Happy spring everyone! Spring began last week, on March 20, the vernal equinox. I like to think of this day as the day the Earth, spinning like a top, is perfectly poised, its tilt zero relative to the sun, day and night of equal length for everyone on Earth. After the equinox, the spinning top starts to tilt, the northern hemisphere tilts towards the sun, days stretch out, longer than nights, bringing us the lazy long days of summer.
Despite the multiple feet of snow that still blanket this region we need to start thinking about signs of spring. I like running through this list every year — signs of spring are part of a natural rhythm that is repeated year after year. Rachel Carson (environmental movement icon and author of “Silent Spring”) wrote, “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.” (Silent spring). This is what I urge myself and everyone to do right now — get outside and start contemplating the great rhythms of the Earth.
Some bird-related signs of spring to look and listen for right now are the return of red-winged blackbirds (I have been hearing the males’ fluid trill from the marsh for almost a month now) and the “peent” call of the American woodcock. The American woodcock (Scolopax minor) is in the same family as sandpipers, but instead of sand flats, prefers to live in young upland forests — ones that preferably border a clearing or two. They are known primarily for their intricate mating rituals but also as a game bird (over a half million are killed annually by hunters). Their mating ritual really is intricate: the male woodcock finds the perfect site in a field and starts “peenting” (he makes a call that sounds like the word “peent”). After a while he flies up in a spiral, his wings making a twittering sound, then, at the apex of his flight, he starts to chirp, diving down, zig-zagging, chirping all the way. As he nears the ground, he stops chirping and lands, preferably next to a female woodcock who (he hopes) is standing spellbound by his wonderful flight. Then he starts peenting again. Woodcock were peenting from my field up until the recent snow, I haven’t heard them since. I guess they are waiting for the return of more proper spring weather.
A more subtle sign of spring to watch for is the color change of the male American goldfinch (Spinus tristis). Male American goldfinch are one of the easiest birds to identify in summer with their bright yellow breeding plumage, black wings and tail, but by the fall they have transformed — molted to the drab olive green and brown of the females and juveniles. This time of year you will see the breeding males (and less spectacularly the breeding females) begin to grow in their bright yellow breeding plumage. It is fun to watch these little nondescript birds start to transform, it’s fun to try to catch that first hint of yellow.
There will be more to see as the weeks unfold. I saw crocus in bloom along my neighbor’s stone wall just before the most recent snow storm. Skunk cabbage are flowering in a swamp near you. The sap is running in the trees and buds are threatening to break open. Follow Rachel Carson’s advice and go outside…..spring is unfolding just beyond your doorstep.
Send the signs of spring you see outside your door — first sightings, first butterflies, flowers blooming, birds, frogs, and salamanders migrating — to Pike at email@example.com.
Susan Pike, a researcher and an environmental sciences and biology teacher at St. Thomas Aquinas High School, welcomes your ideas for future column topics. Read more of her Nature News columns online.