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A guide to the favorite signs of spring

Dick Clayton, naturalist at Sibley State Park, collects sap from a maple tree after showing how tapping is done Tuesday at the park near New London. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

WILLMAR -- Now that the calendar officially proclaims it is spring, we asked some of the region's outdoor enthusiasts and naturalists what they consider their favorite sign of spring.

As they make abundantly clear, there is a lot to look forward to:

Dave Pederson, director of the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center, New London, keeps an eye on the prairie and woodland soils. He watches for the first flowering plants to emerge.

"It's amazing how quickly they poke up," said Pederson of the early May flowers. "It's fun to see."

The season's first, native flowers come with names like Dutchmen's Breeches and Prairie Smoke (pasque flower), and are generally small, but hearty plants able to tolerate the chill of early season weather.

Ron Erpelding, Willmar, a birding enthusiast, has a jump on all of us. He witnessed the first sign of spring in early February, as he does every year.

Erpelding watches for the arrival of the first horned larks to the region. They migrate into this area usually during the first and second weeks of February. Despite our lingering winter, North America's only true lark did not disappoint. They arrived right on schedule, said Erpelding.

"They're hearty souls," he said.

The horned larks usually arrive in small flocks of anywhere from five to 20 birds. In a matter of a few weeks they start to pair off, which is exactly what they're doing right now, he said.

Cory Netland, the new director of the Hawk Creek Watershed Project in Olivia, has an obvious interest in our water resources, and that possibly explains what he loves most about spring. He enjoys watching for the arrival of the first migrating waterfowl.

Noisy geese are the most obvious and numerous right now, but Netland said he loves watching for the variety of waterfowl on their way to nesting grounds. He's still waiting for the chance to see his favorite. Last year, his sister spotted sandhill cranes making a brief stop near the Netland family's home grounds north of Kerkhoven.

As the season progresses, Netland said his search for the signs of spring turns to the woodlands where he loves to hunt for wild mushrooms, the morel in particular.

"You've got to get out there," said Netland.

Sister Kay Fernholz, co-founder of a community supported agriculture venture, loves most of all the open prairie in spring time. She and her sister Annette are siblings and religious sisters with the Sisters of Notre Dame. They operate the Earth Rise Farm in rural Madison, where they raise organic vegetables, eggs and chickens.

Sr. Fernholz said she loves watching the winter blanket of snow pull away and reveal the greening prairie it had kept hidden. "It looks like when a little child is waking up in the morning, usually with a smile," she said of the early, greening plants. Her favorite springs are those that come gently, she added.

Ed Stone, rural Renville, is a naturalist and birding enthusiast who lives along the Minnesota River and Renville County's Vicksburg Park. His location offers the opportunity to watch spring emerge on protected wild lands where river, woodlands and prairie all meet.

It isn't what he sees but what he hears that ranks as his favorite sign of spring. Every year he listens attentively for the sound of the small, saw-whet owl. It's usually an early arriver and its sound is very distinctive, said Stone.

It's a very nocturnal bird, and while Stone loves to listen for it, he said being able to see one is another matter altogether.

The owls are followed by a succession of migrating birds. His favorites among them are eastern bluebirds and juncos. It's the flash of color and song of the bluebirds he enjoys. The juncos like to take over: They will soon be grouping in numbers of 100 to 500 birds along the river bottoms, he said.

Dick Clayton, naturalist at Sibley State Park, New London, has the distinct pleasure of introducing hundreds of visitors every year to the wonders of the emerging spring in the pristine setting of the state park. He was busy earlier this week tapping maple trees, getting ready to host visitors who will watch how maple sap is collected and turned into syrup.

Clayton appreciates most of all the added daylight that the change of seasons brings, and how it increases the opportunities to enjoy the outdoors. He also keeps his eyes open for migrating birds, and has already recorded the arrival of Canada geese, red winged blackbirds, Eastern bluebirds and even robins to the park.

And yes, the sap is running.