When it’s snowing or hailing or the temperature is hovering in the thirties, it’s easy to forget that it’s already almost the end of March. We got hit with a hailstorm today as we were coming back from milking and both of us were swearing at the stinging pellets hitting nose, ears and cheeks. On a day like today, you tend not to pay attention to the cranes flying north with their odd chirring calls or the wild plum trees opening their snowy white blossoms to the hail.
Birds are often one of the earliest signs of spring. Male robins show up, usually in mid-February, to stake out territory and get ready for the arrival of potential mates. Red-wing blackbirds arrive a week or so later and immediately come to check out the leftovers from feeding the cows. They have competition, of course. The juncos aren’t ready to move back up the mountain yet and the quail are also hovering, still in the large familial flocks they formed with last year’s chicks. As the days lengthen, the quail will begin to split off into pairs before nesting. The Canada geese that winter on our ponds also spend the cold days in flocks of up to thirty birds, sauntering out to search through the grain hay leavings for any tasty little tidbits the cows have missed. You know spring is coming when the Canadas – who are noisy neighbors at best – ramp up their quarrels over space and mates, usually toward the end of February. The big flocks break down into pairs and occasionally trios as the grey birds get ready to lay and hatch their eggs.
The animals start to shed their heavy winter coats. A quick scratching on the stallion’s backbone leaves me covered with golden hair. When I groom Maybelle prior to milking, the currycomb is full of pale fawn hairs – as well as a certain amount of mud – that I shake out on the ground. Hummingbirds and orioles will use these soft hairs to build or line their cup-shaped nests.
Although the plum trees are usually the first of the fruit trees to bloom, there is one elderberry bush that starts to leaf out before any of its relatives or neighbors. I have no idea why this one bush is such an early bird, but it will unfurl its bright green leaves several weeks before the larger elderberries that grow not five feet away. Willows are the first tree to bud, forming a pale green screen against the monotonous grays and browns of winter shrubbery. The moss on the tree trunks glows chartreuse in every errant sunbeam, unlike the more subdued colors it will wear as the trees dry out for summer. If you look carefully, you can see the green spears of new grass and grains sprouting among the leftover stalks of the grain hay we fed this winter. Between the carbon from the hay stalks and the nitrogen fertilizer provided by the animals’ manure, there’s plenty of plant food available.
Yes, despite the hail, spring is in the air!