Field Notes: First of Year

~by Jim Eagleman

FOY (first of year) and FOS (first of season) are two acronyms that frequent bird reports this time of year. After months of absence and a long winter, it is with great anticipation that birders, gardeners, and homeowners look forward to, and can finally report, their favorite birds back for another year. The FOY and FOS red-winged blackbird in February, eastern phoebe of March, and the first bzzzz,bzzzz,bzzzz of the blue gray gnatcatcher of April, are remarked about to neighbors and friends. Many of you are already reporting your FOY rose-breasted grosbeaks and hermit thrushes.

It won’t be long before these birds and others will be busy nest building, then rearing young. But how great it is to see them for the first time of the season. We call, email, text, and Facebook friends with the reports. “Look who’s back!” In our woods, it always the Eee-oh-lay call of the wood thrush that we look forward to. Some years they are small in number and arrive early, other times they come later. But like the arrival of a long-awaited friend, they never disappoint.

It’s not just birds that warrant FOY and FOS reports. For some it might be the emergence of mayapple plants pushing thru oak leaves on the forest floor, or garden tulips, snow drops, and crocuses through wood chip mulch in flower beds. We then wait for the first bud of the mayapple in late April followed by numerous blooms around Mother’s Day. Tulip plants push skyward, serviceberry blooms, spicebush and dogwood blossoms are all predictable and loyal to the calendar. We find it comforting to note the FOYs of nature when we aren’t even looking for them.

This is why we love the natural world. We can count on it. When things in the world seem jilted, if not confusing and crazy, we can count on nature. Cranes still call high overhead every spring right on schedule, and chipmunks emerge into warm sunshine. Fiddleheads of new ferns unfurl tightly compacted fronds, we scrape away leaf litter to watch for the tiny harbinger of spring, or salt and pepper wildflower. Daylight arrives earlier and stays later, encouraging us into the woods. Along busy sidewalks in Washington, D.C. where strife and turmoil seem to fume and ferment, the country takes note of their famous cherry blossoms. For their fleeting, flowering moments, we can even find some kind comfort in simple cherry blossoms.

FOY in the feathered world, FOS in flowers—and can we talk frogs? Soon with the continual 50 degree days of March, spring peepers and chorus frogs will stir and call. Then the wood frogs join in the pandemonium at fertile, vernal ponds. It was early last year, on the last day of February, we heard the first trills of the American toad. Now as we enter spring, another trill will soon penetrate the late evening air into darkness: the gray treefrog. Peterson’s Field Guide of Reptiles and Amphibians describes the gray treefrog trill reminiscent to the call of the red-bellied woodpecker. Some say it sounds like the chirr of a young raccoon. However you describe it, the FOY calling of the gray treefrog always brings a smile.

A call from them can initiate another, and soon you can maybe detect where they are located. But it’s a challenge. They can hide very effectively in the crevice of tree bark, or among any plant debris on the ground, even tucked in between deck boards in outside porches. Friends watch for them moving about, hunting for moths attracted to lights. They check under flower pots and even along house siding. One night, their record was nine.

Gray tree frogs are actually two species, but closely resemble each other and can only be told apart by slightly different calls and more closely, at the cellular level. Both vary in color from a mottled gray to a vivid green. Their colors vary based on environment, often taking on the colors where they frequent. Both have light spots under their eyes and will flash some bright yellow-orange under their legs when extended. I actually had my FOY calling gray tree frog last April 15 and saw my first a few days after. Their peak calling is May into June.

Frogs are fairly common and I hope you can find your firsts. It won’t be long—soon we’ll have the banjo-twang of the green frog and finally the deep summer, resonant “barroom” of the bullfrog. Keep your ears and eyes open for your FOY frogs and other nature discoveries.