A Cape Cod sketch book
Text and art by Mary Richmond
Spring on the Cape is an ephemeral thing, here today but tomorrow, maybe not so much. She bounces back and forth from warm to cold, wet to dry, sunny days to stormy ones, with the capriciousness of a gnat, laughing all the way.
T. S. Eliot called April the cruelest month in the opening lines of his iconic poem, “The Waste Land,” and I can’t say I disagree.
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Every year, March teases us with hints of warming days, mornings filling with birdsong and the tantalizing lime green sprouts of the year’s first plants. By the time we turn the calendar page to April, we are practically giddy with anticipation. Birds! Blossoms! Butterflies! Baby animals! But then, reality raises her head, her smile more smirk than grin.
One cause of Cape Cod’s funky spring, or lack of spring, is its unique geography. Unabashedly sticking out into the ocean, some parts of the Cape warm up faster than other parts. A quick road trip from Bourne or Falmouth to Provincetown on a warm spring day will give you a graphic example of how much warmer the upper Cape is. The lower Cape is always a little behind when it comes to blooms and birds. If you want to see the very first wildflowers or ospreys of the season, stay closer to the canal.
In spite of the often inhospitable March weather, right whales return to the bay, herring begin their run upstream and the local gulls start to sport their breeding plumage. Ospreys return and freshen up their nests. Piping plovers and killdeer arrive, and red-winged blackbirds converge upon area wetlands.
Vernal pools, those transient bodies of water that host spotted salamanders and wood frogs as well as fairy shrimp, begin to hop and swirl with activity while turtles, snakes, chipmunks and groundhogs wake from their winter slumbers.
By the time April appears on our horizon, we are more than ready for spring. Peepers are peeping, daffodils are poking up through the mud and on quiet, warm afternoons, there are honeybees buzzing in crocus and dandelion patches. More than a few of us dig out the flip flops and toss the winter coats aside for lighter jackets. We will regret this decision more than once, but we are Cape Codders. We are as tough as any tiny frogs. That’s our story and we’re sticking to it.
In the first days of April skunk cabbage, our first blooming wildflower, begins to leaf out and fiddleheads, those tightly wound sprouts of ferns, begin to decorate muddy, soggy areas. Phoebes and other early migrants appear and begin to declare territorial and reproductive intentions throughout the landscape. Buds of the mayflower, also called trailing arbutus, hide beneath tough green leaves that cover the ground in disturbed, sunny areas along pathways, but we can peek beneath to savor the soon to bloom white and pink blossoms.
April is when green begins to reclaim her place on the seasonal palette. Vibrant green moss brightens woodland paths and the shiny leaves of teaberry, also called wintergreen due to its sharp, minty scent, cover the woodland floor. Red squirrels gather nesting materials and chipmunks chip along cheerily as they do their spring housekeeping. On warm afternoons, the sweet, tiny blue spring azure butterflies fly about. They especially love the nectar of the mayflowers which will bloom before the end of April. They aren’t the first butterflies of the season, but their diminutive size and lovely coloration make them easy favorites of woodland walkers
Mourning cloak butterflies, the first to appear, are large, dark, and hardy butterflies that winter-over in New England as adults, spending the season deep in crevices and cracks in the bark of trees. Look for them in sunny wooded areas, sometimes on an old log or even the ground, taking in the sun. At first they may seem plain, but a closer look will quickly reveal the beauty and complexity of their coloration and markings.
Every morning in April gives bird watchers new opportunities to see birds arriving from down south. Many will just pass through on their way farther north, such as wood warblers and shorebirds. The chance to see them is so fleeting that the hearts of those watching for them beat a little faster with each sighting. Even a novice can be thrilled by the sight of a snowy egret in its luxurious breeding plumage or the “drink your tea” song of the rufous sided towhee.
By mid to late April, the herring runs will be full of fish, the gulls will be pairing up and the fiddler crabs will be running about on sun warmed sands waving their oversized claws. The whales will still be active close to shore and other sea life will return to tidal pools.
Turtles begin to move, especially the big snapping turtles that appear in driveways and roadways as they seek mates. These prehistoric-looking reptiles can live many years once they make it past the early stages when they are small and easy prey. Once they have accomplished their task, they will return to their favored ponds or lakes where they will spend the rest of the season. Our other turtles mate and nest later in the spring, but you may see them out sunning all month when the weather is right.
April is a great time for walking and hiking, bird watching and just poking about. After a long winter indoors, fresh air and the smells of spring invite us outdoors, even if the air is still chilly and raw. Every year, I have my favorite spots to check out all across the Cape. I often carry a sketchbook with me as well as a camera. These days, phone cameras do an admirable job, but there’s nothing like stopping to draw something to really see and experience it. You don’t have to be an artist to enjoy this simple activity. You just need a small sketchbook and a pencil or pen. I often add watercolor to my sketches, but on cold days I wait to add the color at home.
Every year in nature is a little different, even when it feels the same to a casual observer. After nearly 20 years of writing weekly nature columns here on the Cape, I’ve learned that although there are things we can predict fairly accurately, there are often many variables that make each foray exciting, even when it’s a place I’ve visited over and over and over again.
As a child I was fortunate enough to take natural history classes with visionary educators such as John Hay and Marshal Case at the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History in Brewster. Both taught me the value of stillness, careful observation and how to find the joy in the simplest of finds. Looking through soggy mosses for salamanders with Case and lying in the sand on cold spring mornings to watch the shorebirds forage with Hay taught me that nature unfolds constantly all around us. We just have to look and listen for it. April is a prelude of all that is to come. It has everything—drama, intrigue, tragedy and even comedy. We aren’t going to experience any of it stuck inside looking at a screen.
Today’s world can feel discouraging and overwhelming. Nature is under threat like never before. If we don’t get outside to enjoy her, we will not learn to cherish her. Even if you think you don’t know much about the natural world, it is never too late to just watch, listen and take in the fabulous smells of the beach and the woodlands. The more you are out, the more you will learn.
April on Cape Cod is often underappreciated. She may be dubbed the cruelest month for her teasing, but the lushness and lustiness of May and the summer beyond would never occur without her.
Get outside, and don’t forget to get down on the ground to smell the mayflowers. They are divine, and there’s nothing else like them. And, don’t be fooled by their name; they begin blooming in April. That alone makes this early spring month a winner in my book.
Mary Richmond grew up in Hyannis. She is a nature columnist and artist, an amateur naturalist and educator. She teaches sketching and watercolor at the Cotuit Center for the Arts. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org