March phenology (the awakening season)

Holy Wisdom MonasteryCare for the Earth, Friends of Wisdom Prairie, Phenology 1 Comment

By Sylvia Marek

American frog

American toad in Lost Lake at Holy Wisdom Monastery

Phenology is a science focused on observing and recording biological events from year to year and their relationships to the change of seasons and climate.

These are the “normal” phenology events we expect to see here and in the Madison area this month. We would love to hear about what you are seeing on the grounds of Holy Wisdom Monastery. Please comment on this post with what you are observing, where at Holy Wisdom and the date you observed the event.

No month ends or begins overnight. Events can be a few weeks early or late.

“For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds has come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.”  –Solomon’s Song. Chapter 2. (11 and 12)


March is usually a month when we experience snow, ice storms, rain, first thunderstorms, floods, thawing earth, mud, ice out on ponds and lakes, new bird species arriving almost daily and awakenings. The sun is warmer and higher. Daylight is equal to darkness (Vernal Equinox). March is a month of transitions and a promise of spring.

Many of the following observations are from notes I have kept over the years. Events can occur a few weeks early or late depending on weather or other factors. How will the rapidly changing climate affect March happenings?

Resident birds

  • Bird song increases and behavior changes considerably more than in January and February.
  • Cardinal flocks break up and pairs are formed. Males and females use different perches in their territory and countersing (alternate singing) from dawn until dusk. Feather tips have worn off and bright breeding plumage is revealed. Males feed females.
  • Black-capped Chickadee flocks break up and pairs are formed. Males sing their sweet “fee-bee” song throughout the day. Calls are usually answered by rival males involving territory. Near the end of March, the pair excavates a nest cavity in soft wood.
  • Male and female White-breasted Nuthatches stay close together and give “ip-ip” and “ank-ank” calls.  Listen for the “wa-wa-wa-wa” courtship call of the male and watch their interesting behavior.
  • Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers drum on surfaces that vibrate. The raped jackhammer bursts announce territory and attract mates.
  • Red-bellied Woodpeckers call “quirr-quirr”.
  • Tufted Titmice sing more frequently. Small winter flocks gradually break up and pairs are formed. Notice their small, pointed crest. Can you name three other birds that have crests? (Cardinal, Blue Jay, and Cedar Waxwing).
  • Several Blue Jays form courtship flocks led by one female.  Males and females look the same. They have several calls and displays.
  • Mourning Dove flocks break up. Males give sad “coo-coo-coo” songs from perches. On the ground, males puff up their feathers and chase females. The male gathers twigs for a loosely made nest. Males also incubate the two white eggs laid by the female (unusual behavior for a male to help incubate).
  • Goldfinches remain in flocks. Males continue their partial molt and grow bright yellow feathers. They sing sweet warbling songs from a high perch.
  • Listen for an increase of warbling songs of the House Finch. Males have a red-orange forehead and breast.  Females are grayish brown with streaked breasts.
  • English Sparrows chirp loudly and start to build nests.
  • European Starlings gather in large flocks. Listen for their whistles.  Black beaks turn yellow. White feather tips wear off and reveal glossy green-black plumage.
  • Crows gather in small flocks. Watch for Crows carrying twigs, branches, and other nesting material.
  • The Cooper’s Hawk hunts for songbirds and small mammals.
  • Red-tailed Hawks perform aerial courtship displays. Watch how they soar, loop, dive, and clasp talons. Their call is a whistled “peerrrr, peerrr” (Blue Jays often imitate the call).
  • Look for an abandoned Crow or Hawk nest. You might see a female Great Horned Owl starring down at you. By mid-March there should be 1 or 2 newly hatched owlets in the nest.
  • Barred Owls are extremely vocal now calling “who cooks for you” and they make other strange sounds. March is their breeding season.  The female lays 1 or 2 eggs in a tree cavity.
  • Eastern Screech Owls also use tree cavities for roosting and nesting.  Listen for their “whinny” or “monotone” call especially at night.
    -Tom Turkeys give descending “gobble-gobble” calls. They puff up, strut, and spread their large tails like fans.

Winter visitors

  • Those that spent the winter here “pack their suitcases” and migrate to northern Wisconsin to nest.
  • Dark-eyed Juncos form very large flocks. They chase and sing short-musical trills.
  • Tree Sparrows gather in flocks and sing very sweet bell-like tinkling songs.
  • Pine Siskins occasionally nest early and then leave.
  • Saw-whet Owls leave at night. Listen for their one-pitch “toot-toot-toot” call.
  • Long-eared, Short-eared, and Snowy Owls head north to nest.

March migrants

  • Some years short-distance migrants arrive from the south a week or so earlier, later, or not at all. Can you think of reasons why? Frequent violent storms? Climate change? Changes in the landscape?
  • Over the years I have observed the following short-distance migrants. Some will nest here and others will continue on their journey.

Early to mid-March migrants

  • Robin, Bluebird, Red-winged Blackbird, Grackle, Cowbird, Killdeer, Song and Fox Sparrows, Meadowlark and Great Blue Heron. Overhead look for Turkey Vulture, Bald Eagle, Sandhill Crane and Kestrel.
  • Woodcock (thimberdoodle) usually arrive in early March. At dusk listen for their “peent, peent” calls and watch their entertaining courtship sky dance.
  • Waterfowl seen on open water include: Bufflehead, Canvasback, Gadwall, Hooded Merganser, Lesser Scalp, Northern Pintail, Redhead, Wood Duck, Ring-necked Duck, Coot, Blue-winged and Green-winged Teal, Shoveler, Pied-billed Grebe, Ruddy Duck, Red-breasted Merganser, Snow Goose and Tundra Swan.

