By Tim Tiner
Few things are as welcome or longed for as the first signs of spring. They often come unexpectedly, in the surprise visit of a newly returned bird at a feeder, a buzzing bee on a warm day or the chorus of frogs rising from the background of ambient noise. Before long, spring comes rushing in with warmth, sound, colour and scent, but those first signs are savoured, and everyone has his or her favourite. Here are just a few of the more commonly beheld heralds of the season.
Red-winged blackbird: Among the first migrants to come back in spring, red-winged blackbirds often return when marshes are still frozen. Feeding on weed seeds and caterpillars that overwinter inside fluff-covered cattail heads, flocks of male blackbirds arrive two to four weeks before the streaky brown females and gradually break up as they flash scarlet epaulets and call loudly to claim breeding territory.
Spring peeper: High, ringing choruses of incessant resounding peeps rise from ponds and wetlands on the first warm days and nights in April as spring peepers congregate to mate. Though small enough to sit on a loonie, the tiny tan to greenish-grey frogs, marked with a dark X on their backs, can be heard at least half a kilometre away. Up close, they are almost deafening.
Bumblebee: Insulated by dense fur, husky bumblebee queen’s rise from their burrows before most other insects appear, ready to search for the season’s first flowers and willow catkins. The queen bees hibernate alone and start their colonies from scratch in spring, foraging until workers hatched from the queens’ first batch of eggs can take over the job.
Mourning cloak butterfly: Even with snow still on the ground, dark-winged mourning cloak butterflies can appear on sunny days, when the temperature rises above freezing, in search of willow catkin nectar or sap running from tree wounds. Awakening inside cracks in trees or rock fissures, the species is one of a small number of butterflies that hibernate as adults and is usually the first to emerge in spring.
Skunk cabbage: Found in mucky seepages in forest bottomlands and swamps, mainly south of the Canadian Shield, skunk cabbage can appear around mid-March, producing its own heat (through a chemical reaction) that melts the snow around its large, bizarre, purple-pointed hood. Later, the plant’s meaty colour and scent lures carrion flies to pollinate the tiny flowers within the sheltering spathe.
Groundhog: Male groundhogs, also called woodchucks, first emerge from hibernation in late March or April for a few hours each day to search for the dens of females, leave their male scent around, and challenge and chase off rivals. With little to eat but bark, buds and twigs, groundhogs live largely off their fat for several more weeks until fresh grass and leaves sprout.
Trout lily: Carpets of mottled green trout lily leaves spread over the forest floor as the snow disappears in Ontario’s broadleaf woods. In choice spots, this lily blooms in patches of large, nodding yellow flowers, taking advantage, like other spring ephemerals, of the brief period of full sunlight before the trees leaf out overhead. By mid-June, the flowers and leaves are gone.
Song sparrow: Another early returnee, the aptly named song sparrow begins filling shrubby fields and watersides with complex melodies of whistles, twitters and buzzy trills in late March. Identified by a black spot in the middle of a darkly streaked breast, the song sparrow arrives early enough to nest twice in one breeding season.