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I don’t know why but as early as March 1 folks were already talking about spring despite having two feet or more of snow on the ground, that much ice on the lakes and temperatures rivaling those of northern Canada. As recently as March 13 the temperatures were close to zero and yet another storm was blowing across the Northeast, leaving anywhere from 6 to 24 inches of snow across Maine. Spring? Not yet, apparently!
Despite what has become one of the most persistent winters on record, there are signs that things are changing. I depend on the local critter population to let me know what’s going on when it’s time for a seasonal shift and once again the prognosticators wearing feathers and fur have come through with optimistic, if not ill-timed, predictions.
Lo and behold, after having been absent from my back yard since November, a flock of 30 wild turkeys showed up just a few days ago. There were two mature toms in the bunch, a couple of immature “red heads” and a bearded hen whose “beard” consisted of three wispy feathers; not much of a beard but legal by spring hunting season standards. “Any bearded turkey” is the rule, male or female, but I doubt that particular hen will have much to worry about. Those who seek such things consider a trophy beard to be 9 or 10 inches long, thick and bristly. Unless someone wants to add a unique trophy to their collection that hen should be safe for quite a while.
Also returning after a long hiatus are the raccoons, which have been showing up as unfortunate road kills in recent days. That has me wondering if the key is the length of daylight and not the temperature, as some pundits suggest. I know that raccoons in the South will take a short winter nap now and again when temperatures dip below freezing but they are pretty much active year-round in places where snow rarely comes and the waterways seldom freeze.
One recent morning just before the last big storm hit I went outdoors to scatter yet another bucket of wood ash on next spring’s garden plot and was slapped in the face by the unmistakable odor of skunk! It’s not likely that a person could miss that scent, especially in winter when the only other pervasive odors are wood smoke and diesel fumes. Skunks are true hibernators and pretty much stay put all winter, and once again I’m wondering if it’s the length of the day that awakens them rather than temperature because, by heck, it’s been mighty cold this winter, even up till late last week. Predictions are for more cold weather ahead which suggests that our hibernating furbearers may want to wake up and get moving even though it’s as cold as ever out there. My wood shed is a popular gathering place for raccoons, skunks, weasels and various other warm-weather opportunists, so we’ll see what happens with them.
Of late I’ve seen pairs of red-tailed hawks and barred owls lurking around the tree line at the edge of the field, though there’s not much in the way of prey with close to two feet of crusty snow still on the ground. They seem to think it’s time to mate regardless of the snow or temperature, and if the barking of red foxes in the swamp below the house is any indication they aren’t the only ones who think so. I have kept an eye out for pairs of bobcats as well, but so far the tracks in the snow have all been those of solitary individuals. I don’t believe that bobcats spend a whole lot of time together even during the mating season, but I have found double sets of tracks in spring in the past, if only for a few days at a time.
I have also kept a close eye on the buds on the maples around the yard and have noticed that they were noticeably swelled since the last short thaw we enjoyed, but lately they seem to be holding back slightly, no doubt sensing that two feet of snow and bitter cold is not a good combination for them. Local sap runners have also noticed the trend, with cold nights and cold days giving them very little raw material for the syrup that’s most likely going to be more expensive than diamonds this season. The folks I know who normally have gallons of syrup for sale right now haven’t collected the first drop of sap, which can’t be a good sign or spring or anything else!
Despite all these rather nebulous indications that winter is about to wane, I have to say that the local woodpecker population has ideas of its own. Just in the past week I’ve seen pairs of downy, hairy and pileated woodpeckers swooping around the homestead, all acting like something good is about to happen. The smaller birds have been visiting the suet feeders all but non-stop for over a week, and a couple of males have been hammering on the cornice boards as they seek the best spot for announcing their territorial claims; cute, but noisy, especially when the drumming starts at 6 a.m.
Overall, however, the most convincing sign of spring has to be what the pileated woodpeckers had going on the day the last big storm hit. I have a dead poplar tree nearby that is often visited by a solitary woodpecker, but recently a pair of these big birds landed on it, chased each other around the trunk a few times (hint!) and then faced each other for a few minutes of bobbing and weaving. Finally, the female flew up to a large, rotten limb and hunkered down, and the male wasted no time in accepting her invitation. I have pictures of the event so there’s no denying it – mating season is on and that means spring is right around the corner!
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