Grackles and Garlic Mustard

I finally got out in my yard yesterday afternoon and tried to get caught up with the changing season. The wind storms have severely pruned my red maples, and I have already gathered enough stick wood to fuel four or five great bonfires. The grass is starting to turn a deep green and is growing up in uneven clumps throughout the yard (places fertilized by my loyal dog friend?). In the great seed husk pile under the bird feeder, hundreds of passed over sunflower seeds are germinating. The crocuses are possibly already passed their peak blooming, and the daffodils have fat flower heads. Down along one of the roads near campus, the wild daffodils were blooming all along the southern exposures. The lowest branches of my driveway forsythia are blooming, too. The heat from the concrete surfaces is pushing them weeks ahead of the rest of the plant. I brought a few flower twigs inside today and put them in a jar of water. They are adding some nice color to the top of my writing desk.

The birds in the feeders have changed over the past two weeks. The winter flocks of juncos and chickadees and house finches have thinned out greatly. The cardinals are no longer feeding in one large group. The males spend more time chasing and challenging each other than eating. The females drop in in clusters of two or three and quickly grab some seeds and dart into the shelter of the surrounding arbor vitae and spruce trees. The feeders are mostly occupied by a large flock of grackles. They eat the corn I put out each morning and land on the small perches of the feeders and spill enough seed to vary their diet. They really enjoy the bird bath, though. They take up great beaks full of water and tip their heads up over their backs as they seem to savor the swallowing. I have actually had to fill the bird baths more frequently of late than the feeders. There are probably not many other water sources close by.

Deborah and went on a hike on the Rock Furnace Trail today. The forest surrounding the trail is still a sea of brown, but there are more and more patches of green and even a few flowers popping up. The evergreen ferns (Christmas Fern, Polypody and Evergreen Wood Fern) have now been joined by growing patches of chickweed, and new growths of mullein and, sadly, more garlic mustard than I remember from last year. The garlic mustard is a rapidly invasive, exotic species that may have severe impacts on native plants. In the past ten years it has exploded out on the campus nature trail and looks to be taking over these Armstrong County trails, too. Another invasive exotic, multiflora rose, is also showing one of its ecological edges in the form of its emerging, tiny, green leaves. It is the first forest floor shrub to leaf out in the spring and can use the early season photosynthesis to increase its growing dominance in understory vegetation.

Coltsfoot is blooming all over the south facing slopes along the trail. These small, yellow, “dandelion-like” flowers bloom many weeks before the plant’s broad, flat leaves emerge. There were swarms of small hymenopterans buzzing in the sun, too. These small bees were probably the pollinators for the nearby coltsfoot. We also saw a bright orange comma butterfly (Polygonia spp.). The comma, like the mourning cloak, can overwinter as an adult and can thus take advantage of warm spring afternoons to feed on nectar.

Spring beauty is also blooming. Its tiny, white flowers extend up just over the leaf litter. They are so small that they are hard to see at first, but when you get your eyes used to them you begin to see them all along the higher parts of the trail.

Everything seems dry this year. The usual vernal pools that we have seen in years past are only spots of barely damp soil. There is little chance that frogs and toads will lay their eggs in these shallow mud spots. We need some spring rains to get the amphibian pools ready.

The hillsides are a fuzzy red from the flowering red maples. The sunlight is pouring in all the way to the unshaded forest floor. More wildflowers will be coming soon. The spring birds (the phoebes and the tanagers and wood thrushes) will be arriving soon, too.  Keep alert! Spring is here! 

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