February 2012

2/1    Just noticed a pair of swans at the northern end of Seven Hills Lake. We are too far from Punxsatawney, PA to get a forecast of impending spring and so we glance out of our window for the first sighting of the mute swan (Cygnus olor) pair who return annually to breed. This is by far our earliest sighting in the last 20 years. They may be preparing to nest in one of the numerous hillocks at the shallow end of the lake where they have a chance of escaping predation by raccoons but risk spring flooding. Mute swans are quite territorial during the breeding season and keep their area clear of geese (they seem to tolerate ducks). This does make for a very noisy few weeks.  — Kaye and George Baum

2/1   It was 61 degrees on this first day of February on Horsepound Road, so strange but so enjoyable to feel a warm breeze. There are 31 turkeys on the lawn this morning, the size of the flock a testament to this easy (so far) winter.

2/2    It’s Giant Whistling Pig Day, and Mr. Groundhog did not see his shadow on this cloudy morning presaging an early spring. He’s probably right about that one. (I don’t understand how this legend began. Ground hogs, or wood chucks, are one of the two mammals that truly hibernate in our area. Can you guess what the other mammal is?)

2/10    Whangtown Road – I went out in the (still bright!) moonlight to check on my horses late last night and two barred owls were having an intense dialogue close by, the way they often do at the beginning of the spring season. I gave my horse a pat and came away with hair all over my hand; he’s already starting to shed his long winter coat! Are we going to have an early spring?  — Anne Balant

2/12    Never thought I would have anything to write about for the blog but this morning for
five minutes I watched a bald eagle perched on large branch in red maple at southern end of Lake Carmel. It’s
exciting!  — Judy Terlizzi

2/14    Coyote mating calls, about 11 p.m. on Valentines Day (if you can believe that!) directly right on the hill next to our house on Farmers Mills Rd. Continued for a while, despite our labrador’s continued verbal response to her. Finally stopped after my husband turned the lights on and went out onto the upstairs deck to investigate. — Sue McNerney

2/15    It’s up! Skunk cabbage is in flower, signaling the start of the spring parade. A common denizen of wetlands, skunk cabbage, Symplocarpus fetidus, or “fetid connected ruit,” is named for the pungent fragrance of its crushed leaves and for its amazing flower. In February, even under deep snow cover, the purple spathe (the leaf that covers the flower and seeds) pokes through the mud and unfurls. It is thick, swollen, and leathery. Under a speckled maroon and green witch’s hat with a swirl, the skunk cabbage flower is able to grow through ice by creating its own heat. This metabolic process (the uncoupling oxidative phosphorylation of its electron transport system) can raise the temperature 20 degrees and more. It melts the frosty ground. It warms the surrounding air with the scent of skunk. Folks who live in the Croton watershed can enjoy its elegant beauty, its bold habits, its welcome green and red.

Watercolor painting of skunk cabbage by Beth Herr Painting by Beth Herr

One of the first flowers of spring, the skunk cabbage attracts early carrion flies to its raw meat color and fetid odor. Once inside the warm spathe, insects rove the studded flower ball spreading yellow green pollen. Later the leaves grow on short stalks from a dense root mass arching over and hiding the spathe. In autumn the fertilized flower heads look like dried golf balls amid brown leaves. Before winter begins, the points of new leaves poke through the wetland soil, ready to start the cycle again. Look closely at the illustration for a cutaway view of the special “connected fruit”.

Over the ages, the lowly skunk cabbage was a welcome early potherb (after a few boils and rinses). Its roots were mashed as a poultice. Peter Kalm, a student of Linnaeus, traveling in Philadelphia in 1749, remarked on its use against scurvy. Rafinesque used a lotion made of skunk cabbage to “cure the itch” in 1830. It is often mentioned that “this is the root that the bear likes to dig and eat.”

2/17    It is springtime for the mating pair of swans on Seven Hills Lake. The pair were bottom feeding as we approached the lake front. Side by side, they synchronized their bobbing as a pair of dancers in Tschaikovski’s Swan Lake. Then they straightened up, elongated their necks and appeared to touch beaks. He quickly swam behind her and mounted but in a fleeting few seconds she swam away—but not too far. How fascinating the natural world is, and we have it at our door step.  — George and Kaye Baum

2/18    Snow drops and aconite are blooming—another sign of a potentially early spring?  — Anne Balant

2/19    The cardinal is singing his clear sweet spring song this sunny brisk morning.

2/21    Cardinals, bluebirds, titmice sing cheerily in the sun practicing for the dawn chorus coming soon.

2/22    The catkins on the speckled alder swell and lengthen. Soon their pollen will float in the breeze.

Photo by George Baum

2/23    Snow drops without snow!  — George Baum

2/26    “Conkaree!” The male red-winged black birds have returned and are staking out their territory around Dean Pond. Spring is really here.

In March, watch for a stellar show: Venus and Jupiter will make a brilliant duo in the western evening sky, and on March 15 will be in conjunction. On March 27, a lovely crescent moon will join them.