By Laura & Hal Mahan
March sets the stage, tempting us to believe that spring has begun. But it is April that gives spring full expression here in the mountains. For naturalists, it is a wonderful time of year for exploring, discovering and learning.
Early wildflowers take advantage of the full sunlight penetrating to the forest floor before the canopy trees leaf out. In late March, the leaves of bloodroot can be seen in rich woods and the tiny-flowered bluets already may be blooming in open areas. In April, though, wildflowers begin to get serious, poking through the soil with more energy than any of their seeds could have imagined possible. Trillium, Solomon’s seal, violets and many, many others initiate the real spring. These spring ephemerals burst forth with showy blossoms to complete their flowering and seed production in a hurry, before the shade of forest trees has a chance to hide their glory.
Overhead, songbirds return to the mountains. The Blueheaded Vireo is one of the earliest migrants to arrive, making the trip north from its wintering grounds along the southeast coast of Central America. Later, the warblers, thrushes and tanagers arrive, many having traveled nearly 2,000 miles in one month from their tropical winter homes.
The woodlands surrounding the Blue Ridge Parkway resound with birdsongs. “Trees, trees, whispering trees,” utters the Black-throated Green Warbler. “Teacher, teacher, teacher!” sounds the Ovenbird, with each “word” louder than the last.
Learning birdsongs by ear opens a new window to the natural world. Start with the common birds around your yard. Watch them singing. Then you can eliminate those when you hear different, new birds in other locations. There are many excellent tools in the form of CDs, websites and apps that can help you learn a few at a time. Don’t be frustrated when a birdsong you thought you knew suddenly has a slightly different sound. In nature, variation is the rule!
Everywhere in April, spring’s arrival is heralded. In temporary woodland ponds, salamanders bred several weeks ago and now their tadpoles are everywhere. In the deep woods, adult mourning cloak butterflies are emerging from hibernation. Even on the higher altitude balds in the mountains, plants are beginning to green up.
Overhead in the celestial skies, the shifting position of our planet in its springtime orbit gives us new images on a dark WNC night. The Little Dipper, with Polaris at the tip of its handle, is now high in the east and Gemini has shifted slightly westward. Increasingly entering the spring sky is the longest constellation, Hydra the Water Serpent. Look to the south in mid-April at around 9:30 p.m. to see it.
Ah, spring, hold summer back as long as you can.
Our Favorite Things
Wildflowers of the Smokies by Peter White, Tim Condon
Great Smoky Mountains Wildflowers: When and Where to Find Them by Campbell, Sharp, Hutson, and Hutson
Laura and Hal Mahan are owners of The Compleat Naturalist, located at 2 Brook Street in the Historic Biltmore Village. To learn more, visit compleatnaturalist.com or call 828.274.5430.