Will you forgive me if I take you back to February for a few minutes? Today it’s 60 degrees, the snow is melting even in the shadows and longer days remind us that the spring equinox is less than a week away. But I’d like to take you back for a few minutes to those days when, for me, walking the trails meant staring downward at icy ground to keep my footing. Calf-deep in February snow, I found myself prompted to recall a summer visitor. I took a turn toward a woodland pond and discovered a hidden world. And I saw and heard the harbingers of spring. Three snowy walks at Cranberry Lake Park lured me out into another realm for a few hours, where I mentally traveled to the past, through the present, and into the near future. So I hope you’ll strap on your mental snowshoes and join me for one last winter outing.
A Warm Memory on a Snowy Day
The trail into the park in February was a bit of a trudge one afternoon, negotiating my way among the icy footprints of visitors who’d come before me. But luckily near the first trail intersection, I looked up long enough to notice an exquisite little piece of architecture. A small, sturdy nest had been securely anchored in the upright fork of several branches of a small shrub. Though the nest was about four inches long, it was only about an inch and a half deep and about two and a half inches wide inside – a nest for a very small bird! [Click photo to enlarge.]
I know that Black-capped Chickadees nest in cavities rather than in cup nests out in the open. So my mind wandered back over the small cup-nesting birds I’d seen there last summer. Consulting both Cornell Ornithology Lab’s All About Birds website and my Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Birds’ Nests, I discovered that the depth of the cup was too shallow for either the Song Sparrow or Field Sparrow, which were my first guesses. But then I remembered a small spark of sunshine that frequents that corner of the park each summer, a lemon yellow visitor who arrives from the Caribbean. This nest met all the measurements my sources listed for the nest of one of my favorite warblers. The female Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia) is my candidate for architect of this little marvel. She needs only four days to gather materials and weave her nest of plant fibers and spider webs, lining it with plant down. If this nest is hers, it’s survived a tough winter remarkably well! It probably won’t be reused, though; most birds build a fresh nest each year. But what a warming memory of last summer! Since I’m no expert at nests, I’m open to input if any of you have a different candidate for the creator of this little nest.
Nearby on the Hickory Lane on another afternoon, my husband and I stood admiring a very shaggy Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) with long shards of bark angling off its trunk. These wonderful trees can grow as high as 100 feet and can live as long as 350 years, according to Wikipedia. Shagbark Hickories reach maturity and start producing nuts at age 10. They don’t produce large numbers of them until they are 40 years old, but can continue until the ripe old age of 100. I remembered walking the lane last autumn with the crunch of hickory shells underfoot. Getting a wild hickory nut isn’t easy for us humans. They are too favored by squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons, rabbits and birds, including wild turkeys, wood ducks and mallards.
In late winter for the last few years, I’ve ventured out to Cranberry Lake on the east side of the park to see whether the Beavers (Castor canadensis) have been restocking their food stores. Some years if they have not stockpiled quite enough leafy branches thrust down inside their lodge or in ice nearby, they come out on warm winter days to add a bit more. Beavers consume the leaves and the outer layers of bark from trees, along with some rhizomes (underground stems) and other plant material stored inside the lodge when the weather was warmer. This year I remembered those pointed stumps that I noticed a few years ago and headed out to check near the lodge. But I didn’t find any newly gnawed tree stumps near the edge of the lake. So this year, the beavers’ larder must have been stocked enough to get them through this snowy season..
Wintry Adventures in the Present
Readers may remember my fondness for imagining how tracks get left in the snow. Noticing some at the edge of the Hickory Lane conjured a possible small drama. My husband and I came across a set of mouse prints leading to a small nook created by overhanging bark at the base of a tree. The tracks were blurry and seemed to be going in two directions. I wondered if perhaps a White-footed Mouse (Peromyscus leucopus) had scooted across the trail, turned back for a moment, spotted a potential threat and dashed toward this hiding place again. In any case, its tracks back out of the nook looked to be at a more normal pace, leaving tiny leaping footprints and tail marks in the snow. Of course this is all guesswork on my part. If you have another interpretation, please share it in the comments!
During the January walk with the birding group, a few of us ventured out onto the ice of a small pond along a trail that we take back toward the parking lot. I keep an eye on this pond in the summer because it’s frequented by Wood Ducks regularly and sometimes by Great Blue Herons as well. But on this trip, the ice was plenty thick enough to permit me to explore a bit further afield.
Doing what a friend calls “boot skating,” I slipped across the ice to find a vantage point from the middle of the northern part of the pond. Instead of the narrowed strip of water I’d peeked at from the forest in the summer, a second large section of the pond expanded out before me!
Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township stewardship manager, brought up a map of this area on his cellphone to show me that this pond actually had three sections, the farthest south connected to the others by a narrow stretch of water. I was instantly intrigued! After six years of hiking here, I was seeing something that I hadn’t know existed!
I couldn’t investigate that morning but my husband Reg and I returned several days later to begin exploring these unseen sections of the pond. What fun to shuffle and slip across the icy surface! Near the eastern edge of the pond, a giant tip-up loomed at the water’s edge. It turned out to be the combined roots of 3 tall trees that had been uprooted by a strong wind at some point in the past. I’d never seen a tip-up this big before!
Nearby, an old Black Willow (Salix nigra) slanted up out of the soil at a precarious angle. The roots appear to have been alive last year since a whole series of suckers protruded from the tree’s surface. But it was the amazing pattern of the aging bark that fascinated me, like the wrinkled skin of an ancient face.
Moving south, we arrived at the narrow outlet that led to the third part of the pond.
Stepping out of the narrow, tree-lined passageway, I felt a little thrill, as if I were entering a small, hidden world all its own. There was nothing spectacular about this shallower third pond really, except that it seemed more isolated , fringed with forest and farther from the trails that I normally take in and out of the park – a secret place ripe for discovery.
We walked tentatively around the ice because it looked softer, perhaps shallower, and the edges gave way to water underfoot. I wondered if the pond would disappear in summer heat, sinking back into the wetland that lay around and beyond it. In warmer weather, it will be more challenging to reach this pond through dense trees, shrubs, tall grass and the mud that will surround it – but I hope to try.
We left by gingerly stepping from clump to clump of Tussock Sedges (Carex stricta) at the western edge of the pond. Sedges can look like grasses, but their triangular stems are different from the hollow, round stems of grasses. During the summer, the two-foot stems of Tussock Sedge produce seeds which, when carried by the wind, end up feeding Northern Cardinals, Wild Turkeys, Mallards and those Wood Ducks that I see in the spring.
They also spread vegetatively into colonies through rhizomes. As the leaves wither, they drop onto the live plant below forming what look like plump, brown cushions during the winter.
Looking Forward to Spring and Beyond
Two harbingers of spring greeted me on the way back to the parking lot last month. Despite the snow, the buds on a Silver Maple tree (Acer saccharinum) along the path were already swelling.
And nearby two male Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) participated in a singing competition, probably establishing their territories. One was perched off in the distance in a marsh, but the one near the trail paused his singing and posed for a moment.
Here’s an older recording I took of two cardinals doing the same thing.
The Tussock Sedges near the third hidden pond are host plants for the caterpillars of three butterflies: the Eyed Brown (Satyrodes eurydice), the Black Dash (Euphyes conspicua), and the Dun Skipper (Euphyes vestris). I’ll be looking for them next summer nectaring on native wetland wildflowers and shrubs like Swamp Milkweed, Button Bush or Joe Pye, though some also get nutrition from bird droppings or tree sap. Knowing who might be there makes going next summer even more inviting!
The Thrill of Discovery in Another Realm
My friends will tell you that I’m fascinated by the new rover that landed on Mars recently. Watching the NASA video of the Perseverance robot being lowered to the surface or listening to the recording of the wind blowing on Mars completely delights and fascinates me. But really, we have a largely unknown world available to us right outside our doors. When I step into a new environment like the hidden pond at Cranberry Lake Park, I’m in another realm, too – a wild one very different from my human habitat. And that immediately delights and engages me. I wonder “What grows here and what part does it play in this habitat? Which creatures make their homes here in the summer months? Which birds will nest in this secret wetland out of sight from the trails? Could I find an active Yellow Warbler nest near the pond next summer now that I’ve learned to recognize one? What can I discover that I’ve never before seen, or if seen, not noticed?”
Maybe the impulse that drives NASA researchers to Mars is, in some small way, the same impulse that pushes me out the door on a snowy day to see what I can discover. For a few hours, I leave behind the warm, safe, enclosed human realm to experience the wildness of the other realm that surrounds me. In this nearby “outer space,” trees, wildflowers and grasses thrust themselves out of the ground, using sun, water and earth to grow and reproduce. In the cold, heat, rain and wind, wild creatures scurry, soar, leap, run, crawl and swim day and night year ’round. And when I leave their world behind and arrive back in my human one, I feel awake and alive. Thanks for traveling to nature’s “outer space” with me. I love having you along to share what I’m learning.