Wild Ideas: Romance in the winter air?   

In my last column (Feb. 7), I mentioned a few species that don’t wait until spring to start reproducing — wood frogs, spotted salamanders and hepatica — but they are far from the only species to do so.

By mid-February, skunk cabbage blooms, for example, can start poking up out of the ground in wet woodland areas. The blooms, like those of many early-blooming trees and shrubs, appear before their leaves. Among the early-flowering shrubs, spicebush can start blooming before the vernal equinox, its delicate little yellow flowers providing welcome relief from the otherwise mostly bare mid-story.

Skunk cabbage is one of the few plants to bloom as early as mid-February, with the bizarre-looking flower usually popping up in wet woodlands before the leaves emerge. By Pam Owen
Northern spicebush can bloom before spring officially arrives, one of the earliest native shrubs to bloom in our area. By Pam Owen

Animals can also start reproducing early in the year, as Donald Stokes writes about in his “Stokes Guide to Nature in Winter”: “Most people believe that all things associated with breeding behavior happen in the spring, but this is far from the case. The breeding of most mammals and the courtship of many birds occurs in the middle of winter.”

The larger the mammal, the longer its gestation period, so some species breed in fall or early winter to time the birth of their young in spring, when food is more likely to be available. Animals that have a steady food supply pretty much year-round, such as foxes, can also start their families early. Beavers start mating in January, and the gray fox gets a jump on the red fox by starting to mate in January. Red foxes, along with coyotes, bobcats, cottontail rabbits, gray and fox squirrels, and the striped skunk and least weasel start later in the winter.

Virginia’s gray fox, which is being pushed out by its more adaptable cousin, the red fox, gets a jump on its rival by starting to breed in January, with red foxes starting later. By Prestonmayhew via Wikimedia

The great horned owl is the earliest owl to breed in our area, starting as early as January or as late as early February, with the young hatching out in spring. Red-shouldered hawks and eagles follow soon after.

Red-shouldered hawks, such as the one above, and eagles begin breeding in February, shortly after the great horned owl. By Bruce Jones

American woodcocks, famous for helicopter-like courtship flights, start beeping for mates as soon as the ground thaws enough that they can get to their favorite food, worms. February is the woodcocks’ prime mating time, but they can start as early as January. Big Meadows, in Shenandoah National Park, has long been a favorite spot to witness this strange courting ritual. While I hate standing around in the cold, I’m glad I went one year because of the number of woodcocks there, although seeing their show in the winter twilight is challenging.

Woodcocks nest in exposed sites on the ground, usually in young upland woods, as All About Birds points out. Most open areas near these sites are potential breeding grounds for them. A few years ago, a male started beeping on my driveway one February evening. By spring, I kept spotting a female scurrying around on the forest floor in the upland woods surrounding my house but have not seen or heard this species here since then.

Anyone observing birds this time of year can contribute to their conservation by joining the Great Backyard Bird Count, which starts this Friday (Feb. 15). No expertise or trekking around in the cold is required (see sidebar for more information).

Few mushrooms, the blooms of fungi, emerge in the winter where I live, at about 1,000 feet up a mountain. Although last December I found a tiny brown one growing out of the forest floor, partially sheltered under some fallen leaves, ground-dwelling fungi need a sustained thaw to bloom. Hardy species that feed on rotted wood are more likely to pop up during mid-winter thaws, including oyster mushrooms; jelly mushrooms (genus Tremella), such as wood ears and witches’ butter; and velvet shanks (Flammulina velutipes).

Jelly mushrooms, such as witches’ butter (shown here with nonnative garlic mustard and Japanese honeysuckle), are among the few mushrooms that can appear during thaws throughout the winter. By Pam Owen

Many insects can suddenly appear during even brief warm spells in winter, but as Stokes puts it, “Colder weather slows them down, and winter temperatures bring most of them to a standstill.” To survive thermal changes, “insects have adapted so that during the cold period of our temperate climate they enter a resting stage, in which they cease their life activities and development, until spring.” In our area, some of the earliest butterflies to emerge from this winter diapause, including the mourning cloak and the eastern comma, overwinter as adults and depend on sources of food other than flower nectar once they’re active.

Hooded owlets (Cucullinae), also known as “winter moths,” are another exception to insects that can be active in winter. When it comes to reproducing, they do the opposite of most lepidoptera: instead of breeding during the warm season, they fly during winter thaws to mate. As Berendt points out, “By mating and then maturing their eggs in the winter and laying them on the just-opening leaf buds in early spring, the adults are less likely to be eaten by bats, and the larvae also encounter less bird predation, since growth to the pupal stage can be finished before their predatory migrants return to reoccupy the northern woodlands.”

Mostly inhabiting the Northern Hemisphere, only a few of these winter moths range as far south as Virginia — and those mostly in the cooler areas, from the Blue Ridge west. One species, the asteroid or goldenrod hooded owlet (Cucullia asteroides), is found throughout the commonwealth. Like most winter moths, asteroid adults are well camouflaged, resembling bare twigs. (Speaking of lepidoptera, see good news about monarch butterflies in the sidebar.)

Although winter can be bleak, it’s nice to know many of our native species aren’t waiting for spring to start their next generation.

© 2019 Pam Owen

Butterfly and bird news:
Good news about monarchs: Among concerns that the iconic monarch butterfly is in decline, good news has traveled north from the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in northern Mexico, the largest known overwintering spot for the species. The site is a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage preserve. The World Wildlife Fund Mexico, in collaboration with reserve and the National Commission of Protected Natural Areas (Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas), reports a big uptick in monarch numbers there this winter.

In early fall, a migrating monarch butterfly meets a wasp while feeding on goldenrod in Sperryville. By Pam Owen

The monarchs crowd together in such numbers on the oyamel fir trees (Abies religiosa) in the reserve every winter that the area they cover is measured instead of the number of individuals. This winter fourteen colonies covering nearly 15 acres represent a 144 percent increase over the previous season and the largest area since the winter of 2006-2007; the lowest was just 1.66 acres, recorded in 2013-2014. To keep up on monarch news and photos, go online to the reserve’s website or to monarchwatch.org.

Great Backyard Bird Count (Feb. 15-19): The GBBC was launched in 1998 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society. The event was the first online citizen-science project to collect data on wild birds and to display results in nearly “realtime.” More than 100,000 people across the globe have participated in the count to create an annual “snapshot” of the distribution and abundance of birds. Expertise is not required, nor is venturing out into the cold; the GBBC provides help with identifying birds and welcomes observations of birds visiting feeders or yards. Anyone missing the count can still contribute data any time on birds observed. For more information, go to gbbc.birdcount.org.

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.”