Finding Beauty in March
“Now is that sweet unwritten moment when all things are possible, are just begun. The little tree has not quite leafed. The mate is not yet chosen. To the rambler in the woods all that he can find in heavy books will be of less worth than what he learns by sitting on a log and listening to the first quiver of sound from the marshes…” — “An Almanac for Moderns,” March First, by Donald Culross Peattie, 1935
It can be difficult to discover beauty in nature during March. The remains of February snows are piled in melting, discolored heaps at the edge of my driveway. Our yard and horse pasture are still covered with several inches of snow though the east and south facing field edges are showing yellow and pale green patches of grass.
Here in southern New England, mud season has arrived with the daily freeze-thaw cycle wreaking havoc on dirt roads and making vehicle and foot travel a challenge. Compared to northern regions, thankfully, our mud season is short-lived. As the sun continues its slow progression, rising higher in the sky each day, the earth will start to warm, and life will begin anew on the land. Despite the bleak landscape of early March, there are signs of beauty that I’ll be looking for as we anticipate the Vernal Equinox on March 20.
The first tree buds to swell and bloom are those of the red maple, Acer rubrum. Sugar maples, Acer saccharum, tend to bloom a week or two later. For maple syrup producers the bud swell of the sugar maples is the sign the season is ending, and it’s time to pull the taps. My house is surrounded by several very old sugar maples and a few red maples. I anticipate that first break of red buds, knowing a green landscape is soon to come.
Unfortunately, the first touch of green seen along the roadsides will be the dreaded invasive plant Japanese barberry, Berberis thunbergii. The first wild plant to green out each year, and one of the last to lose its leaves in fall, it out-competes our native plants in the important photosynthesis process, getting an early jump on annual growth. This allows it to take over edge and forest habitat areas when provided with enough sunlight and moisture to root and expand, choking out native plants. I find no beauty in this plant, but it does offer a sign the seasonal change has begun.
If the weather warms up enough and our wetlands are ice free, there is a chance March may bring the sound of the spring peepers, Hyla crucifer. Along with bird songs, the male peepers’ calls are a beautiful sound of spring. These diminutive frogs do not sing a melodious tune like our region’s songbirds, but still we are enthralled by the sheer magnitude of the chorus of what must be hundreds of spring peepers.
I wonder how many readers have ever seen this harbinger of spring. To see a peeper requires venturing out at night when they are singing from wetlands, swamps and meadows. You’ll need to wear waders and bring a flashlight, then slowly walk toward the peeper calls. The males are the ones making all the racket trying to attract females. The males are only three-quarters-of-an-inch long, with the females about one to one-and-a-half inches long. They typically have an X-shaped dark mark down their back and are a light tan to dark brown color. In the art of camouflage, the spring peeper can change color within this tan to brown range in as little as 15 minutes. If not in March, then certainly by April I’ll be seeing Facebook posts simply saying “Peepers” and we’ll all know what that means. Spring is here!
During the last week of February I heard the spring call of the tufted titmouse, Baeolophus. It was a sunny day with temperatures moving into the 40s when I first heard it. The dark-eyed, crested bird with the gray back and wings and white front with peach orange flanks will be a pleasant distraction during my morning outdoor chores. I like it when I hear the male do his simple spring mating call, not only because it’s a sign of spring, but because the titmouse is the only bird I can mimic with my own whistle.
“The Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior” refers to the call as a short “Peter Peter” song and also offers suggestions of “Peyer Peyer” or “Peeto Peeto.” Whichever description you think fits, I like to whistle in response to the lovesick bird in hopes of calling it in. I know this “interspecies chat” is a true dialogue when I hear a three-note call “Peter Peter Peter,” which I also copy in response. Before you know it, the tufted titmouse will do a four-note call or more and then back to the single. Each time, I repeat the call as it comes closer. I will admit to feeling a bit chagrined when the bird realizes I am not another titmouse but instead some silly Homosapien. If only he realized I’m the one who fills the birdfeeder!
I search for another harbinger of spring in wooded and wetland locations, where skunk cabbage grows, looking for the mottled maroon hornlike leaf, or spathe, of a newly emerging plant. It has the amazing ability to create its own heat and will literally melt its way through the frozen ground. The “skunky” smell of its flower helps attract flies and carrion beetles that aid in pollination.
On the calendar, spring is just two weeks away. We know, however, mother nature has her own timeline in New England. But March offers plenty of hope and reasons to enjoy the outdoors. I might even adhere to the suggestion of Donald Culross Peattie by “sitting on a log and listening to the first quiver of sound from the marshes.” I hope you’ll join me as we care for, enjoy and pass on this wonderful place we call home — The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor.
Information for this column was sourced from the Stokes Nature Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles by Thomas F. Tyning and the Stokes Nature Guide to Bird Behavior Volume II by Donald and Lillian Stokes.
Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. He has lived in and explored the region for 40 years and can be reached at email@example.com
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