Amidst the hubbub associated with spring yard work, wood splitting and garden planting I realized it had been quite some time since I ventured into the woods for a look around. Never one to balk at a chance to shirk routine chores, I loaded my pack with binoculars, water and a portable seat, grabbed my walking stick and headed into the bush for a reconnaissance session.
Almost immediately I began making discoveries that any student of nature would find interesting and enlightening. For one thing, I noticed that the black flies were not terribly thick, and though I’ve found a tick or two on me already this spring they’re not as abundant as they have been, at least not in my area. Mosquitoes and deer flies, however, are as numerous, aggravating and persistent as one might expect, especially after the recent spate of rain. I don’t like to use insect repellents simply because of how they feel on my skin, although the new “dry” varieties are less oily and greasy. When I have a free hand I’ll snap off a leafy maple or oak bough and use that to slap away the bugs. If I keep the swatter moving rhythmically around my head and shoulders I can keep the most aggressive insects away for quite some time.
The best way to see what’s going on in the woods is to stop, look and listen. I’ll walk 100 yards or so, pausing for 10 minutes or so at each waypoint to observe what’s going on around me. Something of interest will catch my eye at every stop: a bird, an animal, a flower, a track in the mud. I also follow the progress of the apple trees, wild strawberries and blueberries, making a mental note to be on hand when it’s time to start picking. The strawberries are already ripening while the blueberries are heavy on the branches but still green and hard. I don’t expect to see any apples for 12 weeks or more but I like to keep track of which trees are most likely to produce a large crop. I’ve always been fond of “wild” apples, trees that were planted by long-forgotten homesteaders whose stone walls, wells and empty foundations are all that remain of their life’s work. Their trees are still producing apples including some varieties that are no longer commercially popular. I make it a point to dry strings of apples each fall in honor of the old ways.
At one of my stops I noticed a very boisterous, nervous chickadee that was carrying a big, white moth in its beak. I knew that it was probably looking to feed its young so I sat still and watched as the bird flitted from branch to branch with its catch. Sure enough, the chickadee disappeared into the side of a rotten birch stub, where I knew there had to be a nest. The muted peeping of baby chickadees gave the secret away, but I just sat still and watched as the parent bird flew off and returned with more food. When the adult disappeared from sight I crept over to the birch and found a hole the size of a tennis ball, and looking in I could see four little chickadee faces glaring up at me. I wished them well and moved on knowing that other eyes were likely upon me – squirrels, hawks, snakes and other predators would be more than happy to enjoy a snack of fledgling chickadee.
A few minutes down the trail I ran into another bird family, this time a hen turkey and her troop of chicks. Considering how cold and wet it has been of late it was nice to see that the little ones had survived. I counted eight chicks but there may have been more. They will face all sorts of hazards in the next several weeks until they mature but there were certainly safe from me.
At my next stopping point I didn’t see much going on but noticed that I kept hearing a catbird call coming from the same patch of brush at the edge of a vernal pool. I guessed that there was a nest nearby and so I made my way over to see if I could find it. Between the calls and constant activity of the parents there was no doubt that the nest was in a dense honeysuckle at the edge of the water. I used my binocular to peer into the nest from 50 feet away. Heads and tails were everywhere inside the nest so I guessed that the young catbirds would soon be heading out on their own. The adults seemed to tolerate my presence and continued their feeding chores even as I passed by just a few feet away. I’m sure they would have gone into diversionary mode if I had stopped for a closer look, so I just kept on going down the trail.
One can usually expect to observe a good deal of wildlife traffic near pools, ponds and swamps at this time of year. Tracks in the mud near the outlet of the vernal pool revealed the passing of raccoons, mink, deer and a yearling black bear. There was just one bear print in the mud but it was sharp and clean, the pads, toes and claws showing up clearly in the muck. I’ll have to mention that to the neighbor who’s been trying to establish an apiary on the other side of the pond.
Spring in the woods is a period of constant change. In just a few days the nests and burrows will be empty and once again survival will become the name of the game. It’s easy to miss the transitions between seasons because change comes quickly for plants and animals. Fortunately, I can use those changes as an excuse to come back and see what has transpired since my last visit. There’s certainly plenty to do in the yard and garden but one must have priorities!