As our days are getting longer and warmer at the end of March, the snow in the southern part of the valley around the town of Jackson, Wyoming has been melting fast.
When we have 43 degree and sunny days in the middle of March, even long-time Jackson Hole locals get tricked into thinking Spring is very near. With 34 degrees as today’s high, and scattered snow flurries throughout the day, Spring seems put on hold. It’s taken me 19 winters in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem to remember to be patient with this transition between winter and spring.
In recent weeks I have been experiencing many hopeful signs of reawakening that not even a global pandemic can delay. The iconic mountain bluebirds have returned from overwintering in Mexico. I am always surprised how early they return, motivated to compete with other cavity nesting bird species for those finite number of hollowed trees. How is it possible that a terrestrial, insect-eating bird can eke out a living when they arrive in the beginning of March, which in Jackson Hole and Grand Teton National Park is still very much winter. They are able to do it because of the midges and stoneflies that are emerging from the rivers and streams as adult insects onto the snowy banks of these waterways. This becomes a bluebird invertebrate buffet.
The red-winged blackbirds and dark-eyed juncos are following in the wing beats of the bluebirds, also taking advantage of seeds melted out on bareground of south-facing slopes. I even just saw the first returning osprey, a sign that fish are becoming more catchable for these expert avian anglers in our warming rivers. That’s a sign that my daughter’s birthday is upon us, as 14 years ago, she was born on the day I saw the first osprey return (hence my daughter’s nickname, “Osprey”)
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The first Grizzly Bears have been seen in the past couple weeks out of the winter den in both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. It must be great for them to catch a whiff of a melting, winter-killed bison carcass after not eating for four months. Uinta ground squirrels will begin coming out of their eight month hibernation any day now, and providing a four month food source for any meat-eating animal in this ecosystem.
Moose have become a lot more visible now that they are beginning to come out of the tree and shrub cover of the riparian habitats, and out into the open again. A significant driver of this is moose’s motivation to get back to eating one of their favorite foods, antelope bitterbrush. Antelope bitterbrush is a shrub that grows out amongst the open habits of the valley, in amongst sagebrush shrubs. Up until this month, the bitterbrush was covered with snow, and, therefore, not easily available to moose.
On hands and knees, I am starting to notice little green grass shoots on snow-free, south-facing slopes, a clear sign that soon elk, mule deer, and bison will begin to slowly migrate from their winter grounds. As they feed on the newly sprouted vegetation, more nutritious than anything they’ve consumed since last October, I can observe their change in posture and energy level.
Often, visitors to this area will ask me what is my favorite season of the year. I often respond “Fall”. However, every Spring, I rethink that response. A large percentage of local Jackson folks take advantage of Spring Break to go warm up in sunny deserts in states to the south of us. With all these ecological changes happening right now, I have a hard time leaving my home valley. I think I’ll stay here for Spring Break, be patient, and not miss a thing.