I love this time of year. It is obviously spring, the forest turning from brown to green. Warm day seem as gifts not to be spent inside but outside finding something new each day. Will it be Trout Lilies and Spring Beauties gracing the forest floor in their ephemeral blooms? Will I recognize the songs of warblers announcing their presence and staking their territory? I feel I must take advantage of these sunny days too, for tomorrow it may rain.
On those warm but not too warm days I dress in black, the best to soak up every ounce of the cloud-free sunshine. I glory in the sun like a basking turtle, legs reaching out as far as they can. Walking one day amid the spring sounds -“see-saw” of a chickadee, laughing call of a woodpecker, raspy bark of a gray squirrel- I can hear another sound. There is a quiet, underlying click. Or is it a pip? Or a tick? It is faint and easily ignored. But like mysterious sounds in the night, my ears strain to hear it. For these spring days are for following one’s interests and pursuing the curiosities rather than reaching a destination in a prescribed period of time.
What I did next may seem a bit strange but I highly recommend it to everyone who is able. With clothes that were destined for the wash, I laid down on the ground to get closer to the sound.
Everything changed. Leaves became walls separating micro climates. The top floors were light and arid, the bottom floors heavy and wet. Lifting them revealed hidden homes and secret corridors. Fallen logs became un-climbable mountains. What a change in perspective in just 5 feet and 2 inches.
A whole world lives just below our feet that we give little notice to on a day to day basis.
I saw a pink leafhopper spring from leaf to leaf, small spiders scurrying after their next meal and millipedes curled up protecting their soft bellies. Small eggs, no bigger than one of the letters on this page, still clung to a stick, the unidentified insects having hatched last year.
The click, pip, tick sound was caused by movement of hundreds of snow fleas. These insects are out all year round. Their small dark bodies are just more visible against the white snow, hence the name. They are one of the many species of springtails hopping all over the leaf litter using slingshot-like body parts.
Naturalist E.O. Wilson calls these ground dwellers the “heart of life on Earth”. While we tend to focus on the large, easy to see creatures, there are vast numbers of organisms beneath our feet.
They are the reason I can walk through these woods and not be up to my shoulders in dead leaves. Many of these creatures- pill bugs, millipedes, slugs- eat the detritus. Last year’s leaves, bark, shed skin and other organic waste get devoured and recycling. These scavengers are food for other small creatures such as centipedes, beetles, salamanders. And the carnivores in turn may fuel another creature. When sparrows and Eastern Towhees are doing their funny two-footed hop on the forest floor, they are looking for all these small creatures to fuel their lives.
For many, these small creatures seem gross or not worthy of time. But their purpose is clear. They are the garbage men, the recyclers and the fuel of the forest. If we are willing to get past our beliefs that worms are yucky and spiders deserving of a squish rather than a second glance, there is an entire world awaiting discovery.
So take off your grown up pants and put on a pair of old ones. (Black is optional.) Get down on the ground and take a look at the small stuff. Let our world fascinate you for a few moments. If you open yourself up to it, it won’t let you down.
If you are not quite up for laying on the ground, today’s technology allows us to bear witness to the birth, live and death of these small, often unnamed creatures. My camera is capable of only capturing a fragment of what happens in this underworld. There are amazing photos and video available, such as the Life in the Undergrowth narrated by David Attenborough.
Nature is life’s best reality show.
Jamestown Audubon is located at 1600 Riverside Rd., Kiantone, one-quarter mile east of Route 62 between Jamestown, N.Y., and Warren. Learn more about the Center & Sanctuary and the many programs and events by visiting jamestownaudubon.org.
Katie Finch is a naturalist at Jamestown Audubon.