Sunday, February 13, 2011

Skunkers and whistlers herald spring

A boggy spring, only minutes from my hutch. Visiting this gooey mire is a major spring ritual for me, and today was the day. Just as the famous groundhog Puxatawney Phil (or whatever his name is) is watched closely in a rather foolish shadow-watching ritual, I visit this spring in late winter to witness the botanical counterpart to the wedge-headed Pennsylvanian squirrel.

Yes, my peeps! Although it is only February 13, I declare Spring is Sprung! Out they were, our first true native wildflower to poke forth, the vegetable version of the groundhog. Skunk-cabbage!

Good ole Symplocarpos foetidus is thermogenic, meaning it produces heat. This gives it the ability to deal with low temperatures and persistent ice and snow. I've written about this oddball plant's mechanics in past posts, should you be interested.

Proof is in the pudding, or spathe in this case. Here, we peek through the doorway in this Skunk-cabbage's thick leathery and liver-spotted spathes, to the spadix. Those little sugar granule-looking things peppering the spadix are the skunker's flowers - the very first to be found in spring amongst our native plants.

Take heart, plant-seekers. The appearance of Skunk-cabbage truly heralds the opening of spring's floodgates, and it won't be long before lots of other greenery shoots forth.

That Skunk-cabbage spring drains into this, the mighty Scioto River, arguably the greatest stream within the State of Ohio. There are almost always ice-free sections and I went streamside to have a look.

It was a trip well worthwhile. A good smattering of ducks bobbed in the icy waters, including this flotilla of Common Goldeneyes. If the Skunk-cabbage is the plant world's harbinger of spring, and that groundhog the mammal kingdom's, the goldeneye is the bird world's sign of earliest spring.

Not because goldeneyes emerge from the mud about this time after a long winter's hibernation, or are now just returning from some Caribbean vacation - they're tough as nails and overwinter in Ohio wherever open water can be found.

A chocolate-hooded female goldeneye follows a discreet distance behind a showy male.

Goldeneyes herald spring because now is when they enter, hot and heavy, their truly insane courtship antics. This pack of studs was going at it full throttle today, and I spent quite some time watching and perhaps picking up pointers.

These boys really pull out all of the stops to woo the girls. Like desperate lounge lizards in a watery fern bar, the male goldeneyes throw their necks back and bill skyward, and emit comical nasal buzzes. Then, in a spectacular display of aquatic break-dancing, a displaying drake kicks his brilliant orange feet forward and out of the water.

While the males in courrtship mode emit buzzy calls that sound like a nighthawk being strangled, they sound really cool in flight. Their wings produce a loud clear whistling, hence the colloquial name "whistler". If you want to read more about goldeneyes, I wrote a piece on them HERE.

I hope that these positive reports on the signs of spring give you hope, fellow Tundra-people.


rebecca said...

Hooray! I remember seeing these emerging on a swampy corner of the property where I was working at this time last year. Nice to experience Ohio spring vicariously through you, because it's just not the same down here on the coast of Georgia.

Birding is Fun! said...

Fantastic writing in that post! Love the info and how it was delivered.

Jim McCormac said...

Thanks mucho for the comments. It truly is gratifying to see evidence that winter is on its way out. We've had a hard one here in Ohio.

Elaine said...

Great article. I have seen the Common Goldeneye doing
their mating rituals in the icy waters of Lake Huron in
March and April during spirng break off the eastern tip of the U.P. Fun to watch!
Since you have so many "Friends", would you remind them that next weekend is The Great Backyard Bird Count? I'm sure Cornell Lab. would appreciate it.
Thanks for your continuing wonderful Blog.

troymullens said...

Great Nature Piece. I need to get down to the local nature reserve and see if the Trout Lilies are blooming.

Cathy said...


" . . picking up pointers."

We'll expect a a full report on that experiment in courtship behavior ;-D

Just love your blend of info and humor . . and yes ... it does bring some light into the tundra of NW Ohio.

Kelly said...

I saw some (many!) early last spring at Cedar Bog. They really are too cool.

Russell Reynolds said...

Thanks for this info Jim on the goldeneyes. I was at the power damn in Defiance and there were some there below the dam. I'll have to pay more attention to them. I was there looking for Eagles.

Doug Marcum said...

Haha, ahh great news Jim! I actually spotted my first skunker popping up in a stream about a week or so ago in CVNP. I can't wait until the snow melts and the swampy areas are covered with them! I have been feeling the oncoming of Spring as well, more birds are singing too : ) Awesome you got to watch those Goldeneyes, I look forward to Mogadore Reservoir opening up so I can watch some waterfowl down here in Kent!!

Bring on Spring!!!