Groundhog Day and Signs of Spring: Fallacies, Facts, and Fun

WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY

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THE BIG DAY IS ALMOST HERE! Crowds will soon gather around televisions for the final countdown. When will he appear? What will he do? Punxsutawney Phil, the furry weatherman from Pennsylvania has been slumbering in his hibernating den since late autumn. But on February 2nd Phil will stop procrastinating and make a statement at Gobblers Knob in front of an array of cameras. As crowds surge forward for a better view, he will yawn once or twice, and then without further ado will predict the weather. If he sees his shadow, he dives back into his den and we have six more weeks of winter. If there is no shadow, he lounges topside and that signals that spring will soon embrace the countryside. It’s a great tall tale, and Phil always has a 50% chance of being right. 

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SPOILER ALERT ONE: Groundhog Day forecasts are based on folklore, not science, so say the folks at the National Climatic Data Center. Climatologists from Environment Canada agree with their American counterparts. Bottom line: These buck-tooth, den-dwelling, shadow-casting rodents that love to gobble gardens and climb trees in spring for fresh mulberry leaves are nothing but charlatans when it comes to weather forecasting. The science behind their often temporary emergence in early February is simple. Phil and his furry buddies dig their way out of the subterranean beds before snow melt for one thing: to look about for mates. That is nature’s way.

Humans have looked to changes in nature since the earliest days of recorded writing. “For behold, the winter is past; the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtle dove is heard in our land.” – Song of Songs. Just don’t look to the groundhog for a sign.

SPOILER ALERT TWO: Don’t look to our American Robins or Eastern Bluebirds either for signs of spring’s approach. Many older bird books make it rather clear that both of those species migrate south in the winter, and more than a few local newscasters still look to these species as harbingers of spring. Sometime in February they excitedly report on the six o’clock news, “The first robin of spring has been seen!” They are wrong. Here’s a helpful hint: When a bird disagrees with the book, believe the bird. Although many robins and bluebirds do migrate, thousands stay right here in Oakland County all winter, feasting on dried berries, and perhaps dreaming of worms, grubs and bugs.

Sandhill Cranes appearing before final snow melt are a good signal that spring is on the way. These stately four-foot tall birds with red caps fly home to Oakland County to stake out their breeding territories and strut about icy shorelines as they search for seeds, meadow voles and mice. Addison Oaks County Park, Kensington Metropark, Rose Oaks County Park and Stony Creek Metropark are four of our local wildlands that these beauties call home. Other Sandhills saunter about the fields of Cook’s Farm Diary in Brandon Township, and the meadows of Seven Lakes State Park near Holly.

Hikers and nature lovers in the know keep a close watch on the icy vernal ponds of our woodlands. The very definition of the word vernal, “Relating to, or occurring in the spring” suggests why. The arrival of spring – and that is not happening anytime soon – enlivens the seemingly barren vernal ponds. Wood frogs emerge from hibernation and hop down to the thawing vernal ponds and proceed to quack in a duck-like chorus. Their loud quacked message? “Come-hither.”

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Salamanders gather by the dozens for underwater courtship and mating dances. Vernal pond fairy shrimp, tiny translucent relatives of lobsters boasting eleven sets of appendages, propel themselves upside down through the waters as they gulp algae and plankton. As darkness falls, raccoons, opossums and Barred owls hunt the edges looking for something to eat at the dawn of spring.

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Spring really takes root on the Wilder Side of Oakland County with the blooming of round-lobed hepatica, a delicate wildflower often found near the base of large oak trees that grace our healthy woodlands. That moment will signal the birth of a new season of hiking in a landscape that will be rich with the music, colors and scents of nature. But that time is not yet. “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven” – Book of Ecclesiastes. Just don’t look to the groundhog to herald the arrival of spring. Perhaps spring is best found in the heart, any day of the year. How about today?

Jonathan Schechter is the Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Government and blogs weekly about nature’s way, trails, and wildlife on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.

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