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Out There: Spring comes to the natural world

By Ed McMackin, biologist by profession and naturalist by nature
Sagebrush Buttercup (Rnunculus glaberrimius), one of the first spring flowers, bloomed on March 19. (Photo by Ed McMackin)

By Ed McMackin, biologist by profession and naturalist by nature

On March 19, the Sagebrush Buttercups started to bloom. Last year the first ones bloomed on March 5, about two weeks earlier. That doesn’t mean we are having a late spring, but according to my observations, last year’s spring was earlier than the norm. This season, if the first buttercup flowers had opened on March 5, they would have frozen.

The buttercups are our earliest bloomers. It seems they shoot up the flower buds as soon as soil temperatures remain slightly above freezing even though their may be overnight frost and ice on the puddles the next morning. Daytime bright sunlight and subterranean warmth, keep the soil from overnight freezing .

For the most part, plants of our Temperate Zone, including our local spring buttercups, depend on adequate temperatures being reached. Their growth and shooting up is not normally directly dependent on the length of day. With birds, the start of spring activities depends more on the amount of daylight hours and is less dependent on temperatures. A study I read once showed that bird singing and other vocalizations and courtship rituals began when a certain length of day was reached.

Over the years, I have observed that male Varied Thrushes returned to the Montane environment (i.e. Arrow Creek) upland coniferous forests sometime in the latter part of February, which would have been when a certain length of day was reached. The females came about two weeks later. This, year, a male Varied Thrush showed up right on schedule. In spite of the cold temperatures and snow accumulation.

The Thrushes, over the years, have taken a liking to cracked corn, especially, when there was little food available. This year I kept lots of cracked corn out, and after arriving, they made themselves right at home. Birds have some way of knowing where there is food. An additional four male Thrushes showed up soon after the first one. With five of them in the feeder area, there were a few scuffles. Varied Thrushes are certainly not communal. I ended up making three other feeding spots available.

I have observed a few American Robins around and instead of trying to pull worms from the frozen ground they have resorted to mountain ash berries. Only once did one come into the feeder area.

Bluebirds are certainly about in the snow-free, tall-grass fields and meadows, snatching up flies and other insects that are warming up in the dry grass. Flies are not the only little creatures that appear in the dry grass. Our non-famous wood ticks have opened season on warm-blooded creatures. If one expects to

be in areas where there will be close contact with dry brush or dry grass, wearing slick clothing, tucking pant-legs into socks and periodic self-checks are good preventive measures. Dry, warm and sunny areas are tick hangouts.. A trail in shady, cool forests are less apt to have ticks.

Low-elevation trails are and walks are presently, mostly clear of snow and ice. So don’t let a little, bittie tick let you down and spoil your hike or walk. Take precautions and get some healthy, fresh air into your lungs and brain. There aren’t many better choices! There is more to be gained from getting out than from staying inside due to ticks.

After all, time is ticking away!