Children sample maple syrup made at the Hoyt Farm Nature...

Children sample maple syrup made at the Hoyt Farm Nature Preserve in Commack during the parks Maple Sugaring event. (Feb.27, 2011) Credit: Thomas A. Ferrara

Forget the groundhog.

As a harbinger of winter's end, the crowd at an annual maple sugaring demonstration at a Commack nature preserve may hold more weight.

More than 100 people stood under bright skies, enjoying temperatures that pushed 50 degrees, for Sunday's walk-through of spiles, evaporators and just how to maximize your sap (hint: Tap the tree about 4 feet up.)

"This is like the start of spring to us," said Gary Steinman, a Hauppauge resident who brought his family to Hoyt Farm. Next to him, a friend quipped, "It's about time." After a relentless winter, it was a shared sentiment.

Although February has seen lower snow accumulation, the two preceding months neared or eclipsed modern regional records. And it wasn't until last week that most of it melted.

"Look, it's a beautiful day," said Deb Stover, a Bohemia mother who accompanied a group of Girl Scouts. Her 10-year-old daughter, LeeAnn, even got to volunteer as a "tree" during an interactive portion of the tutorial.

"We had a wicked winter, so it's good to get out," Stover said.

The crowd was a mix of parents seeking an educational afternoon for their kids, and nature hunters who simply stumbled upon the event.

Randy Barbera was one of the latter. Along with his 9-year-old sister, the 23-year-old Brentwood man had been hiking the back side of the preserve. Soon after, the self-described "maple enthusiast" was providing running commentary on presenters' sugaring tips.

He figured black walnut sugar was less common than maple because of the wood's value, but never heard that evaporating sap indoors could warp your wallpaper.

"Good to know," he said.

Jeff Gumin, manager for the Town of Smithtown-run preserve, told the audience that peak sugaring season was just beginning: It requires freezing temperatures at night, but not during the day.

"When the trees here start to bud," he said, "you know the season's over."

But by then, another welcome one will have started.

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