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At long last it’s spring. Time to put the snow shovel, sand and salt away for a while. This long spring means a short summer, but we’ll worry about that some other time.
What amazes me about spring is how quickly the wild critters adapt to the seasonal shift. Just days ago my back field was covered with snow, but now it’s being swarmed by bobbing robins, some building nests, some poking around in the dead grass and leaves for whatever they can find to eat. Being the curious type, I went out and sifted through the detritus to see what they were after and was surprised to find a wide assortment of insects, grubs and worms just under the wet, compacted leaves.
I am happy to note that I heard my first woodcock singing on April 6. As melting snow gives way to barren slopes these long-beaked birds show up to feed and mate. The male is a busy guy in early spring. He’ll sit in a sparse patch of saplings and utter a weird, insect-like buzzing sound that most folks don’t even hear unless they focus on it. After singing his odd, one-note song for a few minutes the male will suddenly leap skyward on twittering wings, adding a few bars of high-pitched melody as he goes. This display is designed to (and apparently does) attract the less-demonstrative female woodcock. They sing, they dance, and they mate, all in a short period between end-of-winter and the start of spring. This secretive vignette will go on most evenings for the next few weeks, and then it’s down to the business of survival and raising a family.
In recent days I’ve seen pairs of chickadees, titmice, doves and crows flying around with bits of nesting material in their beaks, so the race is on. I have a couple of small platforms built into the peaks of my roof where flycatchers nest each year, and already they’ve started carrying mud and twigs to these sites. It can be noisy and hectic once the nesting season begins but these birds eat a lot of insects so I consider it a fair trade.
The turkeys have come back after a long absence. The hens pick gravel in the driveway and then peck around the fence line for bugs and shoots, totally ignoring the proud, strutting gobbler that accompanies them at a discrete distance. The big toms put on quite a show, which often lasts all day, but the hens don’t seem to notice.
One of my favorite springtime scenes goes hand in hand with rain and melting snow. Large puddles are created in fields and pastures that remain for only a few weeks, but for a time they provide the perfect resting place for migrating ducks. There are four such puddles in my area that always have two, three or more fat mallards on them. The puddles will dry up by the end of April but the ducks get their use out of them. I have never seen an active nest near one of these run-off ponds, but I’m sure the birds appreciate the chance to loaf for a few days en route to their preferred nesting grounds.
Ducks aren’t the only wild ones that benefit from these short-lived ponds. On my evening visits I often see killdeer, snipe and even the occasional blue heron probing the ankle-deep water. A closer look reveals frogs, grubs, worms and assorted small insects in the water and just on shore, and in the mud I’ll notice raccoon, opossum and skunk tracks as well.
In recent days the back-yard feeder has become much busier. So far I’ve seen pairs of raccoons, gray foxes, flying squirrels and deer in my trail-cam images. Daytime visitors range from squirrels, blackbirds (always in huge, boisterous flocks), turkeys, doves, cow birds, finches and crows. It’s nice to see that so many of these birds and animals were able to survive this rather long, cold and snowy winter. Life should be a little easier for them for the next several months.
Each spring I make it a point to hike along the edge of a nearby beaver flowage just to see what’s new and exciting down in the marsh. There is open water along the edges of the deadwater but there is still plenty of ice, too. I expect to see ospreys show up any day now but for the moment only muskrats, raccoons and beavers have left their sign on the muddy shore. The gnawed remains of alder and poplar limbs show up in piles here and there, glowing evidence that the beavers had enough to eat all winter. Already they are working on new projects, as several trees along the bank are in the process of being whittled down to size.
It’s a tad early yet for the spring peepers, but there’s no doubt they’ll be ready to sing after a few more days of 60-degree temperatures. I have a small vernal pool just a few yards from my back door and by the end of April it will be full of tiny frogs, all doing their high-pitched best to keep me awake at night. Little do they know that I keep my windows cracked just enough to allow me to hear them. There’s no more certain sign of spring.
These days I am up before sunrise just to enjoy a cup of tea on the back deck. The same warm temperatures and longer days that bring me out for a look around also affect early-season songsters like cardinals, sparrows and chickadees. Well before daylight these and other birds may be heard celebrating the coming of balmier times. It’s still quite cool outdoors at dawn, but now a flannel shirt is enough to combat the chill. As always, the crows and ravens are among the first to greet the day – some things never change – but the chorus now includes more, varied voices, tentative at first and then increasing in enthusiasm as night slowly turns to day. No doubt about it, winter is over!
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