By Rick and Claudia Mikula reprinted from Environment Pennsylvania, March/April 1993.
In Winter, many sections of Pennsylvania are downright beautiful, while others are simply pretty. Hiking, ice fishing, skiing, and other Winter activities are enjoyed throughout the state. Despite it all, there is no protection from "cabin fever." At some point, those warm thoughts of Spring begin to gnaw at the brain. Daydreaming becomes easier. A simple stare out a window becomes an out-of-body experience, until the phone rings once again, then SNAP! back to reality. It's a case of "SPRING ITCHY." There is a cure, however, and it's free for the taking. Don't wait for Spring to arrive - go out and seize it! The treasures it offers lie all around, awaiting discovery.
Butterflies and moths may be found "on the wing" in every month of the year. As early as March, they can be seen during a weekend walk. Butterflies choose a sunny knoll with oak trees. Many butterflies, especially the swallowtails, exhibit a behavior knows as "hilltopping." They have a tendency to fly to the highest nearby summit, which aids in locating a suitable mate. The choice location at these sites would be a stand of young oaks; older ones will do if one of the oaks has a wound or "weeping" spot. These spots may be found on limbs, trunks, or exposed roots. As the maple's sap flows, so does the oak's. Butterflies find this sap an excellent source of early Spring nourishment. Any of the species which overwinter as adults will be found here. They include the Mourning Cloak, Tortoise Shells, and Angle Wings; the darting streaks of red, orange, pink, and charcoal are Red Admirals and Painted Ladies.
Chances are that, on your way to the hilltop, you may have overlooked hundreds of moths. Many of Pennsylvania's moths are as beautiful as the butterflies, and some even more so. The state can boast of seven types of silk moths (Saturnidea) with some reaching a wing span of seven inches. They are everywhere, but lie camouflaged as cocoons. The Cynthia and Promethea prefer to be suspended from the limbs of trees and shrubs, while the gigantic Cercopia attach mid-way onto an upright stem. Luna, Io, and the Tulip-tree moths prefer the ground. They can be found by searching the north side of a tree, preferably an inch or two down in the leaf litter and ten to twelve inches from the trunk. (The angle of an exposed root is often the best place for pupae to be found). Polyphemus moths may be found either on a tree or on the ground.
To a novice, the overwintering bag of the Bagworm moth may easily be mistaken for a more desirable cocoon. The most common is the Evergreen Bagworm, which constructs a silken chamber as large as two and a half inches. Suspended vertically, they are covered with pieces of food plant. A search among evergreens and red cedars may produce many. Opening the bags will reveal if it was a male or female. Those of the male will be empty, while the female's may contain hundreds of eggs. Very often the pupal skin is still present. If brought inside, these larvae will emerge.
The next most conspicuous insect is the Goldenrod gall fly. Any field should yield hundreds of round swellings on goldenrod stems. Eggs laid by the females hatch in summer, and the larvae burrow into the goldenrod stem, causing it to deform. Inside, they feed on plant material and mature. If the gall is opened during winter, the dark-headed white grubs are quite evident. They have long been a convenient source of ice fishing bait. Left to their own devices, the larvae chew a tunnel-like opening as Spring approaches. They then retreat back to the center and mature to adults, using the exit at a later date. Inspecting a large field will tell an interesting tale. If the gall does not have a small round hole, the grubs are still inside. The presence of holes means that the grubs have left. Goldenrod on the outside perimeter of the field, however, will exhibit galls with square holes. These were caused by Downy Woodpeckers searching for the grubs. The woodpeckers will not venture into the center of the field for fear of attacks from hawks.
A search of open areas and fields also provides the opportunity to observe the egg cases of the Praying Mantis. The female lays eggs in a frothy mass that dries into hardened brown foam. This may be easily mistaken for discarded burnt styrofoam. Under no circumstances are these to be tampered with or taken - the Praying Mantis is federally protected and destruction of the insect or its eggs carries harsh penalties.
