On February 25 I heard the first American Woodcock of 2017. Last year they arrived on March 6. The year prior to that they arrived on March 25. In the backyard pond on Monday, a small flock of Northern Shovelers landed for a moment before changing their minds and flying off again. The Pied-billed Grebe that has, for at least the last five years, arrived on the flooded ditch of the Conewango Creek off the Riverside Road bridge serves as a harbinger of spring for me. Last year it arrived the middle of March. I saw it last week.

While we have a calendar and have an idea of when things happen according to our calendar, this latest warm week in February has me wondering about the calendar that the animals keep. Perhaps over decades it evens out to an average date of spring arrival. I always thought that day length played a significant part in bird migration, letting them know that even though the weather was really nice it wasn’t quite time to fly to their northern ranges. And yet, here many of them are, having arrived in late February.

Maybe they simply wing it. Assessing the weather I can imagine the conversation that takes place, in bird language of course. “Hey Maude, the weather has been pretty good lately, want to fly north a bit and see what it is like?” “Sure, Thomas, let’s find a few more grubs to eat just in case we get there and it isn’t great.” And then they try. If it is nice maybe this conversation happens over and over until they find themselves at their breeding grounds in New York or Pennsylvania in February.

American Woodcock by Wil Herschberger.

Thus our sense of when they should arrive is askew, but it is perfectly suitable for the birds. Which brings up the question of whose calendar is more accurate? Humans have the advantage of weather forecasts and technology. Birds have been migrating for millennia, yet they sometimes perish in late winter storms. Do they know something we don’t? Or is our technology making us privy to information the birds don’t have? I don’t know the answer to that question and I’m not sure I ever will.

When one of the naturalists entered the flock of shovelers into eBird, the online bird tracking database through Cornell, it kicked back a message that a flock of that species is unusual and the report needed more verification. That’s what prompted the whole calendar idea and whose is more accurate. We have data, perhaps one hundred years worth, that gives us the ability to plug some parameters into a computer program to determine if a particular bird sighting is likely, plausible, or unlikely. This is essential in weeding out inaccurate reports. But. Are the birds then “wrong” in their arrival times? It makes me wonder.

I have noticed that the trees have not colored up into their spring blush, though. Somehow they know that even though there have been plenty of warm days to push sap, it isn’t time to stretch their buds yet. More fragile than birds, the tender spring leaves are that much more vulnerable to snows and freezes. They have more to lose in a single freeze than bird; the former will lose everything single spring leaf and the energy that created them whereas the bird can fly to a freshwater spring, microhabitat that provides bugs, or head further south for the duration.

Contrary to popular trend and historic wisdom, we tapped our maple trees on January 25 this year. The trees flowed sap aplenty but even through all the warm, the sap never turned cloudy, the tree never converted it to leaf-pushing energy. How do they know? They have a different calendar than the birds.

Short-headed Garter snake in hand. Photo by Sarah Hatfield.

While I can see the rarity of a flock of shovelers in February, I also acknowledge that there is a very different level of rarity between the seventh of that month and the 27th. A tree beginning to bud up on Groundhog Day is different than the end of the month, though if they are fruit trees I would worry about it regardless. In general, a buffer zone, an area of flexibility that allows things to be different than they usually are, but not rare, is healthy.

That approach might be healthy across the span of one’s existence. I was excited to have a beautiful week of outdoor weather in February to be productive. It was a treat and I did well recalling that it was a treat, that it wasn’t actually spring. Until Friday night when I heard the woodcock. Then I began to wonder…

Just because the calendar says it is too early, it is truly too early? Isn’t it possible that the birds and the natural systems know better than our mere 100 years of records? Isn’t it possible that there are exceptional years? It doesn’t prevent me from fretting about the bluebirds and hoping the next cold snap isn’t a deep one. Acknowledging that there has to be some flexibility and exceptions to the world makes it easier to accept the extraordinary as just that.

I got to hold a snake in my hand. I heard Spring Peepers singing. The bluebirds have been checking out the nest boxes. A dandelion bloomed in the yard. A mosquito was biting me and a tick was crawling up my jeans after a hike. None of this is special or particularly exciting, unless it all happened in February. And so it all brings a smile, some questioning, and an abundance of wonder.

Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. Plenty of connections are found on the trails, open from dawn to dusk daily, as is viewing of Liberty the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open daily from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. You can find more information at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.

Sarah Hatfield is a naturalist at ACNC.