In terms of temperature, March certainly “came in like a lion.” The first week saw some of our coldest temps of the 2016-17 winter season.Still, there are many notable signs of spring. My backyard chipmunks emerged from their winter dens and were seen scurrying around their favorite haunts. Woodcock and red-winged blackbirds took up their respective stations to establish breeding territories and attract mates. Many naturalists and natural resource managers will be keeping an eye out for piping plovers on our bay and ocean beaches, and for the return of the osprey later this month.
Grey seal pups, born in late December and January and now weaned and on their own, will show up on our beaches this month. These are most likely from the Muskeget shoals pupping area off Nantucket. The location of the seemingly helpless, fragile pups, measuring less than 3 feet in length, can be reported to the Riverhead Foundation at (631) 369-9829, but many of these stranded seal pups are just resting and are fine.
The alewife spawning run commences this month, as does that of the Atlantic silverside, that ubiquitous silvery fish that congregates in large schools in our estuaries during the months between March and November. The slightly higher arc of the sun and slightly longer days in March warm up the dark bottom sediments in the bays and harbors, stirring mummichogs and killifish out of their winter quarters buried in the bottom sediments.
The signs of spring among our native flora seem to lag behind that of our fauna. Skunk cabbage leaf-out is most conspicuous among the flora. Poplars and red maples will flower by month’s end, their nectar sustaining our hardiest insects, including the bumblebee.
Perhaps the most dramatic changes at this time of year are found in our vernal ponds. These are shallow, temporary pools of water that often dry up completely in mid-summer, a characteristic that prevents them from supporting a population of fish. That fact makes them ideal breeding habitat for many of our amphibian species, and a visit to them this month might reveal any one or several of them in the form of mature, mating adults or eggs (spotted and blue-spotted salamanders, wood frogs and spring peepers), larvae (marbled salamanders), or egg clusters (tiger salamanders), as well as other interesting species adapted to this unique habitat.
If you’d like to learn more about vernal ponds, consider joining one of the vernal pond field trips offered by the South Fork Natural History Society (sofo.org), or attend the 2017 Long Island Natural History Conference (March 24 and 25) at Brookhaven National Lab, where well-known vernal pond biologists and authors Al Breisch and Matt Burne are presenting (longislandnature.org).