Posted by: justawriter | March 3, 2010

Far Afield – The wheel keeps turning

It takes work to find the first signs of spring in North Dakota.
While more temperate climates are reporting that the cherry blossoms are out or the first crocus has been spotted, the clues that the seasons are changing are more subtle in the north country. But if you look closely, they are there.
The cliché sign of spring is, of course the first robin. There is a good sized flock of them around Beulah right now. But it turns out that robins are unusually tough birds. While they do migrate every year, they don’t fly as far south as many of our other feathered friends. While not exactly common, it’s not unusual to spot groups of robins in North Dakota in the depths of winter. These hardy birds aren’t our local summer residents but ones that nested farther north. They got this far and decided that our relatively milder climate would make a good stopping off point.
I’ve seen a few surer signs of spring this week though. As I headed off for a weekend vacation I saw two flocks of snow geese flying over Garrison Dam. These birds make an epic three thousand mile journey to their breeding grounds north of the Arctic Circle. Once the snow geese start making their trek, it won’t be long until Canada geese, ducks of every description and other waterfowl will follow.
I saw a bald eagle on my trip as well. While hawks are a sure sign of spring, I’m not so sure about eagles any more. Bald eagles love to fish, so they will stick around anywhere there is open water throughout the winter. With the tailrace keeping a good stretch of the Missouri unfrozen, I think this area could qualify as a bald eagle winter resort. Eagles also aren’t fussy eaters so an abundance of winter killed or road killed venison is a welcome break to their fishy diet.
Other signs of spring are open to dispute. March often sees a change in air itself. I don’t know if there is a bit more humidity in the air or what. But that first tentative thaw in March just feels a lot different to me than a January thaw. It could just be all in my head. I know the January thaw is a mirage. It’s just nature’s way of getting our hopes up before it really brings on the deep freeze. Even though I know there are more frosty nights to follow those first few March days above freezing, I can almost imagine I smell spring and summer being carried on the south wind.
I also noticed a difference in the snow. There is a difference between winter snow and spring snow. Winter snow is either fluffy or almost ice. Spring snow takes on a more granular feel like the snowflakes bunching together for a final farewell before making their mad dash to the nearest lake or river. It is like a halfway house between snow and slush.
I’m told that this is the time of year when all sorts of creatures from owls to foxes start making whoopie. I guess I can understand that a lot of creatures would evolve to take advantage of the large flush of food that comes with spring to help their offspring grow fast and strong before the next winter. The timing gets a little tricky, I’m sure, the years the cold weather is locked into may and even June. But most years it must work out because there are fox kits and owlets to populate the next generation.
Lately it seems, sadly enough, that the first sign of spring are sandbags. Most of the communities along the Knife River, Spring Creek and Antelope Creek have scheduled days for volunteers to make sandbags to protect vulnerable property in their towns. If you can help out, please take the time to do so. We have a good jump on the river this year. By pulling together we can prevent a repeat of last year’s disaster.

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