Sunday Nature Walk: Signs of Spring
By late March, it is easy to see that something has changed… even while temperatures can still dip into the low 40s, the sounds of the forest are teeming with the calls of birds, amphibians, and mammals. Tiny green sprouts of the plants waking up from their long slumber dot the once earthy brown landscape and add color to an otherwise drab understory. These are the first signs of spring, and although the first day of the season in the Northeast was March 20, it is not uncommon to find these signs much earlier.
One of the first elements that the common nature lover may notice is the onset of the American robin (Turdus migratorius). These birds may seem redundant in other seasons as they are one of New England’s most common songbird, but their arrival is an important sign of how the migration has begun for all species of birds. This is also a sign of how some wintering birds are going to begin their migration back up north to their breeding grounds.
Different duck species such as ring-necked ducks (Aythya collaris) will use ponds in New England as pit stops on their way up to Canada. These ducks will travel in large flocks and feed along still bodies of water.
Raptor species are very active this time of year as well. Eagles and hawks work hard to build nests for the upcoming breeding season. Raptors often snap branches off trees to build large nests which may sit on the top of trees but may also be found in-between forks in tree limbs within the forest canopy. Bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) and ospreys (Pandion haliaetus) demonstrate this heavily with their large nests. Some of these nests can reach up to five feet in diameter and need very large trees or secure ledges to hold them.
While hawks and eagles prepare for the nesting season, some birds already sit on a clutch of eggs. The earliest nesting species are owls. Some great horned owls (Bubo virginianus) have likely been nesting since February, and many have already hatched their first chicks. Barred owls (Strix varia) begin nesting in March and by April, many pairs have established territories and laid eggs. Both species nest in abandoned nests of hawks and eagles, even competing with those species for space. It is not uncommon for a red-tailed hawk to return to a nest from a previous season only to find that it has been “evicted” by a great horned owl. Barred owls tend to be cavity nesters, finding holes in trees to raise their young.
While the birds do make up much of the spring’s chorus, they can often be outspoken by those that dwell in ponds and bogs. Amphibians such as spring peepers, wood frogs and many others call throughout the season as they begin searching for mates. Spring peepers tend to be the most heard in early spring and their calls reach their peak on damp, rainy nights. These amphibians are looking to find mates and begin the process of producing young. Keep an eye out for these amphibians in vernal pools and ponds.
Other amphibians begin different stages of their life. The eastern newt (Notophthalmus viridescens) spends its early days as a terrestrial species. During this period in its life, it appears bright orange with dark orange spots. This “red eft” stage will last for about three years until that particular newt finds a pond and slowly transforms into the aquatic adult. Throughout spring, it is very easy to find newts in their terrestrial form after a rainfall as they find damp areas to hide. During the day, these newts can be found under logs similar to salamander species, who also seek asylum from the dry environment.
Amphibians are not the only aquatic life that has begun to stir. The American beaver (Castor canadensis) is another critter that becomes very active in the spring. This large rodent spends most of its time fixing dams and improving the layout of its territory. Keep an eye out for beavers on the surface of the water during calm evenings on ponds and lakes. Other mammals such as groundhogs also become active, feeding during the mornings and the evenings.
While most trees have not produced leaves yet, there are some plants that have begun to grow. Among the first plant species is the skunk cabbage. Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) is one of the earliest plants to grow, it survives cold February and March nights by producing heat, breaking down starch that has been stored throughout the winter. This is a crucial period for the plant as late snowfalls and cold spells could easily damage it aside from its unique properties. During April, the red bulb of the skunk cabbage gives way to broad leaves. If these leaves are broken the plant gives off a smell that is similar to the spray of a striped skunk, hence the name skunk cabbage.
Another early plant is the daffodil. Daffodils (Narcissus spp.) come in all shapes and sizes with many different morphs. The variety of morphs that are planted, coupled with the fact that many of these varieties hybridize, makes picking out the specific species of daffodil tricky to the untrained viewer. However, no matter what morph or variety is being observed, most can agree that the daffodil offers a refreshing amount of color to the previously dull landscape. Daffodils begin blooming from late March until May (occasionally there are some that bloom later in June).
Easton has an abundant habitat full of marshes and bogs that harbor many different amphibians and other critters. Keep an eye out for these amazing creatures on your next walk through the woods. For those who don’t know where to start, Easton and the region contain a wide variety of trails and natural areas. Explore some of the trails to find wildlife through the Aspetuck Land Trust, or explore trails throughout Connecticut at CT Woodlands.
Special thanks to Dave Cadra for being a big help with finding species for the media in this article.