Laying aside essentials — like water, nourishment, shelter and a place to live — wildlife, both plant and animal, under go major changes this time of year. Many of these changes are specific to adjustment from winter activities to summer activities. That is partly what spring is all about. Many of the changes are connected to and triggered by the increased amount of daylight and by the increased number of days with overnight temperatures above freezing and by average daytime temperatures. In some ways, the same goes for humans; however, humans spend more time in temperatures above freezing and in increased light by living in artificial habitats, homes, which, for the most part, are equipped to provide heat and light. Animals have physical and behavioural features that help them to survive the winter and summer seasons. For many, springtime is the switch time from winter to summer.
Over the past few weeks, I have seen several varying hares scampering out of sight at my approach. At first some of them appeared to be still mostly white. And then I could see that some were turning brown, their summer coat, while still having large patches of white, appearing similar to a calico cat, only without the black and orange. Then one of the later sightings appeared to be a grayish white. A couple of days ago, one, roaming at the edge of the forest within a few feet of me, appeared to be mostly brown except for a white hip and, still, white ears except for a tint of brown.
My company settled down, in typical hare resting fashion, with its rump against the base of a stump and spent the rest of the day there. The whitish ears were much less conspicuous flattened on the back of the head. Needless to say, if I hadn’t known it was there, it would have been hard to spot and I would likely have walked by it a hundred times and not noticed it. It things go well, its coat will change to white next fall.
Last fall, when the temperatures dropped below freezing at night and daylight hours decreased, leaves fell from the trees. Between the twig and the leaf stem, a wall developed, cutting off the to and from flow of nutrients and moisture, leaving the leaf to die. But now, with reverse of temperature and length of day, that wall has become porous, permitting essential fluids to flow into the dormant buds. With this life-giving substance, the once dormant buds begin to swell. Tips of green begin to show, bursting into a cluster of miniature leaves, a pussy willow flower-to-be and, as with maples and hazelnut shrubs, a cluster of flowers to be followed shortly by delicate green leaves.
Spring is about coming to life, a change from dormancy to activity for the plant and animal world.
Many people who choose not to migrate for the winter have said they like the north for its distinct seasons. They like the diversity and variety that a four-season year provides.
In spite of some recent cool nights, there have been a few days when some larger butterflies have ventured about in the sunny spots of our landscape. There are a few very small butterflies that may frequent your path. Most of them overwintered as a chrysalis, a winter “suitcase”, and have recently hatched, emerging out of the chrysalis. These little ones are mostly spring azure and elfin butterflies.
However the larger ones spent the winter as adults that had emerged late last summer and found a sheltered cranny for the time of snow and frost. So what we have been seeing in April are larger butterflies belonging to a group with similar habits and structure, made up of mourning cloaks, several species of angle-wings and Milbert’s and Compton tortoiseshell butterflies. One place you might find them is in a sunny, sheltered spot where there are some rotten apples on the ground or broken twigs of maple and birch. They are attracted to the nutritious moisture in the rotten apples and sap oozing from broken twigs. They will soon breed and one or two summer broods will follow.
The larger butterflies hatching from winter chrysalises will soon be seen in numbers. In fact, I just saw the first anise or mountain swallowtail butterflies flying in an upland clearing where wild parsleys, the favorite food of their larvae, are already blooming.
Now, it is possible that you may locate the favorite haunts of the mountain swallow in the rocky openings on the upper part of the Lady’s Slipper Trail. Just imagine: This black and yellow creature, which you may see resting on a plant with wings outstretched or flying zigzaggedly around the openings near the top of the Lady’s Slipper Trail, spent the whole winter encased and compacted in a chrysalis secreted away among the rocks and dormant plants. Find more stories along this trail or visit this column next time around.
Ed McMackin is a biologist by profession but a naturalist and hiker by nature. He can be reached at 250-866-5747.