Unfolding of Natural Events Signals Spring

By Scott Shalaway
ON MONDAY, when I pulled into the driveway, I spooked a Rose-breasted Grosbeak from my feeders. As it sailed behind the garage, I stopped to get a better look.

In flight, its jet black head, back and wings contrasted with a pure white belly, rump and prominent wing patches. Even the huge, pale pink bill stood out. But not until the bird perched facing me could I see the scarlet triangular bib. Wow! Some birds require exclamation points; the male Rose-breasted Grosbeak is one of them.

The female, on the other hand, suggests an oversized, nondescript sparrow with a big bill, though she does wear a dark mask across her eyes.

In the days since that first male arrived, several more have returned, and they sing enthusiastically every morning. The song is series of musical phrases, reminiscent of a robin’s song, but faster. I like the description of the grosbeak song as a “robin in a hurry.”

As I’ve been enjoying the grosbeaks for the last several days, I realized that they were right on schedule. Not that they returned on a particular date, but that they arrived within a natural sequence of events.

Spring truly kicked off for me on April 20 when the melodious, flute-like Wood Thrush song welcomed the sunrise. The return of the Wood Thrush signaled that the next few weeks would be busy. Over the next eight days a parade of migrants returned. The highlight came on Saturday morning, April 26.

As I took a brief walk that morning, nearly a dozen new bird songs assaulted my ears. Warblers of all stripes–Kentucky, Hooded, Blue-winged, Northern Parula, Yellow, Black-and-white, and Black-throated Green Warblers–sang from the edge of the woods. A Scarlet Tanager perched high in a silver maple in the yard. And Yellow-throated Vireo sang from across the road. Birders call this a “fallout.” I suspect the previous night’s light rain drove the birds out of the sky.

Since then the grosbeaks, Yellow-billed Cuckoos, White-eyed Vireos, Common Yellowthroats, American Redstarts and Indigo Buntings have also returned. I’m still waiting on Yellow-breasted Chats and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.

The only surprise this year is the absence of hummingbirds. I’ve had feeders up for three weeks and various Internet sites that track hummer migration (for example, www.hummingbirds.net) indicate that these little jewels returned as far north as Canada a week ago. So I’ll be patient.

Birds are not the only life forms that appear at predictable times. Wildflowers and trees bloom in sequence, and with just a little experience anyone can monitor spring’s progress just by watching fields and roadsides. In early March, bright yellow coltsfeet flowered along country roads. They are easily confused with dandelions, but they follow a few weeks later.

By mid-April, spring beauties dotted the forest floor, and I looked for Virginia bluebells and ramps. About a week after the first bluebell flowers, I looked for trilliums and trout lilies. And when the trilliums bloomed, I started searching the ground beneath dead elm and apple trees for the mother lode–morel mushrooms. Some years there are dozens, some years none, and rarely there are hundreds. I don’t know that anyone has solved the mystery of morel productivity, so it remains one of springtime’s greatest gifts.

Tracking spring is as simple as keeping a field notebook. Or just designate one calendar for recording natural events. In just a few years you’ll have a handle on nature’s heartbeat, and you’ll know when to expect certain sights and sounds.

For example, I knew to expect the Rose-breasted Grosbeaks this week because last week mayapples and jacks-in-the-pulpit broke through the soil, and apple, redbuds, pipevine and dogwoods were blooming. There’s no cause and effect, it’s just an association.

Monitoring seasonal changes is the science of phenology. To learn more and be part of a citizen science project tracking plant phenology, visit www.budburst.com. –Pittsburgh Post Gazette