On Thursday, March 19th at 11:50 PM EST spring arrives in the north. The spring equinox marks the moment the sun crosses the celestial equator – an imaginary line in the sky above Earth’s equator – from south to north. It is also at spring equinox that people all over the world can see the sun rise exactly due east and set exactly due west. While the sun may be predictable, March weather is not. In fact, March is appropriately named for the Roman god of war, Mars. March is a month of battles between warm and cold, between winter’s refusal to leave and spring’s insistence on coming. So, here are some signs of spring to look out for in this Field Guide to March.
By Kent McFarland
Whether or not it comes in like a lion, March sometimes heads out like a … butterfly. On bright sunny days in late March, when the sun’s rays bring some much-needed warmth to the forests, there is a chance you may spot one of the season’s first butterflies on the wing. Unlike most spring butterflies, these aren’t freshly emerged from a chrysalis. Instead, these early spring butterflies have been tucked away in cracks and crevices where they pass the winter months in a state of torpor. Species like the Milbert’s Tortoiseshell, Mourning Cloak, and Eastern Comma utilize this strategy to survive the winter, and are the first butterflies to be seen out and about once the sun has warmed their wings. With no nectar to be found this early in spring, these butterflies are instead on the hunt for mates. You can add all of your butterfly sightings to eButterfly.
Another species that emerges on those fleetingly warm, sunny days in March is the Painted Turtle. Spending the winter under the ice of lakes and ponds, the body temperature of these hardy turtles averages just 43° F all winter long. To be active, they must raise their internal body temperature to between 63°–73° F. They achieve this by basking on logs, rocks, and other exposed surfaces. Basking not only warms up turtles so that they can be active, but also helps them capture Vitamin D from the sun to metabolize calcium to grow and solidify their shells. As temperatures are prone to shift rapidly in March, Painted Turtles often can’t maintain this temperature for long, and may not eat until May brings steadier warm temperatures. March is a dangerous time for turtles, and mortality is high during the early spring when they are living on the energetic edge of life. If you spot any early shelled sunbathers on unfrozen ponds or lakes, be sure to report them to the Vermont Reptile & Amphibian Atlas.
By Nathaniel Sharp
If you happen to find yourself near a stream slowly emerging from the icy grip of winter, turning your eyes towards the slowly melting snow at your feet could reveal a unique treasure, the winter stonefly. There are many species of winter stoneflies that are nearly indecipherable, even to experts, but all are in the family Capniidae. Some are wingless, but most have long bodies, with darkly veined wings that lay folded across their back. As nymphs, winter stoneflies spend their lives huddled in the layer of silt and gravel beneath the stream bottom, only moving towards the surface of this layer when they are preparing to emerge as adults. Emergence occurs throughout the winter and into early spring, and adults are often seen wandering on top of the snow. Anglers might be familiar with stoneflies, as they are a popular source of food for trout, and often inspire very effective lures. Winter stoneflies are significantly smaller than their relatives, the Common Stoneflies, some barely measuring more than 5mm. Glycerol in their bodies, acting as antifreeze, prevents these hardy insects from freezing, but they tend to be easiest to find on sunny days in winter and early spring when temperatures are at or above freezing. Winter stoneflies, like their other stonefly relatives in the order Plecoptera, are frequently used as indicators of water quality and overall stream health. If you come across a Winter Stonefly this month, snap a photo and post to the Vermont Atlas of Life on iNaturalist, and know that somewhere nearby there is a happy, healthy stream.
Feathered Signs of Spring
By Emily Anderson
Red-wing Blackbirds aren’t usually a birder’s prized find – except in March. As these charismatic birds begin returning to the Vermont landscape, they signal that spring is close behind. Males return first to establish their territories before the females arrive, squabbling among themselves over who gets the best real estate. Carefully recording these return dates over many years can provide a valuable snapshot of how Red-wing Blackbirds are responding to climate change. Is their yearly arrival time getting earlier as the climate warms? Learn more from Kent on the VCE blog.
