Springing from the Ground

Spring woodland wildflowers seem to spring up overnight coaxed by a little rain, sunshine and warming temperatures. Shenk’s Ferry Wildflower Preserve at Holtwood is alive with spring wildflowers. Virginia bluebells give the forest a bluish haze. Spots of yellow, white and purple show where yellow, white, Canada and common violets are blooming. The odd-looking blossoms of Dutchman’s breeches and squirrel corn add an interesting touch to the mix. You might even catch wake-robin or purple trillium still blooming.


Dutchman’s Breeches

If you visit the wildflower preserve, don’t forget to look up. Right now woodland warblers are moving in and through the area. Listen for their high-pitches and buzzy songs along with those of returning resident birds.

For more information on Shenk’s Ferry Wildflower Preserve follow this link: http://www.pplpreserves.com/preserves/holtwood/pints-of-interest/#shenks

Rising from Frost

Skunk Cabbage in SnowSeeming like the antithesis of the proverbial phoenix rising from warm ashes, the first wildflower of spring rises through frost and snow. This often overlooked flower is skunk cabbage. It deserves a second look. Growing on flood plains and wooded wetlands, skunk cabbage began making an appearance long before the first official day of spring. Back in late February the tiny protrusions of growing skunk cabbage poked through the soil, emerging from the ground when all other plants were still in their wintry slumber. Amazingly, unlike the phoenix, skunk cabbage doesn’t depend on an external fire for its annual rebirth. Its heat comes from deep inside to help it grow and flower when freezing temperature would kill other wildflowers. It does this breaking down starch stored from last year.

Skunk cabbage blossoms are unusual in other ways also. Their flowers are surrounded by a pointed hood with a slight spiral twist. These hoods, called spathes, wrap partially around the flowerhead leaving only a tear-shaped opening, protecting the precious pollen from wind and rain. The insulative walls of the spathe also keep the flower warm. One biologist found that the skunk cabbage flower stayed about 36oF warmer on the average than the air temperature around it.

Skunk cabbage flowers should be admired for their early flowering abilities. It is more difficult to admire their beauty. Dainty and delicate these blossoms are not. Rather than subtle shades of pink or blue, skunk cabbage spathes are a deep maroon, either plain or mottles with yellow and green. They lSkunk Cabbage Spathe 01ook like rotting flesh. To round out this deception, they produce a rather unpleasant odor that attracts carrion flies. The flies not only find a warm place to shelter on a cold night, they also assist in pollinating skunk cabbage flowers.

You might not accept skunk cabbage as the loveliest wildflower of spring, but as it heats the soil around it and pushes back winter as it rises from the cold soil, you must admit that like the mythical phoenix, skunk cabbage is, indeed, unique.

Butterfly Observations

Photo by Ed Wesley. Faded monarch extruding an egg from the tip of her abdomen.

As I was just about to close up the Environmental Learning Center on Friday before Labor Day, I noticed Ed Wesley of the Butterfly Barn walking up our drive. He was interested in looking at some milkweed plants that had sprout up in the restricted area of the dam, just outside our environmental gardens. Specifically, he wanted to know if there were any monarch eggs on the underside of these new plants so he could preserve them for next week’s Butterfly Abound program at the Wallenpaupack Environmental Learning Center.  I walked him down to the entrance of the dam to take a look.

Photo by Ed Wesley. A fresh Giant Swallowtail

 He must have sensed my interest as he told me more about migrating monarch butterflies. Recently he has noticed the butterflies in our garden flying across the lake towards the sun after getting the nectar they need. He then told me an interesting fact: butterflies who flutter around nectar sources such as the butterfly bush are locals; while butterflies who simply stop by for nectar and then fly directly toward the sun, are migrants on their way to Mexico. Our local monarch generation (which lives 5 or 6 weeks) is still around, and may continue to lay eggs, though I seldom find them after the first week of September. These monarchs overlap with young migrants, who cannot lay eggs. Migrants do not mature sexually until late next winter in Mexico. That’s when they mate and the females then fly north and many will lay eggs on milkweed sprouts along the U.S. Gulf Coast and in north Texas. The locals here are pretty much done laying their eggs, but some are still active, which is why he wanted to check the new milkweed plants that may not have as many predators such as mites or spiders on them. Unfortunately there weren’t many eggs to be found, and the few we did find were empty, meaning a predator had already gotten to them. We wound up finding a few highly detailed empty eggs that will serve as great examples for the program on Saturday. 

Photo by Ed Wesley. Tattered Giant Swallowtail.

Ed has been observing migrants here in our area already, as well as a lot of other local activity which he later detailed in an e-mail with some great pictures he has shot, seen below. Since 1996, Wesley and his associate Barbara Yeaman have rescued Monarch butterfly eggs and caterpillars from threatened habitats and raised them in the Butterfly barn in Milanville, Pa.  With the help local school children, they’ve nurtured and released almost 3,000 adult monarchs.

