MARCH TO SPRING
Even though winter is still upon us, occasionally pummeling the southeast Catskills with icy nor’easters, or fierce arctic winds blowing lake-effect snow past our mountain shield, there are unquestionable signs of Spring. The Sun is our biggest clue. There are more hours of daylight and increasingly so by the day. Not only that, but the angle of the sun’s rays is higher now, allowing their effects to be more fulsome. This increase in sunlight is the trigger for many plants and animals to start the spring seasonal cycle. Having said that, I must point out the hard (cold?) fact that these effects are very, very gradual, making this season possibly the most frustrating of all. That’s why I divide “Spring” into Winterspring (early spring) and Summerspring (late spring). Summerspring is what everyone loves, when nature comes alive with greenness. March seems to take forever, getting us to that point.
DAYS LENGTHEN - As the winter progresses and our days gradually get longer, the sometimes wan winter light is trying fitfully to penetrate and warm us down here in Waghkonk. It has been a "roller-coaster" of a season, as we've gone back and forth from mild to cold, snow to sun numerous times, only receiving any real accumulation of snow this past week. As March begins that higher sun-angle will have more of an effect on recent snows, allowing the inexorable growth of grasses and Wild Chives and more buds will start on shrub and tree. It is evidently a record early season for the maple-sugarers, buckets out already, as well as their spider-web of plastic sugaring-lines running through the sugar bush. Also, we're seeing Black Vultures already, another sure sign. What's next - early Wood Frogs and Spring Peepers?
WHY WAGHKONK? - These musings originated with the Comeau Newsletter that I wrote for many years when I was first dubbed “Ranger” Dave and taking care of the trails at Comeau. Several years back I decided that I needed to branch out and write about my nature observations of the whole of Woodstock and I decided to call it Waghkonk Notes, Waghkonk being the oldest known name for Woodstock. It is found on early 18th- and 19th-century maps of the area (see above right, for example). Noted author, dear friend and former Town Historian, Alf Evers, believed it was the earliest name for the town. FAUNA: Micro to Macro - Overlook, our holy mountain, is looking over us, a mostly silent witness to our wintry travail. I say “mostly” because there is never total silence outdoors in our part of the world. Even if for just a short while you were able to walk deep enough into the woods to separate yourself, however temporarily, from the hustle and bustle of the 21st century, to eliminate the sounds of vehicles, wheeled or winged, you might be surprised how much life is around you. Particularly in any south-facing location, evidence of life will abound in our seemingly-lifeless wintry desert, as more light reaches the forest floor, quickly melting snow to expose small plants hungry for warmth. That same light will encourage the occasional moth to unfold from under tree-bark and may initiate the first, very early unfoldings of spring.
A unique, but easily missed, phenomena you might witness right now are Snow Fleas (Winter Springtails). I’ve found them popping out of gaps in the snow at the base of trees - tiny, flea-size bugs (no relation to fleas) that hatch at this time and cavort on the snow, like so many lively specks of pepper. Again, they are easily missed, dismissed by the eye as so much dirt or dust. It does pay to pay close attention to nature. Not so easily missed (though many still do) is the presence of the largest birds now - Bald Eagles, several species of Hawks and Owls - as they all begin their yearly mating and nesting cycle. Most notable, of course, are our burgeoning eagles. Having mated by now, and with their short gestation (an amazing 5-10 days), the female and the male will soon be taking turns to keep the egg warm, only leaving the egg(s) for a second or two as they quickly switch places. In many years of eagle-watching I’ve only seen the switchover ten or twelve times and have yet to get a really good photo or video of it (I will eventually). These Moms- and Dads-to-be have to take breaks to clean themselves, to defecate and to hunt for both of them. They have to stay on the egg for 35 or so days and will do so intrepidly, no matter the conditions. I’ve seen their nest whipping back and forth in high winds as well as inundated with torrential rains and they won’t leave the egg. Most impressive was seeing just ones head sticking up out of a major snowfall that buried the nest.
FLORA - SYCAMORES STAND OUT - It’s true - in winter the American Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) truly stands out. The rest of the year Sycamores, with their natural, original camouflage patterning, blend in completely in the forest canopy. Also called American Planetree, Buttonwood and Water Beech, this beautiful native tree is easily distinguished by its unique, mottled bark (maybe the original inspiration for camouflage?) which constantly and naturally exfoliates (peels off). I’ve always loved these trees and am constantly amazed how hardy and strong they are. Most seem to grow along the streams here and, by doing so, can take quite a beating, yet they just keep on growing, no matter how bent and battered they get. One I know is almost totally hollow but is still growing (evidently this is not unusual for them). Indigenous peoples had many uses for Sycamores, from kindling and firewood to wood for carving bowls and utensils and building dwellings. The inner bark was used extensively medicinally and the leaves were used to wrap bread during baking. Right now their round seed-pods are easily seen against the winter sky and will soon release their little helicopter-like seeds. Remember the freeze/thaw cycle and watch for ice on the trails (too soon to put away traction-devices). With drastic temperature swings, late Winter/early Spring can be a challenging time and dressing in layers is recommended. Also, this is when the trails start getting muddy during the day, so please wear the right - waterproof - footwear and stay on the trail - don’t go around puddles (which expands trails and can destroy delicate plants about to come up) - go through them. I thank you and the small plants thank you, as does the trail keeper.
Take Care, “Ranger” Dave Holden
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for more of my writing and photos, please visit my blog on www.woodstocknytrails.com