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Spring Awakenings: Plants, Birds and Bugs

Late March 2012

Reminder:  Spring will officially be here (Spring Equinox) on March 20th -at 1:14 AM (EDT) in Ontario, except in the far northwest.  The word equinox comes from Latin, meaning equal night – day and night will be 12 hours each.  Still can’t quite get your head around it?  This site gives a good overview of sun-earth geometry. Consider having a Spring Equinox celebration!


Featured Event:  Plants Awake 


We mentioned some stirrings earlier, but the spring flush now begins in earnest:  

  • The first flower you notice will probably be yellow, as Coltsfoot, an introduced species, will bloom along lowland margins, followed by the native Marsh Marigold.  Note, since Marsh Marigold is toxic and irritating when handled, and Coltsfoot is carcinogenic when consumed, consider limiting your interactions to viewing and photographing.  
  • Skunk Cabbage (pictured right) will also bloom along those margins, often melting away any late snowfall from around its flowers through a process called thermogenesis. These plants actually create heat to protect and support their early spring lifestyle, generating as much energy as a small rodent or hummingbird through a metabolic process more similar to animals’ than plants’.  They can maintain a temperature of 1.7oC (35oF) when the surroundings are below freezing.  Why go through all this?  For the same reason most plants flower:  to attract pollinators, only with heat instead of food.  The name is appropriate, and the rather rank smell also attracts carrion eaters (flies and some bees) who, ever optimistic that food is at hand, will provide pollination.  There is also some evidence that wind plays a role in pollination, so it may be covering all of its bases!  A very detailed and somewhat lyrical description of the plant and its life cycle can be found here.   
  • Wild Leek is one of the first herbs to sprout new leaves in the spring, sometimes dusted by late snow on the forest floor.  Like many spring forest plants, leeks use this opportunity of unobstructed sunlight to capture and store the sun’s energy in underground bulbs, which is used in early summer to flower and seed, and then maintain the plant until the sun returns next spring.  And they’re tasty too, but keep sustainability in mind. Overharvest in Québec threatened the species’ survival, causing the government to prohibit the sale of Wild Leek and limit personal take.  If you are buying Wild Leeks or finding your own, make sure they are harvested legally and sustainably . 
  • Aspen and Speckled Alder catkins will be added to those of the willows, and those aromatic Balsam Poplar buds may be opening
  • Around the schoolyard, look for early growth from planted bulbs such as crocuses and snow drops, and ‘weeds’ like Birdseye Speedwell .  Consider setting up a ‘first bloom’ calendar, with photos, and mark when each kind of plant or tree that you see first opens its buds, unfurls its leaves, or flowers.  Keep it to compare to next year’s dates.

 Other Happenings: 

  • Returning Tree Swallows may be found swooping low over open water.  Since they are largely insect eaters, this means that aquatic insects may be beginning to rise and ‘hatch’ into their adult forms.  Waves of different hatches will now occur until fall.
  • The swallows are likely eating midges, several species of small, dark flies that look like mosquitoes with large, feathery antennae.  Look for clouds of them hovering over trees, shrubs, or other objects near water.  These are males.  Females are attracted by the pitch of their wing vibrations, and the females’ pitch when flying into the swarm attracts the males.  Mating ensues, often within seconds.  I once knew a guy with perfect pitch who could mimic the sound of a female midge, and attract nearby male swarms!  Go on a midge search (don’t worry – these particular midges don’t bite), and watch how these swarms dance on a light breeze.  Aerial insectivores, like Tree Swallows, as a group (or more properly a guild) are in alarming decline, and it is likely that changes to insect populations, whether it be population declines, altered time of hatch or spatial distribution, play a role.  Time to pay better attention to insects!
  • A sugar bush late in the month is a good place to find spring insects that are attracted to the sweet sap.  Bees, ladybugs, tortoiseshell butterflies  (closed), flies and moths can all be found.  In fact, when pails instead of lines of tubing are used to catch the sap, the presence of noctuid, or owlet, moths in the sap often marks the end of the sap run. 
  • Look for returning Turkey VulturesAmerican WoodcocksBelted KingfishersSnow Geese and Sandhill Cranes (on their way through), Northern Flickers and Golden-crowned Kinglets (hard to see but you may hear their song, included on website), among many others.  Departing are our friends the Snow Bunting, and any northern owls that might have still been hanging around.
  • If the end of March is truly mild, you may begin to hear the first Western Chorus Frogs or Spring Peepers begin to call..  They and other frogs and toads will really ramp up in April, and we’ll discuss them more then, but a search for frogs around lowlands on a balmy late March night can be a rite of spring (or a good excuse).  Consider joining FrogWatch, and add to our information about these amphibians.
  • Wolves, Coyotes , Red Foxes and Gray Squirrels are beginning to give birth.
  • Earth Hour (8:30-9:30 pm) will occur on March 31st.  Join the global phenomena of lights being turned off in local communities around the world. Lights downs, stars up – not only will you be helping fight climate change , but also helping migrating birds and star gazers.
  • After their get together on the 15th, Venus continues away from the sun, becoming the higher planet in the evening sky, while Jupiter moves lower.  The moon will be close by March 24-26.  Look for a very bright Mars near the constellation Leo on any late-March night.  It is the fourth-brightest star-like body in the night sky after Venus, Jupiter and Sirius.  Saturn is rising earlier, and can be found in the eastern sky near the star Spica by 9 pm or so.  Go here for more detailed information on all the visible planets.

BEAN Biodiversity Day Grants

The Biodiversity Education and Awareness Network (BEAN) is a collaboration of education, industry, government and non-governmental organizations and agencies dedicated to increasing awareness, understanding and action related to biodiversity in Ontario.

Each year BEAN promotes a day of local action and awareness to engage Ontarians in events and activities that involve communities, organizations and individuals in the conservation of biodiversity.  These events are held on or near May 22, the International Day for Biological Diversity or International Biodiversity Day (IBD). Examples of past events include restoration plantings, guided nature walks, and garlic mustard removal in local woodlots.

BEAN is excited by this opportunity to promote awareness of biodiversity issues across Ontario, and hopes that your group will become involved. We are once again offering grants (of up to $500) to cover expenses for eligible IBD events. The grant application package is available online at The deadline to apply is April 9, 2012.