“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).

 

MIRACLE WALK IN THE TIME OF EPHEMERALS

 

Spring is alive and well and living at the Pole Farm:  Yellow Warbler with Insect by Brenda Jones

yellow warbler with insect Brenda Jones

NJWILDBEAUTY readers know I’ve moved to Lawrenceville, near the Pole Farm.  Every time I hike there, miracles happen. At one moment today, we were watching a scarlet tanager, a rose-breasted grosbeak and a yellow warbler.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak Wash Cross Brenda Jones

Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Brenda Jones

Today, Tracy Turner, a friend who also lives in Society Hill, taught me a new way to get into the Farm.  Over to the park here, cross a bridge over a stream, walk through a forest, pass a plethora of skunk cabbage, drift through May Apple Central, cross at a lighted pedestrian crossing onto Pole Farm land, and find yourself in enchantment.  We walked with Phyllis Horner, who has eyes for the tiniest birds.  Never, in our multi-years at American Re-insurance, did we think that our partnership ‘in the trenches’ there would lead to a forest walk of irreplaceable memory.

First ferns unfurl on both sides, –so-called ‘sensitive’ ones, which means they shrivel first at first frost.  Last frost isn’t so very far behind us, and too many rains and floods are very apparent on those beautiful fine hard dark grey Pole Farm trails.  So solid, so smooth, on first excursions.  Now rutted, gouged, unsmoothed, contorted by storms of Wednesday and Thursday.  But still beautiful.  And still leading to scenes right out of The Secret Garden, Girl of the Limberlost, Green Mansions.

Trees overhead held a rose-breasted grosbeak, caroling away.  Birders tell me this grosbeak sounds like a robin whose studied opera.  And he sings more lustily and lengthily han the most determined diva.

Good trail markers tell us how many miles to whatever landmarks and viewing ops and historic sites.  We just sail into those woods, wind in our hair, spring in our steps.

On the right are carpets of spring beauties — those tiny spring ephemerals with the pale pink stripe down the center of each minuscule petal.  And some of them get carried away with pinkness, until they turn nearly magenta.  But they are so very delicate.  You don’t see how they get through the cold of this spring, let alone the storms.  Yet here they are, smiling up at us on all sides.

May apple parasols are up and their white blossoms descend, like little liberty bells, waiting to be rung.  In awhile, those bells, pollinated, will turn into fruit, –white fruit, –appealing, yet hidden.

First dark purple violets spurt among spring beauties.  So tiny.  So vivid.  I think about beloved France, that over there they eat violets, even candy them.  Somehow, in this country, I couldn’t eat one.  It would be like eating a small friend.

We hear the ping-pong-ball sound of the elusive and rare field sparrow, over and over again.   Go onto Cornell Ornithology Lab (and join, while you’re at it)  Click on the audio button for this bird who require specific soft grasses in great swathes.  Know that its presence at the Pole Farm signifies that managing for grassland birds is working, is working.

Follow the cabbage white butterfly in its zig zag flight, not very high above the flowers, and right along with you on your trek.

Watch some dark skippers dancing right, then left, –joined and not joined, but determined.

NorthernHarrierHawkLHT3-19-12DSC_5594Raptor on High, Brenda Jones

Stop dead in your tracks at the sight of a bird brighter than any male cardinal in full breeding plumage.  See those dark wings and know, –although you haven’t seen one since spring of 1980–, this is a male scarlet tanager.  He’s high in a tree of the most blinding chartreuse of the newest leaves of the season.  He seems to enjoy our wonder, our spoken praise and even love.  He comes closer and closer and we basically give up our walking, because who can walk away from a tanager?

Marvel at flood damage on the trail, and later — going toward the last pole of the Pole Farm, worry over all the newly downed trees in the most recent storm.

Know that this is irrefutable evidence of climate change, and never mind all those corporate types who want you to use the word ‘believe’ with this catastrophe.  Know that climate change is our doing, and do everything you can to counter it, starting with walking instead of driving, through turning off every un-needed light and supporting your local land trust, such as D&R Greenway.  Open land absorbs carbon.  So do trees.  Marvel at the stretches of unspoiled land that once was corporate, and now causes rare creatures to thrive.

Throw back your head in wonder as the turkey vulture rides thermals for the entire length of your walk without once flapping his/her wings.  Meaning, not using any calories.  Meaning, he/she elevators up and up on warmth from the open fields, and then coasts down.  “The wind master”, as Ur-birder Pete Dunne calls vultures.

Be dazzled by the straight out (as opposed to V-shaped) thermal coasting of the red-tailed hawk, out over the field where the last pole presides.

Come upon a vernal pond and discover a myriad of dark spurting newly emerged minuscule black tadpoles, –perfectly at home in the shadowy water.  Determine to come back every day to watch legs appear and bodies change into amphibians who will fill the nights with song.

Everywhere you look, realize there is nothing human except for the flood-scoured trail, –nothing ruined, everything beautiful and natural and alive and the way it is meant to be.

 Cabbage  White Butterfly Brenda Jones

Cabbage White Butterfly in Spring by Brenda Jones

Ponder preservation, and determine newly to do everything in your power to see to it that more and more of beleaguered New Jersey is saved.

So the tadpoles and the skippers, tanagers and red-tails, cabbage whites field sparrows, sensitive ferns and spring beauties and all their wild relatives can thrive and absorb carbon and actually save the planet.  Be glad that the powers that be saved the Pole Farm and created the Lawrenceville-Hopewell Trail.