SPRING -- April 1 - April 30


April 1 -- Do you hear the sound of ducks quacking? April Fools! You might actually be hearing wood frogs -- they sound just like quacking ducks. Males are emerging from hibernation and heading to small wetlands, since those ones thaw the earliest. They are calling to females to mate. All wood frogs have a bright white lip line which shows up well from a distance. Their bodies come in three possibly color morphs: yellow, red, and brown.

April 2 -- In early spring, when the weather is cool and damp, tiger salamanders are on the move. You might notice them crossing trails and roads. These gentle amphibians emerge from overwintering in underground tunnels, especially pocket gopher burrows. They swagger overland to breed in small, thawed wetlands, often travelling at night during rainy weather, which keeps their sensitive skin moist. Only handle tiger salamanders and other amphibians with clean, wet hands (no sunscreen, bug spray, lotions, etc.), because although they breathe with lungs, they also respire through their skin.

April 3 - Wolfberry holds many berries through fall, winter, and into spring which change colors through the seasons and are now dark brown or black. Wolfberry seeds are hiding inside -- how many can you find? The berries are an important food for some birds and small mammals including upland game birds, waterfowl, and deer. (Can you guess how the seeds are spread?) The shrubs provide cover for small mammals and birds, as well as nesting sites for waterfowl. Wolfberry's extensive root system binds soil, preventing erosion. The entire wolfberry plant helps the prairie ecosystem!

April 4 - Dark-eyed juncos, little winter visitors, are migrating through in busy flocks during early and mid-spring. They usually hop on the ground in yards and under feeders and in open prairie, scratching for seeds to eat. Listen for their song, a bright, short trill, and watch for their white outer tail feathers as they jump up and flush for cover.

April 5 - With snow possibly still on the ground, the first butterfly appears, the mourning cloak. It overwinters as an adult in a hibernaculum hidden under tree bark or in a secret crevice. With no flowers blooming yet to provide nectar, it feeds with other insects at yellow-bellied sapsucker holes, eating tree sap, and also consumes nutrients and moisture from mud, scat, and rotting fruit.

April 6 - While people are tapping maples for syrup, yellow-bellied sapsuckers are migrating north and drilling maples and birch for the same reason. Look for horizontal rows of tiny, round holes in younger trees, (unlike most woodpeckers, which feed in decaying trees). These deep holes tap into the xylem, tubes carrying water upward from roots to branches. Oozing sap attracts and traps insects, which sapsuckers also eat.

April 7 - Let's check on how ice out is progressing. Area rivers are the first to open up, followed by small to large wetlands, and lastly, lakes. Some characteristics of this back-and-forth process include deteriorated ice (thawing, reduced strength), rotten ice (water-logged, very weak), landless ice (open water between ice and shore), mattress ice (well-thawed, bends), candled ice (black, breaks like a chandelier), swing (ice waves moving up and down), calves (large sheets of ice separated by areas of open water), and bottom erosion (ice melting from the bottom). What is the ice doing near you?

April 8 - Migrating wood ducks have returned to prairie wetlands, ready to nest. Hens and drakes are already searching for cavities and boxes to call home. You may find them perched in trees, a strange sight! They are just inspecting the nest site for various features like size, shape, safety from predators, and protection from weather. Did you know? The very first wood duck boxes were invented by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists and placed in Illinois in 1937.

April 9 - The black bud covers of pussy willows are breaking open, revealing soft, white catkins, a joy to see and touch. The buds swell and mature into yellow (male) and white (female) flowers, an important food source of pollen for early spring bees when few other plants are blooming. Search for pussy willows near water, growing with other willow species and red-osier dogwood.

April 10 - Let's take a gander at the Canada geese. Nesting season is now underway. Paired geese are building nests and laying and incubating eggs. It only takes about 4 hours for the female alone to build the nest. She lays her first egg as soon as the nest is finished. After that day, she lays one egg per day until her clutch is complete, about 5 eggs total, and then full-time incubation begins. Look for nests on wetland shorelines. A favorite site is on top of muskrat huts!

