On Thursday, March 21, 2013, the first full day of spring, I took an early-morning walk not far from my home and found an Eastern phoebe, my first of the season.
It caught me off guard but shouldn’t have. The Eastern phoebe, a member of the flycatcher family like its cousins the black and the Say’s, is one of the earliest of spring migrant birds.
According to the Scherman Hoffman “Spring Migration Arrival Dates” handout you can get at the nature store, eastern phoebes show up between March 10-20. Nature writer Marie Winn, in her blog post of March 15, announced the first phoebe had been seen in New York’s Central Park.
So mine was more or less on time.
Yet, it did not feel like spring. The temperature at 8:30 that morning was in the upper 20s and it was cloudy with a breeze. I was wearing a thin scarf around my head and neck, a hat over that and a warm parka with the hood up.
The year before we’d had next to no snow and the temperature was unusually warm in March. But this year we’ve had the winter that won’t end. The 50 degree days -- normal temperature for late March -- have been few and far between and the weathercasters were predicting warmth returning in April, maybe.
So the phoebe and the calendar were telling me spring had arrived but my chilled senses weren’t convinced. I decided to search for other signs.
I’d recently visited New Jersey Audubon central NJ sanctuary, Plainsboro Preserve. There was a large flock of common mergansers on the lake and a lone tree swallow, an early migrant (not the one photographed). I also found a woodcock, by accident. I had been walking, stopped to look around and heard a slight crunching of leaves. There it was, quickly walking away.
Woodcocks are another early migrant. The last time I’d seen one was at Scherman Hoffman, where the river trail begins. Sanctuary director Mike Anderson told me you need a night of at least 40 degrees before the woodcocks do their spectacular mating dance.
So, with visions of phoebes and woodcocks, I took to the Scherman trails searching for signs of spring.
I found one sign almost immediately -- the whine of a leaf blower. Many of the sanctuary’s neighbors have large pieces of property and have contracts with landscapers. It didn’t matter that this was a cold, windy day. If the contract said spring “cleanup” would take place in a particular March weekend, it was done.
I find people too lawn-crazy. They go out with leaf blowrs on a windy day and mow every week whether the grass has grown or not. Then they water when the cropped grass burns brown in the sun. If they mowed every two to three weeks they’d save time and energy. But that would put the lawn services out of business.
At the foot of the driveway I’d seen the daffodils were up but not blooming. The sun was only providing enough warmth to slightly defrost some of the frozen mud. New Jersey’s mud season isn’t as epic as New England’s, but this year we’d had far more snow than the year before and there was a fair amount of damp still around.
I headed down the driveway and hung a left near the office, not far from where a pileated woodpecker had been seen for weeks. It was gone. Meanwhile, I found the lower field is now set up for parking and hiking. No climbing unless you want to go further into the sanctuary. Mike said this field would also be a good place for woodcock, and I walked slowly, hoping for tell-tale leaf crunching.
Nothing. The wetlands pond was frozen. I walked on what I thought was a trail and quickly found myself on frozen muck. But there I found my first real sign of spring -- skunk cabbage, so named because of the stink if you disturb it. I was in a sea of skunk cabbage, and I walked out as carefully as I would through a mine field.
Leaving the lower field, I was on the field loop (green trail) with the Passaic River to my right. I was looking for phoebes at the same time I was search the leaf litter for woodcock. As I got near the river (yellow) trail, up ran three young men, cross-country runners. Nothing flew up on their approach. I walked down to the river, listening. I could hear the chirrups of bluebirds very close, plus calling titmice and white-breasted nuthatch. No phoebe, however.
Two men came down the bridge, said hello, and continued along the river to their favorite fishing spots. You can fish at Scherman, in season and with a license. I don’t know if these guys were licensed but I was told at the office it is now fishing season. Even as I left the area a third man was showing up with his rod. That’s the problem with an unusually cold winter - the first decent day you want to get out, whether it’s to hike or fish.
Back on the field loop (green) trail, I stopped to listen to the bluebirds. Two women came bounding along the trail, the older one asking me where the birds were. I told her they were all around us but she wanted to see them, not hear them. They continued on. I counted to 10 and, like clockwork, here came the bluebirds flying across the field.
Jon Young, in his book “What the Robin Knows”, points out that when people just blunder along heedless of their surroundings the birds will hear them a mile away and take off. No wonder these women had seen nothing.
Bluebirds, like their cousins the robins, will stay in New Jersey over the winter but seeing one so bright on a winter day raises the spirits.
OK, then, onward.
I take a detour to the recently installed “fishless pond” where last spring a man leading a bird group pointed out a singing Wilson’s warbler. I didn’t see it but I did hear it. But it’s now too early for warblers. Most of the warblers hit Scherman in mid-April through the end of May. One of the earliest will be the Louisiana water thrush that comes to the river every year.
When most of the warblers arrive it should be warm - climate willing.
I climbed the hill to where the loop meets the dogwood (red) trail and rested. A white-breasted nuthatch sang its high-pitched song. Otherwise, the woods were silent. It is so rare in this plugged-in, automated, mindless world to find an area that is completely silent, where you can hear yourself think, where no one crowds you.
That is the value of the woods to me. But that isn‘t how others view the woods. To some, it‘s a place to jog. To some, a place to hide out (for whatever reason). To some, trees are something dangerous - Hurricane Sandy blew down a lot of trees on a lot of houses.
It can take several generations for a tree to rise to full maturity, but it only takes about a day to bring it down and pull the stump. Most then start building a housing development.
So I stood there enjoying the trees until an airplane flew over and brought me back to “real” life.
Up the hill to the vernal pool. Dry. I watched the brush pile behind me and found four types of sparrows - the junco, the white-throated, the song and the house (actually a weaver bird, but whatever).
This is a good spot because it is a straight line (give or take a tree) from the feeders just up the hill. So after the birds get food from the feeder they often come down here. I’ve seen Baltimore orioles at this spot in summer and purple finches in winter. But now, in what the calendar said was spring, I only found sparrows.
I had spooked them at my approach but once I’d stood a while they started moving around. One or two white-throats (such as the one photographed) started singing their territorial “Oh, Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.” Soon these winter visitors will head north to their breeding grounds, as will the juncos. The house sparrows will stay wherever there are people putting out seed or dropping food on the ground.
A song sparrow also started to sing - chee-chee-CHUR, wheepwheepwheepwheep - it sounds to me. I always associate that song with spring because it, too, is a territorial call. Soon this sparrow will be finding a mate and making a nest, perhaps within this brush pile. (As I write this, Susan Garretson Friedman reported to the NJ bird list on March 27 that a flock of migrant pine siskins stopped at the Scherman feeders for a while and another visitor, a fox sparrow, was along the river trail. It figures.)
Back at my car I checked my mental score sheet. No phoebes and woodcocks but I’d found skunk cabbage, fresh bluebirds and singing song sparrows. In a year when winter just will not end, this will have to do.
As America’s first poet, Anne Bradstreet, wrote, “If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant: if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome.”