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Spring a Season of Woodland Discovery

Posted: March 29, 2013

Springtime woods are a celebration of change, emergence, and discovery.

Winter woods are a wonderland filled with contrasts of black on white – enchanting. Springtime woods are a celebration of change, emergence, and discovery. Even diehard lovers of winter woods have to marvel at how suddenly and fully forests will fill with life in the next few weeks.

It is a time of awakening. To the keen observer, a calendar of events is rolling out across the landscape. Already, skunk cabbage has flowered as the last patches of snow melt away. Silver and red maple trees are showing flowers in some parts of the state and casting a tint of red to the landscape. Branches on willows are becoming brighter, shifting from a golden yellow to a bright green – the color of new grass.

We have moved past the mating seasons for skunks, groundhogs, and owls. Bluebirds have established their territories and are setting up housekeeping. In the last snow, if you were lucky, you might have seen the tracks of an awakened bear wandering the landscape. Now, early risers are hearing songs in the air; robins, cardinals, and mourning doves, to name a few, are greeting the sunrise.

It is time to get out, to walk in the woods and begin to observe sylvan changes. Everything looks different and the continuous change welcomes observation. That green leaf emerging from the mold of last year’s leaves; what is it? The leaves may provide a hint, but the flower that will soon follow will tell the story. It all happens so quickly as the warming sun reaches to the forest floor, penetrating below the tree canopy before those leaves emerge. Forest and woodland flowers responding to that warming soil will show quickly and flower. This is a time for field guides. It is time to learn and to refresh our memories before those plants are gone until another spring.

Not all the spring flowers occur on the forest floor. Look a bit higher. Many of our native woodland shrubs will also bask in the spring warmth and light. Red bud and dogwood are showy and easy to recognize. More subtle are the yellowish flowers of spicebush that erupt from their little round flower buds. Or, more showy are the smaller white flowers of the other dogwoods – grey stem or red osier, which, by the way, has twigs that are becoming more red every day this time of year.

While the spring woods offer a time for discovery, they also provide an opportunity for reflection. How, over the years, has the forest changed? What challenges is it facing? Some of the plants you see might not belong there. Are they exotic from somewhere else? How do they affect the health of the woods? It is easy, right now, to assess the health of some trees, especially those threatened by exotic insects and diseases. Do the ash trees show emergent holes from emerald ash borer? How do the hemlocks look? Are there signs of hemlock wooly adelgid? Where can you get answers to your woodland questions?

We are fortunate in Pennsylvania to have many resources to help woodland owners and those who care about woods to seek out help and answers to their questions. The Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry, Penn State Extension, conservation districts, conservancies, woodland owner associations, and others are there to help increase your understanding and to provide resources to better care for the land. These resources are only a phone call or “mouse click” away.

Aldo Leopold, the father of wildlife management and author of the Sand County Almanac published in 1949, was a strident observer of the world around him. Daily he recorded the changes he saw on the landscape as the seasons cycled across his land.