By Clint Calhoun
As I write this article, we are just a little over halfway through Winter. The days are starting to get noticeably longer, the tag alder is starting to bloom, buds are starting to swell on trees. Spring is on its way and the evidence comes in little fits and starts that see warming weather, with shorter stretches of cold, and the occasional deep freeze. We were fortunate this year to enjoy a big snow this year. Snow is so good for the ground. Snow has a higher percentage of air in it than water. Air is mostly made of nitrogen which is an important element needed for plant growth, and part of a necessary biogeochemical cycle. Repeated snows (when we get them), especially late winter snows are incredibly good for the soil and help stimulate plant growth. Snow is the symbol of winter slumber, whereas flowers are the symbol of the spring awakening.
Spring is my favorite time of the year, especially early spring. My favorite place to visit in Hickory Nut Gorge during spring is the Bat Cave Preserve. Bat Cave Preserve lies below the giant cliff faces of Blue Rock Mountain. While mostly north-facing, it catches a lot of the eastern sun in early spring, causing the spring ephemerals to wake up. The spring beauties (Claytonia caroliniana) blanket the forest floor, interspersed with bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), trillium (Trillium cuneatum), and a whole host of other early bloomers, all trying to get a head start on gathering sunlight before the trees awaken into complete leaf out.
After the three dormant months of winter, the lengthening daylight and warming temperatures trigger the trees to begin opening their buds, exposing their new leaves to the sun for the first time. The process activates the chloroplasts, which immediately begin making chlorophyll, starting the process of photosynthesis. The surge of energy from the newly made glucose molecules are immediately put to work to development of new growth and flower production, producing a new generation of offspring.
Birds begin their migration, with the neotropical species returning to the nesting grounds of the Southern Appalachians. The forest is filled with chirps, whirrs, and buzzes as birds sing to call their mates, and issue warning calls to the competition. Bluebirds can be seen collecting material for their nests. The beautiful song of the wood thrush, or the sight of an indigo bunting is the sign that spring has returned.
Whitetail deer shed their gray winter coats to reveal reddish warm weather coats, with does preparing to give birth to one or two spotted fawns. The fawns are born without a scent, allowing them to lie undetected by predators while mom feeds, so that her little one(s) may eat as well. Young squirrels, born during the late winter are big enough to start scurrying around, hanging close to mama and learning how to avoid predators. At this time, female black bears also begin to emerge from their winter dens, usually accompanied by one to three little bear cubs. Mama bear is significantly thinner than she was in the Fall, as her fats stores have been depleted during her long winter sleep, her cubs reaping the benefits of the stored energy found in her milk. She’s hungry, so she feeds heavily on young, tender plant shoots, clawing her way into fallen logs in search of grubs and larva. Her cubs, seeing the world for the first time are curious and eager to explore, but are quick to respond to mama’s clicks and grunts when she smells trouble, scampering up the nearest tree until she lets them know it’s safe to come down.
It’s a picture that seems to almost come straight out of a Disney movie, and in many ways, it is, although nature tends to be more subtle in many ways. Spring is worth getting excited for because we can see the renewal. We can get outside and smell the renewed air as fresh oxygen pours forth from the newly photosynthesizing trees. Nothing cures the winter blues like getting outside during the early part of spring, when nature wakes up and winter’s grasp is loosened. Awake, awake O’ Spring! Bring forth your warmth, let it fill the Earth. Let your rains bring forth Summer and the bounty of harvest. Until the time of rest returns again.
Until Next Time!
Clint Calhoun teaches high school science and outdoor education classes at Lake Lure Classical Academy and has worked as a naturalist and biologist in Hickory Nut Gorge for over 25 years.