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Look around, it's spring!

Songbirds are trilling, peepers are mating, and flowers are budding, at last

Email|Print| Text size + By Tom Long
Globe Staff / April 11, 2004

In New England, where old codgers grumble that we have nine months of winter and three months of tough sledding, spring is less a season than a state of mind. This can lead to speculation.

To some, the first indicator of spring is maple sugar season, when the sap begins to rise and wood smoke hangs heavy over fog-draped hills. To others, it is the home opener at Fenway Park, when hope springs eternal on the Red Sox's field of dreams. Yet others see spring in the fragrant displays at the flower show or at the St. Patrick's Day Parade. But few New Englanders fall for the myth of Groundhog Day: Every Swamp Yankee worth his spit knows Punxsutawney Phil is a false prophet.

Today is Easter, however, and even the most jaundiced among us can agree that spring has sprung from Cape Cod to Quebec.

In our own backyards, the rat-a-tat call of a chickadee breaks the predawn silence. Its song is joined by the flutelike music of a wood thrush and the trill of a warbler; the dawn chorus of songbirds emblematic of spring soon enlivens a suburban woodlot.

The Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, on Plum Island, a protected area near Newburyport, is an important stopover for migrating shorebirds, songbirds, raptors, and waterfowl. As many as 25,000 ducks and 6,000 geese will congregate there. This is the peak of spring migration, and the refuge is an ideal place to see larger birds like hawks, swans, and turkey vultures who make this a stopover on their journey north. Most birds make the journey under cover of darkness, and these larger birds often cruise at an altitude of 20,000 feet. You're most apt to see them when they flock up to rest and feed at natural resting sites like this refuge.

Above Wachusett Mountain, a broad-winged hawk up from South America glides in an effortless circle. As the ragged-winged raptor scans the ledge for mice, squirrels, and other targets of opportunity, it is joined by dozens of others. Like gliders, the birds ride on thermals and gain enough altitude to glide for several miles, saving precious energy for their flight north. More than five birds in a thermal is called a kettle. Some kettles hold several thousand.

Cape Cod is where you'll see ospreys or ''fish hawks" that have returned from their wintering ground on the Gulf Coast. Brown on top and white below, the birds have a distinctive bend at the ''wrist" of their wing. They soar high above the water until a fish nears the surface, then descend feet first to snatch the prey with feet equipped with sharp, spiny projections to aid their grip. They've already begun to return to Wellfleet.

At the Massachusetts Audubon Society's Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, education director Melissa Lowe said, ''Cape Cod can be pretty dreary in the spring because the cold ocean water keeps the temperature down." Still, signs of spring have begun to manifest themselves: ''We're starting to see a lot of hawks move through, and the weeping willows have begun to glow yellow." The sanctuary includes 1,100 acres of salt marsh, sandy beach, and pine woodland just beyond the Cape's ''elbow."

Race Point in Provincetown is a spot where the lucky might see right whales moving north from their wintering grounds in warmer waters. They migrate and feed relatively close to land. Their slow speed and the fact that they float when dead made them the ''right" quarry for early whalers who manned lookout stations along the coast.

On First Encounter Beach in Eastham, where the Pilgrims had their first skirmish with Native Americans and visitors now assemble to see the sun set into the ocean, ''mermaids' purses" have begun to wash up on the beach. The leathery, half-dollar-size, dried black pouches are the egg cases of the skate.

Lowe said another sure sign of spring on the Cape is the blossoming of the shadbush. ''They have delicate, white, cherry-blossomy flowers, on an otherwise ungainly looking bush," she said.

The blossoming of the shadbush coincides with the annual herring run, as silvery schools of alewives -- local herring 10 inches long -- thrash and swim upstream seeking the ponds where their lives began about three years earlier. The females are heavy with eggs. The males seethe right along to the ponds where they will discharge their milt (fish sperm) nearby.

For the Native Americans and the European colonists who followed them, the annual herring run was cause for celebration: free food after the long winter fast.

In the town of Pembroke, it's still cause for celebration. The town has scheduled its annual herring fry on May 2, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., at the herring run in the center of town. It's difficult to predict the exact time of the herrings' return (it depends on water temperature) but May 2 seems a safe bet. They've been holding the celebration in Pembroke for more than 25 years and timing is everything.

''Millions of fish rush up the stream, sometimes so thick you would think you could run across the stream on them," said Karen Ames, a member of the Pembroke Historical Society, sponsor of the event. ''It's an annul rite of spring. Kids love it."

If you intend to drop by for lunch, be advised that the alewife is a bony fish and nibbling on one has been compared to dining on a screen door that smells like fish.

Throughout the lowlands of New England, on a rainy evening when the air is warm, spotted salamanders will emerge from the leaf litter and lumber across the forest floor to mate and lay eggs in vernal pools, temporary wetlands created by the spring rain, where they can cavort free from fish and other predators. Every year, the bulbous-eyed, bow-legged creatures brave cars, trucks, and other human impediments to drag their tails to their mating grounds. Once again, the timing is difficult to predict. It depends on the temperature, and that can vary from the suburbs to the north woods, but it's been happening for millions of years.

