As crocuses open on these early warm days, Berkshire Naturalist Thom Smith finds signs of the changing season.
From early April through mid May, woodland wildflowers appear in greatest numbers and variety. While we thrill at the golden blossoms of the cultivated forsythia, we often overlook the abundance of eye-catching wildflowers. Before foliage covers the woodland canopy, wildflowers carpet the ground, their leaves taking in the energy of the sun.
If I had a favorite flower to welcome warm weather with, it would be the hepatica, a member of the buttercup family. Look for white, blue, pale purple or pink flowers and three-lobed leaves growing in rocky woods.
Another favorite is the bishop’s cap or miterwort, with its tiny white flowers on an 8-inch to nearly 2-foot stem. As the flowers are a meager one eighth inch across, a hand lens (or even better, binoculars used backwards) will reveal very small petals that remind me of a snowflake. The similar foamflower or false miterwort grows about one foot tall.
Wild Columbine is found in rocky woods, slopes and graces often otherwise barren rock outcrops. While many other spring flowers thrive in shady woods, this adventurous wildflower thrives in full sun.
Beauties growing nearby in rich woods may include the rue anemone with white flowers, and the trout lily, said to get its name from its speckled leaves reminiscent of the skin of a trout. With yellow flowers, it sometimes covers great patches of rich woodland floor.
By mid-month, American toads have begun courting, the males adding their long trill to the other night sounds. They lay long jelly strings laced with black eggs in temporary or semi temporary bodies of water, as did the wood frogs and the spotted salamanders earlier.
Birds are returning, and migration is increasing to its height, with new arrivals almost daily. All of the breeding swallows have arrived, to complement fields and waterways with their constant activity.
Bluebirds have by now claimed a nesting box or natural cavity and will compete with tree swallows and house sparrows to keep ownership.
Back in the still leafless woods, the hermit thrushes and ruby-crowned kinglets arrive, and the plaintive whistle of the white-throated sparrow may be heard. Often, near woodland brooks we will hear a Louisiana waterthrush, a kind of warbler, as it returns to breed. Look for sparrows in open places, as the chipping and field sparrows return.
As April comes to a close, chimney swifts appear in the sky above our neighborhoods. These small stubby birds, once described as a cigar with wings, will flitter about over houses and buildings, often disappearing inside chimneys, where they nest. In yards and gardens, house wrens may begin a family.
And at about the same time the shad bushes display their white flowers on wooded hillsides, morel mushrooms begin popping up, almost overnight, in old orchards and open woodlands —and in my back yard.