Wheeler NWR

A Northern Alabama Update — Nature-Inspired

Spring is now at full throttle, yet keep in mind that the progress is not laminar. Spring leaps and pauses; surges and retreats. We touched upper 70s to near 80 in late February. This morning (Thursday, March 8), we walked the neighborhood at dawn with a breezy 28 degrees. Birds a little more subdued than on the warmer mornings. The National Weather Service has issued another freeze warning for tonight. A wet southwesterly flow returns for this coming weekend (1-2 inches forecast), followed by another frosty morning or two next week. Such is spring at full throttle in northern Alabama.

We returned to Alabama March 5, after a long weekend in Pittsburgh. An inch of snow fell our first night there, the same storm that dumped some 39 inches on a Catskill town within 40 miles of Albany. Brisk winds kept us chilled the entire time in Pittsburgh. However, spring is rushing northward… at its normal pace of roughly 100 miles per week. Red maple flower buds already showing a bit of red near the Steel City. Daffodil leaves are poking through bedding mulch. We saw a flowering crocus here and there. Bradford pear buds are swelling, soon to burst.

Our very cold Alabama January produced only 1.75″ of rain. February conditions shifted remarkably. I measured 11.59.” Big Blue Lake remained at brimful.

Area creeks and rivers carried a full load most of the month. Our return flight from Pittsburgh revealed lots of wet fields and flooded bottom-land. I snapped the photo below before we headed north. Even then, we saw plenty of water.

February 12 upon returning from Kansas, we counted 25 hooded mergansers on Big Blue Lake, bobbing and diving repeatedly. Last year we saw only as many as five. We reached a peak of 34 February 26. I counted 25 early afternoon today. They seem to feed constantly. What are these 2-3-dozen fish eaters finding to keep so many of them here? Do their numbers relate to the bass, bluegill, and carp stocked in mid-June? The bass are apparently thriving, which leads me to wonder how the mergansers are feeding so voraciously? This large-mouth bass that I caught (and released) March 6, weighed at least 1.5 pounds. It competes, I presume, for some of the same critters the mergansers eat.

So, I’ve categorized this post under “Steve’s Big Blue Blog.” Where is Big Blue in this essay? Strangely absent. Why? This January brought some real winter cold; Big Blue Lake froze substantially twice. How did that alter Big Blue’s life and habits? We saw him only twice in January. At the end of the third week of February, crews cut the shrub willow along the shore for all of Big Blue Lake, yet that does not explain Big Blue’s scarcity leading to that date. Granted, Big Blue frequented water’s edge at one of the willow clumps along our shore.

Are the bass eating yearling tadpoles and small fish, such as the gold fish that appeared in large numbers our first year and that we saw Big Blue catching, flipping, and swallowing? Are the large merganser numbers affecting feed-stock for Big Blue? I am concerned about our resident great blue heron. I will continue to observe… and keep you posted.

We have seen hawks (red-tail and rough-legged) often. January we found dove feathers and blood in our back bed, clear evidence of a successful hawk capture. February 26, late-morning we came across this fine specimen in a street-side sweetgum tree, 20 feet above us. The sun gave us trouble in getting a good photo image and in discerning whether the bird is a red-tail or rough-legged. Like so many ‘wild’ creatures, the resident raptors have adapted to suburban life.

Likewise, just the evening before (2/25), Judy and I enjoyed the warmer air on our patio. Dusk brought the spooky sound of coyotes yipping and howling in the open land beyond the street south of the lake, within a quarter mile. Again, our non-human area residents adapt quite well. I am grateful that we still have enough local “wildness” to keep me enthralled and inspired. Nature is where we seek it, whether a short drive away to Wheeler’s Beaverdam Swamp Trail (the photo of Judy standing on the boardwalk with the creek high and muddy), or right here in Legendwood (our development).

As we left the tupelo swamp that day at Beaverdam, we spotted our first trillium of the season, a least (also known as dwarf) trillium (Trillium pusillum). Once we saw one, our eyes imprinted with the image, and we noticed an entire colony of 25-30 individuals. Again, Nature, with its beauty, awe, magic, and wonder, is where we seek it.

I add this final paragraph Saturday March 10. Yesterday evening I attempted to check for freeze damage on our hydrangea, near our river birch. Before I could get close enough, a killdeer went into the noisy, broken-wing routine at the birch, where we had seen a pair within the past week frequenting, and actually saw them in the act of coitus. I checked again this morning at first light. No bird nearby. I found the nest, and lo and behold, two eggs! A killdeer soon returned and began tending the eggs. ALERT — I just went out to snap a photo and three eggs! A bit later, as I filled our feeders, momma displayed nicely for me. I checked last year’s notes on our resident pair, whose nest first appeared May 21, and eventually fledged four hatchlings. Could that have been last year’s second brood, thus explaining this year’s two-month head start?

Isn’t Nature grand! May all that you do be Nature-Inspired.