Sunday, March 23, 2008

Spring Follows Its Own Schedule

The calendar informs us spring has been with us now for three days, but we cannot always depend on spring to exactly follow our calendar.

Azaleas, violets, flowering quince, dogwood and Japanese magnolia were showing color early. Changing weather, now warm, now cold, keeps waking them up and then they have trouble wrapping themselves in their long underwear again for protection in this come again, gone again spring.

The way to tell spring is finally here is when the air is sweet-scented with tea olive, when tender green leaves are popping out all over the boxwoods, sasanquas, blooming azaleas, roses and oxeye daisies are pushing through mulched ground. Spring comes not by calendar's prediction but as an answer to the call of the sun that reaches deep within roots and buds.

Bird songs say spring lies ahead, no matter the rain, or a swing in temperature from 70 degrees to dips of morning lows into the 20s.

One of the most delightful promises of spring is the singing of birds. It is a joy to hear them, a joy to watch their nuptial antics, and a joy to see the beginnings of nest building.

A Carolina wren awakens us from deep sleep on a sunny morning with its loud "sheree, sheree, sheree, tea-kettle, tea-kettle." A cardinal joins in the music. "What cheer, cheer, cheer, cheer" sounds loud and strong. A towhee tweets in the budding azaleas, a chickadee calls his name over and over. When we look out on the front lawn, robins are doing the "River Dance," stiff-legged and unbending straight upper bodies.

Resident birds are already practicing mating songs. The morning chorus gets louder and sweeter and longer each morning. At this time of the season, the choir is made up of local yodelers. They will have picked out locations and some probably will have young before our visitors arrive from the tropics. Then the morning choir grows more beautiful as the voices of our summer guests blend with our local residents.

A goodly number of winter guests will have departed by now, weather permitting, including the dark-eyed juncos, red-breasted nuthatches and purple finches. White-throated sparrows are not in a hurry to leave, some lingering until May. Though millions of red-winged blackbirds opt to stay in the South, millions more are winging northward to nesting grounds in the meadows and marshes, weaving long black lines in the sky.

Within days summer residents will begin to arrive with spring in their throats. The wood thrush, crested flycatcher, orchard oriole, summer tanager, red-eyed, white-eyed and yellow throated vireos jet in through the first weeks of April. Purple martins are here and chimney swifts will be in before the end of the month. The first venturesome hummingbirds, green-backed and ruby-throated, are usually in by the last of March, depending on the blooming flowers.

All our forecasts for the widespread arrivals of our summer guests, of course, depend on the weather . . . spring's only true calendar.