February 25-March 2, 2024

The Long Wait

common raven
Ravens are especially conspicuous and active as they prepare for the nesting season. Photo by David Lukas

Are you eager for spring to begin, or do you long for more days of snow?

Several members of the Nature Notes community have work in an exhibit that just opened at the Confluence Gallery in Twisp. This exhibit celebrates the rare and remarkable dark skies found in the Methow Valley and highlights the threat these skies face from outdoor lighting. This is one of my most passionate issues, and I hope you'll join me in supporting this exhibit and this important issue.

Week in Review

It's hard to summarize the weather this week. Much of the time it felt like spring was just around the corner, but then the week ended with a new blanket of snow and even more snow in the forecast!

snow on hills
Fresh snow on March 2. Photo by David Lukas

I'm sure the animals are feeling some confusion as well. For example, Dana Visalli saw a male mountain bluebird on Bowen Mountain on February 29. A bluebird arriving early in the spring might find food on a sunny day, but it's a total mystery how it would find insects on a rainy or snowy day!

mountain bluebird
The radiant colors of a mountain bluebird. Photo by Peter Bauer

My own confusion was mirrored in spotting a lone ruddy duck. I initially thought this bird was the first migrant duck to show up this spring, then I learned that ruddy ducks occasionally linger through winter and are sometimes found on Christmas Bird Counts in the valley.

ruddy duck
The distinctive low-slung profile and bill shape of a ruddy duck. Photo by David Lukas

Hawks, eagles, and ravens continue to display exuberant courtship and breeding behavior, including making loud calls and circling high in the air. Two weeks ago in the newsletter, I shared Tom Forker's photo of a unique pair of red-tailed hawks, so I was pleased to rediscover what appears to be this same pair guarding a nest site a couple days ago.

red-tailed hawk pair
This might be the most unusual pair of red-tailed hawks in the valley. Photo by David Lukas

Large groups of deer have also been making a conspicuous appearance lately. Perhaps this is a good year for them, with little snow and easy access to new grasses and leaf buds?

mule deer
One or two white-tailed deer (upper left) with a group of mule deer. Photo by Trevin Leon

Newly emerging bitterbrush leaves are an important and nutritious food for deer. Photo by David Lukas

new grasses
Lots of tender grass shoots to nibble on too. Photo by David Lukas

We can expect to see rust fungi later in the spring, but this week was the first time that I've ever spotted one in the earliest stages of its development. At some point I'll write more extensively about this bizarre fungus, but briefly, this rust infects native mustard plants then reprograms the plant so it produces "fake" flowers that attract pollinators who transfer fungal sperm to other plants. (You can read a bit more in this Wikipedia entry.)

rust fungus
This rust fungus infecting a native mustard is just beginning to produce a pseudoflower that will emerge from the stem like a real flower. Photo by David Lukas

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Observation of the Week: Brown Creeper

brown creeper
Brown creepers are small and hard to spot. Photo by David Lukas

The tiny brown creeper is considered uncommon in the valley but is observed far less than expected because it so inconspicuous. I'm positive that I've seen them at least a couple times, but I can't remember the last time I've seen one, so I was super excited to find one scampering up tree trunks along the river this week.

brown creeper
Creepers use their long, curved bills to pull catch insects underneath bark flakes. Photo by David Lukas

Brown creepers are like very small woodpeckers that cling to tree trunks and search for insects hidden in crevices and under flakes of bark. Creepers share this same niche with nuthatches, but nuthatches move down a tree trunk, while creepers move up a tree trunk.

brown creeper
Brown creepers are perfectly colored to look like bark. Photo by David Lukas

Creepers have another unique behavior. They find the greatest number of insects near the bottom of tree trunks where the bark is older and more fractured, so they start looking for food near the ground then circle their way up the trunk. When they reach newer, smoother bark higher up on the trunk, they fly to the base of another tree and keep repeating this pattern.

graphic of brown creeper foraging behavior
Brown creepers circle up a tree, then fly to the base of a neighboring tree. Image by David Lukas