Spring hints at her imminent arrival in quiet, subtle ways as early as late January or early February. Most of us, though, feel the first release from cabin fever during the brief interlude from early March to mid-April. The landscape may be dreary and blustery, but it is then that we first notice the smell of moist earth and a difference in the nature of sunlight. As far as natural history is concerned, it is the most eventful time of year. Every sprout and bud, every bird and frog-song tell of new life springing from the seeming death of winter.
Resident Birds Give The First Clues
Non-migratory birds begin singing courtship songs and staking out territories in late winter. On a sunny, crisp, late-winter day we often hear the clear “fee-bee” love song of a male black-capped chickadee. Another early-season singer is the cardinal. Unlike most bird species in which the male usually sings to attract a mate, male and female cardinals both sing equally well. Their clear whistle is translated as "what cheer, what cheer, what cheer" in a descending pattern. Another whistler that begins singing in February is the bright-eyed tufted titmouse, whose call is similar to the cardinal's. The titmouse repeats, "peter, peter, peter" again and again. Cardinals, titmice and black-capped chickadees are the predominant voices then but late in the month they are joined by song sparrows and purple finches.
If you are a bird lover, a couple of sights in late February may cause you to feel a faster-than-usual-heartbeat. The first sighting is a pair of cardinals mate-feeding. The male in scarlet plumage, appearing more brilliant against a carper of snow, picks up a sunflower seed and hops over to the less-spectacular female. For a few seconds the beaks touch, and she takes the food. If you are lucky to have a pair of cardinals mate-feeding, chances are the two will probably nest nearby in dense evergreens or multi-flora rosebushes. Another significant sight is the bright-yellow patches that appear on the olive-green plumage of male goldfinches. Most people don't realize that goldfinches remain to cheer up gloomy winter days, even though their feathers are as dull as winter leaves. By the time dandelions bloom, male goldfinches will be sporting bright-yellow attire.
Robins that appear in your yard are not the first birds to return from the South. In fact, they may spend the winter near your area if they have a sufficient supply of berries. The real harbingers of spring are a few male red-winged blackbirds, the advance guard. These handsome fellows wear shiny black plumage with smashing red epaulets tinged in yellow. Around the middle of February they may appear at your feeder and call their familiar "onk-a-ree" from the treetops. As the month progresses, more males arrive to stake out homesteads around wetlands. About a month after the advance guard comes, females that look like oversized stripped sparrows turn up.
Many other migrants appear in March, including purple grackles (bigger than robins, with a large, wedge-shaped tail, iridescent black feathers and yellow eyes). You will notice a few more sparrows. The song sparrow (heavily streaked breast with a central spot in the middle) has a three-chirped call. By April you may be able to hear the clear, whistled call of the field sparrow. Its sweet notes begin slowly but speed up as the song progresses, so that the end of the song is a continuous chirping. It reminds people of a bouncing ping-pong ball.
Spring days are filled with bird song, but evenings and nights belong to the lustily singing frogs. The low-key clucking of the masked wood frogs is followed by an assortment of robust calls from tree frogs (small frogs with tiny pads on the ends of their toes). Common tree frogs here in Northeast Ohio are the chorus frog, cricket frog, spring peeper and gray tree frog. From early March to June each species, in its appointed time, migrates to ponds and wetlands to procreate.
If you step outdoors on a rainy April night and you hear the sound of distant tiny bells, you are hearing the mating call of tiny tree frogs (no more than an inch or two long) wearing a cross upon their back. They are the hyla crucifers, better known as spring peepers. The peeper chorus is the most commonly heard frog call in the East and will last through May. After metamorphosis is complete, the young spring peepers, like all other tree frogs, climb out of the water, and are hardly seen again.
On an April evening when the air feels warm, you may hear a long, drawn-out trill that starts on a low note, rises in pitch, and sustains that note for about a minute. Many people consider this the most beautiful amphibian song of spring. This mating call is made by one of the "uglies" of nature, the American toad.
Early Spring Flowers
One of the first signs of spring is the purplish-brown and green-mottled flower buds of skunk cabbage in swampy areas. The shell-like covering of the flower bud is called the spathe. Soon one side of the spathe opens and the spadix, or knob of flowers inside, is visible. Toward the end of March, a tight roll of fresh green leaves forms beside the spathe, and soon the huge leaves unfold, lush, dark and refreshing to look at.
Another wildflower you'll find in waste places almost anywhere in early spring is coltsfoot. You may mistake its golden face for a dandelion flower. The coltsfoot appears atop a succulent stem that's covered with pinkish, wooly scales. It's a unique plant because the leaves form after the flower has turned into a silky seed head called pappus.
On a sunny day in early April the forest floor is often covered with a layer of white. It isn't snow, just hundreds of tiny spring beauties nodding white and pink blossoms between two long, thin leaves.
Most wildflower enthusiasts look forward to seeing hepatica, whose dainty blossoms open when snow may be lingering on the brown forest floor. Its buttercup-shaped blossoms of pink, white, lavender or blue grow on a downy stem three to six inches high. On cold, snowy days, which are common in early spring, the little buds are snug in their fuzzy coverings. Hepatica comes from a Greek word meaning liver, and it refers to its leathery, lobed, three-sided leaves, which are green above and purplish-red beneath.
In rich woodlands you will find bloodroot plants, six to eight inches tall. The snowy flowers with a golden center spring from curled leaves that are thick, large and many-lobed. The flower got its name from the fact that when it is cut, orange-red juice oozes out.
Enjoy the spring wildflowers, which beautify our woods and fields for such a brief time. They may not have the showiness of colorful summer and fall varieties. Yet their quiet beauty attracts nature lovers who possess a deep-rooted kinship with the earth and have endured winter's prison long enough.
Demetra Mihevic is a naturalist, freelance writer and the author of three published books in Medina, Ohio. She may be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.