Northland Nature...Three familiar mammals return in March
According to the calendar, the new season of spring has arrived. As we leave the month of March and ease into April, the daylight continues to lengthen and we will soon be at 13 hours of light.
All seems to be well in the new season, except the response to the longer days has been slow. Although there have been several days in the 40s and even one in the 50s, the overall trend for March has been cool, and it looks like we will end the month with another one being colder than normal, but not like the huge discrepancies of the previous three months.
In many years by the time that we exit March, we see the arrival of a good variety of migrants in the region. Canada geese, mallards, mergansers and swans swim in the open waters and occasionally a great blue heron moves along the shore.
Our yards could also be hosting the presence of juncos, purple finches, song sparrows and maybe even robins back from their winters farther to the south. And out in the swamps, the red-winged blackbirds sing a “konk-a-lee” proclamation of territorial ownership while a woodcock struts and displays in a nearby open space.
All of this could be happening as we leave March, but don’t expect to see it all this year. Our ample snowpack is still with us and appears to be in no hurry to leave.
But despite the slow progress of this spring, some happenings are going on in our yards and neighborhoods.
The long clear days give enough light and relative heat to south- and west-facing sites to bring on melting. In these little hot spots, the first crocuses emerge and early dandelions may open their yellow blossoms. Sunlight absorbed by the bark of trees returns to the nearby snow and so many of the trees in the woods hold circles of melted snow at their base.
Word of the longer days and the new season reaches the residents here as well. As we go through March each year, I look for the return of three common mammals that have all learned to live in the presence of humans, but are usually not seen during the winter.
Skunks and raccoons are not exactly hibernators, but they do go through long periods of sleep in the coldest times, waking in the milder weather, even if these mild days are in the midst of winter. At these times, they wake and go out for meals, but return to sleep. (Both the skunks and raccoons have a varied diet and have no trouble locating food.)
Once we get to March, their waking is longer lasting and the searches at this time now include more than food. They both are also seeking mates.
One night recently, I drove through a neighborhood where a skunk had previously passed. The odor was still lingering. I did not see the critter, but the telltale smell told the story.
A couple of nights later, March 17, we were visited by the first raccoon of the season. Though still chilly, tracks of this nocturnal wanderer revealed that it was active a few days later.
The third mammal that I look for in March is usually the easiest to see. Chipmunks abound in the Northland; and as they are diurnal, we often note their presence in our yards when we may also be present to observe them. Indeed, many of these cute striped ground squirrels have gotten handouts from local homeowners.
As a member of the ground squirrels, the chipmunk’s winter is spent in a series of deep sleeps, closely resembling hibernation. (Tree squirrels remain active all winter while the ground dwellers — chipmunks, Franklin ground squirrels and woodchucks — stay asleep.)
Although the chipmunk is usually said to hibernate, its sleep is interrupted by waking periods during the cold times.
Normally, they remain in the den and dine on the seeds and nuts that we saw them carry off last fall. (There are exceptions, and three times I have seen chipmunks active on the snow during January days.)
Last autumn, I watched the regular appearance of a local chipmunk at my bird feeder. With bulging cheeks of sunflower seeds, the critter dashed off to cache the food in preparation for the impending winter.
Abruptly in early November, the visits ended. We went through the cold snowy season without seeing this delightful neighbor.
Usually by late March, they have returned. Thanks to the tardiness of this spring season, I’m still eagerly awaiting the return of this energetic striped chipmunk.
And any day now it will appear.