Changing seasons at the refuge


I was standing on the beach at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge this morning, waiting for the sun to rise. I had walked out along the coastal strand east of the lighthouse as far as I could go. The Gulf waters were reflecting both the blue of the morning sky and the colors of the developing sunrise. Clapper Rails were calling loudly from the salt marsh. I watched small groups of loons flying high overhead as they migrated north. Just as the sun rose, a trio of porpoises swam by a few feet offshore. The explosive exhale through their blowholes was loud in the still morning air.
This week marks the Vernal Equinox, the official start of spring. The natural year is a complex ever-evolving process and yet, in our Western culture, we cut the year into four equal seasons. Looking at the year this way loses much of each season’s texture and nuance.
The traditional Japanese calendar divided the year into twenty-four divisions with names like “Insects Awaken” and “Lesser Heat.” Each of these was further subdivided into micro seasons like “First reeds sprout” or “Hawks learn to fly.” We are currently in “Caterpillars turn into butterflies.”
Although the phenomena that they are named for may often be early or late, the idea of micro seasons bespeaks a close and subtle relationship with the natural world. I have decided that the current micro season at St. Marks is “Loons fly at dawn.”
Whether you wish to call it spring or something else, there is a lot going on at the refuge right now. Our summer residents are returning. Northern Parulas are singing at the Double Bridges and this week I have seen or heard my first Great Crested Flycatcher, Chuck-wills-widow, and Least Bittern.
Among the throngs of shorebirds on Stony Bayou 1 and Mounds Pool 1 (the first two pools on the left as you drive into the refuge) are an unusually large number of Pectoral Sandpipers. Some winter as far South as Tierra del Fuego. They are bound for their nesting grounds in the Arctic. Among the other migrants currently passing through are a large pulse of Blue-winged Teal that spent their winter in South America. The teal that wintered on the refuge are already gone.
Spring happenings are not just about birds. Tiger Swallowtails have come out. Their host plants on the refuge are the sweetbays that grow along Lighthouse Road. Both dwarf blueberry and yaupon are in bloom and covered with small white flowers attracting pollinating bees and beetles. Each of their flowers will develop into a fruit. The resultant blueberries will feed Brown Thrashers in late Spring. Yaupon’s abundant red fruits take longer to develop and will feed mockingbirds and catbirds through the winter.
Come down to St. Marks and work on naming your own micro seasons. With the peak of migration approaching, it will soon be “Warblers drip off trees.”
You really don’t want to miss that.

Don Morrow can be reached at