Although the ground is covered with a foot of newly fallen snow, spring has arrived in our hamlet of Poudre Park in the northern Colorado Rockies.
The snowstorm that began in the early hours of April 17 is just a tiny hiccup in the grand scene of spring.
The snow will be melted away in a day or two, and wild grasses on the mountainsides will continue to turn emerald green. Cottonwoods along the Cache la Poudre River are budding. The seasonal arrival of hummingbirds is underway.
As the days lengthen and warm, the snowmelt in the high mountains to the west has crept along. The river has risen a half-foot in the last week, and it won’t be long until the June Rise—what we call the annual spring runoff—will be in full force.
Spring snow in Colorado, April 17, 2016, in the Poudre Canyon. View from our backyard: the river and one of the mountains in Poudre Park.
Anxious to be once again on the river, kayakers have been out searching for rapids deep enough to paddle. Anglers are casting for rainbows and Browns in the deep holes and the eddies.
This snowstorm began in the way mountain spring storms often will—a steady rain throughout the day and evening until the cold air of late night transformed raindrops into snowflakes. By morning, the ground was covered and all day the snow continued to fall, sometimes so heavy we couldn’t see the summits of the mountains surrounding our narrow valley.
There is something bold and wonderful about a spring snowstorm. Winter storms in December through February often come with dry snow flakes that fall like fine dust. But spring storms bring thick, heavy, wet flakes. The air smells fresh and invigorating.
Spring snows can be a time of surprises.
Three and a half decades ago, three feet of snow fell on May 1, when everyone incorrectly assumed the snow season was already over. It was a tragic time. A few days earlier, a young boy disappeared from a hiking area a couple of miles down the Poudre Canyon from us. Hundreds of people turned out to search for him. Then the storm hit. The search was called off. He was never found.
Five feet of snow: In 2003, a spring storm brought five feet of snow to Poudre Park. It came up to my mustache. Just to see what would happen, I set our three cats out on top of the snow. They sank in, all the way down. And I did find out what would really happen, by the way. I still have scars on the tops of my hands from angry scratches when I retrieved the cats.
Cats, I discovered, don’t like snow.
Now, to the south of us, the mountains along the Front Range and Denver are socked in, some areas with two or more feet of snow from this storm of less than 24 hours. Spring storms bring the most amount of water to Colorado than any other weather event of the year. When the warmth of summer comes on, the snow will melt in the high mountains; the runoff will flow into manmade reservoirs that capture the water for irrigation and communities throughout the year.
In our tiny niche in the world, our three dozen neighbors hunkered down during this spring storm. The snow-covered dirt road that runs through our hamlet had no tire tracks on it. The snow was so wet that it stuck onto lines that go from telephone poles to homes. The lines sagged low under the weight, almost to the point of snapping, and people had to venture out and use brooms to knock off the snow.
Snow gathered in big, heavy clumps on the boughs of tall ponderosa trees along the banks of the Poudre River flowing by our backyard. The weight of the snow forced the boughs to sag at odd, unnaturally downward angles.
Springy boughs: Every now and then a bough would give what resembled a moaning shake—although I know it was just movement caused by the snow’s heavy weight—and moments later the bough would dip even farther down and a huge clump of snow plunged away. It hit the snow-covered ground with a soft thwoop sound and next came a thin, flighty veil of snow floating downward from the bough. Relieved of the weight, the bough sprang up and down, up and down, before returning to rest at its natural angle.
This morning I went out, bundled up in warm clothes, including, of all things, a bright red, soft woolen scarf that my parents bought me for Christmas way back in 1966, and I shoveled an area where birds can feed on sunflower seeds, millet and cracked corn that I sprinkled around.
Feathered strategies: Regardless of the time of year, we always have birds that frequent our feeders. Sometimes, flocks and flocks of birds.
On a normal day—that is, a clear day as the morning sun comes up bright from behind Rainbow Ridge Mountain at the east end of our valley—flocks of birds hang out first in the yard of our neighbors, Dave and Diane, immediately to our west. The feathered critters search for food there because that’s where the warm sunshine first comes onto the valley. Nothing like breakfasting in warm morning sunshine.
Next, as the sun rises higher and causes more of the mountain shadows laying upon the valley to disappear, the sunshine is cast upon our yard, and we become the grateful hosts of the flocks. Then, the birds keep moving on to the east as the sun goes higher in the sky. The birds swoop over to feed at our neighbors, Dale and Val, cattycorner and a bit farther east along the road; then they move on to new pickings at Steve’s cabin farther to the east as the sunshine lands there.
After the sun completely clears the Rainbow Ridge summit and the valley become fully awash in sunshine, all feeding strategies are tossed aside. The birds go here and there and over there and willy and nilly as they like.
Tribe vs. tribe: On a snowy day like this, when the sun’s trapped behind snow clouds, the birds flock to clear areas under spruce trees where thick boughs kept snow from passing through. Or they zero in on spots where snow has been shoveled aside for them, like in our yard at Sunnyside on the Poudre, our home.
Competition becomes fierce. Patty and I sit in our living room fascinated as we watch the vigorous activity through a picture window. It’s like viewing a mini-lesson on the trials and tribulations of living things. It’s all about supply and demand and want and envy and greed, and, of course, food and survival. One tribe wants what the other tribe has.
Today, the first to arrive were the tiny birds: gray-headed juncos, dark-eyed juncos, mountain chickadees, nuthatches, the bright yellow American goldfinches, the red-headed house finches, all five inches or less in length. They swooped in en masse, dozens and dozens of them. There were so many hopping around in the cleared area that the ground appeared to vibrate.
Some departed when flocks of Stellar Jays and Eurasian Collared-Doves cruised in. These are larger birds, about 12 inches in length. Like most of the tiny birds, they are year-round residents of Poudre Park, and they and the tiny birds mostly tolerate each other’s presence.
Bullies: Then came a flock of visitors—a species that migrates through Poudre Park at this time of the year. These are Common Grackles, big black birds, about 13 inches long. They stop here for a few days on their way east to the farmlands on the Colorado High Plains. They travel in a big flock of 50 or more, and their massive onslaught scares away smaller birds. I don’t care for Grackles; they have beady eyes and they are pigs in their feeding habits. For me, their main redeeming quality is the blue-black iridescence of their head feathers.
The Grackles took over today, bullying away others so the food was theirs and theirs alone.
What’s that old saying? There’s always a bigger fish in the pond? In this case, bigger birds.
A small flock of American Crows—four or five of them—spends part of the year at the far eastern end of Poudre Park. Now and then, when their feeding grounds there are covered with snow, they wander our way in search of food. They are huge birds, 18 inches in length and thick-chested, and so black in color that you can’t even see their eyes.
When the crows landed, the Grackles fled.
The crows didn’t remain long. In my mind, I suspected they came by just to harass the Grackles, just for the fun of it. That’s how crows are, I think. They have fun.
So then the feeding area was without birds. That did not last long. The flocks of tiny birds hurried back in. The ground vibrated, again, as they hopped around and fed.
It was the day of the spring snow.