Story and Photographs By Joan Herrmann
Whereiwander… as calendar spring begins showing signs of her arrival, my wanderings take me to wetlands. It might be a spring-fed pond, a marsh, a bog, a fen, or a slow-moving stream. Each one of these presents its new growth as the bondage of snow and ice have dissipated. Many of the returning migratory birds are seeking these wetlands too. A welcomed visitor to our feeder area is a male red-winged blackbird. The newly plumed males arrive a week to ten days before the females and stake out the choice mating and breeding areas. A male has been arriving within the last two weeks of March or the first week of April for at least six years now. The life expectancy of a red-winged blackbird is about fifteen years, so hopefully, we will enjoy his presence for a few more years.
Up north, we refer to the end of March and most of April as “mudders months.” Also, our temperatures fluctuate from 60 degrees to minus twenty degrees. A lot of my wandering is done from my heated automobile. If you take the time to sit and observe, you may be amazed at just how much is happening in these enchanted wetlands. Most ponds are now ringed with straight hollow stalks that have remained steadfast throughout the winter. These are the vestiges of cattails (Typha latifolia) whose seed heads are now a lighter brown and have a blown appearance and are also very fluffy. I was truly amazed to learn that each seed head may hold as many as two hundred and fifty thousand seeds. Each seed has a tiny “parachute” which will assist its flight on the wind to a new destination. Occasionally these seeds may stick to feathers or animal fur and then germinate in a new location. In addition to reproduction through the seed heads, the cattails are also capable of reproducing by sending out rhizomes (horizontal stems) which grow into new shoots. The rhizomes contain starchy nutrients, which are a favorite food of muskrats. This is a win, win situation by providing food for the muskrat and keeping the cattails from overrunning the pond. The old dried cattails provide shelter for rabbits and wild turkeys. In early spring, the cattails provide nesting sites for red-winged blackbirds in addition to many other newly returning birds. The muskrats will use the cattails for the construction of their lodges. Many times when visiting the Montezuma Wildlife Drive, I have observed a Canada Goose on top of a muskrat lodge. In addition to providing food and shelter for wildlife, cattail rhizomes have been used for human consummation. Our early colonists and Native Americans ground the starchy rhizomes into a meal. The young shoots were also eaten like asparagus, and the immature flower spikes were boiled and eaten like corn on the cob.
The Great Horned Owls have been nesting since mid to late January. They would have mated in late December or early January. The female will sit on the eggs and attend to the nestlings exclusively. The male will bring food to the female and eventually bring food for the nestlings. The female does not build a nest. She will use a previously made nest to raise her brood. She will find a suitable nest that was made by a hawk, crow, eagle, or even a great blue heron. The prey which the male presents to the female may be a mouse or vole, and the female will swallow it whole. If it is a larger prey, like a rabbit or squirrel the female will tear it apart before swallowing it, and any leftovers will be cached in the nest. If the leftovers freeze, she will sit on them to thaw them and then consume them.
This time of year can provide many surprises for those who are unaware that several species of trees are already providing beautiful displays. This small tree or shrub is native to North America. Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is now showing her colors, which consist of four strappy yellow petals. In Root Glen in Clinton, New York, they have several different species of witch hazel, which are presently in bloom. These delightful species have a variety of colors ranging from deep to pale orange as well as yellows. There are also numerous species of Witch Hazel growing in Durand Eastman Park adjacent to Lake Ontario in Rochester, New York. This tree is deer tolerant and could be a wonderful addition to a woodland garden. I have had several friends ask me questions about this early bloomer, which led me to do some research. It seems the common name witch hazel comes from the Old English “wiche” or wice” which translates to pliant or bendable, and “haesel” means of the pine family. Another interesting question was how is it pollinated in winter? The answer was a pleasant surprise from scientist and author Bernd Heinrich. After considerable research, he discovered that several Moths of the Owlet Family, that winter over, are pollinators. By shivering, they are capable of raising their body temperatures as much as fifty degrees. Their quest for food leads them to the blossoms of witch hazel. They are satiated, and the blooms are pollinated.
I hope to perhaps see you out and about these next few weeks. Lots of migrations are occurring now. I was informed this week that enormous flocks of Snow Geese are assembling in the Montezuma area. Right now, it is estimated at six hundred thousand birds.
As a Professional Nature Photographer, Naturalist, and Outdoor Educator, Joan Herrmann has been teaching and doing programs for Schools, Garden Clubs, Libraries, and Nature Centers, for about 38 years. After moving from the Rochester area in 1995, she began her Photography business, Essence of Nature, and became a co-owner of The Artworks in Old Forge, New York. As a docent at Munson, Williams, Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, New York, she has been educating children and adults for nineteen years.
In 2007 she began working with the Black River Outdoor Educational Program (BROEP). In 2013 and 2014, and did a week-long summer program at BROEP in conjunction with Mohawk Valley Community College (MVCC). Using her love of nature and photography, she created a Flora/Fauna outdoor educational program teaching students (ages 6 to 14) the joys of nature and creative photography skills.
Joan’s love of nature has been a lifelong study of Birds, Wildflowers, Mosses, Ferns, Trees, Amphibians, Reptiles, Grasses, Insects, Spiders, Tracks, Scat, and Galls. She has assisted in cataloging all trails used by the hiking Coaches and photographed and identified seasonal Flora.
Since October 2016, she has been writing a bi-monthly nature column with Adirondack Express Newspaper. In October 2019, she began a bi-monthly column with the My Little Falls newspaper. You may reach her at email@example.com.