Nature Notes: Water Awakening

March, in the minds of many, marks the arrival of spring. Locations all across the US have shattered record highs this week, with the warmth scheduled to continue this weekend. Spring has sprung – fast and furiously. But spring isn’t the only thing arriving in March. As our days continue to lengthen and temps continue to rise, our landscape undergoes a magical transformation, with more and more wildlife returning to the area each day. Of course most of this is due to increased sunlight and temperature, but there is another magical force stirring the land – water! How fitting with World Water Day fast approaching!

March is the season of microclimates (the climate of a small area that is different than the larger surrounding area). While sometimes it seems winter is still in full force deep in the cool dark woods, the fields, rivers, and forest edges seem to be welcoming spring. The south-facing slopes are receiving more sunlight, melting snow here the quickest. Similarly, the dark bark of the trees absorbs more of the sun’s energy than the reflective white snow, causing rings of grass to emerge around the trees first. Check these sites for early spiders, ladybugs, flies, and other insects. As the snow melts in these warmer areas, the water slowly leaves the spring puddles, seeping into the soil and rejuvenating life below ground. As the puddling melt water (and rain water!) slowly sinks into the ground that has thirstily been waiting for a drink for months, it begins to do its magic!

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Photo by Allan Sanedrin

Plant roots are awakened by the moisture and begin preparing for the spring. We can already see green appearing on the ground again. Soon, dandelions will be spreading throughout our yards and if you have crocuses, expect to see them as well. Earthworms are awakened by the melt water and begin to make their way back towards the surface, aerating the soil as they go. Warmer temps and trickling water signal to our snakes in their hibernaculum, “It’s time to start moving!” It isn’t uncommon for snakes to emerge on a warm sunny day in March and then return to an inactive state if temperatures drop back down. The melt water and rain water also signal to our sleepy underground amphibians that it is nearly time to emerge.

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Deep underground amphibians, like this blue-spotted salamander, are beginning to stir.

While the water is sinking down into the ground, the sap is coming up! Warm days above freezing and cool nights below freezing trigger the sap to begin to run. Much of the US has experienced an early sap season. But humans aren’t the only ones that enjoy this spring treat! The first butterflies will return by the end of March. The first species we see are the ones that spent winter as an adult (not as an egg, larva, or pupa). These butterflies will rely on tree sap early on, before many of the flowers are in bloom. Birds, squirrels, and other wildlife can also be found enjoying sap at our taps or at wounds on trees.

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The Compton’s Tortoiseshell butterfly is typically one of the earliest to emerge in the spring, often found by late March.

Spring is making itself evident in our rivers, ponds, and lakes, too. Many small water ways have opened up, vernal (spring) ponds have begun to reappear, and we can notice water spreading from the edges of our lake shores. This water is what brings the migrating birds back to our area. Towards the end of February, we began to see a few trumpeter swans returning. Now, I can’t go a single day without seeing them fly overhead, hearing them honk from the river, or seeing them resting on the edge of the ice. This week, I’ve seen my first Canadian geese, common goldeneyes, hooded mergansers, and mallards return as well. Eagle numbers have increased as they feed on carcasses emerging in layers of ice and along the open water of our rivers. With warm temps continuing in our future, it won’t be long before we see wood ducks, common mergansers, red-winged blackbirds, and great blue herons returning to our wetlands. Keep an eye out for beavers, muskrats, and otters in the open water as well!

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So take a minute to think about water this month in celebration of World Water Day. This weekend – get outside ad appreciate a source of water near you! Our weekend forecast promises temps that are 20-30 degrees above average, so hike out to a river or lake and see who you can find out there! So get outside! Soak up that long awaited sunshine and enjoy!

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