Out & about: Signs of Spring, part one

A Red-winged Blackbird, one of the earliest arrivals of spring, calls from its cattail perch.

As a fresh blanket of snow covered the landscape, I was pleasantly surprised to hear the familiar call coming from a small stand of cattails in the local wetlands. “Conk-a-deee, Conk-a-deee,” it seemed to say. Although it was only mid-February, the Red-winged blackbird had returned, and it’s not the only sign of spring that’s beginning to appear. In the past week or so, nature is once again quietly displaying the change from winter to spring. One group of animals many people notice first, are birds.

As early as February, several bird species (usually the males) begin arriving on their spring breeding grounds, ready to establish territories and prepare “to attract girlfriends.” Red-winged blackbirds are one of those species, and one that I always associate with the early arrival of spring. But many of you may be asking, “What about Robins?” Yes, it’s true, Robins are also considered one of those first signs of spring, especially when several of them drop down in your grassy backyard looking for a few worms. But Robins are usually part two of the signs of spring that occurs another month later. In fact, many of the Robins we see now have actually been around all winter dining on leftover berries. You may also observe large flocks of Canada Geese flying north, but again, over the past decade we have grown accustomed to seeing geese all winter here in SE Pennsylvania, because for thousands of these waterfowl, this is their wintering grounds. Still, for other bird species, it’s not their arrival that signals a changing of the season, but their behavior.

As I stepped out in the backyard the other day, with patches of snow still showing, I heard a morning chorus of songs and calls from Cardinals, Tufted Titmice, Chickadees, a distant Carolina Wren and a Red-bellied woodpecker-they all know it’s time! In addition, Common Grackles have arrived, Eastern Bluebirds are checking out nest boxes and I was even fortunate enough to watch a Red-tailed hawk carry a stick to a nearby Oak tree, as it begins its annual task of nest-building. But birds are only one of the early signs of spring. Many other hints of the seasonal change are much less noticed, and happen gradually to the casual observer. These come from plants.

Many plants have already emerged from the frozen soil, and the buds of others are growing larger every day. Even our own flower beds are showing signs, as Hyacinths are beginning to push up and out of last year’s mulch. One of nature’s earliest seasonal plants to pop out of the ground is Skunk Cabbage. This large, showy, green, plant even as a special adaptation that allows it to melt any snow or ice that surrounds it. It usually grows in wet areas and can be found in large stands covering the forest floor. But a word of caution, it’s called Skunk Cabbage for a reason! When I was younger I didn’t believe what my dad told me about it, so, I had to test his knowledge. I broke off a stalk of a large plant and put it up to my nose to smell. However, I put it a bit too close and not only got a huge whiff of intense stinky-ness, I also made a slight error when I accidentally touched it against my nose. Like a dog that shakes it snout after getting stung by a bee, I began wildly swinging my head back and forth. I ran a short distance through the swampy underbrush thinking somehow this might relieve the odor that was piercing my nostrils (ok, not really the best thought-out strategy), but to my surprise, it didn’t. My last effort had me down on my knees in a small stream attempting to rinse off the stench, but the cold water only seemed to make it worse. The last thing I remember was my father snickering as he walked away, quietly repeating, “I told you so!” But what is it that triggers these changes in nature? You may be surprised to learn that temperature is only a small part of why these changes occur.

As we move through February and into March, the amount of daylight increases and the sun is getting higher in the sky. These extended days “invite” our spring and summer birds to return, as the sun warms the soil and initiates plants to emerge and grow upward. Our local mammals start establishing territories and courtship rituals become more active. Insects that have been dormant for months suddenly appear on warm days. For many plants and animals, winter is already over and spring has arrived, but for others the season is just beginning. Stay tuned for part two!

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