"Leaf out" brings an annual day of new color (green!) to the Kickapoo Valley

“Leaf out” brings an annual day of new color (green!) to the Kickapoo Valley

There was quite a difference from one week to the next as spring finally shifted gears to warm up a bit. A week ago, the ridges were covered with bare trees, but by Tuesday of this week they were covered in new, glorious green leaves. It’s called “leaf out,” a very important time for all wildlife and a time that I’ve been looking forward to for 7 months. To experience the color green is definitely a breath of spring air after seeing only a black-and-white landscape all winter.

Nature is a fabulous artist, and the feathers of the peacock are proof

Nature is a fabulous artist, and the feathers of the peacock are proof

At the Radtke farm, the warm morning sun inspired the peacock to show off is beautiful new spring feathers. He doesn’t have a mate yet but he enjoys displaying his finest feathered fan for the chickens. He’s a handsome fellow indeed, arguably the most colorful bird of all.

Once the temperature rises above 60°, the pretty white faces of the trilliums appear on the forest floor. I’m not sure why, but they aren’t as thick as usual, it may have had something to do with the extremely cold winter we had.

I love how the yellow eyes stand out from the dark plumage of the grackle

I love how the yellow eyes stand out from the dark plumage of the grackle

A week ago, there were three frosty mornings in a row but they weren’t serious enough to harm the tiny purple lilac buds. The poppies on the other hand, were looking kind of droopy and covered with a crystal white frost. They popped right back up when the morning sun hit them as though nothing had happened. A handsome male grackle flew down into the lush grass in the yard. He knows that when the morning sun melts the frost and warms the grass, the insects will appear and it’s a good place to find his breakfast. I love his iridescent black and purple plumage that is set off by his intense yellow eyes. The grackles have built a nest high in the needle-covered branches of a white pine and the young could be hatching about now. That’s not just a guess because I spotted a male grackle flying across a hayfield and carrying in his beak the bright white fecal sack from a baby grackle. He flew clear to the other side of the field before he dropped it. Now he must find another fat insect to take back to the nest and the gaping mouths of 4 or 5 hungry, featherless babies. When mom or dad places the food into the chick’s mouth, the little one will turn, back up to the edge of the nest and defecate. The white chalky liquid is trapped inside by a clear membrane or sack. This fecal sack is promptly taken up by one of the parents, who flies off to drop it elsewhere. Its nature’s way of keeping a clean house and not making the location of their nest obvious to predators on the ground. Grackles, like blue jays, have always gotten a bad rap from many folks who enjoy watching the birds, but I always respect any form of wildlife for what they are and how they fit in with the other life around them. Besides, we have little room for passing judgment when it comes to being greedy or messy.

Look close. This mother bat is carrying her baby under her body as she hunts for insects

Look close. This mother bat is carrying her baby under her body as she hunts for insects

The cool weather was starting to make it tougher for insect-eating birds to find enough to eat. The nighttime temps had been too cold to be insect-friendly and most insects don’t hatch during the day. When the morning sun warms the valley the flying insects take to the sky at 9 am. This is when, for the past several mornings, three brown bats come out to hunt for a meal of insects. The female bat has to catch enough food for two because she is carrying her only baby under her belly as she is flying. Look closely to see the dark brown patch of fur on her underside. That’s her baby. He clings to her as she quickly flutters from side to side and up and down, yet he never falls.

There wasn’t much of a flower show from the Dutchman’s breeches or the delicate blood-root this spring. They weren’t nearly as numerous in this valley as years past but the tiny white wood anemone covers the ground in a blanket of woodland white.

Picture-perfect, the Kickapoo's west wing flows into the spring day

Picture-perfect, the Kickapoo’s west wing flows into the spring day

I pulled off the road near an old bridge that crosses the west fork of the Kickapoo River. The view from the bridge looking downstream was picture-perfect and lacked only a trout fisherman tossing a fly line. I heard the phoebe call his name before I saw him. When a fly-catcher flew out from under the bridge and landed on a dried sunflower stalk, it was clear he wasn’t too happy that I was so close to his nest up under the bridge, so I figured it was time to leave.

Tragedy on the highway

Tragedy on the highway

During Tuesday’s leaf out the hills seemed to turn green right before my eyes. I spent the whole day planting flower sets in the warm sun; a good time for my white skin to get a little color. I nearly kneeled on a tiny, red-bellied snake that was hiding in the short grass. The warm sunny day must have felt pretty good to him, too, and we introduced ourselves before he crawled off to enjoy the day. Then I noticed something that looked like a small bird lying on the blacktop. I wasn’t very happy to find a male Baltimore oriole dead in the middle of the road. That was bad enough, but lying dead at the edge of the road was his lovely mate. I see this more often than I would like to remember. One of a pair of birds will get killed on the road and its mate will fly down to see why they are no longer moving and get run over by another car. The female oriole was still clutching a strand of dried plant fiber in her beak. This material is used to build their unique hanging nest. “Leaf Out” for the orioles means that there are now enough green leaves in the trees to hide their nest; this pair had just started nest-building that day.

Wednesday morning I had to stop for a large snapping turtle as she crossed the gravel river road to get to the river. She wasn’t wasting any time getting across. She was up on all fours with her neck stretched out ahead and her tail straight out behind. I guess she weighed around 20 pounds, and had probably crossed that road many times in the past 20 to 30 years.

The flowering crabapple tree shows off under the warm sun

The flowering crabapple tree shows off under the warm sun

The flower buds on the neighbor’s flowering crabapple tree survived the frost and opened to full bloom today. I’m sure it doesn’t take long for the bees to find such a tree, packed with fragrant blossoms.

The warmer nighttime temperatures caused a thick fog to form in the river valley on Thursday morning, just before sunup.  A virtual cloud of cliff swallows flew out from under the river bridge, eager to begin their day-long search for flying insects. I’m always amazed at how two to three hundred birds can fly so close to each other yet seem to be going in every direction at once. They will begin building their mud nests under the bridge today.

There are two pairs of catbirds near the house, and they are not shy about letting me know where they are. They always seem to have something to say.

Naturally yours,

Dan