2013-05-18 / Columnists

Nature Notes

What a Difference a Week Makes: Spring Weather Plays Tricks on Island
By Patricia Martin

The hills are not so far away today

As when they hid beneath the winter gray,

They come as neighbors in the warming sun

To tell me spring is coming on the run.

As feet of those that bring the tidings glad

With tongues released from burdens that are sad,

Ah, friends, come wearing purple as a god

And tell me soon my feet shall feel the sod.

This poem, written by my Uncle Fred Dingley, seemed somehow so appropriate with the slow spring we had this year. The snow, of which we had a fair amount this winter, lingered, and even when we thought it was over and snowmobiles were put away, another storm came through. There were even snow flurries just last weekend (May 11 and 12). But I think, truly, spring is finally here.

Thursday, May 2, I took my first horseback ride in the woods of Mackinac Island, accompanied by a friend. We were out for about 2.5 hours winding our way through the roads and trails. The woods were still mostly brown with hints of spring green. Large piles of snow could still be found under the trees. Because of the rough winds this past winter, there was plenty of evidence of downfall, with cleared and uncleared trees and branches littering the trails. We did a fair amount of bushwhacking through the underbrush, trying to follow blocked paths.

There was little sign of new life, of true spring. The only spring flower that was visible popping out of the forest floor was the round-leaved hepatica or liver-leaf (hepatica Americana). People around here often refer to them as mayflower, as they’re usually the first spring ephemeral to appear, usually in May. These plants are only four to six inches tall with delicate pink, white, lavender, or blue flowers that have two to 10 “petals.” There are usually many individual flowers per each plant. In the center of the flowers are many thread-like stamens, and each bloom is born on a very hairy flower stalk. The three rounded lobed leaves that you see this time of year are last year’s leaves. At blooming time they’re brown purple color, but in a few weeks, new green leaves will appear.

The only interesting wildlife sighting occurred on Cliff View Trail, just after coming up the hill from Juniper Trail. On the rock ledge above the trail, I saw a furry brown creature on the cliff. It was a woodchuck, or groundhog (Marmota monax). This was a good-sized woodchuck, looking to be about eight to 10 pounds. They are, of course, the largest squirrel in the Great Lakes region. They have a chunky body set atop short, powerful legs that are adapted for digging. The dark tail is short, compared to other squirrels, only about a quarter of the body length. They have reddish brown to dark brown fur, with the dorsal guard hairs tipped in silver. They live in underground burrows and feed on grasses and herbaceous plants. When plants are scarce, they will eat buds, bark and twigs of dogwood, sumac, and black cherry. It’s a true hibernator, sleeping away the winter months.

What a difference a week makes. I was riding the same trails again Thursday, May 9, and myriad spring flowers had appeared. The yellow trout lily (Erythronium americanum), with its six recurved petals and six prominent red-brown or yellow anthers, had bloomed. The two leaves of this lily come from the base of the plant and are mottled with brown. On the rock below Fort Holmes along Fern Way (Old North Bike Trail), the Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra Cucullaria) were blooming. These are closely related to bleeding heart, but the white, waxy, inflated flowers dangle along the stem like pantaloons. There are two spurs that spread and extend backwards, forming the legs of the breeches. The leaves are finely divided and delicate arising from the base of the plant. These are not common plants on the Island, and I usually find them where the limestone rock is near the surface.

The hepatica is still in evidence all along the trails, and the leaves of the wild leeks are, too. Along Juniper Trail, the spring beauty (Claytonia sp.) has blossomed. These beautiful five-petaled pink or white flowers are conspicuously marked with dark pink veins. A single pair of smooth leaves are thick and succulent, about three inches long. The whole plant is usually about six inches tall. Thursday, May 9, the large-flowered trillium (trillium graniflorum) were not blooming yet, but they were in evidence with their three whorled, broad leaves, which narrow rapidly to a pointed tip, and the tip of white from their flower bud could be seen.

On this particular ride, I saw a pileated woodpecker (think “Woody Woodpecker”) hammering away at a rotting tree, probably after the carpenter ants. This largest of the woodpeckers in the area are year-around residents, but it’s always a treat to see them. I also heard the blackthroated green warbler with its “zee-zee-zoo-zee” song, which always tells me spring is here, as they and other feathered friends have returned.

Almost another week has now passed, and more of the ephemeral spring flowers have continued to appear, while others start to fade. Some of the trillium has now fully opened, with their three-inch, three-petaled white flowers, which seem to wake up the green of the woods. The ferns (lime-loving oak fern, spinulose wood fern, maidenhair fern, and others) have begun to uncoil, and there is a freshness to the forest. This is a wonderful time to take a hike, a bike ride, or a ride through the beautiful woods of Mackinac Island. Many of these flowers will not be blooming for too much longer, so take the time to enjoy them while they’re here.

Joan Walsh Anglund wrote of spring: “ What can this spring say that other springs have not already told us? And yet, each year, how happily we listen!”

Trish Martin is a year-around resident of Mackinac Island, has earned a master’s degree in botany from Central Michigan University, and owns Bogan Lane Inn.

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