The bird, singing

COVID-19 woodland diary, day 2

Last night there was another frost. The wood violets that we have transplanted around the edge of the garden over the course of a few years are producing infinitesimal leaves at the tips of the rhizomes. Wild ginger leaves have emerged the size of my pinky nail, folded over one another and recumbent. I have been looking closely in Maple Grove Forest Preserve where I know this species also grows but haven’t seen them yet. At our house, they are on the north side and in the shade all day long, but only three feet from the house, and I would expect them to warm up sooner than the plants in the woods.

Maps published in the New York Times this morning modeling the effects of travel on the spread of COVID-19 are sobering. I keep thinking back to when Rachel and David and I moved to Chicago in 2004, and there were no crows. I hadn’t understood this was an outcome of West Nile Virus. Over the course of several years, the crows came back. But I wonder what it would have looked like for the crows if they could have been coordinated their efforts, restricted their movements to the smallest range possible. Corvids are clever, but they can’t make rangewide coordinated plans as humans can.

Brooklyn and I parked by the church east of Maple Grove just before 10 a.m. and walked in through the neighborhood. Chickadees and cardinals were singing. Winter aconite was in full bloom beneath shrubs in a nearby yard. I thought I heard a red-headed woodpecker and spent several minutes watching and waiting, but in the end it was wishful thinking: it was definitely a red-bellied woodpecker, and they were calling all over. In the woods, leaves are still marcescent on the ironwood. There was a skin of ice over the pond, with common duckweed floating in the openings melted under a log arching up and out of the pond. At the edge of the pond, what I take to be the first new leaves of manna grass were nearly as long as my index finger. There were young shoots from the nodes on last year’s decumbent culms of blunt broom sedge, and straight-styled wood sedge was greening up.

If you get out into the woods now, scrape the leaves aside: in the richer areas, you may find threadlike white stalks of false mermaid prostrated on the soil, tipped with pale green leaves. There is even more than I had realized, sliding below the leaves everywhere in the woods. In the gaps in the leaf litter the plants mass up and fill in, forming tufts the color that the woodland floor will be in a few weeks. Seeing this tangle of Floerkea stems beneath the sheet of leaves makes it clear how the forest floor so quickly greens up with it in April. We’re looking at the forest understory of a few weeks from now when we roll back last year’s duff.

A tangle of etiolated false mermaid stems under the white oak leaves. Maple Grove FP, 2020-03-22.

On a south-facing slope in the northern half of the woods, just behind the houses, Brooklyn and I stopped still for a moment to watch the robins. They were not chuckling, and every one was hopping around on the ground. I soon realized that each robin was flipping leaves over. I counted 31, but there might have been a dozen more or twice as many spread out across the forest behind logs and trees and hummocks blocking my view. They were working as systematically as I imagine a robin can, grabbing each leaf by its edge, flipping it over with a little hop, moving on to the next. They were all business, apparently not even stopping to eat, though I assume it’s insects they were after. I have seen this in previous springs, and I wonder whether they are taking advantage of how slow the invertebrates are on these cold spring mornings.

Pileated woodpecker, Maple Grove FP, 2020-03-22.

After 5 minutes, there was a loud pecking from a dead standing ash to the north. It was the slow, powerful strike of a pileated woodpecker. I’d seen the excavations before in Maple Grove, and pileated woodpeckers are not uncommon at The Morton Arboretum nearby, but I’d never seen one here. Its drumming reverberated through the woods, then it swooped off like a great graceful raven to another nearby tree. Brooklyn and I watched it for several minutes until it was gone, deeper into the woods where we couldn’t see it any longer.

Cranes flew by overhead during much of our walk. Virginia waterleaf has come up, and the wild leeks have expanded over the past few days to a few finger widths in spite of the cold. I wonder whether they take some advantage of the spring frost that other species cannot. Flowers are closed in the leaf-bases of the Virgiana bluebells, which were themselves cradled in spires of soil this morning raised by inch-long needle ice. Sporophyte capsules on woodsy thyme-moss are all bent over and swelling, splitting open the hoods. I imagine they will pop their tops soon and disperse the spores.

Sporophyte capsules on Plagiomnium cuspidatum, Maple Grove FP, 2020-03-22

Last night, I reread Loren Eiseley’s well known essay “The Star Thrower,” which I don’t think I’d read since I was about 20. The essay catches him thinking about what it means to be a participant in the world vs an objective observer, if there is such a thing. He recalls a moment when he became award that he was not content with objectivity. “But I do love the world,” he realized. “I love its small ones, the things beaten in the strangling surf, the bird, singing, which flies and falls and is not seen again… I love the lost ones, the failures of the world.” He writes that accepting this “was like the renunciation of my scientific heritage.”

The woods are filled with small living things that are unspeakably fragile yet remarkably resilient. Today there was a seedling I could not identify that stood with many others of its kind, all about an inch high with hydralike roots and cotyledons the size of mung beans. What hulking plant will this become? How many millions of years has this species been around? You’d be hard pressed to find a forest understory plant whose species isn’t several times as old as modern humans. Yet an emerald ash borer can come through and essentially wipe a genus off of the continent.

We are here to sing, and to take good care of each other and all the other birds, singing, which fly and fall. Sorry to get sappy on you, but I think that’s the way it is.

Take care of each other, and enjoy the onset of the week.

Plants referenced

  • Asarum canadense – wild ginger
  • Allium tricoccum – wild leek
  • Carex radiata – straight-styled wood sedge
  • Carex tribuloides – broom sedge
  • Eranthis hyemalis – winter aconite
  • Floerkea proserpinacoides – false mermaid
  • Glyceria sp. – fowl manna grass, I’m not sure which species; G. striata is rather common here, and I suspect this is it, but I’d need to look at vegetative specimens to be sure.
  • Lemna minor – common duckweed
  • Mertensia virginica – Virginia bluebells
  • Ostrya virginiana – ironwood
  • Plagiomnium cuspidatum – woodsy thyme-moss
  • Viola sororia – wood violet

5 thoughts on “The bird, singing”

  1. Thanks, Andrew, for taking us on a virtual wildflower walk with you and Brooklyn! You’ve encouraged us to look closely at what’s happening beneath the duff!
    Snow trilliums are blooming in central Iowa — mine bedraggled by a couple of days of on-and-off rain, followed by a few tenths of an inch of snow. But still, they brought a smile.

    1. Wonderful, Deb! I don’t see Trillium nivale, and it’s delightful to hear that they’re coming up. You’re definitely several weeks ahead of us in C IA. We had a couple of inches of snow overnight, but it’s melting away. — Thanks for your note and taking time to read. It’s good to know you are doing well. Take care.

    1. Most of the blue violets in the lawn and woods are… and even the white ones, which are almost all white morphs of the blue wood violet. / Thank you for writing, Susan, and take care.

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