Wild Ideas: Spring arrives, departs, returns

Mar. 28, 2013

I was going to write about groundhogs this week, but the on-and-off-again spring weather and corresponding behavior of wildlife up here on the mountain distracted me.
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I haven’t seen any groundhogs emerge up here yet anyway, and a behemoth male that’s been here for several years would be hard to miss. Still, he could have snuck out of his burrow to go seek out a female in hers over the last few weeks. Males typically start this breeding behavior in March, and I had seen one darting across the road just before the big snowstorm earlier this month.

An American woodcock. Hear its “peenting” mating call online at RappNews.com (search for “woodcock”). Photo by Matt MacGillivray via Wikimedia Commons.

An American woodcock. Hear its “peenting” mating call below. Photo by Matt MacGillivray via Wikimedia Commons.

One male animal that has started his spring routine is a phoebe, likely half of the pair that nested on a vent on the side of my house last year. He started waking me up every morning, calling from the top of a flower-pot hanger I stuck into my compost pile last year to hold a large wind chime. It’s just a few yards from my bedroom window, and the phoebe’s call is loud, repetitive and insistent, so there’s been little chance to sleep in for me since the jaunty little guy returned.

Wild woodcock call.

I’ve also been hearing a male American woodcock doing his “peenting” mating call in the evenings. The second time I heard it, I grabbed my digital recorder and stealthily crept down the driveway, listening for the sound. It had gone silent before I left the house, so I stopped just short of where I thought the bird was along the drive and waited . . . and waited.

Finally, the beeping started again. I strained to catch sight of the woodcock in the dying light, and finally could barely make out his form in the middle of the driveway, just a few yards further down from where I was. He kept up his plaintive beeping for quite a while, to no avail.

I was hoping some adventurous female would come by so the male would do the most famous part of his courtship ritual – flying straight up, then falling and spinning, with his wings open, straight down to the ground, like an out-of-control helicopter. It’s always problematic witnessing the ritual, since it happens after sunset. Suddenly, the woodcock was gone, and the evening was also disappearing into darkness.

It was at the end of a mild day, and it was warm enough that I could faintly hear the chorusing of spring peepers over the rush of the river at the bottom of the hill. The wetland down there is good breeding territory for the tiny herps. I wanted to go down and start monitoring their calls, but just in case the woodcock wasn’t through for the night, I decided to catch a few innings of a World Baseball Classic game first instead of walking through his courtship area.

Spring peepers have been coming and going with the temperatures this year. Photo by  Brian Gratwicke via Wikimedia.

Spring peepers have been coming and going with the temperatures this year. Photo by Brian Gratwicke via Wikimedia.

By the time I went to the ponds, around 9 p.m., the temperature had fallen to 39 degrees. The temperature undoubtedly put a chill on the peepers’ chorusing, and all I could hear was the river.

I’ve only found a couple of egg masses here so far – in a ditch across the driveway from the ponds. The white, almost-opaque appearance and thick gelatinous coating indicated they were from red-spotted newts that have been active down there on warmish days in the ponds and streams feeding into them. Peepers will undoubtedly get into full swing if spring temperatures finally arrive and stay, with pickerel frogs not far behind.

The evening after my woodcock encounter it snowed, so no woodcock calling and definitely no peepers. The next morning was also quiet, with no wake-up call by my phoebe, or sight of him all day. Maybe he decided other males would also be hunkered down, waiting for warmer weather, so he could leave his territory undefended. What I did see was many, many birds – cardinals, chickadees, juncos, titmice, white-throated sparrows and one large flicker – hopping around on my deck and clinging to the window screen, looking for the feed I normally put out there after snow.

I’ve been prowling the pathways on the property to see if any early wildflowers had popped up, but the only plant that seems to be blooming anywhere on the property is the skunk cabbage down in the wetland. Usually we’re a bit behind up here, so that’s no surprise.

Itching for spring to really get underway, I’ve had to content myself with downloading species-identification apps for birds, mushrooms, animal tracks, insects and wildflowers to my new Android phone, to go along with the vTree app from Virginia Tech that I acquired a few months ago.

Another winter storm has now come and gone. When the weather is clear, the woodcock continues his calling in the evenings. The phoebe also remains undaunted, taking up his spot atop the pot hook to defend his turf on clear mornings. As temperatures start to rise, I’m hearing bird songs erupt from the yard and forest edge each morning.

I can’t wait for warm weather to finally settle in and spring to get fully underway. I love warm weather and the boost in plant and wildlife activity it brings. This year, it will also bring the opportunity to test-drive all of my new nature-identification apps and the used camera system I just purchased.

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