Marsh areas are home to the Cattail Moths. Upon locating a stand of cattails, gently shake the stalks of those still having their white fluffy seedheads. If the seeds do not disperse, the quarter-inch long, yellow-and-brown-striped larvae are still inside. They are only half grown, waiting for Spring to become active again. Pulling apart the fluffy down could expose several dozen larvae in a single seedhead.
Penn's woods does have a resident tree surgeon, and its office is located among hickories and oaks. To see if the doctor is in, check under these trees for twigs or branches which appear to be neatly cut off. If the ends show a spiral groove, they were removed by the Twig Pruner Beetle. The branches affected may range from one-half inch to a full inch in diameter. After the cut is made, the insect bores into the twig and pupates. Peel the bark back, and the tunnel of the larva will be easy to see.
Evidence of another beetle easily found is that of the Bark Beetle. In older forests, pull loose bark from branches or trunks. Some very beautiful patterns of the engraver beetle will present a complete record of its life. The collection of tunnels or galleries will bear two types of patterns. The adult creates a channel of uniform width. The female carves out an enlarged section at the end of her tunnel, providing a place for eggs; a male will not. Those tunnels that become gradually larger are shaped by larvae as they grow. If the tunnels get progressively wider, and terminate in a hollow chamber, they were constructed by larvae in search of a place to pupate. Upon emerging as adults, they bore out from the bark and find new trees.
Insects are not the only inhabitants to be found on a Spring walk. Flowers and small woodland animals are also "spring-itchy" and restless. Beneath decaying leaves that may still be covered with snow, the early blooming Hepatica can be seen. A member of the Buttercup family, the blue, pink, or white flowers are often a welcomed sign of Spring. Before April first, also look for the ever-popular Skunk Cabbage and Snow Trillium. The white flowers of the trillium will be located on shady ledges and wooded hillsides. The purple-brown and green egg-shaped skunk cabbage will be in a swampy locale.
By the middle of April, the blooming flowers begin to appear everywhere. Troutlilly, Marshmarigold, Dutchman's Breeches, Wood Geranium, Columbine, and at least sixty other wildflowers will be quite evident. Early-blooming shrubs include Spicebush, Yellowroot, Hazelnut, Box Huckleberry, and Rhodora. There are others, but their discovery is the object of a Spring-time scavenger hunt.
More "critters" begin to stir as onacheewa, or the warm winds of Summer once again return. The greatest hope for success in finding such quarry will be near the ponds and stream sides. Whirligig Beetles, Water Striders, and Sowbugs are usually the most obvious. With the first thaw of Spring, the dark blue or black Whirligigs can be seen swimming crazily in circles, never colliding. If captured, they will emit a tiny "squeak."
Water Striders stay on the water surface and never break through. Their means of propulsion is the rowing action of their middle legs. The Wood Louse will be under logs and stones, beginning its first brood of the year, so turn rocks and logs over easily and slowly. The orange Red-Spotted Newts are to be found at this time of year. This is the land-stage color. After two or three years, they retain their red spots but develop their familiar olive green color for the water-based portion of their lives.
Once the loud, shrill mating call of the male Spring Peeper is heard, Winter is a thing of the past. Of all the frogs in the eastern woodlands, they are the "earliest risers" of the year. With them return the Robins and other migrating birds for a Summer vacation in Penn's Woods.
As temperatures warm, the blue sparkle of the Spring Azure butterfly appears. One of the first butterflies of Spring, the Azures will soon be accompanied by the Sulphurs and Whites. Spring has arrived!
These treasures are free to enjoy and are best studied with the aid of a good field guide. For the novice, nothing is better than the very inexpensive Golden Nature Field Guides. As your proficiency increases the Peterson's collection of guides may be more helpful. Please keep in mind that you should not attempt to collect these species, especially as collection is forbidden in many parks and natural areas. A family outing such as this is a wonderful, inexpensive way to shake off the Winter doldrums and to beat a case of the "Spring-itchies."
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