April is a month of rapid change as waterfowl pass through on the way north, the earliest wildflowers bloom, frozen ground melts to occasionally becomes a sea of mud, the first warblers return, the sky is blue without the haze of summer – for the naturalist/photographer it’s a wonderful time of year. Here’s a sample of what April had to offer during seven consecutive days –
Day 1 – Down on the river a common loon leisurely swam near the shore; the bird would occasionally float with its head submerged as if it was looking for fish, but never completely submerged. Loons winter along the Atlantic coast and breed on northern lakes and large ponds. Although, on rare occasions, these loons have bred in Pennsylvania and non-breeders occasionally spend the summer here, we normally only see them as the pause on their way north; years ago a co-worker and I counted 104 common loons on a large local lake on a single day.
Day 2 – Went to State Game Land #252 looking for waterfowl on the ponds. Other than the resident Canada geese, some already incubating eggs, there were few birds on the ponds. High in a tree a flash of red caught my eye – the brilliant red crown and nape of a red-bellied woodpecker. Decades ago red-bellied woodpeckers were a bird of southern woodlands, but as the climate has changed they’ve expanded their range northward and are now common here.
Day 3 – I was walking along the edge of a small wetland edged by a narrow band of cattails when a large bird flushed from the cattails, flew across a narrow band of open water and landed in the top of a large patch of red-stemmed dogwood. There it stayed as I took photo after photo – it was an American bittern, the first I’ve seen here in many years. American bitterns prefer extensive cattail marshes and, due to habitat loss, are endangered in Pennsylvania so it was a very lucky find.
Day 4 – There are quite a few old homesteads in the Big Woods, places where families lived and farmed until a changing economy made their life styles untenable and the farms were abandoned. While they lived on their farms those folks often planted flowers and flowering shrubs: lilacs, columbine, myrtle, irises and daffodils – some of which survive to this day. Alongside an old stone foundation remaining from one of the farmsteads was a clump of daffodils with its flower buds beginning to open.
Day 5 – Along the Pine Creek rail-trail a tiny white flower was in bloom – hairy bittercress is its common name. The entire plant is small, growing only about one and a half inches tall and very easy to overlook. Hairy bittercress is native to Europe but has been inadvertently carried throughout the world by settlers and travelers. It’s said to be edible and was used as a green in salads.
Day 6 – It was 70ºF today and, in spite of a stiff breeze, it felt quite hot. Along a woodland trail, a mourning cloak butterfly flew lightly among the trees until it finally landed on the trail. Mourning cloaks spend the winter as adults beneath loose bark, in the leaf litter or in hollow trees, emerging on warm days in spring to feed on tree sap. On those warm spring days the males bask in sunny spots on the forest floor waiting for females so they can mate and produce the next generation.
Day 7 – Along an old road in the Big Woods are some decaying chunks of firewood that were cut and never removed. The decaying chunks are habitat for worms, slugs, fungi, insects of many species and salamanders. You can never tell what may be found if the chunks are carefully lifted. On this day it was a red-backed salamander (the variety with a lead-colored, not red, back). Red-backed salamanders are the most abundant vertebrate in our damp woodlands. Because they’re lungless and breathe through their skin they must live in moist places: in the leaf litter, beneath logs and rocks or in burrows in the soil.