Awakening - Summer World: A Season of Bounty - Bernd Heinrich

Summer World: A Season of Bounty - Bernd Heinrich (2009)

Chapter 2. Awakening

23 April 2006. THE SUN SHINES AND THE FIRST CROCUSES are blooming around the house. In days, they will be gone for a whole year. I can’t resist trying to preserve one by sketching it in color. The flowers normally stay closed all night and open late in the morning as though they awake then. Are they responding to sunlight? Temperature? Time? I observed and experimented and think it may be all of these. The crocuses in sunshine in our yard didn’t open until 41°F. If I darkened them (by inverting a garbage can over them) they closed and stayed closed even at 50°F but opened at 70°F while they were still in the dark. However, by five-thirty in the afternoon while there is still sunshine they closed even if at 45°F. Might native flowers act similarly?

I NOTICED THE BLOODROOT FLOWERS FROM OUR WOODS raising their petals straight up at night to tightly enclose their reproductive organs. On the other hand, in the daytime in sunshine the stamens and pistils were fully exposed as the petals were spread out to the sides. However, a day later at 50°F under an overcast sky the flowers were closed all day. I dug up a plant and brought it into the house, and there it stayed open all night, at 60°F. Was flower opening therefore controlled by temperature? I put the plant into our refrigerator at two-thirty PM, and despite the dark and cold the flowers remained open for two hours, but then closed near their normal closing time, five-thirty. On a warm (60°F) night they closed. Apparently they respond much like their insect pollinators, which have activity times, but their behavior is also affected by temperature.

17 April 2007. It is snowing hard (again!), and this snowfall topped off one of the snowiest months in New England history. Snowstorms or flurries had been the norm almost every day for the last month, and the snow was piled up to the top of the back door of our cabin in Maine even before the latest snowstorm, which then dumped 3.5 more feet, making a total of ninety-five inches so far for the winter. I felt sad for the woodcocks, robins, red-winged blackbirds, grackles, juncos, sapsuckers, and flickers that had already returned on their normal schedule, which this year was at the wrong time. Flocks of juncos and robins settled onto the only bare earth available—the shoulders of plowed roads next to tall snowbanks, where there was surely no food for them. How many of these early birds will survive? It might take weeks for the snow to melt. But I was wrong.

Suddenly, “clearing skies” were predicted, and indeed the sun came and along with it a southerly wind. Temperatures soared to 50, 60, 70, and finally 80°F. Rivulets gushed and gurgled down from the hills into flooding rivers. What a difference four days can make: the difference between winter and summer. The goldfinch males that have been coming to our feeder quickly molted their drab greenish winter garb, turning bright lemon yellow in a week. The great greening will soon begin—but not before the wood frogs have had their choruses.

The long-awaited wood frogs were at least two weeks late this year, starting their chorusing on my birthday, 19 April. But the spring peepers were on calendar time, and thus this year they piped up only a day, rather than two weeks, behind the wood frogs. By 23 April, the summer awakening had already progressed far. I was so excited that I could barely sit still to write about it. But I had to do it while I was still reasonably coherent, before the greening onslaught could rush in, and while the impressions were still fresh in my mind.

In only three days after the warming began, crocuses peaked at our doorstep in an orgy of blue, white, and yellow bloom. Growing only along the sides of our dirt road, which was now finally again turning from spring mud to solid summer ground, the coltsfoot suddenly poked their brown flower buds through the soil and opened wide their bright yellow flowers. On the south-facing wooded slopes near our house, spring beauties, bloodroot, and hepaticas were opening their pink, snow-white, and blue and purple flowers to the sun. And the wind-pollinated trees—the quaking aspen, beaked hazel, and speckled alder—suddenly unfurled their tight flower buds to wave them in the warm breezes as though on signal, which indeed is what the warm pulse had been. The elm and red maples blossomed right on schedule as always, although the sugar maple, one of our most common trees and a most beautiful one when it is in full-splendored pale yellow bloom, chose not to flower this year. From Vermont to Maine the sugar maples were barren of flowers (although I found a single tree in flower next to our well in Maine). Willows were slower; they would be two days behind. However, no leaf bud anywhere had so far opened; nor would any open for weeks.

