Photo by Corey Husic

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Observations at the end of winter (astronomically)

Given that it was in the 70’s on March 18th, my students and I decided that rather than simply talking about the value of nature, we should explore the quality of the greenspaces in Bethlehem near the historic district and check on some phonological signs as we walked.

The maple trees buds were just about to burst into flowers as were the forsythia.  Around the historic homes tucked in around the campus of Moravian Academy, the hellebores were in full bloom.  These lovely plants also referred to as 'Christmas Rose' or 'Lenten Rose' sometimes bloom in winter.  This year, they may actually be a bit late since many gardens were covered with snow longer than usual.  You can learn more about this plant at

In disturbed areas it was easy to see why non-natives (weeds and invasive species) have an advantage—they are among the first things to leaf out in spring (and the last to lose their leaves in fall).  In these areas on Friday, the only green things to be seen were various weed plants that were already several inches tall, leaf buds on the invasive Autumn or Russian Olive shrubs (I couldn’t yet tell which was which), and basal leaves that had emerged around bramble canes.  Dandelions were also blooming in nearby grassy areas.  I did notice that some violet plants had emerged along the edges of pathways and sidewalks.

Behind the library, the first cherry blossoms were open and these trees should explode into full bloom during this next week.  The Magnolia trees had large flower buds and won’t be far behind. 

Washington D.C. is famous for its spring cherry blossoms on trees that were gifts from Japan in 1912.  Many of us cannot get down to the D.C. area to view this spectacular site, but we have our own mini version of this beauty when the plantings around the library bloom.  Bethlehem has a Japanese city Tondabayashi (  Yoshinaga Sakon, one of Japan's outstanding landscape architects, gave Bethlehem a gift that included a tea house and garden – named the Garden of Serenity which is on the west side of the library.  It is a bit early for the floral display, but we paused at the site to reflect on all that has been happening in Japan.  Just this week, a group of exchange students from Japan arrived in Bethlehem; you are likely to see them around town enjoying our area.  If you do, be sure to welcome them.

After meandering through God’s Acre, a historic cemetery dating back to the 1740’s with magnificent trees (this is an important stop-over for migrating birds), we walked down to the historic district along the Monocacy Creek.  The color appearing in the weeping willow branches was very obvious and hundreds of small insects had just hatched in one of the newer Bethlehem Garden Club plots.  Birds could be heard singing in both historic areas.  The students and I talked about the value of urban greenspaces and the important wildlife corridors, especially along the Lehigh River and various creeks that exist in the area.  Such corridors have great ecological value especially during times of migration and over the next two months, you will very likely encounter a lot of migrating birds in these areas if you are out walking.

Later that day, at home in Kunkletown, I took advantage of the fact that daylight lasts longer now and went for a walk.  Being farther north and at higher elevation than in the Lehigh Valley, plants are not as far along in their budding.  The maple buds are swelling and red, but not nearly as close to flowering as they are in the city.

Red Maple flower buds -- March 20, 2011 (Photo by Corey Husic)
You can compare the above maple flower bud picture with the one posted on this blog on February 20th; it is from the same tree.

Previously, we had only heard spring peepers down the ridge from us near some vernal pools.  On Friday, however, I heard them around our property at the top of the ridge and coming from the quarry ponds north of us.  Others sent reports saying that they were singing near the Buckwa Creek.

Along the edge of wooded areas, I saw patches of moss with sporophytes.  These seem to have emerged out of nowhere as I hadn’t noticed them earlier in the week.  Most people, including this plant biochemist, aren’t so familiar with the details of the life cycle of mosses.  I do know that different species will have sporophytes push upward at different times of the year after fertilization, so this observation isn’t necessarily a sign of spring.  For this particular species (shown below - I don't know how to identify mosses), however, it was the right time of year.
Some photos of the moss with its sphorophytes (Photos by H. David Husic)

As I was about to come out of the wooded area of our property, a small bluish butterfly flew by me.  It took me a second, but I realized that this was the first sighting of the spring azure, one of our species of interest for the phenology project.

Back in the yard, I noticed that the Pachysandra is just beginning to bloom.

Pachysandra flower buds (Photo by H. David Husic)
The Crocuses are now in bloom throughout the yard.  Checking some of the garden beds, I noticed that the columbine, bleeding heart, and rhubarb plants have begun to emerge.  Tiny green buds are now evident on some of the lilacs (I have several varieties).  My hellebores are just starting to show flower buds.

Hellebore flower buds emerging (Photo by Corey Husic)
The number of Mourning Doves around has risen dramatically and there are singing House Finches and Northern Cardinals, but we don’t yet have phoebes on our property.

I have been getting reports of people seeing their first groundhogs of the season this week.  I haven’t spotted any yet.  This does not make me sad, since as a gardener, I have a long-running battle with this pest! 
My son has already seen deer ticks, sigh.  My husband said he saw yellow jackets while visiting his mother yesterday in Warminster, PA.  Not all signs of spring are welcome!
However, my son Corey has also seen bees on the crocus flowers – so spring pollination has begun.  I believe that he will have a post on this.

It is time to clean out the hummingbird feeders.  The Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are in North Carolina this week and it won’t be long before some are spotted in this area checking out yards that seem attractive for their friends and family.

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