Typically we travel from our winter abode in Southwest Florida in spring to tend to our summer farm near Galax, Va., enjoy the early spring sights and burn off some fields. Florida undergoes significant seasonal changes in the flora and fauna yet not nearly as striking as those in the Blue Ridge Mountains
Looking at our farmhouse and surrounding fields one might think it is still winter. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jack Frost still appears some mornings yet the rebirth of biological communities is under way.
One way to regenerate and control the growth of field plants is to burn the dead stems off in early spring. This helps recycle nutrients, clear dead biomass and inhibit exotic cold-season grasses such as fescue. We treat selected fields twice with herbicides and then plant a variety of wildflowers to enhance native pollinator productivity.
Spring burns control invasive grasses such as fescue.
Green leaves primarily on pine trees and rhododendrons have toxins to discourage herbivory from hungry deer. Rhododendrons tend to grow primarily on the northern sides of hills and in valleys for the greater soil moisture there.
Red maple is one of the few trees with flowers blooming in early March. Blood root is one of the earliest forest floor flowers to bloom.
One of the most highly anticipated biological events in early spring for me is the breeding of amphibians, especially those in fish-less small ponds. It is important that no fish be present for certain amphibians whose larvae cannot survive fish predation.
Since our farm had little of this type of habitat, I built a series of ponds that simulate natural vernal ephemeral pools. One pond seven had 14 egg masses of wood frogs on March 7.
Wood frogs winter as mostly frozen bodies in the soil, then emerge as the ground thaws and migrate to ponds where they breed quickly in large groups. The eggs are distinctive as large globular masses of hundreds of embryos in clear jelly.
On a side trip to nearby Chapel Hill, N.C., I came across eggs of two other amphibians I hope to attract to our farm ponds. Leopard frogs were breeding March 11 with the male in amplexus with a female so that he can fertilize the eggs externally. This was a surprise since this species normally breeds much earlier during the late winter. In the same ponds there were also many smaller egg masses of the spotted salamander.
The explosion in singing by birds and the arrival of many migratory species also announce the arrival of early spring.
There are also changes in behavior as breeding season begins - males declare their claim to territories with song and will fight other males. Song sparrows and other species such as robins and mockingbirds will mistake their reflections in mirrors or windows as rivals and beat themselves against the glass, unfortunately defecating in the process.
If car side view mirrors are not covered the sparrows will coat them with feces. Redwings constantly sing their "congaree" song and expose their wonderful red epaulets to express maleness. This classical expression of male vigor would not work if the red feathers were painted black, the males would be unable to keep territory or gain mates.
So despite the cold nights and the mainly drab surroundings in the Blue Ridge mountains in early March, the hills are alive with the sounds of singing frogs and birds and plants are beginning to come back to life after a long dormant period. It is a fascinating period of environmental rejuvenation that lifts the human spirit.
William Dunson, Ph.d., professor emeritus of biology at Penn State University, splits time between Southwest Florida and his farm in Galax, Va. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.