High spring

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New growth sprouts from an old nest, signaling as well as anything can that we’ve entered that magic time I call high spring. The daffodils are fading, the banks of forsythia are in the last throes of blooming, and the first cohort of wild blossoms – shadbush, spicebush, coltsfoot, hepatica – are shedding their petals. The leaves of birches and black cherries are just beginning to open, turning the ridge to the west a pale green, while the oaks are in blossom all up and down the ridge above my house, giving it a yellow-green wash. Red maples, sugar maples and tulip poplars provide pastel splashes of red and green.

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Wild sweet cherry trees – legacy of a long-gone orchard – glow white along the edge of the field in the early morning sun. Down in the hollow, purple trillium (A.K.A. wake robin) is in bloom, and Solomon’s seal and yellow mandarin are just at the point of flowering. Black cohosh, wild sarsaparilla, and a host of ferns unclench their insurrectionary green fists.

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wild sarsaparilla

Almost every day brings a new birdsong: last Thursday, the black-throated green warblers were back in force. Friday afternoon, I heard weeza-weeza-weeza from inside at my writing desk and bounded out the door with my camera, but was too slow with the focus to get a shot of the first black-and-white warbler calling among the last blossoms of the ornamental cherry next to my porch. Yesterday morning, at around quarter to six, I heard a whippoorwill sing a few phrases of its namesake song from about a quarter-mile away (which is just about the distance and duration I prefer, actually). Later in the day, I watched a pair of Louisiana waterthrushes courting in the branches of a black birch above the now-roaring Plummer’s Hollow Run.

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rue anemone

A weekend of hard rain has eased the fire danger I alluded to last week. Water streams from the mountain’s every pore, and it’s a real pleasure to sit outside at first light and listen to the birds tune up against a background of running water. This morning, one of those songs made my heart leap: wood thrush! But not, I’m sorry to say, an especially gifted member of the tribe. I don’t know if he grew up next to a busy highway, and thus was unable to learn the full nuances of his species’ song (a documented phenomenon, by the way), or was simply too tired from the migration to give it his all, but this was a bare-bones version of that famous thrush call.

But I’m sure there will be more thrushes – possibly as early as this evening. And it served as a reminder to me to get out more often and listen for the other thrush species, which sometimes sing on migration. In past years, I’ve been lucky enough to hear both veerys and hermit thrushes, and once, about five years ago, a Swainson’s thrush – far outside its normal breeding range – sang through most of June at one spot down in the hollow.

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rattlesnake fern

I was happy when temperatures got cooler over the weekend. To my mind, spring is best when it is long and slow, though I know a lot of people who seem to regard the season primarily as foreplay to summer. Some years, it stays cold through late April, and then an early heat wave makes the flowers leap into bloom, the trees leaf out and the songbirds return from the tropics all in a rush – a southern spring. My parents traveled to Arkansas last month, and were confounded to see hepaticas blooming alongside wild geraniums. I’m sure it’s all in what you’re used to, but to them, it just didn’t seem right. Spring should come gradually, almost imperceptibly at first. Not for nothing did Aaron Copland set his ballet Appalachian Spring in Western Pennsylvania; there’s a kind of choreography to spring arrivals and blooming dates here in the north, a certain order and cadence that’s practically synonymous with spring in the minds of most northeasterners. As in any dance composition, there are many high points along the way, as buds burst in mid-air and flowers relax into nascent fruit. High spring, as I conceive of it, climaxes in mid to late May, when the pink and yellow lady’s-slippers bloom. By then, all the trees except for walnuts and locusts have fully leafed out, but insects and air pollution have yet to diminish that first, fresh, startling green.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

13 Comments


  1. I spent hours this past weekend with binoculars and field guide, trying to figure out what I was hearing …you would have known without any hesitation, I’m sure.

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  2. Lovely, lovely in sounds and sights.

    “spring is best when it is long and slow”…Yes! Spring has been my favourite season since living out on the West Coast. Here it shows its earliest signs in January (yeah, I know, we hardly have a winter, more like fall) and lasts through May. I grew up in Winnipeg where spring was a sudden explosion in May, lasting about two weeks, before the heat of summer set in. Summer is too hot for me.

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  3. Thanks for the comments, and sorry for the “scrunched” appearance of the first photo which I only now got around to fixing. Seems this blog automatically resizes images that are too wide for the column.

    Sylph – Not necessarily, but you know how good we Bontas are at sounding authoritative! It’s a tic. At any rate, if you want to learn bird calls, I suggest the Stokes Nature Guides series cd set. But the Audubon tapes are good too. My mom uses both, and i just pick it up from her. I anticipate cementing my knowledge as we do IBA point counts together this spring/summer.

    Marja-Leena – Sounds as if I was too hasty in describing a quickie spring as a southern thing. I can see where growing up in Winnipeg would make one more inclined to extremes of cold than heat. But yeah, I’m not a big fan of summer weather, either.

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  4. This is so beautiful, Dave. I like the birdsongs in the morning with the background of running water. When we moved to the northwest it was the first time I ever heard the Swainson’s Thrush. Now I listen for it. It’s a song that evokes something in me the way a delicious fragrance does. I could cry at the sweetness of it.

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  5. So much here to love – I guess I’ll pick the unfurling rattlesnake fern as my favorite. Glad you got that new camera, Dave!

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  6. From fading daffodils to dwindling forsythia, you could be in rural North Hertfordhsire. Then suddenly it’s a whole different world of flora & fauna!

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  7. Thanks for the good words.

    RD – Exactly! But it’s kind of hard to explain that thrush-listening experience to someone who’s never had it, isn’t it? This is what most frustrates me about trying to convince anthropocentric people that preserving wild nature is also of immense cultural importance. If they’ve never heard a thrush (other than a robin) singing on an evening in June, they have no idea what we lose when thrush habitat is destroyed by more highways, housing subdivisions and malls.
    Dick – Actually, what I left out was that our first haze of green comes from a host of European and East Asian species, which are set to a different clock. Garlic mustard is everywhere, now, and the shrub layer in much of our woods includes extensive patches of barberry and privet.

    On the other hand, we still have wild turkeys wandering through the yard.

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  8. Oh WOW! so lovely. here’s to long springs and longer autumns!

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  9. There you go making me homesick for Pennsylvania all over again. It’s nice to have a naturalistic update though – and with a satisfying amount of detail. I also love spring, but in my humble opinion, summer is the best – maybe that’s a Leo thing – August birthday and all. When I was in college in Vermont and would drive down through Pennsylvania in June when returning home to State College – more that once! – was I intoxicated by the beauty and lushness of the green deciduous leaf trees. Beauty in PA.

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  10. Alison – Sooner or later, all Pennsylvanians return home. That’s why we have the second-highest number of retirees, after Florida. Of course, some succumb to homesickness sooner – my older brother returned last July after some ten years of living in the west. So don’t blame me – it’s in your nature as a Pennsylvanian to pine for home.

    Plus, you may have taller mountains and bigger trees out there, but where biodiversity is concerned, we kick the west’s ass. Remember that.

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