Finishing an hour-long session clearing the driveway, I felt thoroughly chilled by a temperature reading of -10 that felt even colder thanks to being battered by strong, numbing wind gusts. Brushing the snow off as I headed towards the sheltered warmth of the house, spring seemed a very long way off indeed. But then, a black-capped chickadee’s unmistakable spring call, “phoebe, phoebe,” proclaimed otherwise. Yes, we are buried under almost two feet of snow and the thermometer has not broken 30 degrees in almost a month, and shows no sign of doing so anytime soon, but there are unambiguous signs abounding that spring is on its way.
First, the calendar tells us we have traversed winter’s halfway mark. That was passed, on Ground Hog Day which, coincidentally, is the same day the Christian faith observes Candlemas, a festival of light that also celebrates winter’s receding days.
A little digging around online uncovered that the Ground Hog Day/Candlemas confluence is not just a happenstance. Both pagan ritual and the Christian worship marked the mid-winter passage. Those celebrations stem from a complex interweaving of ritual observance and tradition that stretches back centuries
At some point, the Candlemas observance began to be used as a predictor of the weather. There is the well-known adage,
“If Candlemas Day be fair and bright
Winter will have another fight.
If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain,
Winter won't come again."
Somewhere along the line, we are told, a hibernating animal became the weather forecasting element of the mid-winter observance. In Germany, it was a badger. It is surmised that Germans settling in southeastern Pennsylvania brought that tradition with them but substituted the locally abundant ground hog.
Second, beyond the calendar, we also see that the days are noticeably longer. The morning sky is beginning to lighten around 6:00, and in the evening, the sun is not down in the west until around 5:30. Indeed, the Old Farmer’s Almanac says we have gained 90 minutes of daylight since the 1st of the year!
In recent years, research has shown that it is this lengthening of the day, not weather conditions, that sets off spring urges in our local avian population. According to Vermont naturalist Bryan Pfeiffer, “Day length is a far more reliable calendar than weather. It is not entirely clear how birds measure day length, but we do know that photo-receptors in bird brains sense increasing light. It triggers the production of hormones that act like birdie Viagra.” In short longer daylight tells birds it’s time to get ready for breeding season. Thus we have the incongruity of chickadees breaking into their spring songs and woodpeckers drumming to stake out their breeding territories while the landscape remains deeply covered with snow and the temperature is hovering in single digits.
The other indicator that spring is on its way will be the arrival soon of the vanguards of our returning summer residents. When I used to live just north of Boston, I could count on seeing the first arriving red-winged blackbirds and common grackles at my feeders towards the end of February, often in the teeth of a snowstorm. That annual appearance has proven to be several weeks later in The Upper Valley, but there are reports of arriving red-winged blackbirds emanating from the Champlain Valley and New Hampshire coast assuring us it will happen.
Other signs of spring? Watch for bald eagles beginning to work on their nests for the upcoming breeding season whether building anew or repairing last year’s site. At night listen for the hooting of owls in the woods as they stake out their breeding territories and attempt to attract mates.
Yes, I see the signs of advancing spring everywhere, and my spirits are appropriately lifted. Then, I step outside and see and feel the harsh reality of winter's seemingly unloosening grasp. But then I hear the chickadee's call, and I am reminded of Emily Dickinson's poem, "Hope is the thing with feathers."
Photo credit: "The flowers that bloom in the spring, Tra, la, Breathe promise of merry sunshine." -- The Mikado Blake Allison - Lyme, NH