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Iowa, a land of contrasts

You have to love Iowa, if only for the contrasts that affect our lives here. How boring it would be if every day were the same, or even every year. No need to worry about that, though. No two days, or even years, are alike. Temperatures and precipitation can bob up and down like a yo-yo. Winds come from all points on the compass and can run from calm to a gale and back, all in the same day.

Those of a negative bent will point out that if weather can get worse, it likely will. Those gifted with more positive outlooks will counter that even if you don’t like it now, it’s likely to be better tomorrow. Bike riders might be lying when then claim that a ride was uphill both ways, but they’re probably telling the truth when they claim that they rode into a head wind all the way out and back.

Last year at this time I had already mowed the yard. The last snow piles are just melting as this week’s column is written. I was already in the midst of photographing the parade of spring wildflowers at the new Hertz Woods area south of Nevada in 2012. Hepatica, blood root, spring beauty and wild plum had all bloomed beautifully, and bluebells were already coming on. Last year was an extremely early shift into spring, after what could barely be called a winter. Plants were so far along that they were vulnerable to what was actually a fairly normal late freeze. Fruit crops were heavily damaged. As cold and snowy as March was, we’re actually on a more normal track this year. Flower and fruit development will be late enough that they should be less vulnerable to damage from a late cold snap if one should happen.

Thousands of geese that wintered here in Story County have departed for their northern breeding grounds, but pairs of local Canada geese can be seen around many of our lakes and ponds. They’ll be establishing nests now that there’s at least some open water, and may still have goslings on the water by early May. Spring migrating ducks of many species were present at Ada Hayden Park in Ames last week, but most have already moved on. The shallow wetlands in several Story County wildlife areas are still too dry to attract much waterfowl use.

I haven’t seen bluebirds yet, but it’s time to get those houses cleaned, repaired and ready for new renters. They could be back and looking for nest sites before this reaches print. It’s also time to begin watching bluebird houses for English sparrow competition. They’re already trying to fill some of the boxes I watch with nesting material. Bluebird boxes should be checked at least weekly from now until mid summer. Starlings and house wrens will also be competing with more desirable renters like bluebirds, chickadees and tree swallows. Most bluebirds aren’t scrappy enough to defend their nests against these more aggressive competitors.

Time will tell if the drought that plagued us for the past year will continue. Ground water conditions are many inches behind, and even normal rainfall will not make up that kind of deficit. That will be especially true once crops and other plants begin to grow and use moisture. The rainfall and rapid snow melt several weeks ago brought streams back up for at least awhile, but most of that was due to runoff from still-frozen ground. Little of that moisture was able to penetrate the soil and help with ground water recharge.

It’s all part of the contrasts that shape the land we live on. The frequent extremes we experience can be awfully hard on our yards and cash crops, but our native ecosystems are well suited to surviving and even thriving on them.

(Steve Lekwa is a retired Story County Conservation Director.)

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