I pride myself in usually being among the first to see a spring robin. This year I fell way behind. My wife, Sue, saw one more than a week before I did, and several of my friends were way ahead of me, too.
Maybe I can spot the first bluebird. Regardless of who sees what first, there’s no question that spring is starting to make itself known.
Rivers are ice free. Ponds and lakes are opening up rapidly. Early spring flowers have begun to sprout above the ground.
One of my favorite signs of spring is the passage of major waterfowl migrations. We observed thousands of high-flying snow geese on a recent trip to visit our daughter’s family along the Illinois River. Snow geese travel in much larger flocks and at much higher altitude than Canada geese (sometimes several thousand feet above the ground). Their flocks often appear layered one above the other and often take huge U-shaped forms that may each contain many hundreds of birds.
Canada geese tend to remain in smaller V-shaped flocks that are seldom more than a few hundred feet above the ground.
You may have to listen closely, but even the calling of high snow goose flocks can often be heard tinkling down from the sky, sounding not unlike lots of little puppies yipping in excitement. White fronted geese are also high fliers, but their calling is like musical flute laughter.
Local ponds are somewhat noisier than they were a couple of weeks ago. Even those still holding some ice cover often have their resident Canada geese back. They’re extra talkative as they renew their pair bonds (they mate for life) and argue about who gets to claim the best nest sites. Barring a return to much colder weather, our local Canada geese should be laying and even incubating eggs before month’s end.
Large raptors like bald eagles and great horned owls are well into incubation of their eggs and will likely have downy young in the nest by month’s end. We’re watching a new eagle nest near the Skunk River with great interest. They must begin incubation as soon as the first egg is laid, or it might freeze.
These birds usually lay just two eggs and rarely three. The first egg will hatch up to several days before the second. That baby will be larger, stronger, and may even kill its weaker sibling if the parents have trouble finding enough food. That makes it more likely for the remaining baby to survive.
The trip back from Illinois reminded me that another favorite spring activity was getting started. We spotted several large smoke plumes where people were burning prairie plantings. One fire was close enough that I could see the burn team members carefully working a back-fire across some hilly CRP land.
Backfiring is a technique of slowly burning into the wind, rather than letting the fire run with the wind (a much faster front fire). We have thousands of years of natural and human caused fires to thank for the best soils in the world. The best soils develop only under grassland, and grasslands, especially tallgrass prairies, are fire dependent.
Midwestern prairies become infested with woody plants that shade out the prairie in only a few years without occasional application of fire. Managing prescribed fire on Story County prairie land is smokey, and occasionally very exciting work. Good planning, site preparation and equipment — along with experienced team members and appropriate weather — usually kept things well under control.
A shift in wind, a drop in humidity or equipment breakdown could change the situation quickly, though. Racing to regain control of a wildfire is exciting, but can hardly be counted as fun. I don’t know if I’ll get to “make smoke” this year, but I know I’ll miss it if I don’t.
Steve Lekwa is the former director of Story County Conservation. Contact him at email@example.com.