An almanac of spring in the Kawarthas – Published April 10, 2020
At this time of great uncertainty in our lives, the natural world provides something we all need more than ever: predictability. I am talking about the predictability of change as one season slowly slips into the next, and a myriad of events in nature take place at the same time each year. Like a celestial clock, events in nature tick off the time of the season. Finding the expected species at the same time each year offers reassurance that the natural world is unfolding as it should. To a large extent, “seeing” means knowing what to expect. In fact, the cornerstone of most plant and animal identification is knowing what to anticipate given the time of year and type of habitat.
Earlier this week, my friend, Jacob Rodenburg, and I went for a lovely morning walk at Camp Kawartha, respecting social distancing of course. In addition to the quiet and sunshine, what made the walk so special was seeing and hearing – for the first time this year – most of the species we expected: spring peepers calling from a woodland pond, a garter snake sunning itself on the trail, the drumming of a ruffed grouse, the raspy two-parted song of the eastern phoebe, the hammering of a yellow-bellied sapsucker, and the swelling buds of the American elm. Witnessing expected events in nature offers a wonderful counterbalance to the change and unpredictability of modern life, and no more so than during this pandemic.
The following events are typical of spring in the Kawarthas. I hope you’re able to experience as many of them as possible this year. Make a point of getting outside, if only in your own backyard.
- It’s time to start indoor sowing of annuals for your pollinator garden. Some great species include Mexican sunflower (Tithonia), common sunflower (Helianthus annuus), catnips (Nepeta), and salvia.
- Silver maples, a common city tree, are putting on quite a show right now. Dense clusters of flowers in tinges of red, yellow and green festoon the twigs. The winged samaras (keys) will appear in June.
- Now is a good time to learn the songs of early spring birds, such as the chickadee, robin, cardinal, mourning dove, grackle, starling, house finch, and song sparrow. I find the best way to remember each song is to use a mnemonic or memory aid. For example, the American robin seems to say: “cheer‑up, cheer‑a‑lee, cheer‑ee‑o”. Go to allaboutbirds.org to listen to the songs and calls. I also recommend getting the free Merlin bird identification app.
- Don’t be too surprised if a half‑crazed robin or cardinal starts pecking at or flying up against one of your windows. Being very territorial birds, they instinctively attack other individuals of the same species – in this case, their reflection!
- Close to 30 species of local birds are already nesting this month. Among these is the American robin. The female, identified by her dull orange breast, selects the nest site and does most of the nest building. Robins have two and even three clutches of eggs each year. The same nest is sometimes used for multiple clutches.
- April is a busy time for feeders. In addition to dark-eyed juncos, song sparrows, common grackles and resident species like chickadees and cardinals, keep an eye out for fox sparrows and maybe even an eastern towhee. By month’s end, white-throated sparrows will be moving through. Listen for the wavering whistle of their “Oh-sweet-Canada–Canada-Canada” song.
- If the weather is mild, local wetlands come alive in mid-April with the clamorous calls of countless frogs. The first voices are those of the spring peeper, wood frog, and the chorus frog. To listen to amphibian calls, Google “Frog and Toad Calls – Nature North”
- Watch for the yellow, dandelion-like flowers of coltsfoot growing along roadsides. The white, fluffy seed heads also resemble those of dandelions. Coltsfoot initially produce only flowers; the leaves won’t appear until later in the spring.
- When water temperatures reach 7 C, walleye begin to spawn. Along with suckers, they can sometimes be seen spawning at night at Lock 19 in Peterborough or below the pedestrian bridge in Young’s Point. Take along a strong‑beamed flashlight.
- Hepatica are usually the first woodland wildflowers to bloom in the spring. The flowers can be pink, white or bluish in colour. Look for them on south-facing forest hillsides or right at the base of a large tree. Kawartha Land Trust’s Stoney Lake Trails at Viamede is a good place to see them. I recommend the yellow trail.
- The muffled drumming of the ruffed grouse is one of the most characteristic sounds of April. The birds drum to advertise territorial claims and to attract a female.
- The courtship flight of the American woodcock provides nightly entertainment in damp, open field habitats such as fields at the Trent Wildlife Sanctuary. Listen for their nasal “peent” call which begins when it’s almost dark.