April 11 - The first wave of migratory sparrows is passing through. Can you find these species? The early arrivals include the American tree sparrow (rufous crown, dark central spot on otherwise clean breast), fox sparrow (a larger sparrow with a longer tail and legs, rufous and grey head/back/wings with dark center spot and triangles on breast), and the song sparrow (dark central spot and streaks on chest, dark triangle on each side of the throat).

April 12 - Get ready to enjoy pasque flowers, the first species to bloom each year in the prairie. The word "pasque" is French for Easter, which is when this flower usually appears. Thanks for leaving them where you find them, because early spring pollinators need their pollen, and other people need their beauty, too.

April 13 - Take your snack outside today, and dine with the American robin. Bring some gummy worms with you. Watch how robins run, stop, and tilt their head to listen for worms moving underground, then hop up suddenly when they hear one. Who will win the worm tug-o-war?

April 14 - Get your groove on with the American woodcock. This bird has moves, starting with its bobbing strut. At dawn and dusk, in scrubby fields, listen for the male's "peent!" song, just the prelude to his sky dance. Launching up, flying in wide circles, he spirals high, then plummets back to earth, landing where he began. On the way up, the first few wing feathers make a special, soft sound as air passes through them. While descending in zig-zag sweeps, he sings his display flight song, chirping and musical. With all this singing and dancing, he courts several females to mate with him.

April 15 - Earlier in the nesting season, Canada goose pairs fought other pairs for their preferred nesting area. Now, their attention shifts. While Canada geese moms (the "goose") are laying and incubating eggs, dads (the "gander") patrol nearby for danger. They vigorously protect the goose and nest from predators and even innocent neighbors like great egrets. Watch the excitement from a safe distance, and bring binoculars if you have them to enhance your viewing.

April 16 - It's a bird, it's an eagle, no, it's a turkey vulture! A huge bird with a mighty wingspan stretching to 6-1/2 feet, this scavenger-decomposer is easy to separate from other large birds. Tilting, soaring turkey vultures are migrating overhead, typically holding their wings in a shallow V-position, just like when they circle and scan for dead animals below. Their red heads are bald and look too small; feathered heads would become rather messy when feeding inside carcasses. You can also notice the two-toned appearance of their black and grey feathers underneath.

April 17 - Check on the Formica ants, basking in the sun. These are the mound-building ants in the prairie, and in early spring, many of them gather on top of the mound to absorb solar radiation. It is possible that the physical transport of heat in the ants' bodies back into the mound significantly helps increase heat in the interior of the mound. This increased temperature in spring is required for ant reproduction. (Source: Sun Basking in Red Wood Ants Formica polyctena [Hymenoptera, Formicidae]: Individual Behaviour and Temperature-Dependent Respiration Rates by Štěpánka Kadochová,Jan Frouz, and Flavio Roces)

April 18 - Migrating blue-winged teal are making their way north. These small ducks wear a baby blue wing patch visible in flight. Drakes sport a sharp white crescent mark near the bill. They hide their nests in grassy prairie and feed in wetland waters, needing both habitats to complete their life cycle.

April 19 - Let's welcome back the painted turtles. They have started emerging from hibernation, where they spent the winter resting on the bottom of ponds or burrowed into the mud. These cold weather champions are now operating at up to a 99% increase in metabolism. They can greet spring due to successful changes in blood and bone chemistry. (Source: Is That a Turtle Under the Ice? blog by Lisa Feldkamp)

April 20 - Great egrets have started nesting at the rookery in Grotto Lake at Adams Park in Fergus Falls. Male egrets arrive first and begin building nesting platforms with long sticks and twigs. Females start arriving a few days later. Once they pair up, both parents finish building it, about 3 feet across and 1 foot deep.

