Spring is a Time of Miracles

After a long winter, life is suddenly returning to the forests of the Pacific Northwest! For small forest landowners this is the time to visit your lands, remember habitat features, plan new activities, and continue protecting the valuable habitats on your woodlands.

Birds

Townsends warbler
Townsends warbler

Between March and May migratory songbirds arrive to take advantage of the explosion of insect life in our temperate forests. Many of these birds return yearly from the Neo-tropics (Central and South America) to breed and remain with us only for summer months. Others merely pass through on their way to breeding grounds farther north, using our forests and shores to refuel and rest. Listen carefully at dawn and you can hear their amazing chorus of song, as they declare breeding territories and try to attract mates.

Western pee wee. Photo: G. Thompson.
Western pee wee. Photo: G. Thompson.

Research suggests that some of our migratory birds (western tanagers, Townsend’s warblers, flycatchers) may key in on our deciduous trees either because of the insect populations, or because the trees are similar to the broad-leafed forests where they spend the winter. Interestingly, many of the neo-tropical migrants arrive as trees are leafing out. Conifers have more consistent habitat features, with needles present year-around, and provide habitats utilized more by year around residents such as chickadees and nuthatches.

Rich shrub layers and overlapping canopy trees can provide critical habitats for these nesting birds. Many like snags along the forest edge, particularly if there are meadows or water nearby. Watch for flycatchers “hawking” (catching on the wing) insects by darting up into the air and flying back to their favorite perches. There are at least 8 species of birds known as flycatchers that will grace your forest this spring and summer including the western wood pee wee and both the Hammond’s and dusky flycatchers. These birds nest in forked branches high up in trees, and actively feed throughout the day. Try telling them apart by their behavior and calls. Appreciate the journey they just made from central Mexico or Arizona back to your property!

Mammals

Yellow bellied marmot. Photo: K. Bevis.
Yellow bellied marmot. Photo: K. Bevis.

In the spring, hibernating mammals such as marmots and ground squirrels suddenly appear. These animals will usually breed immediately after leaving hibernation, producing young within a month or so. They actively feed throughout the spring and summer and return to hibernation in the fall. Black bears also reemerge from their winter rest in the spring and begin avidly foraging for food. Deer in snow country remain on their winter range where food can be thin and scarce, surviving on their fat reserves. As nutritious new growth appears, they regain their strength and move back to their summer range to have their fawns. 

Amphibians

Rough-skinned newt.
Rough-skinned newt.

Frogs, toads and salamanders become active in the spring as well, breeding as ponds and wetlands lose their ice cover and the edges warm. Depending on where you are, the woods can be alive with their breeding migrations and choruses from late-February to June. Spend an evening listening to their singing or an afternoon watching rough-skinned newts wandering the woods. 

Fungus

Lobster mushroom.
Lobster mushroom.

Moist soils and rotting wood produce amazing springtime explosions of mushrooms all over Washington. Mushrooms are the fruiting body of fungi, with the mycelium or “root mass” buried below ground. The mycelium unobtrusively break down organic material on the forest floor, helping to ensure the health of the forest and its residents. When conditions are right, the mushrooms themselves appear, often literally overnight, in crazy and varied shapes, sizes and colors. Mushrooms are also abundant in the fall. If you plan on picking mushrooms, be careful and take along an experienced mushroomer or a good field guide! Although some mushrooms are a tasty treat for humans and wildlife alike, others can make you sick or even kill you.

Plants

Calypso orchid. Photo: K. Bevis.
Calypso orchid. Photo: K. Bevis.

As the earth warms, new growth appears first on the forest floor and in the understory, then on the tall trees above. Flowering plants like the calypso orchid are specialists on the forest floor, living on moist decaying wood in older forests and are a wonderful surprise to see. Calypso, or fairy slipper, orchids are fragile and seldom survive picking or transplanting due to their fragile root systems and associations with particular soil fungi.

Want to know more? Contact DNR’s Small Forest Landowner Office and/or your local forester for more information about the life of your woods or to schedule a site visit to help you better manage your woodland.

By Ken Bevis, DNR Landowner Assistance Fish and Wildlife Biologist

Additional Resources:

Moskowitz, D. 2010. Wildlife of the Pacific Northwest: Tracking and Identifying Mammals, Birds, Reptiles, Amphibians and Invertebrates. Timber Press.

Ruggiero, L. F., et al. Wildlife and vegetation of unmanaged Douglas-fir forests. Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR-285. Portland, OR: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station

Burke Museum: Washington State Field Guides 

Field Guide to North American Mushrooms

Field Guide to Edible Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest