“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).

 

WOODCOCKING – SEEKING THE ELUSIVE AT MAPLETON PRESERVE

Sometimes, a bizarre pursuit can result in exorbitant pleasure.

Birders know that late March, –as dusk plunges into darkness, in empty fields, even in cold wind and after drizzling rain–, one of the keenest joys of birding can unfold.  Woodcocks, –even right here in Princeton and Kingston and Rocky Hill and Plainsboro Preserve –perform their mating dance at sundown.  Birders strain to hear that characteristic “Peent”, and the odd ascending/descending whirling buzz that alerts those in the know to look up for that short-lived dance, something unique in all the world.

Last weekend, my intrepid friend, Karen Linder, and I trekked from her Kingston house over to Mapleton Preserve.  We were on a woodcock quest.  She had heard them once this season; I not at all.

When you ‘woodcock’, yes, you have your best light-gathering binoculars at the ready.  But a stellar sense of hearing is even more important.

Also warm clothes, layers and layers, because woodcocking involves a great deal of standing around, every nerve aquiver, as silently as possible.

There’s always the sense that this is absolutely impossible.

And absolutely crazy — it’s almost dark out here.  (It never occurred to us to bring flashlights.  I don’t know if they would alarm the birds.)

Whatever you do, you don’t want to interfere with these essential rituals, without which there would be no more woodcocks.

We tromped Mapleton’s expansive fields, like detectives looking for essential clues.

We came upon a noble skeleton of a deer, ribs like antique scrimshaw, hooves still glossy.  One leg and haunch had been carried elsewhere, and by what?  I hoped coyote.

In an adjacent field, we found the elegant skeleton of a fox.  I don’t know what was more arresting — that glowing, still bushy tail, or that stripped head and o! those fangs…

A great blue heron sailed silently above, an exclamation point against the lowering sky.

Here and there, a bustly robin went about final foraging of the day.

We reminisced about the year when Rush Holt began and successfully completed his first run for office, using the lodge-like building that had been essential to Flemer Nurseries on what is now the Mapleton Preserve.  Rush Holt, that rare politician, who gets it that all nature is connected.  Who does whatever he can to preserve habitat in our region.  Who is in his final term now, to our great regret – although we are happy for Rush. 

Maybe politics and woodcocks seem far-fetched to some NJWILDBEAUTY readers.  But no — without crusading and courageous champions, those fields we were traversing would be concrete and buildings and parking lots and lights that shine all night.  It’s a miracle that this handful of acres stretches golden in last light, shorn and welcoming to woodcocks in their dance.

Suddenly, Karen stiffened, pointed toward a shadowy row of trees.  “Hear that?!”, she exulted.

I missed her sound, but heard my own in trees across another field, –in fact, near the famous allee of Flemer gingko trees.  It wasn’t so much a “Peent”, as the sound of my children’s hushed “neat”, in their teen years — the way modern teenagers almost whisper “cool”.  the more whispery, the more important.

Then a small zippy slate-colored something zoomed over our heads going west.  Something else did the same going the other way.

“Neat”

“Peent”

“Neat”

“Peent”

zip

zoom

All color had left the sky, except a hint of tinfoil.  So we could see no field marks, only woodcock silhouettes.  And very determined they were.

A single charcoal-blue cloud stretched across a backdrop of tarnished silver — a cloud exactly like a mackerel, crossed with a whale.

We tiptoed.

We craned our necks.

We cocked our ears.

A few more zips and peents.

And then it was time to make our almost blind way home.

Something about the sheer outrageousness of our quest conferred profound drama and dignity to our hour in the field.

Something like this would have occasioned my mother’s one profanity, “No other damfool.”…

That’s just the point.

We were out there in the bitter cold, and winds so strong the woodcocks could not create their DNA-spiral dance, because we honor those birds, their wildness and their traditions.

And because we were among those brave committed souls who said, “The Princeton Nursery Lands must be saved.  Attention must be paid.”  Those ghastly hours at those loaded hearings, the grave discouragements, our seemingly futile arguments with frankly pompous experts determined to develop, were not in vain.

Because of preservation, on that cold March night, in Mapleton’s preserved fields, we were in the presence of woodcocks.