WILLMAR, Minn. — Amy Rager spotted the first drops of sap seeping from a wound on the sugar maple tree on her Chippewa County farm, and was in disbelief.
It was the last week of January. As the director of the University of Minnesota Extension's Master Naturalist program, she keeps an eye on the natural progression of seasons in Minnesota. This is one that tops the charts.
She tapped her favorite maple and started collecting sap to boil for syrup, the earliest ever in her experience. "By a month,'' Rager said.
It's no different in Kandiyohi County either, where Cory Netland, wildlife manager with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, had collected 12 gallons of sap from three maple trees over three days in the middle of February. "Absurd,'' Netland said.
And yet, their experiences are proving the norm this year as wildlife and fauna respond to the early arrival of warm temperatures. The state is poised to possibly see some of the earliest ice-out dates on area lakes, despite a return to cool temperatures on March 10.
This winter has continued a trend. Fifteen of the last 20 winters have been warmer than normal, according to information posted by state climatologist Mark Seeley.
Things are happening "earlier and earlier every year at a rapid pace,'' said Curt Vacek, wildlife manager with the DNR in Appleton, of the changes he's witnessed. Vacek spotted four pelicans on Marsh Lake last week, weeks ahead of most years.
Migrating birds of all types are arriving early. Joel Halbritter, who helps organize the Willmar Christmas Bird Count, heard of sandhill cranes being observed in the area already. Normally, they stage on the Platte River in Nebraska and would not be probing this far north, he said.
Large skeins of Canada geese in V-formations have been migrating through for a couple of weeks. Rager watched two trumpeter swans follow the Chippewa River in Montevideo earlier in the week.
Ron Erpelding of Willmar, an avid birder, has watched migrating birds arrive earlier and stay later year after year. This year is one of the earliest yet, he said. He spotted horned larks — always one of the first to arrive — in the area six weeks ago.
Erpelding is just returned from a three-day birding trip to the southeastern part of the state, where he saw evidence of an earlier waterfowl migration too. He also spotted the season's first bluebirds and early arriving herring and rainbow gulls.
Back home, a great horned owl is already nesting near his home, and goldfinches are taking on color.
Erpelding said the recent cool weather has slowed things, but he does not expect the snow on Sunday to prove harmful for the birds that have already made it this far north.
Everything from meadowlarks and wood ducks have been seen hereabouts already, but what might be more telling are the birds that are staying. Vacek said that Minnesotans have already become accustomed to seeing larger numbers of robins spending the winter.
This year, to his own disbelief, he observed approximately 100 redwing blackbirds stay the winter near his home in the upper Minnesota River Valley. They took advantage of a sorghum field for feed and a cattail marsh for protection.
Some of the small wetlands in Sibley State Park shed their winter ice covers in the first week of March. And shortly after, Colin Wright, assistant park manager, watched an early season hatch of midge flies occur.
Tree buds are swelling and ground plants are responding too. A visitor to the Upper Sioux Agency State Park posted photos of the first pasque flowers blossoming in the park earlier this week, said Terri Dinesen, manager of the Big Stone, Lac qui Parle and Upper Sioux Agency State Parks.
Dinesen has only to look out the windows of her home to know just how early the signs of spring have come. The wild turkeys that frequent her bird feeders are already showing their colors. And, on more than a few occasions she's awakened to see the shepherd poles holding her feeders bent to the ground, evidence no doubt of nocturnal visits by raccoons.
Audrey Arner, who with her husband Richard Handeen maintain a perennial landscape on their Moonstone Farm north of Montevideo, is keeping an eye on a wide range of plants that are responding to the warmth. She reports seeing earlier-than-usual growth point activity on many perennial plants, including nettle, elderberry, chickweed, and some grasses.
And to her dismay, she's seen some early activity by pocket gophers too.
Will the earlier-than-normal activity put wildlife at risk? It could, according to Vacek. A heavy March snow and or a string of cold days and nights could be harmful to some early arrivers, such as songbirds, he said.
The long-term consequences are yet to be known, but there are some obvious concerns. Netland said that deer ticks have already been spotted. Rager noted that are the cold, sub-zero winter temperatures of former years were always the best defense for keeping invasive species at bay. This year, she believes the advantage belongs to the newcomers.