“Emerging Signs of Spring” — recent Times of Trenton Article

Brave Skunk Cabbage in March, Bowman's

Brave Skunk Cabbage in March, Bowman’s

My NJWILDBEAUTY readers know I am always avid for signs of the coming season, no matter what it may be — including winter.

Rich Rein of US 1 (Business) Newspaper, published my account of being impatient for the spare beauties, –especially the true sculptural form of trees–, of that approaching season.

At the same time, The Times of Trenton kindly accepted my article on the importance of prolonged cold for the full health of wild creatures.

Last week, The Times presented the story I’d titled “Where is Spring?”  They honored me with the title of Guest Columnist, and again blessed my story with a handsome photograph by fine artist Michael Mancuso, who is masquerading as a journalist.

Salamander in hand, early April 2015, by Michael Mancuso of the Times of Trenton

Salamander in hand, early April 2015, by Michael Mancuso of the Times of Trenton

“Emerging Signs of Spring”, Guest Columnist, Carolyn Foote Edelmann

 

This year, not even naturalists can find spring.

We have been taught that the season arrives with the vernal equinox, when day and night are virtually equal; and that equinox leads to lengthening sunlight. Longer days, we have. But where is spring?

Each naturalist has his or her own proof of spring.

For one, it is the blooming of witch hazel. Good, because last night I saw a witch hazel tree in Lawrence in full, brassy bloom. They can blossom in December and January. Does blooming witch hazel make a spring? .

For many home gardeners, spring means snowdrops, which can pop through January drifts. Last week’s snowdrops at Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton were up, but they looked frail and drained, as though their journey through snow and ice had sapped them of all energy.

For many, spring means the bird-like chirping of tiny frogs called peepers. A colleague at work heard both peepers and wood frogs in Hopewell a week ago Friday. Although I know well where to look and listen, I have not heard a single trill. Peepers do not begin their incessant chorus until it’s been above freezing for at least three nights. Which it hasn’t.

March 27, Jenn Rogers, our merry Mercer County naturalist, led a troupe of brave souls out into dusk and darkness at Hopewell’s St. Michaels Farm Preserve. Rogers and confreres had set out on an “Owl Prowl.” Not an owl was heard nor seen. But the group was treated to the full dance and aural phenomena of woodcocks, over and over, until full dark. When woodcocks rise, it’s spring.

These fortunate explorers, under Rogers’ tutelage, were then able to see and hold female and male salamanders, moving from winter quarters to their spring egg-laying waters. The group also encountered a number of frogs, still, yet ready for action, visible beneath skim ice on the vernal ponds. If salamanders have made their historic night-time journeys, it’s spring.

Near Greenwich, where New Jersey’s legendary tea burning taught the British we would no longer submit to the crown’s dictates, we could not leave a female American kestrel flitting in and out of a long line of bare trees. Nearby, a spurt or two of crocus, some dark purple mini-iris and one effusion of daffodils seemed to certify spring.

A flutter of vivid bluebirds under the leafless shrubs of Stow Creek, eagle central, seemed more important, dare I say it, than that site’s legendary eagles.

Last Sunday, I spent significant time in Salem and Cumberland counties, where America’s avian symbol is everywhere right now. We studied eagles on nests, incubating eggs, performing nest exchanges and feeding hatchlings down near the Delaware Bay. Eagle spring comes earlier than that of other species. However, regional naturalists are concerned that many Delaware Valley eagles are not yet on the nest. Timing is everything with the eagle family. Much more delay and it will become too hot for the young with all those insulating feathers. Hard to believe in “hot” right now.

Our incontrovertible spring proof may have been the osprey on its unlikely nest alongside Route 55 near Millville. Ospreys winter separately, returning to the same nest on the same day. When ospreys are reunited, spring is here.

If you need to certify spring, go straight over to Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, below New Hope, Pa. Return every weekend, until the forest canopy leafs out. Spring’s ephemerals, irrefutable proof of the new season, will be blanketing the ground. In the woods, spicebush shrubs sport tiny chartreuse flowers, almost the color of fireflies. Their twigs, scraped with a fingernail, give off the healing aroma of benzoin, part of this spring herald’s Latin name.

Signage, flower maps and informed volunteers in their Twinleaf shop will lead you to hepatica, twinleaf, bloodroot, spring beauty, trout lily and early saxifrage (rock-breaker). Bowman’s grounds will soon resemble a studio floor, continuously spattered by some errant artist.

