April 2019

A phenology year - Did you see that?

Marla Mertz, Marion County Conservation

What we have seen this past month

The month of March has seemed to “fly” by - no pun intended. Once the weather broke in mid-March, we had so much melting, ice jams in rivers, and flooding in many areas of Iowa and the Midwest.

Many of the wintering owls, i.e. the short-eared, long-eared, and saw-whets, returned to their territories. Red-tailed hawks, rough-legged hawks, and northern harriers, that wintered in Iowa, left early in the month to get back to their territories. There were a few big days of snow geese and white-fronted geese that seemed to pass over us heading west and north.

March 20 was the third and final Supermoon of 2019 and the first of four full moons coming this spring. The ‘super worm moon’ was the spring equinox full moon on March 20-21 marking spring in the Northern Hemisphere and autumn for the Southern Hemisphere.

The melting created small open spots of water at Lake Red Rock and Roberts Creek Lake, which brought hundreds of bald eagles to do a little ice fishing.

Adult (breeding) pelicans were making stops on their way back north, along with common mergansers and common goldeneyes. Turkey vultures are making their return to Central Iowa. As for returning songbirds, we welcomed back the migrating robins, red-winged blackbirds, and grackles. The phoebes are slowly returning. Woodcocks have been heard in the area. Sightings of osprey are being reported as they return from South and Central America. Some great blue herons have made their return and will be settling in to their rookeries.

As of March 25 all of the ice has left the lakes in Marion County, but some areas of small, shaded ponds are still holding ice within the vegetation. The boreal chorus frogs have been singing loudly in small ephemeral ponds. They are the first to wake and call for mates even if ice is still hanging on in the vegetation. Soon the Spring Peepers will follow suit.

The snow trillium bloomed in Marion County around Lake Red Rock on March 25. The trillium is the first of our spring wildflowers in our woodlands. (Yes, this is a bit later than typical, but still one month ahead of 2018.) The trillium is also the first to set the stage to begin pollination with bees. Numerous flies, spiders, and moths have been seen on the warmer days of March near the forest floor.

Great-horned owlets are getting bigger and bigger each day. Some are peeking out of their humble abodes with their fuzzy feathers and golden eyes. Many eaglets have hatched now. Spring abounds with new life.

A closer look at something from the previous month

Skunk Cabbage is the first ephemeral plant (late February through early April) to emerge in the spring in some areas of Iowa. Skunk cabbage is considered a rarity. It grows in undisturbed older woods in thickets and bogs, in very wet mucky soil, along streams or springs.

This highly regarded plant has unique features. Skunk cabbage is known for “thermogenesis.” Basically, it can create and sustain its own heat when the soil is still very cold. It can generate enough heat to thaw frozen soil and melting snow.

With the skunk cabbage plants massive root system anchored in wet, mucky seepage areas, the flowering structure is above ground. Some say it is not an attractive flower, but even though you are standing in mud, there seems to something about the magic of this plant that attracts many people. When the bloom of skunk cabbage erupts from the soil, it is tightly closed. Once emerged,a slit-type opening spreads and appears to have a seashell appearance.

Why is it called “skunk” cabbage? When any part of the plant gets bruised or damaged, a very pungent skunk-like odor is released. Flies, carrion flies, beetles, butterflies, and others are attracted to the odor and the warmth the plant holds. Referencing its thermogenesis, the interior of the flower can hold a constant, comfortable temperature around 68 degrees even when snow and soil temperatures are cold. The flower within will be kept warm and protected from cold temps plus the flies and visiting insects are kept warm. These flies and beetles are the main pollinators. Spiders also like to stay within the flowers to await unsuspecting pollinators. Later in the season, the plant will have a magnificent rosette of large green leaves that resembles cabbage.

The skunk cabbage is related to jack-in-the-pulpit, which is a more common woodland plant. The flowers of both are protected and hidden in a tight cluster (spadix) underneath a hood (spathe), hence the name jack-in-the-pulpit. Other common names: collard, meadow cabbage, pole cat weed, pole weed, skunk weed, and swamp cabbage.

Snow trillium is the next woodland wildflower to emerge in early spring. This year, the beginning blooms in Marion County were observed on March 25. Trillium can be found in most of the state. Some types of trillium are also considered somewhat rare. Snow trillium is usually only found in rich, moist, undisturbed woodlands.

Trillium is from the Latin word tres meaning “three” and lillium for lily. Both the leaves and the petals are in units of three.

Many consider this small flower the true harbinger of spring. In past years, I had only heard of this trillium growing in the limestone-derived soils in Mahaska County. However I located a small woodland remnant within our county area, Cordova Park, this past year. These snow trillium are blooming on one of the highest points of the floodplain. I had always viewed this area as something special and undisturbed - this area also holds bellwort, another indicator of undisturbed woodlands.

Pollinators are attracted to the brilliant white color that appears in the leaf litter on the woodland floor. This flower attracts many bees and some fly species. The first few days of blooming I hadn’t noticed any pollinators, but on the third day, honeybees, sweat bees, and a tiny fly had already been working on the pollination of Marion County’s snow trillium population. Snow trillium does not totally rely on pollinators as it can reproduce through an underground rhizome. As the flower fades, it will turn from white to shades of pink. It won’t be long before the forest floor will be carpeted with other spring wildflowers as the rush is now on to bloom, be pollinated, and return to seed as the leaves begin shading the areas.

What we are expecting to see next month?

The month of March brought us a quick-change in the season. April will be a fast-paced month and always a fun time to get outside! What might we see? The American toads will be singing. Fox pups may be out and about playing. If you are assisting monarch populations, April is the time to plant milkweeds. Remember to look for morel mushrooms. Many different shorebirds will be returning. Pheasants and quail will begin their nesting season. Turkeys will continue strutting in their characteristic fashion. If you are up for camping, most area campgrounds open up this month.

Watch for the first of the spring butterflies to appear within the woodlands: the comma, question mark, the red admiral, and mourning cloak are normally the first to warm up and fly.

The woodland floor will be carpeted with spring beauties, bloodroot, Dutchman's breeches, toothwort, trout lily, bluebells, mayapples, woodland fern, bellwort, anemones, and many others. Along cliff areas and savanna remnants, watch for pussy-toes, wood betony, and wood sorrel.

More and more songbirds will be returning in April. Soon we will see rose-breasted grosbeaks, orioles, numerous warblers, and many others awaiting to come back to Iowa for nesting. Spring migration is witnessing the most beautiful of our neotropical migrants donning their most lovely feathers, courting, and nesting.

The wetlands will be boasting their habitats with sora rails, Canada geese, woodducks, and others. You can always catch glimpses of warblers in wetlands, too. One of the most mind-boggling images in the wetlands is the common green darner migration. Their migration is almost identical to the monarch butterfly, but more of a mystery. If you like birding, you are most assured you will enjoy capturing glimpses of dragons and damsels in your area.

Links for learning:

An activity to try!

Milkweed plants can be planted starting in April but milkweed seeds themselves need to be cold-stratified to germinate. In other words, they need to freeze! If you still have milkweed seeds in pods in your yard, you could try your hand at making seed bombs / seed balls to help spread the milkweed love. Here are a couple recipe ideas:

Phenology happenings in Marion County, Iowa

As we notice the things in nature that are changing, we'll be adding to this calendar.

Each week a new photo of the woodland creek and the wolf tree will be added to each album! Both of these locations are within Cordova Park. This park is managed by Marion County Conservation.