The Metamorphosis

by Denny Olson

Denny Olson

This particular Northern Rockies winter demanded a bit of patience and self-reliance. Without proper clothing and an interest in snow-dependent pursuits, winters like this one can make edgy shut-ins from normally well-adjusted people. Uncommon cold and waist-deep snow established this winter near the end of the “temperate” spectrum, and turned the term ”polarized” into a bad pun.

Casual looks outside through the windows can lead to casual conclusions about the advance of early spring. “Nothing happens until May,” is an inclination even naturalists have to resist. We should know better. By the time the warblers arrive en masse and a bare-bones transparent forest drops its opaque green screen, a lot of spring has already happened.

An enterprising climatologist once calculated the rate of spring’s advance to the north. It averages a half-mile per hour, or twelve miles each day – not supersonic, but not glacial either. In fact, it is walking speed. One thing is fairly clear. In the contiguous U.S., when we start walking with spring in southern Texas, we get to Northwest Montana dead last.

It might just be denial, but perhaps we could take heart by broadening our definition of “spring” a bit at this end of the latitudinal spectrum. Great Horned Owls, Great Gray Owls, and both kinds of eagles are already on their nests. Tundra Swans and Trumpeter Swans are out on open stretches of the Flathead River. Rough-legged Hawks are leaving for the tundra. Winter Redtails are moving north and being replaced by summer residents. Waterfowl of every kind are flooding into the open sloughs, staging and refueling. It’s a great time to see wandering exotics like Eurasian Widgeons, Krider’s Red-tail Hawks, or Ferruginous Hawks. Varied Thrushes stop in town to say “Hi” on their way to the old-growth at higher elevations. All the male resident woodpeckers are looking for that ultimate sounding board – hollow tree-tops, dead branches and tin roofs. Male Red-winged Blackbirds have the marshes to themselves for a couple of weeks, and it is testosterone-riddled “fight club” until the girls arrive a bit later and make them a bit more genteel.

Killdeer are out in the open spots yelling their own name, their wheel-legs gliding them in straight, short lines, but random directions. Male Ruffed Grouse are drumming dress-rehearsals on their log and rock perches, and Spruce Grouse are noisily fluttering down from the trees, smacking their wings together twice behind their backs.

And the action isn’t just aerial, it’s terrestrial as well. The daytime thaws, supplemented by cold rains, crust the snowpack hard at night. Wolves, cougars, lynx and fox all love being able to get around. (Deer hate it.) Skate-skiers can abandon the trails and launch out over open places at speeds they couldn’t reach earlier in the fluffy part of winter.

Snowshoe hares almost never completely match their background – brown or mottled against white snow, or white against bare ground, it is all bad camouflage. Owls and lynx have to eat, too. If a curious human should venture out on the snow crust at midnight, find a small opening in the firs, and watch carefully under the moon shadows, a bizarre sight could be the reward. Male hares, full of themselves, and that well-known “toxin” testosterone, emerge from the shadows thumping their hind feet on the crust, bouncing in circles and sometimes flipping and twisting in the air with gymnastic gainers and dismounts.

All this silliness, of course, has to do with females. If the temptation is there to laugh dismissively, it’s helpful to remember what life is like in our singles bars. Different pick-up lines, same silliness.

When the open water first appears, beavers finally get some relief from their cabin fever. For the entire winter, their routine has consisted of swimming out under the ice a few feet, grabbing a stick, and swimming back inside to de-bark the stick on their feeding platform just inside the lodge. The living room / bedroom in beaver lodges is small and communal, and often six or eight beavers share the space. Sedentary sleeping is the usual rule, but since their body heat is the only thing keeping their entrance ice-free, the coldest nights demand throwing a close-quarters party.

So the lesson here is that, despite appearances to the contrary, spring is well on its way. The Fox, Tree and White-crowned Sparrows will be singing at dawn before you know it. Western Meadowlarks are already playing their flutes. Honeycombed ice is tinkling in the waves, and male loons are already looking to land in the narrow open-water leads near the lakeshore. The other lesson should be apparent as well. You won’t be able to see all this unless you get out there.

And get ready. When May erupts, you probably won’t be able to keep up with it. We’ll talk about that dizzying month next time.