Southeast Wild: You know spring is here when ...

Posted: Sunday, April 18, 2004

"If spring came but once in a century, instead of once a year, or burst forth with the sound of an earthquake, and not in silence, what wonder and expectation there would be in all hearts to behold the miraculous change!" - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

For many of us a Southeast spring does not come in silence. Rather, it floats on a clarion note that mystically embodies this entire season. The silvery haunting trill of the Varied Thrush.

Slightly smaller than a robin, but better dressed, the varied thrush takes the familiar orange and gray colors of the robin and adds the dash of a black breast band, an orange line above and behind the eye, and orange on the wings. A robin with racing stripes, one Southeast bird watcher used to say.

Several regular contributors to this column weighed in on the song of the varied thrush as their favorite harbinger of spring. Matt Kirchhoff says, "they usually show up before all the snow is completely gone around the house, but once they're here, I know I can put the snow shovel away."

But most could not stop with just one favorite.

Deanna MacPhail says, "I think everyone listens for the first call of a varied thrush. And although we had a thrush over-winter at our feeders, we didn't hear a call until March 20. At our house the arrival of spring is the arrival of a pair of Mallards on our small pond; they nest somewhere in the immediate vicinity. This year was the earliest ever arrival since 1992, March 29.

"Juncos singing are a sure sign of spring as most of the year they are silent except for a warning chip call. And then there is the first arrival of a Rufous Hummingbird. But for us, that is more like the beginning of summer. Out here near the glacier our first arrival is generally the last week of April or the first week of May."

Laurie Craig says, "for me, it is the lovely clear call of the first varied thrush of the year ... but then there's the first skunk cabbage, the first green blades of grass, the first red buds of fireweed, the smell of cottonwood, the sunny faces of dandelions."

There are so many, says Mary Willson. "Skunk cabbages coming up, varied thrushes and juncos starting to sing, purple mountain saxifrage blooming, ravens collecting sticks for nests, the first flock of robins."

In Petersburg, Barry Bracken says, "the first sign of spring is a toss-up between seeing the first robin, seeing the first skunk cabbage shoots pop up, or hearing/seeing the first sandhill cranes pass overhead." Robins and skunk cabbage come first; when he sees the cranes, "I'll know that spring is really here."

His wife, Kathy, says, "I know spring is here when I can smell the cottonwood leaves popping out."

Flowers, both wild and cultivated, top other lists.

For Sari Saunders, spring means "the smell and the sight of the skunk cabbage in flower." The first day she saw some "I actually felt there was hope."

Bob Armstrong names the purple mountain saxifrage, "a beautiful low-growing plant with numerous purple flowers - they were blooming this year near the Mendenhall Glacier by the first week in April. They also bloom in the alpine on the first exposed rock outcroppings with snow still all around - here the flowers are gone by the time most people begin hiking into the alpine. The flowers are probably pollinated by queen bumblebees, which over-winter and emerge to coincide with the saxifrage blooms."

Marjorie Hermans sees spring in crocuses popping up in her yard, all purple and yellow and white. "Every year I have forgotten where I planted them the last year, so it's a wonderful surprise to that they actually made it through the winter and are ready again to start a new season."

At Mary Lou King's Sunny Point home, "my favorite activity during the first week of April, if there is any break in the wind and rain, is taking the clear plastic cover off of my early spring garden bed and getting it ready to plant. I turn the soil over with a shovel, sprinkle a little high nitrogen organic fertilizer and then rake the soil smooth. With the rake I make narrow straight line depressions to mark the rows, thinly spread the radish, salad greens, peas and carrot seeds in the depressions. I rake a thin layer of soil over the seeds and then gently tamp the soil down over the seeds. Then I put the clear plastic back over the bed and in about a week, if there is any sun at all, the tiny plants begin to show above the ground. What a grand rite of spring."

I count the song of the varied thrush as my favorite sign of spring. If you do not know this song, do yourself a favor and find someone who can introduce you to it. But I really knew spring was here when I walked out my front door and saw my first slug.

• Juneau Audubon Society is sponsoring Saturday spring birds and nature walks through mid-June and Berners Bay cruises on May 1. For further information see

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