Spring Will Be Upon Us When We See the Signals

By Scott Shalaway
TO MOST of us, spring means flowers blooming, birds singing and gardens growing. The calendar definition of spring, however, is simply the mid point between winter and summer, one of two days of the year when day and night are equal in length. (The first day of autumn is the other.)

It makes more sense to define seasons in terms of what’s happening in nature than to simply accept a calendar definition. The appearance of robins is among the most popular signs of spring; it’s also among the least reliable.

If all robins disappeared each winter and returned in March, I could buy the association. But they don’t. I see robins all winter long. Some may be residents that chose not to migrate. Others are birds from farther north that winter here.

The reason more people don’t see robins in the winter is that robins gather in flocks and move away from open yards and parks and into deeper woodlands where food is abundant. Robins eat fruits during the winter, so they head for heavily wooded areas where dogwood berries, rose hips, crab apples and grapes abound.

In March, winter flocks break up and robins move back into open areas. Once again they hunt earthworms on lawns and build nests in shade trees. Robins nest early; sometimes their first clutch of eggs freezes. But I digress, the natural history of robins is another column.

Here are some of the more reliable signs of spring I’ll be watching for in the weeks ahead:

  • Longer days, shorter nights. Gentle rains. Gelatinous egg masses deposited by frogs, toads and salamanders in almost every vernal pond. Streams lined with eager anglers on the first day of trout season. Kingfishers and Great Blue Herons fishing every day, without a license and with no limits.
  • Blooming crocuses, daffodils, forsythias, and coltsfoot (it’s the bright yellow flower that’s easily confused with dandelion, which will soon follow). Morels under dead elm and apple trees.
  • Turkey Vultures kiting on rising thermals. Six-foot Rat Snakes basking on sun-baked country roads. Goldfinches molting from their drab winter plumage into brilliant lemon drops. Tent caterpillars.
  • Turkeys gobbling. Grouse drumming. Squirrels barking. Screech-owls whistling. Coyotes yipping.
  • The shocking brilliance of Baltimore Orioles, Scarlet Tanagers, Indigo Buntings and Red Efts. The incredible camouflage of Gray Tree Frogs, Woodcock, Copperheads and Hen Mallards.
  • Ground hogs munching roadside greenery. A Phoebe building a nest on the porch light fixture. Killdeer scurrying about on lawns, parking lots and cemeteries. Baby Cottontails scampering across the yard.
  • Butterflies in hay fields. Meadowlarks singing on fence posts. Box Turtles crossing country roads. Barns Swallows and Kingbirds returning to local farms. Mourning Doves cooing on power lines. Dragonflies, damselflies, Tree Swallows, Yellowthroats and Red-winged Blackbirds patrolling territories in a cattail marsh.
  • At dusk, bats patrolling the yard, a chorus of Spring Peepers, and the sweet yodel of a Wood Thrush singing vespers. An evening serenade by a Whip-poor-will, one of those considerate birds that calls its own name. Nighthawks sweeping insects from the sky over city streets. Big fat toads hunting moths and beetles beneath the porch light. Frogs leaping across the warm roadways on a rainy night.
  • Arms bloodied by multiflora rose thorns. The sound of lawn mowers and the sweet aroma of freshly cut grass. Working in the yard until the day is done. Dirt under my fingernails. Washing up with brisk, hand-pumped water. Sleeping with the windows open.

These are a few of my favorite things during my favorite season. But to many, spring is defined by the return of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. They returned to the Gulf coast several weeks ago (you can check their progress at http://www.hummingbirds.net/map.html). I expect them here on the ridge between April 20 and May 3.

So I’ll soon be making nectar (mix one part table sugar with four parts boiling water, cool and refrigerate). And that’s one more sure sign of spring — a jug of nectar in the refrigerator.

The best way to monitor seasonal changes is to keep notes. A new citizen science project encourages you to submit seasonal observations as part of a national project. For more information, visit, www.budburst.org. –Pittsburgh Post Gazette