It seems as if Old Man Winter cannot make up his mind this year. He started off strong, with several weeks of snow, temperatures well below freezing and wind chills for days in the single to negative digits.
As we moved into February, it seemed as if he might have spent all his energy on those early winter days. We saw temps reach the 50s on several occasions with overall pleasant conditions (at least for wintertime).
Many early season plants (crocuses, day lilies, etc.…) started to sprout, only to find that March was going to come in like a lion and go out like one too.
As I write this column, we are getting hit with a fourth nor’easter in as many weeks and there are rumblings from local weathermen that there might be a fifth before Old Man Winter finally goes to bed.
Will spring ever arrive? While it might appear that the answer is no, she is in fact already here.
• One of the first signs of spring is the song of the red-winged blackbird. Although they can be found on the North Fork year-round, it is not until the days grow longer that the males begin to sing their unmistakable song (https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Red-winged_Blackbird/sounds). From a perch high in a marsh or wetland, they will spread their wings, showing their bright red shoulder patches, and repeatedly sing their song to not only attract a mate, but to mark their territory. They will defend their turf aggressively from other males and even larger threats such as crows, hawks and ospreys.
• The high-pitched call of the osprey is another welcome sign that spring has arrived. Having spent the winter in South and Central America, male osprey return to our area by mid-March, with females arriving a couple weeks later. This delay gives the male plenty of time to tidy up the nest, making sure it is suitable for his lady. Feeding almost exclusively on fish, they live within close-proximity to open waters such as rivers, lakes, bays and the ocean. Though they feed on a wide variety of fish, they seem to coincide their return with the arrival of another sign of spring, the alewife.
• The alewife is a type of herring that ranges from Nova Scotia to North Carolina. They are an anadromous fish, meaning they spend their adult life in the ocean and will return to freshwater to spawn. These river herring will seek out the same river system where they were hatched, some three to five years prior. It is believed that they can find their home river by using their sense of smell. By late March or early April they will have reached the mouth of local watersheds such as the Peconic River and will begin their ascent upstream when water temperatures approach fifty degrees. This leg of their voyage can be quite dangerous, as they must navigate through shallow waters, snags, and a gauntlet of predators, all while fasting. As they move farther away from the ocean, they will swim past one of the first plants to sprout in the spring, the skunk cabbage.
• Towards the end of winter, along the edges of freshwater wetlands, you will notice many four to six-inch tall cones that are purple and green/yellow in color emerging from the soil. These cones (known as a spathe) contain the flowers of the wildflower known as skunk cabbage. It’s one of only a few plants that exhibit thermogenesis (the capability to raise their own temperature). You can see this unique ability after a snowfall, as the snow around the spathes will be melted.
After pollination, the spathe will begin to wither and a cluster of leaves will emerge from the ground, growing in a spiral pattern. Older plants, which have the potential to be decades old, can have leaves that are up to two feet long. These large, lush, green leaves are very appealing to an herbivore, but accidentally step on one and you will know where it gets its name! The putrid smell that is emitted from the plant is a defense mechanism that will prevent most animals from consuming skunk cabbage.
Red-winged blackbirds, osprey, alewife and skunk cabbage are just some of the many signs of spring. Now is the best time to get outdoors and see firsthand how the power of spring is overtaking Old Man Winter’s grip on the North Fork.
With a degree in marine biology from LIU/Southampton, Chris Paparo is the manager of Stony Brook Southampton’s Marine Sciences Center. Additionally, he is a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America and the NYS Outdoor Writers Association. You can follow Paparo on Facebook and Instagram at @fishguyphotos.