The early hint of spring weathering into the region this week is a game-changer for outdoorsmen, but merely a confirmation of what’s already under way for wildlife.
Skiers coming off a glorious week of steep and deep powder will have to be more wary of avalanche. Mount Spokane State Park plans to leave nordic trails ungroomed until the warm spell passes.
Ice caps remaining on some lakes will weaken or recede, forcing ice anglers to consider hanging up their augers and bringing out casting rods.
Snowmelt will foul stream fishing until the lowland snow is gone. Flows soon will settle into the pre-runoff period that revives fly fishers from their season of darkness at the fly-tying bench. Skwala stonefly hatches are just around the corner.
But the biological clocks in fish and wildlife didn’t necessarily need a nod from the weather. Increasing spans of daylight and other environmental changes have already been triggering critters into action.
Great horned owls were the first love birds of the season. They gave themselves away in the long dark nights of December, calling out their longings, finding each other – and eventually having a hoot of sorts.
Most of the pairs have nested and the first of the year’s great horned owlets have hatched in their high-treetop nests. The males have been providing their mates with food and standing guard nearby, 20 inches tall.
While their nesting period is weeks or months away, the biological alarm has sounded for other bird species to gear up for migrations.
They range from a skip and a jump to marathons to unbelievable trans-global expeditions. Arctic terns will bypass us here in the Northwest, migrating over the Pacific from New Zealand to Alaska – more than 7,000 miles – in as little as nine days nonstop.
Trumpeter swans that nest at Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge apparently venture only a short distance away during winter because they show up at the headquarters ponds within days after the ice cap thaws, regardless of whether it’s in January, February or March.
About 15 trumpeters were paddling around the Middle Pine Lake last week.
Tundra swans and sandhill cranes are kicking into gear. Soon they’ll be pit-stopping at Eastern Washington and North Idaho fields and waters, an annual spectacle to be highlighted March 16 by the Kalispel Tribe’s Tundra Swan Festival.
About 200 tundra swans were gathered Wednesday on a narrow opening in the ice at Calispell Lake.
The Othello Sandhill Crane Festival, set for April 5-7, is an even bigger celebration, with tours, seminars and experts speaking on the world of birds.
Meantime, gray wolves will be in a family way. Mating began in January, according to the rigid rules of their highly socialized packs, which tolerate breeding only between the two top dogs.
The alpha female will give birth in a den about 63 days after conception. All members of the pack will contribute to bringing her food as she tends to four to seven pups.
It’s not too soon to predict that sightings of those pups this summer will raise human emotions – polarized from ecstasy to rage.
The first bears of the season will be poking their noses out of dens where they’ve been snoozing since December. Males usually are the first to come out, and some are likely to be out and about this week looking for winter kill.
Sows that gave birth to cubs this winter linger in their dens weeks longer.
As the bears come of their dens, coyotes will be heading into theirs.
Smolts will wait for spring runoff to for a boost in getting downstream to the ocean, but adult salmon and steelhead already are on the move. The first spring chinook of the year swam up the fish ladder on Feb. 13 and crossed over Bonneville Dam, the first in a series of dams that confront salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River system.
Elk are examples of critters that are not primed to get going in March.
Coming off the rigors of winter, bulls still have not recovered from the fall rut and hunting seasons. Cows are sharing their nutrition with calves that will be born in May and early June.
A three-year study of elk on the Colockum Wildlife Area near Ellensburg has substantiated road closures well into spring to prevent unnecessary moments of the herds as they regain strength.
The average body fat for Colockum elk females in the early fall is roughly 15 percent. By the end of winter it can be lower than 4 percent.
Elk and deer can die essentially of starvation well after the snow’s gone and green vegetation has sprouted on their range – even with their bellies full.
Shed antler hunters might ready to go right now, but big-game is not ready for additional stress.
Small game is up for action, though. Wild turkey toms were starting to gobble last week in the foothills of Mount Spokane. The first turkey hunting seasons are just five weeks away.
For me, the pre-spring harvest already has begun: I plucked the first tick of the season off my neck on Wednesday.