Recognizing the Signs of Spring

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Few small birds have a voice so amazingly loud as the tufted titmouse.
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The tiny spring azure butterfly is one of the first to appear after winter is done.

In past columns I’ve discussed robins and grackles and
spring peepers. But two other signs that spring is coming
are an increase in the songs of the tufted titmouse and the
appearance of tiny butterflies called spring azures.

Most people who have bird feeders and live in the eastern
half of the United States are familiar with the tufted
titmouse. This bird is small but distinctly larger than its
relative, the chickadee. Few other small birds have the
titmouse’s tufted crest of feathers on the head. The
titmouse is mostly gray, but it has a white breast with
buff-colored flanks and a white face surrounding oversized
beads of black eyes. It is interesting that the titmouse
usually sits more upright than the chickadee, but you don’t
need a subtle feature like that to tell the titmouse apart
from the littler, round-headed, black-bibbed chickadee.

Tufted titmice are the only kind of titmouse in the whole
eastern half of the United States (a few other kinds are
found in south Texas and parts of the Southwest). While the
tufted has spread farther north with the help of feeders
and has extended its range to southern Ontario, it has not
yet reached the north parts of the northernmost tier of

The titmouse emits its notes all year long. But when the
February days are warm enough for me and the titmouses to
be out and about, the forest begins to echo with a
noticeable increase in the number of their calls. Few small
birds have a voice so amazingly loud. The most common
version of the call is said to sound like “Peter, Peter,
Peter,” but there are variations–one of which (to my
mind) sounds like “GOOD bird, GOOD bird.” Roger Tory
Peterson states that–although the calls are somewhat
similar to those of chickadees–the tufted titmouse’s
are “more drawling, nasal, wheezy, and complaining.” But,
as with the chickadees, the complaining of these admirable
little birds is likely to amuse you and bring you good
cheer–especially if it comes in February and makes
you hopeful that spring is coming with its full symphony of

Suppose, however, that March comes–March and maybe
even the official first day of spring–and the weather
is still cold. Where do you look for hope of real spring?
It may come fluttering past you in the form of a little
spot of color. The spring azure is a butterfly that looks
like the tiniest piece of blue sky brought down to Earth to
dance among the first grasses. It measures 0.4 by 1.1
inches and yet it’s twice as big as a related species, the
Western Pygmy Blue (America’s smallest butterfly). The
spring azure occurs in over 13 different variations and you
might very well get close enough to see the tiny details.
It is a member of the family of butterflies called blues.
They are complemented by copper-red, black-spotted little
butterflies called coppers (the American copper may be the
United States’ most common butterfly).

You may have to wait a little later to see your first
copper of the year. The azure blue is often the first
butterfly of all, frequently seen by late March (at least
around 40° North latitude). And when you witness a
butterfly fluttering past you on a somewhat chilly March
day, you’ll know that the real spring must truly be near. A
mobile patch of blue not much bigger than your fingertip
may change the grey mood that has been oppressing you for

Look for Fiery Mars

Long before you see coppers dancing with blues in a field
or roadside, you can step outside at dusk this February and
see tiger-colored Mars rising in the fading blue sky in the

After darkness has fully fallen there’s no mistaking this
impressive planet. All evening long it rivals the brightest
point in the sky, the star Sirius. But whereas Sirius is
white with a hint of blue and twinkles. Mars burns
orange-yellow and shines steadily.

Mars is brightest and closest on February 11. It looks much
the same all month before it begins a rapid fade, as Earth
starts to leave it behind in March. In early February it is
still fairly near the bright star Regulus and “the Sickle”
of stars that forms the head and chest of Leo the Lion. But
by late March it is over in dim Cancer the Crab, not far
from me fuzzy naked-eye patch of glow that is the Beehive
Star Cluster.

