A hymn to a few of my favorite (spring) things
Story and Photographs by Virginia Holman
When we moved to the Cape Fear region nearly 15 years ago, I complained each spring and fall that I “missed the seasons.” Don’t misunderstand; I adored our nearly snow-free winters and the maverick 75-degree week in February. (Truly, what better way to torment friends in cooler climes than by sharing a photo of your pedicured toes in the sand just after they’ve sent a photo of their beautifully snow-shoveled walkway?) And who could fail to be dazzled by our azaleas in bloom? Despite such gleeful pleasures, the coastal seasons seemed a bit vague to me. In my former home in the North Carolina Piedmont, we had trees that blazed with color in the fall and then lost their leaves. The gold yellow ginkgo tree in the Sarah P. Duke Gardens was my personal favorite. I loved how the fan-shaped leaves shimmered with light and then, as if following the baton of an unseen conductor, shed all their leaves in a single day, spangling the ground in a stunning, perfect finale. Piedmont winters offered stark bare branches that seemed to scratch the snow-heavy clouds. Spring buds fuzzed and berried and leafed and bloomed, and in summer, we had that glorious natural commodity too rare along the blazing, skillet-hot roads and sidewalks of Wilmington — a wide, welcome expanse of dappled shade.
At first, I was only paying attention to the temperature and the plants. Yet the wind is often one of the initial shifts toward spring on the coast. Even if you live in a neighborhood scraped clean of trees and native plants, you can’t help but notice spring in the wind. In the wintertime, wind often funnels in from the North, and the north wind over cold water always makes a body feel raw. In the spring and summer, we get more consistent southerly and southwesterly winds. That moist warmth, and longer days full of sunlight, seem to wake everything. As early as February, we see vivid redbuds, cottony flowering Bartlett pears and daffodils. Yet, it’s wise to beware spring garden fever — the early pulses of warmth are mere flirtations. Old-timers who’ve gardened Wilmington for years know it’s often unwise to plant vegetables and flowers before April 1. A good rule of thumb is to wait until the fig trees begin to bud, reason enough to plant a brown turkey fig in your yard.
It takes the eye a while to grow attuned to its surroundings, and it wasn’t until our fifth year here that I began paying attention to the creatures that arrived with spring. I first noticed obvious arrivals like alligators and hummingbirds, but as I paid attention, I began to observe other creatures as well.
Our turtles begin to stir. Box turtles lumber through the leaf litter on treed lots and protected lands, sometimes venturing across the warm asphalt roads. Snapping turtles do the same, lumbering from swampy areas like retention ponds and natural wetlands to find a place to lay their eggs. Take care when helping turtles across the road, and never pick them up by their appendages. A box turtle may be picked up by hand. They are often quite shy, but don’t be alarmed (and don’t drop the turtle!) if it gives a grumpy, tiny hiss. Most will hide in their shells when approached. Snapping turtles are bigger — some can weigh in around 50 pounds — and are easily identified by their more fearsome, prehistoric appearance. If you come across a turtle long tail, treat it as if it’s a snapper. When relocating a snapping turtle from the road, it’s often best to scoot it along gently with a long branch and keep your hands away. The bite of a snapping turtle is something to fear, and you may be surprised by how fast they can move. Always place any turtle across the roadway in the direction it was heading, and never leave one on its back, as it is often difficult for these creatures to easily right themselves. In retention ponds, swamps and slow-moving rivers, you’ll see yellow-bellied sliders lined up on logs like toppled dominoes, one on top of the other, to bask in the sun. If you’re attentive and lucky, you might spy an endangered spotted turtle near freshwater swamps or a shy mud turtle near the lily pond at Carolina Beach State Park.
Sunny days also bring out the delightful Carolina anole, a sleek little lizard that is most visible when it is apple green. Anoles are most often seen skittering across front porches, grasses and in trees, anywhere they might find tasty insects. The females are easily identified by their long white dorsal stripe and males by their vibrant pink dewlaps, or “throat fans,” which they extend in a display to attract females or defend their territory. If you’re not a fan of spiders and other insects, a bit of greenery for anoles will help keep your bug population in check. Broad-headed skinks are also out and about in more wooded areas. These long, thick lizards are identifiable by their length (some can grow as long as a foot, though they are more commonly seen between 6 and 10 inches), and the males have a coppery orange head. They tend to dwell higher in the tree canopy than Carolina anoles. Their young are striped with blue tails and can often be seen around logs. They are easily mistaken for five-lined skinks.
In the riparian forests of the lower Cape Fear River, spring migrants arrive in black and white but end in a blaze of color. The delightful black-and-white warbler tends to arrive just a tick before warm weather begins. These cheerful, boldly striped birds move quickly through the trees, foraging for insects. They are most easily spotted along “edges” where woods meet water or a clear patch of land. Once spring arrives, so do the cheerful, vibrant painted buntings. These little birds, the males painted in primary reds, blues and yellows, look like songbirds conjured by Paul Gauguin. You’ll see males at the tops of trees along the edges of the riparian forest, singing a rotation of cheerful songs to attract a mate, a dainty yellow-green female. Otherwise, the birds can be a bit secretive, foraging in shrubs and low trees. If you live along a forested area near the river, you may be able to attract painted buntings by keeping a feeder filled with white millet seed. Carolina Beach State Park has a painted bunting feeder station near the marina, a reliable place to view what birders call this unrivaled or “nonpareil” species.
The return of our majestic ospreys, also known as seahawks, is perhaps my favorite reliable sign of spring. These raptors are easily visible throughout the region. Pairs mate for life. They build an enormous nest, usually in bare or dead trees. Ospreys return to the same nest each year, a distinctive platform of large weathered sticks, which they repair and expand with each nesting season. Ospreys can often be seen hunting along the riverfront, in saltwater marshes and around Greenfield Lake. For such large birds — their wingspan can reach 72 inches — you might think they’d have a screech like a hawk or an owl. Instead, their cry is a high-pitched chirp or whistle. Ospreys regularly nest in the river near Keg Island and throughout the paddle trail through Eagles Island, which is named not for another splendid raptor, but for the Eagles brothers, 18th-century settlers.
Spring also brings many nesting egrets, pelicans and ibis to the long chain of dredge-spoil islands that dot the center of the lower Cape Fear. These islands are protected areas where humans are not permitted to venture. Even so, you can observe the birds by booking a ticket on the Cape Fear Garden Club’s Bird Islands cruise or simply look out over the river at sunset and watch as wave after wave of birds return to their island nests against the lavender evening sky.
To book the Cape Fear Garden Club’s Bird Islands cruise, go to www.capefeargardenclub.org/bird-islands-cruise/
Author Virginia Holman lives and writes in Carolina Beach.