Lance Foster (hengruh) wrote,
Lance Foster

Spring Equinox Report

Yesterday was the Spring Equinox and so I wanted to report on what's going on in the natural world here in Helena, as of March 21.

WEATHER: Saturday it rained, then snowed, which extended into Monday, making the world outside beautiful and slick with ice, the branches coated and frozen white. There were several inches of snow, but by the Equinox yesterday (Tuesday) it had melted off all the roads and sidewalks, as if someone had shoveled it all away. At night it is hovering around freezing, with temperatures warming up to the 40s or 50s during the afternoons all week under partly cloudy conditions. It may spit a little snow or cold rain on us throughout this week. All pretty normal stuff for this time of year here.

PLANTS: Buds are beginning to appear on some trees and bushes. When I was cleaning up the place I am going to garden this year, the grass under the weeds was green, and very small weeds have already started. I am not good enough yet at telling what kinds they are when they are so small.

ANIMALS: I bet the bears will be waking up soon. I have seen a few flying insects here and there, gnats, flies, that sort of thing. The big change this week is the appearance of flocks of migratory waterfowl stopping by on their way north. The local newspaper, the Independent Record, had a story today:

"Prime time for Helena birders starting as birds head north.

While Freezout Lake is renowned for hosting hundreds of thousands of migrating snow geese, tundra swans and pintail ducks, many of those migrating birds also can be found in Helena’s backyard.
The Missouri River is a famed flyway for migratory birds, and this is prime bird watching time for some of the larger species, as well as smaller ducks.
The next few weeks are prime time for spotting several species of migrating birds.
Bob Martinka, an avid birder, said Helena’s waterfowl watching isn’t comparable to Freezout because very little in all of North America compares to the area near Fairfield, where 150,000 snow geese and 5,000 tundra swans often land on their northward migration.
But both he and Steve Hoffman, executive director of the Montana Audubon Society, said people can see the same species — just not as many of them — at water bodies around Helena as the birds head north, with some going all the way from Mexico to the Arctic.
“If I have a full day, I go to Freezout, but if I only have a few hours I go birding around the Helena Valley,” Hoffman said. “Lake Helena, the Helena regulating reservoir and Canyon Ferry all are pretty darn good. After a 20-minute drive, you can have some pretty good bird watching.”
Hoffman said this week is the peak migration for snow geese, and the next few weeks are the prime time for watching for other large migratory birds. He said the migrating geese usually forage in fields in the morning and evening, then travel at night and in the middle of the day, often stopping to rest on large bodies of water.
“As soon as they get tired around dawn they look for places to land, so early morning is a good time to watch them come in,” Hoffman said. “My preference is the first two or three hours after the sun rise; that’s the very best time. Not only are the birds coming in but everything is more active in the morning.
“You might see other wildlife or predatory birds like golden or bald eagles looking to eat migrant ducks or geese for breakfast. They look for something injured or tired that’s lagging behind, and pick it off.”
Martinka said the best place to watch for migrating large birds locally is on the west side of Lake Helena.
“There’s this large cattail marsh and some drainages that come in from the west, and you can see just about any of the 15 to 20 duck species in Montana – mallards, northern pintails, coots – and it’s also a good area for spotting sandhill cranes. There must be a dozen of their nests in the cattail marsh,” he said. “There will be some swans out there now, lots of tundra swans and potentially trumpeter swans too.”
Another favorite bird-watching spot is at the Canyon Ferry Wildlife Management Area, especially near the dikes at the easternmost edge, where cranes and hundreds of American avocets, a unique-looking water bird with a curved bill, hang out.
A heron rookery draws Martinka to the Helena Regulating Reservoir. He said the herons have about 15 to 25 nests there, and he’s also seen geese. In addition, a great horned owl seems to have taken up residence.
“That’s a good place to check out next month,” Martinka said, adding that birders should be sure to bring along some binoculars.
Many eagles winter in the Helena area, and already have started flying north, Hoffman said.
“There are a few still hanging around, but a lot of those birds come down from Canada and spend the winter in Montana,” Hoffman said.
He expects migrating ospreys to show up any day now, with most appearing around April 1.
“Osprey don’t migrate north when they’re yearlings,” Hoffman added. “They stay south for two years.”
Pelicans also come to Helena in late March and early April. Hoffman said they’re kind of unusual in that while they fly in the V-formation like geese in order to draft each other, they break formation when they find thermal air currents that can lift them higher into the sky before they continue forward in flight.
“When they detect a rising column of air they stop the V and circle up to get a lift,” he said. “They only nest in a few places in Montana and one is Canyon Ferry. They like the islands and big bodies of water so they can fish.” (Independent Record, 03/21/2012).

Last night I poured out some honey mead on the Land to celebrate the Spring Equinox and the quickening of life...Welcome Spring!!
Tags: birds, equinox, helena, phenology, plants, spring

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