A walk after the snow melts


Throughout the winter I would look out at the birdfeeders in the early mornings. The cold season, especially the second half, was very active. Four kinds of finches — purple finch, goldfinch, pine siskin and redpoll — moved in about the first of February and remained. Often flocks of these small seed-eating birds would number more than 100. As we progressed through the longer days of March, many departed. A scattering remain and as I look out on this April day, I see the lingering finches, but I also see new arrivals.

A flock of dark-colored juncos (a kind of sparrow) are out here, too. Other migrants in the yard have let me know of their presence as well. A robin sings nearby. A mourning dove further off adds its soothing notes. At the swamp down the road, the red-winged blackbirds I have been waiting for proclaim ownership among the cattails. Their songs are also a proclamation of spring. Ruffed grouse males drum at internals from favorite logs while the pileated woodpeckers loudly resonate in the woods with a drumming of their own.

Stepping out for a walk, I quickly note that there is much more happening than these avian activities on this spring morning. Crocuses of two colors open their petals in the warming sunlight. And the chipmunk is active in the yard, visiting the birdfeeders and the compost, just as it did last fall. It was last seen in autumn in mid-November and it appeared again on March 24, about the usual time. Raccoon tracks and the smell of skunks tell of their presence here, too.

The ground is still frozen at places and the only patches of snow I see are in low sites or north-facing hillsides. Though the snow is gone, the ice is a bit slower to surrender to the spring. Vernal ponds are opening and swamps and lakes are to follow. Calls of newly awakening spring frogs are to be heard in these ponds.

I walk through the woods. The open scene here reminds me much of the conditions that we had last fall after the leaves fell from the trees and before the snow cover. This remarkable interlude I call AutWin. In a similar fashion, we now have an interlude after the snow melts and before the greening of the woods. I call this vernal interlude WinSprin.

April is fickle and just when we think the snow is gone, we may get more. But the woods is starting to green. First are the tiny plants, the mosses that were out here all winter. Mostly at the bases of the trees, they take advantage of this spring sunlight and many species quickly open new leaves and grow new capsules. A few plants that kept green leaves all winter also appear. Among the trees, the catkins of alder and hazel are producing ripe pollen. Silver maples, soon to be followed by red maples, are opening their flower buds. But as I walk, I also pass ironwood trees that kept their brown leaves all winter and finally now, in April, are dropping these leaves.

Going out through a field, I walk on the dead grasses that were buried under the snow for the winter. The scene is drab as the gray bent grasses prevail. But a closer look reveals more. Some new shoots of green grasses are emerging from the thawing soil. And the grasses are littered with holes and tunnels that tell of the activity of the meadow voles (mice) for the winter. These abundant rodents dealt with cold times by going under the snow cover and in this subniveal space they created a whole labyrinth of tunnels and nests. Now, as the white shroud is removed, their works are exposed.

I notice all of this, but I'm not alone. Soon the awakening queen bumblebee will come flying by as well. She is eager to start a new colony and she'll land at many of these mouse houses to examine the possible use for her dwelling. And in the dead grasses, I see wolf spiders. They also wintered under the snow and now, in WinSprin, may be the best time of year for us to see them. Without making webs, they actively hunt through the field.

As I approach a swamp, a sandhill crane flies over calling and the local Canada geese announce my presence. I see a pair of wood ducks and mallards in the newly open waters. Basking in the sunlit shore are a couple of anglewing butterflies that hibernated for the winter, a dark mourning cloak and a black-and-orange Milbert's tortoiseshell. Also black and orange is a small moth here. Known as the infant moth, this tiny insect is more colorful than expected from their kind.

I'm back in the yard. The day has warmed and I note some more arrivals. A phoebe calls at the porch and a yellow-bellied sapsucker takes advantage of the tree liquid from a maple. Soon we'll see more greening, but for now, WinSprin is a great time for a walk to observe the seasonal changes.