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Streams, otters and thundersnow

Photo by Tanya Wiesen/Special to the Daily
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Even though winter is still hanging on, we can all sense that spring is just around the corner. We certainly notice the earlier sunrises, later sunsets and warmer days. Just what is the meaning of springtime, anyway?Spring can be defined mathematically. March 21 is the spring equinox – in Latin it means equal night. But the scale is being tipped toward daytime being longer than nighttime. The spring equinox is halfway to the summer solstice on June 21 – the longest sunlight hours of the year in the northern hemisphere.Springtime can be seen in the water. Imagine giant spring snowflakes that fall heavily from the sky piling up at a rate of one inch per hour. This is snowman snow that packs easily into a snowball because of its high water content.Springtime is seen in the local streams as the days get longer and warmer, and the water rises and picks up new sediment. Water-laden spring snow picks up dirt as it melts into streams and you’ll notice muddy rivers on warm days that follow snowstorms.The stream water typically flows crystal-clear in mid-winter as streams are fed by springs and not by melting snow. It has been my observation this year that local springs ran heavily all winter long. Lots of open water also remained on creeks throughout the winter as heavy early-season snows seemed to have insulated the ground. Also, the creek ice didn’t seem to form very thick this year and many beaver ponds are now opening up.

Animal activityThe animals start to move differently in the spring. South facing slopes will melt out more and eventually the trickling water and warm sunshine will enable the first green springtime plants to pop out. Elk, deer and bighorns have been enduring the winter season with meager food sources to sustain them, largely relying on their fat reserves to hold them through the winter. These large herbivores will climb in elevation as the snow continues to recede throughout the spring.In just a couple of weeks, ground squirrels will pop out through the snow after long winter hibernation. Fox, coyotes, weasels and hawks will greet them and remind them quickly of the world order. Soon the first wood chips will appear near streams as the beavers enjoy their first bankside meal of willow, alder and aspen bark. Meanwhile migrating ducks and even white pelicans will move through Eagle County as they head north as winter retreats and lakes and streams open up.Say good-bye to the bald eagles who wintered along the Colorado and Eagle rivers. They’re headed north to breeding grounds in Alaska and Canada for the summer. Meanwhile, bald eagles that wintered further south of here will stop through here over the next month on their journey northward.

Rare ottersRecently my wife, Tanya, and I noticed unique animal tracks in the snowy Gore Creek drainage. The tracks indicated an animal scooting along from pool to pool up the stream. While beaver tracks show a slow lumbering gate with the pancake tail swishing back and forth, these tracks suggested an animal that moved along more efficiently.The tracks seem to signal the presence of an otter working the stream. Otters are carnivorous aquatic weasels that feed on fish, muskrats and even beavers. The home range of an otter can include more than 50 miles of streams and rivers, and right now is mating season, so otters may be exploring new places.Otters are not common here, especially since their pelts were highly prized by early trappers and their numbers were greatly reduced. However, I saw an otter that had recently been run over near No Name Gulch on Highway 24 south of Red Cliff last summer, proving its presence. Spring thundersnow



Springtime is a time of year when those quirky little snowballs called graupel come raining down from the sky. Graupel is the result of instability in the upper atmosphere caused by a violent mixing of warm and cold air, and snowflakes are re-circulated and packed into snowballs. It is not uncommon for lightning to accompany a shower of graupel, creating “thundersnow”.Springtime also highlights orographic precipitation where it snows only in the highest elevations leaving moderate elevations dry or with rainfall. The high peaks can get hammered with deep spring snows that are heavy in water. These spring snows can really bolster the spring runoff in the rivers that we experience in June and early July.So roll up the sleeves, lube the bike chain, and celebrate the last month of powder days for skiing. Spring is in the air, breathe deep and enjoy this season of change.Tom Wiesen and his wife Tanya are the owners and lead guides of Trailwise Guides, a year-round Vail Valley guide service specializing in providing quality experiences. Private snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and wildlife-watching outings are offered daily. Contact Trailwise Guides at 827-5363 or tom@trailwiseguides.com. Ideas for future articles are welcome.


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