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Northland Nature: Birds, mammals and trees prepare for spring

A cluster of seeds hanging from a branch of a box elder on a February day. (Photo by Larry Weber)

February, following the trend of December and January, has been colder than normal. The cold, though not record-setting, has been consistent and subzero has almost become the norm. February has also been clear and we’ve had plenty of sunlight to go with the chill. Indeed, these clear days of this month can give the impression of being much warmer than they really are. On Feb. 8, we reached a time in the diurnal cycle of 10 hours of daylight. Despite the cold, the earlier sunrises each day added to the later sunsets, makes daily light rapidly increase. Having just recently reached 10 hours, last week we got 10½ hours and at the end of the month the sunrise-sunset times will give us 11 hours of light. We continue to move towards the vernal equinox (the first day of spring) in March.

I find that even though my walks frequently take place in the setting of a subzero morning, I still hear the birds responding to this change of daylight. Chickadees are singing their “fee-bee” song often associated with spring and mating; likewise, the nuthatches give their nasal grunting calls as well. But the best example, I think, of the bird sounds at this time are the woodpeckers drumming. On a recent walk I noted how the woodpeckers — downy, hairy and pileated — all shrugged off the 20 below temperatures and loudly pounded against the trees, causing a loud resonating sound in the silent winter woods.

Other news included seeing a few flocks of crows, some snow buntings and noticing a different behavior among the gray squirrels at the bird feeders. Not interested in anything all winter except the food available here, they now notice each other. An abundance of rabbit and hare tracks indicate the same behavior, while the wild canines regularly patrol their territories. All this beginning of preparation for spring by the animals is only part of the story.

Many trees have been preparing for the coming warm season for several months. Way back late last summer and fall, they produced new and viable seeds packaged in fruits of various kinds. Some of these were placed out on the branches to be seen by passing hungry animals in order to disperse the enclosed seeds. Others were given means to successfully blow off in the wind. Now, almost six month later, we see some still on the trees. Last week and I was driving in the region, I saw several trees still holding fruits and berries. These included mountain ash, crab apple and sumac. In each case, the hardy seeds within the fruits and berries are likely to survive this harsh winter to begin growth in spring, but they may not get spread about as planned. Some birds and mammals, despite being hungry at this time, will pass by these frozen tree products.

Besides the fruits and berries still on the trees,

I also saw some trees, the box elders, that still held seeds not in fruit and berry coverings to get attention of animals, but they were relying on the winter winds to disperse their seeds. We may not realize how common box elders are in the region if it were not for this time of year. Unlike most trees that are bare now, these medium-sized trees have held these seeds all winter. I seem to find more box elders in towns and cities than in the woods.

Despite the name, box elder (sometimes written as boxelder) is a kind of maple. And unlike the other native maples that thrive in the Northland (red, silver, sugar and mountain), the leaves of this tree are compound and not simple; the only North American maple of this type. But taking a closer look at seeds on these winter days, we can see the similarities to the other maples, even if the leaves are different. Seeds are the samara type with a single wing as seen with other maples. Seeds of this form grow in pairs with the seed on one end and a flat wing coming from it. When blown in the wind, these samaras tend to spin around giving the “helicopter” type of flight that is associated with maples.

The seeds have been falling all winter, but many of the box elders still hold lots of seeds.

I expect in the coming weeks as we move towards spring, they will be mostly devoid of their seeds with the coming of the new season. And yes, the lengthening daylight tells us that will be a spring!

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods” and “Webwood.” Contact him c/o

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o