March 19-25, 2018 (Week 12 of 52): Winter’s Slow Transition to Spring

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Forested wetland at annual high water level.

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Sap collection from sugar maple, Beaver Meadow Audubon Center.

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Red-bellied woodpecker visiting suet feeder, Town of Elma.

SEOW by Tom Poczciwinski

Short-eared owl in Niagara County (photo by Tom Poczciwinski).

 

This first week of spring is forecast to be below average in temperature in the Buffalo-Niagara Region, so the drab landscape with residual snow cover won’t change substantially. Regardless, the region supports an abundance and diversity of life that can be observed by anyone eager to get outdoors.  Most winter resident birds are still present, including thousands of diving ducks (e.g., common merganser, red-breasted merganser, canvasback, common goldeneye, greater scaup, and long-tailed duck) that spend the winter in open water areas such as the Niagara River.  The next couple weeks are an especially good time to observe these ducks as many are performing intriguing courtship displays and vocalizations.  Winter raptors (e.g., snowy owl, short-eared owl, rough-legged hawk) are still present in the region, especially in areas with extensive grassland habitat.  Typical winter songbirds such as the dark-eyed junco and American tree sparrowsback, scaup, common goldeneye, common merganser, long-tailed duck continue to visit local bird feeders.

Moreover, signs of spring are evident across the region. In fact, subtle signs of spring have been visible for several weeks.  Tree sap began to flow during the significant thaw in mid to late February when daytime temperatures reached well above freezing, as evidenced by abundant maple syrup production at sugaring operations in our region at that time.  Pussy willow and red and silver maple flower buds are swollen, ready to burst into flower.  Burbot, a large elongated fish in the cod family, has already spawned and the initial stages of breeding have begun by other fish species as they migrate toward spawning grounds.  Relatively small numbers of Canada geese and tundra swans have been migrating northward across the region, and pairs of geese are returning to previously used nesting sites.  Puddle ducks such as the northern pintail, wood duck, and American wigeon have been observed in open water areas.

Spring flights of hawks, bald eagles, and turkey vultures have been recorded along the Lake Erie and Lake Ontario shorelines during the past few weeks. Great horned owls have been on-nest for a few weeks or more.  Other raptors, including bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and red-tailed hawks have recently laid eggs or started preparing nests.  A few early migrant shorebirds and songbirds (e.g., killdeer, American robin, red-winged blackbird, common grackle) have arrived in the region.  Songbirds have initiated their pre-nuptial molt (most evident in male American goldfinches visiting feeders), and several year-round resident species have been singing and establishing territories since early to mid-February.  A few eastern chipmunks have emerged from their winter dens to feed and breed.  Most large mammals bred during the fall or winter, so we can expect to see fawns, pups, and kits over the next few to several weeks.

Below are highlights of what you can expect to find outdoors in the Buffalo-Niagara Region this first week of spring. Check out the list of 300 publicly accessible sites (“B-N Region & Sites” tab on this web page) to find areas to explore in your neighborhood and throughout the Buffalo-Niagara Region.

Average Sunrise/Sunset (Day Length):          7:14 AM/7:31 PM DST (12 Hours, 17 Minutes)  3 Hours, 16 minutes longer than at winter solstice

Typical Weather:   Normal High Temperature: 44.2° F   Normal Low Temperature: 27.8° F

Cumulative Growing Degree Days thru March 18, 2018:   14

Lake, Pond, Stream & Wetland Conditions:

  • While the west end of Lake Ontario is mostly ice-free, the east end of Lake Erie will remain ice-covered this week.
  • The Lake Erie water temperature off Buffalo was 32°F and the Lake Ontario water temperature off Greece (Monroe County) was 36°F as of Mach 19.
  • Most inland ponds have thawed and most wetlands and vernal pools are ice-free or have limited ice cover. Wetland water levels are at seasonal highs.
  • Streams will remain mostly ice-free with moderate flow this week.