Bugs in Buckets
By Spencer Hardy
March in Vermont is a unique time, highlighted by some of the best skiing and worst roads, but nothing is as quintessential as sugaring. With metal buckets lining dirt roads and sugar shacks billowing with steam, it seems like everyone is celebrating the return of spring, and all the sweetness it brings. And people aren’t the only ones – many other animals take advantage of this short-lived sugar source. Chickadees can occasionally be seen picking at icicles on broken maple branches, and towards the end of the season sap buckets can become very effective bug traps. An informal survey last spring found at least 8 different arthropod families (plus an unfortunate deer mouse) in sap buckets, with Winter Fireflies (Ellychnia corrusca) and Cutworm Moths and Allies (Family Noctuidae) being the dominant groups.
Another group that appears fond of tree sugar is the Mining Bees (genus Andrena). This group is one of the first to emerge in the spring, sometimes while there is still patchy snow cover. Like many solitary species, the males tend to emerge a few days before the females, and are not responsible for provisioning the next generation, thus are not as tied to flowers for pollen. Humans aren’t the only mammals that help bees to tap into a tree’s sugar reserves – check out this awesome iNat observation to learn more. In late March and early April, keep an eye out for bees and other insects on freshly cut maples (and in sap buckets). Let us know what you find by sharing your observations to the Sap Suckers iNaturalist project! We would love to know how widespread this phenomenon is and what species are involved.
By Kent McFarland
Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) is the first maple species to bloom in North America. Flowers bloom long before leaves appear, and these delicate red blooms can appear as early as February in the southern part of the silver maple’s range and as late as May in the north. Early blooms mean that pollen is produced much earlier in spring than other trees, so this tree may be a critical pollen source for bees and other pollen-dependent insects. Most references describe silver maple as a primarily wind-pollinated species, but insect pollination may also play a role, as many bees have been seen visiting the flowers. Seeds develop quickly, within 24 hours of pollination, and shortly after they bloom, the flowers wither and the ovaries begin to swell in preparation for seed production.
One of the first flowers to emerge is Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara), a species introduced from Europe that can often be found along roadways where the snow first melts away. The name “tussilago” is derived from the Latin tussis, meaning cough, and ago, meaning to cast or to act on, and harkens back to its medicinal uses. But the discovery of toxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids in the plant has resulted in liver health concerns. One of the earliest native species to flower is Hepatica. Sharp-lobed Hepatica (Anemone acutiloba) is an attractive wildflower of the deciduous forest understory. It differs from the closely-related blunt-lobed hepatica (Anemone americana) in having more acutely pointed leaf lobes. Be sure to add your sightings to our database on the Vermont Atlas of Life on iNaturalist. You can also add notes about plant phenology to iNaturalist observations, so be sure to make note of whether the plant is budding, flowering, or fruiting.
The Cold Hop
By Kevin Tolan
Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus), the only amphibian found above the arctic circle in North America, are regularly the first amphibians to appear from hibernation in Vermont. Even while there’s snow on the ground and ice on the water, throughout late March and early April these unique creatures begin their annual migration to their chosen vernal pool. iNaturalist observations of Wood Frogs from March show that these early appearing individuals are centered within the Champlain Valley, where phenology is ahead of the rest of the state.
There are a host of reasons that breeding early may be beneficial to a Wood Frog’s offspring. Wood Frogs form rafts with their egg masses while breeding, with numerous pairs laying eggs in large aggregations. The eggs toward the center of the raft receive better protection from predators compared to those on the outskirts. The earlier that a pair breeds, the closer to the center their eggs will be. Additionally, eggs toward the center of the raft absorb heat from the surrounding eggs which allows them to develop faster. This accelerated development, coupled with being laid early, results in offspring metamorphizing earlier in the season compared to others. By adults laying their eggs before others individuals, they permit their offspring to leave the pools earlier, which increases a metamorph’s chance of survival should their vernal pool dry out.
Through the Vernal Pool Monitoring Project we aim to better understand the phenology of Wood Frog breeding in Vermont. Utilizing automatic audio recorders, we can determine which date Wood Frogs begin calling, which signifies the beginning of their breeding season. Over an extended period of time, this data can be used to quantify differences in breeding phenology, both across different biophysical regions of Vermont and from year-to-year.
