Elizabeth Bassett, contributor
The natural world is awakening. March entries from my garden journal prepare me for the vicissitudes of the month, when lions and lambs interact frequently.
From 1998: Snow cover generally gone since early February. Huge snowstorm on March 22. In 2001: Town Meeting Day Storm cancels Town Meeting and dumps 30 inches of snow on Burlington, fourth greatest snowfall on record. Also three snowstorms after March 25!
Second week notes include first crocus blooms and first snowdrops.
In 2011the first killdeer return on March 12. Christmas rose, hellebore, is blooming with lots of white flowers. (Same lovely blossoms are currently on display in my garden, peeking through fresh snow!)
Third week notes include many sightings of iris reticulata, diminutive flowers with wispy foliage, tulip leaves, and crocus flowers poking through snow.
Fourth week notes describe several large snowfalls including 16 inches in 1998. The snow melts quickly, leaving lots of crocuses, snowdrops, iris reticulata and tulip leaves. Also peepers!
This morning a phoebe sings outside my window, phoe-be, phoe-be, even as the snow tumbles down. Phoebes return early in March and build nests on ledges, often in close proximity to humans. Phoebes are tame at the nest. Audubon banded one in 1840, likely the first bird banding, and recorded its return the following year. Also in our neighborhood in recent weeks a lonely owl hooting in the darkness, looking for a partner. Later in March keep an ear out for a nighttime chorus of peepers.
Take a walk in the woods on a spring day. Vernal pools—temporary bodies of water created by melting snow and run off— host wood frogs looking or, more accurately, listening for mates. Male wood frogs outnumber females about six to one, and their duck-like call is meant to lure a partner. After being fertilized, masses of jelly-like eggs float on a pool’s surface for several weeks until tadpoles hatch—if the eggs have not been consumed in the interim by snapping turtles, leeches, caddis fly larvae or eastern newts.
An early migrant to return to local marshes and swamps is the red-winged blackbird. The red- and yellow-shouldered male screeches loudly to establish his territory and, in early April, attract a mate.
If my journal is predictive, the ground-nesting killdeer will return in late March or early April, usually in groups of four to six. This shorebird is well adapted to fields, gravel parking lots and flat roofs, where the female lays well-camouflaged eggs in a shallow depression. The long-legged bird, with two bold black bands across its breast, is best known for its screeching cry—kill DEEE—and its “broken-wing dance,” performed at a distance from its nest as a distraction, in the hope of luring predators away from its eggs. As with many returning migrants, killdeer are more readily heard than seen.
Mammals, too, are awakening from various degrees of winter slumber. Tracks, chases, scat, scent and disturbed ground all testify to a high level of activity. A red fox recently hunted behind our house, pouncing on and devouring several small mammals. Acute hearing allows foxes to hear low-frequency sounds of animals moving beneath the ground. The fox pounces and scratches at the dirt or snow until it unearths a wiggling (not for long) critter in its mouth. Foxes usually mate in January and February with the female giving birth to between one and 10 kits from March to May. I can always hope that a family of foxes in my ‘hood will control the population of bunnies that delights in my garden veggies.
Another early sign of spring is the mourning cloak butterfly, unusual in that it hibernates as an adult. On the first warm days of March this dark-winged insect, its coloring that of crepe mourning garments, emerges from beneath the bark of trees. It sips sweet sap and may also feed on rotting fruit.
Buds are already swelling on red maple trees. Greening of willows and the explosive growth of skunk cabbage cannot be far behind. Keep an eye out for pussy willows. Take cuttings to force spring blooms in the house—hobblebush from the high country, forsythia or apple. I am attempting to force peach blossoms after ice shattered a branch of our tree.