In wettest places, an unmistakable spring herald rises — skunk cabbage. This waxy plant emerges like a monk in a cowl, colors swirling from burgundy to bright green. Skunk cabbage can melt ice, as its flower generates 60 degrees of heat. Its rotting meat scent is purportedly irresistible to pollinators. Which, frankly, are what spring is all about.

Above all, remember: Spring is inevitable. Even when trees remain black and brown. Even under skies that Henry David Thoreau described as “stern” back in his laggard spring in the 1800s. For him, as for us, this season must emerge.

Use all your senses. Watch for pollinators, even houseflies. Listen for wood frogs and peepers. Try to scent spicebush and the loamy perfume of awakening earth. Touch the soft green tips of emergent daffodil or narcissus leaves. Even when everything seems brown and grey and black and taupe, know that spring is being born.

Carolyn Foote Edelmann, a poet, naturalist and community relations associate for the Delaware and Raritan Greenway Land Trust, writes and photographs for NJWildBeauty nature blog (njwildbeauty.wordpress.com).

 

SOMETIMES, BIRDERS STRIKE OUT – Intrepids in Quest of Sandhill Cranes

Jeanette Birding Near the Delaware & Raritan Canal

Jeanette Birding Near the Delaware & Raritan Canal

Friends had seen the cranes.  The SANDHILL cranes.  In nearby Franklin Township.

Friends had seen them two days in a row!

Jeanette Hooban (One of The Intrepids) and I have never seen a crane.

Now, admittedly, in the pictures sent by friends from cell phones, those birds didn’t look all that impressive. Rather dowdy, even dingy, lumpen, although on tall legs — they were not what Michelin (Guides to gastronomic shrines in France) calls “Worthy of the Journey.”

But then, we’d never seen a crane.

Well, except in (the film) Winged Migration, but sandhills are not the ones who starred in that epic.

So we devoted an overcast Sunday to going on a cranequest.

End of the Trail, Rose and Other Gardens of Colonial Park, NJ

End of the Trail, Rose and Other Gardens of Colonial Park, NJ

Odd back roads tumbled us out in one of the most nightmarish developments I had ever seen.  It was like those prophetic films, such as 2001, in which man irrevocably pays ultimate prices for progress.

Scraped earth, denuded of trees and even of crops, McMansion “TownHomes” everywhere, without a shrub, without even being alternated for privacy.  A moonscape, but I wouldn’t insult the moon.

Somewhere near what I mockingly called “an enclave”, and then it turns out that’s the name of that place, coupled with my treasured (nearby but by means visible) Delaware and Raritan Canal.

The road of the cranes was only slightly removed from destruction in the name of construction.

Cranes need slightly cropped ex-cornfields.

There was one.

As we drove along, Jeanette and I began to wonder if we’d even recognize a crane, if we came upon them.

She decided they MIGHT look something like great blue herons, and we well know those stately birds.

Heron Giving Voice Brenda Jones

GREAT BLUE HERON BY BRENDA JONES

So Jeanette drove with infinite patience, the patience of a brain surgeon, slowly down, then up, then down and up again, the road of the cranes.

There may be nothing emptier than cornrows where there ought to be birds.

Dark-eyedJunco-BaldpateMountain2-22-12DSC_3517

DARK-EYED JUNCO BY BRENDA JONES

Finally, we rejoiced to come upon, not in the corn, but in the natural weeds and scrub that bordered the croplands, some sparrows, a few juncoes, two mouning doves, all busily gleaning seeds flung down, not by a farmer on his tractor, but by the wind in the plants that belong on that field.

Song Sparrow from blind Brenda Jones

SONG SPARROW BY BRENDA JONES

So we drove away.

We thought we could find a back road along the backside of the cornfield.  Ha!  Everything up there belongs to those enclave developers.  And their hideosities are for sale “in the high $300,000s”, according to their industrial-strength sign, stuck in the bare earth.  A Mercedes turned into the Sales Office ahead of us, as we made our disbelieving way into this panorama of the future.

But Jeanette had stopped that car!  No, not to buy a condo.  To study a handsome, stately, piercingly gazing red-tailed hawk in a tree the developers had somehow overlooked.

With our magical optics, we could see the abruptly changed expression in that red-tail’s lemon-yellow eyes.  With a whoosh!, he was up and over, and o my! there was some forgotten grass on some lumpen ground.  The hawk ‘stooped’, (birder-language for zeroing on for the kill) and vanished behind a hummock.

red-tail lunch D&R Canal Princeton Brenda Jones

RED-TAILED HAWK BY BRENDA JONES

Jeanette said, impishly, “Shall we very slowly drive over there and watch it tear the prey from limb to limb?”