No Waiting for Warmth
By Emily Anderson
If you’ve spent time hiking in the high mountains of Vermont or New Hampshire, you’ve probably encountered a Canada Jay. Who knows, maybe one even tried to steal your snacks. If you happen to visit these same areas in the winter you will likely still see these notoriously bold, curious birds. Canada Jays typically don’t migrate, choosing instead to brave freezing temperatures in their northern homes.
Canada Jays are certainly not alone in staying in Vermont all winter long. However, while many birds breed later in the spring, Canada Jays begin incubating their eggs in March and April. They primarily build their nests in mature conifers, situating them close to the tree’s trunk at the base of a branch. Most nests will contain anywhere from 2 to 5 eggs.
In some ways, nesting while temperatures still regularly hover just below freezing may seem crazy, however there are some benefits to starting early. Nesting in March allows Canada Jay young more time to grow and get stronger before winter returns, in theory giving them a better chance of surviving. These birds are well-suited to frigid temperatures. Their soft, fluffy plumage provides excellent insulation, helping them stay warm. They will also often line their nests with moose hair and other insulating materials.
If you want to learn more about Canada Jays in March, check out this episode of Outdoor Radio. And make sure to record your sightings of these charismatic birds on VT eBird and the Vermont Atlas of Life on iNaturalist.
Skunk Oil – A Little Goes a Long Way
By Kent McFarland
There is nothing like the fresh smell of a spring morning, unless, during the night, a skunk skulked about your neighborhood. The striped skunk is armed with just a teaspoon of odoriferous oil in its two anal glands, but a little bit goes a long way. These smelly yet charming mammals have recently been emerging from their winter burrows, and March marks the peak of the striped skunk breeding season. After surviving the winter cozied up in underground burrows in a state of torpor, skunks are on the hunt for a mate. Striped skunks are polygamous, and males will mate with multiple females, while a female will only mate with one male. With skunk activity picking up this time of year in Vermont, read on to learn more about the fascinating adaptations these animals have for deterring predators.
Skunk oil research has been going on for over a century as scientists have tried to determine what makes the stuff so potent that it can drive a bear away. Way back in 1896, Thomas Aldridge at Johns Hopkins University showed that humans could detect the smell at just 10 parts per billion, the equivalent to detecting just one drop of it diluted into a medium-sized, backyard swimming pool. More recently, William Wood, a chemist from Humboldt State University, pointed out that a number of chemicals have been incorrectly attributed to skunk oil over the years, and his work has now given us a fairly complete understanding of the chemical compounds and how to neutralize them.
The scent-gland secretion is a yellow oil composed primarily of volatile compounds known as thiols, and their derivatives. (A thiol is a compound distinguished by its sulfur-hydrogen bond.) Most of us immediately recognize the smell of ethanethiol (also called ethyl mercaptan), a common thiol that’s added to otherwise odorless propane gas so we can easily smell any leaks. Another thiol creates the “skunky” smell of beer after it has been exposed to ultraviolet light. The thiol derivatives present in skunk oil are not particularly odoriferous, but they are easily converted to far more potent thiols when they react with water
Skunks are reluctant to use the oils though. With only enough for a half dozen sprays at most, and a 10-day period to manufacture more, skunks will only spray if they absolutely have to. In an attempt to avoid spraying, skunks often give warning. First, they show their striped white back to warn you. This is followed by threat behaviors, like stomping with both front feet, sometimes charging forward, and then edging backwards dragging their feet and hissing. If all this fails, watch out.
Each spray gland has a nipple, and skunks can aim and direct the spray using highly coordinated muscles. A skunk can spray up to 25 feet and hit something fairly accurately up to 7 feet away. When there is a target, they can direct a fine stream right at the victim’s face. When being chased, a skunk will instead emit a foul cloud for the predator to run into.
There is one predator that remains undeterred by the odiferous oil, the great-horned owl. The small size of the olfactory lobes in their brains suggests that they have a very poor sense of smell. Some individual owls can downright stink of skunk, a common complaint among wildlife rehabilitation workers. Their nests can even smell of their musky meals. But larger-lobed mammals quickly learn to avoid the white stripe in the night.