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Encouraging signs of spring in Wisconsin

Hepaticas and spring beauties. Carol Wilcox photo

Last winter seemed long. It wasn't the coldest or snowiest in recent memory, but it just hung on. When spring officially arrived we had some teaser days of 60 degree daytime high temperatures, but then it cooled off and stayed dry for several weeks. April showers didn't happen until last weekend.

Despite the cool, dry and gradual onset there are many encouraging signs of spring happening now. Spring peepers, toads, western chorus frogs and wood frogs are calling in the evening from the ponds. I have become used to a 5:35 a.m. alarm clock of wild turkey gobblers yelling just up the hill from our house with replies from across the valley. That's a signal for the Canada geese to take off from the pond with a loud volley of honking.

Red wing blackbirds and killdeers have returned to our planted prairie. Bluebirds have taken up residence in some of the boxes we set out for them. Rooster pheasants are crowing, guarding their harems. We heard the first clear "O Canada Canada" call of a white-throated sparrow and the "seebrrr-seedreep" whistle of an eastern phoebe.

Seeing butterflies again is another encouraging sign of spring. The first to appear are morning cloaks with their elegant dark chocolate brown and purple velvet wings edged with yellow. Also among the first flutter-bys in spring are commas and question-marks with spotted orange and brown ragged-edged wings.

These are all of the family Nymphalidae, forest butterflies that range around the world in north-temperate regions. They over-winter as adults hidden in hollow trees and under bark. It's remarkable that those fragile insects weighing so little can hang on through all those weeks of below zero temperatures.

The first of the spring flowers to appear on our woods are hepaticas, Dutchman's breeches, rue anemones, bloodroot and spring beauties. The cool dry spring this year has slowed the pace of their opening show. In some years they seem to all come out at once.

The spring ephemeral flowers are mostly perennial plants that emerge, flower, store energy in their roots, produce seed, then go into suspended animation again for the year during the brief time between snowmelt and tree leaf-out. They are adapted to growing fast and flowering in early spring when sunlight and moisture is available on the forest floor. They get a jump start in cool weather by sprouting from bulbs. Because the weather is too cold for flying insects, ants and ground beetles pollinate their flowers.

The earliest spring flowers like hepaticas have fuzzy leaves that grow close to the warm ground and to avoid the cold wind.

The next weeks of April and May are a great time to get out in the woods, wander along a stream, find the patches of color and take a close look. Bring along a wildflower guide, like Norman Fassett's 1978 Spring Flora of Wisconsin, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison.

Bring some binoculars and keep an eye out in early May for the migrating warblers, those colorful bundles of fluff on their way from South America and the Caribbean to the boreal forest in Canada. Although it's a bit heavy to carry, the Sibley Guide to Birds is an authoritative and beautifully illustrated guide to North American birds.

Enjoy the spring.

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