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Washburn Outdoors: Winter extreme prompts a bizarre sighting

Returning from a nearby corn stubble, a seemingly endless supply of ducks descended to the open creek. The stage was set. The signal was clear.

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Washburn Outdoors

An adult tiger salamander.

No one will argue that our Iowa winter has been one of weather extremes. Gone but not forgotten, the month of January provided our most dramatic example; offering everything from unseasonable warmth to polar blasts of life threatening cold and minus-60-degree wind chills. The month included a rich variety of rain showers, freezing drizzle, fog, heavy snowfall, and at least one white-out ground blizzard.

Across Iowa’s northern half, some of the weather’s most extreme mood swings seemed to occur overnight. During the last week of January, for example, I managed to bury my four-wheel-drive Suburban in a hard-packed snow drift while flying my goshawk along a partially frozen creek channel. Unable to move after a half hour of shoveling, I finally had to call my brother for a tug. Bitter to the very end, a sand blasting horizontal snowstorm accompanied by minus-30-degree wind chills occurred during the month’s final day. So much for January.

February brought incredible change. By Feb. 2, temperatures had reached into the high 30s; on Sunday they had soared to nearly 50 degrees. My front sidewalk suddenly reappeared; forgotten bird baths became filled with water instead of ice.

The field where I had buried my truck had been transformed into an expanse of sheet water and muddy stubble. It was as if the snow cover had never existed, including the big drift that had stopped the Suburban dead in its tracks.

When I spotted the landowner walking through the adjacent building site, I pulled into the yard. The unexpected rapid snowmelt hadn’t done him any favors. Included among the headaches was the partially flooded interior of an equipment filled, steel building.

“This weather is really freaky,” he noted. “I’ve even seen three or four salamanders since it warmed up.”

“Salamanders? In February? You’ve got to be kidding,” I responded.

Eager to prove his credibility, he promptly walked over to a soggy piece of paper-backed, fiberglass insulation. Flipping the piece over, he exposed a very surprised tiger salamander which, upon being discovered, quickly wriggled away.

I’d seen it all. The North Iowa landscape had gone from snow drifts and 30-below wind chills to mud and emerging amphibians in a bit less than 72 hours. Put that in your Iowa Outdoor Record Book.

The early February warmup didn’t last, of course. The pendulum has swung again and we’ve returned to freezing temperatures, freezing drizzle and more snow. What tomorrow will bring is anybody’s guess. But if you think Iowa’s roller coaster winter weather has been confusing to we humans, imagine what that salamander must be thinking.

On second thought, the amphib has probably returned to hibernation where – until spring finally arrives for real – it won’t be thinking anything at all.

Photos: Washburn Outdoors in North Iowa

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Reach Washburn’s Outdoor Journal at iawildlife.org/blog.

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