Backyard Naturalist: It’s Beginning of Spring, So It’s My Favorite Time of Year

Editor’s Note: Outdoors Writer Russ Mohney died Aug. 31. The loss is staggering. His writing and insight into the outdoors of Southwest Washington was unmatched. We will be publishing his popular column each week in the coming months from his abundant body of work created throughout the past decade for The Chronicle. This column was originally published Jan. 28, 2005.

Russ Mohney

Unless you’ve kept your eyes clamped tightly shut, you’ve probably noticed that spring is definitely making its presence known along the Chehalis, Skookumchuck and Cowlitz.
Right now, the onset of spring is my favorite time of year. Of course, I’m pretty fickle, so at other times my favorite might be early summer, late summer, midsummer, late fall, early fall or whatever season it happens to be. Right now, it’s the onset of spring.
The signs are everywhere, and some of those are irrefutable. There are a few Indian plums already pushing out leaves and will be in blossom after just a few warm days. Wild currants are also unfurling leaves and some will have blooms to welcome the early rufous hummingbirds as they arrive.
The most positive signs of spring have been a handful of song sparrows beginning their courting melodies and the arrival of the very first tree swallows to the countryside. Those will soon be followed by a vanguard of bank and barn swallows, and then some three weeks from now, we should have the arrival of our most plentiful summer nesters, the violet-green swallows.
The precise timing of bank, barn, and violet-green birds depends somewhat on the mass hatching of flying insects, but the pattern is set. It begins with tree swallows, and they have arrived.
I suppose one shouldn’t dwell so much on something as commonplace as the coming of spring, but that event is, in fact, a profound occurrence. Celebrated by every society humankind has produced, spring is the proverbial “awakening,” the time for birth and rebirth. To modern humanity, it may simply mean that all is as it should be and we will enjoy the relative stability of yet another spring and summer.
The first insect in our valley to emerge and begin the cycle of reproduction each year is the queen bumblebee. I have seen two and received reports of two more, so there’s another positive sign that winter is on the ebb. While the old queens seem to be looking for something to eat, their primary task is to select the nest site and begin preparing it for the eggs each will lay.
By the time enough blossoms are around to feed the larvae, they will be hatching. When you think of it, the queen’s adventure is a leap of faith few humans would be willing to attempt. (It is just such fear of risk that has caused us to invent life insurance and hotel reservations!)
I heard that one area birder this week witnessed a pair of great horned owls actually engaged in the final act of courtship. It was apparently a noisy, boisterous affair with lots of wing-beating and precarious balance, punctuated by the odd feather floating down here and there.
I have never been privileged to be on hand for such a performance, but am certain I would be an unabashed voyeur should such a spectacle occur nearby. Embarrassed, yes, but a breathless onlooker nonetheless!
It’s admittedly a bit difficult to believe in spring when the study window reveals a chill rain slanting across a sterile garden plot, but we must believe. One day soon the sun will be warm, buttercups will pop out where they ought not be, and my peas will finally begin rising from their muddy beds. Together, these latter-day signs confirm for us what the little animals knew all along.
We’re kind of slow sometimes, you and I.
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Russ Mohney, a fourth-generation Lewis County outdoorsman, expanded the best of his decade’s worth of “Backyard Naturalist” columns into a book. Copies of “A Simple Song: Recollections from a Backwoods County” are available for $12.99 at Book ‘n’ Brush, the Lewis County Historical Museum and at The Chronicle.