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Awaiting the signs

Friday, February 21, 2014 - Updated: 8:18 AM

Meteorological Spring begins March 1 this year. Under this calculation the seasons are divided by calendar months, as opposed to equinoxes and solstices, the measuring points in the astronomical system. The meteorological months of spring are March, April and May.

I would be a happy person if the season worked itself up to synching with that reckoning.

Under the astronomical system, the vernal equinox will occur this year on March 20, marking that day as the beginning of spring. Even that would work for me, although the first of the month would be better.

The season's beginning is also often predicted by the drag-the-rodent-out-of-hibernation-and-hand-him-to-a-nervous-celebrity method, but this is notoriously inaccurate. Said rude act is performed on the second of February, and has been since the 18th and 19th centuries in Pennsylvania.

Even that debatable date would be better than the reality of spring in upstate New York.

Here in the real world that ephemeral goddess, the so-called season of new beginnings (on a farm we are more likely to call it mud season), is not likely to arrive on, or even near, any of those dates. She is a coy and reluctant maiden, and will to-and-fro and do-se-do with the best of them. First planting date for tender annuals such as tomatoes and squash tends more toward the middle or end of May, and sometimes even that isn't late enough. I have photos of frozen moonflowers on the sitting porch, which were taken a couple of years ago on the seventh of June. June, which you notice is not included in any of the measurements for the beginning of spring. Winter is tenacious around here, make no mistake.

Spring does send out signals though, apprising of us of her tardy arrival. Very few of them are in evidence so far. Willow trees still sport pale and delicate twigs, none of the robust gold and yellow that will precede the electric green of their new leaves. There is a particular one on the hill across the river that I watch through all the seasons. It is a fine barometer of impending seasonal change but right now it isn't saying a darned thing. Except maybe brr.

And then there are the migratory birds. Oh, I know there are hundreds of robins around, but the theory is that either they have stayed for the winter or drifted north when extreme cold hit the deep South. You can't trust a robin as a harbinger of spring any more than you can a ground hog.

Instead, the birds of the high north that migrate down here to rummage through our sunflower seeds and suet are still here and showing no signs of leaving for their northern breeding grounds.

Just Monday a group of American tree sparrows foraged in the empty heifer barnyard. I longed for the camera as the brilliant sun spotlighted their stripes and chestnut caps and generally cute-as-a-chipmunk appearance. They were a long way from the ground without even flying, tiptoeing around on the deep, thick snow.

These delightful little birds, which throng feeders and jingle in hedgerows all winter, nest in the far north at the edge of the tundra. When spring gets here they pack up their feathers and go.

At about the same time, the tidy little dark-eyed juncos will be gone as well, off to mountain forests in the North and West.

I try each year to note the last one I see in spring, although it is a challenge. Last year a couple stuck around until June.

It is the same with the white-crowned sparrows, a handful of which seem to hang around most winters. They will join those of their kindred that wintered farther south along about April, and dart off to the tundra. Of the common winter sparrows only the white-throated and the nasty house sparrows are likely to still be around when summer arrives. And at that, 85 percent of the white throats leave for boreal forests in spring.

More reliable than robins are grackles and red-winged blackbirds. Unlike the former they don't leave flocks behind to gorge on old apples and sumac berries. When they migrate, they migrate, and when they get back, spring will not be far behind. At least in theory.

Another sign of spring that is sadly missing is the scent of things. If you go outside these days all you smell is cold. One unexpectedly warm day a couple weeks ago I was walking to the barn and suddenly realized that I could smell sweet, green, hay and warm, fuzzy, cows. Instant flash forward to spring. However, that was just an aberrant moment, and air full of icicles quickly returned.

I won't believe in the change of the seasons until I can smell dirt. There's nothing like it, freshly turned by plow or discs, and offering a banquet of worms and insects to robins, gulls and blackbirds.

At least the faintest signs of spring can be heard at the brightest hour of the sunniest days. One morning the chickadees will all be whistling their summer call, "Dee, dee, dee." Then the white-throated sparrow will let out just a note or three of his, "Old Sam Peabody, Peabody." They are just testing, I think, to see if they remember those fine spring songs. It will be a while before we hear them in full.

And then there are icicles, deadly, drippy, down-falling things that they are. I watch the window at the east end of the upstairs hallway every winter. At first a thin, meager spike or two dangles direly down from the drip edge. Then like a candle in reverse, it waxes wider and wider and longer and thicker. Suddenly one day a blue stalactite of impressive proportions dangles from house roof to porch roof. When that puppy falls, warm weather won't be far behind.

However, none of the signs are promising much about spring, meteorological, astronomical, or just plain time to plant oats, quite yet. I guess we'll be waiting a while.

Fultonville dairy farmer MARIANNE FRIERS

is a regular columnist. She blogs



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