IOWA COUNTY — March did not give those who push spring much chance to see early signs of what was ahead.
Hunters, anglers, other gatherers and observers need to find clues that spring is ahead.
Looking in all the right places, at suitable times, and when conditions are optimum help tip the scale in favor of seeing spring renew.
American woodcocks, aka timberdoodlers, eat earthworms and return to find food but not before spring opens up to let worms out. It’s tough on mouth parts to bite into frozen soil. What’s an early migrant likely to do when caught during a spell of subfreezing morning lows?
Of course if we want to see spring we need to go where the soil is not so frozen. A spring or a stream shore that has thawed is a good place to start.
There she was March 24, four days after the calendar spring, poking and probing, standing in running water, bill “looking” in the morning muck for a worm. She found what she was searching for beside this warm water.
Woodsmen state that an adult female has a bill longer than that of a male. The break point is the width of a paper bill: 2½ inches. Surely this bird’s bill was beyond that point. It was a female.
It wasn’t difficult, even at first light, to determine the animal’s identity. Her silhouette against the rising sun left no doubt. It was what some call identity by gestalt. Sometimes difficult-to-describe plants or animals just have that special appearance, and in this case it was the head and bill silhouette, with a body to confirm, and then the action of the worm search, too.
Spring is heralded, too, by pasque flowers on very dry prairies. Searches are best on windy, sunny days, when the flowers open despite uncomfortable conditions. The plant’s furry fringes warm the mind, but doubtful that is the plant’s purpose of these trichomes.
Just prior to the sun beginning to set, on a calm later afternoon, gaudy rooster pheasants pick roadside before roosting in tall prairie grass or farm field edges. The sun’s rays bathe the bird’s body, highlighting any color imaginable on a male bird attempting a spring showoff. So proud some are they stand, pose, and show less fear than normal.
Early the following morning, the spring cardinal and her mate came calling at daybreak. Those slow to recognize the bird pair for what they are, are likely to be flustered when the birds begin shadow boxing with their own images in a window pane.
As soon as the sun breaks through, regardless of the temperature, fulfilled gobblers come into openings to fan, strut, gobble and turn their heads red, white and blue.
Each spring animal and plant has specific conditions, times and locations to appear soon after the calendar says spring. But where?
Come nightfall, the female woodcock will have left her honey earthworm hole and be waiting for the male to do his sky dance, so well described by several authors one can almost picture the act with a read.
The same is true for the prairie’s upland sandpiper, plover of past, who is looking first for a fence with a few wood posts upon which to land, and fold its wings with grace, as Aldo Leopold described.
When spring arrives, the season can be found on or before (climate change) that phenological date for the plant, animal or even fungus to be one’s harbinger of spring.
Organisms most dependent on soil temperature may be delayed. Look for secret places where the soil is warmed by water for the woodcock or by direct sun for the morel.
Look for spring in all the right places and right times and you’ll be first to find the harbingers.
Jerry Davis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.