We were fortunate that heavier rain didn’t materialize as we rapidly shifted from February’s severe winter weather to the current mid-March thaw. The biggest snow piles may be with us for several weeks, but I was amazed at how rapidly the snow disappeared from fields. Flocks of horned larks that hugged the rural road shoulders to find an occasional weed seed have dispersed across the newly open fields. Pheasant flocks that struggled to scratch through a foot or more of snow can now feed freely on waste grain again. Surviving hens will be making up for lost time since they need to gain significant weight before their bodies can make a dozen or more eggs and survive the stress of nearly a month of incubation.
Robins have returned, as have red-winged blackbirds. Male cardinals that spent the winter ignoring females and even refusing to share a feeder with them have become downright chivalrous. They’re singing their hearts out and now seem to enjoy sharing the bird feeders with females. It won’t be long before they’ll turn up the charm and even offer sunflower seeds, bill to bill, to their chosen mate. We’re still enjoying the birds that have frequented our feeders all winter, but I’m afraid we’ll soon lose the endearingly tame pair of little red-breasted nuthatches when they head back to their northern pinewoods home.
Waterfowl are definitely on the move. They’ll utilized the extensive ponds of shallow water that dot the countryside. Sun warms the mud bottom rapidly and can generate swarms of tiny plankton organisms in healthy wetlands. Ducks, in particular, depend on these as a rich source of animal protein and fat to fuel their migration and prepare their bodies for egg laying and incubation. Years of pesticide application have reduced the ability of some temporary ponds on cultivated land to support the flush of plankton, though. Some species of ducks, like lesser scaup, were once very common, but have suffered large population losses in recent decades because they can’t find enough of that kind of food during their migration. Wintering eagles will be moving north with the waterfowl. We’re not going to lose all of our eagles, though. Several pairs of eagles appear to have established nesting territories in Story County. Their success continues to amaze me when I think how rare they had become not so many years ago.
I had hoped to do more tree pruning during the winter, but it’s too late to start most of that work, now. Sap will be flowing hard on sunny days as it transfers nutrients to buds that will soon be swelling. New pruning cuts at this time of year can “bleed” heavily. Although the loss of sap isn’t usually a big problem for a tree, warming weather and a moist open wound can increase the chances of insect and fungal attacks. Apples are an exception. Late winter or early spring pruning tends to reduce the production of fast-growing water sprouts that bear no fruit. The neighborhood rabbits will appreciate the tender bark from branches and last summer’s water sprouts that I’ll soon remove from the backyard apple tree.
I worried about too much spring warmth too soon, but now that it appears to be here, I hope it stays for awhile. It’s time to put the ice fishing gear away, but I think I’ll keep the snow thrower fueled up for a few more weeks before “pickling” it for the summer. The kid’s sled hasn’t been put away yet, either. The grandkids are coming to visit soon and we’ll have fun, regardless of the weather. It would be nice to be able to play outdoors with them some of the time, though.
Steve Lekwa is a former director of Story County Conservation.