by Marjorie Rachlin
March is maddening. Cold on, cold off, and occasionally, a snowstorm zaps us. But right now there are daffodils in bloom, and blossoming cherry trees bedeck our streets. And other signs reassure us that spring is on its way.
On my daily walks around the block in Forest Hills or Rock Creek Park, I enjoy searching for signs that nature is waking up. I listen for bird songs, look for green sprouts, watch for insects and bees.
Look down and check the mosses
This year I’ve found a new interest in mosses. They are everywhere in Forest Hills – on stone walls, brick steps, many on our lawns.
They need sun and water in order to grow, and right now you can see them getting greener. On sunny days, they are photosynthesizing, making food and sugars. Some mosses need a lot of sun, some like shade, some like soil, and some grow only on rocks. You may be surprised at the different varieties in your own yard.
Look UP and notice the blooming trees
It’s a sure sign of spring when the red maples and the elms bloom along our streets. That occurs usually at the end of February, and it happened right on time this year. These trees are not showy – you have to look to see the red haze of the maple or the green-brown mist of the elm.
We don’t notice them because their blossoms are tiny – about 3/8 inch in diameter.
These blooms are pollinated by wind, because it is too cold for insects.
Wind pollination is hit-and-miss. Over the eons, plants that rely on it have learned to produce thousands of seeds in a good year. In a month or so, our yards will be littered with two-inch winged red maple seed. The streets will be covered with the elms’ thin light green discs, only a quarter-inch in diameter.
Most of these seeds never get a chance to germinate. But the food they stored for a possible seedling is not wasted. When the seeds ripen, goldfinches will invade the elms, twittering and feasting. Squirrels will sit in the maples chowing down – a nice bonus for early spring when other food can be scarce.
I heard the first cardinal song the middle of February. It was a low warble, not the lusty “cheer, cheer” that they are beginning to sing now. That song means “This is my territory.” Cardinal pairs have already formed, and now you may hear her answer him with a soft repeat of his song.
House finches are also singing their quiet la-da, da-da up in the treetops.These are the birds that often nest in our hanging flower baskets or on a porch ledge.
Both of these resident birds, which have been with us all winter, are thinking about sex and nesting, but they are not there yet. All the songbirds wait until it warm enough for the insect population to develop, because they are going to need that protein to feed the young. That’s the reason there is not much songbird migration (orioles, thrushes, warblers) into our area until late April. Birds have developed a migration schedule set to the food they expect to find.
On the birders listserv, people report seeing crows carrying nesting material, and several say they have seen Carolina wrens scouting old nest sites to see if they want to refurbish them. We have lots of Carolina wrens in Forest Hills. They sometimes come to feeders in the winter, and they will be nesting in our garages and bushes.
The eagles at the Arboretum, known as Mr. President and First Lady, have built a sturdy nest, but so far they are not laying eggs. You can see them on the eagle cam. Other eagles along the Potomac began to lay eggs in late February, so it looks like the two at the Arboretum are not getting along.
Look skyward occasionally. If you hear a “honk,” you may see a V formation of ten or so Canada geese. One goose will be in the lead, breasting the wind. They are heading northward to Canada and Alaska to nest. We have our year-round resident geese, of course, but the ones leaving now come here and to the Eastern Shore for easy winter food.
The ducks that wintered on the Potomac are leaving, but the mallards and wood ducks in Rock Creek are getting ready to nest.
On the arrival list are the black-crowned night herons that come back to the National Zoo every February. They nest in a clump of trees near the Bird House, and fly all the way to the Potomac to forage.
Birders have also seen a few early ospreys along the Potomac, and some red-winged black bird males are clucking in ponds. But for the most part there will be few songbird migrants arriving until the middle of April, and the big warbler flights are usually the first two weeks in May.
A place fit for a queen
I’m on the lookout for a bumblebee queen. Honey bees don’t fly until it’s over 50 degrees, and I haven’t seen one, but bumblebees are hardier.
The bumblebee queen has spent the winter in leaf litter or a compost heap. Soon she will emerge to look for nest site.
If you see a big bee cruising slowly close to the ground, moving slowly around and about, that’s a queen looking for a good site. They like old mouse nests, cracks in walls, holes under a log or a flower pot. When she finds it, she will lay eggs and start the new colony.
Don’t miss the revival
Whether you are out walking or jogging, or just getting in the car, STOP a minute. Look around you – up, down, across the street. Don’t miss nature’s revival show.