Recently the high temperature at Riverbend Park was 20 degrees. The frigid air and breeze as I walk along the banks of the Potomac remind me that we are still in the grip of winter, and a look around at the dead leaves and barren trees seems to confirm this. All looks withered and frozen and life appears to be on hold. But a closer inspection reveals that much is still going on in the natural world. A winter wren tosses dead leaves under the roots of an old sycamore tree leaning out over the water. A flock of tiny golden-crowned kinglets flits through the branches over my head, seemingly oblivious to my presence as they search for food to sustain their active metabolisms. A brown creeper scours the bark of the sycamore, his feathers ruffled against the cold.
On the river the ever present Canada geese, apparently impervious to the cold water, duck their heads under the surface to scoop up underwater plants, their white rumps providing some relief from the monochromatic winter landscape. The honks and cackles of the geese constantly remind me that I am not the only one braving the cold today. The ring-necked ducks, and coots are grouped together on the far side of the river, and the brilliant white and black male buffleheads whizz by on the current before taking wing and flying back to the flock. A lone black duck paddles towards a small island and two mallards are swept along on the fast moving water. The river is alive with waterfowl and three common mergansers skid to a halt on the water to take their places in the flock, the female’s red head contrasting with the brilliant green of the males.
And what of the plants? A casual glance reveals only dead or frozen vegetation, but look closer and there are the chickweed seedlings, the garlic mustard leaves, and the tiny yellow flower buds of the spicebush, primed to burst forth as soon as spring arrives. The tiny furnaces that are the spikes of the skunk cabbage make their own heat and will even break through the snow to be one of our earliest flowering plants. Underground the spring ephemerals are primed to emerge as soon as the weather turns warmer; the corms of the spring beauty and the trout lily are packed with food to feed the growing leaves and flowers.
Over this wintry scene the white skeletal shapes of the sycamores form a stunning backdrop to the fast flowing river, most beautiful when viewed at sunset. The branches hanging low over the water are adorned with little bundles of ice, like transparent stalactites. Under the seemingly lifeless branches the gray squirrel hops and digs, constantly searching for those nuts it buried in the fall, and the sentry call of the carolina wren breaks the silence as I make my way towards the visitor center in search of warmth. Finally, an eastern bluebird flits by in search of food. Hopefully he will choose one of our nest boxes in the spring.
Written by Marijke Gate, naturalist, Riverbend Park