It is fair to say that spring is now in the process of bursting upon us, almost literally if you consider the sudden appearance of daffodils, budding maples, roses and blueberries as positive signs.
I monitor the natural progress (and decline) of our natural surroundings daily on my sunrise tea-cup walks around the property, looking every day for some evidence of spring’s arrival, or, in fall, the subtle end to the growing season as winter closes in.
These days the focus is entirely on what’s new and there is plenty to grab one’s attention without having to hike miles back in the woods. For example, though I’ve shut my back-yard trail camera off for the season there is still no doubt that the deer are coming in to clean up the remnants of corn and sunflower seeds I put out for the daytime critters. The yard is littered with gobs of deer hair, gray and brittle, leftovers from their warm winter coats that are no longer necessary. I gather handfuls of the shed hair and stuff it into spare suet feeders, which attracts the smaller birds in the area (nuthatches, chickadees, finches, swallows and bluebirds), who use the discarded fur to line their nests. I sometimes mix short bits of colored yarn, string and ribbon that, not surprisingly, end up being weaved into nests all around the house. I have found some of my trimmings in nests that are a mile or more into the woods, which is a testament to the persistence and determination of the birds that incorporated them into their nests.
There less subtle signs of spring that even late risers can identify. Crack a window at dawn and you should be able to hear the sounds of wild turkeys gobbling in the highlands. These birds are well into their breeding season and the males will continue to aggressively seek receptive hens through the end of May. It’s not unusual to see a big tom turkey strutted up and posing for his harem of hens on a high spot in a field or pasture. The gobbling will continue as long as there are hens to chase, which is why Maine’s spring turkey hunting season lasts till June 1 in some areas. Turkeys are silent and secretive for most of the year but their loud, lusty gobbles are difficult to miss in spring.
I have to report that I heard my first loon of the year flying overhead at dawn on April 20, which seems early to me. However, I was also hearing Canada geese, phoebes and blue herons around that time as well. Another good sign of warmer weather was the sighting (several, in fact) of ospreys near local lakes and ponds. If it’s warm enough for these fish-eaters to find food it must be spring – or nearly so.
It’s only been in recent days that the local population of chipmunks has come out of its winter slumbers, and they aren’t the only mammals that have felt the urge to rise and shine. Already the raccoons have started to ravage the suet feeders on my porch, and in the last week I’ve seen five skunks during my morning walks. I have no fear of skunks as long as I can adhere to the “15-foot rule.” That’s the distance a skunk can accurately expel its odorous essence, although 20 feet or more is better. This I learned decades ago when skunk hides were worth $4 and minimum wage was $1 an hour. I cautioned my friends to stay back from any skunk we encountered but of course some had to test the limits of propriety and learned their lesson the hard way. One careless schoolmate took a shot of “skunk juice” right between the eyes and was blinded for about three days. I caught over 100 skunks while in high school but never had an olfactory incident, although I always had my choice of seats on the school bus. A little skunk essence goes a long way.
There is apparently a shortage of suitable housing in the woods because I have seen bluebirds, swallows, nuthatches and phoebes fighting over the same nest boxes, which I have scattered all over the property. Lately the swallows and bluebirds seem to be most at odds over living conditions, which is probably a waste of time because the resident flock of cowbirds waits patiently to ruin their plans. The lazy cowbird lays its eggs in other birds’ nests and lets the foster parent do all the work. Of course, the cowbird’s egg is larger and hatches sooner. The young cowbird dominates the nest, destroying the other eggs or killing its nest mates, leaving the surrogate parents no choice but to feed and fledge the pesky interloper.
I have already seen cowbirds invading the nest boxes where swallows and bluebirds have set up housekeeping so the future of cowbirds, at least, is assured. Most folks are none too fond of cowbirds and dissuade them every chance they get but I try not to interfere overmuch in the comings and goings of the wild things in my realm. It is sad, for example, to see a goshawk swoop in and take a dove, chickadee or finch off the porch feeder, but he’s only doing his job as a predator. I will take action if I see a gray squirrel invading a robin’s nest or if a raccoon tries to reach into one of my nest boxes but otherwise I just let nature take its course. The wild world features as much conflict and misery as does our human society but the feuds are invariably territorial and short-lived. Broken nests are rebuilt, stolen eggs are replaced and life goes on.
The final sign of spring is revealed in my own anxious preparations for planting. I have the seeds, the potting mix, the fertilizer and the shovel – all I am waiting for is nature’s assurance that winter is truly over!