Ephemerals

Spring ephemerals appear before the canopy leafs out and the forest floor is still bathed in sunlight. These delicate plants use this brief window of light and relative warmth, aided by the activity of hearty insects like bumblebees to complete their above ground lives in a matter of weeks. By the time the canopy is in full leaf, their beauty is fading and they prepare for another year of dormancy below ground.

Trout lily (Erythronium americanum) is prolific in our woodlands. These plants grow in colonies that can be centuries old. A single plant will produce one leaf and no flower during the first seven years of its life. After that, two leaves and a flower are produced. The Iroquois used this plant as a contraceptive agent and a dermatological medicine.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) grows in small groupings throughout our area of the woodlands. Stunning, pristine white flowers precede the unusually shaped leaves. The name evokes the red color of the broken roots. Eastern Woodland tribes had many uses for this plant, including analgesic, digestive and gynecologic medicines, as well as dyes.

Red trillium (Trillium erectum) is prevalent in our woodlands along moist, well drained hillsides where streams and springs flow. These plants do not flower until their 13th year, so the triple leaves are a far more common sight than the blooms. The nodding flowers entice me down close to the ground to appreciate their beauty from a pollinating fly's vantage point. The scent is not sweet and in fact one of the plan't common names is Stinking Benjamin. The Cherokee used this plant to treat asthma, menstrual problems, and skin inflammations.

Information about American Indian plants uses comes from Daniel E. Moerman's Native American Ethnobotony. A searchable database of this material is available online through the University of Michigan, Deerborn at: http://herb.umd.umich.edu

A Budding Obsession

Each tree species has a unique signature in the shape of it's buds and the scars left behind on each twig when leaves break away in the fall. Over the winter, these signatures are clear identifiers of dormant tree species. With the arrival of warmth and sunlight, all bets are off as the trees transform rapidly into new forms. Here is a sampling of what's afoot in our part of the woodlands.

Red maples, one of the earliest trees to flower and leaf, release their seeds during the growing season. Other maple species will take all summer to mature their seeds, which will fall in the autumn. The color of red maple flowers depends on their sex. Male flowers (second and third image) have gold, pollen producing anthers while the female flowers (fourth image) are fully red. Male flowers which have fallen off after releasing their pollen litter our forest floor like red confetti.

Norway maple is not native to our forest. Introduced specimens appear along woodland openings at the paddock edges. The buds, flowers and immature leaves are a delight to the eye.

Sugar maples do not ravish they eye with color like their red and Norway cousins. Nonetheless, their sweet offering of sap is enough to motivate me to recognize their changing seasonal guises. Squirrels agree, and nip the twig ends in order to nibble the tender leaf bud interiors (third image).

Shagbark hickory is ubiquitous in our forest. Hickory nuts provide food to many kinds of animals, including squirrels, mice, chipmunks, raccoons, wild turkeys and blue jays. The nuts are a delicious wild food for humans also. 

Bitternut hickory is not a favorite food for humans, but squirrels, mice and deer have no such prejudice. The distinctive sulfur color of the buds attract my attention during the monochrome of the snowy season, and the intriguing texture of unfurling leaves provides another pleasure, come spring.

Wild grape is another food source, beloved by animals and humans alike. The young, rose colored leaves rival the spring ephemerals in their beauty. More on the ephemerals in my next blog!

Mortal Remains

Snow has disappeared, and leaves are barely nascent. The forest is open and the eye catches new details. The hardship of the departing cold season is revealed by the remains of those who succumbed to provide sustenance for others.

These owl pellets contain the skeletons of small mammals like mice and shrews. A barred owl whose voice I've heard for several summers showed itself to me for the first time on a cloudy morning this April. A few days later I discovered a roost in a small hemlock, with eight of these pellets on the ground below.

White tailed deer face significant hardship in winter. The bucks enter the cold season depleted by the challenges of the fall rut and the does must gestate their young though a winter of limited food. These bones, fur and a section of digestive tract are not from the same deer. The three bones are different ages. The oldest bone and the antler show signs of gnawing by rodents, who consume these remains for their mineral content. The freshest bone which still retains red tissue was an object of interest to several coyotes over the winter. The bone appeared in different areas of the forest and the canine's movements were often recorded as prints in the snow.

These startling remains were revealed through the dissection of scats. This rodent paw from a coyote or fox scat brings to mind a tiny hand. Rest your attention on the third image, containing the cat-like claws and you will see the outline of three feline-shaped toe pads. Several days after partially dissecting this scat with the students, I completed the dissection and found another claw and a white, cat-like whisker. 

