Unexpected Signs of SpringSUNDAY, APRIL 3, 2011
Signs of spring? We were hoping to get a glimpse of a few early bloomers, such as pasque flowers in the prairie or toothwort in the woods. Possibly, we missed a sunny warm patch where this was happening, but we didn’t find it. We also didn’t make it down the muddy slope to the skunk cabbage plants, which are blooming away in Wingra Woods (see March naturalist notes). Instead we headed out on the drier paths of Curtis Prairie, where we did find a sign of spring that none of us had previously seen in the Arboretum.
Buffleheads (Bucephala albeola). I classify them as cute to handsome – even the females. They are pleasingly round, kind of chunky – especially their heads. It is said that their relatively large, round or buffalo-like heads is where they get their most popular common name from. The runner-ups for common names are: Bumblebee Dipper, Robin Dipper, Hell-diver, Spirit Duck, and Butterball. True to their names, we did see them do several quick dips and dives under the water, and I think I adequately covered the butterball imagery. I also found out that the adults feed almost exclusively underwater. Their diets, like most animals, vary with type of habitat and season. They can live in salt water or freshwater. In freshwater, they prefer to eat larval and adult insects, which they hunt and/or digest underwater. However, in the early springtime, we may be a little short on insects – though we are seeing more and more as we are warming up. The Buffleheads at this time of year will eat many types of emergent vegetation and the seeds of things like pondweeds and bulrushes.
Buffleheads are the smallest diving duck native to North America. Males seldom exceed 1 lb. in weight and the smaller females weigh on average less than 12 oz. The males have black backs and white underparts. Their heads are probably what you will notice first. They are predominantly black with iridescent green and purple highlights. The most distinctive feature of their headfeathers is a wide, white patch that contrasts with the mostly dark black color. This white patch extends from just below its eye all the way to the back of the head. On the male, the patch tapers from a wide patch covering about half its head to a narrow edge just underneath the eye – like a slice of white pie. You may remember that. Like many other birds, the female’s plumage in general is a bit duller. She also has a white patch on her head that extends back from underneath her eye – but no pie. It’s smaller and less dramatic – like a thick brushstroke that left a streak of white. So, that’s what to look for – but you’ll have to be quick around here, or head up with them to Canada.
Another interesting sign of spring came from the other end of our walk. It was a loud whapping noise near the shelter in Gallistel Woods. I took a calming breadth and straightened my cap and my official naturalist nametag. It sounded like someone smacking sticks or something up against the shelter – no horses or horseplay in the Arboretum I could say. But, I didn’t have to. It was a smacking, but not of boys with sticks – it was two grown men with a bunch of stiff feathers. Two fairly large male turkeys were hopping about a foot or so off the ground and bumping up to each other and sharply smacking wings against wings. Since we are well past football season, we figured that this wasn’t a celebratory male chest bump thing. And sure enough, we spotted about 10 or so females nearby. Just before the smacking, another display was taking place. Some people who were down the path and walked by a few moments earlier, had seen one of the males strutting and displaying his tail feathers.
Well, this increase in daylight has gotten to all of us. In turkeys this increase in daylight hours triggers hormonal changes. This will lead to the gobbles of late February and last through March or longer, which, in turn, has led up to this – the mating season. So, get out and look for some strutting, displays, and gobbling. If you miss that, you will still be able to see lots of wild turkey behavior. Unlike the fleeting visit of the buffleheads, the turkeys are year round residents here – and seemingly quite happy with the variety of seeds, insects, nuts, berries and the large branched trees for roosting that are provided. Although, we didn’t see any spring flowers today, we did see lots of interesting buds, and some blooming of maples and pussy willows. But, next week or even tomorrow, you can come out and see something new – things seem to happen fast in the springtime. So, the message we got from our feathered friends was to let it happen and welcome the inevitable spring – it’s here. Enjoy.