WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY
“Each year, after the midwinter blizzards, there comes a night of thaw when the tinkle of dripping water is heard in the land. It brings strange stirrings, not only to creatures abed for the night, but to some who have been asleep for the winter. The hibernation skunk, curled up in his deep den, uncurls himself and ventures forth to prowl the wet world, dragging his belly in the snow. His tracks marks one of the earliest datable events in that cycle of beginning and ceasings we call a year.”
Aldo Leopold’s words in A Sand County Almanac highlight the science of phenology: the observation and study of the timing of periodic life cycle events of nature’s way that are influenced by climate and seasonal change. With those thoughts in mind, this special edition of the Wilder Side of Oakland County explores the monthly phenology of 2022.
I will start most every January morning the same way I started December days. I head out in the dawn’s early light and meander down my woodland path to the marsh, which refuels me for a new day. I nod to the deer that I encounter. They know my wanderings well and continue browsing. Sometimes I see red-bellied woodpeckers flitting about, who seem to know me too. They watch my passing, or perhaps they are listening to the distant hooting of a great horned owl. After a few minutes at the marsh I walk home and restock the bird feeders. Downy and Hairy woodpeckers respond quickly and feast on my suet offerings. When it’s sunny, black-capped chickadees sing as if it’s spring, and I find myself smiling at their song. That’s a brief study of 30 minutes of my personal phenology on a winter’s morning attuned to the influence of seasonal change and local weather.
Red foxes are active all year, but in February their nose-to-the-ground night patrols accelerate.
It’s their breeding season. These wary members of the canine family delight me when they activate my motion activated trail cameras. Red squirrels and white-tailed deer scrounge for acorns under snow. Resident red-tailed hawks soar overhead, watching for a squirrel or rabbit in the open. And of course, groundhogs emerge from hibernation and look for their shadows. One of my trail cameras captured that very moment of a Punxsutawney Phil imposter.
The signs and songs of nature’s way in March all proclaim a singular fact: the first day of spring, March 20, 2022 draws near. When ice leaves a vernal pond in March, and the air temp is about 50 degrees fahrenheit, hundreds of wood frogs start quacking.
Days are noticeably longer. Toads inflate their air sacs and emit shrill trills all day and much of the night.
Red-winged blackbirds vocalize and flash their bright red epaulets to proclaim territory. Secretive brown thrashers sing their exuberant songs from thickets and woodlots. Osprey return to their lofty nests, some located on cell towers. Baby cottontail rabbits witness their first sunrise. There is almost always a rabbit nest in my small, rather unkept garden just yards from the door. I watch the bundles of squirming fur grow.
May sends foragers to woods and fields in search of emerging morel mushrooms and wild asparagus. The American Woodcock, often colloquially referred to as a “Timberdoodle” remains motionlessly in perfect camouflage on her hidden nest. Fawns wobble on unsteady legs. Mosquitos appear. Leopard frogs leap through wet meadows. Ruby-throated hummingbirds hover at feeders. Elusive thirteen-lined ground squirrels stand tall and hunt insects. Native wildflowers, including May apple, bloodroot, and yellow lady slippers draw the attention of woodland wanderers.
Honey bees return to their hive with full pollen baskets. Beavers give birth. Black-eyed Susan’s bloom and nod their heads in summer breezes. Wild strawberries ripen. Baby wood ducks hatch and leap from tree hollows to the water below. Robins on their nests—everywhere! Northern water snakes sunbathe as they wait for a frog to come within striking range. Humans celebrate the summer solstice with campfires and adventures on June 21, 2022.
Bucks, with their velvet antlers, munch on my meadow wildflowers.
Hundreds of newly emerging baby toads, some call them “toadlets,” hop from the water to their new life on land. Goldfinch, late season nesters, gather thistledown to add to their nests. Gray treefrogs sing before thunderstorms. Green frogs sound off too. A chorus of them on a sultry summer day sound a bit like a room full of banjos being plucked. Spotted jewelweed sparkles in the dawn’s early light.
Dragonflies and damselflies skim over wetlands on fast-paced mosquito hunts. Snapping turtles draped in coats of algae lumber onto shore. Monarchs and tiger swallowtail butterflies flutter over fields. Blackberries ripen. Chipmunks climb trees to feast on tiny fruits. Black walnuts ripen and plunge downwards in high wind events. Milkweed pods swell.
Great Blue Herons, Green Herons and Great Egrets stalk frogs in shallow marshes. Poison sumac leaves turn scarlet. Massasauga rattlesnakes bask in late day sunlight. Trumpeter swans make rest stops in our county on their journey south. Leopard frogs—named because of their spots—leap through wet meadows. Groundhogs practice gluttony in preparation for their long sleep.
As days shorten, the pace of nature quickens. Tamarack trees turn smoky gold. Yellow jackets go into a final feeding frenzy. White-footed mice raid fluffy cattail heads to add to winter nests. Fantastic fall fungi emerges with the amanitas and chicken of the woods drawing my attention. Blue jays become boisterous. Bats go missing. Spidery yellow blossoms of witch hazel are all but hidden in the kaleidoscope of colorful tree leaves
Bucks wander, and are wary and watchful. Raccoons search for winter den sites in hollow trees for catnaps. Pileated woodpeckers pound away on tree trunks to feast on carpenter ants. Red foxes yip in the moonlight. Bird feeders attract Cooper’s hawks. The hawks stay motionless and wait for the right moment to swoop in for a feathery meal.
Swirling snow buries fallen leaves, adding insulation for small creatures underground. Coyotes hunt fields for meadow voles under snow. The coyote photo below was captured on my trail camera. Northern cardinals visit feeders and berry rich shrubs, creating Christmas card-like images. Black-capped chickadees sing their “fee-bee, fee bee” melody on sunny December days, reminding us spring will return. Beavers are snug in their lodges, for that is nature’s way on the wilder side of Oakland County.
Jonathan Schechter is the nature education writer for Oakland County Government and blogs about nature’s way on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.