Wild Ideas: Romance and pollen are in the air

Mar. 7, 2013

In the middle of February, I crawled out of the weeds of new research about the brown marmorated stink bug to go outside and see what the natural world was up to. It’s easy to think of winter as being a dormant time in Virginia for wildlife, when lots of species hibernate, go south for the winter or die. However, Lee Brice Tickets there’s not a month of the year here where some species isn’t reproducing.

A skunk-cabbage flower pokes through the mud in a wetland near Sperryville in mid-February. This plant is one of the earliest to bloom in Virginia. Photo by Pam Owen.

A skunk-cabbage flower pokes through the mud in a wetland near Sperryville in mid-February. This plant is one of the earliest to bloom in Virginia. Photo by Pam Owen.

In roaming the woods and open areas around my house, I saw a pair of white-breasted nuthatches engaged in some sort of behavior that seemed like a courting or bonding ritual. The male nuthatch can start his courtship display – most notably fanning his tail and offering food to the female he’s courting – as early as January.

This species, which hunts for insects under the bark of trees, mates for life. Such life-long pairs of animals often engage in ritual behavior that keeps the bond between them tight. That day, they were circling around branches quickly while moving through the forest edge together. It didn’t appear that they were searching for food but more mimicking each other, a type of behavior more typical of courting or bonding.

Owls have already bred, with the great horned owl kicking off the breeding season in January or early February. Other raptors, including red-shouldered hawks and bald eagles, follow close behind. Woodcocks start their famous mid-air twirling, beeping display as early as January.

Some mammals, including beavers, bobcats, gray foxes, groundhogs and opossums, also breed early in winter, and bears give birth in early January to mid-February. Cottontails, red foxes, least weasels and coyotes start looking to mate by February, as I was reminded when several coyotes sent up a chorus in the forest behind my house early in the month. As evidenced by the recent uptick in odiferous road kill, skunks are also roaming the countryside looking to procreate and will continue to do so through June.

Weather varies in every season, and some breeding is tied to that. We’ve had few sustained stretches of relatively warm days this winter in Rappahannock. Temperatures rose briefly into the 70s in late January, and insects emerged and were flying over the ponds at my house, with red-spotted newts also roused from their muddy slumber.

One early breeder – the wood frog – may be getting a slow start here because of the relatively cool weather this winter. This amphibian, which can withstand freezing during winter and quickly become active during relatively short warm stretches, will start congregating in pools and raising a noisy, clacking mating chorus as early as January.

I haven’t heard them yet in my roaming around the county, but nature enthusiasts in areas where they normally breed reported only hearing sporadic calling early in the winter rather than the loud, clacking cacophony that usually comes from the annual breeding frenzy. However, I did hear reports of more wood frogs calling on one warmish day the first week in March. I hope to get to one of these breeding spots before they’re done, since it’s usually quite a show.

Animals are not alone in reproducing this time of year. Realizing how far into winter we were, I prowled the wetland near the lower ponds looking for an early sign of spring – the emergence of skunk cabbage. Sure enough, the bizarre blooms, which come up before the large leaves, were already poking through the muck down there. In checking on them a couple of weeks later, the leaves still hadn’t emerged, probably because the temperature remained low. Deer and bears are bound to be disappointed, since both are fond of feasting on the vitamin-packed, fiber-filled leaves, which offer more nutritious fare than what’s available earlier in the winter.

To my great discomfort, cedars and junipers are also already reproducing, filling the air with pollen. Since my youth, every February has brought an onslaught of sinus problems, from headaches to sinus infections and even bronchitis. As a kid, I often missed weeks of school, usually with the misdiagnosis of having a virus. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned my sinus miseries were more likely from pollen, considering the consistent timing of the problem.

So I have a love-hate relationship with February. Here in Virginia, we often get a sustained warm stretch in the early part of the month. This false spring, which the term “Indian summer” originally applied to (now it’s shifted to mean a warm stretch in fall), while a wonderful break from the cold winter doldrums, invariably also coincides with the early release of pollen from cedars and junipers.

My first pollen alert from the email service I subscribe to, Pollen.com, arrived on Feb. 12, right on time, warning me of low to medium pollen, “predominantly” from these plants. The first week in March, maples were added to the alerts. It’s hard to tell if I’m allergic to pollen from maples, too, but either way I know I have at least two more months of misery to look forward to. It’s almost worth it, since it also means spring is not far behind.

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