After a long, cold winter full of snow, ice and disrupted plans, many people in the Chesapeake Bay watershed are looking forward to the first signs of spring. Throughout the region, there are plenty of little signs that the season is about to change, from the return of familiar fish and birds to the departure of the region’s winter visitors.
Whether good or bad, these six signals should give you a little bit of hope that the winter blues will soon be relieved by the warmer days of spring.
The tundra swan migrates to the Chesapeake Bay region in the fall and stays here through the winter. But once spring approaches, these beautiful white birds begin to leave the area and migrate back to the arctic tundra, where they will remain to breed and live through the summer. Observing a mass exodus of tundra swans – which leave just the invasive mute swan in our area for the rest of the year – is a sure sign of spring’s arrival.
After wintering in the Caribbean and South America, local legend has it that ospreys return to the Chesapeake Bay region by St. Patrick’s Day every year. Ospreys are often spotted in the region before this date, though, as they seem to be guided by daylight and can sense when days are beginning to get longer. Because ospreys are relatively tolerant of human presence and nest in close proximity to people, it shouldn’t be too much longer before you start to see a few ospreys building their nests in the area.
One of the earliest and truest signs of the coming of spring is the emergence of skunk cabbage, a fragrant plant that often appears in the Bay region as early as February, fighting through snow to reach the surface. While many associate the coming of spring with pleasant-smelling flowers, skunk cabbages emit a rather unpleasant aroma. Nevertheless, it is a sign that the wetlands where the plant grows are beginning to soften as temperatures rise and spring makes its way to the region.
The spring peeper frog is one of the first to call and breed during the spring, making the peeper’s shrill call another sure sign of the change of seasons from winter to spring. The peeper emits a single, clear “peep” once every second beginning in March.
As temperatures begin to rise, shad make their way back “home” to the Chesapeake Bay from the ocean to spawn during the spring months. They are said to follow their uncanny sense of smell back to the same river or stream where they were born. Males arrive first, soon followed by females.
Shad runs have always been a cause for celebration in the Chesapeake region, beginning with Native Americans and continuing today. Many towns in the region have annual shad festivals to celebrate the fish’s spawning runs. A native plant called the shadbush, which grows on the edge of forested wetlands, blooms in March to coincide with the return of its namesake, the shad.
An unwelcome signs of spring in the Bay and its rivers is the return of algae blooms, which can block sunlight from reaching underwater bay grasses that are just starting to grow. Each spring, as snow from winter storms melts and heavy spring rains begin, nutrients are washed into local waterways and algae blooms make their unwanted return, an unfortunate but sure sign of warmer weather in the Chesapeake Bay region.