Red-winged Blackbirds are a more sure sign of spring to me than the robin.

Red-winged Blackbirds are a more sure sign of spring to me than the robin.

Cheery dark-eyed Junco, thanks for sharing your winter with me! Photo credit: Dark-eyed Junco by Bob Vuxinic

Cheery dark-eyed Junco, thanks for sharing your winter with me! Photo credit: Dark-eyed Junco by Bob Vuxinic

The buds of the Serviceberry will swell soon enough

The buds of the Serviceberry will swell soon enough

Spent flowers from last falls bloom of Common Witchhazel have their own winter beauty.

Spent flowers from last falls bloom of Common Witchhazel have their own winter beauty.

The Mourning Cloak butterfly is able to tuck away and overwinter as an adult.

The Mourning Cloak butterfly is able to tuck away and overwinter as an adult.

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A "Wooly Bear" or Wooly Caterpillar is a favorite sight for kids.

The Isabella Tiger Moth emerges from the Wooly Bear cocoon

The Isabella Tiger Moth emerges from the Wooly Bear cocoon

Milkweed in the garden and the promise of spring…

Milkweed in the garden and the promise of spring…

The Arrival of Spring

One Day It Will Arrive...

“…One swallow does not make a summer, but one skein of geese, cleaving the murk of a March thaw, is the spring…”

Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, March

It’s started. It’s happening. It’s beginning. That long, slow, never-fast-enough slide into spring. Have you heard the redwing blackbirds proclaiming their bit of territories, or seen the cranes flying north? My other clue has been the many groups of Canada Geese I’ve seen heading for the cornfields to feed. Yes, we have many that overwinter here, but with these numbers, some are clearly flocks from the south coming in and adding to local populations.

I’m glad the bright-eyed Juncos haven’t left yet. It is always amazing to me how the birds appear almost instantaneously once I refill the feeders. A little flock of five Juncos appeared yesterday pecking away at the spilled thistle seed shed from the feeder. They showed up just between my coming inside and walking to the kitchen window. And disappeared just as quickly as I reached for the binoculars and brought them up to my eyes. Did they fly in response to sensing the Cooper’s Hawk I’ve had around this year or were they just on to some other visit with a neighbor?

March is a month where, as the weather becomes milder (do you think it ever will?), I like to begin to walk the garden and notice details; the structure of the shrubs and smaller ornamental trees I’ve added, the balance they give to the space, the extent to which they grew last season, what should be pruned and where. It’s also a great time to just look at buds, a species-specific characteristic that is commonly used in field identification. Even if you don’t care about putting names and characteristics together, noticing the different characteristics of buds and branching will help you appreciate the overall structure of the plant and also help you assess where to prune to enhance its natural form.

Somewhere in the garden female bumblebees are in hibernation awaiting spring. It is only the females that overwinter, ready to find a good nesting spot once it is warm. While the rest of the last summer brood dies off, the fertilized queens hibernate in small holes in the ground or other protected spots just big enough for them. Their lowered metabolism allows them to survive the winter months using very little energy. In the spring each queen will find an abandoned mouse nest or other hole and build a “nest” of pollen and honey on which to lay the season’s first generation of bumblebees.

The Mourning Cloak butterfly has adapted a different winter survival tactic and may also be hiding somewhere in your yard. This beauty over winters as an adult by hibernating in hollow logs or holes in trees. The adults will become active in late March or early April as they start their search for a mate. Our native Hackberry and Willow are a food source for the larvae of this lovely butterfly and, because of their overwintering as an adult, they are one of the first butterflies to be seen in the spring.

The caterpillar of the Isabella Tiger Moth, a favorite of kids, is also probably somewhere in the yard. Known as the “Wooly Bear,” its bristly wide black front and back bands (with a deep rust center) have always been thought to be predictive of the length of winter according to their width. I can still remember the way they would instantly curl up in my hand and feel softly prickly when I picked them up. The caterpillars we find in the fall are from the second generation of the season. To survive the winter they are able to produce a chemical “antifreeze” which helps protect them as they hibernate in what to them would be a safe, warm place.

The sleepers in our gardens, plants and animals alike, will soon begin waking up. We may feel March may not have much to say for it, but there’s a lot just waiting to happen. The sap does start to run and the geese start to fly. Spring is not far away.

The early sun 
wrapping gaunt limbs in khaki, gold and black. 

Like victims of a famine 
reaching to the eggshell sky, 
they stand in lines, waiting, waiting 
for more than the promise of spring. 

Trees in March. Janice Windle