Red maple: the burn begins, warblers drawn to the heat

winter_no_AprilGentle, domesticated plants are singing springtime songs, lifting gardens with flowers and newly emerged leaves, but the forest is wintry, especially in the uplands. Mountain slopes may glow with ephemeral wildflowers and buckeye saplings, but the rolling tabletop of the Cumberland Plateau seems little changed from January.

Red maple trees are the exception. Oaks and hickories have their buds clamped shut, but red maple blooms are out. From a distance these trees seem to stand in a shroud of carmine smoke. Each tiny bloom is  wine-red, standing like a small flame at the tip of a long, twiggy taper. Many of these flames have already matured and fallen, so my feet to move, for a few moments, through a dust of fallen embers as I pass below the trees.

Not to belabor a point, but these trees have rather variable sexual systems. Red maple flowers are usually either male or female, although a few blooms are both. Individual trees carry all male, all female, or mixed collections of flowers. On mixed trees, single branches will usually grow just male or female flowers. Richard Primack studied a small population of these trees and has written an interesting discussion of how the red maple breeding system fits within the diversity found within the whole Acer genus.

Click on images for captions and a slideshow.

The flowers scattered across our trails are almost all males. Once they have shed their air-borne pollen, their work is over and they become food for worms. (Brave Percy undoubtedly walked among them during his sojourn in Sewanee; the photos above are from a trail close to his haunt at Brinkwood.) The female flowers intercept floating pollen and will, over the coming months, grow the maple’s distinctive samaras or “helicopter fruits.”

Along with these emerging flowers come insects, scraping and sucking and chewing the newly emerged vegetation. And along with the insects: birds. Black-throated green warblers, just back from Central America, are congregating in the maples. I counted three of the warblers in one tree; all were steadily working from one flower to the next, pausing to hurl a short song to the forest, then getting back to work, beak to bloom.

13 thoughts on “Red maple: the burn begins, warblers drawn to the heat

  1. Erin

    I can’t believe it’s finally maple time. Ours are just about ready to bloom, by this weekend I expect. Thank goodness. It’s time.

  2. batesvillian

    Thanks for the red maple update. Has the cool spring delayed the Shakerag display a bit? We’re headed down to Sewanee next weekend for our annual Trails & Trilliums visit. For the past few years, the wildflowers have been pretty far advanced by now. The big news in Batesville is more avian-related — we may (MAY!) have our first nesting female wood duck in the nesting box on our little pond. We’ve seen her emerge from the entrance and the male’s been hanging out underneath. Also, a great blue heron in full breeding plumage has been stalking the shallows for the past few days. Quite the sight.

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      William, Yes, things are delayed here. Spring is on “slow burn” so the flowers are lingering longer than usual. Heavy rain is beating them up, though. But there should still be lots of good wildflowers out for the Trails and Trilliums weekend.

      Congratulations on the wood duck — very exciting! Fingers crossed that she stays and that the nesting goes well.

  3. taylorgardens

    I enjoyed your description of all the elements, from flowers and flower eaters to insectivores. Nice whole-system picture! It adds movement and dimensions beyond the flower display.

  4. Peter Thoem

    I find it interesting that in some respects your spring as measured by unfolding leaves and emerging flowers seems to be almost neck and neck with ours on the North shore of Lake Ontario (at 43 deg North). I assume it’s the altitude of the Cumberland Plateau that’s holding you back. Yet, almost paradoxically, you’re seeing Black-throated Green Warblers already, they don’t usually show up around here until very late April or early May.

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Peter, This is indeed strange. All our trees are behind where they usually are in bud break and the birds are also a couple of weeks behind their usual schedule. It’s possible that timing is getting compressed in usual ways. Quite a contrast to last year when everything was so early.

  5. Anonymous

    Surely we’ve seen the last of the cold. The photos are beautiful. All the Percy clan must be smiling.
    Thanks, Kay

  6. Pingback: Auntie Beak’s Place » Arcadia WMA, Breakheart Brook Hike

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