Tag Archives: spring

Dutchman's Breeches © Deborah Kellogg

Take 5: Spring Wildflowers

April in many parts of Massachusetts can feel a bit like nature is holding its breath, so that on any given morning you might wake up to find the world outside transformed from gray to green (or, as last Friday proved, blanketed in white one more time). Never fear, spring wildflower season is upon us! These bright harbingers of spring burst forth from the long-dormant earth in a dazzling variety of colors, shapes, and arrangements.

There’s an advantage to blossoming early—plenty of sunshine to provide energy before the trees fully leaf out and obscure the sun’s rays. The majority of spring wildflowers need to bloom, be pollinated, and store enough food for the following year—all before the leaves on neighboring trees have fully appeared. Some of the earliest species (and those needing the most direct sunlight) are known as spring ephemerals. These are plants that, after flowering, virtually disappear in a few short weeks.

Timing Is Everything

While the exact timing can vary due to variations in elevation or temperature, including the warming temperatures caused by climate change, if you want to catch a glimpse of Dutchman’s breeches and trout lily, make sure you get out by the first week of May; even sooner if you’re looking for bloodroot, which in some regions is already setting seed by the end of April.

You’ll see the greatest diversity of spring wildflowers around the middle of May, including red trillium in deciduous forests and jack-in-the-pulpit in wetlands. You’ll find the bright-red, nodding flowers of wild columbine perched on rocky outcrops. Last to the party in late May are the orchids: pink lady’s slipper is more common than most people realize and grows beneath pines and oaks, but you have to be lucky to stumble across yellow lady’s slipper or showy orchid in pockets of rich woodlands.

Learn More

Read up about spring wildflower season on our website, grab a copy of the classic go-to Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide, or take an upcoming wildflowers program at a sanctuary near you. Please enjoy these five photos of spectacular native spring wildflowers from our annual Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest.

And don’t forget to check out all the great Earth Month things going on at Mass Audubon—Earth Day is this Thursday, April 22!

Jack-in-the-Pulpit © Anne Greene
Jack-in-the-Pulpit © Anne Greene
Dutchman's Breeches © Deborah Kellogg
Dutchman’s Breeches © Deborah Kellogg
Red Trillium © Allison Bell
Red Trillium © Allison Bell
Yellow Trout Lily © Richard Welch
Yellow Trout Lily © Richard Welch
Bloodroot © Maili Waters
Bloodroot © Maili Waters
red-winged blackbird

The First Sounds of Spring

Red-winged Blackbird © Rachel Bellenoit

Some resident birds start singing their spring songs in late February and early March like clockwork, no matter what the weather is doing.

Even when winter keeps its grip on Massachusetts with snow and freezing temperatures, these birds mark the lengthening days with songs to attract mates, define their territories, and prepare for breeding season.

Early songsters respond to the amount of time between sunrise and sunset—called the photoperiod—and shift their behavior towards spring patterns accordingly.

Here are some of the earliest sounds that prove spring is just around the corner.

Black-capped Chickadees whistle a thin, pleasant “fee-bee!”:

Northern Cardinals give high, piping warbles from exposed perches:

Mourning Doves make low, resonant coos throughout the day:

A week or two after these birds start sounding off, the earliest short-distance migrants arrive from the southeast part of North America: Common Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds.

Blackbirds’ jangling, metallic song is most often heard in marshes and wetlands:

Grackles give a chorus of creaks and harsh “chack!” notes in large, transient flocks:

The arrival of spring accelerates after the first few migrants arrive, with skunk cabbage poking through the soil in wetlands and more birds like Ruby-crowned Kinglets to Yellow-rumped Warblers showing up.

All of these species are out and singing by the second week of March. Which ones have you been hearing so far this year?

Spotted Salamander © Ryan Dorsey/Mass Audubon

Take 5: Salamander Swarm

Every year, warming spring days trigger amphibians like spotted salamanders and wood frogs to migrate en masse to vernal pools to breed on the night of the first soaking rain above 45°F—a phenomenon known as “Big Night.” This spectacular annual event is taking place all across Massachusetts.

