Thursday, March 13, 2008

Making the most of March

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Making the most of March

At this time of year the fickle Illinois weather can make a person want to crawl into a cave and sleep until June. But for people who are willing to brave the elements—or enjoy the sunshine, depending on the day—early Spring affords unique opportunities to connect with the natural world.

It is the time of year to find members of the mole salamander family above ground, including our state amphibian, the tiger salamander. These are creatures that live most of their lives farther down in the soil, but that travel overland in early spring, to and from the seasonal ponds where they breed. You can often find such salamanders by rolling over logs in the vicinity of vernal pools, like the ones at Busey Woods in Urbana, or Kickapoo State Park in Vermilion County.

Vernal pools, which are defined by the fact that they dry up completely later in the year and thus do not hold fish, are also home to quite a bit of other activity in March. This activity is signalled by the calls of wood frogs, spring peepers, and toads seeking mates. And it’s evident in the graceful movement of fairy shrimp, inch-long crustaceans that propel themselves through the clear, icy water with eleven delicate pairs of legs. An aquarium net and a plastic pan are all the equipment you need to spend an afternoon exploring a vernal pool.

A mid-March walk in the woods provides a great opportunity to witness the early development of spring wildflowers, which have to make the most of this time before the trees leaf out and prevent sunlight from reaching the forest floor. You won’t see them blooming just yet, but in the weeks to come trout lilies, snow trillium, spring beauties, and a host of other flowers will emerge from the soggy ground. Perhaps a hike along the Sangamon River at Allerton Park near Monticello is in order.

March means, “move” for a lot of birds, and that opens up myriad possibilities for birdwatchers. You can see more waterfowl than you can count along the Illinois River right now, but you may also see a surprising variety of ducks and geese on just about any body of water at this time of year. Large impoundments like Clinton Lake, Lake Decatur and Lake Vermilion offer great possibilities. But so do subdivision detention ponds, farm ponds, and flooded fields. If you’re up for a day trip, there are still some five thousand sandhill cranes stopping over at the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife rea in northwest Indiana. The sight of these magnificent birds feeding in the fields during the day and gathering to roost in the evening can be well worth the two-and-a-half hour drive from Champaign-Urbana.

March is also when you can witness the mating display of the American woodcock, a long-billed, stout-bodied oddity of a bird who performs twice a day, at dawn and dusk. You can see his highly choreographed mix of strutting, sound and flight at natural areas with the right mix of open ground and brush, including Meadowbrook Park in Urbana and the Homer Lake Forest Preserve, near Homer.

Now, don’t get me wrong—even with all of this activity, I’ll be glad when better weather arrives to stay and the world is green again. I just mean to emphasize that the progress of Spring has already begun, and we don’t need to wait to enjoy it.