February passes quietly into March and we have escaped the winter with very few storms, perhaps the meekest winter in a decade. No lowland snow, not much in the way of floods or winds. A wonderfully boring winter. Early spring is now in full surge; the first salmonberry flowers are out, the
bright green leaves of Indian plum are fully out in places, and the mountain beavers are cleaning out their burrows, piling fresh mounds of dirt at the back doors of their subterranean homes.
March dances with two partners, swirling between winter and spring, each playing off the other as one diminishes while the other ascends. On any given day the gray overcast can break down into sunshine and warmth, then suddenly become arctic under a deluge of hail. Sitting on a riverbank one afternoon at Al Borlin Park, the gray clouds parted and a column of sunshine hit me like a warm spotlight from heaven. I closed my eyes and let the sunshine warm my face as I lay back in the sun-warmed gravel. I opened my eyes and directly above me was a swirling clockwork of ravens. There were perhaps twenty birds, all circling directly above. For one brief moment, the clumps of birds rearranged, becoming perfectly spaced apart, wingtip to wingtip, a circle within a larger column of light. The moment passed and they coalesced back into entropy-driven clumps of birds.
One morning there was a bug gray lump at the edge of the garden pond. My first thought was that it was a cat, but it was shaped wrong and had no tail. Suddenly it came into focus: a barred owl, bent over, picking at something in its talons. After it flew away I found the carcass of a red-legged frog. A few days later the owl calls for several hours behind the house, quite a lot to say. Somewhere a female is sitting on eggs, the proud papa hunts and feeds her on the nest. By the end of the month both will be hunting to feed the young owlets.
A couple of warming days and the first bumblebee queen of the year shows up at a salmonberry flower. She is quite slow still and I place my hand under her and she lands and sits, soaking in the warmth of my palm. After five minutes she begins to vibrate and then her wings start and off she flies, searching for more early nectar.
She will search the ground for a good spot to raise her brood, and once she finds it she will gather nectar and pollen into a single pot. Once that pot is full, she will make a dozen more cells and lay an egg and seal them. Then she will do something no other insect does, she will sit on her cluster of egg cells, like a chicken, and use her body heat to help them develop. By mid-April, just as the big-leaf maples are beginning to flower, her first brood will emerge, with lots of pollen and nectar to feed on.
A robin has discovered itself in the window of my car and continues to go through its foolish routine. As it sees its reflection, the bird raises its tail as a threat, but so does the “other bird.” Not to be out-challenged, the bird opens and closes its bill rapidly, but again so does the intruder. Finally, fully enraged by this cheeky interloper, our befuddled robin tries to displace its rival by flying against the window.
To its surprise, the rival is immovable and so the bird returns to its perch and starts the whole sequence over again. This goes on for two straight hours until the confused bird finally gives in to its invincible foe and flies off, leaving my car door and window a mess. Ah, ain’t love grand?
Along a forest edge in a patch of grass there is a tuft of hair on the ground. Closer inspection reveals movement. Lifting up the layer of moss and hair there are four tiny bunnies all curled together in a ball. As the roof of their shallow nest is lifted they hold perfectly still, hoping they won’t get eaten. Three of the four are probably not going to make it to adulthood. Young rabbit is on the menu for all the hungry predators.
Many of the resident birds are carrying nesting materials, singing and getting ready for raising young. In some cases, the experienced birds will pair up with last year’s partner and step right back into last year’s territory, skipping some of the formalities and getting a head start on raising young. Last year’s youngsters who are breeding for the first time need to carve out a territory from their elders and attract a partner. Since their territories are often not the prime real estate of their parents, it takes longer to attract a mate and often they raise less young.
A young song sparrow decides to dispute a boundary with a neighbor, flies over the boundary line and sings out a challenge. The home bird pops up close by, then exactly copies the other bird’s song, singing it back in his face. This exact repetition is a vocal challenge that directly precedes a physical confrontation. The intruding bird responds by flying back ten feet and trying again. This time the resident bird responds not with an exact copy but with his own unique song. The physical skirmish is avoided; the boundary is now established and each bird will respect it.
Birds are singing, flowers are bursting. Spring is underway. Take a walk and let me know what you find.