Nature Notes: Moving Month
May is one of the best months of the year, a time when we climb out of the recliner, shake off the winter cobwebs and shift into high gear. Mud season is behind us, summer beckons and spring is bursting out all over. An upbeat song by Katrina and The Waves captured the mood of May for me, the classic Walking on Sunshine – “I’m walking on sunshine, whoa, and don’t it feel good!”
On the PGA golf tour, they talk about Saturday as “moving day,” the last chance to position yourself for success on Sunday. In the natural world May is moving month, when wildlife species of all kinds take steps to ensure success in rebuilding lost reserves of fat and energy lost in the winter months and hopefully to enjoy reproductive success. While March and April find wildlife coming out of winter dens and starting migrations, May is when things really get cracking.
You have seen flocks of wild turkeys foraging in the open areas around town. They are looking for emerging insects, new vegetation and left-over nuts from last autumn. Pay close attention and you will see the males are more focused on making a good impression on the hens, spreading their wings and tail feathers while flashing bold red and white colors on their heads and necks. By May, some of the hens are already brooding their eggs so competition among the males for remaining hens can get intense. If you are an early riser, listen carefully soon after dawn to hear the booming calls of gobblers trying to woo a new love.
Be careful driving near wetlands or other low-lying areas to avoid killing amphibians and reptiles. This month finds creatures like snapping turtles crawling from winter hideouts to sandy areas so they can excavate holes for their eggs. Snakes are still moving about as they disperse from winter hibernacula. Frogs, toads and salamanders are particularly vulnerable on the roads on warm, wet spring evenings as they move about in search of mates.
Some of the movements in May are not impressive in terms of distance covered but the results can be stunning. After the crocus and hyacinth burst forth in April, May delivers a wealth of flowering plants and the myriad of creatures that feed upon their blossoms in a rush of pollination. Whether it is a bunch of daffodils along a south facing stone wall, the old cluster of lilacs around a barn, or the showy rhododendron just inside the forest, there is plenty of color to warm our hearts during this month. Suddenly you look up to find a whirring ruby-throated hummingbird waiting for you to hang your feeder in the spot she remembered feeding last year.
Large mammals may travel considerable distances in the spring to find the new forbs and grasses at higher elevations that give them a boost after the meager fare of winter. In Maine, moose relocate from low river bottoms to hilltops in hopes of avoiding insect pests and finding cooler summer temperatures. White-tailed deer leave the thick cedar and hemlock groves of winter deer yards and move to more open ground where they can find emerging vegetation.
Our waterways conceal some impressive movements, as the ice departs and the smelts and suckers move from lakes into the streams for spawning. Those eggs are an important source of nutrition for trout and salmon trying to recover from the bleak months of winter. Maine’s big rivers support sometimes massive runs of alewives and blueback herring, especially those waters where old dams have been removed to open access to historic spawning grounds. Striped bass are already moving up the coast from winter spawning grounds in the South, with the early arriving fish making sportsmen happy in mid to late May.
The rock stars of moving month are the birds who spent the winter in warm climates far to our south. Harper, the great blue heron captured in Harpswell in 2019 and still wearing her GPS transmitter, will soon be heading north from her cold weather haven in Cuba. Some of the local ospreys traveled well into South America so they have long journeys back to our coves. Soon our forests and brush lots will be bursting with migrating warblers, as they hustle about for caterpillars and flying insects before continuing their journeys to nesting habitats. The common loons, buffleheads, longtails and surf scoters that have been visible in town during the last few months are dispersing, some of them flying to the boreal forests of northern Maine or Canada for breeding.
If winter seemed unending, bleak and cold, May will jolt your senses alive with sights, sounds and smells to fill your hours out of the house. Now is the time to reacquaint yourself with the natural world around you, and maybe to make some fancy moves of your own!