In the Bitter Cold, Signs of Spring

Even with mid-February’s chill, ice, and snow, there are signs that spring is on the way. On a recent walk I noticed that the flower buds on Sugar Maples (Acer saccharum) and Red Maples (Acer rubrum) are beginning to swell. Trees have evolved internal mechanisms that sense winter’s passing. These mechanisms are influenced by an accumulation of temperature swings through time. These combinations of temperature changes will eventually lead to budburst, which in this case leads to flower buds bursting open. Sap is also flowing upward from the roots now through the xylem, so maple sugaring season is upon us.

Even from a distance, you can see the flower buds on this Red Maple swelling. Photo by the author.

Look now in forested wetlands and along slow-moving streams and you might find the first wildflower of spring: Eastern Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), a plant with amazing adaptations (I wrote about them in an April 2020 post).

Look now in forested wetlands and swamps for the inflorescence of Eastern Skunk Cabbage, considered the first “wildflower” of spring. Photo by Chris Norris.

Last week I heard a male Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) singing “peter-peter” for the first time since last fall. A bird’s brain has hormones that, when activated by increasing day length, trigger the bird to start singing and defending its territory in preparation for attracting a mate and nesting. The Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura), and Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) are now joining in.

The Tufted Titmouse is one of the first resident birds to start singing in late winter. Photo by Basar, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Downy Woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens) have started drumming. They don’t drum to find food, but use a dead or hollow tree limb to enhance the sound. They drum as a territorial “call” and to court a mate.

Male Downy Woodpeckers begin drumming on hollow limbs and branches in late winter. They will also drum on metal gutters! Drumming is used to defend a territory and attract a mate. Photo by Mykola Swarnyk, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The American Robin (Turdus migratorius) has been called the first bird of spring. Not so—some robins are winter residents here and don’t fly south. In winter they change their diet from worms and insects to berries in wetlands and other habitats. Among northward spring migrants, the first true “bird of spring” is the Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus). Look in freshwater marshes and overgrown fields now for the males, who arrive first to set up territories. Listen for their “konk-a-ree” song.

The first spring migrant is the Red-winged Blackbird. Males arrive in Connecticut in mid-February to begin setting up territories. Photo by Plismo, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Love is in the air for resident Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) and Red-shouldered Hawks (Buteo lineatus). They are pairing up and courting. I can hear a Red-shouldered’s loud “keer-keer-keer-keer” as I write this. In early March look for their amazing aerial courtship displays, complete with pairs diving toward each other from great heights.

By mid-February, Red-shouldered Hawks are pairing up and will soon begin building a nest. Photo by Andy Morffew from Itchen Abbas, Hampshire, UK, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s also Valentine’s Day for the Eastern Striped Skunk (Mephitis mephitis) and for the first time since fall I just smelled one. It’s the beginning of the mating season for them, from now until the end of April. After mating, females go back to their burrows and in about 60 days give birth to an average of six kits. These skunks don’t hibernate like the Woodchuck (Marmota monax), but are catnappers, sleeping on and off throughout the winter. They’re mostly living off their accumulated fat and often lose about half of it by spring.

Love is in the air now for Eastern Striped Skunks. They mate from February to April. Photo by http://www.birdphotos.com, CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s a great time to start a nature journal to log the many changes you can see now. Happy Spring!

Published by Jim Sirch

Jim Sirch is the author of Beyond Your Back Door, a weekly blog about nature in your neighborhood. He is also Education Coordinator for the Yale Peabody Museum, a UConn Master Gardener and board member of his local land trust. As a trained naturalist, he brings a deep understanding of geology, plants and wildlife and how they interact within a particular ecosystem. He holds a B.S in Forestry from West Virginia University, a B.S. from Miami University in Science Education; and an M.S. in Environmental Studies Administration from Antioch University. He is also the 2014 Sigmund Abeles Award recipient from the Connecticut Science Teachers and Supervisors Association for outstanding science teaching and professional development.

4 thoughts on “In the Bitter Cold, Signs of Spring

  1. This sounds as though you’ve been in our back yard! Although I have missed the skunk, and the skunk cabbage but do not regret it one bit.

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    1. Hi Ellen, I did have a skunk smell coming from a lean-to off of our garage, and was afraid it had burrowing underneath, but luckily it went away. In this cold, they’re back sleeping for a bit more. Best, Jim

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  2. Heard bird calls more recently and the woodpeckers are flittering about. AHHH spring is just a breeze away- I will ignore the groundhogs prediction!

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