Warm hospitality on a cold February morn
Susan and Biff Andrews
The thought of getting out of a warm bed and going out in the field on a frosty February morning is definitely not as inviting as it is in warmer months. That is, unless you are invited to join a group of like-minded nature enthusiasts to visit a beautiful farm in Windsor. Bird watching, plant and tree identification, and the fun of navigating around the cypress knees of a mostly frozen swamp while trying to avoid getting the seat of your pants wet, was the challenge before us.
Bev Ruegsegger made it worth getting up and out early with the enticement of a chance to meet Michelle Prysby, our master naturalist state program director, and with some delicious homemade blueberry muffins and hot coffee upon our return from our trek. All this and her warm hospitality as host of our little group.
Bev has two great farm dogs who, sensing the confusion among the humans as we stepped out of the back door as to who would led our group, showed us down the lane, around the lake and through the swamp. The cold didn’t bother them a bit. In fact, they were quite happy in a sunny spot in the yard long after the humans had retreated back to the warm house. It was a great relief that the dogs took the lead considering Biff and I had been lost on a dirt road on someone’s “back forty” about 20 minutes prior to arriving at Bev’s house.
You never know what you are going to see on an outing like this, especially when you are surrounded by folks who are really good at spotting stuff and pretty knowledgeable as well. Two plants were shown to us of which we were previously unaware. One was a little Crane-fly orchid. Hard to imagine an orchid out in a frozen swamp, but there it was. The other was a frost plant … frost plant sounds better suited to the terrain.
The Crane-fly orchid (Tipularia discolor) is an elusive little woodland orchid that grows a single tear-shaped leaf in the fall that disappears in spring. The top of the leaf is green, which for those of you with sharp eyes, stands out among the brown leaves on the ground. One way you can be sure it is a crane-fly orchid is to check the underside of the leaf, which will be a dark purple. The one we saw had the old stalk where the flowers were still standing. These little plants are rare or endangered in many parts of the United States and common in others. It’s a good idea not to disturb them in any case, as they need special circumstances to grow and reproduce. They like to be in areas with rotting wood and they hang out with fungi that decompose wood. They also have a special relationship with a tiny moth that comes out at night and is its sole pollinator. This is further evidence of the fine balance in the ecosystem on the forest floor that is best left undisturbed.
Frost Flowers are a rare phenomenon and like many rare wonders of nature are a sight reserved for early risers. Frost flowers are frozen plant formations that are a result of thin layers of ice that are “extruded” from a long-stemmed plant. The weather must be perfect … freezing air temperatures when the ground itself is not frozen. The freezing sap/water in the plant freezes, expands, freezes and pushes out, forming fragile “petals.” They are absolutely gorgeous if you are lucky enough and early enough to see them before the morning sun melts them away.
Coming through the swamp our group had to cross over a shallow creek by means of an icy board. This is the part where keeping the seat of one’s pants dry is important. Being the seasoned outdoors people that we are… only one person in the group had the forethought to bring a walking stick. The walking stick is your friend and a “third leg” adding extra support when walking in “iffy” frozen places. When crossing an icy board, it is prudent to use the stick by placing it down in the water. Hopefully, you will find something solid somewhere down there. If not, you will at least know how deep the cold water is before you get the seat of your pants wet. Another handy piece of information: Put a piece of colored tape on one end of your stick. You will always know that is the “clean” end, not the end that has been poking around in the poison ivy patch.
So next time you are thinking about sleeping in on a frosty February morning, give an early morning walk out in nature a try… you might have a rare experience.
SUSAN and BRADFORD “BIFF” ANDREWS are retired teachers and master naturalists who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.