2011-04-02 / Outdoors

Signs of the season are here!

Spring arrived 10 days ago when the sun reached its midway point directly over the equator, but it sure has not felt like spring. March was supposed to come in like a lion and go out like a lamb.

Even though it has been cold, the catkins or male flowers on wild hazelnuts and alders are ready to pollinate. They are both readily visible this time of year with the lack of foliage on other trees and shrubs.

Elderberry buds are swelling, as well, and are just ready to burst at the first hint of agreeable weather. Also, in our wetlands skunk cabbage is beginning to poke through, and the rosettes of many perennial wildflowers and herbs are greening up, ready to make energy via photosynthesis when the temperature climbs.

On March 17, I encountered the first bear track of the year in the woods while out for a walk with my cousin Sam Johnson. It was a fresh track traveling through the mud and melting snow, made by a rather sizable bruin.

The following day, while walking in the woods on one of the few afternoons when the temperature climbed up into the mid-60s, I found two garter snakes out sunning themselves, ten feet apart.

Waterfowl are back on our local streams and wetlands and turkey vultures, grackles, and red-winged blackbirds, along with a myriad of others, are back from their winter vacations in the south. On March 14, I even heard the whistling mating display flight of my first woodcock of spring while out walking in an old field at dusk.

For me the true benchmark of spring’s arrival is the spring peeper, a tiny tree frog that lives in our woods. Each spring multitudes of these tree frogs migrate from the slopes of our mountains to the wetlands in the valleys below. Their nightly chorus is a spring favorite of mine and can be deafening on a warm rainy April night.

I have been told that in the Sinnemahoning area the spring peepers were singing on the evening of March 18 after two days of warm weather. The following week I was in Harrisburg and heard peepers in Wildwood Park on the evening of March 22. The cold weather we have experienced the last two weeks has certainly shut them up, though.

Last year, spring peepers were first heard in Sinnemahoning on March 12.

Peepers are fascinating animals. They spend all of winter literally frozen solid. A special adaptation allows these amphibians to produce natural antifreeze so that the freezing process does not damage their body tissues.

When this small tree frog begins to freeze, its liver releases large amounts of glucose that act as antifreeze to prevent cell damage. As temperatures warm in March, these small frogs thaw out and become active, traveling downhill to the nearest wetland with enough standing water to lay their eggs.

Depending on the conditions, this migration can take place over several days or all the frogs may migrate on one warm rainy night. Such a migration can reach biblical proportions, resembling the second plague on Egypt.

Wood frogs also exhibit this special adaptation of being able to freeze during winter without dying. They will show up around the same time as spring peepers, but unlike spring peepers, wood frogs have an odd mating call that to me somewhat resembles the quack of a duck.

One of these days warm weather will arrive to stay. When it does, there will be a lot of happy people in Northcentral Pennsylvania because it has been a long, cold winter.

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