Virginia Nature Journal for March

Daffodils stanza 1

DaffodilsThe poem was inspired by thousands of wild daffodils blooming in woods around Ullswater in the Lake District of England in the spring of 1802. I imagine Wordsworth on horseback in a tightly-fitting frock coat, pantaloons and hessian boots, while his sister, Dorothy, rode side-saddle in a redingote and floppy hat. When he came to compose Daffodils two years later, he drew from her journal entry, though it was the remembrance that inspired a reviving experience:

Daffodils stanza 4

They are pretty lines that schoolchildren have read ever since they were published. We love them because daffodils herald the joyous season when nature is reborn.

Wandered lonely as a cloud continued

The yellow trumpets looked like a friendly crowd of people nodding and dancing as the pair rode past them on the lakeside path. In previous centuries, the woods and countryside almost everywhere were regarded as fearful places where highwaymen lurked and superstitious people believed goblins would trap an unwary traveler. But the poet was making a fresh and romantic connection with the spirit of nature, just as the cheerful days of spring follow the dark, northern winter. Wild plants, birds, and animals were not aliens after all, but fellow creatures that celebrate rebirth in their own ways, just as the Wordsworth family would at Eastertide in St. Oswald’s Church, a few steps from home in Grasmere.

The Wordsworths lived during the Little Ice Age which began after the Medieval period and lasted until about 1850. A diarist of the time wrote that just three years earlier, “No vegetation in the fields, nor blossoms upon the fruit trees, on the 7th May, 1799. The skins of upwards of 10,000 lambs, which perished in the spring, were sold in this town. The weather was cold and wet all through the year.”  The weather is particularly fickle in the Lake District, even by British standards, and then as now there was much variation from year-to-year: the years 1800 and 1802 were much warmer and drier. It’s hard to make sense of climate change from a few sample years, or predict what the next year will bring.

The month of March is a time when people living in the Northern Hemisphere look forward to the first blossoms on plants and trees. Unfortunately, the dates of blossoming have not been recorded as assiduously over the centuries as temperature (continuously logged in the UK from 1659), yet they are vital for monitoring whether seasons are changing and for anticipating impacts on agriculture. Phenology is the name of the science that records blooming and ripening times, and when animals migrate and start breeding. Think of cherry blossom in Washington DC and California poppies on the West Coast.

We mark this month on our calendar for planting in our veggie garden, or moving a coffee table outdoors or cleaning the barbecue grill. The natural world is no respecter of the calendar, but watches the auspicious cues of daylight and weather to make a more sophisticated calculus than an old farmer’s almanac. Project Budburst draws on this natural wisdom  by recruiting citizen scientists across the United States to collect “phenophase” records of when the first buds burst, flowers open, and fruit ripens in their locality. As the database swells, an impression is gained of nature’s “sensibilities.”


Weeping cherry, Williamsburg VA (April 4, 2015)
Weeping cherry, Williamsburg VA (April 4, 2015)

Spring burst upon us suddenly up and down the eastern seaboard after a cruel winter. Our weeping cherry tree blossomed today like an Easter bridal veil, a full ten days later than after the mild winter of 2010. Likewise, the daffodils that are often finished before Easter, are today still bright and cheerful with only a few trumpets curling in the sunshine.  Yet nature often fools us because bloom dates do not always conform to our perceptions of what the weather has been like or where climate is heading. As one of spring’s harbingers, daffodils will contribute to the unfolding of science, but will always provide “jocund company” for poetic hearts.

Next Post: Naturalists called to the wild side


Virginia Nature Journal for February

William Carlos WilliamsWe had exceptionally chill temperatures and heavy snow throughout February up and down the East Coast this year. Cold air that normally hangs over the north-west was pushed down to the Plains by the jet-stream, leaving Alaska feeling relatively balmy. As if that affront was not enough for one winter, we were also battered by a nor’easter in early February. Virginians with long memories tell us that not since 1980 can they remember a deeper winter in Williamsburg.

Snow disappears first under trees
Snow disappears first under trees

The melt always starts first on roofs and asphalt driveways because the dark colors absorb even the feeblest infra-red rays that penetrate the translucent snow cover. The next place for snow to go is on the compost pile, which shows that our microbial and fungal friends are not  slumbering but can still generate a little heat. Snow starts its ground retreat from under bushes and trees and reaches open ground last, where there is plenty of solar radiation. Perhaps the snow that settles on evergreen foliage and boughs rarely falls to the base of the tree but melts in situ, disappearing more quickly on darker colors.

This is a good time for gazing at the bare skeletons of sleeping trees. The verticality of their trunks is more obvious as they snub gravity; their crowns are so marvelously balanced and finished with a tracery of fuzzy twigs. Any gaps caused by wind damage will be filled in the growing season by disproportionate new growth. Under the boughs, there is a litter of small branches and twigs among the fall remains of acorns, walnuts, and maple wing-nuts. The wood looks wasted like unlucky victims of storm damage, but this kind of pruning is so necessary because branches multiplying each year by compound interest would soon become overloaded. Shedding weaker twigs is a picture of natural selection in motion.

oak tree
Pin oak

When Leonardo da Vinci mused about the shapes and dimensions of trees he recorded a curious fact. Irrespective of height above ground, the cross-sectional area of a branch equals the sum of the same dimensions in the branches it subtends. This rule applies at each transition from trunk to uttermost twig. The standard explanation is plumbing. We might expect to find this correspondence because the living cambium and conducting vessels continue from each branch to its daughters.

