What’s Happening Outside in Early April?

Winter snows are gone except for sheltered, north-facing pockets and signs of spring abound. The Maine landscape undergoes more transformation in April than in any other month.

Amphibians emerge from winter hibernation, bird chatter is on the rise, maples prepare to unfurl their glorious early blossoms, and many animals and insects begin their annual life cycle rituals. The natural world offers endless entertainment to those who stop, look, and listen, and spring is a particularly exciting time to be outside.

Most woodcocks have finished their elaborate aerial courtship dances and paired up for mating. Pussy willows bloom in wet areas, joined by red-winged blackbirds who once again fill wetlands with raucous calls.

Bluebird pairs scout for nesting sites, while cardinals – at their most brilliant red this time of year – loudly maintain their territories. Goldfinches and phoebes returned to the midcoast recently, and grouse can be heard drumming in the woods.

Red maple flowers

Red maple buds are getting ready to unfurl their gorgeous red and yellow flowers. Find a red maple, notable for their very red buds, and visit it daily to watch the changes.

Spring is a great time to learn new trees and shrubs through careful observation. Different tree species break their buds and flower/leaf out at different times, making it easier to pick out individual species across the landscape. Red maples put out their flowers early, so when you see trees decked out in a blush of red, you know they’re red maples.

When you see woodland shrubs displaying a white blush of flowers amidst the still naked forest landscape, that will be shadbush, (also called serviceberry). 

The same principle applies as trees leaf out. The pristine young leaves of many tree and shrub species have distinctive coloring, making it much easier to identify individuals of each species in the landscape. In summer, once leaves have matured to the same dark green, trees and shrubs become a wall of green that can be more daunting to investigate. 

Listen for the sound of spring peepers and wood frogs as they call – LOUDLY – for mates. Vernal pools should soon be stocked with frog and salamander eggs. Check our recent post on vernal pools for more information and resources.

Robins are passing through in droves. Resident robins are searching for nest sites in conifers which provide better cover early in the season. And new, impossible to identify warblers arrive every day.

White trillium

Soon, false hellebore and skunk cabbage will push up through the soil in wet areas. The woodland flowers will follow – Bloodroot, Trillium, Trout lilies – completing their flowering before trees leaf out (ensuring good access to sun) and while soil nutrient levels are high.

A growing number of tools are available to help you interpret the natural world. Readers will enjoy Naturally Curious: A Photographic Field Guide and Month-by-Month Journey through the Fields, Woods, and Marshes of New England, by Mary Holland, a Vermont naturalist.

Merlin is a free app developed by the Cornell Ornithology Lab that helps with bird identification. Enter information about a bird you see (size, primary colors, location, where it is in the landscape) and get suggested species. Or, use it to search birds by name and listen to their songs.

The free app iNaturalist allows you to photograph a plant, then offers options for what it could be. If you select an option, other naturalists will review your photo, confirm your identification if correct, and correct it if it was incorrect. Once confirmed, your data is considered research grade and is available for use by scientists. And, a great way to learn new plants!

The natural world is alive with activity in spring. Use all your senses to detect her coming. She arrives with the honking of migrating geese, the din of spring peepers, the blush of flowering trees, the greening of the landscape, the soft touch of tender green leaves, and the indescribable smell of rebirth. Enjoy!