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The arrival of the month of March seems to have the same effect on everyone: Where are those signs of spring? For some folks it’s the slightly warmer temperatures, the increasing daylight hours or the noticeable, prolonged dripping of water off the eaves. It’s still too cold to sit out most evenings once the sun goes down, but there’s that tell-tale humid warmth in the air that offers a hint of spring, and I’ll stay outdoors until my tea gets cold because I crave every moment of these end-of-winter days.
For me, it’s not the longer days or the warmer temperatures that tell me winter is over. I look for new buds on the hardwoods, the sudden change in the snow from finely packed to grainy and gritty, and the sudden ebullience in the songs of the chickadees and robins. We forget that our wild neighbors are as anxious as we are for winter to end, and their enthusiasm for the lengthening days is contagious.
Perhaps one of the most under-appreciated signs of spring is the malodorous signs of passing skunks. Some folks will, under duress, admit that they rather like the scent of skunk, likening it to the smell of gasoline or similar bad odors that might be considered offensive in certain contexts. The good thing about March skunk is that it means the hibernation season is at an end. Too, raccoons will be more in evidence as the month wears on, even though most of these animals will be seen flattened along the roadways. It’s too bad their need to find mates and establish new territories means crossing busy highways after dark, but the fact that they are there means winter has finally ended.
What I enjoy most is the arrival of the American woodcock. When you hear the long-billed bird’s patented buzzing call this month it’s a sure sign that spring is not far away. You’ll hear the odd call (referred to by biologists as “peenting”) followed by a curious twittering of wings as the male woodcock flies high into the twilight sky in an effort to impress a female. This amusing avian display goes on for hours just before dark and through the night, and it always means that spring is coming soon no matter how cold or how much snow remains. Woodcock station themselves in fallow fields or clearings, wherever the slightest amount of open ground can be found, and will remain there well into April. Look for the first signs of woodcock love in the next few days, although the process may be delayed if harsh conditions (snow and ice) linger into the next month.
It’s getting harder to find good places for it, but if you’re lucky enough to have saw-whet owls in your back yard, feel privileged. These little predators are among the “cutest” of all wild birds; fist-sized owls that make the most curious whistling sound in the night, one of those sounds that appear to be coming from everywhere at once. It’s supposed to sound like an old-time woodsman filing his bucksaw (I’ve heard both and don’t get the connection!). You can actually sneak up and grab a saw-whet owl if you move slowly and use a bright light to temporarily blind the critter, but it’s best to just slip in close and observe them. It’s a great experience because these little birds are practically fearless. Some of them will actually fly nearer to the light as you creep toward them. I’ve been within reach of dozens of them over the years and never get tired of seeing them.
One of my favorite signs of impending spring is the cacophony of blackbirds (red-winged and otherwise) as they arrive in huge flocks this month. I like the “rusty hinge” call of these noisy birds, as well as the “chuck, chuck, chuck” call of grackles, which also show up in flocks and stay for several days in field-edge treetops. I consider their incessant, loud calling to be the epitome of impatience – it sounds to me like they are demanding that spring come right now!
One sign of spring that is easy to miss is the arrival of mallards, black ducks and wood ducks, all of which have a habit of showing up a bit too early and so must make use of low-land puddles as loafing and feeding sites until the larger lakes and streams open up. I like to think (though it’s probably not true) that the same pairs of ducks show up on the same mid-field runoff puddles each year, but it’s heartening to find ducks using the same flooded areas each spring. I’ve never found signs of nesting birds near such puddles, probably because they dry up in April and May and there is usually no grassy cover nearby for proper nesting. I am sure the birds (along with killdeer and even a blue heron or two) use those puddles as resting sites until better accommodations appear later in the season.
Some folks put all their eggs in one basket and wait for herds of deer to show up in the farm fields at East Corinth and elsewhere. The early spring arrival of green grasses in these fields draw whitetails from miles around, and on a good afternoon you might see 100 or more hungry deer nibbling on the season’s first sprouts. This phenomenon only lasts a few weeks, but I’m not the only one who likes to drive through the region looking for deer if the number of vehicles parked along Route 15 between Bangor and Dover-Foxcroft is any indication.
Your personal sign of spring might me the appearance of pussy willows, Canada geese or hummingbirds on the feeder, but now’s the time to start looking. Spring is one of the most pleasant times to be in Maine, and it’s about to break loose all around us. Get out there and enjoy it because spring is short, fast and very busy. Linger as long as you can and soak it up while you can – like every other season in Maine, it won’t last forever!
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