Spring Explodes with Wildlife

Robins and crocuses may remind you of spring, but wildlife is exploding all around us. The land, skies and waters, quiet and grey through the winter months, now sing day and night and burst with color.

American Shad. Drawing by Duane Raver, USFWS
American Shad. Duane Raver, USFWS

Spawning Runs
A transformation occurs in waters as anadromous fish, like shad, journey from oceans to rivers to spawn. The word anadromous comes from the Greek word meaning running uphill.

What’s really amazing is that these fish return to the same area in which they were born. How they accomplish this remains a mystery. An uncanny sense of smell or sensitivity to magnetic signals, polarized light and characteristics of the natal waterway may lead them.

Spawning runs of the American shad (Alosa sappidissima) are particularly notorious in the Chesapeake Bay area. Native Americans harvested shad and taught colonists how to catch them. By the 1800s fishermen caught shad by the ton. Farmers used shad as fertilizer. People prized shad for their succulent meat and tasty roe (eggs).

Serviceberry tree. Photo by Britt Slattery, USFWS
Serviceberry tree. Photo by Britt Slattery, USFWS

Painting the Woodland
In the understory of woodlands you may see another messenger of spring: the creamy white blossoms of the serviceberry tree (Amelanchier spp.). The flowers often appear, before other flowering trees, making them conspicuous against the background of a still grey forest. They are also known as shadbush because they flower when shad are spawning.

There are about a dozen native Amelanchier species, ranging from low spreading shrubs to tall trees. Serviceberries are excellent additions to your yard. In addition to the early white blossoms and dark fruits, they sport brilliant fall colors of yellow and orange that deepen to red.

Nighttime Serenades
Throughout the Northeast, spring rains create temporary wet spots known as vernal pools. Vernal pools explode with activity as frogs and toads call to attract mates and breed.

Wood frogs (Rana sylvatica) migrate to vernal pools early in the spring. Their call is a hoarse clacking sound, reminiscent of a quack.  The wood frog is an explosive breeder usually laying a large mass of eggs in a few days and leaving soon after.

Spring peeper. USFWS photo.
Spring peeper. USFWS photo.

Spring peepers (Hyla crucifer), a tree frog, follows the wood frog by a week or two. Its unmistakable mating call, the peep, and large geographic range makes the spring peeper one of the most familiar frogs in North America. The mating call can sometimes be heard up to a half a mile away.

Another familiar amphibian is the American toad (Bufo americanus). Their habitat ranges from mountains to backyards. You can find American toads anywhere there are moist places, plenty of insects to eat and shallow waters to breed. Despite their warty appearance, their mating call is a pleasant musical trill.

Bring Back the Birds
As landscape greens up and trees and flowers blossom, there is an explosion of worms, spiders and insects. And right on their heels come our migratory birds.

Prothonatary warbler. Photo by John & Karen Hollingsworth.

Because these birds eat foods not available in colder months (like insects and pollen), they migrate to South and Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean during the winter. As spring returns, so do the birds as they follow their food to their breeding grounds.

More than 360 species of birds make this annual migration. Some of these birds are common - the American robin (Turdus migratorius), eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis), ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris), and gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis). Others, such as the red-eyed vireo (Vireo olivaceus), scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea), wood thrush (Hylocichla mustelina), and Cape May warbler (Dendroica tigrina), may be familiar only to bird watchers.

For more information about springtime wildlife, check out these websites:
Status of American shad
American Shad – Life History
Native Plants and BayScaping 
Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping
North American Amphibian Monitoring Program
All About Birds
Birds, Birds, Birds

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