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After last week’s cold and snow, we’re all looking for some evidence of spring. I think my favorite “sure thing” sign of winter’s fading dominance is the rusty-hinge call of the common grackle, our largest true blackbird (not “black bird,” as in crows and ravens). These yellow-eyed, boat-tailed songsters normally travel in large flocks and show up with a whoosh of wings, usually on the lawn or in the highest nearby tree. The cacophony of creaky calls can be deafening at dawn or in late afternoon, and a busy flock will go from ground to tree endlessly, somehow flying all at once in a great, black hoard even though no signal is given, no threat is observed.
Red-winged blackbirds are equally noticeable harbingers of warmer days with a similar, raspy call. They’re our only black bird with a red/yellow shoulder patch. I love to see them perched on a cattail seedpod (actually the female flower of the plant) or on a nearly invisible stem of grass in the middle of a swampy field. Their arrival (sometimes even before the snow is gone) tells me winter is over for good because these insect eaters won’t last long on a diet of ice and frost!
I find one or the other of these common blackbirds everywhere I go in spring, from the shore of a ice-rimmed beaver pond where I’m hoping to find some trout to the edge of a greening field where I expect to see woodchucks, turkeys or a roaming coyote at dawn or dusk. The sound of blackbirds also means mud time isn’t far off. In fact, if you’re trout fishing and get stuck in the mud the odds are good that a blackbird or grackle will spend some time nearby laughing at your predicament.
For some reason these birds are most boisterous in spring and fall. Through the summer months you’ll hear them flying by uttering a single, loud “chak” that sounds a good deal like someone striking a reluctant wooden match on a cast iron stove.
There are other equally soothing signs of spring that can’t be denied. Perhaps most noticeable is the arrival of woodcock in the overgrown field edges. You wouldn’t notice these birds at all if not for their signature mating display, which begins with that peculiar, bug-like sound that could be mistaken for a cicada if you didn’t know the difference. That short, loud buzzing sound you hear as the snow slowly recedes from the fields is the male woodcock gearing up to impress a nearby mate with his aerial genius. He’ll disappear into the sky with a loud, continuous chirping sound reminiscent of one of those pocket-sized birdcalls you twist to operate.
The male flutters high into the air (often 100 feet or more) and comes twittering down like a wind-blown leaf, usually right back where he started. This buzzing/fly-up display can go on for hours, especially at dawn and dusk, and the activity will continue through most of April. Even though the woodcock is the size of a fat robin (with a beak that’s some three inches long) most folks have never seen one, not even as the bird flutters and twirls through the air.
Few but upland bird hunters know that the woodcock is a popular migratory game bird with a fall hunting season and a daily bag limit, and that’s just as well. Woodcock arrive in Maine and elsewhere in the Northeast (including Canada) around mid-March and are gone again in fall, normally around mid-November, spending their winters in the sunny South. I have seen the same mating display in Georgia woodcock in mid-December, which makes me wonder if they don’t breed twice (once in the South and again in the North —the timing is certainly right for it), but there’s never been a study conducted to find out if those December-mating woodcock are among those that head north in March and April.
Because I spend a lot of time in the woods in spring, I find many other clues pointing to winter’s end that most folks never see. Perhaps the most peculiar “sign” is the many clumps of thick, sun-bleached deer hair I find scattered throughout the woods. Maine’s whitetails begin to shed their winter coats as soon as the daylight hours increase in spring, and it’s surprising how much of that hair falls off at once. You can find evidence of this at any stream, fence or road crossing, or where the animals exert themselves to clear obstacles. I’ve found mere wisps of hair on barbed wire strands at the edge of a greening pasture, and I’ve also found clumps of gray hair big enough to fill a hat under low logs, in alder thickets and other places where the animals bump into limbs, stubs and sticks in their travels.
Whenever I encounter these larger clumps of hair I immediately think, “Ah, here’s where a coyote caught a deer and killed it,” but nearly every time I can find no evidence to support the coyote theory other than clumps of hair. No bones, no blood, no pitiful carcass, just handfuls of deer hair frozen into the trail.
Of course, you’ll know it’s spring if you travel to the bigger farm fields in our area at dawn or dusk to join your neighbors in observing the herds of deer combing the thawing ground for bits of spring greenery. The fields off Route 15 in East Corinth are famous for their springtime deer-watching potential, and you can often see 40 or more whitetails grazing out there in the middle of the day. You don’t often see that many deer in one place at any other time of the year. In fact, if you were to go there in November you’d be hard pressed to find even one!
I’m sure you have your own favorite sign of spring. It could be anything from watching the water drip off the roof to seeing scads of houseflies on the south side of the house. Drop me a note about it and I’ll work a few of the more unusual ones in next time!
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