By Sarah Hatfield

If I wrap my arms tightly around a tree, and press my ear to its trunk on a sunny, March afternoon, I think I should be able to hear its pulse; the pushing of sap from roots to crown, the seasonal resurgence of energy from earth toward sky. I can’t, of course, but it would be one of my favorite sounds if possible.

The return of spring comes in many forms – growth, song, sprout, warmth, light, wandering. The trees always seem to be a silent, verily invisible, participant in the awakening. They look no different, make no noise. Internally, though, they are partaking by pushing the very foundation of the woodlands and field edges into branches and twigs, soon to be leaves.

Along the way, we humans steal a bit of that foundational energy. For centuries and likely longer, humans have literally tapped into the force of spring that catapults trees from dormancy into growth. The Sugar Maple is the gem of the woodlands when it comes to spring sap, though others can hold their own. Humans are not the only ones who know about the Sugar Maple, however.

While humans break out their buckets and tubing and watch the forecast, others are more tuned to the natural cues. Woodpeckers eager to supplement their lean winter diets start hammering at the trees, often last years’ tap holes. They visit to lap up the slightly sweet sap as it drips from the wounds. Moths flock to these same locations once dark settles and the nights are warm enough to drink the earliest nectar of the season. Squirrels and mice will also take advantage of a woodpecker excavation or maple tap. Diurnally, watching the red squirrels scamper from tree to tree is amusing – they are usually so frantic I can’t imagine the impact sugar has! Nocturnally, the flying squirrels will visit in their family groups to partake of the seasonal offering, a treat in addition to birdseed.

The sap looks and tastes much like water. A faint hint of sweetness is apparent to sensitive palates, the sugar content of sap averaging about 2%. Some years the sugar is higher, closer to 4%, and the wildlife seems to know it. Those are the years when we have to put sticks in the buckets, so the overly enthusiastic rodents that dip a bit too far into the bucket have a way out and don’t drown – a waste of life and sap otherwise.

Visits from all these creatures show that the sap run is a treasured and traditional element of the ecosystem. For those humans that make syrup or sugar from the maple sap, it is an activity that reconnects you annually to the rhythms of nature. Watching the snow melt and the days lengthen; listening to the chickadees start singing and then the bluebirds and finally the Tufted Titmouse, also known as the ‘sugarbird.’ These are signs that the trees are pushing their sap, long stored in roots beneath the frozen ground, into trunks as they prepare to convert it to the energy needed to create leaves.

At home, we collect sap in old metal buckets, coated with beeswax to fill pinholes, just 20 of them. It is a hobby, after all, not a job. As the season progresses, we get to watch the world seemingly come back to life. The grass greens up as the sap slows, the crocus emerge, the bluebirds start gathering nest materials. By the time the sap turns, the buds on the trees are fat and the squirrels are nursing young. The transition is complete, and spring truly starts to flourish.

Making maple syrup and sugar is one of my favorite activities, one I’ve done regularly, in varied quantities and methods for the last twenty years. It is both a quiet and busy time, both an opportunity to reflect and to work. It bridges the gap between winter’s serenity and spring’s frenzy well, easing me into the work of the growing season. I like to believe that the animals see it that way, too – as a sweet reward for making it through the depths of the lean season, giving them the energy to take on the work of the bounty to come.

As spring approaches, and the ground thaws, the trees pull everyone into a choreographed push forward. If you don’t make syrup yourself, find someone who does – it is a great way to honor the forests, the processes, the trees, the connection with the earth, and yourself. Being part of the process of turning sap into sweet sustainability helps to connect you to the natural world, and reminds us all that the pulse of nature is our pulse, too.

Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at or by calling (716) 569-2345.

Sarah Hatfield is Education Coordinator at ACNC.