It was pretty cold in New Jersey in December, but the temperatures warmed up as the new year rolled around. So what happened in our forests and streams between the cold nights and balmy days?
Endangered tiger salamanders may be breeding as you read this. These large amphibians belong to a group called salamanders, which spend very little of their lives above ground.
On a warm, rainy night in early winter, when the temperature is above 40 degrees, they migrate in the southern forests of New Jersey from the uplands to spring ponds where there are no fish.
Sometimes tiger salamanders can be seen breeding under the ice several centimeters thick. Imagine breeding submerged in 35 degree water under ice! You could say that salamanders flock to vernal ponds in hopes of meeting someone “really cool.”
While salamanders head to ponds to breed, wingless females hibernate climbing tree trunks.
They are not like ordinary butterflies; rather they resemble tiny, gray, thick egg sacs. Once they have climbed from the forest floor to a tree trunk 6 to 12 feet high, they release their reproductive perfumes known as pheromones.
The tiny greyish-white males spot them as they fly, patrolling the forest. They can’t see well in the dark, but their antennae can pick up the scent of females wafting in the delicate night air down to a few parts per million.
The camouflaged eggs are laid directly on the bark in flat, hexagonal clusters and may hatch in early spring if they are not eaten by birds such as voles and brown creepers.
When a warm, rainy night in January combines with a pair of unusually warm days in the 60s, brumate snakes (a form of hibernating reptile) – including forest rattlesnakes and endangered corn snakes – emerge from their winter lairs to temporarily warm their bodies.
Sometimes reptiles enter their lairs in the fall with skin abrasions. Warming up on a mild winter day, if possible, helps them fight bacterial or fungal infections.
A few years ago, a naturalist was exploring a Pine Barrens swamp on a 71-degree January day and found himself in the middle of a dozen camouflaged timber rattlesnakes that had popped above the surface to catch a few rays. Fortunately, the venomous snakes were too cold for the trespasser to aggravate them!
Adult cloaked butterflies, box turtles, and many other mountain species have natural antifreeze in their veins and soft tissues.
Mourning turtles spend the winter on or near the surface of the ground on high ground or in tree hollows, while box turtles huddle in depressions in the ground. Although their entire body is exposed to temperatures well below freezing for extended periods of time in the dead of winter, their tissues remain intact and they emerge in early spring ready to mate.
The first woody plant to bloom in New Jersey is the broomrape, which forms mats on sand dunes in the heart of the Pine Desert.
Unlike most plants, which have both male and female parts, broomrape is similar to holly in that each individual is only male or female.
Flowering can begin already in the middle of February, if a couple of warm days and nights come in a row. If during the hike your feet touch a blooming male rowan, a lot of yellow pollen will rise from the inconspicuous flowers.
If the pollen cloud doesn’t appear, it’s likely a female covered in tiny purple spikes, ready for a nearby male’s pollen grain to land on her sticky stigmatic surface.
Across New Jersey in January and February, bald eagles lay their eggs in their VW Beetle-sized nests built in sturdy crooks in sturdy trees.
In addition to feeding on fish, bald eagles prey on geese, gulls, roadkill and small mammals that are easy to harvest because they are also foraging for food to fuel their demanding warm-blooded metabolism.
This winter, get outside and enjoy some winter wildlife viewing.
A few days after a snowstorm, but before the snow melts, go hiking in the woods and try to identify the dizzying array of mammal tracks that cross the forest floor.
You will get a deep insight into the plight of various herbivores and carnivores that roam the forest in search of essential winter food.
Another fun winter activity is watching the huge numbers of waterfowl visitors that flock to the New Jersey coast in the winter from the prairie provinces of Canada and the upper Midwest of the United States.
Check out the coastal lakes, bays, river inlets and ocean beaches to observe the behavior of more than a dozen species of beautiful ducks, including hooded ducks, buffleheads, American ducks and ring-necked ducks.
Winter waterfowl can also be seen on inland bodies of water such as Round Valley, Whitesbug, Spruce Run and Merrill Creek when the bodies of water are not frozen.
Almost all female ducks mate for a year before leaving their wintering grounds and returning to their prairie burrows more than 1,000 miles away.
To find out where to watch wintering birds in New Jersey, go to eBird at https://ebird.org/region/US-NJ.
And to learn more about conserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alison Mitchell is co-executive director of The Nature Conservancy of New Jersey, Far Hills.