When ice melts from ponds and the wind blows warmer, you know that spring is coming. Critters you haven’t seen for a while are waking up from winter naps, and tender shoots of plants are struggling to reach the sunshine. It’s time for you, too, to get outside and join the fun of watching nature as it wakes up.
If you hear a growling noise in the forest, it might be a bear’s stomach. When Missouri’s black bears emerge from their dens in hollow trees, brushpiles and caves in early spring, their stomachs are empty. They haven’t eaten since fall when food such as acorns was plentiful. To get their stomachs working again after many months of no food, they gorge on grasses and young shoots of wildflowers. Bears use their claws to tear open rotten logs and to roll rocks to find hidden insects. Missouri’s largest mammals aren’t big game hunters, although they eat newborn deer and dead animals when they find them. Mostly they dine on ants and beetles and munch on plants, nuts and berries. Consider yourself lucky if you spot a bear. There are only around 300 in Missouri, and they don’t like company. They prefer large forests where people are few.
While bears are difficult to find, box turtles have been just underfoot all winter. In the fall they use their front claws to dig about 5 inches under the leaves and dirt. They don't freeze during the cold months because they produce a type of antifreeze that keeps their blood flowing even when the ground freezes.
When the sun warms the earth as the days get longer, box turtles dig back through the leaves and look for young shoots of plants, earthworms and other insects to eat, which is pretty much what bears are seeking.
Deeper underground, perhaps in your backyard, in an abandoned animal burrow could be a bunch of eastern garter snakes. When the warmer days of March arrive, these snakes untangle themselves and go in search of frogs, toads, salamanders, earthworms and sometimes small mice. Garter snakes are good swimmers, so look for them near water where they may be looking for a frog or small minnow to munch.
Fleeing hungry snakes with quick, erratic hops are Blanchard’s cricket frogs. Each spring these tiny frogs, less than 1½ inches long, emerge from under grass and leaves near the edge of a stream or pond. They look for insects to eat. These fast frogs are often easy to catch. They jump into the water to escape, but don't wade in after them. In a few seconds, they'll swim back to shore. Before trying to catch one, get your hands wet. Otherwise you might harm the frog’s delicate skin.
When it’s warm enough for mayflies and mosquitoes to hatch from rivers and streams, hungry little brown bats leave their hibernation caves. If left undisturbed during the winter, these flying mammals will have enough energy on the first warm spring nights to snatch insects from the air. To protect cave-dwelling bats, some cave owners place gates at cave entrances that keep people out and still allow bats access.
The sky during the day gets busier, too. Some birds stay in Missouri year-round, but starting in February others begin migrating back from the south. Look for bluebirds, Missouri’s state bird, flitting around bushes looking for berries left over from winter. If you don’t have shrubs in your yard, you can keep these birds around longer by setting out grapes and other fruits. If you want to see them all summer, put up a bluebird house. Visit www.xplormo.org/node/2937 to learn how.
Life is tough for early spring woodland wildflowers. They have a short time to bloom, pollinate and produce seeds before the leaves from trees block the sunlight they need to grow. Then along comes a hungry bear or turtle, and crunch! The blossom becomes a quick snack, and the plant doesn’t get to produce seeds that year.
If you look carefully on woody hills or along streams in February, you might spy the brown and white flower of harbinger of spring, one of the earliest flowers to bloom in the woods. Because the flower’s petals are white and the pollen-filled anthers red-brown, the plant is sometimes called pepper and salt. Spring beauty is another early bloomer that can be found in the woods and often in your yard. Look for white flowers with pink veins.
The white blossom of the bloodroot plant should be easy to spot among the dried leaves in the woods. However, these flowers can be easily missed because they only bloom for one day. Start looking for them in March. Native Americans knew where this plant grew and used the root to make a dye the color of blood, hence the name “bloodroot.”
It’s not time to get out the swimming suits yet, but warm weather is coming. What other signs of spring can you find in your backyard?
Nichole LeClair Terrill