As we emerge from winter the skies, waterways and land are busting out with plants and animals heralding the coming of spring. Plants are the first indicators that seasons are changing. Tightly packed buds begin to slowly unfurl their green treasures.
One of the earliest trees is the serviceberry tree (Amelanchier spp.). The flowers appear prior to many other flowering trees, making them quite conspicuous against the background of a still gray forest.
There are about a dozen Amelanchier species native to the United States. They range from low spreading shrubs to tall trees. The downy serviceberry is a small tree that begins blooming in March. Another name for this species is shadbush, since flowering occurs just as shad and other fish are returning to their springtime spawning grounds.
Most of the year shad inhabit offshore Atlantic waters. Warming temperatures and lengthening days prompt them to swim up the Chesapeake Bay to freshwater to spawn, usually returning to the same river in which they were born. How they do this remains a mystery. Many scientists believe that this homing instinct may be due to an uncanny sense of smell and sensitivity to magnetic signals, polarized light and unique characteristics of the natal stream.
Alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus), hickory shad (Alosa mediocris) and American shad (Alosasapidissima) generally spawn from March through June, while blueback herring (Alosa aestivalis) begin in April.
Other wildlife are also returning from long migrations. Absent from buoys, bridges and channel markers, ospreys (Pandion haliaetus) are coming back to the Chesapeake Bay. Like many other migratory birds, they spent the past winter in the Caribbean, and Central and South America.
Ospreys usually mate for life, and will use the same nest site year after year. Upon returning to the Chesapeake Bay each spring, reunited pairs begin the task of nest building or repair. Younger, first-time nesters must first attract and court a mate. Spring courtship marks the beginning of a five month period when the pair works together to raise their young.
Once silent, nights are now filled with the calls of frogs. Male spring peepers (Hyla crucifer crucifer), like other frogs, sing to attract mates. The mating call, a high-pitched ascending whistle, can sometimes be heard up to a one half a mile away. From February to March, spring peepers leave the trees to mate in open water. Ponds in forested wetlands are the main breeding sites. These areas may be ponds may last a few days or a few weeks but are critical to the life cycle of peepers and other amphibians.
These are our harbingers of spring. It’s hard to imagine our world without them. However no matter how common they seem, their survival is not guaranteed. As long as we continue to protect and restore the wetlands, forests and waterways that wildlife need to live and breed, they will continue to return to enhance our lives.