Spotting Spring On Philly’s Nature Scene

Spring is here and as the days lengthen, more and more characters will take their place on nature’s stage. It won’t take much motivation for you to get outside as trees regrow their leaves, flowers blossom and the air is filled with birdsong.  

Whatever you end up observing, consider documenting it with participatory science tools such as iNaturalist. This is a great way to keep track of your findings while also making the data available for scientists and other conservation agencies.  

Purple trillium, a majestic spring ephemeral

Fleeting Beauties 

For most of the summer, the forest floors in our parks are a shady place to grow, with the tree leaves high in the canopy intercepting most of the sunlight. For a few precious weeks, however, light reaches the ground and an assortment of colorful spring wildflowers sprout and blossom while they can bask in the sun.  

Bloodroot blossoms like daisies close to the ground. Trout lily arches its delicate yellow flowers above its mottled green leaves. Trilliums open to what are perhaps the most majestic flowers of the forest floor in whites and reds. Come summer they will be gone, but if you take a walk on the right trail, such at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education or Scott Arboretum, you can enjoy these spring ephemerals.  

Black-throated Blue Warblers migrate from colder climes, like Canada. Alexandre Légaré / Wikimedia Commons

Passing Through  

If you had wings, you might also head somewhere warm for the winters. Now, as the Northern Hemisphere heats up, billions of birds that spent the coldest part of our year in the Southeast, the Caribbean Islands, Central America or even in South America will stream north again. Some, like Tree Swallows, Chimney Swifts, Indigo Buntings and Wood Thrushes will nest in the Philly area, but many others will head for the cool forests of New England and Canada.  

Dozens of species of colorful songbirds like Scarlet Tanagers and Black-throated Blue Warblers touch down in Philadelphia for critical rest and fuel before flying the next leg of their trip. Although big parks like the Wissahickon or the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge will draw crowds of birders to watch the birds from late April into May, even smaller pocket parks will host the international travelers as they work to fill their bellies with bugs.  

On a particularly active day, a “warbler fallout” will fill the trees with birds. Bring your binoculars to any park you can access, and make sure to listen carefully. Many of the migrants sing as they forage. Those songs can help you zero in on tiny birds you might have missed. If you’re not sure how to get started, join a birding walk at a nearby park or nature center, such as In Color Birding, and don’t be shy. Politely ask other birders what they’re looking at so you can get the hang of it. It’s the best way to learn.  

Garter snakes, (thamnophis sirtalis). Miles Frank / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Have a Ball 

Love is in the air, not only just for birds and bees, but also for your local snakes. This time of year many of them are emerging from their winter slumber and looking to connect with a special someone — or a pile of special someones. Female Eastern garter snakes and Northern water snakes are larger than the males of their species, and in the spring, multiple males will pile on a receptive female to form a “mating ball.” While a human observer could be turned off by a mass of writhing snakes, rest assured, they are doing what they most want to do at that moment.  

Keep an eye on the banks of local waterways for mating water snakes. Garter snakes will also be active further from the water. Their focus on finding mates will drive the snakes to distraction, so much so that they often ignore a human observer. They also pay less attention to predators, which means you can also often spot hawks flying away with unlucky suitors.   

Philadelphia Fleabane. Melissa McMasters / Wikimedia Commons

The Best Flower in the Entire World 

Several species of birds, bugs and plants are named after the city of brotherly love, but one, the native Philadelphia Fleabane, is particularly easy to find in the spring. Some gardeners might look at it as a weed, but this small member of the daisy family — with a yellow center and white or lavender petals (technically, what look like petals on a daisy are tiny individual flowers, or “florets”) — greets April by blossoming in forgotten corners of lawns and gardens and even gaps in the curb or sidewalk where a little soil has accumulated.  

After it blooms, the flower will transform into a ball of seeds that blow away in the wind, like a little dandelion puffball. The leafy base of the plant will continue growing and will flower again next year. Philadelphia fleabanes transplant well, so if you know someone who doesn’t want the plants growing in their lawn or garden, you can mount a rescue operation, ideally in the fall.  

Make your windows visible with stickers or paint to prevent bird strikes. Leighann Blackwood / Unsplash

Lay Out the Welcome Mat 

Want to welcome wildlife into your neighborhood? Consider gardening with native plant species that provide food to visiting birds, either directly through fruit and seeds or indirectly by hosting insects that a lot of migrating birds gorge on while they stop over.  

You can also help save the lives of these visitors by making your windows visible. Up to a billion birds die each year from smacking into windows. Most of these deaths are avoidable. Plenty of companies sell stickers, window films or other solutions to reduce reflections, but you can also simply decorate the outside of your windows with tempera paint. Window collisions are most common in fall and spring migrations, so you can wash it off for the winter and redecorate in the spring. Visit the Academy’s Conversations With Birds exhibit to learn more about what Bird Safe Philly is doing to protect migrating birds.  

Other creatures will be also be out and about now, so be sure to contain your trash in wildlife-proof containers, and don’t leave any pet food outside unattended. Although local rats, foxes, raccoons and opossums might enjoy the meal, artificial feeding, whether intentional or unintentional, can facilitate transmission of diseases such as rabies and may bring our wild animal neighbors into potential conflict with humans.  

Lastly, while the days may be bright and warm, keep your cats indoors whenever possible to prevent unnecessary predation — outdoor cats kill roughly 2.4 billion birds in the United States every year, not to mention many more mammals, reptiles and amphibians. Your springtime visiting bird friends will thank you.

Bernard Brown is a nature writer at Grid magazine and author of Exploring Philly Nature: A Guide for All Four Seasons.

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