Even before the buds burst and the flowers bloom, birds give us a hint that spring is coming. Some of them turn yellow.
* White-throated sparrows have boring faces in the winter but their lores turn bright yellow ahead of the breeding season. They'll leave in March or early April for their breeding grounds in the northern U.S. and Canada.
* American goldfinches were brownish all winter but molt into yellow feathers in late winter. Even the females turn a subdued yellow as seen in the female on the left in Marcy's photo.
* At this time of year European starlings become glossy and their beaks turn yellow. The starling below is male because the base of his beak is blue (near his face).
There are other birds whose yellow facial skin becomes brighter in the spring. Can you think of who that might be? ...
Yellow is a sign of spring.
(photos from Wikimedia Commons, Marcy Cunkelman and Chuck Tague. See credits in the captions)
Last week Punxsutawney Phil predicted six more weeks of winter(*) but the birds know spring is on its way.
Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) don't migrate so they're a good species to watch for early signs of spring. Some pairs stay together all winter on their home territory or in mixed flocks.
In February they begin to court. The males become aggressive toward other males and solicitous to their ladies. And they begin to sing. (Xeno-canto recording # 356015 by Ted Floyd)
Watch your local cardinals for these courtship behaviors:
Lopsided pose : The cardinal tilts up one side of its body, raises one wing, lowers its crest and exposes its belly, sometimes rocking side to side.
Song-dance display (shown by a female cardinal above): The bird stands erect, raises its crest and one wing.
Song-flight display (quoted from Birds of North America): In flight the male fluffs his breast feathers, raises his crest, sings, and descends slowly toward his mate in short, rapid strokes. (Is the male doing this in the top photo?)
In its first year of life, the plant is a basal rosette of velvety blue-green leaves, 4-16 inches long.
In its second year the rosette sprouts a flower spike, blooms in the summer, sets seed, and then dies.
Here it is in the spring of its second year. The basal rosette is beginning to flower.
And here's a closeup of the flowers:
Though common mullein only reproduces by seed it's very good at doing it. Each plant produces 100,000 to 180,000 seeds that are dispersed by wind or animals. If the seeds don't land in a hospitable place, no problem. They're viable for 100 years!
Because it only spreads by seed, this plant can be eradicated by hand pulling before the seed sets, then bagging it and disposing of it. Unfortunately, it's too late in the season to do that now and other methods, such as poison, will only spread its seeds when the plant falls.
We'll just have to enjoy its flowers and wait until next year.
In late May, you'll see white fluff in the air as you search the sky for birds. It's not dandelion fluff. This is cottonwood season.
The eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides) grows in open and riparian habitats from the Rockies to the southeastern coast. Western Pennsylvania is on the eastern edge of their range.
Cottonwoods are one of the fastest growing and largest trees in North America. Reaching up to 130 feet tall the trunk can be more than five feet across. The trees require bare soil and full sun to germinate so you usually see them out in the open, sometimes alone.
Their species name, deltoides, describes the leaf shape that looks a lot like aspens. Both trees are in the willow family.
In early spring cottonwoods sprout male and female catkins. The females are fertilized by wind-blown pollen and become drooping strings of seed capsules. In May the capsules burst open to release thousands of tiny seeds, each one attached to a bit of "cotton" that carries it on the wind. (The brown spots in this photo are seed capsule covers, not the seeds.)
The fluff breaks off and blows away but each tree is so prolific that in windless conditions, when the fluff falls straight to the ground, it looks like snow.
Do you want to see a lot of cottonwood fluff? Drive north on Route 528 from the bridge over Moraine State Park's Lake Arthur. Eventually cottonwoods are on both sides of the road.
There's fluff in the air there!
fluff on the ground by Chris Evans, University of Illinois, Bugwood.org
range map from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original
clump of cottonwood trees by Steven Katovich, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org
cottonwood leaves by T. Davis Sydnor, The Ohio State University, Bugwood.org
cottonwood seeds on the branch by Troy Evans, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Bugwood.org)
I'm taking a break from peregrines today. Here's a plant. 🙂
In Schenley Park, mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) bloom in April and fruit in May. The plants must have two leaves to produce a flower because the flower stalk grows from the Y between the leaves.
Here's what they look like when they bloom.
The fertilized flower transitions from flower to apple in May, as shown in the photo at top.
You can eat a mayapple when it's ripe but Be Careful! The entire plant is poisonous and the apple is only edible when ripe! Find out more and see a mayapple sliced open in this vintage article from 2011: Eating Mayapples
(top photo by Kate St. John. Blooming photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)