February Forest Hikes

by Jim Rapp

Naturalist Jim Rapp tells us about hiking in the forests near Milton, Delaware.

With our recent wave of weird winter weather, it can feel like spring is a long way off. February is still very much a winter month, but early signs of spring begin to appear on Delmarva around Valentine's Day. Winter's demise is revealed between patches of melting snow and chilly puddles, and through the sounds and smells discovered on a hike along a forest trail.

Launching your February forest hiking adventure from historic Milton, Delaware, you have several opportunities to explore the winter woods. Some of these forests are closed to the non-hunting public during deer season, but after hunting season ends in January, these trails are open again to hikers and birdwatchers. Another benefit to February hiking is the absence of ticks and chiggers, two critters that no one wants to encounter in the woods.

To Milton's east, Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge is known for its vast expanses of open coastal marsh and Delaware Bayshore beaches. But Prime Hook also has excellent, well-marked and maintained hiking trails through the forests that border the marsh. Click here to check out the Blue Goose Trail, the Pine Grove Trail and the Black Farm Trail on the Prime Hook map.

Walking in the wet woods at Prime Hook in late February, you're likely to see -- or smell -- one of our early emerging spring plants. The Skunk Cabbage appears as the winter snows melt into cool puddles on the forest floor. The plant emerges from the damp winter mud as a curled-up cone of leaves. The cone unfurls into spiky, maroon-colored leaves with greenish-yellow patches. The Skunk Cabbage's bright colors contrast sharply with the dark browns and grays of the winter forest, making the plant easy to spot on a hike.

If you go off-trail and accidently step on a Skunk Cabbage, you'll quickly learn why this wildflower is named after the smelly black-and-white striped mammal. The stinky scent that gives the Skunk Cabbage its name is beneficial to the plant, as it discourages leaf-eating animals from chewing on it. The odor, similar to rotting flesh, is so offensive to some animals that they won't even come near it, which also helps protect the delicate wetland habitat it needs to survive. The smell serves yet another purpose by attracting pollinating bees and flies that deliver pollen from male to female plants.

If there is still snow covering the ground on your winter hike, you may notice that a ring around the Skunk Cabbage is clear. These amazing plants are one of the few that have the ability to raise their own temperature through an adaptation known as thermogenesis. The mild heat generated by the plant melts snow and ice, which gives the Skunk Cabbage a head start against other forest plants as it begins the spring growing season.

44 miles of forest trails await you about 8 miles southwest of Milton at the Redden State Forest. Redden is Delaware's largest state forest, with 18 tracts totaling more than 12,000 acres. Much of the forest features large stands of Loblolly Pine, but mixed hardwood forests of oak, maple, and gum provide excellent habitat for a number of animal and plant species. The trails are open to hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, and birding.

The Headquarters Tract at Redden State Forest features much more than forest trails. Built around 1903 as a hunting retreat for executives with the Pennsylvania Railroad, the rustic Redden Forest Lodge is on the National Register of Historic Places. The lodge can be rented for special events and group meetings. The Headquarters Tract also features an historic carriage house that has been converted to a natural resource education facility.

For birders, the Redden State Forest is a great area to search for the hard-to find and stunningly beautiful Red-headed Woodpecker. The adults of this medium-sized woodpecker have bright, crimson heads, crisp white bellies, and ink black backs and wings with large white wing patches.

Unlike other woodpeckers, Red-heads are skillful at catching insects on the wing. They also eat acorns and seeds, and will often store extra food in hidden crevices to be eaten later. They are known to cover their secret stash with small bits of wood or bark. Red-headed Woodpeckers have been observed storing insects alive by jamming them into crevices so tightly that they can't escape.

Even closer to Milton than Redden State Forest and Prime Hook is the Nature Conservancy's Edward H. McCabe Preserve. Donated to the Nature Conservancy in 1993 by Constance McCabe as a memorial to her late husband and grandson, the 143-acre preserve is located just two miles east of Milton. The property features a three-mile hiking trail system through tidal marshes, upland forests and Atlantic white cedar swamp. The preserve hosts the globally rare plant known as Seaside Alder. Canoes and kayaks can reach the preserve by paddling the Broadkill River from the launch at Milton Memorial Park. For those who just want to hike the trails, a roadside parking area provides access to the preserve.

A sound of early spring you're likely to discover on a warm day during a late-afternoon winter hike near Milton is that of chorusing frogs known as Spring Peepers. You may not think of frogs singing in February, but these tiny amphibians begin their courtship ritual in winter and usually lay eggs in forest puddles and ponds in March.

Often heard but rarely seen, the nocturnal Spring Peeper is a tiny, brownish-gray tree frog with an X-shaped cross on its back. When calling during the breeding season, males emit a single clear "peep" once every second. The noise emanating from thousands of congregating males peeping at the same time can sound like an orchestra of a million jingling bells.

Females choose males based on the quality of his call. Loud, fast peepers are more likely to breed. Females lay hundreds of gelatinous eggs attached to twigs and grass in the large forest puddles and ponds. Peepers prefer seasonal ponds that dry in the summer months, as the water is typically free of fish and other aquatic predators that may feed on the eggs. Tadpoles usually hatch within 12 days. By eight weeks, the tadpoles have transformed into frogs and leave the water. Large, sticky toe pads on their webbed feet help the peeper climb, but often not more than 3 feet off the ground. Adult Spring Peepers feed on small insects and spiders.

Remember to look, listen and smell when you're out on a February hike near Milton, Delaware, or when you're exploring any of Delmarva's wonderful refuges, parks and preserves. The early signs that spring is coming are all around you if you're familiar with the natural world.