The Billings Outpost

Harbingers of spring

“One swallow will not a summer make,” the fabulist said.

The proverb derives from one of Aesop’s Fables, “The Spendthrift and the Swallow.” In the fable, a swallow appeared during a warm spell in winter whereupon a young prodigal sold his cloak and spent the money on riotous living. But the frost returned, and the wastrel discovered to his sorrow that “one swallow does not make summer.”

I’ll take the old fabulist at his word, but if one swallow doesn’t fill the bill, what does?

For some, the seasonal signal might be a flower, a violet emerging through a hole burned in the snow by a March sun. Others hold out for crocuses blooming beneath their kitchen window or sego lilies rising from virgin prairie or stemless bitterroot splotching pink on a patch of southern exposure.

My father, the old poacher, would settle for nothing less than a good night of ling fishing, a bucket of minnows for bait, a crackling fire on shore, Bull Durham to roll and a mess of snaky freshwater cod on his stringer. That was his recipe.

The kid rubbing the gloss off a baseball awaits the opening of the season.

Everyone seems to have his/her own clue to spring and though the American robin is the standard, almost no one counts on Turdus, migratorius to signal the growing season’s onset. As one unseasonably warm winter follows another, more and more robins fail to migrate. In a grove of Russian olives with open water nearby, robins find no need to fly south. Today, the first robin of the year signifies squat.

Bald eagles do migrate. Flocks of them stop near Helena and Kalispell to catch the annual sockeye salmon run. A few drift farther east and cross the Yellowstone on their way south. These are my spring sentinels.

Don’t get me wrong. And don’t mistake the nature of eagle love. Those of us who incubate a passion for our fierce national bird are neither overly patriotic nor do we reckon ourselves macho guys.

The facts are simple: Eagles, especially bald eagles, are beautiful. Haliaeetus leucocephalus (his Latin handle) outshines such bauds as the multi-colored painted bunting, the sinfully crimson scarlet ibis. Their grace is in their bodies and flight.

I once saw one clear the sky of a trespassing great blue heron. The raptor’s sharp scream unnerved the fisher. Down came the neck and up went the legs. Before the eagle arrived, the heron tumbled knobby neck over green-black shanks.

Eagles nest where they want, forage where they chose.

In aspen groves crowding the Arctic Circle, eagles build nests in trees too slender to serve as tent poles or table legs. They breed birds that scream on attack, chuckle and coo like doves on the nest. Mostly, they sit and wait.

Canyon cliffs will serve where trees don’t grow. A slight ledge will do.

My favorite eagle spotting territory has long been the “back road” to Laurel. Cottonwood trees crowding the river across the Yellowstone from River Road provide roosts that allow the eagles to keep watch on a long stretch of river that usually remains open in winter. Any crippled duck or dying carp in this reach of the river becomes eagle buffet.

Fred LaBeau, whose camp overlooks the confluence of the Yellowstone and the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone, is my usual source.

LaBeau says he hasn’t seen the eagles since the Exxon pipeline break two years ago. A Fish, Wildlife and Parks scientist tells me essentially the same thing.

Checking birders at the Wild Birds store, I’m told there are usually eagles across the river from the Exxon refinery.

That’s all very well, but it’s a mile downstream from the eagle void that worries me.

Helen Carlson – a world class birder – reports eagles in the vicinity of Two Moon Park, none in the five-mile stretch below the pipeline rupture.

Mumbling down the road in my old pickup, I concoct several ways the oil spill might have driven the eagles away.

“Could the eagles still smell the sulfur stench of crude oil?” I ask myself.

The answer was “Probably not.” Eagles have incredible eyesight, but their olfactory sense is almost nonexistent.

After another run or two down the River Road, I decided my declaration of the first day of spring would have to wait. Meanwhile, I will settle for mountain bluebirds and Western meadowlarks as my markers.

I have resolved that the lack of two or three eagles does not a late winter make.

Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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