Thursday, March 29, 2007

Supply and demand

Day and night, the sky is alive with life. Migration has begun, and literally millions birds are silently streaming northward in search of nesting grounds.

Only a fraction of these travelers are seen locally, however. They pass by high overhead, often in the middle of the night. Most don’t stop and those that do may pay only brief visits or spend the time sleeping. Sometimes, though, they make forced landings. Countless Fox Sparrows were grounded by the recent nor’easter, showing up in flocks at feeders where they had never been seen before, and generating a flurry of excitement in the bird-watching world – even inspiring some newspaper stories.

All these northbound birds are heading for territory that is barren in winter, but lush with food, both insects and vegetation, in spring and summer. What’s more, the northlands offer virtually unlimited nesting sites – unlike the crowded winter grounds of the South or the tropics.

Thus, migration is nature’s efficient way of handling life’s supply and demand.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Spring ephemerals

Ah, spring, the season of new and renewed life! It’s a time when many nature lovers turn their eyes skyward to spot migrating birds as signs of the season. Others, however, head for the woods and look to the ground. They seek the “spring ephemerals,” March and April wildflowers that pop up, bloom, fruit, and disappear before most of the trees have unfurled their leaves.

Ephemerals like bloodroot, trout-lily, trillium, anemone, and spring-beauty have to deal with wintry winds, frosty nights, even snow and ice. But there are benefits to their lifestyle. The ground is wet with snow melt and the trees have not yet begun to compete for the water. Plenty of nutrients from last year’s dead leaves have leached into the soil. And there’s much light because tree leaves have yet to shade the forest floor.

Unfortunately, overpopulating deer, ravenous after a long winter, find most ephemerals irresistible. And a plant eaten soon after it sprouts cannot make and store food in its roots so it can reappear next year, and cannot produce seeds for future generations.

Thus, in many woods, ephemerals have become invisibles.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Pain relief

An amazing thing about the Pussy Willow is its color – or more specifically, the lack of it. Few shades are duller than gray, yet the flowers of the Pussy Willow are among the most beloved of any spring bloom.

Therein lies its charm. This bush wins us with form, not flash. Its catkins are catlike, all cute and furry like the tail of a kitten, and they wrap themselves along the branches like so many fuzzy caterpillars marching to the sky.

It also wins us with timing, blooming with the first thaws of March. But for those in a hurry for signs of spring, snipping off a few bloomless branches and sticking them in water will net wands of premature catkins.

The wonders of the willow were known to Hippocrates in ancient Greece and to North American Indians. However, both were interested not in the flowers, but the bark, which produced a painkiller called salicin. This, in turn, led to the discovery of salicylic acid, and to synthesizing acetylsalicylic acid – what we call aspirin.

So, it seems that Pussy Willows can relieve a lot more than just the bleakness of winter.