Starting in the middle of February, I really get sick of winter. I doubt I am alone in this sentiment. In our neck of the woods in Virginia we had a cold winter, but little snow compared to last year. The spring fever is setting in. Luckily, just as I am starting to get antsy, the natural word starts to show signs of life again and provides that touch of optimism that we need to see us through these last few weeks of winter. Here are a few observations from the past two weeks.
While strolling through the beautiful forests at Montpelier, James Madison’s home in Orange County, Ches and I came across this unusual plant just starting to poke through the leaf litter. Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) is one of the first woodland plants to emerge in the year popping up its characteristic hood just a few inches above the ground. Skunk cabbage grows in wet soils preferring creek bottoms and wetlands. Skunk cabbage produces a pungent odor resembling carrion used to attract pollinating insects such as beetles and flies. Another interesting and unusual characteristic of skunk cabbage is its ability to produce heat (thermogenesis). This allows the plant to melt the often frozen ground that it grows through in February and possibly assisting in scent movement. If you are walking through wet areas, keep an eye to the ground for these unique plants.
Last week I was at the bottom of my driveway at dusk and heard the amusing peent of the American woodcock (Scolopax minor) across the road on a neighbor’s property. A male woodcock was in the throws of one of the most amazing courtship rituals in the avian world. If you have never witnessed this display in early spring, then you are missing out. The male’s crepuscular theatrics begins with choosing an open field or even dirt roads to begin. He then ascends into the air seemingly going straight into space making little twittering noises with its feathers. Near the top of its ascent the male begins to circle, and then out of nowhere tumbles to the earth with nasally calls of peent. Amazingly the woodcock will land exactly where it started, and begin the ritual flight all over again. If one is reverent and remains still and hidden, the woodcock will gladly entertain an audience into the dark. Woodcock prefer open habitats such as grassy and brushy fields, wet meadows, and alder thickets. Just one more reason to manage for early successional habitats!
Other signs we have observed of Spring’s imminent return are the swelling of maple and plum buds, bluebirds investigating boxes, songbirds practicing their art, and the sweet night chorus of spring peepers. With the recent rains, we are headed out to find forested wetlands with the hopes of getting a glimpse of spotted salamanders. And pretty soon the woods will be echoing with the gobbles of wild turkeys with only one thing on their minds. Get outside and go find spring for yourself. I promise it will brighten your day.
Let us know what you find!