Now is a great time to enjoy a walk on a still-frozen lake to soak up the warm sunshine!(2/8)
As we round out February and dive into March, it is hard not to think of warm, sunny skies and flowers blooming in our gardens. But not so quick! This is the time of the year with the most unpredictable weather. It could be -40° with a bitter wind reminding us that winter is hanging on, or it could be 50º with bright rays of sunshine delivering what feels like the arrival of spring. We could see blizzards or rainstorms, or (as this season is going) no precipitation at all. One thing is for sure though. Despite the variation in temperature, the days are getting longer and the sun is higher in the sky, allowing us to feel its warmth for the first time in months. Even if the temperature doesn't rise past the teens, that bright sun is hard at work, melting snow from pavement, sidewalks, and rooftops. Now is the time where we begin to get our first sneak peeks of spring. I won't go as far as to say it has arrived... but there are definitely hints that it is on its way.
So where do we look to catch a glimpse of those signs? To the flora and fauna, of course! People think of birds, particularly the American robin, as the first sign of spring. However, we won't see large numbers of robins for a few weeks still. The horned lark (left) is typically the first songbird to return in the spring, and the first sightings in this region have already occurred! Some of our bald eagles and trumpeter swans have stayed here all winter in proximity to open water. The birds of those species that did travel a bit farther south are already on their way back, increasing our chances of seeing them. Early nesters like the great horned owl, barred owl, and bald eagle may already be sitting on eggs, while other birds like mourning doves, ring-necked pheasants, wild turkeys, ravens, and woodpeckers are still calling for mates. Some birds, like the American goldfinch, will develop brighter colors as their breeding plumage comes in order to attract a mate.
The MN DNR is streaming a live feed of an eagle nest! First chick hatched 2/25/15. Watch as Mom & Dad raise the young!
We know spring is approaching by watching the mammals as well. Due to the freeze/thaw cycles, the snow tends to get a hard crust on top. In fact, the Ojibwe name for this month's full moon is Onaabani-giizis, meaning "Hard Crust on the Snow Moon". This can make tunneling difficult for the small mammals that have been living in the subnivean world and drive them to the walk upon the surface instead (right). Keep your eyes peeled for small critters scurrying along! We are in the midst of breeding season for most mammals, which means many are more active and/or more territorial, again increasing our chances of a sighting. Wolves, coyotes, beavers, red fox and gray squirrels are wrapping up their breeding season, while many more like skunks, red squirrels, fishers, snowshoe hares and more are just getting started! Although the red squirrel may be small, it is fiercely territorial and can cause quite a ruckus when you make an unwanted approach. Be on the lookout for them "yelling" at you from a nearby perch up in a conifer. Bear cubs have already been born and are growing quickly inside their winter den as mom continues to sleep. Deer are about halfway through their gestational period, with fawns due to arrive in May.
As many mammals increase activity levels, their tracks may be more commonplace. Get out on the lakes while they are still frozen to find signs of otter belly-slides (left) or to see where wolves have been crossing (right)! (2/8)
Red squirrel on defense! Watch for increased territorial displays in the upcoming weeks! (2/22)
On warmer days, look for insects and/or spiders crawling around on the snow surface in search of mates and food. Springtails, or snow fleas (not actually a flea), are a very common sighting during this time of year. They are very small and most noticeable when in large groups, causing them to appear as a black dust covering the snow.
Springtails get their name from the furca (appendage in red) which folds beneath them like a loaded spring and launches them into the air! Watch for them "springing" on snowy surfaces all through February & March!
While you are down looking at our thin layer of snow for springtails, be checking for the first spring plants! Skunk cabbage is typically the first plant to bloom, sometimes as early as February! It grows in wet soil types and generates its own heat to melt the snow around it. Dandelions are usually the first to appear in the first snow-free areas of our yard and near buildings, starting in March. Watercress has been thriving in clear streams and creeks all winter, but with the additional February sunlight, it is really starting to grow! Although edible (and quite delicious on salads) this is an invasive species, so now is a good time to look for it on your property and eradicate it! Bloodroot and the American Pasqueflower are also known for appearing in March, even with snow on the ground!
Skunk cabbage (left) is typically the first to appear in late Feb./early Mar. followed by the American Pasqueflower (right).
The trees are showing signs of spring as well. The additional February sun has brought intense color to some species of trees, like the golden-yellow twigs of willows and the bright red twigs of redosier dogwood. Oak trees are dropping the last of their marcescent brown leaves that have been hanging on since fall as new growth below begins to push out. Buds are slowly enlarging, preparing for spring. You can see the fuzzy, hair-covered buds of pussy willows, and soon aspen will have buds to match. The dark color of tree bark absorbs more sunlight, which radiates heat out to its surroundings. This causes the snow near tree trunks and roots to melt first (right), so be looking for signs of spring at their base!
While we are not yet deep into the "full rush" of the phenological happenings that are born on the wings of spring, we are tiptoeing closer. Get out and explore the subtle changes that are occurring around us! Feel that long-missed sunshine warm your face. Revel in what mother nature will bring us in the next few weeks. As always, enjoy!
"To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind then to be hopelessly in love with spring."
- George Santayana