Spot Seasonal Treasures in Area Woodlands
By Karlee Holmes
With the world experiencing the effects of COVID-19, we have been required to shelter in place, self-quarantine, whatever you may call it. It is safe to say that most of us are itching to get outside now that the weather is transitioning from April showers to May flowers.
As you venture outdoors, there are some common signs of spring that you can look forward to seeing such as the American Robin, Daffodils, and Dandelions. But now that you have more time, why not search for some lesser-known organisms you can see and hear from the comfort of your backyard or local park.
Skunk cabbage speaks for itself - it releases an unpleasant odor. The purpose of its stinking is to bring in pollinators that are attracted to rotting meat. It is a plant that comes up every year, also called a perennial. It is one of the first plants to pop up during the transition of winter into spring with its flower first and leaves to follow.
The pungent plant usually starts to emerge in late February through May. The longer that it blooms, the more open that the leaves get to allow pollinators to enter and pollinate the flowers. Nearly all other animals stay clear of skunk cabbage due to it causing a burning sensation when eaten. Since bears are also emerging around the same time looking for food after hibernation, they can ingest the sprouts with minimal burning sensation if they get them small enough.
Skunk cabbage produces heat that allows it to bloom when the ground is still frozen. Flower buds can warm up to 70 degrees to melt the snow around the plant. When pollinated, they produce berries that contain seeds to make more cabbage each spring. The leaves die and decay fast and the plant overall loses the leaves annually but an individual plant can live up to 20 years!
In Pennsylvania, you are likely to spot skunk cabbage on your property if you have a wet area, because this plant can be found throughout the northeastern United States. If you spot these in the woods, they are a good indicator that you are close to a stream or that the ground is a saturated wetland. Skunk cabbage has been a steady, abundant plant. Native Americans used to use it as a medicine to treat headaches and coughs.
Not sure if you’ve ever heard a Red-winged Blackbird song? Click here to hear their call. I’m guessing that you’re thinking, “Ohhhhh, THAT’S WHAT THAT IS!”
Most people go on their daily routine without ever noticing the unique call and beautiful colors of the Red-winged Blackbird. But now we all have the time to pay closer attention to the details.
Males and females look different - females are streaky brown and males are black with a red stripe on their wing. Locally, Red-winged Blackbirds are a sign of spring because they are calling for mates at this time. The male has that distinctive “conk-la-lee” call.
Living close to wetlands, Red-wing Blackbirds breed and nest within ground vegetation so that the female can blend in. The male spends over a quarter of his day defending their territory against other males and predators.
While walking or even driving around, look closely on telephone wires, tops of cattails, or tops of trees near any type of wetland. All of the year, Red-winged Blackbirds roost in flocks but in the summer, smaller numbers roost on the wetland breeding grounds due to territorial males and resources.
Fun fact: winter flocks can number in the thousands, and they can congregate with other blackbird species and starlings in search of food!
Walking through the woods or on the edge of the woodline, look closely to see a plant close to the ground that resembles a green umbrella.
Podophyllum, or the more commonly called Mayapple, is widespread across the eastern U.S. They colonize into small groups on the forest floor. The plant is often referred to as a Mayapple because it produces small apple-like fruit in early May.
All parts of the plant are considered poisonous to ingest - including the fruit, so just let them be! Native Americans used to use Mayapples as a topical medicine to remove warts.
Northern Spring Peepers
Northern Spring Peepers are tiny frogs, measuring about 1 inch in length, and they sound much larger than they actually are. To get an idea of how small they are, Northern Spring Peepers are roughly the size of a paperclip!
Despite their small size, their sounds are not only indistinguishable but loud! Click here to sample their calls.
Their coloration depends on their surroundings. These peepers are different shades of brown to camouflage with surroundings to avoid the notice of predators. Northern Spring Peepers have a small X on their backs; toe pads that are overly large for their small bodies; and roam around in the leaf litter on the forest floor.
Just like Skunk cabbage, Northern Spring Peepers can be found all over Pennsylvania in woodlands, ponds, swamps, wet fields, and meadows.These small amphibians are smart because they feed on insects at night in order to avoid being a snack to a predator in broad daylight.
They are more likely to be heard than seen due to their size. A good indicator that springtime is here is hearing a group of male Peepers whistling at night in hopes of finding a mate. After hibernating all winter long under logs or behind loose bark on trees, the Northern Spring Peepers begin to “sing” their springtime lullaby when temperatures start to rise.
Trilliums are found on the ground in the forest or edges of forests. Over three dozen species of Trillium are native to North America but six dozen are found in Eastern forests. They can be white, red, or yellow. The most common Trillium is the Great White Trillium, the white usually fades to pink over time. It is between 12-18 inches tall and has small white blossoms.
Trilliums need part shade and do well on the floor of local woods. Trillium are indicators of good soil quality because they only grow in areas where the soil is well drained and high in organic matter from decaying leaves. Once they have established themselves in a good area, they will continue to spread all over the forest floor.
A fun fact about Trilliums is that they are able to spread across the forest floor via ants! They are attracted to something called an elaiosome. An elaiosome is a fatty structure attached to the seeds of many plant species. This helps them transport the seeds away from the plant and they end up SPREADING!
Red Fox Kits
Red foxes are an elusive animal, they are most likely to be seen at dawn or dusk because they sleep most of the day and hunt at night. Red foxes can live in forests, grasslands, mountains, and on edges of suburban areas as long as food sources such as, fruit, vegetables, fish, frogs, birds, and rodents continue to persist.
Foxes are smart and sly, they have the ability to adapt to their environment with what they eat and where they are able to survive. Their long, bushy tail assists their balance; keeps them warm in the cold; and allows for communication with other foxes.
When it comes to foxes, they live a lot of their lives being solitary. This means that they are usually spotted on their own. The exception is when the female (vixen) meets up with a male to mate in winter, they will stay together until mid-summer to help raise their young.
Their dens can essentially be anywhere but are always underground either using an old groundhog burrow or digging their own. The vixen can have between 2-12 kits in the litter. Red Foxes aren’t born that bright red color at birth, they start out being a brown/gray color. Their red coat comes in darker as they mature. If you are lucky enough to see a fox go into a den, keep watch because spring is time for the adorable little fox kits to appear.
Karlee Holmes holds a Master's in Environmental Science and Management from Duquesne University and is a biology instructor at Butler County Community College. She is a wife to Joshua and mother to Jasper. In her spare time, Karlee likes to take photos of animals; check "lifers" off of her bird list; catch bass; and teach continuing education classes.