Failure to Launch

By Beacon Staff

This is a spring that just can’t seem to get off the ground.

Just the other day I was bragging about the sunny morning as I sipped coffee. My daughter in the Flathead whined back that it was snowing again.

It had been nicer where I’m at in Wyoming, so nice that one day I even wore shorts for an afternoon run. After a bit I heard the call of cranes and stopped in the middle of the road to scan the sky for birds. I couldn’t find them. It was the third or fourth time this spring I’d thought I’d heard cranes.

I finally spotted my first cranes of the season while standing on the rim of the canyon above the Shoshone River. They were making a ruckus and flying in a playful manner, bouncing on the updrafts coming off the canyon rim and flitting about, seemingly without purpose. I often see ravens messing around like this, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen cranes so playful on the wing. They always seem to be going somewhere.

I was reminded of my all-time favorite bird of spring the other day while guest lecturing in a range management class. I considered myself highly unqualified for the task, but the regular professor thought his students might learn from issues I worked on in grad school. Well that, and maybe he just figured a new voice in the classroom would snap the students back to attention. The semester ends in less than a month and young minds are prone to wander this time of year.

My project focused on the decline of pronghorn on Anderson Mesa in northern Arizona. That may not seem like a topic that has much to do with spring birds, except that there were also cinnamon teal on the Mesa, and they were in trouble too.

The Mesa should be a great place to have babies for antelope and teal alike, but neither were having much success. Out on the uplands, coyotes were eating antelope fawns before they could gain the strength to run. In the wetlands, ravens were doing the same to cinnamon teal eggs. In both cases it appeared the lack of cover due to livestock grazing left the species vulnerable to savvy predators looking for an easy meal.

As I explained this to the class I told them I hadn’t yet seen any cinnamons in northern Wyoming, but they assured me the birds were about. I’ve been happy to find cinnamons in most places I’ve lived in the West. They’ve always been a kind of talisman for me. When we lived in the Bitterroot we didn’t consider it spring until we’d spotted the first gaudy red drake on the pond across the lane from our home.

As I spoke to the kids I realized that I’ve never seen cinnamon teal in the Flathead. I know the birds migrate into the area, though it is at the northern extremes of their range. I probably never found them because I wasn’t looking. I have bird dogs now and focus on upland species. I don’t stalk waterfowl like I used to.

That sunny morning turned to a brightly lit afternoon so I headed out to fish. My first spot – a large pool at the base of an irrigation dam that the professor and I call the “Bucket” – was a no go. We’d had the place to ourselves all winter, but now in the nascent spring, the Bucket was ringed by about a dozen dudes with spinning rods. I finally reached a bit of unoccupied river, but when I stepped out of the car I was hit by a blast of wind. I called it a day.

The road from the river crossed a sage covered field, and at the corner there was a pond, and on the pond floated a pair of cinnamon teal, the first I’ve seen in nearly a decade. The range management kids had it straight.

What is more important, I told myself as I drove away, is that spring was finally at hand.

When I got home it started to snow. There were four inches of fresh powder on the lawn by the time I made it to bed.

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