December 10-16, 2023

Never-ending Gray

Methow River
Starting the week on a cheery note. Photo by David Lukas

While the week began with a dash of brilliant blue sky, it soon turned into a long slog of heavy gray days mixed with occasional sprinkles of rain and snow.

Week in Review

So, here we are, rapidly approaching Christmas (and the end of the year!), with disturbingly little snow on the ground. There are a handful of snowy months still ahead, but if we don't start getting snow soon it could be a very dry summer next year.

sunset colors
Working hard to find some color on a gray winter day. Photo by David Lukas

It's also turning into an unusually drab winter with never-ending days of clouds rather than sunny breaks between refreshing snowstorms. I don't know if anyone else is experiencing this, but I've only been outside a few times this winter. It's just so dreary, and there's little motivation to go skiing.

rainbow over Methow Valley
Sparse snow and moody weather in the Methow Valley. Photo by Jill Pagano

Instead, I find myself watching our bird feeder and keeping track of changes in the birds that visit it. Downy woodpeckers, northern flickers, mountain chickadees, and mourning doves were notable arrivals this week, which is interesting in a very small way, but doesn't signify much on a larger scale.

downy woodpecker
The dash of red on a male downy woodpecker. Photo by David Lukas

Despite the scant snow cover, there's still enough on the ground to show animal prints. Keep in mind that, even if nothing else is going on, winter is always a great time to get out and look for tracks!

Don't forget to share your observations and photos on the Methow Nature Notes Facebook page. These posts always spark fascinating conversations, and help all of us better understand what's happening in the natural world around us.

Observation of the Week: River Otters

River otters
A pair of curious and playful river otters. Photo by Tom Forker

We are fortunate in the Methow Valley that we have a healthy and stable population of river otters. However, the freezing of lakes is a time of transition for them, so this has been a week of watching them adapt to these changes.

river otter on snow
River otters store fat in their tails, so a thick tail is a sign of a healthy animal. Photo by David Lukas

Otters are unique in being the only truly amphibious members of the weasel family and the special challenge they face in winter is living in both the water and on land.

If you've ever jumped into an icy lake, you know how cold you get when you emerge from the water! Now, try doing that over and over again all day and through the night, and you can understand how difficult it is for otters.

river otters
River otters are very alert and easily disturbed by human activity. Photo by Tom Forker

This challenge is magnified as lakes and rivers become covered in ice because otters need a rarely found combination of open holes in the ice, where they can hunt, near denning sites on land where they can warm up.

river otter eating
A chilly spot to eat a snack! Photo by Tom Forker

Challenging winter conditions mean that otter need to be almost continuously active through the day and most of the night to find enough food to stay warm as they dive repeatedly into icy lakes and rivers.

river otter eating a crayfish
River otters eat a range of foods including fish, clams, crayfish, amphibians, birds, and small mammals. Photo by Tom Forker

Another thing that's remarkable is that otters might travel 150 miles a year along a river and its tributaries, often venturing overland and even crossing mountain passes if necessary.

river otters
It's a lot of fun to watch the playful antics of river otters. Photo by Tom Forker

In the Methow Valley, it's possible to find otters along any of the major rivers or large lakes in the winter, but they are constantly on the move and don't stay in one area for long, so it's always an unexpected pleasure when you see an otter.

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