The bird symphony and frog chorus finish rehearsing and start performing in earnest. The expanding tree buds finally burst and color the landscape with maple-blossom red, leaf-light green, redbud lavender, plum-blossom white. The Canada geese hiss and charge with lowered necks when disturbed on their inconveniently chosen nesting territory. Prescribed prairie burns magically turn the rolling land from charcoal to lush green overnight. A snapping turtle crosses a path, lumbering toward an egg-laying spot. A fawn lies hidden in dappled grass near a family of young woodchucks, peeking out from behind the stream bank. Duck families paddle around the pond. A bull snake basks in the sun. The buzz and hum of insects begin.
Such are my memories of spring unfolding at Pioneers Park Nature Center in Lincoln, Neb. Some can be depended on as an annual rite; some are serendipitous gifts.
But for me it is the sound of the western chorus frogs that marks the beginning of spring. For a short while every pond, wetland and watery ditch is filled with a sound like the strumming of the teeth of hundreds of combs, as males announce their wish to find mates. This tiny frog, just an inch long, has a mighty voice. Females lay about 1,500 eggs. Obviously, this is a species that believes more is safer. Hatching in two days, the tadpoles mature in six weeks. Once breeding is over, chorus frogs silently disappear into the tall grass or animal burrows, giving way to their larger cousins, the leopard and bull frogs.
Unlike the prairie that lays out a continuous procession of colorful blossoms from spring to fall, the woodlands flower almost exclusively in spring. The prairie wakes up slowly, with only a few forbs—pasque flower, buffalo bean, prairie violet—blooming early, wary of a late frost. But woodland flowers have to take their chances while vital sunlight can reach through the tree canopy with the energy they need to bloom and set seed. The blotchy-leafed fawn lily has an interesting life history. Seeds are produced in June. These give rise to a bulb the following spring. For three years a single leaf sprouts, but in the fourth year a pair of leaves and a flower stalk finally emerge. Dutchman’s breeches hide their nectar in their legs, forcing insect pollinators to reach through their waist where the stamen and stigma, male and female, reside. May-apples unfurl their umbrella leaves. Columbine lanterns glow orange. And finally, a blue wood phlox blanket unfolds. Meanwhile, mostly hidden from sight, the red fox, white-tailed deer, raccoon, woodchucks, opossum, mice, and all the other mammals of woodlands and edges bear their young as food becomes more plentiful.
Spring is a busy time for birds—and those who love to watch them. Many birds undertake long journeys to areas that hold the promise of successful breeding. They come in a predictable sequence, starting in late February with the ducks and geese and continuing through orioles and kingbirds into May. Meanwhile, winter residents, like the dark-eyed junco, take their leave. Red-winged blackbird males arrive for the summer in large, noisy squads. Warblers, for the most part, just travel through. American goldfinch males change to eye-popping yellow plumage; woodpeckers drum; most other birds sing their own particular tune—all strutting their stuff to attract a mate. Then comes the furious activity of nest building, egg laying and hunting food to feed voracious nestlings.
There is another spring symphony of voices at Pioneers Park Nature Center: that of children. Our preschool visitors venture outside throughout winter, except in the worst of weather. But in spring the schoolchildren return in their own lively flocks. For the Nature Center is not only, or even primarily, a wildlife sanctuary; it is a place dedicated to offering people, especially children, a sense of this particular place and the beautiful and fascinating lives it holds.
Much has been written recently about how important it is—for the physical and spiritual health of people as well as for the survival of our planet—for children to have rich and frequent experiences outside, for all of us to have a deeper knowledge and appreciation for the specific natural world in which we live.
The Nature Center offers a myriad of opportunities to gain such knowledge and appreciation. Part of Lincoln’s Parks Department, it contains 668 acres of tallgrass prairie, wetlands, woodlands and a stream. Two interpretive buildings hold hands-on and small animal exhibits. Eight miles of hiking trails wind through various habitats and take visitors past nonreleasable raptor exhibits, as well as bison, elk and white-tailed deer herds. A natural play area provides a place for kids to dig, splash, build and climb. Prairie and herb gardens, with many labeled specimens, are both beautiful and instructive. For children, programming ranges from five sessions of preschool, to nature camps for three- to 16-year-olds, to scout badge work, hayrack rides and a Halloween Spooktacular. Adults can participate in basic bird identification classes, meditation workshops and herbal festivals. The Nature Center is open 362 days a year, and admission is free.
It is the unfolding of the seasons that makes the Nature Center a place to explore regularly. And so in spring we watch for the lady beetles that leave their wintery group hiding places under leaves to stalk aphids in the gardens. Or we await those early butterflies, such as the red admiral, one of the few that overwinter as adults. Its larval host plant, the nettle, bursts through the ground early, nutritious for humans as well as caterpillars. On the woodland floor, tiny creepy-crawlies covered in red velvet roam and delight young explorers. This is the adult mite whose larva is the chigger. Perhaps we will even see some of the spectacular silk moths, cecropia, polyphemus or luna, emerge for their very short adulthood. Having done all their eating as caterpillars, they now have no mouthparts. With a wingspan of five to six inches, gorgeous colors and feathery antennae, they have only one goal: finding a mate and laying eggs.
This is a gift of nature, and life as well: recurring cycles of events, punctuated by surprises waiting for those ready to receive them.
This article is provided by a member of Wachiska Audubon Society and features writings on subjects related to nature, the seasons and relevant environmental issues. For more information, visit http://www.wachiskaaudubon.org.