Out of Bounds

Tail End of Winter

I’m hopeful second winter will be but an instant allowing the spring of deception to reign until summer.

By Rob Breeding

Fool’s spring is over. Let second winter begin.

At least I think that’s where we are on the seasonal progression. If I’m reading the calendar right, we have still the spring of deception and third winter ahead of us.

Winter isn’t a monolith. It comes in waves, blizzards of snow and numbingly frigid Arctic air sliding down out of Canada, covering the world in ice and squeaky snow. 

I spent my first Montana winter, 1992-93, in the Bitterroot. I remember it as one of the harshest I’ve lived through, but that’s not just because it was my first real winter after moving from California. That winter the world froze up sometime in December and didn’t thaw until late February. 

I know when winter broke because I was in Whitefish covering the Western B boys divisional basketball tournament, pitting Troy and Corvallis in the final. After the game I joined some friends at the Great Northern. Later, as I walked down the street, a light rain began to fall. 

It was the first liquid water I’d encountered outdoors in two months.

Winters are more often like this year’s model, ranging from Younger Dryas temperatures to weather that suggests it’s spring planting season. I appreciate the winter interglacial periods resulting from these swings, but when it gets cold again, especially as the calendar turns from February to March, I worry about wildlife.

Not the big critters so much. Bears take their extended nap and wolves use winter snow to their advantage running down game. Elk and deer, so long as they avoid wolves, are otherwise built to shake off the effects of an average Northern Rockies cold season. 

Other species don’t always fare so well, however. There are plenty of pronghorn across Montana, but these quirky antelope look-alikes are vulnerable to deep snow, especially on fenced prairie where drifts and barbed wire can be a death trap.

I mostly fixate on game birds, primarily the upland type. And I can tell by my bird dogs’ reluctance to pad out into the cold when nature calls that they also worry too much winter means fewer birds next fall. 

Much depends on bird and place.

My sister, still living in my old California home base, is “struggling” through a rough winter of occasional rain and even less frequent overnight lows in the 40s. While she frets weather reports of monsoon after monsoon tracking in from the Pacific, I know what this really means: desert quail. 

Lots of them.

Centuries ago biologists discarded the theory of spontaneous generation, which suggested living creatures arose from non-living matter such as mud and primordial muck. But the way quail respond to desert rain may make you think the biologists got it wrong. When conditions are good, these little buggers produce generous clutches that grow into surprisingly large coveys by hunting season.

The only downside is that quail numbers in California this year were especially low, so the predicted boom will start from a smaller base. In Arizona, where numbers this year were better, next fall might be epic.

We’ll see how my local Great Plains birds respond. Pheasant were down last year, mostly due to summer drought. Still, there were plenty of birds and I had my share of opportunities.

It’s bobwhite quail I most worry about as we cycle through these false springs. Bobs are the smallest American quail and are vulnerable to sub-zero temperatures, especially when combined with heavy snow. These little guys can’t scratch through the deep stuff like hardier pheasants or sharptails. Quail need open ground to feed.

Fortunately, when the cold air that pounded the Rockies last week spilled out on the plains, it didn’t deliver much snow.

I’m hopeful second winter will be but an instant allowing the spring of deception to reign until summer.