Thursday, April 7, 2011

News for the Greenery-Starved Folks

Buds are beginning to break, and I’m hungry for the return of lush foliage- if only to enjoy it momentarily as I scuttle from building to building in the cold. But on days like today, when it’s warm enough for me anxiously go and check on the progress of budding branches, I realize that many things I can observe amongst the trees right now may soon be hidden from view or vanish altogether once the leaves grow.  Here are seven things that will only be in plain sight while the branches are still bare:

Red-tailed hawks are beginning to pair up.
The lay of the land. Now is a good time for ramblers like me to get familiar with new routes for hiking, walking, biking or running. I can see rocky ledges, tiny streams, stands of white birch or beech trees, vernal pools and other landmarks that could all become easily obscured by low branches and undergrowth. These things break up the landscape into recognizable chunks that I’ll enjoy coming back to all the more when I can remember how to get there.
The tapping of woodpeckers is harder to hear and to see when leaves are out.
Seasonal bird behavior. The migratory birds are back, and they’re full of activity. They’re looking for food, establishing territory and trying to find mates. Much of this activity happens in the shrubbery or the treetops, where it can be virtually impossible to get a clear view in the summertime. Over the past few days, I’ve heard the tapping of woodpeckers quite frequently. It’s easy to spot their black, white and red feathers from far away on large hollow trunks. Although the woodpeckers are year-round residents here, males are now establishing territory from one another with tapping sounds.
Other wildlife and garden visitors. These same large old trees with some hollow trunks are home to screech owls, which have been known to occasionally come out during the day and sun themselves through the bare branches as the weather gets warmer. I can still see large leaf middens hanging from treetop branches. Squirrels built these middens last fall to store extras from the year’s massive acorn collection and to keep warm. Raccoons, snakes, and other animals that have also relied on dens throughout the winter are now emerging and searching for food. Perhaps the most reassuring thing of all to see moving about among the bare branches is the mourning cloak butterfly, newly emerged from hibernation.
It's easier now to track squirrels as they nibble on favorite shoots and check on their middens..
Witch Hazel is the earliest bare-branch bloom.
Catkins. Trees that bear these long tassels rely on there being a minimum of foliage this time of year. Each catkin is packed with many tiny flowers, which need the wind that comes through bare branches in order to broadcast their pollen, since most pollinating insects have not emerged yet. They don’t have petals, but I can always spot their swaying movement and bright yellow pollen from afar.
Redbud trees sport pink blossoms on bare trunks.
More flowers that bloom on bare branches. Many other shrubs and trees bear blossoms before leafing out, and these are a beautiful sight. Witch hazel, forsythia, flowering quince, apricot trees, and star magnolia are a few of the earliest bloomers.
The bare branches themselves. Although they’ve been there, brown, overhead and in the periphery all winter, the bare branches are changing ever so slightly. Buds are becoming longer, more prominent and easier to differentiate from species to species now. This gives the branches unique form from one another, even at long distance against the sky. Closer up, the pattern of the buds makes it clear which direction branches grow from year to year.
One of my favorite sheltered spots to let the sun shine in!
Sunlight. As much as I long to be outside during the winter months, New England weather has a way of ensuring everyone stays tucked inside at home sometimes. Even on the clear days when it’s not snowing and the sun is shining, there is still ice, wind, and cold temperatures to contend with. When it’s just warm enough to shed a layer or two and sit sheltered by trees as the sunlight comes through, I begin to welcome back all the splendors of spring, one by one.

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