Mars may look fire-colored but it will not keep you warm on
February nights. But what does the planet now look like in
telescopes? Don’t get your hopes too high. If your
telescope is good, it will at least show you Mars as a
small but tantalizing ochre disk. If your telescope has a
lens or mirror of 6 inches or more and the atmosphere is
quite steady, you may even see a few dark, seemingly
greenish markings on the globe and perhaps the tiny white
dot of the rapidly dwindling north polar ice cap. But this
“close approach” of Mars is one of the least close
possible. In the year 2003, Mars will look almost twice as
big as now and dozens of surface features should be within
range of amateur telescopes.

Chinook, the Snow Eater

The northern hemisphere of Mars that is now tilted somewhat
toward us is experiencing late spring. Yet temperatures
there may not be getting above 0°F. If that makes you
cold all over again, consider how in certain parts of our
own planet–especially on the eastward slopes of the
Rocky Mountains from Alberta to Colorado–spring
warmth can come blasting in over the course of hours or
even minutes.

The phenomenally fast and great episodes of heating in late
winter within a few hundred miles east of the Rockies are
caused by the wind known as the chinook. The chinook is a
west or southwest wind heated by compression as it comes
down the mountain slopes and hits the cold, dense air which
has flooded down from Canada and the Arctic over the Great
Plains. The chinook is known as the “snow-eater” because
its hot, dry blast can evaporate a foot or more of snow in
just a few hours. It often occurs with a clear sky overhead
but an arch of cloud visible over the mountains.

Some of the most extreme cases of the chinook have occurred
not in late winter but in January. After the extreme
warming can come an even greater temperature drop. For
instance, in a 24-hour period on January 23-24, 1916, the
temperature in Browning, Montana, fell from 44°F to
-56°F: a 100 degree drop! But even more amazing was the
chinook warming in the Black Hills at Spearfish, South
Dakota, that began at 7:30 a.m. on January 22, 1943. In
this case, the temperature rose 49°F in 2 minutes! The
thermometer showed a rise from -4° to 45°F.
Unfortunately, an hour and a half later, the temperature,
which had crept up to 54°F, fell back
to–4°–a drop of 58 degrees–in 27

St. Patrick and His Day

St. Patrick was a real person, but some important facts
about him remain uncertain. He may have been born as early
as 373 A.D. or as late as 395 and may have died in 461 or
in 492. We’re not sure whether March 17 was his birthdate,
deathdate, or neither. We’re not even certain where he was
originally from, though we do know for certain that he
wasn’t from Ireland. He was kidnapped and brought to
Ireland as a youth. After 6 years of slavery, he escaped
and left the country. But after training in the church, he
returned to spread the word of Christianity throughout
Ireland. He lit an Easter fire in defiance of the High King
and then defeated the magic of the King’s Druids.

Of course, Patrick’s most famous legendary deed was his
driving of the snakes from Ireland with a drum and a
sermon. If I recall correctly (not to diminish the great
saint’s respectability), there really are no snakes (or no
common ones?) in the Emerald Isle. And speaking of green:
the shamrock became a symbol of Ireland and St. Patrick’s
Day because Patrick used it as a means for explaining the
Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Among the
considerable number of miracles attributed to Patrick:
raising his father and several other people from the dead
and burning snow to make a fire. His staff was supposedly
given to him by Christ in a vision.

St Patrick’s Day also marks the beginning of the garden
season in Ireland, the time when peas–the earliest of
the vegetables–can be planted. The holiday in the
Emerald Isle still retains much of its original religious
significance, whereas, in the United States, St.
Patrick’s Day is considered a secular holiday by most
people–a day when everyone is supposed to sport a few
pieces of green attire and try to be at least a little
Irish. According to the history books, the first
celebration of the holiday on this side of the Atlantic
seems to have been in Boston in 1737.

Almanac for February/March 1995


1 1 First day of Ramadan, Moslem month of
fasting (begins at previous sunset–if the “young”
crescent Moon is glimpsed).