 If Friday’s meeting with Ed was a preview to his Butterfly Abound program, I can’t wait for Sept. 8. I hope to see you all there as well!  Below are some of Ed’s observations and great photos he has taken in the area. 

 “Monarchs have begun their migration thru Hawley – Wednesday afternoon I watched nearly a dozen drift onto Butterfly Bush flowers – then drink nectar and pretty soon fly straight toward the southwest (and the sun), across the north end of Lake Wallenpaupack. Keep an eye out for monarchs flying in a bee-line toward the sun.

Photo by Ed Wesley. Tattered Giant Swallowtail.

I also spied a Giant Swallowtail butterfly on a butterfly bush near the Library in Hawley. BUT, it was very tattered, as if birds had pecked away a lot of wing tissue. The tattered “Giant Swallowtail” in my pictures is a southern butterfly that frequents orange groves.  I saw a fresh one in our garden, and a week later found a tattered one in Hawley – probably 4 or 5 weeks old. These were firsts – in 20 years of observing local butterflies I’d never seen a G. Swallowtail (although plenty of yellow Tiger Swallowtails, which are native here). It may be another indicator that our local climate is warming – along with an ice-free Upper Delaware River the past three winters.” -Ed Wesley 

 For more information on the Saturday Sept. 8 Butterflies Abound program with Ed Wesley, as well as all our free public programs, visit our calendar here.

 -Sarah Hall, PPL Wallenpaupack

Hummingbird Heaven at Lake Wallenpaupack


Ruby-throated Hummingbird on pine tree branch

Did you know that hummingbirds are the smallest of all North American birds? These magnificent birds can give some life to your back yards and gardens with their bright colors and darting flight patterns. They sure do bring life to our gardens here at the PPL Wallenpaupack Environmental Gardens at the dam! If I could, I would spend all day in our gardens watching these beautiful creatures who just happen to spend more time airborne than any other bird. The few times that they do land I always see them perching on a small branch of a pine tree near our feeders.

 There are about 340 species of hummingbirds, 163 of which are found in Ecuador. There are only 21 species that live in North America, most of which occur south of the Mexican border. Of the 10 species living north of this border, only one species is common in our area, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Archilochus colubris. This is the only species that breeds east of the Mississippi River.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird on trumpet creeper

The small, light bodies and rigid, inflexible bones in a hummingbird’s wings are what enable them to hover over nectar sources and even fly backwards. Normal flight speeds can be as high as 25-35 miles per hour, and in a downward dive some species can reach speeds up to an amazing 60 miles per hour. Their long, narrow bills and tongues are specialized to get nectar from tubular flowers. Males have the beautiful ruby throat area, which looks especially brilliant on a bright and sunny day. Females lack the ruby colored throat and are duller in color; however, they do still exhibit a bright green color on their backs.

In a state of rest, hummingbirds can slow their normally high metabolism to conserve energy. During activity, some hummers can achieve heartbeats as high as 1,260 beats per minute! They need to return to nectar sources every 10-15 minutes during the day to replenish their energy. This aspect makes watching them a treat because you almost always get a second chance to see them in case you didn’t get a good glimpse the first time!  

Up Close and Personal: Ruby-throated Hummingbird on trumpet creeper

I often have the bad luck of never having the camera when a perfect shot arises in our gardens, but in this case I got to run back up to the Environmental Learning Center, grab my camera and run back to the gardens to capture this shot. He was waiting for me on his favorite pine tree branch, and soon showed off for me on this trumpet creeper.

You can learn more about how to attract hummingbirds to your own garden at our Hummingbird Heaven down by the dam. For directions to the Wallenpaupack Environmental Learning Center, visit

 -Sarah Hall, PPL Education and Public Outreach Assistant

PPL’s Environmental Gardens Full of Color and Buzzing with Activity

Monarch Butterfly on Inula
Photo by Sarah Hall


 PPL’s Environmental Garden is in full bloom! Come to the Wallenpaupack Environmental Learning Center to witness the beauty of our gardens down by the dam! PPL prides itself in being responsible stewards of the environment. While you’re visiting the butterfly garden and hummingbird heaven areas, we hope you’ll learn something new about wetlands, butterflies, hummingbirds, and even bats.

 The garden is filled with many species to promote and support a healthy butterfly population, including Phlox (Phlox sp.), Butterfly Bush (Buddleia alternifolia), Daylily (Hemerocallis sp.), Lavender (Lavandula sp.), and many more.

Bumblebee on Butterfly Milkweed
Photo by Sarah Hall

Our garden also supports hummingbird populations with several feeders in place under the trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans), which is a natural source of nectar for hummingbirds. Hummingbirds are among the most important bird pollinators of plants in North America, so it is important to support their habitat. Learn more about how to create your own hummingbird and butterfly heaven while visiting the environmental garden at Lake Wallenpaupack!

 Directions to the Wallenpaupack Environmental Learning Center can be found at: http://www.pplweb.com/citizenship/environment/preserves/lake-wallenpaupack/programs-and-workshops.aspx


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