Now that winter winds are no longer whipping down our mountain slopes, and the icy snows are melting fast, the green carpet of life can start threading its way inexorably, steadily upward into every nook and cranny, every gully and hidden quarry of our southeast Catskills. Little shoots of Wild Chives, that somehow survive - even thrive - under the snow, gladly reach for the sky, alongside wide leaves of Ajuga - itself always one of the earliest plant-harbingers of Spring. Bright red Partridgeberries poke upward from their long runners. A red haze of hardwood tree-buds is visible now among the otherwise-bare branches, reminding us that the sap is back up out of safe winter storage deep in roots - Tree Magicians working their magic as they “return” from their incredible Migration-in-Place. These are just a few of the very first of this year’s verdant parade - the fun’s just starting kids! And while it’s true that the vernal season is upon us, it behooves us all to not get TOO excited just yet (notice the title of this piece). Remember, the beginning of April is just as volatile, just as unpredictable, just as crazy as March. We may well take three steps forward into spring, but then get knocked two steps back into winter. I’m reminding myself of this, as well. Even though I’ve experienced many winter-to- spring transitions, I can fool myself just as well as anyone else, into elatedly thinking “spring is here!”, then get depressingly knocked backwards into snow and freezing rain. Hang in there everyone.
WHY WAGHKONK? - Every now and then I like to explain the origins of the title of these Notes of mine. For many years I wrote the Comeau Newsletter, which initially started out as seasonal nature notes of the Town of Woodstock-owned Comeau Property. That was a good thing and I learned a lot and really enjoyed it (fortunately, many of you also liked it) but I was exploring all over Woodstock and wanted to expand my nature-writing horizon. Studying 17th and 18th century maps of the area, I noticed that early maps referred to the eastern Woodstock Valley as “Waghkonk”, or sometimes “Awaghkonk”. While there is no definitive interpretation of this term, Algonquin language expert, professor of Native American studies, Evan Pritchard (www.algonquinculture.org) believes it means something like “Land of Waterfalls below the Sacred Mountain”, which sounds about right to me. My good friend Alf Evers, Woodstock’s retired long-time Town Historian and author of note, told me how Waghkonk became Woodstock. In 1764, Judge Robert R. Livingston, writing to his father, Chancellor Livingston (who owned most of what would become Woodstock and half of the surrounding region), and was wintering in Wachkunk (another variation on Waghkonk), scratched that name out and wrote in “Woodstock” instead (see “Woodstock - History of an American Town”, Alf Evers, pgs. 33, 34). Supposedly, this was the first actual use of Woodstock to refer to Waghkonk. Hence, these Waghkonk Notes. Hope you like them. (How close did we come to a “Waghkonk Festival”?)
HALTINGLY SPRING - Indeed, as Spring tries to advance from the south, northwest winds push back, their howling proving that winter’s cold grip has not loosened. Yes, the vernal season will eventually win, the cold retreating northward for the season, but watching this battle is frustrating. Each warm day becomes a tease, letting me see what wonder is so close - and yet still so far away: the warmth of the sun; one desultory Honey Bee scouting around; my first Compton’s Tortoiseshell butterfly (usually one of the first to show because they overwinter as adults, already to unfold when warmed); my first snake (a young Eastern Garter); a few migrating birds; sudden amphibious action with Spotted Salamanders, Spring Peepers and Woodfrogs.
While I have to give kudos to any creature that can survive an outdoors Catskills winter, the Woodfrog (Lithobates sylvaticus) has a truly unique approach to doing so. These little frogs spend the coldest time of year hiding in plain sight, under leaf-litter, and amazingly - virtually frozen solid. Their blood contains a glycol-like chemical that allows them to freeze without damaging their delicate cells, to come back to full life when the weather slightly warms and the sun’s angle is at a certain height. A truly phenomenal adaptation which also allows them to cavort and mate - very raucously - in newly-thawed Vernal Ponds and Woodland Pools. Indeed, to watch them do their thing in literally ice-cold water, even among the retreating miniature ice-shelf of a pond, is a wonder to behold. Our local, non-migrating, intrepid Small- birds, the Bluebirds, the raucous Bluejays, the Cardinals, Chickadees, assorted Sparrows,Wrens and the like will all be found in their little fluffy down jackets, racing from bush to ground, turning up lost seeds from last year.
