This winter seems to have been a long, cold, and snowy one with many of us yearning for signs of spring.
Although it may seem like not much is happening in our natural world, subtle changes are taking place as plants and animals get ready for the warmer and sunnier summer.
For example, red maples and silver maples have round clusters of red buds that start to swell in late winter and turn a stunning shade of bright red. Watch for this change to begin in a few weeks. These two species prefer moist soil conditions such as wetlands and edges of creeks and streams.
The easiest way to discover the earliest signs of spring is with our feathered friends and in particular the lively woodpeckers.
We have three common species of woodpeckers in our area through the winter: downy, hairy, and pileated. The downy is the smallest, while the hairy is slightly bigger, and the remarkable pileated quite a bit larger than either—about the size of a crow. Woodpeckers are known for their loud, “rat-a-tat” hammering or drumming, which they use as a means of communication.
In late winter or early spring, male pileated woodpeckers will begin to drum for females. This drumming (loud, repetitive hammering on hollow tree trunks and branches that tends to trail off) may go on for hours as the male flies around his territory. A mated pair of pileated woodpeckers can be seen together in their established territory, looking for food and a suitable location to drill out a nest cavity.
A pair stays bonded throughout the year and will defend their large territory year-round as well. Their preferred habitat is a large, mature forest with dead or dying trees.
As early as February or March a downy woodpecker pair indicate that they are occupying their nesting site by flying around it and by drumming short, fast tattoos with their bills on dry branches or other resonant objects scattered about the territory. The drumming serves as a means of communication between the pair as well.
The male hairy will start drumming on a favorite post, usually a dead tree or branch, to announce that he has established his territory and to attract any females in the area for mating. The hairy’s drumming is slightly lower in pitch than the downy’s.
An interested female will announce her presence by drumming back to her chosen mate. The drumming by both sexes may go on for days or even weeks. When the two birds finally approach one another, they perform specialized flight displays in which they strike their wings against their sides to produce a clapping sound, or flutter their wings like hovering butterflies.
Other winter activity
If you listen closely to chickadees this time of year, along with their familiar “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” call, they also start singing a soft “fee-bee-bee.” This is the male bird, establishing his territory. Birds aren’t the only creatures getting an early jump on the warmer season. Squirrels have also begun to produce young, hidden away in warm nests, usually in tree cavities.
We can thank the wildlife around us for the reminder that warmer weather is around the corner. Next time you’re enjoying the outdoors, see what other animal activities you can spot that indicate spring is not far away.
Gayle Carlyle is a volunteer with the Couchiching Conservancy.