Winter or spring? Seems SE can't decide

Posted: Friday, March 12, 2010

I'm sitting here in my big easy chair, watching the snow sift slowly down. A raven is parading around on the ice-covered pond, snarfing up the spilled bird-seed and whatever else it can find. It leaves a wonderful trail of footprints, showing that it checked out all the likely spots, sometimes more than once.

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Photos By Bob Armstrong
Photos By Bob Armstrong

But wait, did I say "snow?" Where was the real snow in this pseudo-winter? I'm glad Eaglecrest is doing OK, but for those of us who are not down-hillers, this "winter" has been a bust, at least in terms of our usual winter activities. And, having April weather in late February and early March got me looking for signs of spring. They're out there, in addition to the beautifully lengthening days:

• Pussy willows have started to bloom along Gold Creek and in parts of the Valley. Admittedly, I haven't yet seen any clumps of yellow pollen poking out of that soft, gray fluff, but some of these shrubs are clearly beginning to think that it may be spring.

• Sauntering through the woods, a friend and I noticed that the flower buds on the blueberry bushes were getting big and fat, and they were no longer entirely encased in protective bud-covers. On our "sunshine coasts," observers have even seen blueberries in full flower. We were hoping that the flowers don't get blasted by a late, hard frost.

• Varied thrushes are much more in evidence. Two males and a female visit my seed-feeder, and I heard a tentative song.

• Male catkins of the alders are starting to swell and droop, in preparation for releasing their wind-borne pollen. The female flowers are still coyly hidden.

• Some mating swarms of midges can be found along the streams. Mayflies are almost ready to emerge from their aquatic larval phase and embark on their short adult lives in the air. The early mosquitoes are out and about and ready to draw blood.

• Song sparrow males are gearing up their voices to advertise their territories and attract mates, so they can be heard in full song along the shores.

• Eagles sit in trees, two by two. Ravens perch, delicately grooming each other, on lamp-posts and fly together, deep in conversation. To call it conversation is not an exaggeration, because they have huge vocabularies.

• I also see mallard, bufflehead and harlequin ducks consorting in male-female pairs. Pair-formation occurs in winter for many ducks, and now the close association of one male and one female is often obvious.

• On some lowland streams, American Dippers have formed pairs, no longer fighting and chasing, but foraging peaceably near each other. I watched a presumed male (the sexes are morphologically indistinguishable, in the field) carry a small fish to his partner and show it to her - and then eat it himself! Later in the courtship process, he will actually give her gifts of fish and other prey.

• I watched that pair of dippers at Sheep Creek delta, below the bridge. Here the fry of pinks and chum begin to emerge from the gravels in early spring, and dippers love to gobble them up. Sometimes I can see partially buried fry that emerged a bit too soon and then tried to re-bury themselves. But they don't always do a good job of it and only get their heads back in the gravel, leaving their tails waving in the current - just where a dipper can pluck them out for lunch.

Yes, in many ways, despite the chill outside, it seems spring is trying to arrive.

• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology.

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