Folks dislike March in Maine because it often arrives like more of winter before turning into mud season, a messy time that continues well into April. Even with cold and mud, though, the third month pleases me.
For starters, in Maine’s bottom third, settling snow becomes crystal-line enough for easier off-road walking, particularly with snowshoes but at times even with boots. Neither sinks that much into the white stuff.
As the month slides toward April Fools’ Day, snow melts entirely in some open spots on the south side of ridges, and that first hike with boots pressing the sun-warmed earth instead of ice and snow may touch our primordial souls. Our biological clock – deep inside – tells us that we have survived winter, and this annual revelation makes March special to me.
If a hiker gets into the woods in early morning when temperatures are below freezing, snowshoes may be unnecessary. However, when I taught winter survival to teenagers years ago, we told our wards that they must carry snowshoes or skis in case frozen morning snow softened later, a good rule, one I seldom follow these days, despite a serious incident once.
In my teens, an elderly, overweight registered Maine guide had invited me to fish Austin Stream off the Dead Water Road in Moscow, so at sunup we strolled downhill toward this stream. A thick crust covered the waist-high snow and held us, so the trek might have taken 20 minutes or a little less.
Before walking 100 feet from the road, though, I had asked, “What if this crust softens later?”
“It won’t,” he said succinctly.
Yet it did. The walk back to the road and vehicle turned into an uphill, three-hour struggle as each step plunged us to our thighs. My companion was in poor physical condition, but he made it despite being sweat-soaked and gasping for breath. The trek had even taxed me.
As March progresses, bird calls and songs at dawn catch my ear as species newly migrated from the South liven the morning. It’s so fulfilling to hear bird species that we haven’t heard for months and months, even familiar ones that we may not be able to identify.
Except for the common winter sounds of chickadees, tufted titmice, white-breasted nuthatches and the like, mourning-dove calls during a March dawn really make me take notice.
This dove calls “oo-ah-coo-coo-coo,” a mournful sound, hence its name. As plaintive as it sounds, though, I love this repetitive call that shouts to me, “It’s spring.”
At dusk under a cold, opalescent sky, male woodcock perform a mating ritual just as snow melts in abandon-field openings, a spring sign, too. This bird sits near new-growth poplar and alder but well enough away from this cover so predators cannot sneak up. There, he calls “peent,” a bird-guidebook translation that strays from the actual buzzing, squawking sound.
The “peent” eventually attracts a female that lands near the male and calls “tuko.” Birdwatchers must be close to hear this soft acceptance.
During this spring rite, the male occasionally flies 250 to 300 feet into the air and returns to earth in a series of spirals and loops. Air going through wing feathers makes the chirping trill, a huge part of an early spring evening.
Knowing the 250- to 300-foot figure creates a learning experience. When low-lying clouds hang close to earth, the clouds look much higher, but at the apex of the climb, woodcock disappear into them. With this visual aid, an observer can correctly determine the 250- to 300-foot height.
Robins and red-winged blackbirds arrive early, too, and we know the sounds – “cheery-up, cheery me” and “konk-la-ree, konk-la-ree” respectively – as we hear the phoebe’s call – “fee-bee.” All spring signs.
When eastern phoebes return around my home in early April, I inevitably ask myself, “Where are the bugs that this bird eats?” Phoebes belong to the flycatcher family and brave the cold all right, long before we see obvious, flying insects. This species is easy to ID because it frequently flips its tail up and down like a pump handle in a drought.
Yes, March often looks like a frozen mess that will keep us from open-water fishing or bicycling until May, but spring comes fast to Maine. In fact, monthly average temperatures from February through April rise 10 to 12 degrees each month.
In Portland, the average high is 29 degrees in February, 39 degrees in March, 51 degrees in April and 64 degrees in May.
Yup, folks, we’re fast approaching warm weather and that viridescent explosion, when Mainers really start hitting the outdoors as frequently as possible. I for one cannot wait. Winter has been a long, harsh one.
Ken Allen of Belgrade Lakes, a writer, editor and photographer, may be reached at: