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Look for early spring wildlife

antler on dried leaves

The transition zone between winter and spring is a fascinating time to explore the wildlife of Illinois.  Here are a few of the neat opportunities for watching wildlife in early spring.

Want to learn more? Check out the Spotlight on Natural Resources podcast to hear Chris Evans explore more spring wildlife in Illinois. 

Watch American Woodcock Mating Displays

While many migrating wildlife arrive in Illinois once spring is well underway, the American woodcock (Scolopax minor) doesn’t wait around. It is one of the earliest migrating birds to return to Illinois, often showing up when snow is still on the ground. Male woodcocks start their spring displaying as early as February.

I am fortunate that this phenomenon repeats itself every spring on my homestead in southern Illinois. My kids eagerly await the arrival of the woodcock, and we marvel at their displays every year. Woodcock spend most of their time in dense bottomland woods or upland thickets. However, right at dusk, males move to open fields with low grass to display and call.  The males make a repeated nasal ‘Peent’ sound that my kids find hilarious and impossible not to laugh at! The male woodcock continues this call as they strut around in small circles, trying to impress the females. 

After awhile, the males suddenly burst into the air in circling flight, creating a whirring sound with their wings. These circles continue for a while, then tighten in radius before a sudden spiral down back to the earth to start the whole process over again. We can have as many as six or seven males displaying in our fields at the same time. Woodcock can be found across the entire state.  Watch for them on warm evenings right at dusk in early spring in open fields that are adjacent to dense wooded cover.

Scout for the Shed Antlers of Whitetail Deer

Whitetail deer (Odocoileus virginianus) are year-round residents of Illinois and are not difficult to find in pretty much any habitat or region of the state. Early spring does provide a unique opportunity related to deer for wildlife enthusiasts - finding shed antlers. Whitetail deer’s mating season, called rut, is in the fall. After mating season, when the daylight starts to lengthen, the testosterone levels in bucks begin to drop, which triggers the dissolution of the bond between the antler and the bony pedicle. Look for shed antlers in areas where deer like to overwinter. I often find sheds in thick vegetation near winter food, in dense bedding cover, or on well-established travel routes.

Listen for Spring Peepers and Watch for Other Amphibians

Some of our amphibians get started during this transition period between winter and spring. To me, hearing a full cacophony of frog calls in early spring is one of the most thrilling phenomena in nature. I had the pleasure of recording a small audio clip of frog calls at my property in southern Illinois a few years ago.

  • Spring Peepers: On warm, rainy nights as early as January you can hear the diminutive species of chorus frog named the spring peeper (Pseudacris crucifer) calling from wetlands. Peeper calls are an incredibly loud whistle-like ‘peep,' repeated over and over again. Up close they can be quite deafening, but make a beautiful background noise while enjoy the outdoors during early spring.
  • Chorus frog species  (Pseudacris spp.) calls sounds like someone running their finger down the teeth of a stiff comb.
  • Crawfish frogs (Lithobates areolatus) are one of the largest species of frog in Illinois but spend the majority of their time underground in burrows and holes. During warm rains in early spring, the frogs emerge and move toward water sources to breed. The male’s call is a deep snoring sound that can be quite alarming when it unexpectedly starts.

Lastly, a group of large salamander species, collectively called mole salamanders (genus Ambystoma) spend the majority of their time underground but will also migrate to ponds or wet depressions to breed in late winter and early spring. Some of the more common mole salamanders in Illinois include the spotted salamander (A. maculatum), marbled salamander (A. opacum) and the huge eastern tiger salamander (A. tigrinum).

Look for these mole salamanders in early spring in low depressional wetlands, under fallen logs in wet woods, or in fishless ponds and wet ditches. On warm rainy nights in spring, you can often find these salamanders moving, even crossing roads.

About the Author

Chris Evans is an Extension Forestry and Research Specialist and the Interim State Coordinator for the Master Naturalist Program.  He has been with the University for over five years.  Chris has a BS in Wildlife Biology from Murray State University and a MS in Forest Biology from Iowa State University.  He is interested in forest health and management, native plant restoration, and invasive species management.

About the Blog

Naturalist News is a blog by University of Illinois Extension Master Naturalist staff and volunteers who bring you stories highlighting the individuals, places, wildlife and plants that make this state amazing. Join us each week to learn something new, be inspired and become connected to your own community by recognizing the amazing ways we are all intertwined.