Woodland Wildflowers:

  • Most woodlands are snow-covered. Thus, woodland wildflowers are mostly dormant.
  • Skunk cabbage buds, which developed last autumn and progressed during the February thaw, will slowly advance toward a peak blooming period over the next two or three weeks.

Trees and Shrubs:

  • Sugar maple sap (as well as sap in other tree species) will continue to flow, especially during days with temperatures above freezing following nights with sub-freezing temperatures.
  • Red and silver maple flower buds will continue to swell but will not flower substantially during the coming week.
  • Pussy willow flower buds are swollen but will not burst during the coming week.
  • If you are impatient to see flowering trees and shrubs, try “forcing” branches to bloom by placing 12 to 18-inch cuttings (make sure each has flower buds) in a vase of water indoors. Flowers will appear after several days. Recommended species include red maple, silver maple, pussy willow, spicebush, shadbush, and hawthorn. The following non-native species may also be “forced”: forsythia, lilac, apple, and cherry.

Insects & Other Invertebrates:

  • Early spring species of caddis flies, stoneflies, and midges will continue to be active when air temperatures are about 40°F and warmer.
  • Over-wintering species such as the wooly bear caterpillar, mourning cloak butterfly, and eastern comma butterfly will remain inactive until normal temperatures return.

Fish:

  • Most species of fish will remain relatively sedentary as water temperatures in most lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams hover at or just above freezing.
  • Northern pike will begin to concentrate near tributary streams, ditches, and shoreline wetlands over the next week or two in preparation for spawning, which will start when water temperature exceeds about 40°F.
  • White suckers have started moving into Great Lakes tributary streams, preparing to migrate upstream to spawning grounds.
  • Steelhead that migrated from Lakes Erie and Ontario into tributary streams (including Niagara River) last fall are joined by fresh steelhead starting to enter tributaries in preparation for spring spawning (when water temperature approaches 42°F). Steelhead are an anadromous form of rainbow trout that spawn in streams but live most of their lives in Lakes Erie and Ontario. All forms of rainbow trout are native to Pacific coast watersheds.
  • The DEC will stock local streams with hatchery-raised brown, brook, and rainbow trout in preparation for the opening of trout season on April 1.

Amphibians & Reptiles:

  • Most of the early breeding frogs such as the wood frog, western chorus frog, and spring peeper will remain in hibernation (technically considered brumation for amphibians and reptiles) during the coming week.
  • It is unlikely that spotted, blue-spotted, and Jefferson’s salamanders will make their annual migration to vernal pools to breed during the coming week, considering temperature and snow conditions.
  • Turtles and snakes will remain in a state of hibernation/brumation during the coming week.

Water & Shore Birds, Gulls & Terns:

  • Thousands of diving ducks will remain in their wintering areas, primarily open water areas of the Niagara River and Lake Ontario. The primary species include common merganser, red-breasted merganser, common goldeneye, bufflehead, canvasback, scaup, and long-tailed duck. Many will be performing courtship displays and vocalizations.
  • Watch for red-throated loons, red-necked grebes, and white-winged scoters in open water areas of the Great Lakes.
  • Horned grebes will continue to use open water areas as stop-over feeding areas along their migration route north.
  • Wintering and migrant flocks of tundra swans will continue to be present in the region, especially in the Upper Niagara River and Alabama Swamps area.
  • See the “Great Lakes/Niagara River” column in the “B-N Region & Sites” tab on this web page for sites that provide public access.
  • Spring migrant puddle ducks, Canada geese, and American coots will continue to trickle into the region but the usual flood of migrants will likely not occur this week. Puddle ducks to watch for include northern pintail, American wigeon, mallard, American black, gadwall, ring-necked duck, and wood duck.
  • Pairs of Canada geese will continue to return to previously used nesting sites.
  • Great blue herons are already nesting on Motor Island in the Niagara River whereas they are just returning to inland nesting areas (rookeries).
  • Some winter gulls, such as the glaucous, Iceland, and great black-backed gull may remain in the region over the coming week or two.
  • Bonaparte’s gulls will start to trickle into the region, using the Niagara River as a significant stop-over feeding area along their migration route north. This species will reach its peak spring numbers in the region in mid- to late April when thousands will be present along the Niagara River.
  • A few early migrant shorebirds (e.g., killdeer, American woodcock) will continue to trickle into the region.
  • To stay abreast of bird sightings in the region, consult eBird, Genesee Birds, and Dial-a-Bird (see the “Resources” tab on this web page for more details).

