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Woodland Trails: What's the first day of spring?

Depending on which side of the fence you stand on, you can either go with the calendar or the meteorologists when it comes to deciding which day is the first day of spring.

The calendar claims that March 20 is the first day of spring. That is the day that falls on the spring equinox. What is the spring equinox? March 20, 2009, is a date that most of us recognize as the symbolic day of changing seasons. As we welcome spring, people south of the equator are actually gearing up for the cooler temperatures of autumn.

Typically looked at as the start of spring and the changing of seasons, March 20 (March 21 in some years) is significant for astronomical reasons. On March 20, 2009, at precisely 8:44 a.m., the sun will cross directly over the Earth's equator. This moment is known as the vernal equinox in the Northern Hemisphere. For the Southern Hemisphere, this is the moment of the autumnal equinox. Equinox means "equal night."

Because the sun is positioned above the equator, day and night are about equal in length all over the world during the equinoxes. A second equinox occurs each year on Sept. 22 or 23; in 2009 it will be Sept. 22 at 6:18 p.m. This date will mark the autumnal equinox in the Northern Hemisphere and the vernal equinox in the Southern (vernal denotes "spring").

These brief but monumental moments owe their significance to the 23.4 degree tilt of the Earth's axis. Because of the tilt, we receive the sun's rays most directly in the summer. In the winter, when we are tilted away from the sun, the rays pass through the atmosphere at a greater slant, bringing lower temperatures. Factor in snow and you have cold! If the Earth rotated on an axis perpendicular to the plane of the Earth's orbit around the sun, there would be no variation in day lengths or temperatures throughout the year, and we would not have seasons.

Meteorologists look at March 1 as the beginning of spring. I like that idea. The sooner spring arrives the better. But with all the snow and cold of the last few weeks it sure doesn't look like spring outside. But the warmer temperatures coming will certainly help as will all of the harbingers of spring. Just cock your ear and keep an eye on the natural world and you will see that the signs are out there.

I just spotted a flock of migrating robins the day before the last hard snowfall that was followed by the cold north winds that blew my driveway shut. The cardinals and chickadees are singing mating songs, and the first of the migrating geese are returning. Along with them are the Beau Brummels of the waterfowl world and probably the most beautiful birds in all of nature. Those beautiful wood ducks are returning this week.

And the big birds are coming back too. You can now spot hawks migrating through our region. Soon the sandhill cranes will arrive with the ancient guttural call that takes you back to thoughts of prehistoric times. The next noticeable big bird will be the great blue heron, wading through trout streams hoping to fill its gullet with a speckled fish sandwich sort of lunch.

But the heron will not be alone in its quest for trout. The first Saturday of March will open the door to trout anglers as they once again begin the early catch-and-release trout season. Despite cold and snow, trout anglers are a hardy bunch. Decked out in wading gear and armed with fly rods or light spinning gear they will ply local waters with hopes of tangling with tough trout tumbling down torrents or untangling lines from tree limbs. It's all a part of the sport.

And while they are wading through rushing waters the best ice fishing for panfish will be sliding past those who would miss it. As the temperatures rise ever so slightly and ice-covered lakes begin to melt around shorelines, the sunnies and crappies will be more easier to fool as their metabolism rise and spring spawning draws near.

With the game fish season closed, both pike and perch bellies are full of spawn so spring can't be far behind. It's another sign that spring is around the corner and everyone I know is glad it's almost here!