Signs of Spring

By Clara Brown, Fort Snelling Visitor Services Specialist Individual Placement / AmeriCorps Member placed at Fort Snelling State Park, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources


A bird up in a tree in the early morning.
A Great Horned Owl sitting on a nest in a Cottonwood tree.

The first day of spring this year was March 19th.  Here are five things that I have seen (or heard) in nature that tell me that spring is here!

1.     Nesting Owls

Great Horned Owls start nesting in January or February. After they have laid their eggs it will be 30 to 37 days before they hatch. Barred owls start nesting in March and it will take 28 to 33 days for their eggs to hatch. If you are lucky enough to see an owl nesting or a baby owl hanging out in a tree then that is a sure sign that spring is on its way!

Water in lake with snow in foreground
Open Water on Snelling Lake this spring.

2.      Open Water

In Minnesota, there is a tradition of tracking ice in and out dates for our lakes. According to the MN DNR “Ice in is when the entire lake is frozen over for the first time.” Ice out is “when the lake is completely free of ice.” Lake Minnetonka, a major lake in the twin cities area had its latest ice in ever this year with ice fully covering the lake on January 13, 2024. The earliest ice out for the lake was March 11, 1878, however this year came very close to beating that record with an ice out date of March 13th.

Boiling sap in a picnic shelter
Maple sap boiling into syrup at Fort Snelling State Park

3.      Maple Syrup

In early spring, when the nights are below freezing and the days are above freezing, something magical starts to happen, maple sap starts to run! The temperature differences between night and day create pressure differences in the trunk and sap starts to move up and down. When this happens we can put spiles into the trees and collect a little of the sap to create the delicious gift that is maple syrup. There is nothing like the smell of maple sap cooking to say that spring is on its way!

Tree buds against the sky.
Flowers bursting out of buds on a Silver Maple tree this spring.

4.      Bursting Buds

Buds on trees are scaly structures that are formed in the fall and protect new flowers and leaves during the winter. As the weather warms in the spring the buds will eventually break, which means that the scales will fall off and the new flower or leaf will emerge. In Minnesota, some of the first buds to break are maple buds and that not only signals the coming of spring, it also tells people that are collecting sap that the maple syrup season is over!

A red bird in a tree.
A Male Northern Cardinal singing at the top of a tree.

5.      Bird Song

Many birds have distinctive breeding calls that signal that they are thinking about spring. As you walk around outside one song you may hear is the Northern Cardinal. The Cardinal’s songs typically last 2 to 3 seconds and sounds like it is saying cheer, cheer, cheer. Look for the bright red male perched high up in the tree tops.

Another song you may here is the Black-capped Chickadee. Listen for a simple, pure 2 or 3-note whistled fee-bee or hey, sweetie.

What things in your life tell you that spring is on its way?