How to Tell if it’s (Actually) Spring in New England!

Every winter I see it somewhere, be it on social media, on one of those road construction signs that warn about impending winter storms, or in the form of a joke from a seasoned New Englander; there are four seasons in New England (or Massachusetts, or New Hampshire or wherever you are located). They are 1. almost winter, 2. winter, 3. still winter, and 4. road construction.

And every year we are compelled to celebrate arbitrary markers of when spring is supposed to occur. These usually come in three forms. First is Groundhog’s Day which presents us with a tricky poem about it being six weeks until spring regardless of whether Phil sees his shadow or not. Next comes the sighting of the first robins, some of which might have spent the winter here and aren’t actually returning from warmer climates. Finally, we are faced with the inevitable spring thaw. We’re due to have the third one here in Northwood on Friday when the temperature is supposed to rise to nearly 60 degrees Fahrenheit!

Everyone seems to have their personal markers of when spring has sprung in their part of the world. Here are my guide posts for knowing when spring is coming and why to get excited about it!

Equinoxes and Solstices

In nine days, it will officially be spring once more. On our calendars it might be marked as either “the first day of spring” or the more scientific term “vernal equinox”. You might have heard of equinoxes and solstices in school when you learned about the seasons. When the Earth rotates on its axis, the parts of the earth that are facing toward the sun have daylight, while those that don’t have night. While it is rotating, the Earth is also orbiting the sun and is tilted 23.45 degrees. When it is winter in New England, the Earth is actually tilted away from the sun and only as it orbits the sun will the tilt eventually face toward the sun resulting in summer.

While equinoxes and solstices both mark the changing seasons, they are two very different indicators. The vernal and fall equinox marks the part of the year when day and night are roughly equal in length, while the solstices mark the longest (summer) day and the shortest (winter) day of the year. While the equinoxes dictate the “equal nights” in terms of hours, it is the solstices that dictate the seasons of summer and winter in the northern and southern hemispheres. This means that summer (June to September) is happening in the northern hemisphere while in the southern hemisphere, it is winter. This year, the equinoxes will occur on March 20th and September 23rd, while the solstices will occur on June 21st and December 22nd.

Spring Songsters

Red-winged blackbird calling in a salt marsh in North Carolina.

“Konk-la-reee! “

While most folks assume that the American robins (Turdus migratorius) are the surest sign of spring, in my opinion, there are other candidates for “harbinger of spring” that are more worthy of the title. Arguably the classic early spring migrant are red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus). They are loud, proud, and one of the most well-named birds in North America (albeit if you’re only talking about the males).

Around our house in Northwood, we’ve been hearing tufted titmice (Baeolophus bicolor) and black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) singing in the early morning. They have plain whistled notes that drift pleasantly through the bare trees on these cold mornings. Titmice whistles sound like “peter-peter-peter”, while chickadees have a pleasant “feeee-beeee”. It should be noted that another early migrant, the eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) also has a song that sounds like “fee-bee”, but theirs are more abrupt and buzzy.

An American Toad rests at the base of a telephone pole in Albion, Maine.

Trilling for Attention

While the birds might be the first songsters we hear, other animals will start making their music as well. After temperatures have consistently climbed above 40 degrees at night, we will start to hear the chorus of amphibians in wet woods, vernal pools, and other marshy areas around the region. The first to start up are spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) and wood frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus), followed by pickerel (L. palustris) and northern leopard frogs (L. pipiens). As the weather warms further into April and May, the calls of green (L. clamitans melanota) and American bullfrogs (L. catesbeiana) will begin to ring in the marshes once more. If you would like to learn how to identify those calls, Lang Elliott’s Music of Nature has a page dedicated to recognizing the calls of frogs and toads of the northeast.

Buds and Blooms

Sugar maple flowers in Pennington, NJ

As maple sugaring season starts to come to an end, the flowers and buds that lay dormant all winter start to appear. Maple flowers rely on the wind to help spread their pollen from tree to tree, with occasional transport from bees that come to drink their nectar. Other trees that become notorious for their pollen are oaks and pines with allergies from hay fever increasing dramatically. A small price to pay perhaps for tapping the life blood from their trunks in the late winter.

Another plant to watch out for is the smelly skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), which starts blooming in wet areas during March and early April. Its distinctive skunk-like odor comes from a flower hidden in its temple-like leaves where it also hides another secret. It’s the only plant in New England that can generate its own heat by breaking down starches stored in its roots!

Robin redbreast

Before I head off, I should explain my reasoning behind not using robins as my metric for seeing whether it is spring or not. The American robin can be found throughout most of North America, reaching into the Hudson Bay, throughout Alaska, Yukon and Nunavut, and south into Mexico. It’s reasonable to assume from its scientific name Turdus migratorius “migrating thrush” that it travels great distances when their breeding grounds grow cold and snowy. However, most of you in the north might have noticed that some robins didn’t fly south this winter. This is because there are resident populations of them that span practically all of New England except for central and northern Maine where they are only found in the spring and summer.

“But I thought robins ate worms?”, you might wonder. “Wouldn’t they have to fly south to get at their favorite food?”

An excellent question indeed. While they will eat worms during the spring and summer months when they can get to them, robins are omnivorous, meaning that they can eat both plant and animal foods. When animals like worms and grubs are less readily available, they will feed on fruits like apples and berries. Sometimes though, this ability to survive on fruit can backfire. Some of you keen eyed naturalists might even remember an article making the rounds last fall that told about large numbers of drunk robins, waxwings, and other birds colliding with parked cars and house windows with such frequency that the local authorities had to get involved. It turns out, that just like humans getting sloshed at a night club, birds can experience the ill effects of a fermented berry, get hammered, and might engage in some drunk flying.

Fortunately for the robins, blackbirds, chickadees, frogs, and maples, a thaw is coming. In only a week or so, the vernal equinox will be here and the spring will have sprung. And I, for one, welcome it!

If you recommend any other sure signs of spring here in New England, comment on it below and don’t forget to share on Facebook and Twitter.

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