We Michiganders have honed a fine ability to approach each season with blissful ignorance. I believe that our seasonal short-term memory is a form of mental adaptation – allowing us to stay sane through long winters. Take the last two early spring snowstorms, for example. “Can you believe this crap so late in the season?” you’d hear someone comment to no one in particular as you waited in the checkout line at Meijer’s. “Pretty weird stuff,” someone else would pipe in, “I can’t remember the last time this happened.”
I’m as guilty as anyone else in this matter. I have engaged in those very same conversations, even though I know full well that post-equinox snows are not that unusual. We are continually dreaming that each semi-warm day will usher in the “real” season while engaging in denial over the painful reality that this is what the season looks like. When pressed on the point, older folks will recall snowfalls occurring well into the month of April. Dead people would remember snows much later than that.
Still, yesterday morning after an overnight three incher, I shook my head in disbelief at the sight of two dozen riding lawn mowers blanketed with a layer of whiteness out in front of Lowes. They were neatly aligned, but clustered as if huddled together to fend off the frozen insult. To me, such a sight appeared un-natural – almost as strange as watching children hunt for Easter Eggs last weekend in the foot high snow drifts. In my world, grass cutting implements and plastic eggs shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath with snow. My view is, of course, that of denial.
With this short-term mindset in full gear, I engaged in a similar bit of “un-natural” association thinking in terms of local birdlife. Many spring migrants have returned while other locals are already into breeding mode. Most of these critters are used to coping with snow and bouts of cold weather. For the most part they are hardy beasts that are only taken aback for a brief time before continuing life as usual. Still, many look odd when pictured in the vicinity if snow – like watching a guy in a bathing suit walking though a wintry field. There are four brief examples I’d like to present to you (I have to make these brief due to the short-term memory thing).
First of all, today I spotted the first Great Egret of the season and was able to snap a shot of it (see here). Seeing this white bird framed against a snowy background is not something you see everyday. Though he looks disgusted (egrets always look disgusted), the fact that he is draped in his finest breeding plumage indicates that he expects much greater things in the days ahead. The long aiegrette plumes cascading off his back are ample proof that the snow has no effect on his plans, although the lack of other egrets is definately casting a cloud over the scene.
Robins are probably the worst example to use here, because many overwinter as dried fruit eaters, but late snows always crimp their style. As spring approaches, the birds return to their ground patrolling habits. As a result, they are totally put out of place when deep snows fall. It is as if they refuse to walk in the snow – period – and will wander like herds of cattle on wet sidewalks and roads. Here is a set of multiple tracks from a few days ago showing how the birds were desperately seeking the melted snow spots immediately adjacent to this brick building. They were literally hugging the wall to get sidewalk space. Later in the day, one red-breasted male was confidently pursuing his worm hunting over a small patch of open grass surrounded by whiteness (seen here cocking his head sideways to get a better view of his potential prey). So, they got over it pretty quickly.
On the early morning of the day-before-Easter storm, I spotted this gang of Killdeer looking miserable in the pre-dawn light (see here). Killdeers are strict ground hugging birds and, like the robins, are averse to walking in snow. Oddly enough, this flock chose to weather that particular storm while standing on a patch of ice out in the middle of a cornfield. Note that some of them were actually lying down and all were initially facing into the predominate wind direction. These killjoys chose the hardness of the smooth ice over the protective cover of a bush. Of course, I don’t know that they were actually miserable, but they must have been because we humans were miserable (and we are the most advanced beings on earth, right?).
Perhaps the best example I can present of early birds and snow is that of the Great-Horned Owl. These flying tigers start to nest in late February and are faced with protecting their eggs from the snow every year – not just late snow years. Here’s a fascinating set of shots taken by Bill Schomoker showing a Colorado owl enduring a snow cover last year. In this shot (see here) she’s up to her eyeballs in a drift, but she was able to leave the nest later (see here) and leave her single egg exposed but apart from the snow. Currently, most of our new owlets have hatched out and are in the ball of fuzz stage (like this one), so they too had to put up with the latest snow.
Even though a snow-covered nesting owl may look as pathetic as a fleet of huddled mowers, remember that this is a natural thing. If nature can “suck it in” then so can you. Now, if it snows again, then I may re-think this whole concept…