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Spring has begun! Or at least, the plants and animals seem to think so. If you can find a break in the rain, this is a great time to go hiking with your child.
Go out to a scrubby field one evening and you may be lucky enough to watch the mating dance of the American Woodcock. The woodcock is actually a shorebird that lives in the forest. It uses its long, flexible beak to probe for earthworms--its eyes are almost in the back of its head so that it can see predators approaching even while its beak is in the ground. On spring evenings the male woodcock does his mating dance. He lets out a "peent!", turns 90 degrees or so, cries "peent!" again, turns 90 degrees, and repeats, so that his mating call is broadcast in every direction. Then he takes off into the air, flying in spirals above the field. While he flies, listen for a soft twittering sound--his lead flight feathers are modified into whistles. Finally the woodcock will plummet to the earth. Just before he hits the ground, he slows into a soft landing, then begins his peenting again. Woodcocks begin their dance at dusk and stop at dark, so if you want to see them you should get into position around 7:30 PM, then wait about 25 minutes for them to begin.
Once the woodcocks have stopped, stay outside to listen for frogs. You can hear them on the Indiana DNR's website.. Spring peepers sound like sleigh bells; chorus frogs sound like a fingernail drawn across a plastic comb. The toads are also awake now; they began singing on March 10th. The American Toad sounds like a telephone ringing, while the Fowler's Toad is more like a lifeguard whistle. If you have the toads in hand, you can tell which is which by counting their warts. The American Toad has 1-2 warts inside each spot, while the Fowler's can have 3 or more.
This is also nesting season for owls. If you're lucky, you may hear the Eastern Screech Owl (it makes a ghostly trill, or a high whinny like a tiny horse), the Barred Owl ("Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?"), or the Great Horned Owl ("Who's awake? Me too. Me too.")
If the night is clear, try stargazing. You don't need an expensive telescope--you can pick out features such as the Pleiades and Hyades star clusters, the Orion nebula, and Jupiter's Galilean moons (Europa, Io, Callisto, and Ganymede) using only binoculars. If you pay attention, you can also spot satellites speeding by.
On your way home from your night hike, go spider-sniffing. Hold your flashlight on the tip of your nose, or better yet, wear a headlamp. When you look down the light's beam, you can see spiders' eyes glowing bright green. Then carefully step forward until you can see the spider. You can easily find Carolina wolf spiders, nursery web spiders, ground crab spiders, and many others using this method.
Not a night owl? This is a great time to go birdwatching, as spring migration has just begun. A few early migrants like the Eastern Phoebe and the Tree Swallow are already back. You can also go on a wildflower hike. Here is a preview of what you might see (these photographs were taken on Sunday, March 13th.)
This is a Spring Beauty, Claytonia virginica. It has five petals and can be either white or pink. Note the long, grass-like leaves.
This one is Sharp-lobed Hepatica, Hepatica nobilis. See it while you can--the petals are very delicate and often fall off during a rainstorm, leaving only the three sepals beneath them. Note the three-lobed leaf and the furry stem.
There are many other ephemeral wildflowers that are only in bud right now, such as Virginia bluebells and cutleaf toothwort. Take a note of their location, then come back in a few weeks to see what they become.
Nature Club meets monthly on Thursdays at 4 PM. All children from 1st grade and up are invited. This week's program is March 17, when we will make Nature Journals and learn how to observe nature. Next month's class will cover Spring Ephemeral Wildflower identification and will be held on April 28. You can register for the program by calling the Children's Department at 812-738-4110 or by going to the library's website.