Hidden Signs of Spring by Kevin Mouser

The spring colors are on the way! Trees are showing signs of life with buds getting green, birds are returning from vacations in the Southern Hemisphere, and the peepers are keeping us up at night with their mating calls from any little wet area near our houses. These are all clear signs of spring. Many of us spend the better part of February and March repeating a mantra of “spring is just around the corner.” When we gather with our friends, neighbors, loved ones and fellow employees the conversation often turns to signs of spring. There is one sign of spring that many of us don’t even know about even though we drive past it, or over it, every day.

Every spring, as the cycles of light change, and the water begins to flow a little more regularly; the streams of the Ozarks begin to color up. The color comes in the forms of red, blue, and green scales on small, unknown fishes. Not unlike the migration of the birds back to our forests, the fish regain their color for spring breeding on their own time schedule. Some of them like to breed early, when only the most die-hard fish-head would consider going into a stream to look for them. Some, not unlike most of us, enjoy the warmth of a late spring day to strut our stuff. With the exception of a few of the dry or hot months of the late summer or fall, there is almost always a fish in breeding colors in Missouri.

Here in the deepest of Southwest Missouri we have several species of darter, a bottom dwelling, small fish that loves to dress to impress in the early spring. The male orange throat darter sports a beautiful combination of red and blue in his fins. These guys can be so colorful that is possible to see their colors from the shore. If you want to see one though you will have to look in the cool spring fed waters that they prefer. Greenside and banded darters both sport a coat of emerald green when they are trying to attract the attention of the ladies. You will find both of these in bigger streams like Shoal Creek, and around vegetation where their brilliant green isn’t quite so obvious. Stippled darters are a less common, but beautiful species of our small creeks. Like the orang throat darters they prefer the small springs and cool waters. They spend much of their time around vegetation. When they are trying to attract a mate they sport a bright orange belly, while the rest of the body turns very dark. They are quite the little gem to pull out of a mass of submerged weeds. These are just a few of the colorful darters of Southwest Missouri.

Spring is on the way. The darters know it, the robins know it and judging by the number of times I have glanced out the window longingly as I write this, I know it too. Brave the cold and rain a bit and get outside and welcome it. If bravery is calling your name, maybe you will even put on a pair of rubber boots and go look for some hidden signs of spring in your local streams. However you want to greet spring, please take the time to leave it a little better than you found it.

Kevin Mouser is a member of the Chert Glades Master Naturalist Chapter.  He is the Special Education Science teacher, Ecology teacher and Science Club sponsor at East Newton High School. When he is not teaching, driving a school bus or sleeping, he really enjoys spending time with his wonderful wife Cristal and getting into the great waters of the Missouri Ozarks.

Photography by Kevin Mouser and Becky Wylie

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