Listen, I’ll take any bird experience.

But before I could even nod, let alone verbalize, that hawk was back in the tree.

Raptorial fast food.

Because were there in the presence of his majesty, and there was no way we were leaving before he did, we then treated to a cloud of juncoes, flaring white petticoats.  And then, lo, bluebirds beyond counting!  They were so brightly blue and that almost-robin red, for they are cousins, and even the females so vivid, we decided they were halfway to indigo buntings.

BluebirdColdSoilRd3-10-12DSC_4449

BLUEBIRD IN WINTER BY BRENDA JONES

The aforesaid developers had put in a scraggly array of rather meagre trees.  I hope they did it in early fall, not in November.  But these trees did not look grounded.

And across the road, near the raptor feast site, an array of handsome, tall trees lay scattered, dirt balls facing the road and the $300,000+ mchouses.  They looked like toys abandoned by a petulant toddler. They did not look like they are going to survive January blasts and worse, without having been put in the ground in plenty of time to establish strong roots.  Even so, the few scraggly trees were fine for the bluebirds, who merrily filled them, like bright Christmas ornaments, then float-coasted down to the ground for seeds or whatever. There surely aren’t any insects or worms about in this vile weather we’ve been enduring.

Not only that, a merry mockingbird crowned the tree like an angel, then flew to the top of one of the mcroofs.

Mockingbird at Sunset in Winter

MOCKINGBIRD PUFFED BY WINTER COLD  BY BRENDA JONES

Just then, ‘our’ red-tail took off in a zoom, rising effortlessly toward something we hadn’t noticed.  God forbid a field or a habitat should be left to the mice and the voles and the butterflies and the bees and foxes and maybe even a coyote or two, and some skunks, some raccoons.  Trails, even, so the people can get out of those “little houses made of Ticky Tack” which Pete Seeger so scorned, Seeger-the-prophet.

Untitled

FOX OF ISLAND BEACH, IN DAYLIGHT, BY RAY YEAGER

(what SHOULD be happening in the fields of Franklin Park)

No, there isn’t a field.  Well, yes there IS, actually.

A playing field.

With towering bleachers and blinding shiny metal poles taller then anything in the enclave, each one studded with equally blinding shiny metal hooded lights, that will ruin the nights of the people who attempt to sleep in the enclave.  Who have no idea how blinding such lights can be in the dark, nor how loudly players and fans will carry on under those lights…

Well, the hawk was nothing if not an opportunist.  No tree in New Jersey that I’ve ever seen is as tall as those lightning-blinding metal poles.  Straight to the top he flew, master of all he surveyed.  No prey would be missed by this master.

Jeanette and I went on over to the Colonial Park Rose Garden, to see what it’s like for roses in winter.

Entrance Rose Garden Colonial Park January 2015

ROY ANDRES DE GOOT MEMORIAL ROSE GARDEN

Unusual.  Strangely beautiful.  Gripping sometimes, especially among fragrant herbs, some still green:Winter Green  Roses at Rose Garden Colonial Park January 2015

Winterberry Bounty Rose Garden Colonial Park January 2015

WINTERBERRY BOUNTY

Julia Child Roses in Winter Rose Garden Colonial Park January 2015

THIS ONE’S FOR FOOD WRITERS PAT TANNER AND FAITH BAHADURIAN AND POET BETTY LIES —

MY CO-JULIA-FANS

Roses in Winter Rose Garden Colonial Park January 2015

THE LONG VIEW

But for this preservationist, who spends the majority of her time trying to convince people to appreciate and save natural New Jersey, it was winter in my heart.

Sure-footed mammal tracks Rose Garden Colonial Park January 2015

SURE-FOOTED MAMMAL IN HERB GARDEN – PROBABLY SKUNK

Opossum Track Rose Garden Colonial Park January 2015

DETERMINED OPOSSUM

When I beg you to do whatever you can to save wild New Jersey, on land and on water and in the air, I am NOT KIDDING!  Even though D&R Greenway has managed to save around 19,000 acres, folks, it is not enough.

We didn’t find cranes.

Our fear is that, next year at the time when their inner navigational systems compel them to that cornfield, it will have more $300,000+ dwellings and poor pitiful trees, and no nutrients for cranes!