If Persephone, the Greek goddess of spring, lived among us here in Maine, she would tiptoe into the forest in late March. There she’d coax skunk cabbage from the ground and wake mourning cloak butterflies from their winter slumber.
She’d open the pale petals of trailing arbutus, and she’d usher spotted salamanders to woodland pools in the dead of night.
The first signs of spring are subtle in Maine. But if you look closely, they’re all around. They multiply day to day, as the weather warms.
At the beginning of April, in an effort to embrace the season and learn more about nature, I decided to record signs of spring that I noticed around my home. My idea was to take daily walks and write down anything new I noticed.
“Every time you go outside, you should try to find five new things,” my husband, Derek, suggested to me during one of those walks.
“I dunno. That sounds like a lot,” I replied, as I searched the side of our gravel road for new greenery. “Maybe three — or one.”
I didn’t want to set the bar too high. Plus, nature is much easier to learn about if you take it one plant or mushroom or animal at a time.
So I went on daily walks, often with my dog Juno, and I jotted down notes. On April 3, for example, I recorded seeing a coltsfoot blossom beside the road. A yellow flower that’s often mistaken as a dandelion, it often grows in disturbed areas, such as roadside ditches. It isn’t native to Maine, but it has spread throughout the state and is among the first colorful blossoms we see in the wilderness each year.
On April 5, I watched three water striders skate across a woodland pool. With six long legs spread in all directions, the insect can actually walk on water.
I also noticed an adult stonefly standing on the water that day. They lay their eggs in the water, so perhaps that’s what it was up to.
Some observations didn’t even require me to step outdoors. From the comfort of my couch, I noticed the return of the eastern phoebes that nest in my backyard. And on April 15, I heard loons crying out from the nearby lake. Their haunting call penetrated the walls of my house.
On April 16, frog and salamander eggs appeared in several of the deeper woodland pools near my home. Around that time, I started noticing new grass, clover and other fresh greenery.
As it turns out, finding at least one new thing each day is an easy task in the springtime. Plants are popping up all over the place. Birds are returning from the south. Snakes are slithering out of their dens. The world is waking up.
Today, in honor of writing this column, I decided to follow Derek’s advice and find at least five new things on my daily walk.
When I stepped outside with my dog Juno, the first thing I noticed was small, bright red maple tree blossoms – also known as catkins – littering the ground. It was windy out, so I wasn’t surprised that a few had been shaken from the branches.
Next, I spotted a fly. I know, it sounds silly, but after several insect-free months, it was a welcome sight.
As we walked down the road, I photographed some plants that were new to me, in the hope I could identify them later. But all of that was swept from my mind when I stumbled upon an exciting discovery.
Crouched at the edge of a forest pool, I was photographing a new batch of salamander eggs when I spotted a fat, black tail covered with big yellow spots. I stared in amazement as that tail began to wiggle. Then, from the dead leaves at the bottom of the pool, out swam a spotted salamander.
Caption: Left to right, Salamander eggs cling to vegetation in a vernal pool on April 20, in the woods of Dedham. A spotted salamander swims in a vernal pool on April 20, in the woods of Dedham. Credit: Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki
Measuring 6 to 10 inches, spotted salamanders are among the flashiest animals in Maine. They’re inky black and covered with vibrant yellow spots. But they’re only active at night, so I had never seen one in the wild before.
It was a lucky observation that had me wide-eyed and smiling.
Even though I’d seen salamander eggs in those vernal pools for years, I always assumed that they belonged to another salamander species. After all, Maine is home to nine salamander species. And for some reason, I just couldn’t imagine something as majestic as the spotted salamander gracing the woods near my home.
Now that I know, I’ll be checking back in on the pools to see if the baby spotted salamanders hatch successfully and grow to full size.
Sometimes it’s easier to find things in nature if you know what you’re looking for. With that in mind, I recently purchased the award-winning book “Naturally Curious: A Photographic Field Guide and Month-by-Month Journey Through the Fields, Woods, and Marshes of New England,” by Mary Holland. The guide is filled with beautiful color photos and fascinating facts about what you can find in nature each month.
I hope this inspires you to get outside and search for signs of spring. The season has just begun. Fiddleheads, ducklings and dandelions lie ahead.