The uncertainty of March, signs of spring

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Never trust March. Though it’s always part winter and part spring, it never seems sure which path to take. One day there can be blue skies and 70 degrees; the next it’s 25 degrees and snowing. Eventually, spring wins. Longer, warmer days always win.

But rather than watch the weather, look to living systems for harbingers of spring. Its arrival is inevitable.

Gaunt, hungry deer remind us that new spring foods aren’t yet available. Mammals can at least rely on the last remnants of winter body fat, but food shortages can be particularly stressful for birds.

Birds don’t build layers of fat to get them through tough times the way mammals can, so every day poses a new energetic challenge.

Furthermore, the seasonal metabolic demands of molt, territorial defense, and nesting intersect to compound the impact of declining natural food supplies.

Along the edges of country roads, watch for coltsfoot, a bright yellow wildflower that at first suggests a dandelion. In marshy areas skunk cabbage already pushes skyward. Near small wooded ponds and even saturated ditches, wood frogs sound like quacking ducks.

The sound of a large chorus can carry a surprising distance. Wood frogs sing and court even while snow still rings their wetlands. But then this is a frog whose range extends north to the Arctic Circle.

And wood frogs are easy to recognize; they are small, brown, and wear a dark mask — the raccoons of the frog world. These same vernal pools also attract writhing masses of mating salamanders.

Careful observers might spot some of these wandering lizard-like amphibians traversing the forest floor on their way to breeding pools.

On evenings after a warm spring rain, the voice of spring peepers breaks the stillness of dusk. I’ve already heard some during a warm spell a few weeks ago.

Waking

Ground hogs and chipmunks wake from their winter dormancy with only two thoughts on their minds — food and reproduction.

Beware of them dashing across roads in town and country.

This week gray and fox squirrels should have young litters in their nests. These squirrels mate in January and give birth in March after a 40 to 45 day pregnancy. Look for young squirrels leaving the nest in a few more weeks.

But birds provide the most reliable signs of spring. Turkeys gobble. Grouse and woodpeckers drum. Cardinals, titmice, Carolina wrens, chickadees, and robins sing to celebrate the return of blue skies and sunshine.

Goldfinches transform from drab olive feeder birds into brilliant lemon drops that dot the landscape. And of course, spring migration is underway.

Turkey vultures usually return in February and lilt across the sky. Grackles, red-winged blackbirds, and towhees return to feeders. Killdeer appear in yards, parks and other open habitats.

Woodcock “peent” and dance in the darkening evening sky. By early April, phoebes and chipping sparrows join the backyard chorus, and bluebirds begin incubating their first clutch of eggs.

Feels like spring

By the second half of April, it finally feels like spring. Baby cottontails scamper across the yard. Kingfishers return to wetlands to hunt without license or limits.

House wrens, wood thrushes, gnatcatchers, vireos and warblers return. Some linger just a day or two, then move farther north. Others stay to nest. Barn swallows return to the neighbor’s farm.

Meadowlarks sing from fence posts, and mourning doves coo from power lines. Ruby-throated hummingbirds should be back by early May. (Follow their progress at www.hummingbirds.net).

And if I’m lucky, I’ll hear a whip-poor-will or two.

Finally, scarlet tanagers, Baltimore orioles, indigo buntings, and rose-breasted grosbeaks close out spring migration.

What a finale! And I haven’t even mentioned monarch butterflies fluttering across open fields, my dog basking in the sunshine on the back porch, box turtles lumbering across country roads, dragonflies patrolling ponds and marshes, or tasty morels gracing the forest floor.

Nature’s sights, sounds, and smells make spring the most exciting season of the year. Enjoy!

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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at www.khbradio.com, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

1 COMMENT

  1. Scott–my Man! Always on the mark!

    You could not have described a blossoming Spring any better. One of the greatest thrills I’ve had was to have a woodcock burst out of the undergrowth at my pond’s outfall, fly straight up out of sight, and then plunge back down with those weird “peent” and “peents” coming out of his nose-dive dance.

    Glorious.

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