Wild Ideas: Warm spells and nature events perk up winter   

When I was freezing my rear end off on the high plains of Wyoming years ago, I longed for a Virginia February. While this can be our snowiest month and any joy I experience in winter is waning rapidly at this point, warm stretches are common this month, and some species take advantage of them to start reproducing.

On Sunday (Feb. 3), the second day after we climbed out of the deepfreeze into temperature hovering around 60 degrees, my dog, Mollie, and I headed up the mountain. I knew it was undoubtedly too soon after the preceding bitterly cold stretch to see species emerge to reproduce, but it was nice just be able to walk up the mountain, now snow free, to see what might be happening. A surprising number of species can start their reproductive activities during warm stretches in the dead of winter.

Reaching the small, fishless pond up there, which is a favorite spot to breed for our earliest anuran, the wood frog, I could see that the surface was still mottled with ice and no creatures were stirring. But a sustained warm spell forecast, including rainy days, dozens of wood frogs could suddenly congregate from the surrounding forest, as they do many years. I’ll be revisiting the spot this week to listen for their quacking calls for mates. With relatively brief breeding windows in winter, wood frogs will breed during the day, unlike many anurans. After dark, another early breeder — the spotted salamander usually joins them.

Wood frogs are the first frogs to breed, as early as January during warm spells. By Pam Owen

Above the pond, tiny hepatica wildflowers can also suddenly pop here and there during warm stretches throughout the winter. I saw no sign of the pretty little flowers yet but remembered when they bloomed during a sustained warm spell in late December 2015. While male wood frogs also congregated at the upper pond, females apparently decided it was not time to mate, judging by a lack of eggs in the pond until later in the winter.

Hepatica, one of the first wildflowers to bloom during warm stretches in winter, as these did in late December 2015. By Pam Owen

Other species start reproducing in winter and in early spring, as I’ll explore in my next column. Meanwhile, beat the winter doldrums by taking advantage of several nature activities coming up this month (see sidebar).

February nature events

VNPS plant walk (Saturday, Feb. 9, 1 p.m.): This walk, hosted by the Virginia Native Plant Society’s Piedmont Chapter, focuses on winter plant adaptations and identification, with a stop for hot cocoa. Led by botanist and chapter board member Dr. Emily (Russell) Southgate, the walk is at the Virginia State Arboretum at Blandy, in Clarke County. Southgate also teaches graduate courses in botany and ecology at Hood College in Frederick, Maryland. Her major research interest is the historical ecology of the Eastern United States. While the walk is easy, the chapter encourages attendees to wear sturdy shoes and dress for the weather and to RSVP to piedmontvnps@gmail.com. The walk is free and the public is invited.

YHikes! Youth Nature Hike (Saturday, Feb. 9, 10—noon): Children ages 5 and older are invited to join the monthly “YHikes! (Youth Hikes)” at the Clifton Institute, north of Warrenton. The kids will be guided in an exploration of property to see animals, fungi and plants that live here. The walk does not go far and is punctuated with frequent stops to look at and learn about all the different the species that live there. Parents are welcome to join their children, or drop them off. Closed-toe shoes or boots (preferably waterproof), hats and water bottles are recommended. RSVP to Alison Zak (azak@cliftoninstitute.org) or register online at cliftoninstitute.org/events.

Bird Walk (Feb. 13, 8-10 a.m.): Join the Clifton Institute for its monthly Wednesday bird walk. Both novice and experienced birders are welcome to come on this guided hike, which is one to two miles, to look for the many species of birds that can be found on the field station in its successional fields, meadows, lake edges and forest. RSVP to Alison Zak (azak@cliftoninstitute.org) or register online at cliftoninstitute.org/events.

Woods and Wildlife Conference

The upcoming Woods and Wildlife Conference will feature a talk on the health of Virginia’s deer. By Pam Owen

(Feb. 23, 8:30-4:30): Register now for this popular conference, now in its 15th year, at the Daniel Technical Center, at Germanna College, in Culpeper. Primarily aimed at large and small landowners, the conference is a one-stop (or first-stop) venue for owners and managers of woodland properties who want to learn more about woodland ecology and management from experts in a variety of related fields. The conference, which is organized and supported by a host of conservation agencies and nonprofit organizations, regularly fills up.

This year’s conference kicks of with “History and Literacy of Your Woods,” followed by talks and break-out sessions on tending hardwood-dominated forests, conserving soil during timber harvests, brook trout and stream habitat, the loggerhead shrike, gardening for pollinators, assessing tree failure risk, oak identification, tapping trees for syrup, frogging by ear and the state of Virginia’s deer populations. To register or for more information, go to forestupdate.frec.vt.edu and click on “Events,” or contact Downing at adowning@vt.edu or 540-948-6881.

© 2019 Pam Owen

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 343 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”