The more I’ve gotten to know spring in Maine, the more interesting it becomes. Aside from the mud and freak snow storms, it’s a time of truly strange occurrences, and most of those odd happenings have to do with the state’s diverse family of wildlife.
If you’ve lived in the state long enough, I’m sure you’ve witnessed some of these annual oddities, but my hope is that some catch you by surprise, make you laugh and shake your head in awe of nature and its many quirks.
1. Frogs and salamanders march.
On a warm, wet night each spring, an untold number of frogs and salamanders migrate from their winter habitat to breeding pools — often vernal pools — throughout Maine. This seemingly organized movement is known in nature circles as the “Big Night,” and most people miss it because it happens under the cloak of darkness. However, several schools and outdoor-related organizations around the state attempt to witness the event by tentatively planning trips to local pools, but because the event depends on the weather, it’s a bit difficult to pin down. In Maine, this mini migration involves the spotted salamander and tree frogs.
2. Birds dance.
In spring, birds get frisky, and in many cases, this means they perform mating dances. In Maine, the most famous dancer of them all is that of the American woodcock, a fairly common, rotund bird that probes the soil with its long, slender bill in search for worms and other delectables. For its dance, this bird (which is rather goofy looking to begin with) walks slowly and rocks its body forward and backward while keeping its head fairly stationary. And during mating season, the male produces a high-pitched call often described as sounding like “peent!” then launches into the air and produces a twittering flight sound that ends with a steep dive back to the ground.
3. Bird feeders disappear, trash cans are broken into.
As black bears crawl out of hibernation, they’re understandably hungry after months of eating absolutely nothing. Other wild creatures are hungry, too. Raccoons, skunks, rats, chipmunks, mice — they’re all searching for something to eat, and in early spring, their natural food sources are fairly depleted. That’s why the Maine Warden Service is flooded with calls in the spring relating to nuisance wildlife. Bears break open bird feeders to feast on seed and suet, raccoons rummage through trash and porcupines gnaw on plywood. To solve these problems, wardens advise people to remove what’s attracting the wildlife. Stow the bird feeders away, lock up trash and sprinkle some cayenne pepper on your plywood. And if that doesn’t work, try to capture and relocate the troublemaker (if it’s a small troublemaker) in a have-a-heart trap or call a local animal control agent, which in some cases may point you to the local game warden.
4. Beech trees finally lose their leaves.
While autumn is perceived as the time when leaves fall from Maine’s trees, that’s not the case for all tree species. Beech trees, for one, retain many of their leaves throughout the winter even though those leaves are dead. Crunchy, yellow-brown and curled up, dead beech leaves rustle in the winter wind, refusing to let go. This retaining of dead plant organs is called “marcescence” and it’s also a trait of some oak trees, witch hazel and hornbeam. But the leaves can’t hang on forever. Come spring, new buds arrive and push the dead leaves off, making a fresh mess on your lawn.
5. Smelly plants emerge.
Maine is home to an interesting plant called skunk cabbage. It smells like garbage, and it’s one of the first plants to emerge each spring. This low-growing plant pops up in wetlands. They can be found in abundance alongside the Orono Bog Boardwalk, in the forest area before the boardwalk reaches the peat bog, and don’t worry, they don’t actually produce much of an odor unless you bruise the leaves and take a good whiff. And this isn’t the only smelly plant that emerges in the spring. One of the first forestland plants to pop up in Maine is the trillium… also known as the “Stinking Benjamin.” It has been described as smelling like rotten meat.
6. Moose-car collisions skyrocket.
May and June are peak moose collision months in Maine. It’s a time when they’re moving from their winter habitat deep in the woods to their summer haunts, wetlands rich in yummy aquatic plants. Moose also tend to cluster along the sides of the roads to lick up the road salt left over from winter. So exercise caution. Collisions can happen any time of day, but moose and deer are most active around dawn and dusk, and they also travel at night. And what makes this even trickier is that moose are often too tall for their eyes to reflect car headlights, so a moose in the road may just appear to be a big, black blob. Slow down and drive safe, especially in Aroostook County and other moose-filled areas.
7. Turtle crossing signs go up.
A few years ago, Maine biologists started erecting yellow turtle crossing signs at strategic locations in southern Maine during the springtime (to be taken down in late summer) to alert motorists of places where turtles tend to cross roads. This happens in the spring because that’s when turtles are most often cross the road as they migrate between wetlands to mate and feed and even bury eggs in the gravel beside roadways.
It’s not that turtles only cross roads in southern Maine, but that’s where you’ll find the state’s rarest turtle species: the spotted turtle and Blanding’s turtle. So be on the lookout for turtles inching across the roadways this spring, especially on rainy days, when they tend to be more mobile. Up in the Bangor area, I’ve come across jaywalking snapping turtles several times and have helped them by moving them, with caution, to the side of the road in which they were heading. This can be done by picking them up just a few inches off the road with a shovel (so if they fall they aren’t injured) or by carefully lifting them by grasping the back ⅓ of their shell in both hands. If you grab the shell any closer to the front, your at risk of being bitten. Snapping turtles have very flexible, long, necks.
8. Birds get brighter.
In the spring, many birds shed their drab winter plumage in exchange for brighter, fancier feathers that are meant to attract mates. A prime example of this is the goldfinch, which is brown all winter, then blooms into a bright yellow bird in the spring. Maine’s iconic loon also undergoes as springtime transformation. In the winter, loons are gray, blending into the ocean waves, and in the spring, when many loons migrate to breed on Maine lakes and ponds, their telltale white and black feather pattern emerges.
9. People try to save baby animals (and often should leave them be).
The majority of Maine’s animal species give birth in the springtime, and many of these new parents will leave their young during the day to go hunting or foraging. The young are then left to sleep in dens or concealed in vegetation. Unfortunately, many people see these lone baby animals, assume they’re orphaned, and swoop in to rescue them. These people mean well, but in many cases, these babies are not orphaned. This happens frequently with baby deer, which are often left in fields for hours while their mothers hydrate and browse during the day. And once a human takes a baby animal into their care, it’s often difficult or even impossible to reintroduce it to its parent. That’s why the Maine Warden Service stresses the saying, “If you care, leave them there.” If you see a baby wild animal alone, leave it overnight, suggested Maine Game Warden Jim Fahey. Often the mother will return. And if it’s still there the next day, call the Maine Warden Service or the nearest licensed wildlife rehabilitator.