The relatively warm weather that the Buffalo-Niagara Region experienced last week triggered some plant and considerable animal activity that has extended into this first week of spring. Tree sap began to flow, as evidenced by maple syrup production at sugaring operations in our Region. Pussy willow and red and silver maple flower buds are swollen, ready to burst into flower over the next week or two. Skunk cabbage plants have started to flower in forested wetlands.
Early-spawning species of fish such as northern pike have started to move toward and concentrate in prospective spawning sites. Burbot, a large elongated fish in the cod family, has already spawned. Moderate temperatures combined with light rainfall and snow melt prompted initial nocturnal movements of frogs and mole salamanders (i.e., spotted, blue-spotted, and Jefferson salamanders) toward vernal pools and other pond/wetland breeding sites. Significant numbers of frogs and salamanders will enter those pools once the Region receives moderate or heavy rainfall.
Large flocks of Canada geese and tundra swans have been migrating through and congregating in 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 also arrived in open water areas in large numbers.
Spring flights of hawks, bald eagles, and turkey vultures have been observed along the Lake Erie and Lake Ontario shorelines over the past week. 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 week. Those in bold/italics are new or substantially revised highlights to watch for this week. Check out the list of 300 publicly accessible sites at https://bnnatureblog.com/nature-sites/site-lists/alphabetical-list/ 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 20: 4
Lake, Pond, Stream & Wetland Conditions:
- While the west end of Lake Ontario is mostly ice-free, the east end of Lake Erie will remain mostly ice-covered this week.
- The Lake Erie water temperature off Buffalo was 32°F and the Lake Ontario water temperature off Greece (Monroe County) rose slightly to 37°F as of March 21.
- Inland ponds are mostly ice-free 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.
- With the onset of winter, most fungal fruiting bodies (e.g., mushrooms, bracket fungi) were extinguished. The fungal “roots” (mycelium network) survive the winter and produce new fruiting bodies during the appropriate season next year. Interestingly, fruiting bodies of some species of fungi (e.g., oyster mushrooms) remain viable during the winter and may disseminate spores during warm periods or in early spring.
Ferns and Grasses/Sedges/Rushes:
- Freezing temperatures during late autumn killed remnant grass, sedge, and rush stems. The roots of these perennial plants will survive and sprout soon.
- Wildflower stems died back following late fall freezing temperatures. Roots and rhizomes of perennial wildflowers will survive and sprout soon. Seeds of annual wildflowers will do the same.
- Skunk cabbage will begin to flower in some forested wetlands with peak blooming period over the next week or two.
Trees and Shrubs:
- Sugar maple sap will continue to flow this week (and be harvested within some sugar bushes). Sap flow is especially strong during days with temperatures above freezing following nights with sub-freezing temperatures
- Sap flow is occurring in other tree and shrub species, too, as visualized by brighter yellow branches of crack and other willows and redder branches of red osier and silky dogwoods.
- Red and silver maple flower buds will continue to swell but will not flower substantially this week.
- Pussy willow flower buds are swollen but will not burst this 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:
- Freezing temperatures during late autumn killed most adult insects and other invertebrates that did not migrate or enter hibernation. The vast majority of insect species in our Region over-winter as eggs or larvae/nymphs/pupae, although some species over-winter as adults.
- A surprising diversity and abundance of vernal pool invertebrates will spring to life as pools warm: fingernail clams, amphipods, isopods, fairy shrimp, caddis fly larvae, dragonfly nymphs, giant water bugs, an assortment of aquatic beetles, etc.
- Early spring species of caddis flies, stoneflies, and midges will continue to be active when air temperatures are about 40°F and warmer.
- Wooly bear caterpillars that overwintered beneath leaf litter are starting to become active. After a brief feeding period, each will spin a cocoon of their orange and black hairs and develop into an Isabella tiger moth.
- A few mourning cloak and eastern comma butterflies (which overwintered as adults) may become active during relatively warm days this week.
- Most species of fish will remain relatively sedentary as water temperatures in most lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams hover at or just above freezing.
- Burbot (AKA freshwater cod) spawn throughout February and early March in the Great Lakes, forming writhing balls of a dozen or more intertwined fish.
- Northern pike will begin to concentrate near tributary streams, ditches, and shoreline wetlands in preparation for spawning, which will start when water temperature exceeds about 40°F.
- White suckers will start to move 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.
- Some brown trout that spawned in Great Lakes tributaries and the Lower Niagara River in autumn remain in those areas through winter. Brown trout were introduced into our Region from Europe.
- 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 species of amphibians and reptiles currently remain in hibernation (technically considered brumation).
- Early breeding frog species such as the wood frog, western chorus frog, and spring peeper may begin to vocalize from wetland breeding pools. Significant numbers will start once the Region receives moderate or heavy rainfall.
- Some spotted, blue-spotted, and Jefferson’s salamanders will make their annual migration to vernal pool breeding sites this week (especially males). Significant numbers of males and females will enter the pools once the Region receives moderate or heavy rainfall.
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 most abundant 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.
- Large flocks of Canada geese, snow geese, and tundra swans will stop-over in the region on their migration northward. The highest concentrations are typically found at the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge and adjoining Tonawanda and Oak Orchard Wildlife Management Areas.
- Larger numbers of “puddle ducks” such as the northern pintail, American wigeon, mallard, American black, gadwall, redhead, ring-necked duck, blue-winged teal, green-winged teal, ruddy duck, wood duck, and hooded merganser will stop-over in the region as they migrate north, or return to local breeding areas such as Iroquois NWR.
- Watch for pied-billed grebes and American coots starting to arrive in the Region.
- 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.
- A few early migrant shorebirds (e.g., killdeer, American woodcock, Wilson’s snipe) will continue to trickle into the region. Male woodcock and snipe will begin performing their elaborate aerial displays designed to attract mates. Woodcock perform mostly near dawn and dusk whereas snipe display mostly during daylight hours.
- 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 that started last week will continue this week, following the Lake Erie and Lake Ontario shores as they migrate north.
- Northbound long-eared owls and northern saw-whet owls will continue 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 at this time.
- Male ring-necked pheasants that have become naturalized in the region will continue their rooster-like crowing to establish territories and attract mates.
- Typical winter songbirds such as the dark-eyed junco and American tree sparrowsback, scaup, common goldeneye, common merganser, long-tailed duck 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, song sparrow, and purple finch.
- 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, horned larks, and Lapland longspurs 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., belted kingfisher, northern flicker, tree swallow, eastern bluebird, American robin, eastern meadowlark, red-winged blackbird, common grackle, brown-headed cowbird, song sparrow, and purple finch) will continue to trickle into the region.
- Resident species of cave bats (big brown, little brown, and eastern pipistrelle [tri-colored] bats), woodchucks, and meadow & woodland jumping mice continue to hibernate. These species are true hibernators.
- Striped skunks emerged from winter torpor a few weeks ago and will remain mostly active in the coming week. This is their breeding season.
- Virginia opossum and raccoon, which became significantly more active the past few weeks, 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.
- Some eastern chipmunks have emerged from winter torpor will be actively feeding and breeding this week.
- Muskrat love is in the air. Male muskrats actively seek females at this time 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.