We hear about the rites of spring. These rites are ephemeral, just as spring itself is. It is difficult to find a list of these rites on the Internet, although many other things come up, including classical music, ballets, album titles, festivals and more. A rite is "an established, ceremonious, and usually religious", act or "any customary observance or practice." Thus, I feel the rites of spring are the established actions we take as the world passes from one season to another, from winter to spring.
One of the first rites of spring is pulling my binoculars from the shelf in the house and putting them in my car. This is, of course, because the ducks come back first. When ice still leisurely floats down the rivers and icicles still form nightly on the edges of my roof, the ducks return. Their fast wingbeats through the air mimic their impatience for the thaw but seem contrary to the slow pace with which winter releases its hold. I empathize with the ducks, I long for the dripping music of melting snow and the babbling of the brook to rise to a roar. I will take what I get though and my binoculars will occupy their place on the seat beside me for the many months to come.
Another rite of spring is watching the sky for turkey vultures. Though a few may remain the duration of the winter, most move south for more favorable conditions during winter. Regardless of the date on the calendar, I know that we are over the crest of the hill when I see these immense birds soar above my valley. Every year, I forget how big they are. And every year, I laugh inwardly that such a well, ugly, creature can make me so giddy. Grinning at turkey vultures is an unlikely, but certain, rite of spring.
Nature provides many signs that spring has finally arrived. Top:?Sarah Hatfield wades into a pond in search of spring.
Salamanders making their annual migration.
Wood frog eggs held in hand.
As many of you may know, I am not particularly fond of the cold. Thus another rite of spring for me is stargazing. In the frigid winter, I never take the time to look at the sky as I rush from my car to the house. If I can see my breath, there's little chance I'll take the time to see the stars. I know that spring is strengthening its hold on the world when I linger in my driveway, staring at the infinite, identifying constellations and greeting them as I would long-unheard from friends. There are some nights when it is warm enough to be out long enough to watch them move in their journey through the heavens. Those are the nights when it seems I can feel the very earth under my feet moving toward spring.
Spring would not truly arrive if it weren't for the rainy nights that I spend hurrying the frogs and salamanders across the road. I am certain my neighbors worry about my well-being for those few evenings as I, armed with headlamp and camera, patrol the road near my house, walking up and down for hours. The first night, I will follow my slimy-skinned friends to their breeding pool where hundreds gather in the most passionate rite of spring mating. Well, since the salamanders never embrace the opposite sex, it probably can't be touted as passionate, and so I feel less the voyeur while watching them. It is this night that I know winter has lost its foothold to spring in this seasonal changing of the guard. Salamander night is mud, and rain, and magic the world doing what it knows best, surviving, reproducing, and moving forward.
Whether we acknowledge them or not, these are the ceremonies of nature. I have my own rites of spring that coincide with them binoculars, boots, and camera the tools I use to witness and capture the moments. The uncurling of a fiddlehead, the soft eerie calls of the Tundra Swans as they fly over, or the bursting open of pussy willows are all customary observances that the residents of this planet make for this season we call spring.
Have you ever seen the salamander migration of spring? Since it happens but once a year in the rain it is easy to overlook. Being witness to that night instills a different sense of treasure, one of time and the mercury finally hovering at 55 degrees Fahrenheit all night long. Knowing that those ground-dwelling residents have emerged and left vast quantities of life in little pools scattered through the landscape makes you richer somehow. If you'd like to learn more about those vernal pools and possibly see some of that remarkable spring abundance, join us for a program on April 12, from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. We will introduce you to some of the cast of characters that call vernal pools home, even if just for a little while.
To learn more about what is going on, call Audubon at 716-569-2345 or visit our website www.jamestownaudubon.org. The Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sundays when we open at 1 p.m. Trails and Liberty are open from dawn until dusk. Audubon is located at 1600 Riverside Road, off Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. Hope to see you engaging in some rites of spring!
Sarah Hatfield is a naturalist at the Audubon Center.
This article first appeared in spring 2008.