By SARAH HATFIELD
Special to the OBSERVER
I just spent a week in Alabama. Why there? Well, a lot of different reasons, which are boring, but I would like to tell you about the trip. This article in the paper is supposed to be about local things, events, or occurrences. The thing is, a lot of what we have in our natural world here, is found there, too. So it is local, even though it's not. Hmm, I'm not sure that made sense.
The winter storm in Alabama.
A young fence lizard in hand.
Moving on. I flew into Alabama, in the Central time zone, and it was mild, probably 50. Of course, the friend picking me up from the airport said it was in the thirties (those southerners) and the friend I met at the airport thought forties. It was a great "I told you so" moment in the car when the temperature read 48 degrees.
The next morning was a different story. The ground was blanketed with snow, and huge "lake-effect" snowflakes were falling. Throughout the day, the snow accumulated, up to four inches in some places! The people of Alabama had a ball, building snowmen, and I admit that we threw a few snowballs ourselves. After all, in a state that rarely sees that much snow, it was a novelty. By mid-afternoon the snow was gone, however, and spring regained its foothold.
The chorus frogs and peepers were singing, a joyful sound to my northern ears - full frog chorus in March! Tracking them down, however, would take days. We didn't see them until toward the end of the trip. The music was enough for the time being though. There were blooming trees and hibiscus, swollen buds on the understory plants, and the warblers were flitting about and chattering.
Familiar spring flowers were reaching for the sun in the botanical gardens - bloodroot, trout lily, hepatica, and spring beauties carpeted the hillsides. The squirrels were chasing one another, skylarking through the canopy. The honeybees were frantically going to and fro collecting the nectar to replenish their stores. Turtles of many kinds basked on the rocks in the garden pools and along logs in the various lakes and rivers.
One of the highlights was the lizards. We don't have those here, so it's a treat to see the anoles and fence lizards. Once caught, they will sit on hand, shirt, or leg for a photo shoot, then scurry away. A northern resident, the slimy salamander, was our lone salamander of the trip.
A great hike through a state park, filled with longleaf pines was a treat. These pines, with needles a foot long, look elegant and supple on the ridges they prefer. They are the home of the red-cockaded woodpecker, though we saw none. These woodpeckers are so closely dependent on the pines, that without the vast stands of longleaf pines of yesteryear, the woodpecker is in a precipitous position. I hoped to see one, but they were unwilling to show themselves to this stranger from the north. The Brown-headed Nuthatches were more obliging though, even excavating a nest hole while we watched.
The forest was well managed, having recently been burned, vital to the Longleaf Pine. It looked desolate, but knowing about the ecology of the habitat, it was sort of an eccentric beauty. They were doing an excellent job restoring the longleaf pine forest. Finding the pine cones, with seeds intact, was sort of spiritual. Holding that pine cone in hand is sort of like holding the future of the Red-cockaded Woodpecker in hand. Such potential for greatness and salvation comes in such a small package. It was a wonderful hike.
Combine the novel elements - longleaf pines, lizards, southern oaks, and mistletoe - with those from home and it is a way to greet the upcoming season, a little early. It is rejuvenating to see the sunshine and know that in a few short weeks it will creep its way up here, waking the sleeping Bloodroot in my garden and bringing the warblers on wing.
Spring will come, this I know. It was perfect to get a taste of it early, to remind me of that. Those natural elements that range into central Alabama greeted me like friends, and I smiled at their presence. I can't wait for the sunshine to warm them up so I can greet those at home with smiles as well.
Spring hours are at Audubon, even if spring isn't quite here yet. The nature center is open daily from 10 a.m., until 4:30 p.m. except Sundays when we open at 1 p.m. The trails and Liberty viewing are open dawn to dusk. For more information visit www.jamestownaudubon.org, or call 716-569-2345. Audubon is located on Riverside Road, off Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. Come and greet spring with us. The canada geese have already arrived to claim their nesting sights, so its arrival is imminent.
Sarah Hatfield is a naturalist at Audubon. She loves being a nature nerd, no matter where she is.