According to a recent paper in Physical Review Letters from a UCSD biophysicist there is another explanation. He formulated a mathematical model that closely fits Leonardo’s observations but suggests that this geometry gives the branches the best strain resistance to high winds. Perhaps we don’t have to choose one theory over another but can accept that both may be correct. Biology is neat and good at math.

The clearing patches of snow under trees are good places for wildlife that can’t migrate or hibernate. Small birds and rodents scratch for a living among the brown leaves between the green spears of daffodils while sapsuckers drill neat holes above for licking at the weeping sap. Bird feeders are the avian equivalent of soup kitchens: they can save lives in hard times. But they also offer easy pickings for predators like our pair of red-shouldered hawks unless the prey dashes into cover nearby. Despite the continuing grip of winter, lengthening days make spring brains. As soon as their breakfast is over, cardinals and Carolina wrens burst into song and a crow proudly carries a twig to an untidy matt in an old pine tree.

Next Post: The Bard of Beckenham

Virginia Nature Journal for January

  • BurnsPoem

     After the merry Christmas holidays and the high spirits of Hogmanay and Ne’er Day in Scotland, January stretches out, dark, drab and driech. February too promises precious few fine days, although the longer daylight hours are cheering.

    It is time for those at work and home to hunker down, and for snowbirds to fly out of blizzard-blasted northern states and Canada, past chilly Virginia to the warm blanket of southern Florida.

    Young Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Courtesy Geoff Giles

    Birds too are on the move. The neotropicals headed further south several months ago, although a few hardy individuals stayed on in our Williamsburg area through the light snows and recent ice-storm. How would they manage without the hospitality of feeder stations in gardens and yards? Every year, there are reports of a hummingbird and a tanager lingering here in mid-winter, and a Rose-breasted Grosbeak visited a friend’s garden this month. I wonder if these vagrants are seasonally disoriented or knowingly hanging around avian soup kitchens, but they are thrilling sights for being among our most colorful birds.

    A flock descending in the backyard like a sudden squall can lift a brow leaning at the computer for a welcome moment of respite from concentrated work. Mostly American Robins and occasionally Red-winged blackbirds or grackles, they are probably not the residents of other times of year for those birds have temporarily gone to more southerly neighborhoods. The winter relatives have come down from the north to feast on left-over berries of holly, wax myrtle, and red cedar. Why the locals moved away before emptying their larder puzzles me, but the policy helps the migrants who replace them. The wrens, nuthatches and chickadees seen at this time of year may also be newcomers, but I like to think my special friends, the cardinals and bluebirds, stay with us the year round. But how could I know unless I banded them?

    bird feeder
    Small bird feeder – fat, grain and seeds

    We only see White-throated Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos in the coastal plain in winter. They skulk around the shrubbery, ignoring the gardener at work nearby, and take turns to peck suet on the feeder. Juncos are nick-named ‘snowbirds’ because they are regarded as harbingers of hard weather. In the mountains above 3,000 feet, they are the only birds you can count on seeing throughout January. The deer have no choice but to stay the year round, and many animals perished of starvation in the very hard winter five years ago. Bears are safe from the elements while torpid in their dens. Most other birds and critters move down the valleys to better pickings around creeks or to even further afield. But you can tempt some of them to stay.

    big feeder
    The Big Feeder

    Last fall, I hauled 200 pounds of whole corn and chicken scratch in a barrel 20 feet up in the low canopy between two trees. The job needed a hand winch and a block and tackle. Under a hole in the base of the barrel, a small propeller spins automatically every 12 hours, scattering grain in a 50 foot radius for six seconds. A gamecam monitors the area and a motion detector rings in the house 100 feet away to tell me when to grab binoculars. But the hefty feeder was not installed for the benefit of viewers; it feeds the hungry while I am away, and only needs replenishing every two months.

    Winter trees are wisely bare and silent, but this helps me to see further into the woods. The season is not dead; wildlife are coming to their Time Square.

    In the past few hours, several deer came to nibble grain. Four ruffed grouse in cuddly feather balls strutted around, and two fox squirrels, so much larger and more handsome than gray relatives, darted back and forth with grain to a hiding place. And there was rarely a moment when small birds were absent. There was no fighting over food and, despite the bitter cold, most visitors were in mated pairs. A pineal gland tells them the time of year. I recorded a mother bear grubbing under the feeder with two adorable cubs, but now she may be dreaming of spring with a tiny newborn pup or two attached to her teats. January is hard, but has its compensations, and is full of distant anticipation.

    Next Post: The Soda File


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