Mother Nature brings a busy early spring

Ever watchful, I slowly stepped from the front porch and peered over the oaks to the towering pines beyond. The sweet blissful caroling emanating from the higher branches continued as I searched in vain for its true source. Though brighter with the approaching dawn, the faint morning light revealed little detail and the culprit remained hidden among lingering shadows. All too soon, the brisk mountain air forced my retreat and daybreak quickly passed without yielding even a glimpse of our latest arrival.

The following morning, a similar scenario played out as I again stepped beyond the fore threshold in search of Bob, our semi-nomadic indoor/outdoor cat. Just as the emerging sun cast its first slanting rays upon the pines’ upper reaches, another melodious song pierced the cool early-March air, and again the individual of its origin was obscured from view.

Several days passed before I finally caught sight of one. Nevertheless, the robins had clearly returned. Their joyful warbling — with a prolonged, rising and falling cheery-up cheerily — is unmistakable, and a sound most of us have heard all our lives. Often entwined with a sharp tyeep or series of tut-tut- tut, many regard such vibrant notes the true harbinger of spring. Some have said, however, they’re a bit early this year.

Within a day or two of hearing those first tuneful recitals, I suddenly happened across a mountain bluebird as it assiduously winged its way from one side of the highway to the other, at the west edge of town. Soon thereafter, perhaps in the same afternoon, a western bluebird caught my notice while flittering about in a still-dormant oak near home. In the ensuing weeks, I spotted numerous individuals of both species, even as March weather wrangled between the harsh grips of winter and the more clement hints of spring.

As March arrived like the proverbial lamb, it followed an unusually mild January and February. This season, from the first of the year to March 1, the Pagosa Lakes area received a middling 32.5 inches of snow amid an abundance of sunshine. In 2008, though, a whopping 90 inches of powder blanketed the region over the same timeframe. Of course, neither two-month snowfall was exactly “average,” as this year fell short by 12.8 inches, while last year virtually doubled the mean of 45.3 inches.

At this writing, with but one day of March remaining, monthly moisture amounts will certainly founder again. Though snow is presently falling and the forecast calls for rain or snow showers off and on through the week, current March accumulations (in Pagosa Springs) add up to roughly 46 percent of average snowfall, with precipitation amounting to just 34 percent of normal.

To date, then, 2009 has been a dry year. Regardless, daytime high temperatures have hovered near normal in each of these first three months, while morning lows have, for the most part, remained well above average. Nonetheless, sub-par moisture and higher thermometer readings notwithstanding, moderate “spring-like” conditions really are right on schedule. In fact, according to personal records kept over a number of years, so is the arrival of our winged seasonal residents.

With April upon us, the gradual transition to mild weather will certainly continue, as anticipation and eagerness among all living things only intensifies. This is a time of rejuvenation — an awakening of our natural environment, and of the spirit within us. Although much of the surrounding landscape is still frozen in deep drifts and layers of ice, we dream of shifting winds, the greening of forests and the roaring floods of a great thaw.

Here, in the upper San Juan River Basin, the low-level snowpack has nearly vanished and grassy areas are already turning green. Especially on the south-facing slopes, tulips, daffodils and dandelions are just now piercing the earth’s surface and will soon show bursts of color. Low-lying plants and shrubs are perking up in exposed areas of the forest floor, as tiny buds swell on the tips of chokecherry and serviceberry bushes, Rocky Mountain maples and sumacs.

Meanwhile, spotted towhees have returned from warmer, low-elevation winter ranges, as the constant choruses of red-winged blackbirds now resonate over the reeds and cattails of the area’s lowland marshes and bogs. Chickadees, pine siskins and dark-eyed juncos remain in the region, as they have all winter, but their singing, of late, has progressed to a higher pitch.

While red-tailed hawks occasionally winter in our immediate vicinity, more often than not, they’ll retreat to lower elevations during the harshest of times. As marvelous flyers and proficient hunters, I’ve long favored them among the varietal birds of prey, and now look for them in my outings about town. Often, I’ll see them fluently gliding rising thermals high above the surrounding hills, even while sharing airspace with a pair of ravens, a turkey vulture or golden eagle.

Red-winged blackbirds, prairie dogs, and striped skunks are again part of the landscape, as are growing flocks of waterfowl, including myriad ducks, teal, and Canada Geese. Many water birds will linger here until the shifting winds of autumn push them south again, but most are simply passing through on their way to innate northern nesting grounds.

Soon, golden-mantled ground squirrels, chipmunks and yellow-bellied marmots will emerge from their long winter slumber. Following a six- to eight-month repose, they’ll waste no time feeding, breeding and packing on weight. Though during hibernation, the smaller rodents occasionally rouse enough to nibble on stored foodstuffs, marmots will lose up to 60 percent of their body mass in the course of a winter snooze. Upon their re-emergence, they’ll eat heartily, before lazily basking for hours in the warming afternoon sun.

Black bears too, will soon emerge somewhat lean and hungry, yet loiter near the den for a few days, devouring tender young shoots and other budding vegetation. Many mature females will have cubs in tow, either yearlings or new arrivals born in the den around February. In a few months, mothers of older offspring will abandon them before entering estrus, and again seeking mates. This year’s newborns will stay with mom until the middle of their second summer.

By mid-May, lush green valleys and deep emerald forests will stand in sharp contrast to the pure white snowfields still clinging to the flanks of the highest mountain summits. By then, large herds of mule deer and elk will have retreated from the lower meadows and draws of their winter range, to the high forests and alpine meadows near treeline.

Humans, too, are on the move. Amid bright April sunshine and outstanding snow, spring skiers are taking their final few runs, before the mountains close for summer. Following a long period of relative indoor confinement, others are walking, biking or hiking around town and at last, certain low-elevation rivers and reservoirs are ice free, allowing weekend boaters, kayakers and anglers to flock to their favorite waters. Meanwhile, local equestrians and rodeo riders are out working their stock.

With the arrival of April and the promise of improving weather, life stirs again in the natural and civilized communities of our mountain environment. Here in the Southern Rockies, each of our seasons offers singular beauty and sublimity, but the awakening spring landscape, as first signaled by the return of the robins, bluebirds and others, rejuvenates us all and rekindles our spirit. Whether early, late, or right on time, it’s always a joy to behold.

chuck@pagosasun.com