Sunday, March 21, 2010

Spring, Spring, Spring - It's Spring!

It's official, it's now spring - in so many ways! My diary says that spring officially starts on March 20th and the clocks here in the USA went forward one hour on March 14th, so there's two reasons to believe it's spring - and then there's the weather! No sooner had I posted my last piece on all the snow and hideous weather, than everything promptly changed for the better. And the weather doesn't do things by halves here, with the thermometer reaching 70F on Friday. It's been warm and sunny with cloudless skies here for five days now and the wildlife is responding. The few species of butterfly which overwinter as adults were quick to respond with a Mourning Cloak (Camberwell Beauty in the UK) at the bird observatory on 16th and Eastern Comma and Question-mark over the following days. Technically these are last year's butterflies that hibernated and emerged again with the onset of warm weather; so the real first butterfly of the year was the Small White that I saw at Cold Spring on 19th (with a second in the garden later the same day). Actually, these are called Cabbage Whites in the US, but I just can't bring myself to use a name that most people only use in the UK as a small child - it's a bit like saying Jenny Wren!!

On March 16th, a Western Cattle Egret appeared in Cold Spring, feeding right beside the road on a flooded lawn. This is still an uncommon bird at Cape May and the date is unusually early, so a nice find for Tom Reed. On 19th, I had to make a shopping run up to Rio Grande and noticed that this egret had been joined by a nice adult Little Blue Heron - perhaps the one that had first been seen at the Rea Farm on 17th. Two nice birds for the year list. The same day that Tom found the Western Cattle Egret, I found three Purple Martins on roadside wires along Bayshore Road even now, five days on, they remain the only ones so far reported in Cape May and this is typical of spring; a few vanguards arrive and we get all excited about spring migration, only to have to wait another four weeks before it really kicks off!

As well as a nice array of freshly emerged insects (including some enormous carpenter bees checking out our garage!), spring is marked by the sound of amphibians - and what a sound! The noise made by frogs at night here at the moment is truly remarkable and hard to get across to anyone used to the rather meagre offerings in the UK. At present, the noise comes from the well-named Spring Peeper, a small frog of the chorus frog group. Species in this group gather together in enormous numbers during the breeding season and males attempt to out-compete each other vocally for the attentions of the females. Some of the gatherings involve thousands upon thousands of individuals and the sound is remarkable, like thousands of tiny bells being rung. Spring Peepers seem to be abundant anywhere that there is currently temporary freshwater laying, while in the more permament wetlands at the point, a deeper, grunting chorus comes from thousands of Southern Leopard Frogs. On my shopping trip to Rio Grande last Friday, I noticed that in that area, the Spring Peepers were overshadowed by another species, the New Jersey Chorus Frog, which has a completely different call, a rising, tuneful rattle, like running your fingers along a comb. Oh, and one thing to know about the chorus frog species - you never see them!! They're amazing at staying hidden, you don't even see a ripple as they disapear; so, if you see a picture of one on this blog, you'll know I've put a lot of time in and probably missed a lot of birds!

Well, here are some spring themes from the past week.

With the trees still devoid of leaves, summer seems a long way away, yet spring is clearly imminent in the wet woods of Cape May. The first native wildflower to bloom here in the spring is already poking up, often long before the snow has gone....

....and the first flower of spring really is a bizarre one!! The peculiar flowers of Skunk Cabbage spring up in wet woodland and flower so early that they can attract only those insects that may already be around - flies! Thus, the flower looks - and smells! - like rotten meat.

Late afternoon light shining through Skunk Cabbage leaves.

The next flowers to appear after the Skunk Cabbage are the flowers of Red Maple, the tight clusters of red stamens and stigmas added colour against a blue spring sky.

Close up of the female flowers of the closely-related Silver Maple, showing the sticky stigmas, waiting to catch the male pollen. These early-flowering maples are pollinated by many species of insects, including Honey Bees but, by flowering before the leaves get in the way, they can also be wind-pollinated.

Male flowers of Silver Maple, showing the long, cream-coloured stamens.

Flowering at the same time and doing the same job (and thus looking very similar) as the maple flowers, elm flowers appear in March too. The native American Elm has suffered greatly from Dutch Elm Disease and is hard to find now, but Chinese Elm is popular in gardens in Cape May and has proven to be greatly resistent to the disease. This picture shows the flowers of Chinese Elm Ulmus parvifolia with its dark purple anthers.

One down side of spring and the thawing of the snow is the adverse effect it has on moles. When snow carpets the ground, moles often burrow right at the surface as it's easier to dig and the snow cover keeps them hidden from predators. But they're not to know that the snow is going to disappear and many find themselves travelling along exposed runs. Sadly this is yet another area in which domestic cats feature heavily and they kill many moles at this time of year (and of course don't eat them because they're not hungry, so the mole dies in vain). I found this Eastern Mole lying belly up on our meadow shortly after the snow had gone. I guess if nothing else, it gives a chance to see those amazing digging front feet.

Perhaps because of the cooling effect of the mighty Atlantic Ocean, New Jersey's coastal plain is slow to warm up in spring and it's not until late April that the native flora really puts in an appearance. So unfortunately, colour in march tends to come from introduced - and often overly invasive - alien species. The pink flowers of Red Dead-nettle are familiar both sides of the Atlantic.... are the brilliant blue flowers of Common Field Speedwell. Interestingly, both species are common lawn weeds in New Jersey, while in the UK, they are weeds of disturbed ground, such as farm fields and flower borders.

A Southern Leopard Frog at the Migratory Bird Refuge - clearly not a Spring Peeper because you can see it!!

Aquatic reptiles are stirring from winter slumbers now, happy in the knowledge that lots of tasty tadpoles will be available soon (and some plump, juicy frogs in the meantime!). This is an Eastern Painted Terrapin, probably the commonest terrapin species in Cape May. I found a couple at the Rea Farm on March 18th.

While we're on 'non-birds', I was pleased to find this Harbour Seal on the concrete ship at Sunset Beach. This species is uncommon, though regular, this far south and there has been a large number of reports this winter, even as far south as the Carolinas. What's interesting about this individual, however, is the tag on its hind flipper. I haven't yet found who to report this to, but it has clearly been marked for a reason.

Moths, yes, even moths are coming out now - though this is actually a species that can regularly be found in the winter and I found this one back in January. This is Hypena scabra, a common North American species. 

Western Cattle Egret in Cold Spring. A good sign that northward migration is just about getting there.

A smart Little Blue Heron has favoured the same pool as the Western Cattle Egret.

A good shake of the plumage reveals the nuptial plumes of the Little Blue Heron, in all its breeding refinery.

My hopes of spring were really raised sky high when I found three Purple Martins on roadside wires along Bayshore Road on my way to work on March 16th. I managed to get some quick shots of two of them. Sadly, it was a brief moment of excitement as no other Purple Martins have been seen in Cape May. But they will be here soon, and that's the frustration of spring migration, fits and starts until the flood gates really open in April.

And finally, one of the sounds of spring - the carolling of Red-winged Blackbirds, a sound which is pretty much everywhere at the moment, but here's a nice male singing atop a lone cattail. A classic Cape May spring shot.