Wash of Color

The first wash of early spring color arrives at the tips of tree branches as buds swell, then open into distant flowers. Up close some of these tiny flowers are truely stunning.  Below are one of the earliest and most colorful flowers of spring - red maple.

Color isn't the only beauty arising from the branch tips this time of year. The intriguing textures of aspen catkins and pussy willow buds attract the eye as well.

I sometimes discover unfamiliar catkins and flowers on the ground, broken from a high twig by the wind or a feeding squirrel. Linking the flower with its tree then becomes an interesting investigation. Binoculars are helpful. Below are some of these orphaned flowers whose parentage I have yet to discover.

Signs of Life

Tracks aren't the only way to discover what animals have been up to in the woods. Here is a sampling of other signs of life in our section of the woodlands.

Rodent species each have their own distinctive way of opening nuts. The first hickory nuts may have been eaten by a chipmunk, while the second image is more typical of a grey squirrel. 

These early spring greens (skunk cabbage and false hellebore) appear to be bitten by deer. Note the large, evenly sliced planes. Later in the season, tasting a skunk cabbage leaf will leave your tongue feeling bee-stung (believe me!), but in early spring, when everything else is still brown, a bite or two of this pungent plant must be quite satisfying to a deer. The false hellebore, on the right contains a powerful cardiac glycoside. Last spring and summer I watched to see if any additional signs of browsing occurred on this species, but this was a one-time event. 

Under the snow, a relatively warm and safe subnivian world of voles thrives throughout the winter. After a light December snow, the evidence of a tunnel network is clear in the picture on the left. In April, deeps snows have melted to reveal feeding on the bark of an autumn olive sapling.

Look closely at the first image and you may be able to make out the area of compressed fall leaves where a deer rested. The deer lay in the second photo is much easier to see, as the warm body melted the snow beneath. This lay was one of seven, high on a wooded hillside, just above a spring where a group of deer rested together. Below, in the stream bed, there were many nibbled skunk cabbage shoots. 

Winter Tracks

Snow is like a white page on which animals write their stories. In winter we can sometimes read their comings and goings in a way that is extraordinarily clear. Here is a sampling of the tracks that have crossed our part of the woodlands over the winter months.

Fresh bobcat tracks intersect an older cottontail trail beside the horse paddocks. T he rabbit was traveling toward the viewer. These tracks belong to the larger of two bobcats who share these woods and fields and sometimes travel together.

Fresh bobcat tracks intersect an older cottontail trail beside the horse paddocks. The rabbit was traveling toward the viewer. These tracks belong to the larger of two bobcats who share these woods and fields and sometimes travel together.

The day after we began our maple syrup project, big bobcat passed through and explored each tree we had tapped. Here bobcat pauses on its haunches (facing away from the viewer).

The day after we began our maple syrup project, big bobcat passed through and explored each tree we had tapped. Here bobcat pauses on its haunches (facing away from the viewer).

Canine, most likely a coyote. The coyotes are as active as the bobcats all winter and sometimes travel in groups. I've seen the bobcat a handful of times, but the coyotes remain elusive.

Canine, most likely a coyote. The coyotes are as active as the bobcats all winter and sometimes travel in groups. I've seen the bobcat a handful of times, but the coyotes remain elusive.

Bounding track of a squirrel, travelling away from the viewer. Smaller front feet are followed by the larger back feet. Their tracks resemble rabbit, but the squirrel's front feet usually land relatively parallel, while the rabbit's front feet typically fall with one in front of the other (see this cottontail pattern in the first photo above).

Bounding track of a squirrel, travelling away from the viewer. Smaller front feet are followed by the larger back feet. Their tracks resemble rabbit, but the squirrel's front feet usually land relatively parallel, while the rabbit's front feet typically fall with one in front of the other (see this cottontail pattern in the first photo above).

Raptor wing prints (center) intersect the trail of a small rodent, likely a mouse (top of page)

Raptor wing prints (center) intersect the trail of a small rodent, likely a mouse (top of page)

Deer were absent from our part of the forest for about 8 weeks when the snows became too deep. This track appeared on March 12th, followed a few days later by the reappearance of turkey and raccoon.

Deer were absent from our part of the forest for about 8 weeks when the snows became too deep. This track appeared on March 12th, followed a few days later by the reappearance of turkey and raccoon.

Splayed deer track showing dew claws (deer is traveling away from the viewer)

Splayed deer track showing dew claws (deer is traveling away from the viewer)

Turkey. A few warm days after this photo was taken, the entire lowland forest was crisscrossed with turkey prints.

Turkey. A few warm days after this photo was taken, the entire lowland forest was crisscrossed with turkey prints.

Racoon makes his reappearance. Spring is coming!

Racoon makes his reappearance. Spring is coming!