The Pileated and other woodpeckers never really stop in their endless quest under the bark of dead and dying trees (I also see them working on otherwise healthy trees like a kind of avian acupuncturist, taking out the bad stuff). The local “clean up crew” - Crows and Ravens - have been rejoined now by their larger assistants - Black- and Turkey Vultures. They are all doing fine on the remains of Grey- and Red Squirrels on our roads. And perhaps, if you’re very still long enough you may see a Deer Mouse, Meadow Vole or Short-tail Shrew stir under the dried leaves, trying hard to feed their incredibly high little metabolisms. Large birds, like our local Bald Eagles with the longer gestation periods, are already nesting on eggs. Both female and male assiduously taking turns keeping the egg(s) warm and giving the other a chance to clean themselves, to defecate and to hunt. Our most-common Hawks (Red-tails) and most- common Owls (Barreds) - are mating and nesting now, as will be shortly all the Small Birds and more and more of the returning migratory birds, so bird-nesting real estate will be going through the roof. Black Bears have their cubs while sleeping, with the incredible little bundles of furry cuteness not following their mothers out of the den until it is warmer. White-tail does are getting larger now, little Bambis arriving in early May. Eastern Cottontail rabbits are active all winter and will have young shortly. Raccoons and Striped Skunks are nappers, coming out now on warmer (relatively speaking) nights. The Eastern Woodchuck is a true hibernator, not joining us ‘til Spring. The local Box-, Painted-, and Snapping-turtles should stay buried in the mud for a bit still.
BIRDS-EGGS & FAWNS - Two seemingly contradictory things occur here. First, since White-tail Deer fawns are (incredibly) born with NO SCENT, which allows their mom to leave them alone in high grass for a short period while she desperately feeds nearby, trying to regain some strength lost during delivery (I have seen Bear - who have an incredible sense of smell and who love fawns - walk right past them, tucked safely away). Therefore, the fawn should never be touched by people because you might inadvertently imbue Little Cuteness with your scent and thereby cause the doe to reject it, which could then lead it to starve or easily become prey. In contrast, if you find that a birds-egg fell out of its nest, I would encourage you to return the egg to the nest since birds have NO SENSE OF SMELL and the parents will not smell your scent. In other words, please LEAVE A FAWN BE, but RETURN AN EGG TO ITS NEST.
THE EXCITEMENT OF SPRING - We respond to the same activators or “triggers” as the other animals and the plants do, but in different ways (sort of). Right about now, hiking boots and clothing, tents, packs and miscellaneous gear are being hauled out of closets, garages and sheds, examined for repair or replacement, as we start planning on exploring new (now mostly snowless) trails. Also, as the ice leaves pond, river and stream, canoes, kayaks and small boats are uncovered and apprised of seaworthiness, soon to slip into the clear, cold waters of spring. Fishermen (and -women) and turkey-hunters will begin the age-old rituals of preparing for the advent of their time on the waters and in the woods. There is so much to do in our beautiful, dynamic and multi-faceted region and now is the time to prepare for what looks to be a rich season ahead. As we all get ready to venture forth into our new season, let’s keep in mind these important elements: first - and foremost - is SAFETY. There is still ice on some mountaintop trails, so keep traction-devices handy. Along the same lines, don’t put away hats, gloves and extra layers just yet for the same reason. On the water, make sure to double-check life-jackets and such, as well as watch out for new hazards in the water. Considering that May 1- May 31 is Spring Turkey Hunting Season, please wear bright colors if around hunters. Please bring back out of the woods whatever you carry in - including dog-waste (LEAVE NO TRACE) and be kind and considerate to others - animal, human or plant. If this means leashing your dog to avoid conflict, please do so.
EACH OF US A DANCER - Indeed, our patience will payoff soon as the inexorable tide of new life wraps us in its soon-to-come green embrace. Life can’t wait. One way to look at all of this is to try to see the entire panoply of nature as an incredible ballet, each of us a dancer. Speaking of dancing, as we tip-toe along our Spring trails, please remember that they will be muddy and this is the most important time for us to wear the right - waterproof - footwear and please STAY ON THE TRAIL. Walk straight down the middle, for if we stray, and walk around the trail, we enlarge the trail, making the trail-maintenance job much more difficult (by increasing destructive erosion), and, just as importantly, we increase the likelihood of destroying sensitive Endangered/Threatened Spring Ephemeral wildflowers just off trail that are on the verge of unfolding.
Thank you All -
“Ranger” Dave Holden / email@example.com / Woodstock Trails on Facebook / rangerdaveholden on Instagram / www.woodstocknytrails.com.