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I have lived one place or another on the Winnebago System for almost all of my 57 years, and if I live here for 57 more, I doubt that I will ever cease to wonder at the coming of spring in these parts. On this last day of February it is still winter for all practical purposes, but for the past several days the weather has warmed beyond the norm, and spring has shouldered its way in as if impatient to begin.
The geese came back the other day, as did the first redwings. And this morning we heard the ancient, haunting music of sandhill cranes as the first pairs arrived to reclaim their nesting territories. Others report seeing robins and the first wood ducks. I wonder where these early arrivals will find sustenance when winter returns as it surely will to tighten an icy grip on the land one final time.
Still, this happens every year, and I always worry, wonder and marvel every year that most of these early birds survive. They are hardier than I and have followed the 32 degree isotherm north since before the first human footprint was laid down upon this land, so who am I to question the rightness of it all?
Perhaps this is my way of coping with a great longing to find a true end of winter, cold, snow and ice when I first hear their calls. Next to spring, change is my favorite season and when I see the beginnings of change arriving, I grow impatient. The short days of December give way so slowly to earlier sunrises and longer twilights in January and February. Something within me reaches out searching for the next season. I am done with winter, so let it be done with me.
Fortunately, nature sees things differently. There are preparations to be made, and each species must have its rightful turn. For several nights now, pairs of owls have been asking their one great question from the trees that border my property. They will nest shortly, and their young will be well fed on the abundance from the coming spring and early summer. Populations of mice, voles and other prey species will be controlled within sustainable limits, and the owls too will continue as they have for millennia.
The edges of Lake Poygan where I currently make my home are beginning to thaw, as are the adjoining marshes. Before the ice leaves the rest of the lake, these shallow areas, warmed and recharged by runoff from the thawing countryside, will open and northern pike will arrive to lay their eggs along the marsh edges. By the time the water has warmed sufficiently to accommodate other species, the northern fry will have hatched and another generation of these toothy predators will be safely away.
In the marshes and ditches the first mallards will soon reconnoiter for nesting sites and brood water. Wood ducks too will return to the places where they were reared, searching for suitable places to continue the species.
As the lake begins to open, diving ducks, loons, swans and a host of other migrants will pause briefly to recharge their batteries before continuing to more northerly breeding grounds. They will continue to push the edge of winter all the way up to their summer homes, but they take a calculated risk in pushing too hard, too fast. They have to find enough buglife and other food to survive.
Other preparations are progressing beneath the ice even during the dead of winter. The first spawning sturgeon, I'm told, begin moving toward their spring spawning grounds as early as December. Theirs can be a leisurely journey that allows eggs to fully develop as the sturgeon eat their way upstream. Not all of their kind choose this slow migratory path. Lake sturgeon are residents of the entire Winnebago System, and they pretty much live and travel great distances. Walleyes too, from Winnebago and the upriver lakes, begin making their way toward the lower Wolf and upper Fox rivers long before these waters are ice-free. This happens every year, even though spawning will not take place until April when the marsh waters reach a balmy 46 degrees. Since they have adequate feed throughout their range, the reason for this early movement is not readily apparent. Perhaps, like me, they are simply impatient. The urge to reproduce is powerful indeed, and if you don't believe this old man, go ask a 20-year-old!
As February ends, the pace will pick up. Spawning grounds will teem with fish. The skies will flow with skeins of migrating geese, and once again we will be treated to the sight of great white tundra swans spread out against a cobalt sky as they ride the wings of a lusty March storm. The days will lengthen, and we will bask in longer silvery twilights.
Soon the dead brown marsh grass of winter will give way to a low, slow world of green, as nature, the ultimate biochemist, rebuilds life one cell at a time until the earth itself seems pregnant. Spring peepers will sing their love songs, the trees will be heavy with blossoms, and the first spring ephemerals will add their subtle hues to the developing palette. Ducks and dickeybirds alike will dress in their finest colors for the great spring dance. Drakes will strut and spar, hens will do the choosing, families will start, and all at once it will be summer. We will sit in the warm sun on sleepy afternoons to doze or watch as life unfolds and ripens.
For now, I'm prepared to rein in my enthusiasm and look forward to the process more than completing these annual changes. There's beauty in both the intricate melody of spring and the tempo that is best enjoyed by taking the time to listen to each note, to allow each crescendo to arise naturally, to hear each gurgle, each green shoot in the wind, each flapping wing and the collective voices of mammals, birds, fishes, frogs and even insects at a natural pace. Have the patience to savor the season's gradual arrival.
Dan Rudebeck writes from Larsen near the northeast shore where Lake Poygan flows into Lake Winneconne.