Itching for spring
It's coming, in all its glorious bounty. Here's what to watch for and where to go.
© Beth Gauper
Hikers walk through Wapsipinicon State Park near Anamosa, Iowa.
When the snow is gone, the fun begins.
Most of us would be happy to see something, anything, that’s green. But there’s no reason to wait for that before going outdoors.
This is the best time to hunt for agates on Great Lakes beaches, where winter storms have tossed up a new batch of rocks. If you wait until July, when most tourists arrive, they’ll be picked over.
Waterfalls are roaring away in north-woods forests, and there’s no tree canopy to obscure the views. It’s also easiest to spot bald eagles in their nests.
Pasqueflowers come and go on sunny hillsides in April, even before trees bud. Then May arrives, and nature really lets loose.
Morel mushrooms pop up under dead leaves. Warblers migrate north. Spring ephemerals carpet forest floors.
Now is the time to sign up for bird-festival field trips and popular state-park wildflower and morel programs. Morel hunters also should scout for likely spots now, before the ticks come out.
Here’s where to find the best of spring, and when to look.
Lake Superior agates, the Minnesota state gemstone, can be found throughout eastern Minnesota. They're easiest to find in gravel pits and near road construction, but it's more fun to hunt for them on pretty North Shore beaches.
Sunny days are best, either early in the day or late in the afternoon, when rays are slanting across the rocks. But drizzly days can be good, too, because a film of water makes agates glisten, so they're easier to spot.
“The Rock Picker’s Guide to Lake Superior’s North Shore,’’ available in local gift shops, is
very handy. It says one of the best spots to look is the mouth of the Beaver River, just east of Beaver Bay.
For more, see How to find an agate.
April and May are when you'll see a waterfall at its most ferocious, when rivers are swollen by snow melt. By the time most people are hiking through the forest, in late summer and fall, waterfalls often are shriveled to trickles.
© Beth Gauper
By late April, trout lilies are blooming in Minneapolis' Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden.
Big Manitou Falls in Wisconsin's Pattison State Park, is the highest falls at 165 feet, and the fourth-highest east of the Rockies; see Waterfalls of northern Wisconsin.
Rapids also will be roaring. On Minnesota's North Shore, go to Judge C.R. Magney State Park north of Grand Marais to
watch torrents pour into the Devil's Kettle.
On the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, go to Presque Isle River on the western edge of Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park.
And while you're walking through the forest, watch out for shed antlers along deer trails or where deer have bedded down or browsed in undergrowth, where antlers can become tangled.
For an early fix, go to Missouri, where hawthorn, dogwood and forsythia bud in late March and daffodils have naturalized in clumps along country roads.
For an album of spring wildflowers, from early to late, see the MidwestWeekends Facebook page.
If weather is warm, spring ephemerals bloom farther north in late April. The first big display comes from pasqueflowers, a large member of the buttercup family that has a thick, hairy stem and comes in shades of pink and lavender.
One of the best places to see them is on River Terrace Prairie, a scientic and natural area along the Cannon River, on Minnesota 19 east of Cannon Falls. In mid-April, if it's been warm, you'll see thousands of them blooming on a west-facing gravel ridge.
These SNAs — scientific and natural areas in Minnesota, state natural areas in Wisconsin — are run by the state
parks but have no amenities. Many have rare wildflowers; for more, see Spring in full glory.
In Minneapolis, spring ephemerals start blooming in Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden by late April if weather is warm,and naturalists lead guided walks.
In southeast Minnesota, Carley State Park holds its Bluebell the Saturday before Mother's Day in May.
One of the most stunning displays is in Perrot State Park adjoining Trempealeau, Wis., where jeweled shooting stars cover hillsides in mid-May. It has a full complement of other spring ephemerals, too. For more, see Chasing wildflowers.
The earliest ephemerals found in hardwood forests are trout lilies, spring beauties, hepatica, bloodroot, false rue anemone, bellwort, Dutchman's breeches, toothwort, marsh marigolds, wild ginger and Virginia bluebells.
Nerstrand-Big Woods State Park in
southeast Minnesota is best-known for them.
You'll see completely different plants on the goat prairies of southeast Minnesota, along the sandy Wisconsin River and in state parks with prairie.
© Beth Gauper
In mid-April, pasque flowers cover a hillside in River Terrace Prairie natural area, along the Cannon River in southeast Minnesota.
In mid-May, look for pussytoes, hoary puccoon, Indian paintbrush, prairie smoke, blue-eyed grass, wood betony and jeweled and
white shooting star.
One of the best goat-prairie displays is Mound Prairie SNA
in southeast Minnesota, along Minnesota 16 east of Houston, near the Root River.
Later in May, in the hardwood forests, look for columbine, large-flowered trillium, harebells, blue wood phlox, spiderwort,
May apple and wild geranium in the southerly forests, along with lady's-slipper in wetter locations.
In southwest Wisconsin, blue, purple and white dame's rocket, though not a wildflower, still provides scenery in ditches and on the edges of forests.
For many of the more rare wildflowers, go to Ridges Sanctuary in Door County, where you'll find goldthread, gaywings, dwarf lake iris and bogbean. It holds a Festival of Nature over Memorial Day weekend.
In northern forests and along the shores of Lake Superior and Lake Michigan, everything arrives a little later. In early and
mid-June, look for lady's-slipper, bluebead lily, coral root, Labrador tea, hawkweed, bunchberry and wild rose.
Lake Bemidji State Park is one of the best places to see the pink showy lady's slipper; usually, they bloom around Father's Day and peak in late June.
"People drive vast distances to see them bloom,'' says Barbara Magnuson, the park's office manager. "I often get calls in March asking if the pink showy lady's slippers are blooming yet.''
There may be 100 blooms close to the boardwalk, she says, and they last about two weeks. The bog walk is the park's
main attraction and also includes dragon's mouth orchid, buckbean, bog rosemary and insect-eating pitcher plants and
For finding and photographing flowers, see Tiptoeing through the toothwort.
Birding and festivals
In April and May, migrating birds return the same way they left, along Mississippi River and Great Lakes flyways. On the
Mississippi, birders go to Minnesota's Frontenac State
Park to see warblers.
Novices without good binoculars can see the tiny birds up close, as they're being banded in demonstrations at bird festivals.
The Horicon Marsh Bird Festival in east-central Wisconsin
is a good place for that.
© Beth Gauper
During a Birding by Mini-Train trip, a birder scans the sloughs of Tiffany Wildlife Area.
People who plan to attend bird festivals
should sign up early for field trips and for forays with well-known naturalists, especially at the Festival of Birds in
Detroit Lakes, Minn., the Chequamegon Bay Birding and Nature Festival out of Ashland, Wis., and the Horicon Marsh
In the southern states, they pop out in March; everyone else has to wait. Watch the message boards at Morels.com; people love to brag about their finds.
Morels want sun and moisture; in most years, expect them in southern Iowa in mid-April. Then they'll move slowly north,
reaching the southern parts of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan by Mother's Day.
If you'd like help looking, sign up for the "Morel Mushrooms and Wildflowers in Abundance'' program at Whitewater State Park in southeast Minnesota. Places go fast; call 507-932-3007.
The park also offers popular Fly Fishing for Beginners classes in May. For other classes, see the programs and special events
at Minnesota state parks.
You also can get your fill of morels at festivals in Michigan and Wisconsin. For dates and tips on finding morels, see
Searching for mushrooms.
And while you're looking for morels, keep your eyes peeled for watercress, which grows in clear streams, and ramps, a wild leek you can fry up with the morels.
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