Spring brings out special displays in forests

It’s baseball season, which means it’s spring, and it’s raining.

But the sun is peeking out now and then, and flowers are starting to poke their heads out and bloom. Along with them, U.S. Forest Service botanist Alice Smith and biologist Tiffany Young are tentatively sticking their heads out of their offices into the forest to see what’s going on and anticipating getting into the field full time for the summer.

“I went out into the woods to see what’s blooming,” Smith said. “It may be cold and miserable, but it’s worth it.”

“Everything’s starting to wake up,” Young said.

“Things go basically dormant from November till May,” Smith said, although the lichen and moss are active and reproducing during that same period. They’ll start drying up and going dormant as the spring dries.

“I suggest people go out into the woods now,” Smith said. There are still some winter settings, with snow levels at 1,500 and up.

Flowering now is Oregon fetid adder’s tongue, also called slink lily, Smith said. “This is putting on a great show along the trail to the falls in Cascadia State Park, especially at the trail entrance.”

Snow queens are generally the first flower of the year, blooming as early as February, she said. Other flowers in bloom are the fairy slipper orchid, evergreen violet, slender toothwort, western trillium and salmonberry. The sweet coltsfoot is putting up spikes of white flowers prior to its leaves emerging.

The osoberry or Indian plum displays racemes of white flowers that smell of cat urine, Smith said. “Don’t be tempted to put them in a bouquet.”

The Oregon hazel has separate male and female flower catkins that look like 2- to 3-inch pieces of rope and shed pollen. The female flowers are miniscule, but have a beautiful magenta color and are found directly attached to the twigs.

Buds are breaking on big leaf maple, with racemes of yellow flowers, and cottonwoods are releasing a balmy scent as their buds are breaking.

Up, but not blooming yet, are the Pacific waterleaf, pacific bleeding heart and the wood sorrel.

“This is a great time to appreciate our lovely lichens,” Smith said. “Snow and winter storms knock them out of the tree canopies, so the ground is strewn with an assortment of lichens of various shapes and colors. Once on the ground, they don’t last long. Deer, elk and slugs feast on these high-nitrogen treats.

“Mosses are at their peak this time of year. Mosses have been actively growing through the fall and winter months and are now sending up their capsules. Capsules contain spores that allow mosses to reproduce.

“Mosses and lichens exhibit a trait called poikilohydry. This allows them to simply dry up and go dormant when there isn’t sufficient water, such as during our dry summers. When they are dry and crusty, they aren’t dead. They are just resting. Once the rains resume, they quickly absorb moisture and start photosynthesizing immediately.”

The careful observer may also catch sight of forest wildlife coming to life as winter thaws.

“Spring is an excellent time to observe many types of wildlife in the Cascade forests,” Young said. “Many creatures are on the move just after the winter thaws and are looking for food and warmth.”

Chorus frogs, or Pacific tree frogs, can be heard as the spring warms ponds and wetland habitats, Young said. “These spring peepers are very vocal and can be heard most of the day, but especially in the evening.”

Rough-skinned newts can be seen crossing many forest roads, she said, “so please, watch out.” They are returning to their pond habitat to breed after resting in the forest to escape the cold.

Many birds are migrating north to summer breeding sites, Young said. “Watch the skies over the Willamette Valley for Canadian geese, snow geese and sandhill cranes. The flocks can be quite large, sometimes up to 50 individuals in a flock.”

Spring also brings birds to singing in warm weather, she said. Winter wrens, American robins, various thrushes and brown creepers can be heard in the early spring mornings.

Turkey vultures, osprey, rufous hummingbirds, tree swallows and many songbirds show up in the spring as well.

Mammals also are on the move, she said. They can be found in open habitat and along road corridors in search of food. Opossums, skunks and raccoons can be seen at night. Elk and deer are traveling heavily at dawn and dusk.

Western pond turtles and painted turtles are coming out of hibernation and looking for places to warm up, she said. “Keep an eye on ponds, with logs or other places for turtles to bask. Turtles love the sun and can be seen soaking up the warmth by day in many local and forest ponds.”

The best places to catch a glimpse of wildlife are open places, like parks, Young said. “In the forest, look for open meadows and ponds to discover a variety of wildlife species.

Remember to be patient and bring binoculars. Animals tend to be more observant than humans and can detect you first. A good field guide can also help you identify springtime wildlife species.”

This month, Young will be busy on slug and salamander surveys, but her activity in the field will depend on the snow, she said.

Smith is likely to be busy with moss and lichen surveys.

The two said their work is primarily to protect rare species as the forests are managed. Projects can include anything from logging to trail maintenance and creation.

“A big part of our job is monitoring effects on those species in our project areas,” Young said.