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In The Country

Nature Springs to Life

Kay Deardorff
Strawberry Hill Nature Preserve

(3/2012) The days are getting longer and evidence of spring is appearing all around us. Just what are the clues that spring is imminent? Well, the Super Bowl is over and Nascar fans are marking their calendars for race day. Then there are the sounds of loud motorcycles and the appearance of shorts and tank tops with rising daytime temperatures.

But letís look at the way the rest of nature begins a new cycle of life. Sure there is still the possibility of snow, but it probably wonít last as long or be as dramatic as it was in January and February. Even though there may be snow on the ground the earliest bulbs are sensing that itís time to make an appearance. My crocuses and daffodils often show their heads undaunted by the fact that they had to break through a blanket of snow.

Since the days have warm temperatures, 40E + F, and the nights are cold, well below freezing, the maple treesí sap flows freely. Backyard tree tappers gather the sap and boil it into the sweet maple syrup. The maple trees are also among the first to bud, thus marking the end of maple sugaring time. While we enjoy our morning stack of hotcakes smothered with natureís nectar we gaze through our window expecting to see the return of robins.

Robins are migratory birds that tend to prefer an area when the temperatures are around 37EF. Therefore, these winged creatures will probably fly to the southern regions having fruit as their primary winter food. As the ground thaws we see the robins return to feast on earthworms and insects. As they settle in to their summer home we can hear them singing in hopes of attracting a mate - a definite sign of spring.

Our backyard not only provides nutritious delicacies such as the worms for the robins and the syrup for our pancake breakfasts, but we can find tender dandelion leaves to use in salads or boiled and seasoned with salt and butter. Selecting the earliest leaves before the plant blooms provides the best flavor. They are very healthy, as well, supplying our bodies with calcium, potassium, vitamin A, and vitamin C. So you can see that springís early producer, dandelion, can be beneficial to promote good eyesight; healthy skin; strong bones; and overall growth.

Another plant flourishing in early spring is Skunk Cabbage, Symplocarpus Foetidus, which releases a skunk-like odor when the leaves or blooms are crushed. It grows along the wet areas near streams, creeks, and vernal, or springtime, pools. Skunk Cabbage has also been known as Skunk Weed, Meadow Cabbage, Pole Cat Weed, Hermit of the Bog, and Swamp Cabbage. Whatever you choose to call it, you can see it as one of the first plants to bloom in spring. Its blooms are a favorite of bees as they withdraw from their hives in search of food after a long winter huddled within their colonies with limited supply of nutrition. Skunk Cabbage blooms before the leaves unfold and is attractive to the bees as they begin to forage for the season. It is one of the few complex plants that controls its tissue temperature, maintaining a comfortable 60E Ė 75E F in all weather. It can even melt snow as it warms itself to protect its delicate flowers. The plant generates heat by burning starch in special cells.

Black Bears also like to nibble on the ripened blossoms of the Skunk Cabbage. After all those months of hibernation, they need the blooms as a natural laxative to help get them "moving". The Native Americans also found the plant to have many medicinal purposes. But beware, ingesting the leaves can cause burning and the roots are poisonous.

In the warm days of spring, the honey bees can be seen on those first blossoms, such as the skunk cabbage. As well as foraging for any pollen that may be available, the worker bees are busy with spring cleaning. They clean out dead bees and debris from the winterís accumulation as well as guard their home from any predator that may be in search of sweet nourishment from their hive. Another blossom that may attract our winged friends is that of the serviceberry tree. This small tree has pretty white flowers that bloom for a short period of time just before the formation of reddish-purple berries nicknamed Juneberries. Though the blooms are short-lived, they provide an opportunity for the honey bees to gain the precious pollen as they carry out their well-known job of pollination.

Meanwhile, the spring rains create pools of water where the ground may usually be void of moisture as the summer heats up. If the wetlands remain long enough, the vernal (springtime) pools team with life. Who doesnít love to hear the male spring peepers fill the night air with their mating call? The peepers are actually tiny frogs that are about the size of a regular paper clip, around 1inch long. While they are very audible, try to find the little critters. Their size and camouflage cause them to be heard rather than seen in grassy lowlands and wooded areas near ponds.

At Strawberry Hill Nature Preserve, you can observe several vernal pools. If you were to hike to our quarry in the evening to visit one of those wetlands, be sure to bring your earplugs. The sound of the peepers becomes so intense that you will be forced to protect your ears. A moment you wonít forget!

Also living in the vernal pool neighborhood is the mascot of Strawberry Hill, the red-spotted newt. These spotted salamanders begin as aquatic larvae or tadpoles, living in the water. Then in the juvenile stage, the "red efts" live on land and have bright orange skin that they keep moist. After living four years on land, the salamanders return to the pool to lay eggs. From this point they spend the rest of their lives in and around the water. Adult salamanders can be about 5 inches in length and are recognized by the small black and red spots on their yellowish brown or olive colored skin on the top of their bodies and yellow on their bellies.

A closer look at the temporary springtime pools reveals more translucent, gelatinous masses of eggs laid by wood frogs. Together with fairy shrimp, the frog eggs, and salamander eggs will strive to survive long enough to grow and move on to their adult lives before the pools dry up leaving the critters homeless.

Whether on land or in the water; large or small; mammals, insects, or fowl; the warmer weather finds nature springing to life. As humans we are eager to escape our "caves" with windows and doors that have been closed to keep out the cold winter temperatures. Withdrawing from our own form of hibernation, we are free once again to enjoy the life that nature offers. So get out there and experience the beauty of spring.

Strawberry Hill Nature Preserve is a great place to get away for anyone who is longing to get outdoors and stretch his legs. With 10 miles of hiking trails and two picturesque streams, it beckons the jogger or browser who is out for a leisurely stroll. Come by and see what nature is up to right now. Keep your eyes and ears open for the call of the wild as nature springs to life.

Read other articles by Kay Deardorff