January Thaw? A Hike At The PPL Wetlands
Most years in January, when I was growing up here in Northeastern Pennsylvania , after a few weeks of frigid arctic air, we would have a “January thaw”. This year we haven’t had any real frigid arctic weather so I am not sure if the mild weather we had again last week can be called a January thaw. A cold front passed through early Saturday. It was 30 degrees with a dusting of snow on the ground at my home in Hazle Township in Luzerne County when I awoke . 30 degrees is cold but about 15 degrees above our normal low temperature. We had rain with temperatures in the 40’s on Friday, well above average.
As usual, I decided to hike again in the PPL Wetlands in Salem Township on Saturday. It was cloudy, with a temperature near 35 , and no snow cover on the ground when I arrived around 9 a.m. Much of the ice that had formed the previous week had melted leaving may areas of open waters in the wetlands.
As I said, this is very unusual for January. Many years not only are the waters in the wetlands frozen solid, but the Susquehanna River would be partially covered in ice. Not this year, there was no trace of ice on the river.
Some of the ponds, shaded from the sun, still had a thick layer of ice, but for the most part the wetlands were ice and snow free.
It wasn’t only me that was enjoying the warmer weather . I encountered a lot of bird activity on my five mile hike in the wetlands and river land areas of the preserve. I saw almost a dozen hairy and downy woodpeckers. I think this was a hairy woodpecker because of it’s size but I am not good at telling them apart.
I also heard the squawking of the most beautiful woodpecker, in my opinion, the pileated woodpecker. I love this magnificent birds. I followed its call and tried to approach but it flew off as I did. This was the best photo I could get.
There were also a couple of northern flickers, another species of woodpecker, fluttering high in the tree tops.
I encountered a black-capped chickadee in almost the exact same tree as the one I saw a week ago. It may have been the same bird. It certainly didn’t mind me getting close.
Walking through the drab, but snow free trails, I did notice some plants still thriving in the above average weather and adding some life and color to the usually frozen landscape. There were plenty of the invasive garlic mustard plants growing alongside the trails.
Another invasive plant, wild phlox or dame’s rocket was also sending forth young shots in the unseasonably mild weather.
And the invasive Japanese honeysuckle also provided some green color to the dreary wetlands.
There were also some native plants that remain green throughout even the coldest Winters were also growing along the trails such as the rare clubmoss or ground pine,
the evergreen or immediate fern and
the leaves of the spotted wintergreen. This is a lot more plant life then one would usual find in January under a thick layer of snow.
As I continued my walk in the wetlands I came upon a male mallard duck swimming on an ice free pond. This in itself is somewhat unusual in January but what I soon discovered was even more strange. Look closely at the photo. I didn’t notice it at first, and when I did, I thought it was a female mallard. It isn’t. It’s a beaver. In fact the mallard was swimming with a group of five beavers.
The mallard swam away as I approached, but the beavers continued to swim as I watched from a distance. There are a few beaver lodges in the wetlands. This was the first time I saw more than one at a time.
And as I walked away I saw this critter scurry off on the path ahead of me. I am not sure what it was, I don’t think it was a groundhog, but maybe a baby muskrat or beaver.
As I was leaving the wetlands I scared a great blue heron and took this photo as it flew off.
Entering the river lands area of the nature preserve I found most of Lake-A-While ice free.
However I saw no water birds on my walk along the lake. Only a few crows and sparrows.
Once again I ended my hike at the far end of the lake and began my hike back. It was uneventful. I saw no wildlife under the dreary January skies.
In the wetlands I saw the male mallard duck again .
And it was still swimming near the beaver lodge. I think they like each others company
Sine nearby I saw three young beavers nearby sitting on the shore, and a couple more swimming in the water. It seems I wasn’t the only one enjoying the unseasonable temperatures and ice and snow free wetlands.
There is still a lot of Winter left and I am sure there will be more cold, snow and ice in our area before it ends So I appreciated this January thaw hike. . But maybe there won’t, an, the January thaw will continue into Spring. That would be fine with me! Here is a link to some more photographs from my hike in the PPL Wetlands in the “January thaw” on Saturday. PPL Wetlands hike January 16 2021.
“Nature has undoubtedly mastered the art of winter gardening and even the most experienced gardener can learn from the unrestrained beauty around them.”
– Vincent A. Simeone