According to the calendar, it's now officially spring. As those of us in Maine know full well, however, we could just as easily experience a blizzard at this point as a beautiful spring day. But as the planet's axis tilts the northern hemisphere closer to the sun, we will gradually begin to enjoy a little more daylight each day and feel a little less cold. And there are other signs to give us faith that we are moving out of winter.
While seeing a robin has traditionally been considered a sign of spring, many robins have been with us all winter, roaming the spare landscape in sometimes rather large foraging flocks. The American Robins that stick around here adopt a different diet in the winter, subsisting on the fruits that remain on our trees and bushes: crabapple, mountain ash, sumac, and others.
So it's not seeing a robin in itself that should make us think spring, but rather, seeing a robin on our lawn in search of a worm. That shift of diet from vegetable to animal tells us that the top layer of soil has thawed enough for earthworms, grubs, and other creatures living in there to be able to move around—and once again become fair game for the "early bird." If you look carefully on a warm spring day you might see hundreds of returning robins spaced out across a large lawn or farm field, literally hunting for grub.
Some songbirds, triggered by the lengthening days, began singing their courtship songs in earnest as early as January or February. I've been hearing the song of my neighborhood Northern Cardinal, as well as House Finches, Tufted Titmice, and Black-capped Chickadee, for weeks. But those birds are with us all winter, often at our feeders. One of the first returning migrants to listen for is the Red-winged Blackbird. His vibrant "conk-a-ree," often sung from a cattail perch, should instill hope within us for a warmer season, even as a skim of ice lingers on the edge of his chosen pond or marsh.
In addition to Yellow-rumped Warblers, which may overwinter here in places with good patches of bayberry, Palm and Pine Warblers are usually the first of their kind to return each spring, by mid- to late-April. These hardier species have more varied diets than some others, which helps them adapt in this transitional time before most insects and caterpillars are active; I've even seen Pine Warblers on bird feeders during cold weather. Both of these birds also sport bright yellow plumage—the Pine's head and the Palm's whole body are yellow—making them welcome spots of color in the still stark landscape. Watch for the Palm Warbler's constant tail bob as it forages, and listen for the trilling songs of both birds.
Early returning songbirds aren't the only creatures flitting through the still-bare trees in the early days of spring. While noting the first birds of the season, I also keep an eye out for the Mourning Cloak butterfly. This large butterfly is distinctive, being dark purple-brown all over with a yellow border along the outer edges of its wings.
Having hatched out the previous summer, an adult Mourning Cloak overwinters in a crevice or tree cavity or tucked away under leaves or bark. Come spring, it will emerge with mating on its mind. Because it emerges from hibernation before most spring wildflowers have begun to bloom, its primary food source is not nectar but tree sap. (It also enjoys rotting fruit such as fallen apples.) I have come across Mourning Cloaks in early spring sipping from sap wells pecked into the trunks of poplar and apple trees by the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, an early-returning migrant woodpecker.
In addition to snowdrops in my garden and the spectacular beds of crocus at the Camden Public Library, I watch eagerly for the appearance of one of the first wildflowers: coltsfoot. This bright little flower, similar to a dandelion, blossoms before its leaves have appeared. While the places it inhabits are not the prettiest—usually roadsides and other disturbed, often wet patches—this cheery gold flower is a much-needed symbol of persistence and perseverance.
Interestingly, coltsfoot is not native to North America, but was probably introduced by early European settlers, who used it as a medicinal plant. Its Latin genus name, Tussilago— derived from the word tussis, cough, and ago, act on—gives us an indication of how it's traditionally been used for help with coughing and other respiratory ailments. (However, the plant also contains an alkaloid that can be fatally harmful to the liver, so its use comes with a big caution.)
Another one of the first, and perhaps the coolest (or should I say, warmest), flowers to appear each spring is the Skunk Cabbage. This amazing thermogenic plant has the ability to generate heat up to 60 degrees higher than the air temperature, and can easily melt through overlying snow. As indicated by both its common name and its species name foetidus, both the flower and its crushed leaves emit a unpleasant odor.
The unusual flower, which blooms before the leaves have unfurled, consists of a conical reddish-purple hood around a globular cluster of tiny yellow-brown flowers. The strong scent of the flower, as well as the heat it generates, act to attract early pollinators such as flies and bees. The skunky smell may also serve to repel animals that might want to eat the plant, which produces big, cabbage-like leaves that might otherwise be highly attractive forage so early in spring.
Seeking out true signs of spring this early in the season isn't always easy, even when the snow finally starts to melt away. Some, from blackbirds to skunk cabbages to Spring Peepers, prefer muddy, marshy places. Or, like skunk cabbage and actual, emerging skunks, are smelly. Or, like birds and butterflies, hard to track down. But all it takes is one glimpse of a robin tugging on a worm or a cluster of coltsfoot shining like tiny suns to instill in us once more that primeval joy at the return of green life and abundance to our landscape.
Kristen Lindquist is an amateur naturalist and published poet who lives in her hometown of Camden.