Spring Jewel: The Eastern Redbud

Spring has officially arrived in central Virginia! Our native Eastern Redbud trees (Cercis Canadensis) have awakened from their winter slumber and are in full bloom. Redbuds reach their flowering peak when most shade trees are just beginning to leaf-out, so this time of year their brilliant sprays of pink jump out at you along the highways and back roads. The flowers almost glow against the lime green shade of new deciduous leaves and the dark green tones of neighboring evergreens.

Redbud trees peeking out from the woods

Redbud trees peeking out from the woods

The Eastern Redbud is native to the Blue Ridge and much of the Eastern U.S. Growing in moist, well-drained soils, frequently along woodland edges, they can reach 20 to 30 feet and six to 10 inches in diameter. In early spring, before the leaves form, bright pink to purple flowers, one-half inch long, appear in clusters along the twigs and small branches.

Eastern Redbud
A couple of weeks later, tiny leaves appear at the tips of the branches, signaling the end of the flower show. The dark green leaves are large and heart-shaped. Once the tree has leafed-out and the flowers have faded, large brown seed pods, two to four inches in length, will form. The seeds inside, which are brown and about a quarter of an inch long, will be mature before the end of summer and can be planted in the fall. Any seed with a hard outer coating like the redbud will need to be scarified (sanded or nicked) so water will reach the seed to cause germination.

Due to their manageable size, redbuds are a popular landscaping tree. As a member of the legume family, redbud roots are able to convert nitrogen from the air into a form plants can use, so this tree can grow in poor soil and can actually improve the soil in which it grows.

I was amazed when I looked at the date of the first picture in this post. It was taken on March 24, 2012, a full three weeks earlier than the second picture taken on April 15, 2013! I knew winter was slow to arrive in Virginia – this confirms just how slow.

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What Spring Hath Wrought

After an amazingly long winter, spring has finally arrived in central Virginia, with temps soaring into the 80s. My daughter was down from Maryland with my grandson and the first thing we did was go for a walk around the farm. I hadn’t been out for a couple of days and wanted to see what changes the welcome warmer weather had brought.

One of my favorite trees is Eastern Redbud, a native perennial, and I was happy to see this young one by the road blooming. The buds for which the tree gets it name are a deep pink. The lighter pink blooms appear in early spring before other trees have leafed out, allowing them to steal the show. After flowering, reddish-purple, pea-shaped seedpods form. The seedpods will provide food for doves, grouse, wild turkey, quail, and other birds.

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The banks along the gravel road we live on are covered with another early bloomer, blood root. Sometimes called bloodwort, the flower gets its name from its root sap that bears a remarkable resemblance to blood. Bloodroot prefers to grow in shady, wooded areas where there is little activity.

bloodroot

An Eastern phoebe kept turning up during our walk. This phoebe and his mate have already built their nest, a cup of mud and moss, in the rafters of our front porch. A pair successfully fledged offspring in the rafters last year, so I suspect it’s the same pair. I can’t tell if this is the male or the female because both of the sexes look alike.

Eastern Phoebe

Last fall, we planted a willow tree in a wet area in the front meadow. We had an extremely wet fall and winter, and even though willows love it wet, we feared the tree might not make it. After checking it every day for weeks looking for signs of life, it had sprouted leaves literally overnight.

Willow tree

Walking home, we spotted an area filled with tiny, delicate blue flowers. I haven’t seen this particular wildflower before and I’m hoping someone can identify it.

Little blue flower

I hope it’s not going to be one of those years where we go from winter right into hot weather. I love the transitions into the seasons. Typically, this time of year, the evenings are cool and I like to sit outside and listen to the Spring Peepers calling out from the wetland. To me, hearing them sing their froggy mating song is the sound of spring.

When the groundhog casts his shadow
And the small birds sing
And the pussy willows happen
And the sun shines warm
And when the peepers peep
Then it is Spring
~ Margaret Wise Brown

Kingfisher stopover at the pond

We only have one kingfisher here in western Virginia, the Belted Kingfisher. They are year-round residents in the Commonwealth as long as the waterways stay open in winter and they can find the small fish that make up the bulk of their diet. We’ve had a few kingfisher sightings, but one a couple of years ago was quite memorable.

My husband and I were driving into town when we approached an intersection where we saw a Belted Kingfisher sitting on a utility wire. We pulled over to watch, hoping to see him dive for a fish, and that’s when all hell broke loose. Kingfishers have their own very strict fishing “regulations,” and evidently, we had interrupted his fishing expedition. He began indignantly patrolling back and forth overhead, scolding us with a non-stop barrage of harsh rattle-calls that kept up until we left. Because of that incident, we dubbed the intersection “Kingfisher Corner.”

After that encounter, we didn’t see another kingfisher until I saw this female in the willow tree at our neighbor’s pond a few days ago.

Belted Kingisher2

The male has a blue band across the chest; the female has an additional rufous band.

Belted Kingfisher

Note the small white spot by each eye at the base of the bill.

When I first spotted her, I quickly took a couple of pictures, thinking I might not get another shot with this flighty bird. Sure enough, no sooner had I snapped the pictures when off she flew. She made a large circle, flying over the top of the woods behind me, then came back around to my right, landing in a tall tree about 50 yards away. I kept trying to get closer, but, true to form, she flew every time I got anywhere near close. Typical of other encounters, she kept up the mechanical rattle-call to let me know I was not welcome in her fishing territory.

Kingfishers are one of the wariest birds on the planet. In his Waterbirds of the Northeast, Winston Williams sums up the wariness of the kingfishers: “If eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, the kingfisher will remain ever free.” A bird more leery of humans would be hard to find; their penchant for secrecy and distrust of people rivals that of any bird.

These raggedy-crested birds are in a class all their own. They dig a burrow into earthen banks to raise their young, more like a badger or muskrat than a bird, and they defend their nest as vigorously as any bird I know. It’s fascinating to watch them dive underwater to spear a fish. Darting from a perch, the fisherbird hovers over the water for a split second to pin-point his quarry then dives headlong into the water. A special third eyelid closes to protect the bird’s eyes while underwater.

Because they require clean water for their diet of fish, kingfishers are an indicator species of water quality. The fact that they are living and breeding in our area means that our creeks are clean and uncontaminated.

If the female I saw was laying “claim” to the fish, crayfish, and salamanders in our neighbor’s pond, she’ll be back. And I’ll be watching…from a distance.