Thursday, February 22, 2007

Yellow-bellied Marmot

You're all familiar with Groundhog Day, February 2nd. A Groundhog (or Woodchuck, technically Marmota monax) is said to appear for the first time following an underground hibernation. If he sees his shadow (as seems always to be the case), folks can expect six more weeks of winter weather.

Here on the High Desert of Central Oregon, we don't have Woodchucks (which are found throughout the east, northeast, midwest, much of Canada, and into Alaska). Instead, we have the similar Yellow-bellied Marmot (Marmota flaviventris, known to locals as "Rockchuck"). These large rodents likewise hibernate underground for the winter. In fact, they first estivate (that is, enter a semi-torpor in response to heat), entering their burrows in July as the grasses and forbs on which they feed have lost their moisture and nutrition, and not reappearing until February.

Last Saturday (Feb. 17th) was (by my unofficial declaration and for this year only) "Yellow-bellied Marmot Day." We had a real spike in temperatures, as it reached the 70's that day. We had had a high in the 40's the entire week prior, and by Sunday, that was where things stood again. Today, we are having snow. But for that glorious Saturday, we experienced an exciting foretaste of Spring, and I saw my first Marmot of the year.

My boys and I spent the morning hiking the six-mile-long trail that loops around Smith Rocks. (Smith Rocks, if you hadn't heard, is the world-class rock-climbing Mecca located here in our backyard, and it appeared that every available rock face had folks scrambling up it or waiting their turn.)

Meanwhile, that Marmot certainly saw his shadow, and it will likely be a few weeks before I see another Marmot or feel the sun's heat as on that day. But even that brief period of warm temperatures had a lasting effect on those bulbs I planted last Fall. Within 24 hours, I could see the tops of Crocus, Daffodil, and Miniature Narcissus poking their way through the soil (and now through an inch of snow).

I was grateful for the sight of the Marmot and am thankful for the continuous sign of the flowers. Both serve as reminders that new life and warmth are just around the corner.

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