Vernal Pool in WNY on March 26, 2016 Photo by Jburney
Vernal Pool in WNY on March 26, 2016 Photo by Jburney

GreenWatch: Science Sunday

by / Mar. 27, 2016 8am EST

The Spring Vernal Equinox

March April 2016

This is a profoundly beautiful part of the year. Humans and other life forms on planet earth celebrate and thrive much in part due to evolutionary adaption to the cycle of seasons. This transitional cycle, the Vernal Equinox, is the archway from winter into spring.

Generally speaking, the Equinox marks the time in the four seasons earth calendar in the fall Autumnal  and in the spring, when daylight and nightime are approximately equal in duration all over the planet. This generally occurs around 21 March  and 23 September, according to the commonly used Gregorian Calendar.

Vernal comes from the Latin word “ver,” meaning “spring.” Equinox comes from the Latin “aequus,” meaning “equal,” and “nox,” meaning “night.”

These seasons are determined by the axis of the earth, and how the sun’s light energy impacts the earth, its atmosphere and surface.

At mid winter and high summer we have the Winter and Summer solstices. This generally occurs around 21-22 June. Summer solstice is when in the Northern Hemisphere the amount of daylight is at its peak, and the night darkness is at its minimum.  In the far north, the sun does not set. This is called Polar Day.  It is the opposite in the Southern Hemisphere where the daylight is at its shortest, and the sun never rises. Solstice is derived from the Latin, in sol meaning sun, and sistere, meaning to stand still.

This year, spring arrived at its earliest point in 120 years since 1896. Not coincidentally this was also a Leap-year.

This is an eye opening time of the year. There are such gigantic changes going on in nature as the Earth’s lifezones adjusts to the shifting axis of the planet. At the Vernal Equinox the Earth’s northern and southern hemispheres are equally lit. As the Earth’s Northern Hemisphere begins to tilt toward the sun, the Southern Hemisphere tilts away. North to the spring, South to the Fall. Summer is coming in the North, Winter coming below the equator.


Celebrating the Vernal Equinox with SLOOH and the Old Farmers Almanac



Human Celebrations

Humans celebrate this season across the globe. Christians declare this time of year to be Easter, the time when Jesus died and was resurrected. This year Easter, falls on March 27, today.  Passover, the Jewish holiday celebrating the Exodus of Israelites from Egypt occurs this year between Friday April 22, and Saturday April 30.  The indigenous Mayans celebrate “The Return of the Sun Serpent.” In Japan, Higan is celebrated as a week of Buddhist services during the Equinox as a celebration of Ancestors.

Ostara is a celebration of Pagans that originated from a Germanic Goddess of spring. Ancient Egyptians celebrated the Festival of Isis, during the spring when the Nile began to rise. The Iranian Festival of Nowruz (New Day) is celebrated as New Years. This celebration is rooted in the Zoroastrainism which was the predominant religion in ancient Persia before Islam. Northern cultures have a variety of spring related festivities. In Russia, Maslenitsa is celebrated as a time of the return of light and warmth. In parts of Scotland, spring is celebrated with Whuppity Scoorie to celebrate good behavior.

In our area we are in the midst of both Saint Patrick’s Day events, and Dyngus Day which occurs tomorrow. Earth Day is coming, and baseball season has begun, soon to visit a ballpark near you. 



It is a wonderful time of the year to go outside. We note the growing warmth and the light from the sun refreshes us and energizes us.

In our area as winter regresses, the ice melts, earth warms, animals and plants come out of winter repose, and life begins to burst. We see this, smell this, feel this everywhere. As pussy willows blossom (furry early spring catkins  -slim flowering clusters from the genus Salix- willows and sallow’s, and named fancifully from the likeness to tiny cats or “pussies”), these early spring flowers are pollinated by the early emerging insects.  Salamanders, turtles, snakes, frogs and other creatures are also emerging from various states of winter torpor.  Bears come out of winter slumbers as the daylight hours lengthen. Already this year I have seen bee’s, butterflies, and other insects busy gathering food and pollinating early flowers. Soon these early spring flowering ephemerals (short-lasting) will burst upon the scene. These mostly woodland plants are pollinated by early insects and the seeds are disbursed by local ants. Yes we do still have some spring ephemerals in their habitats of undisturbed rich woodlands, but because of the local nature of ant colonies and seed disbursement, fragmentation is a major threat to these flowers. Once these plants disappear, they rarely return, so you better see them soon before we lose all of them to development.


