Taking a walk during these last days of March is one of constant happenings. As with the varying weather at this time, a variety of other natural things also take place. If the temperatures are mild, the early awakening butterflies (usually a dark one known as the mourning cloak) takes wing, perhaps feeding on sap now oozing from maple trees. A small but colorful moth called “the infant” may be seen flying at this time, too. Snow melt in the woods reveals the greens of moss that spent the winter out here beneath the white blanket. Now they are quick to take advantage of the warmth and sunlight to open new leaves and capsules. In the snow I often find tracks of deer, rabbits, hare, squirrels, foxes and mice, but now raccoons, skunks and chipmunks, those who spent much of the winter asleep, are added to this list.
During such walks I can also find some of the recent migrant arrivals. In the yard, returnees include robins, grackles, juncos and maybe a couple of kinds of sparrows. Frequently, they come to the feeders that remained active all winter.
And there is more to hear on these walks. A sandhill crane will give its loud guttural sounds from overhead. A flock of Canada geese or maybe tundra swans add more to the sky cover. A few northing eagles and hawks soar over, too.
I’ve been hearing drumming of woodpeckers for weeks as they rap their bills against tree trunks and branches, but now I listen for the drumming of another resident, the ruffed grouse. In the early spring the male selects a log to sit upon and then proceeds to beat his wings on his chest, drumming to claim a territory and attract a mate. Their larger cousins, the wild turkeys, have been gobbling at selected sites for a few weeks already. I hear them again.
Walking at this time always includes a visit to the wetlands. The moving waters of the nearby river have been open for a couple of weeks. The smaller bodies of water, ponds and swamps will follow as the longer warmer days of March turn into April. And though there is plenty of ice still on the lakes, I look forward to ice out within a month.
The 10 vernal ponds I visit all have a substantial amount of water held in place now by an ice cover. Within a few weeks, they will thaw and become the home sites of early spring frogs, wood frogs, chorus frogs and spring peepers along with other aquatic life.
At the swamps I listen for another sound. The resident red-winged blackbird males are quick to return from a southern winter and sing to establish a breeding territory. He will sing his “conk-a-lee” song to let other males know that this site is taken. He may need to wait a month before she returns. I expect there may be a woodcock here, too.
During my walk I visit two beaver ponds. I have been watching these two throughout the winter. One has a large lodge in deep water and a big pile of twigs and branches nearby, the food cache. A confined existence in the lodge with wet food nearby provides for the beaver in the cold season. All looks well at this beaver pond. I think a family lives here.
Things are different at the second pond. The lodge is much smaller. It may have been just a single individual that wintered here. I also note that the food cache was smaller. Earlier in the winter, I wondered if the beaver had planned well and put away enough food to last until spring. As I walk here on this late March day, I see the answer.
Despite the still-present ice cover that is nearly a foot thick and strong enough to hold up many passing deer, foxes and coyotes (and me), I find a hole where the beaver has gnawed through the ice. Looking around a bit, I see the rest of the story. Indeed, the beaver did not have enough food to last the entire winter. It fed from the cache in early and midwinter, but as the days unfolded towards the coming spring, the beaver realized that it did not have ample food to last until the thaw. And so it did what it needed to do.
Using its powerful teeth, the beaver cut a hole in the thick and solid ice. It then climbed upon land to find some small trees. Continuing with it tooth tool, it cut more branches for food and dragged these back through the exit opening, going under the ice and returning to the lodge. From the looks of the many tracks here, it appears as though the beaver had to make several trips on this food grabbing route to satisfy its needs. But the persistent rodent succeeded in getting the needed food.
With an ice cover still on this pond, it may need to replenish the cache again. But I look forward to seeing the local beaver swimming here in coming weeks, well-fed after going through the ice to get meals.