January 7-13, 2024

Bitterly cold

bald eagle in tree
Bald eagle settling down for the night after a bitterly cold day. Photo by David Lukas

This week was a triple whammy with snowstorms, howling winds that lasted for hours, and then days of negative temperatures far below zero.

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Week in Review

mist over river
Mist rising as the river starts to freeze over. Photo by Zach Upper

Surprisingly, despite the plunging temperatures, this has been a relatively busy week for wildlife.

goldeneye ducks
Some of the many goldeneyes lingering on the Methow River. Photo by David Lukas

Even as I sit and write this, I am looking at a perched bald eagle, a large group of very active birds at our feeder, and a herd of deer wandering through the yard—it feels like a lot of activity after days and weeks when very little happened at all!

downy woodpecker
Male downy woodpecker eagerly looking for food in below-zero temperatures. Photo by David Lukas

mule deer
Does it seem like the number of mule deer picked up recently? Photo by Owen Almquist

It's possible that the combination of clear, sunny days and deep cold brings animals out in search of food, but there are other forces also at work. One force is that cold weather might be pushing northern birds south. These are the conditions when we should start looking for unusual visitors like rough-legged hawks, snow buntings, and (very, very rarely) exceptional birds like hawk owls.

snow buntings
One of several reports of snow buntings this week. Photo by Vaughn Thomas

Another force that some animals might be feeling is the urge to mate. Great horned owls, for instance, are already loudly hooting and beginning to nest. Gray jays in the high mountains might already be nesting, and some coyotes are in heat.

coyote scat and urine
The distinctive mark of a female coyote in heat. Photo by Gro Buer

Another factor at work is that, until a week ago, our winter has been remarkably mild. There were even reports of western bluebirds, and other birds, starting to check out nestboxes. Bluebirds eat insects, so they should have migrated south by now, but there's also been a spotted sandpiper hanging out along the river and they should be gone as well.

spotted sandpiper
Spotted sandpipers are common in the summer but not expected in the winter. Photo by David Lukas

Observation of the Week: Great Blue Heron

Great blue heron
A great blue heron hanging out at the Spring Creek Bridge. Photo by David Lukas

It's surprising to see great blue herons in the Methow Valley at this time of year. These tall, gangly birds don't do well in icy conditions because their big feet and long legs can't easily grip or stand on ice, plus they are unable to catch fish if there's even the thinnest layer of ice covering the water.

So far this winter we've had mild conditions, and much of the river shoreline has remained accessible, so there have been a few herons hanging around. This might change now that the river is freezing up, and it will be interesting to watch how the herons respond.

great blue heron
Taking advantage of a snow-free shoreline. Photo by David Lukas

In general, the great blue herons of the Methow Valley follow a predictable pattern. They generally nest at lower elevations—with nesting colonies near Brewster, Omak Lake, and at scattered locations in the Okanogan Valley—and then, after the breeding season, young birds and nonbreeding adults wander upstream and northward towards British Columbia.

great blue heron colony
A nesting colony near the mouth of the Okanogan River used by great blue herons and double-crested cormorants. Photo by Agnes Almquist

These birds should start arriving in the Methow Valley in July and then linger until winter ice pushes them back down the valley in search of warmer, ice-free waters. However, at the same time, it's possible that some individuals spend the entire year, and maybe even nest, in the Valley itself.

great blue heron
A heron moving between open patches of ground. Photo by David Lukas

I tend to take great blue herons for granted because I've seen so many in my life, but, now that I started noticing the herons this winter, I want to pay more attention in the summer and see what they're doing there.