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March a time to appreciate the seven signs of spring

Is March the best month to track the changes spring brings to South Jersey? April and May are warmer, of course, but during those weeks new sights and sounds come so quickly that they blur together. March’s slower pace allows more leisurely observation — and a chance to appreciate each delight in turn.

How many of these seven natural events can you observe this month?

CARDINALS SINGING: The easiest bird song to learn in our area is probably that of the northern cardinal, an abundant species here. Cardinals sing earlier in the year than almost all other local birds, so in February and early March few other songsters can confuse you. And the song is loud, simple, and repetitive. Roger Tory Peterson described it as: what-cheer, cheer, cheer, whoit, whoit, whoit! Listening in early morning is best, even before dawn.

CHORUSING FROGS: Like cardinals, spring peepers can begin their mating displays as early as late February. Unlike them, peepers call together in the dozens or even the hundreds — and the sounds can carry a quarter-mile or farther. New Jersey chorus frogs sometimes join them. To learn to distinguish the two by their calls search online for the excellent site “USGS Frog Quiz.” Then, on the next warm and rainy night, step outside (or stop your car near a wetland) and give your ears a treat.

GRACKLES SKY-POINTING: Blackbirds are abundant throughout New Jersey, sometimes occurring in flocks of thousands, but the only member of the family that nests regularly in backyards is the common grackle. Watch for an inky-dark bird with hints of iridescence and a long tail often folded in a V or U. Males will belly up to each other in March, lift their bills to the sky, puff up their chests, and squeak out their call — each trying to intimidate his opponent, like miniature elephant seals.

CEDAR “SMOKE”: The first conifer to release pollen each spring in our area is the red cedar, aka eastern juniper, one of the most numerous trees in South Jersey. You can take a walk in your backyard or neighborhood right now to search out male trees. Look for an evergreen with small egg-shaped bronzy “buds” (actually tiny male cones) clustering at the outermost tips of the leaves. They are swelling already. By the middle of the month you can see the pollen puffing out from the branches, especially on windy days.

RED MAPLES BLOOMING: The first deciduous tree to flower each spring in our area is the red maple, another common species. Watch for the flower buds to open in mid- to late March. The flowers on male trees show multiple stamens that look like micro-sized popsicles. Female trees’ flowers often hang downward, holding one pistil each with two thin tips — suggesting a ballerina’s legs beneath a tutu. Both flower types appear a week or more before the leaf buds open, making them easy to see.

MOURNING CLOAKS: These butterflies are often the first you will see in spring because they are large, slow in flight, and one of only half a dozen species that over-winter in our area as adults. Most butterfly species spend the winter as eggs, caterpillars, or chrysalises. Mourning cloaks break out from their chrysalides in fall, fly for a few days, then retreat from sight to spend the coldest months in stick piles or other hideaways. A couple of days of sunny, 50-plus degree weather can roust them out to search for food, even in January or February but more commonly in March. Look for a large, mostly brown butterfly with bright, pale-yellow trailing edges on its wings.

THE WOODPECKER THAT SAYS ITS NAME: Rather than working its way up tree trunks to search for prey, as other woodpeckers do, the northern flicker forages on the ground. Watch for bird larger than a robin with a band of black above its spotted breast, hopping from spot to spot, probing for ants and other terrestrial insects. If it flies, look for a big white rump and yellow under-wings. It’s noisiest in March and April, and its call is easy to learn: flick-a! flick-a! flick-a!

Good luck to all observers!

Go Green Galloway is a volunteer organization dedicated to reducing the carbon footprint of Galloway through the promotion of energy efficiency and conservation, environmental education and the implementation of sustainable practices. We always welcome new volunteer members. Contact us at gogreengalloway12@gmail.com or call Mary at 609-742-7076. Also be sure to like our Facebook page.

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