Sponsored By
An organization or individual has paid for the creation of this work but did not approve or review it.



Inside the Outdoors: Sights, sounds, smells say spring is in reach

Columnist Mike Rahn talks about the signs of spring we are witnessing

Photo illustration / Shutterstock.com

Although Minnesotans are used to living through the seasonal cycle of summer, fall, winter and spring, during winter’s cold and darkness pessimism can rear its ugly head, leaving us to wonder if spring will ever come.

But if you’re paying attention to the changes happening out of doors at this time of year, you may have seen, heard or perhaps even smelled some of the heartening, hopeful signs.

On St. Valentine’s Day — a holiday usually marked by flowers, candy and greeting cards professing our affection for one another — my agenda also included errands. One of these led to a crossing of the Crow Wing River, that 90-mile waterway that flows through 11 north central Minnesota lakes, on its way to joining the Mississippi River.

While approaching a bridge over the Crow Wing, into my peripheral vision drifted two large, white, airborne objects, flying at treetop level. Shifting my focus, I could tell by their size, slow wingbeats and white plumage that they were swans.

Whether they were the larger trumpeter subspecies or the smaller tundra swans, I could not be sure.


Regardless, it was an omen, a harbinger that said there must be open water somewhere; most likely a riffle or rapids in the river, where water moving with greater speed and turbulence becomes ice-free before smooth, flat stretches.

I decelerated, creeping at foot-on-the-brakes speed over the bridge. At an upstream bend in the river, a narrow ribbon along the north bank — little more than a stride wide — sparkled with reflected sunlight.

Too little to attract these early migrants, I presumed; but somewhere nearby, I knew, they had found an ice-free opening to their liking.

Swans are an indicator bird, among the last to leave at ice-up in late fall, and among the first to return north from where they have been overwintering, which is just about any place there is open water.

Stretches of bigger rivers that remain ice-free, even warm water discharge from power plants, may attract and hold them through even the coldest of winters.

Soon, as more rivers and streams break up and become ice-free, other waterfowl — Canada geese, and many species of ducks in their brilliant breeding plumage — will be joining them.

Several mornings later, exiting the garage to spread salt on patches of driveway and sidewalk, I caught a faint thread of familiar scent in the still, chill air. Inhaling more deeply, the source of the aroma became clear: skunk!

Skunks do not technically hibernate, as bears do. But for much of the winter they are mostly dormant, a physiological state in which body processes slow down to reduce energy needs, relying on fat stored during “binge eating” in the fall.


This is clearly a survival benefit during a time when preferred food sources — which in other seasons includes a wide variety of insects — are unavailable.

In winter, skunks may gather in small groups in an underground burrow, further conserving heat by what is called “social thermo-regulation” — shared body heat.

Some say one purpose of a skunk’s winter ramblings — besides finding food, like seeds, dried fruits and carrion — is to empty their scent glands.

Whether this is true, or whether the scent we perceive is merely a skunk that feels endangered and uses its primary defense mechanism, is open to conjecture. In either case, the identity of the source is unmistakable!

There are times when skunk scent is unwelcome. Like when you hit one with your vehicle, and the smell lingers there for weeks. Or, if your dog tangles with a skunk and gets sprayed.

But, for me at least, when I detect this scent in the late winter air, I see it as an unmistakable sign that winter is waning!

One of the seasonal changes that can go unnoticed due to its subtlety is the gradual increase in daylight. It seemed not so long ago that darkness arrived promptly at 4:30 in the afternoon, cutting short most activities out of doors.

Now, sunset time is approaching 6 p.m., as daylight lengthens a little each day following the winter solstice that occurred just before Christmas.


One of our winter wildlife neighbors has not been taken by surprise by this increase in daylight. If you venture outdoors at sunrise, or even a little before, you’re likely to hear the territorial courtship notes of the northern cardinal, a bird that has been a familiar sight at our bird feeders all winter.

Both the brilliant red males and the more subtly-plumed females sing during this period, often from a perch high in a tree. The sound you’ll mostly likely hear from them is the clear, two-note call that birders describe in human vocal terms as “what cheer, what cheer!”

Indeed, cheer is something we can all use more of right now, as winter is wearing out its welcome, and many eagerly await the arrival of spring.

Mike Rahn - Inside the Outdoors.jpg
Mike Rahn, columnist

Opinion by Mike Rahn
What To Read Next
Get Local


Must Reads