This was a long, brutal winter, wasn’t it? Record snow and record low temperatures, and everyone got sick at some point (I got Whooping Cough, for heaven’s sake! Who gets that???). Winter seemed endless, but it’s finally spring, and for me, April is the ultimate cure for the doldrums. And as always, my favorite place to go to commune with nature and witness its reawakening is the Dismal Swamp.

Mid-April is when most of the migrant birds start arriving here from more southern regions. Some butterflies and dragonflies have actually been active on warm days since early March, but of course as the weather warms up, there are many more emerging every day. If you are interested in observing and learning about the living creatures in the Dismal Swamp, right now is the time to go, when natural activity is building towards its peak and the weather has not yet become oppressive, as it does by summertime.

On May 12, 13 and 14, the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge will host its 2011 Birding Festival. If you visit them online at http://www.fws.gov/northeast/greatdismalswamp you will find the link to their schedule of events. They are also taking reservations now for guided walks, bus tours, and workshops that they will sponsor, so if you’re interested, be sure to register early, before everything fills up.

Personally, I like to visit The Swamp alone. I prefer the wilderness and solitude, and I love to take long slow walks down Washington Ditch, Jericho Ditch, and sometimes Railroad Ditch. I like to feel like I’m the only person out there, witnessing nature at its heart. It’s a very spiritual experience, and it always refreshes and rejuvenates me. Some of my friends worry “But aren’t there Black Bears out there?” Well, yes there are, and here’s a picture of the one I saw yesterday along Washington Ditch, not far from the parking area! Maybe I should worry more, but I was just excited to see it (at a reasonable distance). I think this is the third bear I’ve seen in The Swamp, but you’re really not very likely to run into one; they do want to avoid us more than we want to avoid them.

The little yellow bird in the photo at the start of this entry is one of the “signature” birds of the Dismal Swamp, a Prothonotary Warbler. This is a bright little bird of the warbler family that breeds in southeastern swamps, and nests in cavities rather than building its nest in branches like most other birds of its kind. Prothonotaries just returned to The Swamp this week from their winter quarters, and as I took my walk yesterday I was surrounded by dozens of them singing their songs and beginning to squabble with each other over breeding territories. Pure joy! For those of you who know your warblers, I also heard or saw Swainson’s, Yellow-throated, Prairie, Hooded and Yellow-rumped Warblers, Ovenbirds, American Redstarts, Louisiana Waterthrush and Common Yellowthroats.

The bird song usually starts to diminish a bit around 10:00, but that’s when it starts warming up and the butterflies and dragonflies get more active. It’s still early spring so many species aren’t out yet, but I was excited by the numbers and variety of insects that I saw. Here are some of my favorites:

This little butterfly (above) is called a Pearl Crescent. This species is common now at The Swamp, and you could see one just about anywhere, all summer long.

Not to be confused with the ubiquitous Cabbage White butterfly that you see everywhere, this one is a Falcate Orange-tip. They are early spring butterflies that will disappear sometime in May. You will probably not see one in your yard, but if you visit The Swamp now you’re sure to see several. Males have the orange tips on the wings; females do not.

This beauty is not a butterfly; it is an Eight-spotted Forester Moth. They’re hard to miss if they cross your path. These too are only active in the early spring.

“Elfins” are one of my favorites. Members of the “Hairstreak” family of butterflies, they are about the size of a dime, but for such a small creature they have such complex patterns in their wings! Above is a Henry’s Elfin, which is common-to-uncommon in The Swamp in early spring; below is its less common cousin the Eastern Pine Elfin, also an early spring species. This is actually the one and only Pine Elfin that I’ve ever seen in The Swamp, because they are usually high up in the pine trees and tough to spot.

Below is a Lace-winged Roadside Skipper (an awfully long name for a little guy the size of a nickel). Again, look at the intricacies of its wing pattern; just gorgeous! These will be found in swampy areas all summer long.

And last, I couldn’t pass up sharing a couple of dragonfly photos. Again, it’s too early in the season to find most species out flying, but these two are early emergers in The Swamp. The first is a Common Baskettail, which are usually the first species I see in the spring. The second is a Spring Cruiser, and this was the first time I have seen one. (Also present now are Harlequin Darners, which will fill the skies at The Swamp in the next few weeks on warm days).

Later this week I will be taking a short trip to southern Florida, not because I’m particularly fond of Florida but because there are bird, butterfly and dragonfly species there that do not occur this far north. I can’t wait to see some new “life” critters and maybe share some photos from there next time. Enjoy the spring, everyone!

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