08 March 2009

Change You Can Believe In

No... nothing political. The change I'm referring to here is change that happens in the Midwest every year around early March. This change is the dreary winter waking and rubbing the crust off its eyes as we transition into the budding spring that is full of life. I had seen a few signs of this transition in late February (the return of a few Red-winged Blackbirds, early insects crawling around, increasing hours of daylight, etc.). But with the 60+ degree temperatures this weekend, numerous drastic changes were evident, making me think that we've almost turned the corner. Below are seven signs of spring that I have noted in the past few days.
  1. On Friday, while in a meeting in my office, I was distracted by the obnoxious but welcomed "kill-dee... kill-dee..." song of the Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus), our earliest arriving shorebird; I observed several Killdeer while driving yesterday between North Liberty and LaPorte, Indiana.
  2. Saturday and Sunday, the reverberating "kar-r-r-r-o-o-o" of Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) could be heard nearly wherever you were. These huge birds were present in many of the corn fields I drove past, and I even observed the flamboyant mating dance while I passed at 55 mph. Sandhill Cranes can also be seen soaring overhead throughout northern Indiana this time of year.
  3. While we have been seeing Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoenicius), Rusty Blackbirds (Euphagus carolensis), and Common Grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) since early February, they have seemingly exponentially multiplied in the past week. It is rare to be outside and not see Red-winged Blackbird males scouting out territories right now, though I don't think the majority of female Red-winged Blackbirds have made their arrival yet.
  4. Friday and Saturday afternoons, the "c-r-r-r-r-r-r-e-e-e-e-e-e-k" calls of Western Chorus Frogs (Pseudacris triseriata) echoed through wetlands and surrounding uplands. What a welcome and beautiful call!
  5. In LaPorte County on Saturday, I came across a very cold and nearly immobile Eastern Gray Treefrog (Hyla versicolor) on the ground. I had never seen a representative of this species this early in the year.
  6. The silver maples (Acer saccharinum) in our yard have begun to bloom. Most people I talk to who aren't botanists are surprised that trees even have flowers. If you look closely this time of year, you will see the spreading yellow stamens and reddish pistils of these small clusters of flowers.
  7. Finally, yesterday at Kankakee Fen northwest of North Liberty, I saw skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) in bloom. This is our earliest blooming wildflower in this part of the world, as the plant is capable of producing heat (a process called thermogenesis) that allows it to thaw surrounding frozen ground and push its floral structures through to the surface, even if snow still covers the surrounding landscape. The flowers of this species are located on a spadix that is hidden within a splotchy maroon- or green-colored spathe. If you're wondering why this plant is called skunk cabbage, try breaking a spathe or a leaf (which appears later in the year, as the flowers wither away). Your nose will quickly give you the answer. This "foetid" odor benefits the plant by attracting pollinators such as flies and bees.

The extended weather forecast shows colder temperatures and the potential for snow later this week... but, not to fear... spring will undoubtedly be here soon. During the unchartered and difficult times currently facing our nation and the world, no one yet knows if we will truly see the change promised us by our new leader. However, I can guarantee that if you look around outside, you will see the blossoming of a new and uplifting season.

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