With the emergence of the first Spring beauty and its attendant Spring beauty mining bee, the signal is clear – winter has ended. It was a long one; many days of slogging on wet muddy trails, trying to protect our young tree plantings from buck rubs, while every windstorm brought another big dead ash tree crashing down.
Somewhat in order of occurrence I will share my visual memories of the winter past, starting with the ash trees. The forest landscape is now littered with their fallen bodies, all caused by an insect so tiny I have never actually seen one. The pic above is enlarged to show the clearly D shaped emergence hole of an Emerald ash borer beetle, after it and its siblings spent at least a year eating their way through the living cambium layer beneath the bark.
Under the fallen ones bark, the telltale squiggles of larval feeding tunnels can be found. At some point, the circulatory system ringing this old ash tree’s trunk could no longer effectively transport water and nutrients up and down the length of the tree, and it died.
Depending on how one feels about deer, their growing numbers in this forest can be viewed with delight, frustration or resignation.
I am leaning toward the latter two descriptives, though I can still be charmed by the sight of a young buck yanking on a strand of Japanese honeysuckle.
With the growing number of deer trails crisscrossing everywhere, some parts of the forest are starting to resemble a feedlot. The churning of so many little hooves is surely impacting plants, soils, and streams.
One old buck at least, did not make it through the winter and the coyotes had almost finished cleaning his carcass when this picture was taken.
Among the prettier sights of a sometimes drab season, the scarlet berries of Wahoo, Euonymus atropurpureus persist for some time. Most of the invasive Bush honeysuckle in this forest is gone, so red berries in winter are now rare.
Without all the green leafy clutter, it’s possible to notice such intriguing sights as the finely spiny stem of a greenbriar, Smilax hispida.
Milkweed plants are typically found in sunny meadows. An exception to the rule is milkvine, which lives in open woods. The ridged pods of Anglepod milkvine, Matalea gonocarpos can be found dangling in thickets throughout the winter. Though milkvine may be a hostplant for the Monarch butterfly I have never seen one on the plant.
Winter is also the time to learn the trees by their bark (old pun not intended). The difference between Hackberry’s sedimentary ridges and Kentucky coffeetrees’s sinuous curves is easy to see.
As always, winter birdlife was quite active, and easy visibility made for great observations. The excited young female Pileated woodpecker above appears to be marching up the trunk with her scarlet crest ablaze.
Red tailed hawks are uncommon forest visitors, but this juvenile was spotted by another visitor eating a squirrel shortly after my pic was taken.
Golden-crowned kinglets and White-throated sparrows are among the more common winter avian visitors. The kinglet’s constant flittering as it gleans the ends of twigs makes it easy to ID even at a distance. But getting a closeup of that lovely orange and gold crown is a photographic challenge!
Gray squirrels are exceedingly abundant, but this rufous-furred Fox squirrel defending its walnut was quite a surprise.
The south fork of Beargrass Creek rings round the forest on two sides, and unfortunately receives whatever washes down the storm sewers in heavy rains.
In contrast, the nearby small ephemeral pools and streams of the forest interior have relatively good water quality. These once abundant ecosystems are now rare in this area, and host unique invertebrates like Fairy shrimp (genus Eubranchipus) and caddisfly larvae. The larva in the pic above has constructed a protective tube for its body from bits of leaves and plant stems.
In late winter, Great horned owls are already nesting, and this female sat tight on her eggs in the hollow of a massive ash tree, despite frequent human observers.
And here we are, back to the end of winter and Cut-leaf toothwort preparing to bloom on March 13. The weather forecast is suggesting a warm spring, so ephemeral wildflowers will likely be up, blooming and done within the next few weeks.
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