Mid to late-March migrants

  • Phoebe, Towhee, Hermit Thrush, Flicker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Swamp, Chipping and Field Sparrows, Tree and Barn Swallows, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Kingfisher, Sandpiper, Winter Wren, an occasional Yellow-rumpled Warbler and more.
  • Wilson’s Snipe “winnow” in wetlands and prairies (outer tail feathers create a wavering winnowing sound).


  • Many of the following mammals mate in January or February and have young now: gray squirrel, opossum, rabbit, coyote, red fox, small rodents and more.
  • Chipmunks, ground squirrels and woodchucks emerge from hibernation.
  • Look for muskrat, mink and weasel near water.
  • Meadow voles, shrews, and moles are active.
  • Deer continue to browse woody plants. Well-fed male deer sometimes do not shed their antlers until March. They are usually shed in December-February.
  • Big brown bats come out of hibernation (often too early).

Insects, spiders and others

  • During warm days, how many of the following can you find?
    • Mourning cloak, red admiral, comma, question mark, cabbage white, sulphur, and the early form of the spring azure.
    • Several kinds of moths.
    • Queen bumblebees, honeybees, solitary bees (especiallly cellophane bees), wasps, and hornets.
    • Gnats, flies, and swarms of midges.
    • Ladybird beetles and box elder bugs.
    • Six-spotted tiger beetles are shiny green with white spots. They run very fast.
    • Ants spend time outside their burrows.
    • Coral winged and green striped grasshoppers overwinter as last instars. Look for them nestled in grass.
    • Woolly bear caterpillars search for food after their long winter nap.
    • Earthworms come out of their underground burrows after rain.
    • Look for water striders and whirligig beetles on the surface of water.
    • Snowfleas (springtails) are especially active on warm days. Look for tiny dark specks on top of melting snow or on puddles.
    • A few kinds of wolf spiders spend the winter under the snow as adults. Now they come out of their burrows.
    • Zebra jumping spiders overwinter as adults. Look for these tiny, adorable spiders on buildings, trees, and rocks especially during sunny days.
    • Centipedes and millipedes scurry about.
    • Red velvet mites, chiggers, and TICKS are active.


  • Sap starts to flow. Sugar maple sap runs best when nights are 25-32 degrees and days are 32-45 degrees.
  • Sapsicles hang from broken branches.
  • Stems of red-osier and silky dogwood turn bright red.
  • Aspen bark turns greenish-yellow and furry catkins expand.
  • Willow branches and twigs have an amber glow.
  • The red and yellow flowers of the silver maple open.
  • Pussy willow buds swell. Brown bud scales fall off and silver, furry “pussies” expend into flowers. Each plant has either all male or all female flowers.
  • Hazelnut catkins expand. The brown male flowers release yellow pollen in the wind. Very tiny, red, star-like, female flowers are found near the catkins.
  • Skunk cabbage blooms in wetlands.
  • Pasque and prairie smoke bloom on prairies.
  • Some years in late March, I have found the following in bloom in woodlands: trout lily, bloodroot, dutchman’s breeches, toothwort, hepatica, and violets.
  • Dandelions bloom and provide pollen and nectar for insects.
  • Grasses, sedges, and other plants green up.

And other signs of spring

  • Frozen ground thaws out. Breathe in the fragrant earthy smell released from microbes in damp soil.
  • Painted turtles spend the winter beneath mud in ponds. Now they emerge and bask in the sun on logs, etc.
  • Spring peepers and chorus frogs leave woodlands where they spent the winter (in a somewhat frozen state). They head to ponds to breed when the ground thaws out and the water temperature is about 50 degrees. I usually hear them call in early March.
  • Salamanders leave woodlands and migrate to ponds and wetlands where they breed. Look for them at night in late March during a warm rainy night.
  • Garter and brown snakes emerge from hibernation and bask in sunny areas.

Take time to look, listen, and appreciate all that the land here at Holy Wisdom has to offer. Perhaps you will discover things I have missed.

“Is gratitude a moral obligation? I would say it is. The obligation is owed to the earth itself. To be grateful is to live a life that honors the gift.  To care for it, keep it safe, protect it from danger. Not to discount it or ignore it, but to use it respectfully. To celebrate it, to honor the worth of it in a thousand ways, not just in words, but in how we live our lives.”
–Kathleen Dean Moore, Pine Island Paradox

Sylvia Marek is a highly trained and experienced naturalist. She works for the University of Wisconsin Arboretum and is a first rate birder.

Please share the biological events you notice while at Holy Wisdom Monastery below (remember to include what you see, where and when).

Comments 1

  1. I have many great memories of various biological events which I witnessed on the monastery grounds. My favorite ducks are Buffleheads and I have seen them every spring, usually in March on Lost Lake. One midsummer night a few years ago I went for a night walk just after dark and took my binoculars. I was so glad I did because there were millions of fireflies that night and looking at them through the binoculars was like looking up at the Milky Way. It was a bit disorienting; like there were stars on ground level. While I was watching the fireflies, a coyote fairly near to me started calling to another one. It was one of the most magical walks I have ever taken.

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