Our Outdoors: Spring Bearings
By Nick Simonson
A full 30 inches of snow drift lined the banks of the small creek just down the road from the cabin in drifts that clung to and overhung its edges. Under the heating sun of mid-morning, however, they had already begun to add to it from the white extensions dripping meltwater, making perfect circles on the creek’s flowing surface with each droplet. Hoping to grab a photo of the half dozen just-returned mallard ducks that had been milling about in its waters the day before, or the two swans that had been sounding from its general direction earlier in the morning, I walked along the blacktop road toward the creek under a canopy of whistles.
There was the cardinal, with its tell-tale ooo-weet, ooo-weet, ooo-weet that increased in speed with each cadence. There was the rapid dit-dit-dit-dit-dit of a robin’s spring announcement, as by the dozens I had seen them return to the trees despite the heavy remaining snowpack below. Chickadees and nuthatches occasionally piped in, though they along with an owl somewhere deep in the woods at dawn were more a part of my earlier walk in the day with the dogs. While things didn’t look like spring, they sure sounded like it.
As I slowed my pace and looked along the small ditch seep that fed into the creek, I thought of what was to come. Walleyes down off the sandy beach at the end of the flow, perhaps in a month if things got going like the weatherman said. There’d be a pack of ducklings milling around behind their mother in the green-clad ribbon of water, picking at the aquatic plants growing in the sunlight and speeding off at the first sign of trouble and a couple low warning quacks. Maybe even by that time a rogue brown trout would drift down from the stocking sites upstream in the preserve, providing a unique, albeit temporary, fishery. Finally, on the cusp of summer, tucked into the ditch grasses and emergent cattails perhaps, a few clusters of lady slippers. They are quickly becoming my favorite wildflower if not for their ornate form, then simply for their location right under our noses, ignored by the passing cars, cyclists and joggers just a few feet away.
Aside from the dripping water along its shorelines, the creek was still. There were no waterfowl to be seen and only the occasional slushing of a melting bit of snow and the noise of the nearby trickle dipping into the creek accompanied the birdsong in the warming spring air overhead. From behind the slight cover of a bare tree branch, I sighed as I took it in, knowing I’d missed my window for the mallards, and supposed the trumpeting swans had already moved on to someplace new. My eyes shifted from the broader view of the creek winding down to the lake and caught the slightest motion on the branch in front of me.
The pulse of black and brown puzzled me for a second as it made its way along the grey stick and it took a moment for the creature to click in my mental rolodex of insect life, partly because I had not seen one in such a long time, and with the deep white still making up much of the background, it seemed too cold for such a sight. Yet there it was, a black segment, then a brown one, then a smaller black one, like a certain popular fly fishing streamer without a marabou tail. It was a woolly bear caterpillar, a bit out of place against winter’s lingering backdrop, but perhaps invited out by the long-awaited first warm day of the delayed spring season.
Cautiously, I lowered my face and looked the insect over, noting that it sported a rather longish brown segment and hoped the wives’ tale indicator was a reference to a mild winter to come in about nine months, as it was obviously not the case with the past six. After what we’ve been through, one can never be too sure. As it explored each fork in the branch, I observed the caterpillar for a few minutes as it seemed to awaken in the sunny warmth and either at the shift in the sun’s angle, or more likely my presence, it began to move with all the due haste which such a small creature can. I wished it well on its journey to the end of the branch and likely a return to the main tree, snapped a quick photo and headed back to the cabin, hopeful that the small creature was, like the birds singing in the trees around me, a harbinger of one season’s end and the beginning of a new one, and all it brings…in our outdoors.