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Suddenly it’s mid-March and all eyes are alert for the tell-tale signs of an early spring. I don’t put as much stock in groundhog predictions as I do in the evidence that tells me winter is waning. These longer, warmer days suggest the end is near, and while flurries, cool winds and the occasional unexpected storm may linger, the battle is just about over.
In my daily woods walks I see continuing, subtle changes that indicate the coming of balmier times. I have noticed of late, for example, that the buds on certain trees are swelling already – not ready to burst, of course, but getting there. Also, the streams and rivulets that cross my path busily chisel new paths in the snow. Places where, a month ago, were covered in white are now showing dark channels down to bare earth, and the snow drips night and day now, widening those channels in the ever strengthening sunlight. Those area most exposed to the light will soon show signs of greenery, small and tentative but increasing noticeably on every trip.
The heavy, warmer air of March also tells me that the porcupines are about to leave their winter dens. They spend a great deal of time in small groups, huddled tightly inside hollow trees, logs and rocky crevices, wandering out only at night to feed on nearby hemlocks. As the days continue to warm the porcupines will stay in the trees and soak up the sun, a welcome respite from the stinky confines of their winter dens. Most folks aren’t aware that porcupines are rather lax with their bathroom habits – there’s a reason why the entrances to their dens are marked by giant piles of digested material. They defecate freely, often all over each other all winter, and the mess (and the smell) is hard to miss!
There’s no record of how many porcupines can fit in a hollow tree, but last year I found five very large porcupines sunning on the highest dead branches of one old hemlock, and suspect there were more inside. The pile of scat at the entrance to the hollow was nearly waist deep!
Of course, I prefer more joyous signs of spring, and nothing beats the happy chirps of roaming bands of chickadees. When the first hints of warmer, sunnier times break through at this time of year the chickadees seem to perk up and become more boisterous. Warmer temperatures mean the insects burrowed into the tree bark begin to stir, and that means more, easy pickings for the little birds that feed on them. Not only do the chickadees seem downright thrilled about the sudden bounty, other bark-feeders such as nuthatches, creepers and woodpeckers notice the difference as well.
During my hikes I always stop at a “T” in the trail where a huge old pine marks the intersection. Its wide-spreading roots make a perfect place to sit and brew up a cup of tea, and while I sip I just watch and listen. For most of the winter all I heard were the distance croaks of passing ravens and the occasional caw of a crow, but on my most recent trip I was pleased to see nuthatches, creepers, wrens and chickadees roaming the massive limbs of the ancient pine. I looked very closely at the thick bark of the old tree and saw all sorts of tiny insects running around on it. They were, of course, doing their best to devour the tree, which might take another 50 years if they hurry, but the birds were not going to make it an easy task. The battle continued long after I finished my tea and continued on my way, but I could still hear the birds singing and chirping long after I’d turned the corner and headed into the valley toward home.
Another sign of winter’s end can be found in the many south-facing bare spots in the woods where wild turkeys have been scratching. These big birds do an excellent job of harrowing the detritus on the forest floor. They don’t miss much, but smaller birds and squirrels will follow them and pick up the tidbits the turkeys leave behind. All of this activity leaves an odor of decaying leaves in the heavy March air – I often “find” these spots with my nose before I ever see them, and it sure smells like spring to me!
There are all sorts of signs that suggest warmer times are coming, and I suppose one needn’t go tramping into the woods to find some of them. For example, I’ve noticed that the icicles on my south-side eaves are gone, replaced by the steady drip of snow melting off of the roof. Also, the dirt along the basement walls is bare, suggesting that the heat of the sun is warming the concrete enough to keep the snow from piling up near the house. The next storm will regain some ground, no doubt, but the signs are clear – winter is losing its grip on us.
It’s too early, of course, to be looking for the first crocus buds to appear, but it won’t be long. Overall, I didn’t think this was such a bad winter. Storms came and went but they seemed to end quickly and I was able to clear the walkways and feeders almost as soon as the snow stopped falling. My wild critters had no trouble finding food or making their way to the feeders because as quickly as the snow fell the sun and warm temperatures pounded it down to workable levels. There have been few nights when the deer and foxes did not appear, and the turkeys have been in the yard every day, sometimes twice a day, and so I suppose they would agree that, as winters go, this wasn’t a bad one.
There is still more winter to come and even the Farmer’s Almanac suggests that there are a few big storms on their way, but from the looks of things the worst of it is behind us. Of course, next week we could be up to our necks in white stuff, but that’s nothing new. The end is near and Ol’ Man Winter knows it!
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