College Park Wild

A Field Guide to February

Here in College Park, February really is the month when we see and hear the first signs of spring. Sunrise comes earlier and sunset comes later; day length has been increasing since late December. The sun we feel now strikes the earth at the same angle and warmth that it did in October, but it will still take a while for the soil to warm up and hold the sun’s heat the way it did in autumn.

Weather in February can run the gamut from blizzard to balmy, often with significant wet precipitation. Melting snow and rain collect in low spots in local woods and form temporary pools or ponds, known as vernal (that is, “springtime”) pools because they usually form in winter and dry up by the end of May. These ephemeral pools are critical for many of College Park’s amphibians, including frogs, toads, and salamanders. They migrate from overwintering sites as much as a mile away to these wet spots, mate, and lay eggs in the pools. The eggs hatch, and the young frogs or salamanders eat algae, microscopic animal life, and small insects and crustaceans. But they have to be quick about it: If they don’t make the transition to an adult that can survive away from water they’ll die when the pond dries up. Inquiring minds might ask, Why don’t they just lay their eggs in permanent ponds and lakes? Some do, it turns out, but their survival rate is low because permanent water means permanent predators like fish, which can’t survive in the vernal pools. Around here, you’ll hear these vernal pool inhabitants much more often than you see them. Wood frogs are the first ones to dig out of woodsy soil in late winter or early spring and make their way to the pools; their mating calls sound almost like low chuckling or quacking but the sound carries quite a distance in the empty late-winter woods.

By the end of the month and well into March and April, spring peeper frogs show up and their shrill piping choruses ring through the spring nights. Salamanders are silent; depending on the species they may arrive at vernal pools even before there’s much water there or anytime through the winter and spring. Since they have the least tolerance of our local amphibians for drying out, most salamanders are seen crossing roads and paths on drizzly, rainy nights on their migrations to the pools, Good local areas to see vernal pools are in the woods around Lake Artemesia and north of the airport. There are also temporary pools along the Metro tracks between College Park and Greenbelt.

February in the Plant World. Another denizen of wet places is skunk cabbage, not really a cabbage at all but a member of the plant family that gives us peace lily, jack-in-the-pulpit, and the Valentine favorite anthurium. Skunk cabbage gets its name from the potent whiff it gives off, which smells like rotting meat and attracts carrion-feeding beetles to pollinate the inconspicuous flowers that lie at ground level. The flowers have another treat in store to keep pollinators coming: They produce their own heat through chemical reactions, and can maintain temperatures above freezing even in the cold of late winter and early spring. After snow you can find them easily, since they will have melted the ice around them.

Skunk cabbage in bloom. The “skunk” in skunk cabbage comes from how the flower smells.

The summer foliage shows how it gets the “cabbage” part of the name skunk cabbage.

February in the Bird World. February marks the earliest nests and hatchlings here in the mid-Atlantic. Owls and eagles are active building their nests, and some may even have eggs and youngsters in the nest by the end of the month. The large robin flocks of winter are breaking up into pairs as the males begin fighting each other for the attention of females. The increasing day length works magic in other songbirds, too. It causes the vocal cords of males to increase in size (they had atrophied considerably over the dark months), allowing them to belt out the loud territorial songs we associate with spring. Cardinals and Carolina wrens are at high decibel. Male woodpeckers don’t attract their mates with calls as much as with drumming. Each woodpecker species has a different rhythm. The louder the better in the woodpecker world, which is why they sometimes batter metal roofs and gutters to the dismay of homeowners. You’ll also see mourning doves coasting flat-winged through the neighborhood beginning this month without flapping their wings; this is their courtship flight.

February in the Insect World. Look for the first butterflies of the year this month. A couple of species overwinter here as fully-grown adults (most pass the season as eggs, caterpillars, or pupae), and these can pop out of their winter hiding place under bark, in tree holes, or in cold garages on warm, still, sunny days even in deep winter to feed on sap oozing out of twigs and branches broken by winter storms and ice. Mourning cloaks, commas, and question marks are butterflies that have already been seen out sunning this month.

Mourning cloak butterfly basking in early spring sunshine.

Coming in March: Woodcocks.