Insatiable Spring

by Dave Hanks

Drip, drip, drip, the ice is slowly shrinking from around the dugout entrance. The ground is alternately bathed with warm sunshine followed by snow flurries, each competing with the other for dominance throughout the day. The air has lost its wintry chill for that irrepressible taste of spring. The mother is restless. Deep down she feels an insatiable desire to move. She is torn between the thrust to exit and savor this new time and the two balls of fur that are nestled helplessly upon the bed of pine/fir boughs. She hasn’t eaten for over four months nor eliminated either. Her body cries to rectify these two imbalances.

Laying back upon the vegetation heap, she softly nudges her precious bundles – licking them so very carefully and thoroughly all over their pudgy little bodies. They respond to seek that life giving gland, so abundant with rich, nourishing milk – second only to seal’s in butterfat content. A few days more she must follow this routine, repressing her own ever increasing needs until the cubs can safely greet the new world on the outside.

Finally the day arrives. The sun is most welcome today and it is suddenly warmer than those days that have preceded it. The twins feel it too. Frisking about the enclosure they become bolder. They poke their tiny noses through the entrance to sniff all the delightful aromas. The temptation is too great for all. Mother squeezes out of the opening and the babies follow joyfully behind. The haven that has been home for so long is soon to be abandoned.

Patches of gleaming white cover the mountainside and the bears gingerly step upon it to slide on all fours to the bottom – such fun! Then back on another patch of snow to repeat the process all over again. Green covers the ground between the white patches and mother stops to sample it, but not for long – it is still too dry. Later in the spring she will return when it has become more succulent, to follow the Elk migration back up the mountain. But now the urge is to move down toward the creek bottom. The cubs rough and tumble all the way – what exhilaration to be out and about in so vast a playground.

Toward the bottom, the cries of Ravens alert the sow to move toward where her nose has been directing. There on the bottomland meadow is a Bison. It is dead – succumbed to the relentless, unforgiving forces of winter. The bad luck of the Bison is good luck for the bears. Famished from so long a fast, it is a gift from the Gods of nature. A few swats with a gigantic paw disperses the birds and a low growl, coupled with a short charge, keeps an accompanying Coyote at a discrete distance. Gorging herself with tremendous quantities of the meat, her yearly cycle is started once again. Such a massive body has great protein requirements. This need, combined with feeding a pair of always hungry cubs, will occupy most of her thoughts for the next six months.

Finally satisfied, she scrapes a heap of leaves and twigs over the carcass in an attempt to hide it – then down to the water for a long needed drink and then back again to the meat. Once more she must dislodge the persistent Coyote. Jealous of the treasure, she will lay upon it and woe unto anyone who might stumble into its perimeter. Other bears must be taught to keep their distance. Old “Ursus” requires a lot of space and is not overjoyed by trespassers. Boars especially, must be met and dealt with immediately. A new, tender cub makes a delicious meal – little would he care whether it might be his own offspring.

A heretofore gentle mother surprises the wee ones with swats that at first cause bewilderment. It doesn’t take long for them to understand that she means business. If they are to survive, they must learn discipline. They stay within range of Mom and then dash behind her when danger appears or when hearing her low grunt. She periodically reassures them of her love when she lays upon her back in a half sitting position. They then greedily proceed to nurse and to nestle into Mom’s warm, soft body.

They will meet many new faces this first summer: Badger, Weasel, Skunk, Elk, Deer, Moose, Sheep, and many kinds of rodents – to name a few. Each must be learned. Can they be trusted? Are they good to eat? Ground squirrels abound and are so delectable – a gourmet delight is in store if they are lucky enough to catch one. They spend hours plowing up large tracts of earth to get at them as nothing is more preferred.

As the season progresses, the bottomland meat sources give out. Now it’s back to the higher country, slowly moving up as the grass becomes fresh at each level. They seek that flower with a fleshy bulb below and learn from mother how to dig and what to dig for. The young will become master diggers, as this is what the Grizzly inherently does best. The “lion’s share” of their diet will be roots, bulbs, and just plain grass. Their life is one of total freedom – wild and exhilarating. They fear nothing in their natural world. Let us hope that the human species will allow them room to retain this joyful existence. They are too precious of a commodity to lose forever!

