May 6, 2008
By Susan Benson, CNHM Director of Education
Could we have had a record snowfall in April this year? It surely felt like it, and let us hope that the snow is behind us, as May is perhaps the most exciting month for regional phenologists. Many northern Wisconsin bird species have returned and some of the later species such as warblers and shorebirds are on their way, either to develop territories here or rest briefly before heading to final destinations farther north. May forests are full of bird songs, most of them sung by males. In most cases, the males will stake out a territory and use their call to attract a female of that species to them. By now it’s likely that sandhill cranes have built a nest near open water in a grassy area. The fuzzy yellow-brown chicks are born within 30 days so should be hatching in mid-May. White-throated sparrow, tree sparrows, and song sparrows have arrived. May 7-15 is when Museum phenologists have recorded hummingbirds as having returned to this area.
Listen in the evening for the male American woodcock, which has the most elaborate display to attract females. One of my most favorite spring activities is to sneak up close enough to observe this ritual. The male gives repeated "peents" on the ground, stomps his feet, dips his bill, and then turns and repeats the sound and motion in several directions. After several buzzes the woodcock leaps into the air. As he gets higher, his wings begin to whistle using his outer primary wing feathers; he continues to climb in wide spirals until he's almost out of sight. He comes down in a zig-zag, diving fashion, chirping as he goes. After landing he buzzes again, and if he's lucky a female joins him. Males repeat this performance up to twenty times during an evening.
During some years (that have less April snow), a few species of flowers have already bloomed during April, while others make their first appearance in May. Dandelions are among the first plants to pop up in the spring, and I have observed them blooming in Ashland. Species such as hepatica and bloodroot should be blooming soon; other species such as starflower, trillium, lilac, blue-bead lily, Canada mayflower, forget-me-nots and marsh marigold will be seen during the coming weeks.
Keep your eyes out in the forest for one of my favorite signs of spring, the blooming leatherwood, a woody shrub that grows up to 8 feet, but is usually smaller. The small, yellow bell flowers are delicate and beautiful. As its name suggests, the stems are soft, leathery and very pliable, yet still very strong; the stems can actually be tied into knots. The bark is fibrous and can be peeled off in strips and woven into twine.
Most insects should be hopping, buzzing, crawling and flying around by now. The abundance of mosquitoes can be at its highest during May, due to the spring ponds, puddles and other wet areas where they lay their eggs. In Wisconsin, dragonfly nymphs change into adults two different times a year. The spring species emerge all at once in May and early June when the days grow longer and temperatures get warmer. The summer species develop at separate times throughout late June, July, and August.
When will you record your first mosquito this season? Email your spring observations to the Museum at firstname.lastname@example.org and be sure to include information on the date observed, name, and the town in which you made your observations.
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