The First Sign of Spring

Eastern Chipmunk

Eastern Chipmunk

The weather does not look promising for an early spring. The forecast is calling for a cooler-than-average spring, and so far the month of March has reflected that. Usually by the second week of March Ottawa’s daytime temperatures consistently reach the freezing mark, with temperatures frequently soaring above 0°C. While the temperature did reach a balmy, sunny 0°C on Saturday, it didn’t climb above -3°C on Sunday and is about to plunge back down to -10°C by Thursday.

I went out on Saturday to look for the first Red-winged Blackbirds of spring. My average date of first sightings of these birds for the past five years has been March 10; the earliest date I’ve seen them in that time period is March 7, when I found four males singing along Trail Road in 2009. Last year, I found several males along Trail Road on March 10th, which made it a logical spot to look for them this year. Although I found a single Red-tailed Hawk and the usual crows and starlings, there were no other species to be seen.

There were no blackbirds in the fields near Richmond and Kanata, though a pair of Horned Larks on Rushmore Road was nice to see. A stop in at Sarsaparilla Trail produced 8 species, including a Golden-crowned Kinglet calling in the trees above the bench, a Mourning Dove near the parking lot, and a Hairy Woodpecker drumming in the woods.

I was beginning to think that my search for new spring arrivals was going to be fruitless. I headed over to the Beaver Trail for my last stop of the day and found only four species: crows, chickadees, two White-breasted Nuthatches, and a pair of American Tree Sparrows near the pond. These are the first ones I’ve seen there since last winter, and I wondered where they’d been all this winter. As I left the boardwalk, I noticed movement in the snow. A small mammal was eating seeds someone had left on the trail, and I was surprised to discover that it was a chipmunk rather than a red squirrel!

Eastern Chipmunk

Eastern Chipmunk

I approached the chipmunk for some pictures, but it scampered up on top of a stump where it continued eating.

Eastern Chipmunk

Eastern Chipmunk

For the past two years my first Ottawa chipmunks of the season were both seen on March 17th, one at Jack Pine Trail, the other at Sarsaparilla Trail. As chipmunks are not true hibernators, however, the first date is not very reliable; they do not have the fat stores to hibernate through a whole season, but instead wake up from a state of torpor periodically to feed on the cache they have built up in their underground burrows. If they wake during a period of mild weather they will often emerge from their burrows regardless of the date.

Eastern Chipmunk

Eastern Chipmunk

A little further along I came across a second chipmunk sitting on the snow. There was no pile of seeds nearby, so I slowly approached and tossed him some peanuts. The chipmunk darted into a hole in the snow, then poked his head out.

Eastern Chipmunk

Eastern Chipmunk

The chipmunk is my favourite squirrel species, and I was quite happy to find two of them on my walk. They are the first “spring species” of 2014, and I am looking forward to seeing my own backyard “chippy” one of these days, sitting at my back door waiting for peanuts.

10 thoughts on “The First Sign of Spring

  1. Great post! It’s nice to see a few signs of spring. I saw my first Red-winged Blackbird of the year today. ( I live in London, Ontario) Saw a chipmunk and an opossum yesterday. Looks like we are in for a rough Wednesday. Great photos of the Chipmunk.

    • Thanks Paul! Glad to hear that you have been seeing Red-wings in London. That means it won’t be long before we get them here!

      No sign of any snow here yet, but it’s coming. 😦

  2. Very cute! I bet he was hungry — he probably thought he could find something to eat outside his burrow. Hah! It looks like you have plenty of snow left. So do we, and the cardinals still haven’t really started singing yet, except on really sunny days. late, late, late.

    • Thanks Sue! Fortunately a lot of people come to this trail to feed the chickadees, so he will have no problems finding food on the ground even if it is buried in snow.

      Yes, the snow is still over a foot deep in the woods – we’ve only had about 4 or 5 days this year that were above 0 so we’ve had no significant melting yet. I’ve heard the cardinals singing occasionally in my neighbourhood; on the weekend I heard a Mourning Dove and yesterday I heard a House Finch (both in the woods). I think spring is going to be late this year.

  3. We saw our first chipmunk of the spring yesterday here in New Jersey. Red-winged Blackbirds have been around for a few weeks. The Cardinals have been singing and fighting over territories. Signs of Spring!

    • Hi Mary Anne,

      Yes, cardinals have been singing here, too. It’s now March 17th and I still haven’t seen a Red-winged Blackbird; they’re late! We usually get a warm spell around March 10th where temperatures rise up to 8 or 12°C, bringing the first migrants, but not this year. And the forecast for the next two weeks doesn’t bode well, either; we’ll be below the seasonal average until the end of March. Still, it will be nice once we get above the freezing mark!

    • Hi Suzanne,

      Naw, he was perturbed because I walked up to him to toss him some sunflower seeds. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was perturbed by the weather today, though!

  4. I saw a hole family of chick minks yesterday n my back yard n Watertown ct I saw two this morning I’m leaving nuts n food for them is this a good idea Jose’

    • Ho Jose, I take it you mean chipmunks. If so, yes, nuts are fine as long as they are NOT salted. They will probably be happy to get some fresh food, though they may become used to you providing them food on a regular basis. I go through a lot of peanuts to keep the chipmunks, Blue Jays, squirrels etc. happy!

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