Disguised in a blanket of thick gray clouds, spring slipped into town yesterday morning.

At 11:14 a.m., the sun crossed the equator, making night and day of equal length throughout the world and heralding here the beginning of longer and warmer days. As if anyone had any doubts about the season, yesterday's high temperature of 69 degrees was well above the normal high of 56 degrees.

It won't last. Today should be much chillier.

Aboard the Washington Boat Lines' paddle steamer First Lady, Desiree Keating, Miss District of Columbia, marked the minute by smashing a bottle of champagne against the vessel's mast.

With a hoot from the horn and a holler from a crew primed with bloody marys and mimosas, Capt. Bob Friedel eased the 110-foot tour boat into the gray waters of the Washington Channel for a celebration cruise marking the the start of the sightseeing season and the end of a strange winter.

December came in warm and mild last year with an average temperature of 45.6 degrees -- almost seven degrees above the normal 38.9 degrees, according Jim Travers of the National Weather Service.

By January, the average daily temperature slipped to 30.8 degrees, 4.4 degrees below the normal 35.2. February averaged 37.8 degrees, slightly above the normal 37.5. March temperatures are expected to prove above normal, too.

It was a dry winter, too. There were 6.3 inches of rain in December through February, or about two inches less than average for those three months, according to the weather service.

Farmers "are praying for rain, mostly, right now," said Jeff Gaffney, an agent with the cooperative extention service in Fairfax.

Seeds are sitting in the ground without growing, he said, and many farmers are delaying moving seedlings from greenhouses to the fields.

There were some optimists to be found yesterday.

"No question about it; the first day of spring is kind of like a bench mark for people to really start to think progressively," proclaimed Bob Stickell, who runs the Washington Marina Co. on Maine Avenue.

Thinking nautical thoughts is what Stickell meant. Boat bottoms are being scrubbed at the company's slips, he said, and people are dropping by for marine supplies. "It's kind of like a magic day."

Perhaps sensing that magic, the giant panda Ling-Ling emerged soon after 7 a.m. at the National Zoo to frolic with her boyfriend Hsing-Hsing.

They ignored the fact that spring is panda mating season.

"They played, off and on, for about two hours," said Elizabeth Frank, a zoologist at the zoo. "We've seen a lot of activity but (Ling-Ling's) activity decreased last week to the point, yesterday, where she didn't come out. Today she came out and things were fine. Tomorrow . . . . Who knows?"

North of Silver Spring, Mary Janetatos, executive director of the North American Bluebird Society, had her eyes on her bird boxes for signs of spring. "The bluebirds have been back," she said. "They beat the robins to my yard by one day. They are now searching for a place to test and polishing up their songs, getting all set up for a booming season."