First Signs of Spring: Feathers and Amphibians

My choice for the first harbinger of spring is not the robin but other species of birds and amphibians.

If birds have publicists, the American Robin, Connecticut's State Bird, must have the greatest flack of them all. Since the time of our forefathers, the robin has received accolades from winter-weary humans as the "first sign of spring." The honor is unearned. Throughout most of the lower 48, robins — at least, some of them — hang around all winter. In Connecticut, for my money, birds other than the robin signal that spring is upon us.

I start breaking out spring clothing when the dull red winter plumage of male House Finches, a species introduced hereabouts from the western United States, brightens in preparation for breeding. Similarly, yellow begins to tinge the feathers of male goldfinches. Spring is in the offing when immense gangs of Common Grackles, reminiscent of the hordes in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, blacken the trees and ground around my bird-feeders, emptying them of sunflower seeds as they gorge, making the man who sells me bird seed happy and wealthy. With the grackles are Red-winged Blackbirds. A few may be present in winter but when I hear their creaky calls, I know they have spring nesting on their minds. Spring is in the offing when Wood Ducks, tree nesters that flee the north for the southeastern states before fall is past, appear on tree-fringed ponds.

Some of those same ponds and puddles harbor amphibians that are among the first to reappear in the spring. Among them is a frog — and it is not the Spring Peeper. By and large, the first frog to mass for spring breeding is the Wood Frog, a bronzy creature with a black burglar's mask that is the only North American frog living north of the Arctic Circle. The Wood Frog gathers in swamps and small ponds, even ditches, to mate so early that, at times, it must halt its reproduction while ice reforms over the water. Wood frog breeding assemblages are frenzied scenes, with males clambering after females and fighting one another. Their raspy, quacking call is such that when people hear a bunch of them are calling, they often start looking for ducks. Only the ducks are never there.

About the time the wood frogs appear, another type of amphibian also appears in the same waters. it is the Yellow-spotted Salamander, jet black flecked with incredibly bright yellow dots. Breeding at night, spotted salamanders perform an elaborate mating dance, with males swimming around females in graceful circles. To reach their breeding waters, spotted salamanders must often cross roads, a migration usually performed on rainy or foggy nights, which is why I drive with extra caution if abroad at such times in early spring.

Invasive Plants Council Releases Annual Report

Connecticut’s Invasive Plants Council has released its Annual Report, highlighting many actions undertaken during 2011 to address problems caused by invasive plants. Accomplishments highlighted in the annual report include:

  • Hosting an all-day training workshop for municipal staff and conservation organizations, about invasive plant control and the use of native plants to improve wildlife habitat.
  • Continuing ongoing efforts to inform the public about threats from mile-a-minute vine and to gather information on new infestations.  Removal efforts were undertaken in Bridgewater, Greenwich, New Milford, Newtown, Roxbury, Sprague, and Westport.
  • Developing “Guidelines for the Disposal of Terrestrial Invasive Plants” to provide the public with information that will help prevent the unintentional spread of invasive plants. These guidelines are available to the public in hardcopy and through www.hort.uconn.edu/cipwg.
  • Highlighting an ambitious effort by the green industry (led by the Connecticut Nursery and Landscape Association) to phase out 25 of the most high seed producing varieties of Japanese barberry by 2013.
  • Conducting a survey of aquarium plant retailers (done by the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station) which found that 29% of stores were selling prohibited invasive plants.  All retailers were revisited and given information on State laws and an aquatic plant identification guide.
  • Coordinating water chestnut control and removal throughout the Connecticut River.
  • Updating the CT Invasive Plants List and evaluating new species for listing.

The Council is a nine-member partnership established under state statute in 2003 between state agencies, non-governmental organizations, academia, and industry.  Its membership includes representatives from the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, the Department of Agriculture, University of Connecticut College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Invasive Plant Atlas of New England, The Nature Conservancy, Connecticut Federation of Lakes, Connecticut Nursery and Landscape Association, and Connecticut Green Industries.  Primary functions include developing the state invasive and potentially invasive species lists, developing and providing educational materials and programs about invasive plants and supporting state agencies in invasive plant efforts.

Additional accomplishments of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station and associated organizations, including the Connecticut Nursery and Landscape Association and the Connecticut Invasive Plant Working Group are also included in the report.

To view the full annual report, visit www.hort.uconn.edu/cipwg/ipc.html and click “2011 Annual Report”.  For a list of members of the Invasive Plants Council, visit the above website and click “List of Members”.

Upcoming Events

Just in time for spring birding, a Fieldcraft for Birders program is on tap March 20, 7:30 p.m. at the Kellog Environmental Center, 500 Hawthorne Avenue, Derby. It is sponsored by Naugatuck Valley Audubon, Audubon CT and the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP). Attendees will learn how to handle themselves in birding situations, including the skills necessary to get close enough to birds for a satisfying view. A donation of $4.00 per adult and $2.00 per child is asked. For further information, contact the center at (203) 734-2513.

Volunteer instructors from DEEP's wildlife bureau will conduct a free wild turkey hunting safety seminar at Fairfield County Fish and Game, 310 Hammertown Road, Monroe, March 10, 8 a.m. To register, contact the division's Sessions Woods Office at 860-675-8130.

Maria Giannuzzi March 07, 2012 at 09:50 PM
The robins always seem to arrive at about the same time as the house finches. Perhaps their migration is in sinc. And is it possible that over the years the robins have shortened their long migration and adapted to overwintering along the Gulf coast. Either way, I'm always glad when the finches and robins return.
Wyatt March 07, 2012 at 10:03 PM
Robins never left my yard. A small flock hung around the neighborhood all winter, apparently surviving on winterberries and chokeberries.
Maria Giannuzzi March 07, 2012 at 10:13 PM
I wonder if the lack of snow this winter changed the robins' behavior. It's a great example of adaptation at work. The latest I have seen a robin is late October and the earliest is mid-February. Nice photo, Ed.


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