Ah, late winter – mud one day, snowfall the next. My first walk this week featured returning geese honking unseen among the marsh reeds, two Mallard pairs, muskrats feeding in open water, flocks of robins flitting among the trees. Later in the week, I arrived in a steady snowfall, crows calling overhead, and a titmouse leaning into the wind. Nothing that remarkable, really, just nature doing its between-season adaptations. In the snowy quiet, I began noticing details – a fancy willow gall, a strange beaded plant in the marsh, a fallen log cracked open to show the galleries created by carpenter ants. So here are bits and pieces of an late winter/early spring week at Bear Creek.
Seduced by Signs of Spring
The weather warmed in the first half of the week. A Muskrat family (Ondatra zibethicus) emerged in the marsh as soon as the ice broke. They must have been famished for both food and sunlight after swimming and eating under the ice for months. These furry marsh dwellers went bottoms-up in the icy water, pulling up vegetation, holding it between their paws and nibbling a mile a minute! Perhaps you can see that this adult has a long stem of greenery in its clawed front foot.
Two adults seemed to be accompanied by two young muskrats. One came steaming across the water, touched noses with its parent and then swam away as the adult ducked under for food.
According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, young muskrats born at the end of the summer usually spend the winter with their parents. In spring, they establish their own territories within 300 feet of the adults. A close-knit family! The small muskrat above swam off to sit at the edge of the marsh, finding food at the shore on its own.
Overhead, snow clouds gathered. A single American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) called an alarm and a small group of returning Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) winged their way high against a gray sky, calling to each other. (Click photos to enlarge; hove cursor over photos for captions.)
While I was there, the geese hidden in the marsh honked vigorously at them, but stayed out of sight among the reeds. So here’s a goose last March settling into the cold, snowy landscape.
In the trees on the way into the park, a flock of American Robins (Turdus migratorius) darted back forth and across the path, some just clucking, others trying out a few notes of spring song as snow began to fall again.
Male Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) from the marsh below our house landed in the bushes near our feeder at home again this week – but for some reason, I have yet to see them in Bear Creek’s marsh. The females haven’t arrived yet so the males at our house aren’t showing off their red epaulets much and only sing a shortened version of their well-known spring trill.
Update! As of a warm Tuesday morning, the Blackbirds were all over the southern end of Bear Creek and around the Center Pond, trilling in the trees! I didn’t go to the marsh today, but I’m betting they are there now too. So good to hear them on a beautiful morning!
Winter Moves Back In
Big, beautiful snowflakes fell quickly on my next walk at Bear Creek. The brown leaves still rustled on the Pin Oaks (Quercus palustris) that encircle the snowy playground .
When I asked Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide why their leaves didn’t drop in the fall, he explained that this phenomenon is called “marescence.” Deer (and in some regions, moose) nibble off twigs and bark from young trees during the winter. Young Oaks, particularly Pin Oaks, being closer to the ground, retain their leaves as a way of discouraging nibblers! According to Wikipedia, “Dead, dry leaves make the twigs less nutritious and less palatable” so large herbivores are less interested. Good survival strategy for young trees!
All over the park, the snow and wind had flattened last year’s Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), perhaps helping in the process of returning their nutrients to the soil.
Along the Eastern Path, an elegantly tufted Pinecone Willow Gall caught my eye. These little “pinecones” at the tips of branches, formed by the plant’s reaction to Gall Midges (Rabdophaga strobiloides) laying their eggs, can house over 30 insects eggs and larvae that are overwintering and will hatch in the spring.
According to Nature in Winter, by Donald Stokes, a study found that 23 willow galls yielded 564 insects of different species! Birds must be appreciative of such abundance in the spring!
Ben informs me that the beaded plants standing like little sentinels in the southern part of the marsh are the dark brown fertile fronds of the Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis), so called because early settlers noticed how quickly they react to frost. Those brown beads are called sori which according to Wikipedia are clusters of structures that produce and contain spores. Hence its other name, Bead Fern.
Back in the woods, birds were coping with the wind and the snow. I missed a shot in the park but here’s a shot of a Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) from home doing the same thing.
A crow took off from a tree in the snow as well. Aren’t their finger-like wings impressive?
A fallen log caught my eye because its sheared end revealed the galleries left by Carpenter Ants (Camponotus pennsylvanicus).
These galleries are used to keep the ants’ eggs, larvae and pupae at the proper temperature and moisture during the summer. At the same time, they contribute to the wood’s decay which recycles the nutrients of dead trees back into the earth. According to Stokes’ book, Nature in Winter, “As winter approaches, the colony “heads for the center of a log or to the underground part of their nest in order to minimize the rigors of the winter.” Stokes says that Pileated Woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus) peck “huge holes in trees in order to feed on the [Carpenter]ants” during the winter.
Late in the week, after another snowfall or two, two pairs of Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), having found partners in the late autumn, landed near the Muskrat who was again foraging in the marsh.
Sharp Snow Shadows and then… Spring?
Who knows how many snows remain before spring really arrives? But in a month or so, the brown, white, and grey shades of winter with its sharp shadows on the snow will give way to the green haze, birdsong and trembling puddle reflections of spring. Nature brings us different kinds of beauties in different seasons. That never fails to surprise and delight me. I hope it does you too.
Footnote: My sources for information are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991); Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for insect info; http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info; invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman; experienced birder Ruth Glass, bird walk leader at Stoney Creek Metro Park for bird identification; Birds of North America Online; Audubon.org; Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, Savannah River Ecology Lab (Univ of Georgia); Tortoise Trust website www.tortoisetrust.org; An Orchard Invisible: A Natural History of Seeds by Jonathan Silvertown,; The Ecology of Plants by Gurevitch, Scheiner and Fox; other sites as cited in the text.