Predicting the season is strictly for the birds

outdoorsApril 3, 2012 

A look at the calendar says it is spring, but what about those huge snowdrifts out front?

The snow hasn't even slid from the roof of our barn, and it's a twelve/twelve pitch. The thermometer said minus-16 this morning; I tapped on it, and then beat on it, but there was no change. However, just at daylight, a lone snow bunting flittered to the door of the barn. Yep, all is right with the world, the buntings have arrived. It is spring afterall.

Birds have always been our best indicators of the season, and this year follows as the eons before. I spotted a T-shirt last week that said; "I survived the winter of 2011."

Wait a minute; this winter hasn't been so tough. January was nasty, I'll give you that, but the rest of the winter has been pretty mellow. Most areas of the state had a fair amount of snow, but not too cold. Birds don't care -- they can fly and don't have to plow the drive.

In this part of the Interior, there are about fifteen species of birds that commonly stay through the winter months. Ravens, gray jays, magpies and the ptarmigan species are the most visible. There are a few boreal chickadees and the inevitable flocks of white-wing crossbills in the spruce tops.

Mallards and dippers are in the open water of a few creeks and at the outlets of the larger lakes. There are also other birds that over-winter; varieties that indicate the type of winter we are experiencing. Bald eagles, pine grosbeaks, common mergansers and goshawks and even the grouse species, all tell us of our winter weather.

Bald eagles, dependent on fish, need calm, open water. The 2012 January cold snap sent our resident birds south to the coast. However, early February saw them back, and they have stayed.

Heavy snowfall builds high shelves on the banks of streams and at the outlets of lakes. These banks help hold the heat from the open water -- and keep longer stretches open through cold days. A small flock of mergansers and one lone scaup were able to stay in the area even the coldest days of this winter.

Deep snow keeps the goshawks around. Their primary prey, snowshoe hares, are more exposed as the snow builds in the willow thickets, making them easier to catch. Snow in the mountains forces ptarmigan from the high valleys, into the willows along lake shores. Large flocks are easier for predators to find. Snowy owls, migrating south because of heavy snow to the north, are able to target the concentrated ptarmigan flocks.

Snow and wind are the major factors that affect our northern birds. Pine grosbeaks need warm, calm winters so they can feed without expending too much energy. Just before Christmas, they disappeared from Paxson -- what did they know that we had yet to discover? How did they know it would blow the entire month of January? They came back in mid-February, leading me to believe the worst of our winter had gone.

Our indicators of spring have been mixed. The snow buntings are late. There may be too much snow covering the grass seeds they must have as they move to summer nesting grounds. The gyr falcons are here on schedule or possibly a week or two early. Ravens are dispersing to nest sites and the owls are booming their mating calls.

It seems early to be thinking swans and geese, but you can mark the calendar on April 7 as the arrival of our first trumpeters at the outlet of Paxson Lake. Slate juncos, white-crowned sparrows and robins will be close behind (the grapevine says there are already some geese in the Delta Junction area).

If you are bird, the sooner you get here, the sooner you can nest. Early hatching young are bigger and stronger when it comes time to go south. What do the early arriving birds eat with all of the snow yet to melt? Blueberries if you are a seed eater -- there are millions of them still on the bushes and the ground in windblown areas. Ravens feed on them during times of food shortage. The first gulls will also frequent the exposed berry patches.

The deep snow insulated the lakes and kept ice thickness at 30 percent less than normal. All of the water from our extra snow should mean an early breakup.

There will be more standing water in the lowlands. That should mean an excellent mosquito crop. If you are a bird ... Halleluiah.

John Schandelmeier of Paxson is a lifelong Alaskan and Bristol Bay commercial fisherman. A two-time champion of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, he has written on the outdoors for several newspapers and magazines.

DENVER -- Brittney Griner took the Baylor Lady Bears to new heights.

Blocking layups, snagging rebounds, hitting shots over two and three helpless defenders, all season long she towered over the competition.

That left Griner with just one more task Tuesday night -- cutting down the nets.

Griner had 26 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks to lead Baylor to a dominating 80-61 victory over Notre Dame in the NCAA women's basketball championship, capping an unparalleled 40-0 season for the Bears.

"She'll go down as one of the greatest post players in the history of the game," Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. "I'm so glad she got that ring."

When the buzzer sounded, Griner finally celebrated, hamming it up as she helped take down the nets and dancing with Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III.

Then she lifted coach Mulkey up on her shoulders briefly, just the way she has done for the Bears during this long season.

"It meant everything for us to get it for coach," said Griner, referring to Mulkey's struggle with Bell's palsy during the tournament. "She felt like she wasn't there for us, but we told her every second that we could hear here loud and clear, everything she was saying."