Bird Migration

This is a truly spectacular time of the year for bird migration.

Some birds are migrating north toward our region from wintering tropical areas in Central and South America, and others are migrating north -from our region. We maybe the Miami of the northern polar region for overwintering birds. You may know that we have an abundance of wintering birds including waterfowl and gulls, especially on our open waters of the Niagara River Strait.  This is traditionally the first open waters for these birds, migrating south during the late fall and early winter, from the far north breeding regions.  Many species and many millions of individual birds overwinter here.

In recent days we have seen great numbers of migrating raptors including Turkey Vultures, and a variety of Hawks and Buteos. Many days if you just look up you may see rotating clouds known as kettles of these birds as they make their way along our Great Lakes coastlines and across overland routes. Often they are following thermals or warm updrafts stimulated by the changing season. Shorebirds are incoming, and other birds like the Woodcock are here and are doing their entertaining and engaging spring mating rituals.

Soon, perhaps today, the fabulous and colorful warblers and songbirds will begin to arrive in our region. The insects that are attracted by the Pussy Willows and other early flowers will grow in numbers as the fertile and flowering season of trees and other plants bursts forth in the energy of springtime. The frozen waters, soils, and muds in which many of them have overwintered, thaw and life is released. Presumably the insects come forth in numbers that support the bird migration but the threats of pesticides and chemicals that overwhelm our society and other insect killers continues to create great hazards to the biodiversity that is both represented and generated by the migrating birds. We still have a number of what are called migrant warbler “traps” in our area. These are green areas include places like Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, and Times Beach and Tifft Nature Preserves on Buffalo’s Outer Harbor. These small areas attract these birds, often in great numbers because they are what remain of the once verdant natural forests and wildlands that characterized our area, and upon which migrating birds have always depended upon.  We will continue to write about these places and threats in coming weeks.


Vernal Pools

One of the least recognized but most important part of our natural landscape involves what are called Vernal Pools. These are temporary wetlands that occur as a part of the spring melt. The wet areas, shallow pools of water, are places that attract natal amphibian and insect species. Their temporary nature makes them unsuitable for fish and other predators of these animals that depend upon them for regeneration.

Western New York has always been a place rich in vernal pools. For instance, today the geology and geography of places like Grand Island make the undeveloped portions still rich in the abundance of Vernal Pools. Our ecology and biodiversity has depended upon and been vastly endowed by these natural areas.  Our amphibians, and insects are basic building blocks for the health that comes from biodiversity. This includes clean water, air, meadows, fields, and forests that help to maintain the balance in our atmosphere so that life, including human life can exist and thrive.

Unfortunately, the lack of recognition of these ephemeral wetlands has put them at great risk and many, if not most have vanished.  Grand Island, as it has been developed is at great risk as a place of vernal pools. As our forests were clear-cut, and turned to agriculture, and as we build out our residential and urban areas including the sprawling suburbs we have plowed under, drained, or otherwise eviscerated these vital places.  And they are especially sensitive to chemical pollution including runoff from farms and yards, roads and other treated areas including rain gardens that encourage flows of contaminated water into natural areas. All in the good name of identifying wildlands as wastelands as we encourage the best use and highest use of land as developable, covered, and conquered.


Spring has sprung, the grass is rizz, I wonder where them birdies is.
Birdies on the wing, ain’t that’s absurd. I thought the wing was on the bird.


Sunday Morning Television

Whats Bird Happening in Western New York, Spring Equinox 2016

Sunday Morning Television is brought to you by GreenWatch, The Public, and the Friends of Times Beach Nature Preserve.  Sunday Morning Television videos produced and photographed by Jay Burney. 

Please consider a donation to keep our programs alive! Buffalo’s Times Beach Nature Preserve is full of delightful surprises and it is right downtown, across the Buffalo River from Canalside. Visit us on Facebook.

See our archive of Sunday Morning Videos. 

The Friends of Times Beach Nature Preserve is a Buffalo based organization dedicated to preserving and educating about critical habitat and species in the Great Lakes and at the downtown shoreline Buffalo preserve.