Salamanders go about their business silently, but not the spring peepers, also denizens of the lowlands. These tiny tree frogs barely the size of your thumb mix and mate to the accompaniment of high-pitched wails. The din becomes deafening as these suction-footed frogs raise a ruckus way out of line with their one-inch stature. The all-male chorus is one of the loudest in nature (it can carry as far as a mile) and should be familiar to anyone who drives by a swamp at night. To many, the sound of spring is the eerie song of these tiny amphibians.

Around Hollis, N.H., where the nonprofit Beaver Brook Association oversees more than 1,500 acres of wetlands, education director Janet MacFarland said of the peepers, ''They're tiny little creatures, but they make an incredible sound." She said the first early peepers were heard last week, and they should be out for as long as three weeks.

Throughout New England, from the flatlands near the ocean to the lower mountain slopes, the blossoms that provide a brief splash of color on forest floors this month are as beguiling as the little tree frogs, if less enduring. The colorful blossoms of the spring ephemerals take full advantage of their brief moment in the sun to blossom and fade before the trees acquire their leaves and block out the sun. European settlers who lived in a world without TV, color magazines, or synthetic dyes, celebrated these flowers in song and story and sometimes ascribed to them magical and medicinal qualities.

Among the ephemerals are white-petaled bloodroot, which ''bleeds" a reddish-brown juice the settlers used as dye, and Dutchman's breeches, a delicate cream-colored flower that suggests elfin breeches hanging out to dry. They were considered a love charm by some Native Americans.

At Garden in the Woods in Framingham, run by the New England Wild Flower Society, the hepatica, delicate one-inch flowers of lavender, white, and blue, already have begun to ''stick their gorgeous little heads out," according to Debra Strick, communication director of the society. Strick said that when Garden in the Woods opens Thursday, there's a good chance you will also see trout lilies and pink and white-lobed mayflowers.

Worms that wintered in the earth below the frost line rise to the surface in spring to avoid drowning in the waterlogged mud -- just in time to provide quick nourishment for returning birds. Frogs and turtles that wintered over under a comforting layer of muddy insulation breathe fresh air for the first time in months as they wander off to meet their fate.

And the magnificent, malodorous skunk cabbage blossoms in swamps and wetlands throughout the region. Its smell, somewhat like rotting flesh or, indeed, a skunk, is the first whiff of spring for flies that pollinate the plant.

April showers and melting snow also enliven local rivers and streams. Water was power to early New Englanders: the power to move inland before roads were built, the power to float logs to market on the Androscoggin River, the power to run mills. During spring floods, that power ran unchecked, threatening jobs and homes when the Merrimack River surged over its banks in Manchester and Lowell.

The Merrimack is now harnessed by flood control dams that provide electricity, and other modes of transportation have relegated the river to commercial irrelevance.

Loggers in northern New Hampshire took advantage of the high water to move their products to market. Logs that had been felled over the winter and hauled across the snow by horse were slid into the raging water. With strong poles and hard bodies, the woodsmen muscled the logs down the Androscoggin to the pulp mill at the falls in Berlin, N.H.

At the peak of the runoff, 50,000 cords of wood floated in the river. Tourists braved mud season just to see them. The development of modern tree-felling machinery and 18-wheel logging trucks put an end to the river runs. The last was held in about 1964.

At Northern Forest Heritage Park in Berlin, a ''living history" re-creation of a 19th-century logging camp with a blacksmith's shop, supply store, and horse hovel now stands on the banks of the Androscoggin, where loggers once spat and swore.

The arrival of spring is not so obvious is some northern hamlets.

In West Danville, Vt., about 20 miles north of Montpelier, residents are still awaiting ''ice out" on Joe's Pond. They've made a contest of it. As the ice melts, a cement block rests on a wooden pallet on the pond. The block is tied to a rope connected to an electric clock inside a nearby home. When the block sinks, the rope triggers the clock and records the official time of ice out.

Contestants pay a dollar and predict the date and time of ice out. Half the proceeds go to the winner, the other half finances the town's Fourth of July fireworks display.

Last year, the ice melted at 9:45 a.m. on April 28; the year before, it was April 18 at 4:18 p.m.

If you're one of those cold-weather people who is having difficulty saying goodbye to winter, visit Joe's Pond and view the ice out. You don't even have to get out of the car. Drive right up to the boat landing and see the ice out contraption, about 300 feet from shore. Stop at the Hastings Store on Route 2 and ask for directions.

Garey Larrabee, proprietor of the store, where tickets were sold until April 1, said ice out isn't necessarily an indicator of spring.

''We know it's spring when there is water on top of the ice and it isn't snowing," Larrabee said.

Tom Long is the author of ''New England Nature Watch: A Month-by-Month Guide to the Natural World Around Us" (Commonwealth Editions, 2003). Contact him at long@globe.com.

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