April Excitement


(This 784th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on April 9, 2006.)


Just as March turns basketball aficionados mad, April sends natural history buffs into paroxysms of joy. After that long down time of winter, spring releases all kinds of suppressed energy and is a time of great excitement for those who observe this rebirth.


For herpers our marshes and woodlands turn up the volume. The single notes of spring peepers and the comb-rattling screeches of chorus frogs in combinations of what seem like thousands are so loud that you have to yell to be heard by friends only a few feet away. If you tune your ears and listen carefully, however, behind those high pitched notes you can hear the deeper quacking of wood frogs, the trills of tree frogs and American toads, the banjo twang of green frogs and the jug-o'-rum calls of bullfrogs.


A Spotted Salamander


Then using a flashlight with some care you can locate a few of those anurans and, if you aim the beam down into the water, you can often see the strings or masses of eggs laid not only by frogs and toads but also by salamanders. With luck you might even see a spotted salamander, but that usually takes some wading.


This is also the time when many woodland wildflowers rush through their flowering cycle before tree leaves develop to close off the life-enriching sun's rays. Botanists now look for their first spring beauty, trout lily (aka adder's tongue), leek, hepatica, bloodroot, toothwort, wild geranium, skunk cabbage, Jack-in-the-pulpit, columbine and May apple or mandrake.


Later in the month dozens of violet species will bloom as will bluets, trailing arbutus, wintergreen, white baneberry (doll's eyes) and a favorite of mine, those little clotheslines of Dutchman's breeches.


Every botanist has favorite woodlands to explore in the spring. One of mine is the Rollin T. Grant Gulf Wilderness Park below the escarpment in Lockport. To reach this lovely enclave take Niagara Street west from Transit and turn right on West Jackson Street.


Just remember if you visit such parks, wildflowers picked are wildflowers killed. And wildflowers transplanted is more often than not wildflowers killed as well. These plants thrive only in the special soil conditions where you find them. (You are probably also breaking the law if you remove plants from parks.)


Of course, spring is also the time when birders thrive. May is the peak migration month with April bringing fewer arrivals, but after the long winter drought it often seems even better. A check of the last three years of Buffalo Ornithological Society records shows April producing an average of 46 new species, May 74. Thus April brings about 3/5 as many new arrivals as May. In fact, as I uncovered years ago in a study of Rochester records, the last ten days of April bring a rush of new birds greater than the first ten days of May. A local study by Dave Suggs confirms this for Buffalo.


Here are the usual arrival dates: April 1-10: Blue-winged teal, ruddy duck, red-throated and common loons, osprey, American bittern, Eastern phoebe, winter wren and white-throated sparrow.


April 11-20: Double-crested cormorant, broad-winged hawk, greater yellowlegs, lesser yellowlegs, spotted sandpiper, yellow-bellied sapsucker, Northern flicker, purple martin, Northern rough-winged swallow, barn swallow, ruby-crowned kinglet, brown thrasher, yellow-rumped warbler, Eastern towhee, chipping sparrow, field sparrow, savannah sparrow and swamp sparrow.


April 21-31: Great egret, green heron, common moorhen, Caspian tern, common tern, belted kingfisher, red-headed woodpecker, bank swallow, red-breasted nuthatch, house wren, blue-gray gnatcatcher, hermit thrush, American pipit, yellow warbler, pine warbler, black-and-white warbler, Louisiana and Northern waterthrushes, white-throated and fox sparrows and purple finch.


Most evident in April is the hawk migration. Thousands of hawks, eagles and vultures pass through this region during this period. On any April day with a mild wind out of the southwest these majestic birds are observed in good numbers at the Lakeside Memorial Park hawkwatch on Camp Road in Hamburg. High overhead turkey vultures, red-tailed, red-shouldered and (later) broad-winged hawks spiral in updrafts moving slowly northeast while at treetop height Cooper's and sharp-shinned hawks, kestrels and an occasional merlin or peregrine zip past apparently following preset compass courses. Less often  an osprey or bald eagle will sail by as well.-- Gerry Rising