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SCOTT SHALAWAY April promises hope, color after drab months



Published: Tue, April 8, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



Though the calendar decrees otherwise, spring begins in April. Wildflowers bloom, turkeys gobble, goldfinches molt, morels appear, butterflies flutter by, and migratory birds return.. April brings hope and color to a drab and dreary natural world; it breaks winter's back.

April showers are especially welcome this year. Despite the snowy winter and a fair amount of late winter rain, the ground is surprisingly dry around here. The woodland ditches where I usually find spring peepers and wood frogs are bone dry, and my most reliable vernal pool is just a collection of dry leaves. I eagerly anticipate the gentle rains sure to bring frogs back to my ephemeral pools.

In the valleys between the ridges, the soil remains rich and moist. In just a few weeks, mats of Virginia bluebells will cover patches of hillside. Ramps will carpet the flats next to the stream. Here and there, white trilliums will dot the ground like littered pieces of tissue paper. And spring beauties, bluets, mustards and phlox will add splashes of color.

No morels yet

The ground beneath the dead apple and elm trees remains barren. No morels yet. Some years they pop up in April, others they wait until mid-May. What triggers their seeming overnight appearance I have yet to learn, but I'll search daily until I find a few. A spring meal of saut & eacute;ed morels, ramps, and venison tenderloins has become a family tradition here, much like we savor pork and sauerkraut on New Year's Day.

The best of April, though, is spring migration. It began back in March with phoebes, towhees, and chipping sparrows, but these birds rarely leave the continent. It is the neotropical migrants I most anticipate in April. Tiny blue-gray gnatcatchers are among the first. Their high-pitched "pssst, pssst" gives them away. Most warblers and vireos hold off until later in the month, but a few can't wait to return. On April Fool's Day I heard a familiar, buzzy, two-note song. It's the earliest I've ever heard blue-winged warblers, which eventually will be the most common warbler here on the ridge. And if experience is a reliable teacher, I expect black-and-white warblers and white-eyed vireos by mid-month.

Last year on April 15, the most reviled day of the year, I went to bed with a smile on my face. Whip-poor-wills sang me to sleep.

Nectar feeder day

And every spring I eagerly await April 20. It's the day I fill my nectar feeders. April 22 is the earliest I've ever recorded hummingbirds, but I'd rather be early than late. They've already been reported as far north as parts of Virginia and Ohio, but local weather will determine how fast the filter northward. To improve your birding skills during spring migration, try squeaking and pishing. Birds often investigate unfamiliar high-pitched sounds, but they're especially curious in the spring as they establish breeding territories. Males must be vigilant to drive off would-be competitors. Or perhaps these sounds suggest a distress or alarm call.

In any case, birds can often be coaxed from cover by squeaking and pishing. To squeak, kiss the back of your hand sharply. The squeaky sound you hear is often an irresistible bird call. Or try pursing your lips and saying, "pishhh, pishhh, pishhh." Pishing also arouses many birds' curiosity. (I'll resist the urge to say it pishes them off. Oops! I couldn't help myself.)

Squeak or pish

Next time you hear a bird in dense cover but can't see it, give a squeak or a pish. The first few times you do this you may feel a little silly, so be sure the neighbors aren't watching.

As April unfolds, spring is clearly in the air. Yet, until I hear the flute-like yodel of a wood thrush echo up the valley, it remains incomplete. When I finally hear wood thrush vespers on a clear late April eve, spring turns the corner to summer.

sshalaway@aol.com




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