A Naturalist Voice
The Colors of March, a Harbinger of Spring

Field notes by J. Cantrell, photos by the MO Department of Conservation
I have several friends who are wildlife and landscape photographers, and they will mention the picture-perfect moment is all about the lighting. My educator peers may say the ideal time for learning is when the audience or student is most ready to listen or learn, and that timing is everything. A naturalist may see once again all the connected parts of the setting and know there is a “lens” of some type that everyone takes in their surroundings…and that can make all the difference with emotions, learning and memories to ascend.

There are events in the environment that may just immerse us as we take it all in. I experience the vastness and frenzied interconnectedness of nature most often at dawn or dusk. And this stage always seems to be set in a quality habitat. The sky and horizons are a science themselves, and any nature lover may learn more and more details through the seasons. For example, when we are looking west at Shawnee Trail Conservation Area at sundown, we see the “the whole picture of the sunset.” But we pay little attention to the details of the different colors and wavelengths of the sunlight. Those pinks, oranges and yellows we witness against the blue sky may result from refraction and deflected wavelengths as they are in a collision course with dust particles, heavy pollen, smoke and water molecules in the atmosphere. Naturalists realize the hues of sunsets are often more dramatic than sunrises because of warmer air at dusk. The warmer atmosphere simply embraces more particles and keeps them suspended for our viewing pleasure.
Missouri’s wetlands, large and small, bring such an occurrence that must be visited to truly understand. I often grab a paper tablet and charcoal pencil and journal natural adventures. The trick I use to help capture the moment and not feel intimidated is to color or label the hues and components of the spectacular March sky. Then, in foreground, I attempt to capture the landscape, plant life, birds and animals as pencil-shaded silhouettes. It is honestly easier than trying to detail everything in my view with the sketch. Yet, the artistic style is on purpose because I feel the sky is theatrical this time of year and should have equal or more billing than any other parts of the scene.

Late-winter ducks themselves are molting from tattered feathers or eclipse plumage into stunning breeding plumes. The thousands of waterfowl in the sky become pieces of a natural kaleidoscope and give wildlife watchers a trance to look into for brief moments. Ducks viewed individually or on the water relay the colors for breeding displays. The naturalist will appreciate 8 x 42 or 10 x 10 power binoculars to watch life in the wetland habitat. The ducks’ feathers catch different angles of light, to where they themselves release a melody of iridescent hues and tints of the color wheel.
March will usher in the spring season officially on the 20th. However, nature has its own variable calendar and will slowly swell tree buds, coax a few frog species to call and have bluebirds nesting before the spring equinox. For me, the sky colors are a classic forecaster, and I always find myself looking for signs of life after winter, especially in the marshes. Enjoy the upcoming warmer weeks and grab a journal, camera or just a walking stick. If you have questions about wetland areas in the Show Me The Ozarks region, please feel free to drop me a line. – Jeff

Jeff Cantrell is a local conservation/outdoor educator employed by the Missouri Department of Conservation (Neosho office). He is an advisor for GROW NATIVE (grownative.org) and is always willing to guide schools or anyone interested in an educational backyard pond or wetland. Jeff.cantrell@mdc.mo.gov