Take a walk through the forest in May
Pink lady's slippers, photographed in mid-May near one of the camping shelters in South Mountain State Park, a 13,000-acre forest on the eastern side of Washington County. (Photo by Celeste Maiorana)
Take time and look for flowers, listen, then look, for birds, and enjoy the fresh scents and clean air as the trees use sun, air and water to grow and provide for the needs of a host of other species, including us.
Precisely what you see in a forest walk varies from place to place, according to forest type, elevation and exposure. And because weather affects the timing of flower and leaf emergence, many of the events described will also vary from year to year.
Mostly I will describe a common forest community, dominated by oak, beech and hickory trees. The American chestnut was once an important presence in these forests, but that's a story for another day.
If you walk along the towpath in C&O Canal National Historical Park, you will see many sycamore and black walnut trees. These trees tend to leaf late and lose their leaves early. This allows a lot of sunlight to reach the ground in spring and fall, which creates a rich understory with many and various flowers. It also makes it easy for invasive species like English ivy to take hold.
Pawpaws are abundant in the understory. These small trees have an interesting fruit that is loved by many animals and some people. Water birds are easily watched, and it is also a great place to spot orioles if you don't see them where you live.
On the slopes and ridges of our rolling countryside, late April and early May bring expanding leaves and the blooming of oaks and beeches. Hopefully, we will once again have a good crop of acorns in fall to fatten forest animals and sustain them through the winter.
Beechnuts, too, are an important wildlife food. Mayflowers, which begin to appear in April, push up to their full height. The pink azalea, often abundant in the understory, erupts with a profusion of long-tubed, mildly fragrant, dark pink flowers, which hold their beauty for many weeks.
The showy but not-too-common pink lady's slipper can be spotted here and there, usually peaking in mid-May and waning by the end of the month. It's important to be alert in order to spot them. You might see one here, two there. Occasionally there are large patches of them.
As May progresses, leaves grow larger and the forest floor darkens. By mid-May most of the summer bird residents have retuned. As you walk through the forest you might now hear the songs of wood thrushes, scarlet tanagers, wood peewees, ovenbirds, yellow-billed cuckoos and others, along with the songs of our year-round residents.
If you are patient and determined, you might even see them as they flit from place to place. By the end of May, the often profuse, white with pink blossoms of the mountain laurel, an evergreen shrub, appear. They really should not be missed. Also by then, black cherry, locust and yellow poplar trees bloom, overflowing with nectar for bees to make into honey for them and us.
Much of the pleasure of May forest walks comes from the flowers, the fragrances, the birdsong and the newness of the growth. But it is important to note that we are still without most of those annoying biting insects that can make these extremely productive habitats hard for us warm-blooded mammals to enjoy.
So hurry. Summer is coming fast.
Celeste Maiorana is a member of the Washington County Forest Conservancy District Board. Visit the board's website at www.wcfb.sailorsite.net to learn more about forest communities and projects you can do.