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Robert Zimmer's Outdoors: One year later, spring remains unsprung

7:11 PM, Mar. 23, 2013  |  Comments
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The birds know that spring is here. They are about the only ones who do.

Northern cardinals, mourning doves, house finches and woodpeckers have been announcing spring with their love songs and drumming for several weeks now. Waterfowl are massing along whatever open water they can find near the mouth of the Fox River in Menasha and Neenah. Thousands of migrating ducks, geese and gulls are patiently waiting for spring's warmth to shatter Winnebago's cradle of ice.

Sandhill cranes have arrived, on schedule, despite thick snow cover that still blankets their breeding and roosting marshes and wetlands. Red-winged blackbirds trill away, as they always do this time of year.

The spring of 2013, so far, is quite the opposite of the record early spring we experienced in 2012. That's not to say, however, that it's unusual. It is, after all, March in Wisconsin.

For nature lovers and wildlife watchers especially, the stark differences between last year's spring and this year's are astounding. A winter that saw very little snow in 2012 gave way to temperatures well above normal in February and March last year. By the third week in March, temperatures reached 80 degrees, remaining in the 60s and 70s for nearly a week.

The warmth saw an explosion of activity in the natural world around us, from the smallest insects to the largest birds. Butterflies flitted through area woodlands and parks, feeding on sap running from trees, as well as spring wildflowers that bloomed several weeks ahead of schedule.

Woodland wildflowers, such as bloodroot, hepatica, spring beauties and trout lilies came into bloom as much as eight weeks ahead of schedule.

In 2013, our woodlands remain snow covered. I have yet to see my first butterfly of the season, and spring's bountiful wildflowers seem months away.

The annual tundra swan migration was a short one during the spring of 2012, as nearly 75,000 of these giant, white birds passed through in the span of just a few days.

Normally, the swans gather and remain for a week or more before moving onward. In March of 2012, however, temperatures over 80 degrees and bright sunshine did little to coax these Arctic nesting birds to stay. The majority of the training flocks simply passed by, travelling all the way to the Mississippi and beyond.

This year, only a few hesitant flocks have arrived, many passing by and continuing west to seek open water along the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers.

In woodlands and wetlands across our area, the many species of frogs and toads burst into breeding song and activity, accomplishing in just a few short days what may normally last for weeks in a normal spring.

Little snow cover during the winter led to less temporary flooded pools in our woodlands. This congregated huge numbers of frogs and toads at the wetter areas that were available.

Shallow waters warmed fast during these early spring days of 2012. Frogs and toads, which breed based upon water temperature, began to call and breed in a frenzy of activity. In a normal spring, the gradual warming of area wetlands and ponds cycles the various frog species through breeding season in a smooth flow. Last year, nearly all of them began to call and breed at once.

Fox snakes and garter snakes emerged from winter hibernation nearly two months ahead of schedule as the unusual warmth beckoned them out into the warmth. As early as March 18, snakes were spotted emerging and basking in the warm sun.

This spring, area waterways remain locked in ice and our forests and fields remain covered in snow.

The spring of 2013 continues to move along at its own slow pace, patiently biding its time until the right wind carries with it the warmth and thaw we wait for with every breath.

- Robert Zimmer: 920-993-1000, ext. 7154, rzimmer@postcrescent.com

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