I saw my first orange and yellow bumblebee queen of the season as she was zigzagging close to the ground, as bees do when searching for a nest site. And two overwintering butterflies—the mourning cloak and Compton’s tortoiseshell—perched on a sugar maple trunk sucking sugar water at a lick a newly returned sapsucker had made on a tree next to our back door at the edge of the woods. Their wings were outspread to catch the warmth of the sun. “Our” phoebe finally examined potential nest sites, and a tree swallow sailed around the yard, before briefly examining a nest box and then departing. I’m sure it will be back soon with a mate. Early this morning one of a pair of blue jays tore off twigs from a viburnum bush along the driveway and flew off with them into the woods. It has begun building its nest foundation and will soon search for rootlets to line the nest.

Aside from walking around aimlessly and gawking, I have spent the last three mornings comfortably perched on a solid branch of a pine tree growing at the edge of our bog. I tucked myself comfortably up against the thick solid trunk, and leaned back in bliss behind a thin veil of branches that provided both concealment and a view. At dawn, an hour before the sun’s glare bleeds the colors, the bog was a study in pastels. There was no green vegetation at all, unless one looks at ground level to spy the blue-green tips of the sedge shoots beginning to pierce the winter-downed brown leaf blades. Aside from the chestnut brown sedge clumps (hummocks) that are surrounded by water, I saw an expanse of beige-yellow cattail swamp with dark brown seed heads that look black in the dawn. The water surface shimmered in colors ranging through black, tan, blue, and dark greenish where the light reflected from the pines at the edge of the beaver pond.

Light reflected from wavelets as muskrats and beavers swam at slow, steady, unvarying speed. Their noses and ears peeked out of the water, etching V’s in their wake. One beaver hauled itself out onto an old dam overgrown with viburnum bushes. Its shaggy coat glistened black as it bent over on its haunches and with its front paws brushed the fur on its head and behind its ears. Then it waddled back into the water and slid out of sight. I silently thanked the beavers, because with their dams and their constant cutting of brush and trees they have created this oasis of very varied life in what would otherwise be an almost uniform expanse of forest.

Unexpectedly I hear the resounding “whoosh-whoosh-whoosh” of heavy wing beats, and what T. Gilbert Pearson in 1917 called the “Lord God bird” and we now more commonly refer to as the pileated woodpecker, Dryocopus pileatus, lands beside me. In the same instant that I recognize the woodpecker, it recognizes its mistake and flies to the next tree. A pair of these woodpeckers had recently been making their nest cavity in a poplar nearby in the woods. It will take the pair a month to finish excavating their nest hole—one that will next year probably be used by wood ducks or maybe a pair of screech owls or saw-whet owls. Nesting is evident all around. In the distance I now also hear the “baby bird” caws of a crow—and I know them as the sound of a female incubating eggs and begging her mate to come feed her.

A Canada goose gander patrols along the edge of the cattails, and his loud calls echo over the pond. He is responding to another’s call, which I hear coming from the distance. His mate remains silent. She is ready to incubate four beige eggs cradled in a nest she has made by pulling the cattail leaves under her while perched on a muskrat lodge. It is her fertile period, and he does not want company in his domestic affairs, especially at this time.

A second pair of geese have started building their nest on the opposite shore of the beaver pond, and this gander ignores them. However, every morning and evening several other geese visit the pond, probing to find an opening. He and the other pair unite to attack visitors, and so far have invariably chased them off. These visitors are highly motivated, as are the defenders. Within several more days it will be too late to start raising a family of goslings this summer. The grackles are much more sociable nesters than the geese. Five pairs of grackles have banded together as a small colony. Every year they nest in the same small section of the cattails close to where the geese nest.

