Wild Side: Spring may look sparse

But it will reward a closer look.


As the first half of April arrives, Vineyarders can finally think of winter in the past tense. To be sure, we could still see snow, and it’ll be the middle of June before we can feel wholly safe from wet, chilly weather. But at this time of year, the day length and sun angles are the same as at the beginning of September. And with that much warmth imported on a daily basis, the natural world is sure to respond.

We all feel grateful for the relative mildness of the winter just past. We experienced only a couple of brief bouts of extreme cold, and I can recall only two significant snowfalls. An unusual number of nights this winter failed to see temperatures below freezing.

One result of these clement conditions appears to have been the persistence of certain semi-hardy bird species through the entire winter. Pine warblers usually winter here, if at all, in very small numbers, almost always in association with feeding stations. Catbirds, winter wrens, and hermit thrushes always try to winter in modest numbers, but most years, they’ve mostly died or moved South before the end of winter.

But this year, pine warblers were evident in native habitat, relying on their own resources, and a few were singing as early as the third week of March. A spate of catbird reports came in late March: Too early to reflect true arriving migrants, these were likely wintering birds beginning to get restless, moving around, and encountering observers.

For some organisms, a mild winter may not work out so well. Temperatures oscillating above and below freezing may yank a species in and out of dormancy, expending energy. And mild temperatures must surely raise the risk of rot or infection, relative to a sustained, dry freeze. It’s tough to predict how this winter will have worked out for any particular species, but the coming months will tell.

Meanwhile, insect life is surging, on or ahead of schedule. I spend a lot of time in early April searching for flowers, which are scarce now, but offer resources that tend to concentrate insects. Willow blossoms are one famously early floral resource, attracting our earliest bees as well as a wide range of hardy flies.

I’ve been keeping a close eye on willows at Duarte’s Pond in West Tisbury and at a site in the interior of Correllus State Forest. So far, no native bees have appeared. But flies have begun turning up, notably tiny, black members of the genus Egle. Egle has committed itself to willows, hook, line, and sinker: Adults in early spring feed on the pollen of catkins, and larvae of many species, hatching a bit later in the spring, reportedly feed on the seeds of the same plant.

Another early-season flower I’ve been seeking out is periwinkle, known more formally as Vinca minor. This creeping plant, with pale purple flowers, is non-native and, as far as I can tell, not an especially good source of nectar or pollen. But it blooms prodigiously early in the season, and in the beginning of April, is virtually the only game in town if you’re a flower-loving bug.

A patch of vinca, situated on a sunny, south-facing bank on West Chop, was feeding a half-dozen honey bees on a warm day in late March. Another patch of vinca, in a sheltered, sunny setting at Duarte’s Pond, has likewise attracted a few honey bees.

And more notably, these flowers produced a remarkably early gray hairstreak butterfly on March 27, about two and a half weeks prior to the previous early record date of April 14. In exquisitely fresh condition, this butterfly was clearly a freshly emerged individual, not an adult that had somehow survived the winter. This species overwinters in chrysalis form: Its larval development as a caterpillar is complete, and — clearly! — adults can pop out as early in the spring as conditions warrant.

On a visit to Correllus State Forest last Sunday, I found tiger beetles to be plentiful, running down ants and flies as prey. A colony of Allegheny mound ants had roused from dormancy, and its members were hard at work adding sand and fine gravel from underground to their massive mound.

And I came across my first pygmy grasshoppers of the season. Overwintering in adult form, Nomotettix cristatus is an uncommon but regular feature along fire lanes in the State Forest. As my vision deteriorates with age, these tiny insects, about the size of a small dry bean, get harder and harder to spot. But they seem well-adapted to the conditions of the Vineyard sandplain, and I expect they’ll be hopping around in early April for a long time after I’m no longer around to observe them.

It may look sterile out there right now, but there is more going on than you’d expect. And every day brings change, as the natural world turns toward summer. Get out and enjoy it.