April in the Northland is an amazingly varied time and it is hard to believe some weather happenings that we have had during this spring month. Subzero temperatures are quite unusual, but have occurred a few times. At the other end of the thermometer, temperatures in the 80s have been recorded. It is a month that has had both thunderstorms and snowstorms.
Some Aprils have been very wet while others may be fire-hazard dry. Most years, we get some snow, but April 2013 set a record of nearly 51 inches; April 2010 had none. We’ll see what this April will give us.
Looking back at March, we see a month with an above-normal temperature — not record setting, but one of the warmest. Along with mild days, we saw the demise of our snowpack. The month that normally has the greatest snowpack, had virtually none when we exited. Instead of huge snowfalls, we received rains that gave moisture to snowless fields, forests and helped to replenish vernal ponds.
Following the chill of February, March was a month of spring, not winter. It is not the earliest spring in the Northland, but in response to above normal days, things began to unfold a bit ahead of time.
Along the south-facing side of buildings, early-season hot spots, crocuses opened and a few dandelions took advantage of this sunlit site. Nearby, a recently awakened chipmunk scampered across the yard and onto the deck. And the anticipated bird movement happens.
As I walked on the road, I noted the flight of returning raptors, especially bald eagles. At one swamp, the resident Canada geese settled onto the ice while in nearby open water, a pair of mallards swam about. More geese and trumpeter swans gave loud vocals as they flew over. Hiding among roadside shrubs was an early-arrived song sparrow. The first red-winged blackbird sang from a swamp. Ruffed grouse drummed and turkeys gobbled in the forest while loud guttural calls of a sandhill crane sounded beyond.
One day, as I passed by a sunny site in the woods, I spied a basking butterfly. This orange-black Compton tortoiseshell is a kind of anglewing — butterflies that hibernate in winter as adults. Members of this group are first to be seen in spring. Best-known is the mourning cloak. With all these sights of late March, it was no surprise to see the presence of a garter snake on a sunny hillside a few days ago.
Another member of the Northland fauna that hibernates through the cold season, garter snakes will frequently gather at a site, a hibernaculum, for winter. It seems like every spring, this is where I see these striped reptiles.
Upon waking and basking in the springtime sunlight, the smaller males will try to mate with the larger females. They become very active at this time and we may see several. Following this, they disperse into the region for the warmer months.
Garter snakes and red-bellied snakes are the only kinds of snakes that are common in the Northland. (I have also seen a few ring-necked snakes.) Though some garter snakes can reach 2 feet in length, our snakes are mostly small and harmless.
They do not lay eggs, but have live birth at a later time in summer. Usually, I see the first wakening snake in April, but with the other recent happenings, this early-waking garter snake was almost expected.
Following the lead of this snake, I hope to see more reptiles and amphibians in April.