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Take the time to stop and smell the wildflowers

Spring is my favorite time of year. The annual cycle of the four seasons treats us to a perpetual series of remarkable and wonderous transitions celebrating all aspects of the natural world.

None of those seasonal changes is more interesting or uplifting than springtime. Watching the lifeless gray and brown landscape gripped by the aftermath of winter steadily transform into a lovely green and growing environment, reborn with boundless new life and beauty, delivers the ultimate inspiration for body and soul. And that kind of real inspiration couldn’t happen at a better time.

Like most of us, my life has been completely disrupted for weeks by our government’s reaction to COVID-19. We can only hope and pray that the measures taken have really mitigated the spread of this virus. In spite of any good intentions, I’m still having a tough to time dealing with the restrictions.

Thankfully, my love and appreciation for the outdoors has been my best mechanism for coping with it all. Getting outside to tramp about the forest, fields and streams in glorious solitude is always a welcome relief from the pressures of everyday life. During times of strife, the woods, waters and the natural world have always meant much more than that. Being outside immersed in the natural world, and dare I say it, God’s creation, has steered me through many tough times.

One of those tough times was awhile ago. I’ll spare the details other than to say it was a difficult point in my life. I survived that turmoil by going afield almost every day that spring with my camera looking for subjects. Spring wildflowers quickly became my focus.

Wildflower photography was already a favorite niche back then because I was fascinated with macro-photography, a fancy term some use for close-up photography. Wildflowers offered an endless array of subjects for the macro photographer. That passion soon produced a personal collection of several thousand images of hundreds of species of wildflowers.

At first, I didn’t even know the names of most of the flowers I was shooting, much less anything about them. I acquired several wildflower field guides to help me identify my finds and to discover other special wildflowers. I also learned that many of our common wildflowers are not native but were introduced here by early European settlers or subsequently escaped from cultivation. Many species of wildflowers and other wild plants have been used for medicine, food, dyes or some other purpose.

“Wildflowers in the Field and Forest” by Steven Clements and Carol Gracie is one of the most useful and comprehensive of all the wildflower field guides I own. The book contains more than 1,400 color photos of individual species, along with range maps for each one.

It is a bit pricey (about $52) compared to most other field guides. In the popular Peterson Field Guides series, “Wildflowers of Northeastern and North Central North America” contains more than 1,300 detailed drawings, although many are in black and white.

The National Audubon Society’s “Field Guide to North American Wildflowers” features large color photos of more than 600 species of wildflowers along with pictures of certain berries and fruits to aid in identification. “Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide” is profusely illustrated and offers a special identification system for use in the field.

Some of our most interesting and beautiful spring wildflowers are blooming right now or will be in the next couple of weeks. Dutchman’s breeches, Virginia bluebells, fringed polygala and yellow trout lily are just a few of those. Violets will soon be everywhere, most of them the typical deep blue or purple varieties along with a few yellow and white ones here and there. Patches of wild phlox will spring up in early May, painting many creek bottoms with beautiful swaths of pale blue.

Birdwatching opportunities are also abundant now, either as a standalone activity or in conjunction with a wildflower walk. Most of our resident species of birds are busy building nests and preparing to raise their young. Most male birds will spend much time singing to establish their territory or attract mates. Those vocalizations make it easier to locate them with the help of a good pair of 8- or 10-power binoculars.

Many species of warblers will soon be arriving in our area. Warblers are sparrow-sized birds that migrate north each spring. The first of them usually reach Pennsylvania in late April, and their migrations continue through the month of May, with the peak of the invasion around the middle of the month. Some species will nest here while others are only passing through Pennsylvania on their way north to their breeding grounds in Canada.

Because these transient species are around for such a short time each spring, avid birders will be out scanning the treetops for a glimpse of these tiny birds. I first became interested in warbler watching years ago during the spring turkey season. On those mornings when the gobblers weren’t talking, I turned my attention to the symphony of birdcalls coming from the trees above me.

Most warblers tend to stay high in the trees. The males of many species of warblers are brightly colored, usually bright yellow, but other species are less conspicuous. Some species of warblers are similar in appearance and positively identifying them presents a challenge even for an expert birder. A good bird book will be a big help in answering “what bird is that?”

With so many wonderful sights and sounds in nature that occur only this time of year, getting out to enjoy them whenever or wherever practical can be one of the best ways to endure these troubling times. I know it is for me.

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