2 Candlemas (feast of the Purification of
Mary); Groundhog Day (if the creature sees his shadow,
tradition says we’ll have six more weeks of wintery

3 Asteroid Ceres at opposition (opposition
is a good time to see a celestial object and Ceres is the
largest asteroid–over 600 miles across–but you
need binoculars and a detailed finder chart from a magazine
like Sky & Telescope to identify this

5 Halfway point of winter.

6 Great snowstorm of 1978 in southeast New
England–38 inches in Rhode Island, 27 inches in
Boston (where all travel was banned for a week by the
governor); the famous Cold Friday in the South and Midwest
in 1807–the temperature stayed below 0°F. in Ohio
and Kentucky.


9 The historic battle between the ironclad
ships Monitor and Merrimac took place on
this date in 1862 in generally fair weather.

11 Mars at opposition and closest.
Opposition is when a planet is opposite the Sun and
therefore rising at sunset and visible all night long. It
is also the time when an outer planet like Mars will be
closest to Earth and appear both biggest (in the telescope)
and brightest. At this opposition, however, Mars gets no
closer than about 63 million miles from Earth. For more
details, see the text of the column.

12 Lincoln’s Birthday (born 1809).

14 Valentine’s Day.

15 FULL MOON, 7:16 A.M. (the Snow Moon,
Hunger Moon, or Wolf Moon).

16 Sun enters the constellation Aquarius.

17 Last sight of Saturn in dusk near this

19 The star Spica is hidden by the Moon
around dawn in Alaska and after sunrise in Hawaii (use
binoculars or telescope to see the actual instant of
hiding); Sun enters the astrological sign Pisces.

20 Presidents Day.

21 Chinook wind (see text of column)
lifted temperature by 83°F. in Granville, North Dakota,
on this day in 1918.

22 Washington’s Birthday (born 1732); LAST

23 Moon fairly near Jupiter in south at

26 Moon near Venus in southeast at dawn.
28 Shrove Tuesday; Mardi Gras; very thin Moon may be
visible very low in east about 20-30 minutes before
sunrise; no New Moon this short month (but two each in
January and March).


1 Ash Wednesday (Lent begins, goes for 40
days not counting Sundays and thus ends at Easter); NEW
MOON, 6:49 A.M.

2 Texas Independence Day.

3 Pure Monday; Saturn in conjunction with
the Sun (and therefore unviewable).

7 A total eclipse of the Sun was seen well
from parts of Virginia on this day 25 years ago.


12 Sun enters constellation Pisces.

14 Mars at aphelion (farthest from Sun in
space), 1.67 Astronomical Units from the Sun. An
“astronomical unit” or “a.u.” is the average distance
between Sun and Earth, a bit less than 93 million miles.
Earth’s distance from Sun varies by only about 3% during
the course of the year. Mars has a far less circular orbit,
so can come in to about 1.38 a.u. (as it did last April).

15 Andrew Jackson Day (in Tennessee); the
Ides of March (at which Julius Caesar was assassinated in
44 B.C.).

16 FULL MOON, 8:26 P.M. (the Sap Moon,
Crow Moon, or Lenten Moon).

17 St. Patrick’s Day.

18 Moon very near the star Spica this

19 The swallows return to San Juan
Capistrano in California.

20 Spring equinox, 9:17 P.M.; Sun enters
astrological sign Aries.

22 Moon very near Jupiter in south at


25 Annunciation (Lady Day) the day that
Gabriel announced to Mary she would bear Jesus (this day is
simply 9 months before December 25, the date tradition says
that Christ was born on);
Mars halts retrograde motion, 6 degrees east of the Beehive
Star Cluster in Cancer the Crab (in the weeks after this,
watch the planet appear to drift back eastward–
toward Regulus and Leo–in relation to the background
of stars).

26 Mercury-Saturn conjunction at
dawn–use binoculars and look very low in the east
only about 30 minutes before sunrise in hopes of beholding
the brighter Mercury and just possibly the dimmer point of
light of Saturn very near it; Mothering Sunday
(traditionally, a slight reprieve from the fasting of Lent
at which boys could come home from school to visit their

28 Moon fairly near Venus in southeast at

30 NEW MOON (second this month), 9:10 P.M.

31 Good shot at seeing very thin Moon very
low in west about 30 minutes after sunset.