The flock rose and fell like a slow pulse, banking and turning against the southerly gusts. They made the sky look like static on an old black and white TV screen long after the daily programming had stopped and the national anthem signaled the end of the broadcast day. The growing crowd standing with me alongside the rapidly-shrinking snow piles in the brown, muddy parking lot of the tree nursery at the edge of town began estimating the number of snow geese that squeaked and honked just to the north of us.
“At least two, maybe three thousand,” I ventured at the size of the largest group of geese I had seen in the area in quite some time, when suddenly another black pulse joined the circling flock from behind a large hill on the horizon, easily doubling their numbers.
I took my purchase to the truck and sped to the northern edge of the gravel lot of the grain elevator across the road and wound my way back behind the buildings to the edge of the tilled cornfield. Above what was once a prairie pothole slough, uncountable hundreds of snow geese swirled and honked over the area that had been at least temporarily reclaimed from production by recent meltwater. Like a tornado they descended with cupped wings, swirling and balancing in the breeze until all had landed around the pocket of water. A few popped back up from time to time to reposition and straggling groups of 20 or 30 came in every couple of minutes for the afternoon sit as well.
Only a couple of weeks ago it seemed, I went to sleep on the southern edge of the upper Midwest. As I came in from the final walk of the day with my wife’s young German shepherd and my grizzled yellow lab, snow coated the ground, lakes were locked in ice and the cold, cloudy skies were silent, save for the whistling of the north wind through the leafless trees. I woke up this morning in allegedly the same place, but the world around me was distinctly different following a blur of extraordinarily spring-like days in the middle of winter. The snow was gone, ice was pulling away from the edges of the lakes and ponds in the area, and the return of these geese and others signaled that some other season had started.
Rare has been the spring where open water came before Minnesota’s game fish seasons closed at the end of the month, but with the warmth the region is experiencing, it is quite possible that some lakes could be free of ice (and patrolled by a few boats) before February is up. Reports from across the southern tier of the ice belt have law enforcement and management agencies already discouraging driving on any lakes and a number of ice tournaments, including those as far north as Walker, Minn., have been cancelled altogether or limited to foot or four-wheeler travel to access the events. Anglers have also reported a pre-pre-spawn walleye bite under dams and open areas in many smaller flows with the recent surge in temperatures and receding ice cover.
The shift to spring is already on in this out-of-place period between seasons. The signs are all around us. Cardinals are calling in the morning and collecting nest material throughout the day. Migratory waterfowl are on the move in the melt-inducing heat that has swept over the region. Sure, there may be snow and cold still to come, but open water is just a few more melting days away and spring, despite what the calendar says, is making its presence felt. That fact leaves us all in an odd situation, playing the wind and the weather like the circling snows and blues over the cornfield south of town. Whatever comes our way in the next several weeks, the shift will hasten, the signs will mount and we will find ourselves out of the uncertainty of whatever this in-between season is and in the more familiar comforts of a full-blown spring…in our outdoors.