Nature Connection: It’s All In The Timing

By: Mary Richmond

Mary Richmond illustration.

There’s a certain predictable element to the seasons here on Cape Cod. We know almost to the day when the ospreys arrive, mayflowers bloom, and the herring run. We can guess within a day or two in most instances.

In mid to late March, the chipmunks and groundhogs wake up, the snakes and turtles stretch out in the sun and the red-winged blackbirds, grackles and robins return. On rainy nights, even those tinged with a bit of sleet or snow, the salamanders and wood frogs begin to move to the vernal pools to engage in one of the most spectacular mating events of the season.

The ospreys arrive in time to take advantage of the jubilant excess of the herring runs. They usually come a little earlier and have to depend on fish they find close to shore or in our ponds or lakes, but they will be ready and waiting for the mass migration. This overabundance of food will not only replenish their depleted energy supplies from their own long migrations but will help supply fat and nutrients that will aid in healthy egg laying.

Every spring I marvel at the synchronicity of nature. Plants like dandelions bloom early and provide some of the only food for sluggish bees that have survived a long winter without any nourishment other than what they stored away last summer. This alone should keep us from using pesticides or even lawn mowers on those sweet yellow flowers. Pesticides actually kill the bees that feed on the nectar of treated plants, so if you’re planting for pollinators in your summer garden but killing the dandelions with pesticides, please educate yourself.

Mayflowers bloom in late April and early May and are another natural source of nectar for not only bees but early butterflies such as the tiny blue spring azures. Maple flowers feed many birds and even hungry squirrels, and the warming sun rays on the bark of trees in a still leafless woodland wake up the dormant larvae of insects and spiders, many of which will feed hungry birds arriving from down south as well as our year-round feathered friends.

Flying insects take a little longer to show themselves, though you may be seeing some early flyers out now. Our tree swallows and flycatchers will show up almost simultaneously with the first big explosion of flying ants, mosquitoes and other small, winged insects.

If you’ve studied butterflies or moths you know that each have their favored host plants. Some prefer different ones for nectar as adults than for food for their ravenous larvae. There is little deviation or substitution for these and the removal of one food source can annihilate a whole species in an area. Please remember that what you use to treat for winter moths and gypsy moths also affects all other lepidoptera, which means all butterflies and moths. Read instructions carefully; with specific and careful applications they can be used in pretty targeted ways that create minimal mayhem for others.

The larger mammals and predatory birds are early nesters, giving birth or laying eggs in late winter. This is a brilliant strategy of timing for just as the little ones are learning to forage for themselves, there is plenty of easy prey available due to the abundance of baby rabbits, mice, and nestling birds. I know, we don’t like to think about that part, but it can’t be helped.

Fruits and nuts ripen just as some animals are fattening up for migration and hibernation. Those that store well, such as acorns, black walnuts, and beechnuts, get gathered and hidden for later use. Those that get forgotten germinate the next spring to grow into new trees.

We use the words cycle of life, food chain, and web of life to describe all these things, but it is important to also remember the importance of timing, especially as climate change makes itself more and more obvious. If you’ve lived here long you know we have birds, fish, crabs and plants that never used to be here before our winters got warmer. Those that go fishing, lobstering and shellfishing, know that warming waters are impacting their catches, and not in a positive way.

Timing can be everything. Most of our birds, animals, fish, crabs, clams, frogs, turtles, and insects are all creatures of habit. I can look at the calendar I keep every year to note the arrivals of the first ospreys, plovers, terns, herring, etc. and the dates are almost always the same or within 48 hours. A change in timing in the habits of even one species caused by climate change could be catastrophic for many, including many of us.