August 20-26, 2023

Clearing and Change

sunset rays
Wildfire smoke clearing in time for a glorious sunset. Photo by David Lukas

After weeks of choking wildfire smoke, the sky finally cleared this week, revealing that summer is slowly turning into autumn.

Week in Review

I think everyone spent most of the past couple weeks staying inside to avoid the smoke, but in the meantime the seasons continued transitioning from summer into autumn.

If this chokecherry is any indication, autumn is on its way. Photo by David Lukas

After smoke cleared late in the day on the 22nd, the morning of the 23rd was the first moment all summer that was downright chilly and smelled like autumn. There were even reports of snow dusting some of the higher peaks and it was 30 degrees on top of Goat Peak that morning.

Early in the week I spotted a group of migrating warblers, including a yellow warbler, and on the 25th the first group of migrating ducks arrived on Twin Lakes. This flock included 40 northern shovelers and three American wigeons—and you could tell they were new arrivals because they were super skittish, taking off and landing over and over again, even as the local mallards and coots calmly paddled around.

flock of ducks on lake
The first flock of migrating ducks this year. Photo by David Lukas

Another typical sign of the seasons is the apparent appearance of black widow spiders. They've been around all summer, and you've probably noticed them earlier, but towards the end of summer the big black females reach their peak size so they're much easier to see. Sadly, too many people feel that the only good spider is a dead spider when in fact they're an extremely important part of our local ecology.

Maybe because so many of us are getting outside again, there was an uptick of interesting observations posted on the Methow Nature Notes Facebook group this week.

For example, I loved seeing the photographs of a bushy-tailed woodrat nibbling on fireweed stalks. These photos help explain some of the cut stems I've seen in other places, so this is a fantastic observation, especially because bushy-tailed woodrats are one of my favorite animals.

busy-tailed woodrat
Bushy-tailed woodrat harvesting fireweed stalks under cover of darkness. Photo by Austin Smith

This is also a great time to check out our local lakes because water attracts a lot of wildlife when it's dry and hot, so you never know what you're going to find around the water.

toe biter
Giant water bugs, or toe-biters, are the largest bugs in the order Hemiptera. This one was eating a small minnow!

American coots
Coot babies look like adults now, which makes it seem like coots are more numerous. Photo by David Lukas

Columbian spotted frog
I was excited to see my first Columbian spotted frog this week. Photo by David Lukas

eight-spotted skimmer
Eight-spotted skimmers are very common around lakes—but rarely sit still long enough to photograph. Photo By David Lukas

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Observation of the Week: Snow Buckwheat

snow buckwheat
These brilliant white flowers can be hard to look at in the full sun. Photo by David Lukas

Several times this summer I've posted about snow buckwheat, noticing how few were flowering and wondering what was going on with them. Well, I finally have my answer, they reach their peak flowering in mid- to late August and they are in their full glory right now!

wasps in snow buckwheat
An incredible number of pollinators are attracted to snow buckwheat. Photo by David Lukas

Snow buckwheats are so abundant in the Methow Valley that from a distance they often color entire hillsides.

dry hillsides
You might not notice it, but snow buckwheat covers this hillside. Photo by David Lukas

However, what look like dry dusty hillsides from a distance reveal a world of life at close range. I spent several hours photographing snow buckwheat this week and was astonished at how many pollinators I discovered in a single patch of flowers!

snow buckwheat
The distinctive white of snow buckwheat. Photo by David Lukas

These deep-rooted perennials are a valuable part of our local ecology. They grow readily on dry, or damaged sites, and help prevent erosion, while also being an incredibly important plant for pollinators and a vital source of food for mule deer in the winter.

bee on buckwheat flower
A beautiful bee. Photo by David Lukas

Surprisingly, these delightful flowers have no petals. What look like petals to us are actually two whorls of white sepals, with three sepals in each ring. They also have nine yellow-tipped stamens, and a single pistil that later matures into a tiny triangular fruit (an achene) that closely resembles the cultivated buckwheat you can buy in the store.

Here is a gallery of some insects I discovered in one small patch of snow buckwheat this week. You can see how important these flowers are for insects!

snow buckwheat
A wasp. Photo by David Lukas

snow buckwheat flower
A fly. Photo by David Lukas

buckwheat flowers
Ants harvesting pollen. Photo by David Lukas

wasp on buckwheat
A wasp. Photo by David Lukas

wasp on buckwheat
A different kind of wasp? Photo by David Lukas

bee fly on buckwheat
This amazing critter is a bee fly. Photo by David Lukas

A tiny wasp. Photo by David Lukas

bumblee on buckwheat
One of several types of bumblebees. Photo by David Lukas

fly on buckwheat
A large native fly. Photo by David Lukas

bee on buckwheat
A type of bee. Photo by David Lukas

damselfly on buckwheat
Damselfly resting on buckwheat flowers. Photo by David Lukas

fly on buckwheat
A tiny native fly. Photo by David Lukas

bumblebee on buckwheat
Another type of bumblebee. Photo by David Lukas

Even honeybees love buckwheat flowers. Photo by David Lukas

It's fun to find so much beauty in such an unexpected place.

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