June 25-July 1, 2023

Turning hot

pastoral scene in Methow Valley
A classic summer scene in the Methow Valley: a bit of pastoral beauty with afternoon wind ruffling the waters, photo by David Lukas

When we started this newsletter three months ago, we wanted to create a place where people could learn more about the plants, animals, and changing seasons in the beautiful Methow Valley. The newsletter has since become a fantastic resource and we are learning so much about the valley together. If you enjoy and value this newsletter, please consider becoming a paid subscriber to help support this important work! Don't worry, the newsletter will always be free, but paid subscribers will have access to some added perks. Click here for details

It's been hard to read much into weather patterns that change every day, but it feels like the wild west of last week is finally turning the corner into the sweltering heat of summer.

Week in Review

Summer is a slow, sleepy time in the Methow Valley, at least in terms of the natural world, and it feels like we're fast approaching that point; but last week ended with a bang (literally!) as giant thunderstorms rolled through the area.

flash flood on Boulder Creek
Torrent of muddy water gushing down Boulder Creek after a heavy rainstorm last weekend, photo by Ray Beaupre

Despite the warming days there are still flowers and plenty of insects around, along with a scattering of baby animals, but nature lovers might already be turning their eyes towards the rapidly approaching splendor that will be found in high mountain meadows.

And, speaking of insects, have you noticed any mosquitoes?! If you'd like to learn more about these fascinating insects by sure to check out this week's Lukas Guides post about mosquitoes. (Lukas Guides is a separate newsletter you can subscribe to if you're interested in deeper stories about the natural world)

yellow paintbrush
Yellow paintbrush (Castilleja thompsonii) with pollinator, photo by David Lukas

This will create a split in how the Nature Notes newsletter covers the changing seasons: we'll continue focusing on changes in the valley, but it'll be impossible to not peek at what's happening in the high mountains as well, so look forward to a mix of stories.

mountain wildflowers
Wildflowers are already blooming in the mountains, photo by David Lukas

It's been fun to see some of the babies reported this week and we hope it inspires you to keep your eyes open for more babies. In some cases, babies are secretive and well hidden, but in other cases they are loudly crying for attention and food.

For example, we've heard both black-billed magpie and common raven babies that wouldn't shut up, while someone else noticed some normally nocturnal raccoon babies checking out the daytime world.

And speaking of hidden animals, we had a lively discussion about gophers on the Methow Nature Notes Facebook page this week. It's easy to see, or worry about, the damage that gophers cause, while not realizing they are providing an invaluable service by loosening soil so that nutrients and water can move more easily, and so that roots can grow into the soil more readily. Gopher populations come and go, so they may show up for a year or two and help the soil, then be gone for years and the soil will suffer by becoming compacted and depleted.

gopher mounds
Evidence of gophers helping the soil, photo by Vicki Hallowell

Although shrub steppe habitats around the valley are drying out, it's surprising how many flowers you can still find. Buckwheats, with their white to pinkish flowers, are especially conspicuous, but you might also stumble across pockets with many kinds of flowers where you least expect them.

big buckwheat
Big buckwheat flowers (Eriogonum heracleoides) turning pink (on the right) after being pollinated, photo by David Lukas

shrub steppe flowers
A fantastic example of shrub steppe flowers you might find right now: yarrow, buckwheat, cinquefoil, and dogbane. Photo by David Lukas

Observation of the Week: Why Red?

red colors on maple
Prominent red colors on a maple on an open sunny hillside, photo by David Lukas

It's not fall yet, but are you noticing unusually red leaves or stems on plants? These red colors can be quite common, and you might even spot them on exposed roots along the edges of rivers and lakes.

There's an interesting story here: What you're seeing are anthocynanin pigments, which are the most important color-producing pigments in plants.

We expect to see green on plants and different shades of green are created by chlorophyll pigments. These pigments turn sunlight into food energy (sugars) for plants.

Red anthocynanin pigments, on the other hand, absorb the sun's heat energy and act as a kind of sunscreen.

quaking aspen leaves
Red stems on leaves will absorb the sun's heat and become more metabolically active for moving sugars from leaves into the plant, photo by David Lukas

These reds are always present, and in fact they are the basic color of vegetation. In the summer, however, reds are usually covered by abundant green pigments so we don't see them, but reds become obvious in the fall when green pigments are broken down and moved from leaves into branches and roots for winter storage.

aspens in fall
The underlying colors of leaves are revealed as green pigments are broken down and stored in the fall, photo by David Lukas

What you're seeing when you spot red leaves and stems in the summer is the result of plants adding sunscreen to protect tender or vulnerable new tissues from the intense sun. You're also seeing this when you notice red roots at the water's edge because roots are typically hidden underground and have no protection from the sun so when they grow out of the soil and into the water they need lots of added sunscreen to protect them.

maple leaves
This maple on the shaded side of the same hillside as the maple above has very little red because it's not in the full sun and doesn't need the added sunscreen, photo by David Lukas

If you enjoy this newsletter please share it with friends, and consider joining the growing numbers of followers who help support the newsletter by becoming a paid subscriber.