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Spring Awakenings: Plants, Birds and Bugs

Late March 2016

Reminder:  Spring (Vernal  Equinox) arrives in Canada on March 19th or 20th depending on your time zone.   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 (in a normal year) 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 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 Quebec 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.

INVASIVE ALERT Garlic Mustard

  • While out exploring local habitats for spring flowers keep your eyes peeled for an early plant that is entirely unwelcome!   Garlic Mustard is a very plain invasive species compared to other “show off” plants like Purple Loosestrife so it is often overlooked during the first year of its biennial life cycle.   However, an early spring walk after a fresh dusting of snow is a great time of year to spot the low rosette of first year leaves which remain green throughout the winter.   In its second year, Garlic Mustard will bloom with small white flowers that produce thousands of seeds.  The characteristic garlic smell released by crushed leaves is also a good way to identify this plant and explains why it was brought to Canada as a cooking herb.  Garlic Mustard is widespread in most provinces and considered to be one of the worst invasive plants affecting the biodiversity of forest habitats.  It outcompetes native plants for light and nutrients and releases chemicals that prevent the growth of tree seedlings.  Garlic Mustard usually first appears along forested roads and trails where humans have carried in seeds on clothing and vehicles.  Therefore, you can help prevent the spread of this invasive species by carefully cleaning shoes, bikes and vehicle tires after you have visited an area where garlic mustard is known to occur.  Canada has one of the highest percentages of forested land in the world so it is up to all of us to protect these vital ecosystems from invasive species like Garlic Mustard.

 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. 
  • In spite of the recent spate of warmer than normal weather, look for winter to have at least one more kick of the can before settling into a mid- to late spring pattern of warm and dry weather.  Expect spring temperatures to be higher than normal, and rainfall lower than normal, over much of Ontario.  Does March go out like a lamb?
  • 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.
  • Earth Hour (8:30-9:30 pm) will occur on Saturday, March 19th.  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.
  • As we said before, the equinox occurs on the 19th or 20th, the moon aligns with Jupiter on the 21st, Mars on the morning of the 28th, and again with Saturn before dawn on the 29th. 
  • Since the moon’s orbit does not exactly match the earth’s orbit around the sun (it’s out by about 5 degrees), it will be higher or lower in the sky at different times of the month.  On the 30th, it will be at it’s lowest (southernmost) point in the sky.  This declination shifts over time as well, the result of the sun’s gravity.

BEAN Biodiversity Day Grants (for Ontario readers)

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. The deadline to apply is Friday, April 1, 2016.

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