Tree Watching in February

When February is cold and snowy, as it had been so far this year in Detroit, it can seem to be a very long month. Even winter lovers might start to look forward to nature’s new year, which begins here in March.

February 6, 2022

As I crunch my way over the frozen snow in Eliza Howell Park these days, my attention is often focused on trees. The trees remain dormant, waiting for the coming thaw to get the sap flowing, but they still capture my attention.

As in other winters, I enjoy looking at the upper branches of large Sycamore trees, especially when there is some blue sky in the background.

Even more striking is the winter bark on the branches and twigs of the Red Osier Dogwood (more accurately described as a shrub than a tree). It is red-barked only in the winter.

The snow under Birch trees is almost covered with fallen seeds, with many more seeds still remaining on the tree. Birch is one of the few trees to drop seeds in the winter.

The seed pods of the Tulip Tree remain strong and upright, though the seeds are long fallen.

The buds on trees, formed before winter began, remain in a pause mode, to reawaken when the weather begins to warm. The buds of some species are much more noticeable and attractive than others. One that I always check in February is Red Maple, anticipating its lovely red blossoms. 

Chimney Swifts are so closely identified with the fact that they use chimneys for roostibg and nesting that it raises a question. How did they live before European culture, including structures with chimneys, transformed the American landscape? The answer, based on reports from earlier times, is that they used hollow standing trees. Sycamore trees frequently served that purpose.

Since learning this, I keep an eye open for hollowed-out Sycamire trees. There is only one that I am aware of in Eliza Howell and I stop by periodically. And, while I don’t expect to see Chimney Swifts using it in season, it does somehow connect me a little with earlier centuries.

Sometimes I stop by a tree just to be reminded of the look and character of its bark. One such is Shagbark Hickory .

Woodpeckers and other birds continue to search trees for food (especially insects and spiders) all winter long. Lately I have been watching Downy Woodpeckers dig holes in small tree beanches. I do not know exactly what they are searching for (perhaps the larvae of wood-boring insects), but they are so focused on the effort that I have been able to get close looks.

Within three or four weeks, the sap will start flowing in Sugar Maples, Killdeer and Red-winged Blackbirds will return from their wintering grounds, and other changes will follow quickly.

Meanwhile, I continue to make note of what February is like in Eliza Howell Park.

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