Backyard Biology

Nature stories from my backyard and beyond

Nature Stories

Signs of Spring

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Fall in New England is a glorious time. Warm sunny days with cool crisp nights. The woods are ablaze with color and the nights alive with the chorus of insects. Fall is definitely my favorite season. However, much as I love the fall, I look forward to the winter. I love bundling up in warm clothes and walking in the clear crisp air after a snow fall. I could spend hours sitting by the fire with a good book. The soups and stews of the winter are some of my favorite foods. But sometimes winter can seem like it lasts forever. By the end of January I have had enough. Come the beginning of February, I start to look for signs of spring. Any sign will do.

When I was a child and my knowledge of natural history was limited, I considered the robin as the first sign of spring. A flock of robins running along the front lawn, stopping with heads raised high in search of worms is a happy sight, for it means warmer weather is upon us.

As I grew older and learned to recognize many birds by their calls, the red-winged blackbird became my go-to sign of the approaching spring. No need to see the red-winged blackbirds, their conck-a-lee song in a far-off tree can be heard for quite a distance. To many people it is one of the most welcome sounds of nature, for it means that warmer weather will soon be upon us..

My repertoire of signs of spring has grown over the years. Now I find these signs even in the dead of winter. Looking for them helps pass the time in those cold, dreary days when it seems like winter will never end. Each one is a sign that spring, though not here yet, is coming our way.
Here are some of my favorite signs:

fireflyWhen one thinks of fireflies, one usually thinks of warm summer nights. When I think of fireflies, I also think of warm winter afternoons. One of our fireflies, appropriately called the winter firefly, has a life cycle that is opposite that of most fireflies and serves as one of my earliest signs of spring.
The winter fireflies start their adult life in the fall. They will spend the winter hibernating on a tree - in my yard it is a white oak tree. They wedge themselves into the crevices of the bark where they will ride out the winter. When the weather begins to warm, usually in March but occasionally on a warm day in February, they become active again. They crawl from their hiding place and stand face-down on the bark of the tree, basking in the warmth of the sun. They may head back into hibernation once the weather turns cold again, but at least for the day, they are a reminder of the warm days to come.

Bird Song
My first chore in the morning is to go outside and get the newspaper. Usually I am still half-asleep and if I notice anything at this time, it is how cold the morning is. Then, one day in the middle of February, as I grab for the paper, my consciousness is stirred by something different, something that wasn’t noticed yesterday. Or the day before. Or any day yet this winter. Despite the cold, I must stop and listen. For what I notice are songs. Bird songs. My yard is alive with song. Something has told the birds that today, a freezing cold day in the middle of February, the time has come to start preparing for the approaching spring. Today they must begin singing their songs of love - the songs that will not only catch my attention, but that of a prospective mate.
I have no idea what is special about this day, why they all decide that today is the day to start singing. I only know that today is the day.

Wood Frogs and Peepers
Unlike the winter firefly that can survive the winter without freezing, the wood frogs andwood frog spring peepers can’t. What they can do is survive with freezing. Studies have shown that up to 70% of the water in a wood frogs body turns to ice in the winter. However, once the ground warms up sufficiently, they thaw out and become active. I have heard peepers and wood frogs as early as February 25, although the middle of March is more usual. Like the red-winged blackbirds, it is not necessary to see these frogs to know they are active. They are so loud it is impossible not to notice them if they are anywhere in the neighborhood.

Skunk cabbage
skunk cabbageWhen we say cold-blooded we think of animals that can not produce their own heat - animals like fish, amphibians, reptiles and insect. They take on the temperature of their surroundings. In the same way, one might think of plants as cold-blooded. They also take on the temperature of their surroundings. When the temperature drops below freezing, plants stop growing. So many people are surprised to learn that one plant is warm blooded. It can produce its own heat. In fact a skunk cabbage can raise its temperature up to 30 degrees aove ambient temperature. In the little stream behind my house, I have seen the skunk cabbage flowers grow up through the ice. The ice has not been pushed aside. It has been melted. Even on the coldest day of the winter, the skunk cabbage is a testament to the warmer days ahead.

There are may signs of spring in nature. Spring is a time of rebirth for the plants and animals that share our woods. Leaves growing, flowers sprouting, insects hatching, every creature depends on the warming weather for its survival. Looking for these signs is a great way to enjoy the last dreary days of winter.
If you have a favorite sign of spring, send me a note. I will publish a list of them in my next post. I can be reached at

Ah - one last sign of spring before I leave you. Today I saw my first yellow goldfinch at my feeder. The males are shedding their dull winter coat and donning their bright summer plumage. Must be that spring finally here.