Nine-Minute Naturalist: Surviving February

By David,

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Surviving February

by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator

I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. I hope you enjoy!

February is a tough month to love. It arrives after the annual January thaw with reminders that winter is not through with us. We know that spring is on the horizon but not until the calendar flips to March. Fear not! There are plenty aspects of February that makes it worth embracing. This edition of the Nine Minute Naturalist delves into the components of February that make surviving February a breeze.


Barred owl


No matter what the weather is outside, nature’s activity level is heating up in February. The fact is daylength is increasing and that is spurring many processes throughout the environment that should be intriguing to those venturing to the outdoors. One obvious change is the activity level of local birds. For some species of birds, courting, mating, and nesting is already in progress. The local barred owl and great horned owl populations take Valentines Day as a cue to begin the courting and nesting process. Barred owls are amongst our most visible raptors due to robust population levels and the fact they are active in the day time. These lovely predators begin courting in February and mate for life. Breeding and nesting is more common in March but mates are paired off in this month of love. You can use your ears to find them by their distinctive call which sounds like “who cooks for you.” They commonly nest along the stream near the Old AT north of the Shamokin Springs Nature Preserve. Bald eagles and great horned owls, less commonly seen at Wintergreen, also begin the courting and nesting process in February. Many of our smaller songbirds begin mating rituals, singing and nest site selection in February as well. Bluebirds and wood ducks begin the search for nesting sites and cardinals, chickadees, Carolina wrens and song sparrows all become much more vocal as our daylength increases.


Skunk cabbage


One of my favorite February occurrences is the emergence of skunk cabbage. Few expect to walk the woods in February and see flowers marking the beginning of a wonderfully long bloom season at Wintergreen. If you walk Allen Creek Nature Preserve or pay good attention as drive along wet portions of Monacan Drive, you will begin to see flowers emerge from waterlogged soils. Skunk cabbage is a wetland obligate species that is found in wet meadows, swampy woods and adjacent hillsides just so that their roots can find the water table. Skunk cabbage starts its life cycle by sending up its flower first. As early as late January, the brownish-red flower emerges from the cold soil. The emergence despite winter weather conditions is possible due to it being thermogenic (it generates metabolic heat).

The unique skunk cabbage flower is made up of two parts. The spathe is the curved, pear-shaped exterior portions that ranges in size up to about 6 inches in height. The color pattern consists of irregular spots and lines in shades of green, maroon, and purple. The second part of the flower is a minute cluster shaped in a ball-like group called a spadix. By April the flower gives way to a rosette of leaves in bright green. The leaves grow to about 1-2 ft and a grouping of skunk cabbage can be seen from quite a distance.

The plant earns its name due to its odorous nature. Beginning once the spathe emerges from the soil, the unagreeable smell is used to attract carrion loving insects that will serve a pollinator for skunk cabbage. The smell, reminiscent of decomposing flesh, attracts the insect species active even in winter months such as carrion and dung flies, as well as beetles, bees, and mosquitos.

Do not succumb to the notion that February is the doldrums of winter. Mother Nature has tipped her hand and acknowledged that spring is on its way. Not matter the current weather, this month has plenty of signs that the furious activity of spring is on its way.

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