Birds of Prey:

  • Some winter resident raptors (e.g., snowy owl, short-eared owl, rough-legged hawk, northern harrier) will continue to linger in the region, especially in areas with extensive open grassland habitat.
  • Spring flights of hawks, bald eagles, and turkey vultures will continue at a relatively slow pace for now, following the Lake Erie and Lake Ontario shores as they migrate north.
  • Northbound long-eared owls and northern saw-whet owls will begin to arrive in the region, most notably near the southern shores of Lake Erie and (especially) Lake Ontario.
  • Year-round resident raptors such as the great horned owl, barred owl, eastern screech owl, bald eagle, peregrine falcon, and red-tailed hawk are paired up and many are already on-nest. Some great horned owl nests may have young chicks already.

Upland Game Birds:

  • Wild turkeys will continue to travel and feed in flocks as winter-like weather continues.
  • Male ring-necked pheasants that have become naturalized in the region will continue their rooster-like crowing to establish territories and attract mates.

Songbirds:

  • Typical winter songbirds such as the dark-eyed junco and American tree sparrows plus less common species such as the pine siskin will continue to visit local bird feeders .
  • Bird feeders will also be active with year-round resident birds such as mourning dove, downy woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker, black-capped chickadee, tufted titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch, blue jay, northern cardinal, house finch, and American goldfinch.
  • Watch for early migrant feeder birds such as red-winged blackbird, common grackle, brown-headed cowbird, and song sparrow.
  • If you don’t have a feeder of your own, consider visiting a local nature education center (see the last column of the site lists under the “B-N Region & Sites” tab on this web page).
  • A few wintering and migrant snow buntings and horned larks may still be found in open farmland, although most that wintered in our region have migrated north already.
  • Local horned larks are establishing territories and some may be incubating eggs already.
  • Several species of songbirds have been singing and establishing territories since mid-February and will continue to do so over the coming week. Included are mourning dove, black-capped chickadee, tufted titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch, Carolina wren, blue jay, northern cardinal, and house finch. Also included are downy, hairy, red-bellied, and pileated woodpeckers that use drumming as well as vocalizations.
  • A few early migrant songbirds (e.g., northern flicker, eastern bluebird, American robin, eastern meadowlark, red-winged blackbird, common grackle, brown-headed cowbird, and song sparrow) will continue to trickle into the region.

Mammals:

  • True hibernators (several species of bats, woodchuck, meadow jumping mouse, and woodland jumping mouse) will continue to be mostly inactive in the region during the coming week.
  • Striped skunks emerged from winter torpor during the February thaw and will remain mostly active in the coming week. This is their breeding season.
  • Virginia opossum and raccoon, which became significantly more active during the February thaw, will continue to be active (other than during extremely cold periods).
  • Tiny newborn opossums suckle from the safety and warmth of their mother’s pouch. A single litter often consists of over a dozen young.
  • The few eastern chipmunks that have emerged from winter torpor will be actively feeding (other than during extremely cold periods).
  • Muskrat love is in the air. Male muskrats actively seek females and are therefore exposed to greater risks of predation and road kill.
  • Watch for elaborate courtship displays by eastern cottontail pairs, including “boxing matches” and high-jumping antics.
  • Most large mammals bred during the fall or winter, so we can expect to see fawns, pups, and kits over the next few to several weeks.
  • White-tailed deer continue to travel in herds. Finding food will continue to be difficult until the growing season begins.

Be sure to find an opportunity to get outside this week to discover signs of spring.

Chuck Rosenburg

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