Baylor became the seventh women's team to run through a season unbeaten and the first in NCAA history to win 40 games. It was the second national championship for Baylor, which also won a title in 2005.

"Looking back when we get older, I'm always going to remember this moment, always going to remember confetti falling and being here with my team," Griner said.

Baylor did it in a nearly wire-to-wire victory, finishing with a flourish when anything less than bringing a title back to Waco would have been a huge disappointment.

The 6-foot-8 Griner was right at the center of the action as the Lady Bears took control. Every time Notre Dame made a run in the second half to cut into the deficit, Griner had an answer. She showed a wide array of post moves, hitting turnaround jumpers and hooks that the Irish had no way to stop -- even when they collapsed around her.

"Brittney Griner comes to work every day," Mulkey said. "A lot of great players think they're all that and they half go through drills and they come to practice and they dog it. That child comes to work and brings her work pail every day."

Notre Dame fell short in the title game for the second straight season. The Irish lost to Texas A&M by six points last year.

Coach Muffet McGraw's senior-heavy crew did finish the season with a decided edge over rival Connecticut -- the Irish won the Big East regular season title and defeated the Huskies in three of four meetings, including the national semifinal.

But like every other team this year, Notre Dame couldn't solve Baylor and its superstar.

"I think she's one of a kind," McGraw said. "There's so many things she can do. There have been some guards that have had some skill like that. But as a post player, she's the best I've seen."

Griner, selected The Associated Press player of the year, also was named most outstanding player of the tournament.

"We wouldn't be here without my team," the junior said. "All the awards -- none of that means anything. If I don't have my team here, we can't get this."

All-American point guard Skylar Diggins did all she could to keep the Irish (36-4) in the game, scoring 20 points. But senior Natalie Novosel had just five points, going 0-for-11 from the field. Devereaux Peters, also playing in her final game, was saddled with foul trouble because of Griner. She scored seven points.

Diggins "played a great game," McGraw said. "She's just a big-time player and she didn't get a lot of help today."

Like Griner, Diggins has pledged to return for her senior year -- both could join the WNBA draft -- and will try to make a third run at the title.

Notre Dame had an early 9-8 lead before Baylor took over with a 12-2 run. The Irish were down by 14 in the first half before cutting their deficit to 34-28 at the break. They got as close as 42-39 and had the ball, but Griner asserted herself, scoring nine of the next 19 points for Baylor to seal the victory.

"They went on a run there," Diggins said. "I just remember we cut it down to three and they went on a run. I saw 10, 12, 14, 16, 19. We couldn't get rebounds when they missed shots."

Odyssey Sims added 19 points and Destiny Williams had 12 for the Lady Bears, who outrebounded Notre Dame 46-27 and now have the third unbeaten season in women's basketball in the last four years. UConn, which has gone undefeated four times, did it in back-to-back years in 2009 and 2010. Texas and Tennessee also have unbeaten seasons.

Baylor's victory also gave President Barack Obama some bragging rights. He correctly picked Baylor to beat Notre Dame in the title game.

With 1:04 left and the game well in hand, Mulkey took out Griner and the two shared a long hug. The fiery coach then went down the bench and hugged each of her players while holding back tears.

"I'm just so happy," Mulkey said. "That old saying, 'you're so happy you cry.' I can't quit crying.'"

Mulkey, who did her net cutting with daughter Mackenzie -- who is a freshman on the team -- and son Kramer, has now won a title as a player (at Louisiana Tech), an Olympic gold medal (in 1984) and two titles as a coach. Only five women's coaches have more than one championship at the top level of NCAA competition.

Mulkey has downplayed the 40 wins, noting that her former coach and mentor at Louisiana Tech Leon Barmore won 40 games in 1980. That was before women's basketball was governed by the NCAA, which didn't begin keeping records until the 1982 season.

It was the second meeting between the teams this season. Baylor also won the first one, by 13 in Waco on Nov. 17. That win gave the Lady Bears the preseason WNIT title.

As usual, Griner put on a show in warmups, thrilling the crowd with a series of impressive dunks -- including a one-handed throw down, a double-pump slam and another in which she hung on rim. She dunked twice in the tournament, matching Candace Parker for most dunks by a woman in NCAA tournament play and during a college career (seven).

She couldn't catch one against the Irish.

The Lady Bears had a strong cheering section that included Griffin -- dancing in his seat at the end of the game -- and country music star Trace Adkins. He was a freshman walk-on football player at Louisiana Tech in the early 1980s when Mulkey was a senior there.

Notre Dame had its own star fan in former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who earned a graduate degree at the school. The Irish were wearing their green uniforms for the first time since last season's title loss.

It didn't help. But on this night, nothing else could stop Griner, either.

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