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It’s always interesting to me how one season in Maine tends to come along and push the last one out of the way. Here it is just days into “official” spring (as if any human declaration could carry that much weight) yet there is still snow on the ground – lots of it. There is no denying that winter still has a grip on things and yet just outside my back door my daffodils are already poking their way up through the crusty snow. One plant is already six inches high, strong and green, yet there is ice and snow all around it. Talk about persistence!
This, of course, made me start looking around for other signs of change and the first thing I noticed was that the nuthatches and chickadees were already starting to build their nests. I have a dozen bird houses I built out of scrap wood and each one has a tenant. It may be a tad early for some of them to start laying eggs but the urge is obviously there. The birds spend their days gleaning debris from inside the woodshed with which to build their nests, and recently the traffic into and out of the shed door has been non-stop. Snow and cold notwithstanding, spring is definitely on its way.
Another sign was neither subtle nor expected. I have not seen a wild turkey at the feeder since November. I guess the birds grew tired of slipping and sliding across the pasture on the snow and decided to spend the winter elsewhere, no doubt at a nearby farm where food was more abundant and easier to get to.
Just the other day, however, I glanced out the window (well, I was actually sitting in my rocker having tea and gazing across the field) and saw a troop of a dozen turkeys come out of the logging trail headed straight for my back yard. Five of the birds were big, mature toms with long, thick beards; two were immature males or “jakes,” and the rest were fussy, fidgety hens. They all but ran to the feeder and made quick work of the sunflower seeds that were left on the ground, even picking away at the remnants of seed that was caught in the snow when I shoveled the area after each winter storm.
Another surprise visitor was a red squirrel that I had not seen since Christmas. I’m sure he had snuggled up in a nest he’d built in my wood pile (I found six of them over the winter) and had been waiting for a spate of balmier weather. Now he’s a regular at the feeder, as are the turkeys, which tell me winter has definitely lost its grip.
More proof? Well, if a dead skunk in the middle of the road doesn’t tell all, I don’t know what does. This past week I’ve seen three skunks and one raccoon, all victims of vehicle encounters. It’s obvious that the depth of the snow (waist deep at the time) was not a concern of these winter-dormant critters; the recent thaw brought them out of their dens but, alas, their car-dodging skills were not up to par. Sadly, it’s not so much a quest for food that puts these small mammals at risk in the waning days of winter. Instead, it’s their search for a mate that causes their demise. Both raccoons and skunks breed in February and March, which explains their sudden appearance while snow still blankets the ground. Crossing a road safely is, apparently, somewhat lower down on their list of priorities.
Also in a rush during these latter days of March are human sportsmen who are anxious to squeeze the last days of rabbit hunting and ice-fishing out of the season. Conditions in the woods are bordering on brutal from a snowshoeing point of view, and for this brief period the hares have the upper hand. I went out to test the condition of my own snowshoe trails, which I’ve kept up faithfully since last December, and the most accurate assessment is that the bottom has fallen out – literally. My well-packed trails have been slowly melting from below, so even though the top level of snow is still hard and packed, the bottom is grainy or, in wet places, gone completely, which makes it tough to negotiate the path on my 60-inch wooden shoes. In places I have to lift my feet nearly waist high in order to clear the snow, which is still crusty on top even though it’s melting below. No fun to be had there! I tried walking on a nearby snowmobile trail but the situation is much the same and, with the recent rain and warm temperatures, getting worse by the day. The same goes for ice-fishing. Timing is everything from now on. Some of the bigger risk-takers will wait too long and have a devil of a time getting their fishing shacks off the ice before everything turns to mush. There may be plenty of solid, safe ice in places but lakes don’t thaw any more consistently than they freeze, which means there will be areas of slush surrounded by areas of thick ice. I’ve had to wrestle many a shack off the ice by hand and I can tell you it is not nearly as much fun as one might think. There is often several layers of ice separated by slush, just enough so that you break through one layer and end up standing on the one below. It’s cold, wet, back-breaking work – better to get the job done early than to put it off till next weekend. A few days can mean a huge difference in ice conditions, especially at this end of winter. The last ones off the ice will definitely pay the price for their procrastination.
Though it may not look like it, winter’s end is just around the corner. Frost heave signs and potholes may not be the most thrilling signs of spring but at least they’re a start!
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