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Posts Tagged ‘Spring’

I had almost given up. I wasn’t worried that spring would never come, but that something had happened to the whippoorwills. Had they forsaken this troubled planet?

They’re not really whippoorwills, and they don’t even make the whip-poor-will sound, but that’s what we call them here in rural Florida. If I told a neighbor I heard a Chuck-wills-widow call last night, I’d get a blank stare that would last into next week. If I say I heard a whippoorwill, I’d have full understanding.

You can’t describe their call as a song. It sounds almost like they’re spitting out, “Chuck! Will’s widow,” or something like that. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings described it as, “Chip hell out of the red oak.” You can find a recording here: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Chuck-wills-widow/id. On summer nights, I can hear several in the woods around me, calling ceaselessly through the night, the same call over and over. Sometimes one comes close to the house, but if I go outside to try to locate it—immediate silence.

Chuck-wills-widow. (Photo courtesy of Dick Daniels)

I’ve never seen one clearly enough to recognize it. They are active mostly at night and are so well camouflaged they blend in with dead leaves and tree bark during the day. Sometimes, driving down the road at night, a bird will suddenly shoot up from the roadway and fly off. That’s a Chuck-wills-widow that has been picking up grit from the road. I suppose they sometimes get hit by cars. I read that their numbers are declining—the usual story— pesticides and loss of habitat. They must be too shy to stick around when their forests are taken over by housing developments. They don’t build nests, but lay eggs on the ground, which puts them at risk despite their camouflage. They’re vulnerable to pesticides because their diet is mostly insects, although they’ve been known to eat small birds and even bats.

I hear them only from March through July. They winter in the Caribbean and Central America, but I don’t know what they do in late summer and fall.

I wasn’t too surprised they were late this spring. We had another weird winter. Winters in Florida are typically weird, but these last two were worse. Not hard winters, but warm for the most part, and late. My dog fennel, loyal predictor of the first frost, has been dead wrong two years in a row. No frost in November, as predicted. Not until after Christmas.

Last spring I still had nearly a full cord of firewood left over. I usually stock up before my firewood man goes away for hunting season, but I didn’t run low until after the first frost. When I called him, he delivered right away and said I was lucky to catch him before he took one last trip to his hunt camp. After the second frost, it appeared my supply would last me again into the next fall.

Our tomato plants

A few weeks before Spring Break, I had the school kids start tomato plants and told them that after the break we should be past the threat of frost and could set the plants out in their gardens. Boy was I wrong! After the children returned to school, we were hit with the coldest spell of the winter. I woke to a half inch of ice in the bird bath.

(I can hear you northerners saying, “Now really, just get over it!” I know. You’re digging out from under three feet of snow. Spend a few winters here and see how soft you get!)

So, we held back on planting our spring gardens. Everyone I talked to said they hadn’t heard a whippoorwill yet, either. The next part of the conversation goes something like, “My mama/granny/grandpa always said we can have frost up ‘til Easter.” This year, Easter comes in the middle of April! Can Spring really be so late? The whippoorwills have never been this late. What’s wrong?

On mild nights, I slept with a window open, hoping to hear one call. If the night was too cool, I’d step out on the porch every few hours to listen. March melted away, but no whippoorwill.

Finally, on March 30th, I heard the call! Far away, faint, and short lived, one called. My world was set right again. I heard the promise of Spring, and it was music to my ears.

 

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Spring caught me by surprise again. It does this every year. Winter in Florida is predictably unpredictable. It can be 80 degrees in the morning and plunge into the 20’s by midnight. Although the blooming of the Dog Fennel last fall predicted frost before Thanksgiving (and Dog Fennel’s predictions are more accurate than the almanac), Jack didn’t show his hoary head until January. Fruit trees that know no better began to bloom and set fruit. Then Winter skated in. Not a hard winter, as winters go, but enough frosts and freezes to nip those sassy buds and precocious peaches. Plants that know better, Yellow Jasmine and Wild Azaleas, knew to wait.

A thousand miles to the north, Punxsutawney Phil, that famous groundhog, predicted an early spring. I had my hopes, but didn’t bank on it. My misgivings were correct. I won’t be surprised if they fire that groundhog and replace him with another who can predict more accurately. But maybe it’s not his fault. Remember, my Dog Fennel was wrong, too.

Fortunately, we didn’t suffer the backlash of winter that hit our northern neighbors. No blizzards, but we did get a little snow, a few flurries that only the more adventurous caught before they melted to nothing. I missed the snowfall because it’s warmer in the woods where I live. If a few flakes drifted as far as the tree canopy, they never hit the ground.

Plants that hadn’t been fooled by our fickle weather stayed huddled in winter dormancy. When I gave my talk on Wild Eating to a neighboring garden club, the only thing I could find to eat was a pine tree. The usual weeds prudently remained in hibernation. At least we were able to enjoy a delicious pine needle tea.

Among leafless gray trunks of the woods and swamps, the Red Maples ignored warm days, cold nights, and the predictions of other species and blazed deep scarlet at their usual time. They’ve lived in Florida long enough not to be influenced by the uncertainties of what we call winter. You see, in Florida, seasons are backwards. Here, maple trees turn colorful in spring, not so much in fall. Soon their little helicopter seeds rained down into yard and flower pot alike and I have little maple trees coming up everywhere.

Then came March. Warm days of sunshine and short sleeved shirts, pollen from oaks and pines coating everything yellow, sending sensitive people to the doctor. I entered my best houseplants in the county fair. When I brought them home afterward, they begged to be left outdoors. They love the heat and humidity of summer. It reminds them of their jungle origins. In summer, they thrive on fresh rainwater and ask for no fertilizer. But they complain about the cool dry air of the winter house and need much coaxing to keep up appearances until fair time. It was the Ides of March. Was winter over? Against my better judgement, I left my tropical babies outside. Guess what—another cold front, nights in the 30’s. I brought the most vulnerable into the house and left the more hardy out. They weren’t happy, but they survived.

When I heard the first Whippoorwill, I knew spring had finally arrived. These aren’t really whippoorwills but that’s what we call them. They are actually Chuck-wills-widow, a cousin of the whippoorwill. Their song is not musical (Marjorie Rawlings described it as, “Chip hell out of the red oak”) but it’s unique and most welcome in March.

I love the light the sun sends in late winter—bright, unencumbered by foliage and haze, intense, almost silvery. It surrounds everything, leaving no shadows. Maybe that’s the cue. Buds began to plump. My Wild Azaleas bloomed, filling the woods with their sweet bouquet.

Then literally overnight, everything burst with color. A few trees tentatively put out green leaves. When no harm came to the early bloomers, other trees followed suit. Wildflowers have began to blossom. Yellow Primrose now decorates the dirt road from evening till noon. Phlox carpets the sunny roadsides and Lyre Leaf sage has turned the shady areas blue.  Before I knew what happened, my sunny yard transformed into a shady forest. Birds of more species than I can describe wake me with their morning songs.

I don’t know why Spring surprises me with its arrival. It happens this way every year. One day the oaks are bare, the next they are attired in spring green. Soon, the green will darken, the shade in my yard deepen, and heat and humidity will come home to stay. My tropical house plants will flourish, as will mosquitoes, and my human neighbors will wilt and hibernate in their air conditioning.

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