Vernal pools are temporary, isolated ponds that form when spring rain and meltwater from ice and snow flood into woodland hollows and low meadows. These pools provide critical breeding habitat for certain amphibian and invertebrate species—since vernal pools eventually dry up, they are inaccessible and inhospitable to predatory fish.

To celebrate the return of spring and the mass migration now taking place all around us, here are five great photos of native salamanders. Note that not all salamanders migrate to and breed in vernal pools—the eastern red-backed salamander, for example, has no aquatic larval stage at all, so you’re most likely to find one under a moist, rotting log or rock while northern dusky salamanders are stream denizens and lay their eggs in flowing seeps in June or July.

Blue-spotted Salamander © Patrick Randall
Blue-spotted Salamander © Patrick Randall
Eastern Red-backed Salamander © Chris Liazos
Eastern Red-backed Salamander © Chris Liazos
Spotted Salamander © Ryan Dorsey/Mass Audubon
Spotted Salamander © Ryan Dorsey/Mass Audubon
Northern Dusky Salamander © Patrick Randall
Northern Dusky Salamander © Patrick Randall
Blue-spotted Salamander © Brendan Cramphorn
Blue-spotted Salamander © Brendan Cramphorn

Take 5: Bloodroot

One of the earliest native spring flowers to bloom is bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis). Look for a single white flower, typically with eight petals, emerging from a protective leaf. The stem, leaves, and roots produce a blood-red sap. The seeds have oil-rich growths called elaiosomes that ants relish. The insects carry the seeds to their nests, helping spread bloodroot across the forest floor.

2012 Photo Contest Entry © Allison White

2012 Photo Contest Entry © Allison White

2010 Photo Contest Entry © Greg Pronevitz

2010 Photo Contest Entry © Greg Pronevitz

2010 Photo Contest Entry © Chris Buelow

2010 Photo Contest Entry © Chris Buelow

Bloodroot by Rene Laubach-640

© Rene Laubach/Mass Audubon

2014 Photo Contest Entry © Leslie Kenney

2014 Photo Contest Entry © Leslie Kenney

The Leaf-Eating, Tree-Damaging, Little Green Caterpillar

Milan Zubrik, Forest Research Institute - Slovakia, Bugwood.org

Winter Moth, Milan Zubrik, Forest Research Institute – Slovakia, Bugwood.org

Remember the little pale green caterpillar that ate through your trees and roses last year? Well, it’s back!

The caterpillar stage of the invasive winter moth (Operophtera brumato) eats young, tender leaves, sometimes before the leaves even get a chance to emerge from the bud.

The winter moth caterpillar is just one of hundreds of species of tiny green caterpillars, or inchworms, found in North America. Most are native and ecologically helpful, even though some, like the winter moth, can be a nuisance.

Identifying Winter Moth Caterpillars

It’s easy to tell winter moths apart from beneficial inchworms. The best way is by looking at the back end of an inchworm: If it has only two pairs of legs on its back end, it’s probably a winter moth. More than two pairs of legs on its back end means it’s probably a “good inchworm” and should be let be.  Winter moths are also stouter than other inchworms, and have a white stripe along the side.

The Moth Stage

Last November and December you might have seen hundreds of moths on cool winter evenings flying around outdoor lights. They were the male moths. They were out looking for vertical surfaces, like tree trunks, to find the virtually wingless females and mate. Once the moths had mated, the females lay their eggs in the craggy bark of the trees.

The Caterpillar Stage

Through the winter months, the tiny eggs lay waiting for the perfect time to emerge. Early spring, when the temperature and day length are just right, the buds of trees start to open. This is also when the tiny pale green inch-worm-like caterpillars of the winter moth emerge. They then eat their way through the leaves while they are still in the emerging bud. The leaves emerge skeletonized with only their veins remaining or if the leaves had a chance to develop the leaves are peppered with holes.

