To walk along one of the hedgerows of red cedar trees that separate the rolling meadows of Spring Farm is to experience the dominant landscape of our recent agricultural past. Yet the fields here are maintained not for pasture, hay or other crops, as they were in the 19th century, but rather to provide habitat for grassland wildlife species. So it was gratifying, on my recent walk searching for signs of spring with 35 people, that one keen-eyed member of our group spotted a male Eastern bluebird, perched on an outstretched oak branch, in full view. Clearly this bird, who had been skulking near the edge of the woods till recently, had come out into the open to sun himself. Though bluebirds stay in the area all winter most years, we still greeted the appearance of this lone, powder-blue male as a convincing sign that spring had indeed arrived.
Making our way up the Crag trail, though, slogging through four inches of snow, it still felt as though winter had not quite released its grip on the land. The rosy round flower buds of red maples appeared poised to open, but none had bloomed so far. We heard only a few, distant birdcalls, and saw no mourning cloak butterflies, or skeins of migrating geese high overhead.
Yet we pressed on, and were soon rewarded by the sight of sap oozing from a pair of freshly drilled woodpecker holes in a young sugar maple. Encouraged, we made our way along Cedar Drive, stopping to look at a small overwintering fly someone had spotted on the snow’s sunlit surface. We admired this winter fly as if we were sailors on a long voyage, and this were a welcome sign of land. Many of us, who had swatted flies in summer without a moment’s hesitation, now handled this one tenderly, and laid it carefully on the snow off the trail, hoping it might survive. This kindred feeling towards even the lowliest creatures, kindled by our collective desire to witness again the renewal of life that spring accomplishes without our help, expressed itself even more strongly when a man near the head of the group found another small black insect on the snow. The long curving antennae and narrow, delicately net-veined wings folded over its back showed it to be one of the early stoneflies, newly emerged from a nearby brook, where it had lived as a water-breathing nymph (larva) for up to four years. And here it was, for us to examine closely with our magnifying lenses, as though it were a rare find, as it seemed, to us, that it was.
We pressed on, from Cedar Drive and Spring Farm Road, to the Table Rocks Trail, listing more harbingers of the season as we went. Dozens of sap buckets hung from sugar maples where the trail headed into the woods from the farm road, another welcome sign. We each caught a drop of sap as it fell from a spile to taste its faint, but distinct, sweetness. After a few minutes walking on the Table Rocks Trail we came to brook running over stones. We paused here to turn over some of these stones, and were rewarded by two finds: a tiny mayfly larva, and several half-inch long tubes made of sand grains neatly fitted together, like micro-masonry. These tubes were the protective cases of caddisfly larvae, held together by silk from glands in their mouths. Peering into the end of one of these tubes, I could see just the head of this curious caterpillar-like aquatic insect.
The mid-19th century farmstead at Spring Farm remains in the form of a large red barn, farmhouse and Spring Farm Road, which we followed back to the parking area, enjoying views of the Catskills beyond the Rondout Valley to the west as we walked. These vistas are all versions, some glimpsed through still leafless trees, of the famous “million-dollar view” we had admired near the junction of the Table Rocks and Crag trails. But we had scarcely tapped the riches of this part of Mohonk Preserve for wandering and exploring. Other walks have brought me to the rocky battlement of Bonticou Crag, and around its base on the Northeast Trail, returning via the Cedar Trail, which traverses a small wetland and another lively brook, swollen now with snowmelt. Here I found the locally uncommon prickly ash, or “toothache tree,” with its paired thorns and fuzzy red buds, whose bark native people chewed or boiled to treat toothache.
Ann Guenther has been leading a “Signs of Spring Walk” at Spring Farm each year for the past two and a half decades. I was happy, and honored, to fill in for her on the 25th anniversary of this tradition. Though the challenge of finding 25 signs of spring (we ended up with 15) with snow and ice on the ground, and chilly winds gusting, was a bit daunting at first, I soon “warmed” to the idea. In fact, I returned for another walk at Spring Farm the day after my public program to find two more remarkable signs: a firefly (of a species that overwinters as an adult, and does not glow, being active by day), and an inch-long wolf spider, both of them on the snow surface, sunning themselves. I returned from this solitary “signs of spring” walk feeling grateful to Ann, to the folks who had participated in the program here and to Mohonk Preserve. They had given me new eyes for the smallest of portents. To see a fly, or a stonefly, or even a single blade of green grass, in the austere landscape of winter, with a blank canvas of snow for a backdrop, is to see each of those things as if for the first time, the way a child sees them. This, I realized, is the most precious “million-dollar view” Spring Farm has to offer.
Richard Parisio is a lifelong naturalist, educator and writer. He currently leads field trips for school classes at Mohonk Preserve, teaches courses about John Burroughs and conducts tours of Slabsides and the John Burroughs Sanctuary for groups and individuals by request. Rich is New York State coordinator for River of Words, a national poetry and art program on the theme of watersheds, and teaches River of Words programs for school classes, grades K-12, by request. Contact Rich (firstname.lastname@example.org) with questions, comments, or suggestions for Nature at Your Doorstep.