It appears that the geese and grackles know each other as individuals, and I suspect that the red-winged blackbirds are as capable. Both came to the bog in small flocks and will soon nest near each other. Every day they come to our bird feeder in groups of about half a dozen, even after they stake out their nesting niches in the bog. The individual male red-wings have their own little stations or territories, and although they tolerate neighbors there, they gang up on others who come by. The grackles came back to the bog as a group, males and females together. The red-wings also came as a group, but the first vanguard is always all males. The females come weeks later, and they should arrive any day now.

The red-wings and grackles are here constantly, and by now I scarcely watch them anymore. But today I had special visitors: two pairs of wood ducks. I noticed them first as dark formed on the water among the sedge hummocks. They seemed to follow one another, stop, reverse, swirl, and swerve. I don’t often use my binoculars, because they greatly restrict my field of vision, but this time I retrieved them from under my jacket. From a distance I had seen no color, but now the females, clad in soft gray plumage, provided a pleasing contrast to the males’ bold patterns of red, white, black, purple, tan, green, and blue, a costume so flamboyantly gaudy that it would be hard to dream up. They glistened, and their colors were reflected in the water next to them.

The wood ducks seemed to be animated little robots who swerved erratically into and out of the sedges before aggregating at and swimming around an old abandoned beaver lodge. A mallard drake joined them. His luminescent green head seemed to glow, and he held his head high and turned it this way and that. His soft, barely audible calls sounded like exhalations with a sharp edge. Eventually a female flew in and, while quacking loudly, splashed down beside him. He relaxed then and the two, dipping periodically with their heads underwater and their tails straight up, fed together. After a while another male came near, and the paired male vigorously chased him off. Later on I lost track of the hen, and then I saw the two of them staying together as a couple. I don’t know what is going on, but I think the female has a nest somewhere and is laying eggs and he will be mate-guarding her as long as she does, so that the eggs she lays will have his paternity. In a few days there will be no females visible, and then males will again associate with each other.

The swamp is dense and I see only its surface. Much remains hidden, and I hardly know of its existence. Today I had the pleasure of making the rare acquaintance of a bittern. This large bird of the heron family may be here all summer, but one would never know it. Today, however, I heard a bittern’s “song,” an unearthly sound that carries for miles; one would scarcely attribute such a strange sound to a bird. The bird’s colloquial name, “pile driver,” is derived from the male’s call, which reminds me of somebody driving a stake into the ground with a large sledgehammer in a large echo chamber. I located the bittern’s brown streaked form only with difficulty, through my binoculars. Standing among cattails on long yellow-green legs, his erect body with elongated neck and bill straight up, he blended in with the vertical dead cattails. He stood without moving a muscle for perhaps half an hour or more. Eventually he started to creep forward, his every motion epitomizing one’s stereotype of the “silent stalker.” He hunched over, gradually lifted one leg, and just as slowly in one continuous motion put it down in front of him and lifted the other. Then he stopped, again frozen in position, until, very slowly turning his head, he took another slow-motion step forward, to again stop for a few minutes and then again take a step or two. Suddenly his head shot forward and down with lightning swiftness, and came up with a frog dangling from the bill. If he had not announced himself (to a potential mate) I would never have known he was near. There is much right under my nose that I don’t see, and thus I look forward to getting out, again and again—to discovering.

The birds have started their summer schedule. If not in flamboyant garb, then in song, they put a high premium on making themselves conspicuous. Like us, they communicate through the senses of vision and hearing, and so we are fortunate to be able to be spectators. Some, like the male red-winged blackbirds who perch on top of the cattails or bushes, make themselves conspicuous to rivals, and possibly mates, by where they perch, by flashing their brilliant crimson epaulets (which they otherwise can hide), and by backing up their visual display with a vocal one. The bittern can stay hidden and rely on vocal display almost exclusively. But whatever the different animals do, I can’t even imagine what summer, and life, might be like without them.