Nature Watch: The Crowded Month
About the author: Steve Ellis is a naturalist and Land Trust member who enjoys sharing his love of the natural world. His blog series, “Nature Watch,” will appear each month in “Habitchat,” chronicling native plants and wildlife you can expect to see during that particular time of year. We thank Steve for sharing his passion, illustrating the importance of island conservation.
May is the crowded month. Nature’s “green machine” shifts into high gear and roars into early summer.
Conifers are putting out fresh needles and all deciduous trees will be leafed out by mid-month. Bigleaf maple and Garry oak are the last to leaf.
More species of native wildflowers and shrubs bloom in May than in any other month. A visit to a forest and its surroundings could yield 15 to 20 species open for pollinators. Another 10 can be seen in prairie and meadow habitats. Salmonberries ripen in May, providing food for multitudes of robins.
The poet Walt Whitman deemed May to be “bumblebee month.” All local bumblebee queens will be out starting new colonies. Many other pollinators emerge, too. Leafcutter bees, miner bees, bee flies and more descend on the flowers of Pacific rhododendron, wild strawberry, and two dozen more varieties in bloom.
Lengthening daylight spurs the hatching of insects in uncountable numbers. They are a boon for the songbirds that rely on this buzzy food supply. Nearly every bird species on Whidbey and Camano Islands is either nest-building, laying eggs or feeding nestlings.
The first Pacific chorus frogs of the year are hatching into tadpoles, even as the breeding season continues for these tiniest of local amphibians. Young northwestern salamanders are also hatching; it will take them a full year to reach adulthood.
Mammals are busy as well as the days lengthen. Coyote pups are leaving the protection of their dens, and Douglas squirrel and Townsend’s chipmunk young are born. Crisp-looking fawns arrive and follow their mothers through sun-dappled forest openings.
And that’s just on land!
Many fish and marine invertebrates, having spent the colder months in deep water are moving into the shallows. Moon snails, gumboot chitons and others migrate “upslope” from the depths.
Several fish species spawn in May. Plain midshipman, quillback rockfish, tidepool sculpin and striped seaperch are in egg-laying mode.
This is just a sample of what occurs during the crowded month. There are never enough days in May for the naturalist.
Flora: Trailing Blackberry (Rubus ursinus)
Our native trailing blackberry is a ground-hugging shrub that can grow to a length of 20 feet. The stems bear slender stickers and support one- to three-inch-long leaves, each composed of three leaflets.
Blooming starts in April and is generally finished in July. May is the peak blooming period. The blossoms are white, with slender petals. Male and female blossoms grow on different plants, with the male flowers having longer petals than their counterparts.
Small fruits up to three fourths of an inch in length will follow. As they ripen, the color changes from green to red to black or deep purple. Many are ripe by late June, but others are not ready for harvest until August.
Trailing blackberry is browsed by deer and serves as a host plant for numerous butterflies including western tiger swallowtail, mourning cloak and echo blue. Robins and Swainson’s thrush eat the fruit.
Look for trailing blackberry in open forests, vacant lots and along road right-of-ways. Anyone interested in hosting pollinating insects should consider growing these vine-like shrubs, but beware that for a native plant, they can be aggressive and quickly colonize open, disturbed areas.
Fauna: Echo Blue (Celastrina echo)
Resembling animated chips of blue sky, echo blues are the most numerous of our spring and early summer butterflies.
Echo blues, formerly known as spring azures, are about an inch and a quarter across. Males are bright blue on the top side of the wings, while females are more indigo and usually have a black border. The wing undersides on all are white and may have a grayish wash. A few dark specks and lines break up the underwing coloration.
Adults begin flying in late April and are done by mid-July. They nectar from bitter cherry, trailing blackberry, red elderberry, and other flowering plants. They also seek minerals from ash piles and dung. You may see several congregating on the droppings from a large bird.
Females lay their eggs on oceanspray, red elderberry, madrone, trailing blackberry and red osier dogwood. After hatching, the young go through four caterpillar stages, known as instars. The last instar moves from the host plant and finds a hidden place in which to overwinter as a pupa, an intermediate stage between instar and adult.
Search for echo blues along roadways, near thickets and hedgerows, and in forest openings. They can be attracted to your yard by planting one or more of the host and nectar plants.