Assessing the Damage

Most trees can handle a year of this leaf eating if there are not other forms of stress such as drought, insect infestation, or too much sun or shade depending on the tree. Often, they can send out a second flush of leaves. Remember trees and all plants need to have leaves; it is where the process of photosynthesis occurs (ie where the plants make their food).

Providing extra water throughout the season will help trees recover from the stress of defoliation and re-foliation,

What You Can Do

Most people ask what they can do about these leaf-eating caterpillars. Sure there are sprays that can eradicate them. But, keep in mind they are not selective. The spray that kills the caterpillar stage of the winter moth also kills all of the butterflies in their caterpillar stage.

Paper or plastic strips covered with a sticky substance are commercially available to create a barrier that entraps the adult females and caterpillars. Though logical, this method has not proven to be effective for major infestations.

One option is to not plant trees that are extremely affected by the winter moth. Instead of vulnerable trees like crabapples, pears, and weeping cherries, try planting native trees. After they are established, (generally a year), they will be more resistant to forms of stress and better able to withstand the damage done by the winter moth caterpillar.

Learn more about what you can do to control winter moths on our website.

Updated July 2018

Five Early Spring Flowers

Nothing banishes the winter blues like the reassuring sight of the spring’s first wildflowers. Many plants bloom while the deciduous trees above them are still bare; they soak up sunlight on the season’s first warm days before trees can shade out the forest floor. Here are five of the earliest flowers to spot.

Mayflower (Epigaea repens)

This is the state flower of Massachusetts. It’s also known as the Plymouth mayflower. According to legend, it was the first flower that the pilgrims saw after their first hard winter. A creeping plant, mayflower has small pink to white blooms. The leathery oval-shaped leaves stay green throughout the year.

Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum)


This small lily’s strange name comes from its splotchy leaves, which are said to resemble the mottled scales of a brook-trout. The bright yellow flowers point downward. They close on cloudy days and at night when bees and other pollinators aren’t active.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)


Look for a single white flower, typically with eight petals, emerging from a protective leaf. The stem, leaves, and roots produce a blood-red sap. The seeds have oil-rich growths called elaiosomes that ants relish. The insects carry the seeds to their nests, helping spread bloodroot across the forest floor.

Blunt-loped Hepatica (Anemone americana)


Clusters of white, pink, or purple flowers bloom amid leathery three-lobed leaves. The name “hepatica” comes from the Greek word for liver—medieval doctors thought that hepatica leaves looked like the body part, and that this meant that the plant would cure liver ailments. As with bloodroot, this plant’s seeds are dispersed by ants.

Wood-anemone (Anemone quinquefolia)


Look for one white to pinkish flower rising above three to five leaves. This plant’s species name quinquefolia means “five-leaved,” because each leaf is jagged and gives the appearance of being five instead of one.

Have you seen any of these early blooms yet? If so share where and when in the comments.

Great Bird Migration Spots

Yellow WarblerIt’s the event that bird watchers around the state have been waiting for: spring migration, the time of year when birds leave their winter grounds and head north. Typically, spring migration in Massachusetts lasts from early March to early June, with the peak usually falling sometime around Mother’s Day for many species.

So where do in-the-know birders go to best enjoy this annual occurrence? In addition to our many and varied sanctuaries statewide, listed below are a few of Mass Audubon’s favorite birding spots.

Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge and Watertown

Why Mt. Auburn, on the border of Cambridge and Watertown, is a “migrant trap” – a sizable area of greenery within a highly-developed urbanized area. The many trees, water features, and ornamental shrubs in the cemetery offers a safe place for birds to rest, find food, and prepare for  the next leg of their migratory journey.

What Songbirds, especially vireos, warblers, thrushes, and sparrows.

How This is such a popular spot that many Mass Audubon wildlife sanctuaries offer walks through Mt. Auburn during spring migration.

Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, Newbury and Newburyport

Why The extensive and varied habitats of this strategically located barrier island offer ideal stopover conditions for migrants along the coast, a pathway that many migrating birds follow in both spring and fall. The combination of salt, brackish, and freshwater wetlands as well as extensive coastal thickets attracts a wide variety of species. Birders like the area because many species are relatively easy to observe on the refuge.

What Parker River National Wildlife Refuge is attractive to a wide variety of species, but especially waterfowl, raptors, shorebirds, and warblers in late spring and early fall.

How Mass Audubon’s Joppa Flats Education Center in Newburyport runs Wednesday and Saturday morning birding programs through Parker River National Wildlife Refuge as well as other great area locations.

Daniel Webster Wildlife Sanctuary, Marshfield

Why In a state where forests grow up so quickly, and developments grow quicker still, areas of extensive grassland habitat are fairly rare especially in eastern Massachusetts. This makes Daniel Webster an important place for many grassland birds to stop during migration and also nest. It’s one of the largest regularly-maintained open grasslands in Mass Audubon’s habitat portfolio and is a popular birding destination at all times of year.

What Daniel Webster offers a fine chance to see various wetland species including waterfowl, herons, shorebirds, and swallows. Mixed flocks of blackbirds (i.e., grackles, cowbirds, red-winged blackbirds, and even the occasional rusty blackbird) as well as grassland specialties like bobolinks and eastern meadowlarks are possibilities. It’s also a favorite spot for raptors, especially open-country species like northern harriers and American kestrels.

How Explore the wildlife sanctuary on your own, or join a program offered through Mass Audubon’s North River Wildlife Sanctuary, also in Marshfield.

Scusset Beach State Reservation, Sandwich

Why The Cape Cod shoreline is often one of the first land masses that migratory birds encounter as they are moving north over the open ocean. These birds often follow the Cape Cod Bay shoreline directly to Scusset Beach State Reservation (a Department of Conservation and Recreation property), where they sometimes pause in the thickets there before turning north and continuing their migration.

What In addition to the songbirds that sometimes collect in the shrubby thickets behind the beach, seabirds like northern gannets, and sea ducks including scoters, eiders, and long-tailed ducks are regularly seen from the jetty near the mouth of the Cape Cod Canal.

How Stop by on your way to or from the Cape. Afterwards, hop back on Route 6 toward Barnstable to visit Mass Audubon’s Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuary.

Canoe Meadows Wildlife Sanctuary, Pittsfield

Why Canoe Meadows borders the Housatonic River, a natural migration pathway, and it’s part of the Upper Housatonic Important Bird Area (IBA). The wildlife sanctuary includes a variety of habitat types including hayfields, beaver wetlands, riparian woodland, old field, and mixed woodland. Three miles of marked trails traverse these habitats.

What A wide variety of birds from waterfowl and raptors to flycatchers, warblers, and sparrows can be seen. Be on the lookout for red-breasted nuthatches, blue-gray gnatcatchers, blackburnian warblers, northern waterthrushes, and bobolinks.

How Join one of the regular Friday bird walks during April and May at Canoe Meadows, run by Mass Audubon’s Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary.

And do share in the comments: What’s your favorite spots to go birding during spring migration?

The Myth-Busting Mourning Cloak

Mourning cloak copyright Frank ModelEvery year I wait eagerly to see my first butterfly of spring. Most likely, it will be a mourning cloak (Nymphalis antiopa), a large butterfly with velvety brown wings and yellowish white wing edges. This beautiful “harbinger of spring” emerges on the first warm days, often before all the snow has melted.

How does the mourning cloak appear so early in the season? Hold onto your hats because this gorgeous insect contradicts everything we tend to believe about butterflies:

Myth 1: Butterflies die or head south for the winter.
Mourning cloak adults hibernate through the New England winter. Relying on “antifreeze” chemicals in their blood, mourning cloaks spend the winter in a sheltered place, such as in rock crevices, under bark, or in a woodpile. They emerge on warm days, sometimes as early as February, and treat us to visions of spring with their graceful flight. Other overwintering butterflies in New England to watch for include eastern commas, question marks, and compton tortoiseshells.

Myth 2: Adult butterflies only live for a few days.
Due to their overwintering strategy, mourning cloaks can have a lifespan of over 10 months. One of our longest-lived butterflies, mourning cloaks have been seen in flight in Massachusetts during every month of the year.

Myth 3: Butterflies nectar on flowers.
There are no blooming flowers in early spring when mourning cloaks emerge, so how do they feed? Mostly on tree sap, particularly from oaks. Mourning cloaks will also feed—brace yourself—on animal droppings and decaying things. Occasionally, if I have been hiking hard, a mourning cloak will land on my hand or head, attracted by the minerals in human sweat.

So, on the first warm day head toward a sun-dappled opening in the woods, preferably with storm-damaged trees and broken branches dripping sap, and wait for this resilient insect to make its appearance. Like you, it has managed to survive another New England winter.

To learn more about the mourning cloak and other butterflies of Massachusetts, check out Mass Audubon’s Butterfly Atlas.

Photo © Frank Model

Getting ready for The Big Night

Yellow-spottted salamanderSun is shining and birds are singing! You know what that means: spring is upon us, and some very important ecosystems are becoming active once again. Among the most critical and vulnerable of these ecosystems is the vernal pool.

What’s a Vernal Pool?
The quintessential vernal pool is an isolated, semi-permanent wetland that comes to life seasonally. These natural depressions fill up with water in the fall due to a rising water table, or fill with snowmelt and spring rains. Vernal pools can be found in meadows, floodplains, woodlands, and even sandplains across the state.

Vernal pools often freeze over during the winter, but as temperatures rise when spring approaches, a vernal pool becomes an active breeding zone for many creatures from invertebrates to amphibians and turtles.

Vernal pools are vulnerable to development. Even if a vernal pool itself is saved from destruction, changes in the surrounding upland may disrupt the habitat and life cycles of the resident species. The removal of the surrounding forest during the construction of houses, driveways, and lawns, for example, may degrade a nearby vernal pool to such an extent that the amphibian population is eliminated.

Home Sweet Vernal Pool
Vernal pools host several obligate species, or species that require the use of a vernal pool for either a portion or the entirety of their life cycle. Importantly, due to the temporary nature of this environment, vernal pools do not accomodate populations of fish, which would eat the eggs and other life stages of most vernal pool-related organisms.

New England is home to many easily recognizable obligate vernal pool species, including:

  • Salamanders Yellow-spotted, marbled, blue-spotted, and Jefferson salamanders rely on vernal pools for reproducing (critical for the latter three as they are rare, state-listed species). Most of these critters live in burrows on the forest floor, or underneath logs and rocks. On the first warm rainy nights in the spring, watch for salamanders crossing roads on their way to vernal pools.
  • Wood frogs During the first few weeks of the breeding season when the temperature hovers around 50°F, males join in a quacking chorus from vernal pools, calling out to potential mates. After mating, wood frogs return to their moist woodland habitat, where they spend the year. Their eggs hatch in the vernal pool, and the resulting tadpoles develop before following the adults upland.
  • Fairy shrimp These incredible creatures range in size from ½ inch to 1 ½ inches, swim upside down with 11 pairs of legs, and spend the entire year in vernal pools. They survive dry periods as eggs, which hatch when the pool refills  with water. Fairy shrimp need only a few weeks of water in the pool to complete their entire life cycle.

Experience Big Night
Every year, during one of the first warm, rainy nights of the spring season, wood frogs and salamanders begin the migration to vernal pools to breed. That evening is referred to as The Big Night.

Mass Audubon’s wildlife sanctuaries across the state celebrate the event with all sorts of wonderful programs throughout the month.

Had the chance to see it for yourself this year, or in years past? Tell us about it in the comments!

– by Emma Evans