind chime. The mockingbird repeats the same song several times, but the brown thrasher plays a mixed tape singing only two songs of the same tune before moving onto a new one.

If you're up for a treasure hunt in early spring, head outside on a cool night after a rain. Scan the wet roads carefully for moving twigs and hopping rocks. The salamanders and frogs migrating to temporary pools to mate are commonly overlooked. You may find spotted salamanders that get up to 8 inches long and wear large yellow spots down their grey backs or tiny four-toed salamanders that drop their wiggling tails to distract predators. Listen for the wood frogs' call to lead you to the mating grounds.

As the temperatures warm to above freezing, reptiles start to come out of their winter hiding spots for a springtime feast. Box turtles dig out of their tunnel below the frost line and garter snakes scurry from their neighborly winter gathering. Reptiles will spend hours basking in the warmth of the sun, allowing their buffet of young insects, migrating amphibians, and baby rodents to digest.

Keep your eyes and ears peeled for baby grey squirrels scurrying about. Litters of up to six are born as early as February and are weaned from their mom after two months. If you have squirrels in your yard, you're likely seeing the same few squirrels over and over. Grey squirrels usually stay within a single acre their entire lives if there is enough food. Just for fun, can you differentiate the squirrels in your yard from one another? In spring they guzzle buds, oak and maple flowers, mushrooms and grains left on fields.

Great horned owls are already fledging the nest by the time spring rolls around. They learn to hunt while the young of small mammals, reptiles, amphibians, ducks, and raptors are abundant and easy prey. They call very little in spring, since mating has already occurred, but you can still look for evidence of owls. Since owls consume their entire prey, bones, fur, claws, and exoskeletons included, they later regurgitate a pellet of the indigestible material. These castings can be found at the base of trees where owls roost or feed. If you are lucky enough to find one, gently pulling the puzzle of bones and fur apart will reveal what your owl neighbor has been eating!

One of our true hibernators, the only flying mammal, survives the winter by slowly burning its fat preserves. In spring, bats wake once their insect prey is abundant again. There are ten species of bats in Maryland. Each species dines on thousands of insects each night, protecting us from stinging and crop damaging pests. At dusk, you can hear them or spot them against the dull sky.

As the seasons change, watch the flora and fauna for the best show on earth! Let every moment with nature bring a refreshing curiosity to your mind and spirit.

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