Thom Smith Signs of early spring

By mid-March the magic of winter, like ice on our ponds, grows thin, and we begin looking for spring.  The slowest of seasons to take hold in The Berkshires, spring is the time we put snowshoes and skis away, although long time residents may be reluctant to hide the snow shovel for a bit longer. And we may never remove ice scraper and snow brush from the car, just in case.

Berkshire Naturalist Thom Smith looks for signs of early spring.

The least admired of all spring flowers, skunk cabbage, is also the first to emerge and bloom in early March in wet woods, often in temporary pools of water, while the surrounding ground is still frozen and often covered with snow. Look for five inch spiral, hood-like leaves wrapped around and pointing upward. They are a maroon color with stripe or blotches of green and yellow. Close olfactory examination will reveal the reason behind its name.

With snow still on the ground, spotted salamander migration begins. Watch for them crossing roads on the first rainy nights of early spring.

Birds that have been absent for half a year come back with mud time, a brief season when unpaved roads take on a life of their own. The sun’s warmth melts the surface of gravel or dirt roads, while the frost remains solid beneath, keeping water from draining away and converting sound roadways into mire. Mud time is a reminder that life is returning to wood and field, beckons us to investigate.

And as country roads become more respectable, another early spring flower, the bright yellow coltsfoot, may be found. So much in a hurry to attract attention, it blooms well before its leaves appear. Look for this colorful addition along roadsides and stream banks.

About the same time, beginning at dusk, the plump male woodcock, a member of the shorebird family, begins his nuptial flights to attract a female. On the ground, often in open meadows he repeatedly gives a “peent” call, and then flies upward in a wide spiral. As he gains altitude his wings start to twitter, and when he reaches between 230 to 300 feet and begins to descend returning to earth in a ziz-zag dive, chirping as he descends. He may repeat this well into the night.

Chipmunks have left their winter lodgings and announce their presence with loud popping chirps from yards to woods, especially abundant in local cemeteries.

On warm, sunny days, well before we might expect to see butterflies, the brown mourning cloak, a fairly large butterfly easily recognized by the broad yellow border on the outer edge of its dark upper wings. It is one of the few butterflies to over winter as an adult. Look for it in gardens, parks and along dirt roads and wooded places.

Listen for the sound of quacking from bizarre locations for ducks, including woods and brushy fields. It is coming from the earliest of frogs to awaken — the wood frog, a small, two inch amphibian, the color of dead beach leaves with a black mask-like patch from the eyes to the jaw. These remarkable creatures are among the very few vertebrates that can tolerate freezing.

And Redwing blackbirds have returned; they usually beat out the migrating robins. Both have the distinction of being harbingers of spring, although it is the male redwing that hurries north in March to lay claim to a good nesting place among cattails or brush in a wetlands. Often their “on-con-ker-eee” call brings attention to the sleek black birds with red shoulder patches. Later the drab brownish females arrive followed by brief courtship and nest building.

Trailing arbutus, the Massachusetts State Flower, blossoms about this time in acid, sandy soil, usually in rocky woods. It is a diminutive one-to-two-inch tall trailing plant with pink or white blossoms, and locally it is also called the Mayflower.

Then the tree swallows come, and the cacophony of spring peepers keeps light sleepers awake. Their chorus sounds similar to a jingle of bells, or ascending whistle, as the thumbnail-size males attempt to woo mates from shrubs and trees in or near standing water.

 

In the photo at the top, Skunk Cabbage is one of the earliest plats to appear in the spring. (Photo by Thom Smith)

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