Teaching the cub the many bear foods

The Meadowlark – True Harbinger of Spring

The song of the WESTERN MEADOWLARK is one of the prettiest and most recognizable songs in the range of bird songs. The bird is so nicely colored that it’s hard to visualize it in the blackbird family (Icteridae). Its long, slender bill is characteristic of this family, which contains 97 species. The meadowlark’s most noticeable feature is its bright yellow chest with a black V upon it.

The male arrives on the breeding ground a couple of weeks before the female. He stakes out his territory of about 6 to 7 acres, and then proceeds to proclaim it by sitting on a fence post and singing his distinctive song. If another male dares to encroach, a fight will result. The two will lock feet and then peck at each other. When the “girls” arrive, he will point his bill skyward, puff out his yellow throat, and flap his wings. If that doesn’t work, he’ll hop up and down.

The male invites the female to build a nest, in the meadow, by lying on the ground and flipping pieces of grass. The forming of the nest cup is of the first importance. The bird will lie in the nesting material and move its body back and forth while pushing with its feet to form a depression. Once the cup is formed, the construction of the sides and dome, to protect the chicks from the weather, can proceed.

When we drive through grasslands, we see meadowlarks on fence wires and posts. They invariably turn their back to us when we get close, which makes it difficult to see their colorful chest. This acquaintance with it’s “rear-end”, makes us call it the “backward bird”. When it flies away, the brown back with white in the tail helps recognize this chunky species.

This state bird of Montana, Oregon, and Kansas is a delight to hear singing on a spring morning.

A meadowlark perched in tall grass

Bursting with song

A Spring Mountain Greeting

GLACIAL LILY, also sometimes called Dogtooth Violet, is the flower pictured. It is one off the very first blooms to show itself after the covering of snow melts from its mountain home. Whenever we’ve chanced to be on the Idaho-Montana continental divide, or in the Colorado Rockies, just after the snows of winter have permitted it, this flower, in full bloom, has always been there to greet us. It’s such a delightful and graceful flower that it’s difficult to pass it by without photographing it.

This inviting species consists of a beautiful yellow, nodding inflorescence connected to a 6 to 15”, slender stem. There are 3 petals and 3 sepals that curl back and upward and six stamens hanging down. The anthers are large and prominent. They range in color from yellow to red to white or purple. Other variations of this bud may be reddish. Two or three large, long, broad, lanceolate, basal, lily leaves extend from the plant’s base.

The plant sprouts from a long, starchy corm. Indians often used the bulb as a food source. The bulb is also a favorite of Grizzlies, who dig for it with their well-equipped claws. High in calories, the energy derived is important for the bear’s summer body weight increase.

As we often frequent high and wild areas, we come upon this plant frequently. It is usually found in dense patches of many individuals – an enticement to a bear. As it is usually cool after snow-melt, coming upon this flower will warm your heart with its charming design and bright color.

Glacial Lily

Glacial Lily

Lazuli Bunting – A Small Bundle of Color

It’s only 5 ½ inches long and is sometimes confused with the larger Western Bluebird. This small blue, white, and rust-colored bird is a welcome addition to bird-seed feeders. In addition to regular bird-seed mix, they love black-oil sunflower seeds, which they are adept at opening. They also come to peanut butter. A board with shallow holes drilled in it, like a punch-board, works well on which to spread the peanut butter.

Late April to the first of June sees them in our yard. They are one of the first migrants to arrive, and they herald the start of the arrival of the rest of the species that frequent our feeders in the spring. By the first of June, they have moved to their late spring and summer breeding spots. They seem to prefer mountain riparian zones, where they can be seen and heard singing in plain view from the tops of streamside trees. Their song is a high-pitched, rambling warble made up of several phrases, each on a different pitch level.

The male has white on the belly and wings, a rusty chest, and a pleasing blue head and back. In winter he will show some brown on his back, neck, and wing-tips. The female is a soft tan color. Their eastern counterpart is the Indigo Bunting, which is totally dark blue. The Lazuli and Indigo will hybridize where their ranges overlap between the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains. Hybrids do not possess the rusty chest.

Buntings lay 2 to 6 eggs, after a courting flight known as the “sexual chase”. The male rushes the female in a headlong, twisting and turning pursuit. When he catches her, they tumble to the ground and engage in a fluttering, tumbling brawl.

This small bird is a delightful bundle of color.

(Waiting & watching for a chance at the seed tray)