Can It Be? Spring!

Spring means different things to different people.

And different things mean spring.

Some people take the easy way out and look at their calendars. Those say today is the vernal equinox – the first day of spring around here.

The calendar’s announcement is based on the astronomical reckoning of the first day of spring.

An equinox is a date on which Earth’s equator is lined up with the center of the sun. At the vernal equinox, the northern hemisphere starts tilting toward the sun. That lines us up with generally warmer weather, but doesn’t guarantee that the sun will break through the clouds or that there will be no more snowy days in Warren County.

Some people don’t need a calendar to know when spring arrives. Why rely on the positions of the stars and planets when the proof is right here on the ground?

Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources District Forester Cecile Stelter is familiar with many of the folk tales associated with spring.

There are a number of birds and bird behaviors that ring in the season.

Robins are a traditional sign of spring. The first robin on the ground in spring is even given credit for some wish-granting abilities. When robins are hopping, they’re able to get to worms and other treats just below the surface of the ground. In winter, those treats go deeper and effectively hibernate and snow adds even more cover. Seeing a robin after months of winter may have more to do with the birds’ eating habits than migration patterns. Robins eat fruit during the winter as it is harder to get to worms and other ground-based treats. So, some are still in northern Pennsylvania through the winter, but they aren’t hopping around on the ground where they are easy to see.

That bluebird on your shoulder, or wherever, is another sign.

V-shaped skeins of geese are a good sign, Stelter said. Those birds tend to follow the line of the retreating snow as they head north to their breeding grounds.

As a Penn State Master Gardener, Ed Lloyd keeps track of information related to the right time to plant.

“Turkeys gobbling and grouse drumming on their drumming logs,” Lloyd said.

Ground-based animals are good at weather, too.

“Skunks… they hibernate. Same thing with chipmunks,” Lloyd said. “When you start seeing them being active – smelling them in the case of skunks” spring has arrived.

The same is true of woodchucks – at least one of which is reported to have particular skill at foretelling the weather.

Spring peepers got their name for a reason, Stelter said. The chorus of the spring peepers begins after ice melts in the places they live.

Plants rely on the sun, so they know a thing or two about the changing of the seasons.

Lloyd said snowbells are not reliable because, “they come up while there’s still snow on the ground.”

Crocuses, he described them as miniature tulips for the flora layman, are a better bet. “If you see crocuses you know it’s there,” he said.

There are some other flowers that get early starts. “Tulips and daffodils will start poking their heads through,” he said. “It seems like they are able to bust through the frozen ground.”

Spring has arrived when “skunk cabbage is starting to come up in wet areas,” Stelter said. The plant looks like a pitcher as it emerges.

The blooming of the trailing arbutus has a history of ushering spring in. “It is also called Plymouth Mayflower because it is said that this was the first flowering plant the Pilgrims saw after their first winter,” Stelter said.

Maybe it should have been called Plymouth Marchflower?

The serviceberry “is the first flowering tree of the forest – it also flowers before its leaves emerge,” Stelter said.

That plant was like a very loud church bell. “It is called serviceberry because it is said that in the 19th century, early settlers knew that religious services would begin again, having been suspended due to the harsh winters, when this tree was flowering.”

One might determine from another name for the plant that there are fish that can be used to announce spring. “It is also called shadbush because it is said to coincide with the running of the shad,” she said.

Strawberries and white-tailed deer form another flora-fauna tandem. “You can tell the wild strawberries are in blossom when the deer coats change color,” Lloyd said.

Trees get in on the action, too. “As you’re driving down the road you’ll start to see a red haze on the trees,” Lloyd said. “That is the sap starting to go up.”

The plants are reaching out for the sun, which is now more directly focused on Warren County than it is on, say, central Tasmania – an island south of Australia or Ancud, Chile – a pacific town of about 40,000 people. There aren’t a lot of choices for recognizable places that correspond to Warren’s latitude in the southern hemisphere. For example, there is no point in Africa that is as far south as we are north.

“Lastly, when the leaflets of the walnut leaves are as big as a squirrel’s ear, then it is reported that there won’t be any more killing frosts for the spring,” Stelter said.

What do you mean? A red or gray squirrel?

There is a clear cut way to be an expert on when not to plant. Planting in frozen ground is a bad idea.

“You gotta wait for the thaw,” Lloyd said. “You can’t get in there too soon. The frost is down deep.”

So, how does one know when the ground is thawed?

“When you start walking in mud.”