March is unpredictable in many ways as one day brings warm temperatures and the next snow. As the month pulses forward March welcomes the first official day of spring as well other natural firsts for the year. The first mourning cloak butterfly appears on warm sunny days to feast on sugary sap of maple trees and is forced to return to hibernation on colder days. A southerly wind brings returning birds as the much anticipated buzzards return to Hinckley Reservation bringing worldwide attention when soaring into sight. However, March truly belongs to the explosive breeding amphibians. Awoken from winter’s hibernation they migrate in mass to breeding pools for courtship, egg laying and quickly return to the forest, often all with a week’s time.
Still within winter’s grip, March heralds the beginning of spring with increasingly warmer days, signaling birds to stir and become more active. Late in the month, the first spring migrants, including hardy eastern phoebes, fox sparrows, and yellow-bellied sapsuckers, begin to appear in greater numbers. Male red-winged blackbirds (the ultimate harbinger of spring) have returned to their territories along roadsides, marshes and wetlands proclaiming their arrival with puffed wings and a loud rattling “Coco-REEE.” High above the forest floor within large oaks, maples, and pines red-shouldered, Cooper’s and red-tailed hawks are rearing their young. Great horned and barred owl owlets are growing and becoming restless, keeping parent owls busy catching mice, voles, skunks, squirrels, birds, and rabbits. Waterfowl begin major movements and from the high bluffs of Huntington Reservation, one can witness fantastic numbers and diversity of diving ducks, grebes and loons as they prepare to push north towards nesting grounds.
Many mammals already have babies in their nest, lodges and burrows. They grow quickly and soon the first young of the year are seen exploring their new surroundings. While deer fawns are still months away, most bucks have shed their antlers and soon will begin the process of growing new ones. These sheds are quickly recycled by small rodents by gnawing on them utilizing the nourishing calcium for milk production to feed their young.
Relative warm rainy nights bring one of the most awe-inspiring events in the forests of Cleveland Metroparks. Countless wood frogs, spotted and Jefferson salamanders and spring peepers are on the move migrating to vernal pools. Males are first to arrive staking territories and advertising for the soon arriving females. The chorus peaks with thousands of males singing as competition is fierce for the opportunity to breed. Within a few short days this annual event is over and the adults migrate back to the forest leaving their eggs to develop into another generation of amphibians all before the heart of summer will dry out these temporary pools.
Maple sugaring continues as the sweet sap flows early in the month and eventually opening buds will turn the sweet sap bitter. Red maples are the first to bloom as their buds burst sending the first wave of pollen into the air. Pussy willows near wetlands open their yellow flowers releasing their pollen into the air relying on wind currents to be deposited on a receptive flower. The bleak forests are highlighted with subtle colors, an indication of more to come.