In Late Winter, Feel The Heartbeat Of Spring

Story and illustration by Doug Pifer

During my sixty-odd years as a naturalist, I’ve learned spring actually starts long before the first of March. I write this in mid-February as winter loses its grip. In the first light of day, a cardinal tunes up his whistle. As I walk outside to pick up the morning paper, two bright red males are sparring in the old mulberry tree. They chase each other into the big forsythia bush beside the driveway, then back out again. They crash land in the snow almost at my feet, a thrashing ball of red feathers. They fight as if determined to kill each other until, suddenly aware of me, they fly off in different directions.

The Shepherdstown eagle lays her first egg. The timing is crucial. The hatching must coincide with the spring runs of fish that migrate up the rivers to spawn. Fish provide high-protein food for young eaglets, allowing them to grow feathers and muscles strong enough to launch into flight by June.

In the front yard the yellow flowering winter aconite and white blooming snowdrops are now sprouting from hazelnut-sized bulbs we planted a few inches underground. In a few warm days, their blossoms will brighten the yard. Yet these won’t be the first flowers to bloom. I look skyward at elms and maples in bud. Some may be already blooming, depending on how much sun they get. On warm winter days, pollinator insects visit these treetop blossoms,  unnoticed by most humans who keep our eyes closer to the ground.

Maple syrup makers aren’t the only sap collectors in the woods. The yellow-bellied sapsucker, a common winter woodpecker, has busied itself drilling parallel rows of small holes across the trunk of the big tulip tree in front of our house. Today I see drips oozing from some of the sap wells. The woodpecker periodically returns to lap sap. The sweet liquid is also a treat for other winter birds. And during spring migration, orioles, warblers, and hummingbirds may visit these sap wells for a high energy snack, even after the sapsucker departs to his northern nesting grounds.

Sap flow often attracts birds to limbs broken off by late winter storms. Years ago I watched two chickadees take turns drinking drips from the end of a frozen “popsicle” hanging from a winter damaged silver maple branch

.Now I hear the song of a bluebird. A pair of them inspects the nest box in the front yard. These first tentative visits only last through the sunny morning hours as the cerulean blue males compete and jostle for the best nesting place. I wax anthropomorphic for a moment and set their gentle song into words, “dear, dear territory.”

Bird housing reminds me it’s almost time to put the martin houses back up on their poles, although we probably won’t see purple martins here until April. I smiled the other day at an email that said, in Florida, the purple martins are already inspecting local real estate. Although the actual vernal equinox remains in the future, I can feel the heartbeat of spring.

Illustration courtesy Pennsylvania Game Commission.