April 21 - Take an early morning drive to watch prairie chickens booming in the countryside. They are courting on their leks scattered between Crookston and Rothsay, males inflating twin orange air sacks on their necks. Their strutting and wooing song attracts hens, as they rigorously defend their space against other cocks. For specific sites, contact the Minnesota Prairie Chicken Society, and be sure to call ahead.

April 22 - Happy Earth Day! Every year on April 22, since 1970, the world makes a special effort to celebrate the magnificent planet we live on and to solve local and large-scale environmental problems. Thanks to Earth Day, we have cleaner air to breathe, cleaner water to drink, cleaner soil for growing the food we eat, and more trails to explore. There is more to do, though, to ensure a healthy future for us all. Here are some ideas of things you can do to make a difference in your community -- take your pick!

-- Pick up litter anywhere. Recycle as much of it as you can.
-- Clean an old nest out of a bird house.
-- Make an Earth Day poster to hang in your window.
-- Bring a clean cloth bag to the store instead of using plastic grocery bags.
-- Plant flowers or vegetables or weed a garden or bed.
-- Go for a walk to admire all of the natural beauty around you.
-- Create Earth Day messages and pictures with sidewalk chalk.
-- Camp in your backyard!
-- Write a letter to someone explaining why nature matters.
-- Make a pine cone bird feeder and hang it outside. You'll need peanut butter or shortening, bird seed or granola, string, and a pine cone.
-- Blow bubbles!

April 23 - The first purple martins arrivals, known as scouts, return in April. They are the oldest individuals in the population. Scouts stay to nest if they nested here last year, or will continue migrating north if not. For more info about purple martins, visit the Purple Martin Conservation Association web site.

April 24 - Have you heard your first common loon yet? With lakes open again, loons are returning. Sometimes you can see a dozen or more on a single lake during spring migration, resting, feeding, preening, and calling. Many continue north, while some pairs stay to nest.

April 25 - The hibernation of 13-lined ground squirrels is complete. This dashing little rodent is back in action, scampering from hole to hole, eating seeds, and giving its whistle-trill alarm call, especially on dry, sunny, warm days. One of our longest true hibernators, 13-lined ground squirrels lose up to half of their body weight by spring and look rather slender. (Source: Mammals of Minnesota Field Guide by Stan Tekiela)

April 26 - Now emerging from mammal burrows where they hibernated with other snakes, plains garter snakes hunt during the day for worms, minnows, slugs, and amphibians. This species has an orange top stripe and a yellow stripe on each side of its body. Garter snakes are helpful, not harmful, having no teeth but emit a defensive stinky odor when handled.

April 27 - The second wave of migratory sparrows is occurring. Can you find these species? Mid-spring arrivals include the white-crowned sparrow (black-and-white striped crown, plain front), chipping sparrow (rufous cap, white eyebrow stripe, black eye stripe, plain front, and sings a rapid trill), and the white-throated sparrow (black-and-white striped head, yellow spot near each eye, white throat, plain front, and plaintive song pattern sounds like it's saying "Oh, sweet Canada, Canada, Canada").

April 28 - It's time to be careful for hidden eastern cottontail nests. Mamma rabbit does such a perfect job concealing her tender young that it can surprise us when we accidentally uncover one. What a delightful treat, though, to peek at plump, snuggily new life. Mom nurses them only twice per day and very briefly. Thank you for covering them back up and keeping pets away so they can stay safe and warm in her absence.

April 29 - Spring bursts to life when the turquoise tree swallows return. These aerodynamic beauties are returning from as far south as Central America to breed in northern and central North America. Swallows chase and eat insects on the wing, thus their acrobatic maneuvers. They readily nest in bluebird boxes places in open areas and in tree cavities, and their bubbly calls can cheer our spirits.

April 30 - Bee on the look out for your first bumble bee queen. Queens seem extra large! These important pollinators are emerging from hibernation underground, seeking early nectar sources to replenish their fat reserves and energy. They then search for a nest site to begin producing the first batch of female worker bees in a rock pile or mouse burrow. For more info about the fascinating life cycle of bumble bees and how you can help them in your yard, visit the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation web site.