- Northward-bound loons fly over Peterborough on late April mornings. Even if you don’t see the bird, you may hear its yodeling call, which is often given on the wing.
- A variety of interesting butterflies is already on the wing as May begins. These include Compton’s tortoiseshell, the eastern comma and the mourning cloak. Petroglyphs Provincial Park is a great destination for butterfly watching.
- The white blossoms of serviceberries, also known as Juneberries, are a common site along country roadsides. Chokecherry, followed by black cherry, will soon flower, as well. Chokecherry blossoms appear on a long, spike-like structure
- The yellow-gold flowers of marsh marigolds brighten wet habitats in early May. By mid-month, white trilliums blanket woodlots throughout the Kawarthas. A closer look will reveal numerous other wildflowers, too, like yellow trout lily.
- With many species nesting, try to keep your cat indoors. Cats are one reason why relatively few baby robins ever make it to adulthood.
- The first ruby-throated hummingbirds usually return on about May 5, so be sure to have your nectar feeders up and ready to greet them.
- The long, fluid trills of the American toad can be heard day and night. They are one of the most characteristic sounds of early May. Later in the month, gray treefrogs serenade us with their slow, bird-like musical trills.
- The damp morning air is rich with the fragrance of balsam poplar resin, a characteristic smell of spring in the Kawarthas.
- Mid-May sees the peak of songbird migration with the greatest numbers of warblers, vireos, thrushes, orioles, flycatchers and other neo-tropical migrants passing through.
- That large, streaked sparrow-like bird at your feeder is probably a female rose-breasted grosbeak. Males are black and white, with a red breast. Just in from Costa Rica, grosbeaks are attracted to sunflower seeds.
- By month’s end, wild columbine is blooming on rocky hillsides and along roads and trails. The flowers, a beautiful blend of red and yellow, hang in a bell-like fashion and are often visited by hummingbirds.
- Bass, bluegills and pumpkinseeds begin to spawn and are a common sight near docks.
- The showy, yellow and black Canadian tiger swallowtail butterfly appears by month’s end and adds an exotic touch to our gardens.
- White-tailed deer fawns are usually born in late May or early June.
- In downtown Peterborough and Lakefield, chimney swifts will be putting on quite a show. Pairs can be observed in courtship flight as they raise their wings and glide in a V position.
- Watch for turtles laying their eggs in the sandy margins of roadsides and rail-trails. Remember to slow down when driving through turtle-crossing zones and, if safe, help the reptile across the road.
- The first monarch butterflies usually appear in the Kawarthas in June. Make sure you have some milkweed in your garden on which they can lay their eggs. In March, World Wildlife Fund Mexico announced that the total forest area occupied by overwintering monarch colonies this year was 2.8 hectares, a 53% decrease from last winter. The decrease is a bit of a mystery, since monarchs had excellent breeding success last summer in northeastern North America. The latest issue of Scientific American has an excellent article on monarch decline. There is much we don’t yet understand.
- Osprey eggs hatch in early June. The eggs do not hatch all at once, but instead the first chick hatches out up to five days before the last one. The older chick dominates its younger siblings, and often eats the lion’s share of the food.
- Giant silk moths take wing in June. They include the Cecropia, Polyphemus, Promethea, and Luna. The males have large, feather-like antennae, which are sensitive to airborne sex attracts called pheromones. This chemical communication system allows a male to find a female at distances of up to several kilometres.
- Try to make a point of paying attention to how the mix of species of roadside flowers changes over the course of the spring, summer and fall. By early to mid-June, ox-eye daisy, dame’s-rocket, goat’s-beard, bladder campion, and yellow hawkweed are usually in bloom.
- The Summer Solstice occurs on Saturday, June 20 at 5:43 p.m. The sun will rise and set farther north than on any other day of the year. Celebrate this profound celestial event with your family.
- The living lights of fireflies appear in late June. A type of beetle, fireflies produce a heatless light in their abdomen by combining a chemical called luciferin with luciferase (an enzyme) and oxygen. The males flash the light to attract females.
- The green frog’s banjo-like “poink” is a widespread sound in wetlands both day and night.
- Butterfly-watching is usually at its most productive in early summer, since the greatest number of species is flying at this time. White admirals and European skippers are particularly noticeable.