Photo by Corey Husic

Friday, February 18, 2011

It can't be spring already can it?

As part of my Audubon TogetherGreen Fellowship project (, I am getting ready to launch a new initiative to collect phenology data from eastern Pennsylvania.  There are many periodic events in nature: the budding of leaves and flowers in spring, the changing color of leaves in the fall, migrations, insects hatching, etc.  There are physical changes as well such as the melting of ice on lakes and ponds and the first and last frosts.  Many of us take notice of these seasonal signs without realizing the important stories that these events are telling us.  The timing of these changes in nature is influenced by a number of environmental conditions and the events are extremely sensitive to changes in the environment.  As such, collecting data on the timing of these events over time can give us important clues as to what is happening in our world.  The data collection can be done locally (your backyard), regionally (as this project will be), or nationally (as is being done by the National Phenology Network – see ).  The eBird project through the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology is gathering international data that can be mined for phenology information (see  Best of all, data can be collected by people of all ages.  A science background is not necessary, but a curiosity about the world around you is.

There will be a number of partners in this project including state parks, nature centers, college students, and schools.  Most importantly, we hope to involve individuals—members of the public—who can participate from their backyards or by participating in upcoming events at the parks and nature centers.  More details to follow in upcoming posts.

We were planning on rolling this project out in March, but nature has a way of surprising us.  After two unseasonably warm days in the region, some signs of spring have unexpectedly caught us off guard, so I realized that I had better get things rolling!

Several people have already been hearing the territorial songs of the Tufted titmouse.  I heard my first on February 1st this year in Bethlehem.  On February 6th, I heard the first cardinal singing in Kunkletown.  And friends in Bethlehem reported snow drops (Galanthus) blooming last week (as soon as the snow melted enough to uncover the plants).  These tiny bulbous plants are in the Amaryllis family and are often are among the earliest signs of spring in this area.  Until today, mine were covered by snow and ice, but should emerge soon.  Jacobsburg State Park employees noted that the Northern spicebush Lindera benzoin was already showing buds.

Snow drops (photo credit: Dave Husic)

Spicebush flowers (Photo credit: Corey Husic)

After an unusually cold winter, the last two days the temperature soared into the 60’s and rapidly melted the snow.  The ice began to retreat on our pond.  Today, we saw the first turkey vultures venture over the Kittatinny Ridge (Blue Mountain).  Some saw them yesterday.   Just south of the ridge, it is not unusual to see the vultures throughout the winter, especially just south of the Lehigh Valley.  My Winter aconite (Eranthis) started to bloom today.  This small low growing plant has rather large yellow flowers (relative to the plant size) and is a member of the Buttercup (Ranunculaceae).  Although both the snowdrops and aconite are commonly seen in this area, neither is native to Pennsylvania.

Perhaps the biggest surprise occurred at dusk – the first woodcocks were calling ("peent").  Although it was too dark to see the birds, you could hear the timberdoodle sound of their wings as they flew around our field.  They were in the exact location where my son just an hour earlier had said they may show up—soggy areas of our field where worms may emerge.  I had a report that a woodcock was heard in Lehighton yesterday as well.  According to the Birds of the Lehigh Valley, a publication of the Lehigh Valley Audubon Society, the earliest date for these was February 11th (in 1998) in Revere – a small town south of Easton along the Delaware River.

Dan Kunkle at the Lehigh Gap Nature Center said there were two adult bald eagles at the Refuge today!  He also saw bluebirds checking out the nest boxes.

Have you seen signs of spring yet?  The temperatures will drop again, so these may have been teasers, but important observations none-the-less.  And if anyone out there has pictures of these early species to share on this blog, let me know!


  1. A friend from Montclair, NJ contacted me yesterday (2/19/11) to tell me about the strong gusts of wind blowing children's sleds around all day. Montclair is about 80 miles due east of Kunkletown but, thanks to some major coastal storms this winter, they have had a lot more snowfall than us. In that region, according to, they still have between 5 to 11 inches of snow on the ground still . The warm weather this past week melted much of the snow here although there is still some in the woods and shady areas. The site shows a trace to 2 inches in our region . These regional variations can significantly impact when signs of spring emerge since snow on the ground keeps the soil colder and the snowcover impacts solar reflection and microclimate temperatures.

  2. Over this past weekend as the snow began to melt in our woods, we observed the skunk cabbage emerging in the swamp area between Perkiomen Creek and a smaller side creek.
    Also this morning I observed a tree sparrow feeding on the ground...first one I have seen this year. Yesterday I had sprinkled mixed deed and corn ad peanuts on the ground and this morning many birds were digging in the snow to get at it.