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Exploring Frogs, Flowers and Floodplains in May

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Heather's son watching turtles at Colchester's Delta Park, 2011 - COURTESY OF HEATHER FITZGERALD
  • Courtesy of Heather Fitzgerald
  • Heather's son watching turtles at Colchester's Delta Park, 2011

Spring has sprung, and most parents I know are ready to get outside and release the pent-up pandemic energy that's been building all winter.

In May — which is still mud season in Vermont — it's good to keep your outdoor expeditions at low altitudes to avoid eroding the land, ruining the trails and muddying the water. I like to spend the month doing things I won't be able to do in the summer: listening to the earliest frogs of the season, hunting for spring ephemeral wildflowers and experiencing floodplain forests before the mosquitoes are out in full force.

My favorite frogs are the ones who call earliest in the season. Wood frogs make a chuckling noise that I can't get enough of. Spring peepers are loud, and maybe a little obnoxious, but offer such a full-throated declaration of spring that I can't help but love them, too. One of my favorite places to find frogs in Chittenden County is Shelburne Pond. You can get a good dose of them without even leaving the parking area off Pond Road.

Any place with even a little bit of water will do, though. Just follow your ears. I like to simply sit and listen to the amphibians, but if you or your kids feel an urge to catch them, make sure your hands are free of lotion, sunscreen and sanitizer, and put them back where you found them. If you want to identify them by their calls, my favorite website is musicofnature.com.

Early May is also a great time to catch the spring ephemeral wildflower show. Flowers on the forest floor have only a brief window of time once the snow has melted and before the trees open their leaf buds and shade out the sun. These early perennials provide much-needed nectar and pollen to overwintering pollinators such as bumblebee queens. A fair number of their seeds are spread by ants — which is a very slow process — so I always ask the people I am with not to pick them.

Spring wildflowers have some great names, like bloodroot, Dutchman's breeches and trout lily. If you want to learn to identify them, I found a link to a wonderful participatory song by Heidi Wilson toward the bottom of the Vermont Master Naturalist Program's resource page (under "Signs of Spring") at vermontmasternaturalist.org/resouces. Alicia Daniel, executive director of the program, shares another kid-friendly strategy in her video set at South Burlington's Red Rocks Park on that same page (or find it on the Vermont Master Naturalist YouTube channel). Daniel likes to scout out a site in advance to see what wildflowers are there, then copy and paste drawings of them, from a resource like the Peterson Field Guide Coloring Books: Wildflowers, on to a piece of paper. Then kids can go on a scavenger hunt in search of different flowers.

Wildflowers of Vermont by Kate Carter is also a great resource. This pocket-size guidebook has lovely photos, and it lists the dates and locations the author found each flower to help readers figure out what to look for and when to look for it. The richest profusion of spring ephemerals will be in ledgy places with calcium-rich bedrock poking through. I like to go to Shelburne Pond, Red Rocks Park and Niquette Bay State Park in Colchester.

Snack break overlooking the Winooski River, 2012 - COURTESY OF HEATHER FITZGERALD
  • Courtesy of Heather Fitzgerald
  • Snack break overlooking the Winooski River, 2012

May is also a great time to visit floodplain forests — areas next to rivers that often flood for a few weeks in the spring. I love walking by the arching silver maples and thick cottonwoods next to a river and seeing what's going on with the water. When there's been a lot of rain or snowmelt, the high water is exciting — you never know what you're going to see! And the flowers and baby leaves on the branches are the fluorescent yellow-green color Crayola calls Spring Green. But my favorite thing about visiting a floodplain now is that the mosquitoes, who will be so fierce later in the summer, are not really out yet.

There are many places to check out floodplain forests in the Burlington area. Some of my favorites are Winooski Valley Park District properties: Derway Island in Burlington, Woodside Natural Area in Essex and Delta Park in Colchester. Burlington's Intervale and Winooski's Casavant Natural Area are great spots, too.

Heather Fitzgerald teaches field ecology and environmental science at the Community College of Vermont, University of Vermont and Saint Michael's College.

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