It’s happening, yet it’s not obvious. As we march toward the spring equinox we can sense the shift occurring. A warm sun rises earlier each morning to curb the chill of the morning air. The later-setting sun seems to provide a touch more free time each day.
While March generally provides a great amount of snowfall, it is also a big melt month in lower and moderate elevations. It often snows during the night and melts in the sunny spots each day. This cycle brings about noticeable changes in the greenery.
For animals that eat plants green growth is far higher in nutrition than old brown grasses of mid-winter. Also, browsing on shrubs also becomes appealing as the tender twigs start to swell with buds. Grasses and shrubs provide essential food for deer, elk, moose, bighorns, rabbits and mice.
On recent sunny mornings I’ve heard clear singing “Fee-bee” and “Fee-bee-bay” by black-capped and mountain chickadees. Male chickadees sing to define parameters of their territory. A sort of “This land is my land, this land is your land” which limits direct competition for food and nesting sites. This also advertises availability to females.
Woodpeckers too have begun to establish territories. But unlike chickadees, woodpeckers do not sing rather they drum. I recently heard the first rhythmic drumming of the season. The male woodpecker chooses a tall dead tree with a dry wooden finger that reaches skyward to serve as a drumming post. Good resonation is essential so the “song” carries a good distance. Each woodpecker species has its own unique rhythms.
Soon while snowshoeing we’ll stumble upon the first fresh woodchips from beavers sitting atop the snow near the bank of a stream. Beavers slept away much of the winter in a torpid state while nestled in a dry chamber within the beaver lodge. For winter food, beavers utilize a cache of limbs that they had dutifully stored the previous autumn. A beaver lodge sports a trap door that permits them to enter the pond beneath the ice. Here they feed safely while holding their breath.
It must be the lure of fresh air and fresh growth that brings the beavers out onto the springtime snow. Beaver tracks reveal a waddling gait with swishing arcs in the snow from its leathery pancake-flat tail.
Spring is also a time when we notice an influx of red-tailed hawks soaring over open grassy fields and sunny mountainsides. Areas receiving sunlight heat up and the rising warm air creates a thermal updraft that soaring hawks utilize to cover a lot of ground without ever flapping their wings.
Watch for flight displays of mating raptors. These rituals get the juices flowing. Often the male swoops down from above and behind the female, while the female rolls over and they touch or sometimes interlock talons.
Soon a favorite prey of hawks will pop up through the mud and snow and begin peeping. Ground squirrels spend the winter hibernating in an underground burrow. During this deep state the ground squirrels body temperature remained about 45 degrees and it never rolled over once.
The ground squirrel’s efficient metabolism drew energy from stored fat reserves to keep it alive. If a hibernating animal runs out of fat, it dies. That these animals are able to emerge from such a faraway state and wake up one warm spring day is miraculous.
Springtime is the beginning of the annual cycle. It is the season of rebirth and new growth. Smile when you see the first magpie with a twig in its bill gliding over to its mate at the site of its new nest.