A monthly column in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Seven Sure Signs of Spring

Seen or unseen, the precursors abound

            Well, winter officially started December 21 and ends March 20, a mere 27 days from today.
            But already, signs of spring are all around. The roads are starting to feel like we’re on a cheap carnival ride. We’re getting hit up for Girl Scout cookies. We’re arguing over warrant articles and town budgets.
            And signs of spring abound in nature, too. Some signs we can see, and others we can’t. While here’s a few (in no particular order), feel free to add your own favorite signs of spring below.
1.       The days are getting longer! The sun rises in these parts at around 6:30 a.m. and sets at around 5:30 p.m.  Between dawn and dusk, we’re gaining about 3 or 4 minutes of daylight each day. Yep, things are changing!
2.       Sap is running. While we can’t actually see sap running inside the many tree species, the forest, we know it is moving. And the surest sign of sap running are the buckets hanging off sugar maples. According to Steve Roberge, UNH Cooperative Extension forest educator for Cheshire County, sugar maple sap generally starts running between mid-February and mid-April. It runs best when daytime temperatures reach around 38 degrees F. and nighttime bottoms out around 25 to 20 degrees. What you can see on many species are the growing buds, especially when you look out at a large stand of trees, in their upper branches, which take on a reddish-maroon tint in late-winter. Sugary sap is rushing up those branches, nourishing the buds that will, by May, burst into green leaves.
3.       Nesting eagles. Bald eagles once again are building a nest at Nubanusit Lake. This has become one of our region’s premier signs of spring. A mature pair has worked on a nest here (or nearby) every spring since 1998 – successfully breeding chicks since 2004. This year’s nest, according to Nubanusit eagle-watchers Dave and Nellie Robinson, is considerably higher than last year’s. After a month or so away, the pair has been seen around Nuby since Feb. 4.
4.       It’s getting warmer. Winter’s low temperatures tend to tank around the last week of January with average daily lows of 8 degrees and highs (a week or so earlier) of 29 degrees. After that, the mercury goes up … so cheer up!
5.       Red-winged blackbirds return. Here’s one of the sweetest sounds of the year: “Konk la ree, konk la ree,” the call of the red-winged blackbird near a marsh. Around here, they usually return by the last week of February or the first week of March, according to Hancock birder Eric Masterson. They usually start returning in the valleys, then move into the hillier areas as weeks and days progress. Aside from their song of spring, we’ll be treated to the male blackbird’s bright red flash (along with a little strip of yellow) on the wing. Their displays, songs, flight and body language are a dance with other blackbirds as they establish territories.
6.       Hatching brook trout. This is in the category of signs of spring you can’t see, at least not easily. Our streams are mostly covered with snow and ice now, leaving only a few holes here and there where you could peek in … and likely see nothing but water. David Carroll, the Warner naturalist and writer describes this view in his book Trout Reflections. “Yet there dwells in the brook, along its banks, within its bed, an abundance of life too hidden or too minute to be detected by a walker of its shores. Among this secret life are the tiny trout, the emerging fry who will be next autumn’s bright, darting fingerlings.”  These young trout begin emerging from their eggs by late February or early March and face a myriad of threats right away: starvation, predation, suffocation from silt, anchor ice and much more. I’ll cheer for the fry.
7.       Spring constellations. This is a great time to go outside at night and look for spring constellations. Look for Leo the Lion, the celebrity of the early spring night. Look for the Big Dipper toward the north. Follow an imaginary line from its bowl, near the handle, and look down. They’ll point to the star Regulus, which is the heart of the lion. Leo’s head is formed by a curve of stars like an overturned question mark. Just behind Leo’s tail is Virgo, the largest spring constellation.
            Speaking of celestial events, spring officially arrives March 20, 7:21 p.m. This moment when the sun crosses directly over the earth’s equator is the vernal equinox (autumnal equinox in the southern hemisphere).
            There are plenty more signs of early spring: hooting owls, howling coyotes, the woodcock’s sky dance, spring peepers, migrating salamanders … the list goes on. What are your favorite signs of spring?

Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock.