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It’s in Your Nature: Skunk cabbage, robins and butterflies are all signaling the new season

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    Skunk cabbage leaves appear after the purplish flower hoods have already pushed through the lingering snow cover.

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    Not always as easily seen, this male song sparrow sings nearly all day, announcing his pleasure that spring is arriving.

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    Over two dozen tree swallows gather on a Beltzville sapling to “wait out” a cold March shower.

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    This spring peeper, a small tree frog, emerges from hibernation and begins “peeping” at dusk on one of the first above-freezing evenings in March.

Published March 02. 2018 07:07PM


In an August column last year I received a few groans as I pointed out some signs of the approaching autumn.

Well, maybe if I highlight a few spring harbingers it will remind you that summer’s warmth is not too far away.

Popping up in marshy/swampy areas is the pungent skunk cabbage. It is quite unusual because it actually generates a little heat to help push through the frozen marsh or snow cover.

First to appear are the purplish hoods holding the flower. Early emerging bees find these as a needed pollen source in the spring. Stepping on or crushing the skunk cabbage foliage will remind you why it got its name.

Skunk cabbage should be “pushing up” as you read this column. Many trout fishermen/women will recognize these plants already nearly a foot high as the trout season commences in April.

Another early bloomer is the coltsfoot. I find them especially along the secondary roads that don’t have the shoulders graded or sprayed regularly. At first glance you may think they are dandelions.

Hopefully my photo may help you see the difference and then appreciate their beauty well before most other plants have even leafed out. If you see a roadside lined with yellow blooms and they don’t have the dandelion rosette of leaves (we cherish with bacon dressing) then you were overlooking coltsfoot.

One way to identify this plant is recognizing that its leaves do not appear until the flower dies. Dandelion’s leaves appear before the buds and flowers.

One of the earliest butterfly arrivals is the red admiral.

Some spring days I have witnessed numerous males flying together as they try to attract mates. The day may be cool, but the spring sunshine finds the “admirals” flying almost everywhere.

Somehow these butterflies have survived the winter tucked away out of the blowing winds and hidden from the winter resident birds that search for them all winter.

Appreciate this insect’s beauty long before the arrival of swallowtails or monarchs.

If you haven’t noticed yet, the male robins have been arriving.

They sometimes “push the season” and often are scratching through a March dusting of snow.

Their early arrival helps ensure that they can defend your yard as their territory and most important to us: spring must be just around the corner. Song sparrows have “cleaned their pipes” and now also climb up into a low shrub or atop a low tree to sing, sing, and sing.

These sparrows actually began singing on a few of the 40 degree days in early February.

They may not be as obvious as the robin, but when I hear them singing every morning, we’re almost back to the spring warmth.

Probably the hardiest of the swallow family is the tree swallow.

They seem to try to intimidate spring into arriving early.

Birding buddies Dave, Rich and I have seen them regularly feeding over Beltzville Dam even in a snow shower or on cold, rainy March days.

Of course they are insect eaters and you can sometimes scan across the Dam’s surface with your binoculars and see hundreds as they course just above the water’s surface. Later, after feeding, they descend on a few shoreline trees to rest.

Take a drive just after dark one March evening to a wet meadow or streamside marsh. If you have a safe place to park, roll down the windows and listen for either the first emerging amphibian, the wood frog or be amazed by the cacophony of spring peepers as the males sound off to attract their mates.

It is hard to believe that a tree frog a little over 1 inch in size is capable of emitting so much “noise” as they peep their “heads off.” In a few weeks I will highlight our tree frogs in an upcoming column.

I can only try to describe how spring creeps in so I suggest that you find a nice walking trail, sit out on you deck in the morning, or take a short drive to many places in the Times News area that offer you the opportunity to grasp this season that takes us out of the winter blues.

Hey, get out there and enjoy!


Test your outdoor knowledge: Which of these is not the correct name for a mammal found in Pennsylvania? A. red squirrel, B. black squirrel, C. gray squirrel, D. fox squirrel, E. flying squirrel






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