Spring knows no calendar at Audubon National Wildlife Refuge. Rather, it is giant Canada geese who decree spring's arrival, venturing north from not-too-distant wintering grounds. Pick any one of the innumerable back bays of Lake Audubon, with ice melting open at the first March warming spell, and it's likely to harbor clamoring, honking geese as ganders - males -proclaim their territory.
Spring's official arrival may be weeks away - and the geese themselves may be fooled by an occasional last gasp of winter - but one can't help but feel the warmth of a new season knowing the giant birds have returned home.
Many will stay, nesting on the shores of the Refuge itself or the 100-plus islands dotting the lake. Some opt to build nests on the ground; others will occupy any one of many artificial nesting structures. And still others will rest at the Refuge before moving on to nest in the area in which they learned to fly.
Spring is a busy time at the Refuge, an important rest and refueling stop for birds of all sizes. Central Flyway waterfowl utilize Audubon as a stop- over location, resting and feeding while en route to nesting grounds throughout North Dakota, Canada and Alaska - often above the arctic circle.
The Refuge comes alive in the spring with the sights and sounds of new plant and animal life. Raptors, water birds and songbirds return to nesting areas on native prairie hillsides and along prairie wetlands.
Beginning in early May, young geese, called goslings, can be found nibbling grasses and other young plants along Lake Audubon's shorelines and swimming, one right after the other, behind mother and father goose. Or because Canada geese readily adopt goslings, it's not unusual to see a pair baby-sitting several broods mixed together.
The sounds of summer quiet down a little, with birds less vocal and visible as they busily tend nests and young. A white-tailed doe is likely hiding her fawn. Foxes and coyotes glide secretly from their dens, as pups engage in play learning valuable survival lessons valuable in a harsh, natural world.
But summer also offers a busy time on the Refuge: Banding Canada geese with numbered aluminum leg bands, which helps educate volunteers as to the ways of the goose world while providing more information about the birds themselves.
It's a time to manage the Refuge's tame and native prairie grasses through a variety of techniques - controlled burns and rotational grazing, for example. It's also a time to implement special projects such as biological control of noxious weeds, using weed-eating, leaf-munching and stem- boring insects.
A summer visit to Audubon National Wildlife Refuge offers the 7.5 mile auto tour route, a mile-long interpretive hiking trail, wildlife watching and photography.
Autumn may be the most spectacular season of all at Audubon. Migrating birds of all types and sizes - songbirds, ducks, geese, swans, pelicans, sandhill cranes - maybe even a rare, endangered whooping crane or threatened bald eagle - as well as shorebirds flock to the Refuge.
Just as Audubon serves as a spring stop-over, the fall migration brings hundreds of thousands of birds back again to rest and refuel. Only this time, the birds must prepare for the arduous journey south to wintering grounds.
Mother Nature determines how long the birds take advantage of the Refuge - a cold windy storm will urge snow geese, ducks and sandhill cranes on south, leaving the hardier Canada geese or tundra swans to claim the Refuge.
Prairie grasses change from shades of green to golden, yellow or rust- colored hues, soon to be blanketed by white snow as winter grasps the region.
But winter does not signal a bleak lifeless Refuge. Although migrants have long deserted the prairies for temporary, warmer climates, white-tailed deer, foxes, coyotes and hardy wintering birds still own Audubon. The dainty chickadee and tree sparrow remain. Bluejays, black- billed magpies and nuthatches shelter amongst trees and shrubs.
The Refuge provides access onto Lake Audubon, allowing eager anglers with their "winter havens" - usually homemade fishing houses - an opportunity to venture out in search of a walleye or perch. Walking on water North Dakota style - ice fishing - is the Refuge's most popular public use. The hum of a gas-powered auger chiseling through ice can be heard on any calm, crisp winter day or evening.
And a little further south, on North and South Dakota's Missouri River or Nebraska's Lake McConaughy, Canada geese await the opportunity to return to their nesting grounds at Audubon National Wildlife Refuge.