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If the 70 degree days last week didn’t convince you that spring is coming, I’m here to remind you of what’s ahead this month: Spring beauties! Spring Peepers! And all kinds of other cool stuff. What have you been seeing lately?

Photo credit: Carly & Art
Bloodroot is one of our favorite spring flowers. Each plant blooms only briefly, and there’s a window of only a few weeks that the bloodroots bloom at all. It’s one more thing that inspires us to spend as much time as possible in the woods at this time of year.

Photo credit: PIWO
Every year we look for the cheery flowers of the
spicebush as they emerge to light up the understory. It’s common throughout our local forests.

Photo credit: bbodjack
Spring peepers are another pilgrimage-inspiring phenomenon in our household. How are these tiny critters so LOUD? And why are they so hard to find? Actually, I am proud to report, last spring we finally figured out how to spot them. More on that soon…

Wood frog eggs by The Natural Capital
The frogs are noisy because they’re looking to mate. Spring peepers lay their eggs in out-of-the-way places, but we often find wood frog eggs in March, easily visible in vernal ponds in many of the local parks. (Shameless self-promotion: Matt’s leading a walk on March 17 that will end up at one pool where we have reliably seen eggs in the past.)

Photo credit: PIWO
Spring Beauties are not a showy flower, but we find them dainty and adorable. They’re one of the first spring ephemerals: perennial flowers that emerge every spring on the forest floor, and they last a little longer than most.

Photo credit: Dandelion and Burdock
Bittercress is less adorable, but more abundant than spring beauties — and edible! Throw some in your spring salad mix for a vitamin-packed punch.

Photo credit: bcfoto70
I love to watch yellow-bellied sapsuckers as they feed: they make a series of round holes in a tree’s bark, then lap up the sap that comes out — and the insects that are attracted to it. The yellow-bellied sapsucker is considered a “keystone” species by some ecologists because so many other birds rely on them, following along for their leftovers.

Photo credit: Henry McLin
As the sapsuckers are coming to town, the Canada Geese are leaving.  We usually notice large flocks heading north at the beginning of March, but all bets are off on the timing this year, with the unusually warm weather we’ve had.

Photo credit: Gene Han
Woodcocks are much harder to spot, but they’ll put on even more of a show than the sapsuckers and the geese, if you can find them.

Want more? See also the list of things we found on a walk we took in mid-March last year.

 

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Friday, February 24, 2012
LOOK FOR: Maple Flowers

Maples are one of the earliest trees to bloom in our area — a sure sign of spring. But not many people see them…they’re up high, and they’re not super-showy. When the light hits it right, though, the entire crown of a maple tree in flower will light up in red or yellow. So, as you’re walking around this week, look up for something like this:

Photo credit: jpwbee

Maple flowers are insect-pollinated, and an important early-season source of food for insects. As the weather warms up enough for the bees and other pollinators to get active, there’s not a lot else going on for them besides the maples.

Photo credit: Anita363
Squirrels also like to feast on the flowers. For the last several mornings, we’ve been watching them go to town on our neighbor’s silver maple, hanging upside down to get to the last flowers on the end of a branch.

The maples can take it — they bloom so profusely, the squirrels hardly make a dent. Each one of the female flowers that gets pollinated will form one of those helicopter-like seed pods (technically, samaras) that fall down in the spring. Many years, our neighbor’s samaras carpet our yard. The squirrels eat those too. And then what seems like a million baby maple trees still come up from the leftovers.

(Apparently I might not be exaggerating — the Forest Service says a 12-inch diameter red maple can produce a million seeds. And our neighbor’s tree is probably 3 times that wide.)

Photo credit: BlueRidgeKitties
You’ll see I said female flowers produce the seeds — maples have flowers that are either male or female.

The male flowers are a little fluffier looking, due to all their pollen-producing stamens.

Female flowers are a little more sedate, waiting for that pollen to come their way. But they still have their own frills.

Plant geek bonus points: Many maple trees have only male or only female flowers. Some have both male and female flowers — but usually on different branches. If you come across a maple tree with accessible branches, can you tell whether it’s male, female, or monoecious?

The rest of us will just appreciate the fact that there are flowers to look at this early in the year.

 

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Sunday, February 12, 2012
Postcards from Honduras

On this blog we celebrate all the great nature here in the DC area, but I have a confession: we go away almost every winter. I’m a southerner who craves warmth and longer days, and Matt’s a landscaper whose work gets pretty slow in December and January. This year, after heading to my hometown in Florida for Christmas, we headed even further south: to Honduras. It was a great trip — below are some of my favorite photos. We’ve got lots more pictures  here. And I’ll try to get some new, local content up here soon

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