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What Time is it in Nature: Early Signs of Spring at Prairie Ridge

March 7, 2014

The weather has been a bit of a wild ride this winter, seesawing back and forth between beautifully balmy days and frigid, snowy days. Sir Walter Wally, the Museum’s weather forecasting Groundhog, told us we’d have six more weeks of winter, and it looks like he was correct! However, a few harbingers of spring are creeping in at Prairie Ridge. Is spring right around the corner? Let’s look at some of the signs.

The Red Maples are always one of the first trees to bloom, and they’re blooming in full force now:

Red Maple Flowers

Red Maples get their flowers long before their leaves, which make them stand out in the forested areas of the Prairie Ridge grounds. Red Maple trees are either male or female or both and you can easily tell the sex of a tree by the shape of the flowers they bear. Male flowers have several long stamens protruding from the cup-like base of the flowers, giving them a bushy tip. Female flowers have just two pieces protruding from the flowers, the two styles that form a sort of V-shape. Those are female flowers in the photo.

The Paw Paw Trees are also starting to show some signs of spring:

Paw Paw Buds

Paw Paw flower buds are brown and furry, with the appearance of well-worn, chocolate brown velvet. These will eventually develop into deep purple flowers which, if fertilized, can produce a tasty fruit. The Paw Paw is also a host plant for Zebra Swallowtail caterpillars, so we’ll be keeping an eye out for caterpillars as soon as the leaves start to make an appearance.

Another great sign of spring is the reappearance of the Red-winged Blackbirds:

Red Winged Blackbird

We see these birds on the grounds year-round, though we usually spot them alone near the feeders during the winter months. In the spring, we start to see a lot more of them – maybe three or four at the feeders at a time – and in more areas of the grounds. You’re now likely to see flashes of red on the shoulders of sleek black birds in the willows around the pond, making loud and raucous calls. Those are the Red-winged Blackbirds males, and they are starting to look for the streaky brown females that they hope to attract as mates.

You’re more likely to hear than see one sign of spring! We’ve heard Upland Chorus Frogs singing on recent warm days. Their calls are reminiscent of the sound of running your fingernail over the teeth of a comb, a loud “creeeek!” you can hear from some distance on the occasional winter or early spring day. (You can hear their sound on the Herps of North Carolina website.) These frogs generally prefer temporary bodies of water, and for the most part the Prairie Ridge individuals have stayed true to their nature. The one Upland Chorus Frog we heard outside of puddles and vernal pools was visiting the smaller of our two ponds. However, the American Bittern that has overwintered at Prairie Ridge was showing a strong interest in the frog making a racket the day we heard it. There’s a good possibility that particular individual met its demise in the belly of a Bittern.

We’ve spotted another group of animals frequently over the last few weeks:

People at Prairie Ridge

Large weekend crowds are always a good sign of spring! On warm days, you’ll see lots of families in the Nature PlaySpace, birders out looking for the American Bittern, cross-country runners training, and people attending programs. It’s a great time to visit Prairie Ridge, so we hope you’ll come see us soon!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Musuem’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation.  Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

(Photos by Chris Goforth)

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