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Apr 26, 2017 2:14 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Signs Of Spring

One of our earliest wildflowers to blossom in spring is the small, ground-hugging, evergreen shrub called trailing arbutus. MIKE BOTTINI
Apr 26, 2017 3:08 PM

Warm weather and sunshine following a soaking rain helped nudge our native flora into action this past week, with even the oaks showing signs of swelling of both flower and leaf buds at the tips of their branches. The only tree I’ve noticed that continues to maintain its winter-dormant look is a species that is near the limit of its northern range here on Long Island, and is the first of our native trees to don its autumn colors in fall: tupelo.

Trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens), also known as mayflower and locally as wood pink, has been in flower since mid-April, making it one of our earliest native bloomers. It is an easily overlooked evergreen shrub whose woody stems hug the ground, with both leaves and flowers often partially hidden in the leaf litter of the forest floor. Perhaps its prostrate growth form, combined with its very slow-growing nature, makes it very susceptible to burial by leaf litter, and therefore most often found in small patches along the sloped edges of old trails and forest roads where wind and rain keep the ground relatively clear of leaves.

Its delicate, white and pinkish blossoms have a sweet fragrance that requires putting your nose to the ground to appreciate. The nectar of this early bloomer attracts and fuels one of our most cold hardy insects, the bumblebee, which in turn pollinates the flowers.

Each plant has either male or female flowers; both are similar-looking as the sex is determined by which parts fully mature: the stamens or pistils. Once pollinated, the latter develop into white, quarter-inch-round fruit that is dispersed by ants.

Bay and ocean water temperatures have climbed a bit this month. Some of our shallow bays reached 56 degrees and the ocean is in the mid-40s. These water temps keep the East End a good 10 degrees cooler than the mainland, even southern Vermont, at this time of year. It also keeps our spring on a timeline that is several weeks behind New York City and adjacent areas farther inland.

Their proximity to relatively cool water prevents our salt marshes and dunes from greening up in April, but there are many signs of spring among the fauna in both areas. All four osprey nesting platforms in Accabonac Harbor that can be seen from Louse Point Road, plus a nest in an oak on Wood Tick Island, are occupied and it appears that the birds are incubating eggs in each. Fiddler crabs have emerged from their winter dens, and a pair of common loons fishing near the inlet, plus several out in Gardiners Bay, have exchanged their drab winter plumage for their beautiful breeding garb.

Out on the ocean, Northern gannets and red-throated loons dove on schools of herring moving north while some larger fish that I was not able to identify—perhaps stripers moving towards their spawning areas—chased mature menhaden into the surf with a few of the oily and nutritious prey successfully avoiding their fish predators but ending up flopping around on the beach where they attracted the attention of the herring gulls.

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