As we move into April it looks like spring has finally sprung. The temperatures we experienced this March were chilly; nearly 20 degrees different from warm temperatures we basked in last year. In a broader context, this March was nearly 6 degrees below normal and was the coldest in Missouri since 1996. However, over the last week we’ve been able to experience some wonderful temperatures and the plants are enjoying it as well.
Buds are popping and flowers are blooming as the plants begin to stretch their limbs. One of the first plants to indicate the arrival of spring is the spicebush. “Spicey” because of the aromatic oil in the bark, fruit, and leaves, this little tree is commonly found in the understory of our bottomland forests. If you went for a walk in the woods over the last week or two, you may have seen it’s small yellow flowers, which is why some call it the “forsythia of the wilds”. As the season progresses, it will develop shiny red berries or drupes that all sorts of wildlife love to eat.
Although this plant can often be overlooked it can prove to be an indicator of the season and promise of wildlife activity. Such is the annual cycle of wetland management, full of cues and variability from one year to the next. As mallards were replaced by pintails, which were swapped out by shovelers and teal, long-legged shorebirds like greater yellow-legs and even black-necked stilts have moved in and have been foraging in the shallowly flooded habitats. It is this time of year that we think about our water management options.
As water is drawn down this spring different plants will germinate depending upon the soil saturation and soil temperature. A slow draw down ensures a broader window of opportunity for this to occur within our impoundments rather than just draining the pool all at once. Additionally, staggering the timing of drawdowns across pools provides different conditions to a range of species. With nature there is one certainty; variability will happen and unfortunately we can’t always predict it. This is why providing a range of conditions across a wider period of time makes the best sense. As the plants begin to establish themselves in our wetlands, we’ll evaluate the quality of food these plants can produce and the value they may hold in terms of cover and structure for wetland wildlife. Throughout the summer we’ll tweak our management to favor more valuable plants (like irrigating wild millet) or thinning less desirable plants (like spraying cocklebur). This will set the stage in terms of the habitat and cover that will be available this fall.
Much like the yellow hue of the spicebush in the spring indicates the presence of berries later in the year for a variety of forest critters, receding water levels mark the beginning of our preparation of “duck food” for this coming fall’s flight.