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A Field Guide to Nature in the Pandemic

Red-winged Blackbirds know nothing of the plague. Milbert’s Tortoiseshell butterflies practice no social distancing. The maples will bloom even as some of us will suffer. Springtime is predictable even as our lives are not. So to help you survive the viral, here is your field guide to the vernal.

From my home on a hillside in Montpelier, Vermont, I bring you regular updates on springtime’s big events — songbird flights, wildflower eruptions, amphibian sex, and various other adventures outdoors. If you are sheltering in place, here is your armchair nature. If you can get outside for spring, please do so responsibly; the lives of others depend on it.

If you live near or south of me, the most recent of these events listed below are still underway, often in your own backyard. To my north, well, consider these varied reports to be forecasts — prophesies of hope and life rather than disease and death.

After all, we do not flatten the curve of springtime; we become the curve.

And with the three new dispatches below, The Viral Spring now concludes for the season. I’ll resume blog posts soon.

Black-bellied Whistling Duck by Bryan Pfeiffer

Twisted Duck Sex

April and May

The screwy truth — and kinky experiment — about how female ducks have evolved a strategy for dealing with what amounts to sexual assault. It is a battle of the sexes over what matters most in the game of reproduction (at least among non-human animals): which sex controls fertilization. Female ducks have evolved a strategy. Warning: this post includes graphic duck content and videos.

Celastrina specimens

Getting the Blues

Late April into May

This final week of April is prime time for woodland wildflowers across much of New England and adjoining states and provinces (see the two posts below). But the forecast now calls for butterflies. In addition to the newly emerged Cabbage White (along with its rare cousin West Virginia White) already on the wing, we'll soon see flickers and flashes of blue: the "Azures." Watch for them along dirt roads, mostly through hardwood or mixed forests. And if you're so inclined, these tiny butterflies offer us a big lesson in biological diversity, misidentification and evolution. Nature is nothing if not complex; so let's rejoice in that. By way of an example, I present for you my white paper on our azures called Getting the Blues »

Grey Alder (Alnus incana)

An Early-April Rite of Spring: Go Flick an Alder

Among the first of our vernal flowers isn't a showy blossom, but rather dangling male catkins loaded with pollen and luscious crimson females ready to receive it. Now is time to find (and flick) a Grey Alder (Alnus incana), also known as Specked Alder. Although its leaves have not yet emerged, this plant is nonetheless busy, reproducing when the spring winds blow (or perhaps with an assist from you). We have it on video. Watch pollen fly in slow motion »

A Field Guide to March

Each month my friends and colleagues at the Vermont Center for Ecostudies publish a field guide to, well, each month. The March edition features insects in the sap buckets, turtles, skunks, birds and some of the season's first flowers (which I'll cover once April gets rolling). Read on »

Late February: Orange and Metal — Butterflies, Charisma and Coronavirus

Reporting from Texas, I bring you orangetip and metalmark butterflies, their charisma, coronavirus, and the human condition this coming spring. During a week messin' with Texas, I encountered 80 butterfly species.

Mid February into March: Migration Misfits

The first signs of spring are neither robins nor crocuses, not maple sap nor even spring training. Here in the north, the promise of spring is a naked, ruddy head drifting in on angled black wings. Turkey Vultures are among our very first northbound spring migrants. And they're a lesson in the varied ways birds survive the winter. Read all about it in my essay called Migration Misfits »