March 10-16, 2024

On wings of expectation

common redpoll
An unexpected visitor! Photo by Janet Bauer

We're finally breaking the spell of winter, and there's a sparkle in the air as things start to shift into spring with accelerating speed.

It's a pleasure to celebrate the changing seasons with you through these weekly newsletters. If you want to help with this work, please upgrade to a paid subscription, or make a donation in any amount using the link below.

Week in Review

This mostly sunny and warm week felt fantastic! It also prompted a bit of panic because it's hard to miss a moment of sunshine while there are still so many winter projects to wrap up around the house!

western bluebirds
Western bluebirds checking a nestbox outside the office window. Photo by David Lukas

Although flowers haven't quite arrived in the middle and upper portions of the valley, they have begun blooming in the lower valley. Sagebrush buttercup appears to be starting this grand floral parade, with bluebells and prairie stars close behind. [Check out my short video about sagebrush buttercups at the end of the newsletter.]

An early bluebells in the lower valley. Photo by Tanja Thomas

One thing that people have been noticing are damaged upper leaves on one of our common forest shrubs known as tobacco brush (or snowbrush). This is likely a sign that winter's low snowpack left many leaf-covered branches of this evergreen shrub exposed to below-freezing temperatures. It will be interesting to watch and see if these branches die back or sprout new leaves.

tobacco brush
Frost-damaged (?) tobacco brush. Photo by Rebekah Jensen

Have you seen any insects yet? We had our first fly of the year buzz in and then out of the house, and a few orangish butterflies are zipping around. Can it be long before someone finds the first mosquito?!

western thatching ants
Western thatching ants emerging from their winter refugia. Photo by David Lukas

These western thatching ants have been overwintering in a rotten log and were emerging on a warm day to begin building their characteristic nest. Their nests are made of small pieces of grass stems, needles, and bits of wood and eventually become towering mounds that can reach several feet high. Over the winter, these ants safeguard aphids in their burrows, and then when plants leaf out, they move aphids onto new leaves for the summer (aphid honeydew is a staple item in an ant's diet).

northern pintail
Were northern pintails our first migrating ducks? Photo by David Lukas

This has been a fun week for birdwatching. At the beginning of the week, I finally spotted what I would call our first migrating ducks, a group of six northern pintails. By the end of the week, it felt like even more ducks were making an appearance, along with a single ring-billed gull that promptly continued flying north.

ring-billed gull
Even at this great distance you can recognize a ring-billed gull by its bright yellow feet. Photo by David Lukas

Although the beaver pond at the Chickadee Trailhead remains frozen, this hasn't stopped five pairs of Canada geese from claiming nesting territories as they wait for the ice to melt. These are the much larger moffitti subspecies that breed in the Methow Valley, and the pairs are widely spaced along the shoreline. At one point, a coyote joined them on the ice and spent about 10 minutes yipping up a storm, and it was fascinating to see that the geese weren't concerned and in fact the closest goose even sat down on the ice and preened itself!

Canada geese
Three pairs of Canada geese claiming their territories. Photo by David Lukas

Coyote at beaver pond 2

Finally, it's incredible that right now we have flocks of hundreds of common redpolls hanging out around the giant cottonwood trees at Lloyd Ranch, across from Pearrygin Lake. These arctic birds live in northern Canada and Alaska, and only occasionally venture south in the winter, so it's astonishing to see flocks this large and this late in the year. They also don't pay us much attention, so if you stand quietly you might end up right next to them!

common redpoll
Not a bird you see every day in the Methow Valley. Photo by Janet Bauer

common redpolls
Redpolls are beautiful and unique finches. Photo by David Lukas

common redpolls
Some of the many redpolls in this remarkable group. Photo by David Lukas

Observation of the Week: Catkins

birch catkin
Fresh birch catkins. Photo by David Lukas

While redpolls are probably the week's most notable observation, this is also the time of year when catkins are popping out everywhere around the valley. Catkins are the distinctive male flowers that we see on trees like birch, aspen, alder, and willow.

aspen catkins
Aspen catkins start as fuzzy balls that will elongate into drooping strands. Photo by David Lukas

Catkins are especially conspicuous because they emerge before leaves do, and there's a reason why trees do this. The goal of male catkins is to deliver pollen to female cones, but pollen is dispersed by air currents. Trees want their pollen to be carried freely by the wind, and leaves get in the way by blocking the free movement of air.

willow catkins
Willow catkins are known as pussy willows because they start as fuzzy balls. Photo by David Lukas

Male flowers are very short-lived because they have only one function, which is to disperse pollen. Once they dump their load of pollen they wither and fall, and all we'll see left behind are developing female cones.

alder catkins
Male alder catkins next to female cones (on the right). Photo by David Lukas

A Couple Videos

This video I made a couple years ago has some interesting facts about sagebrush buttercup.

Within the next couple days, the ice on Twin Lakes should begin melting like this, especially if the wind comes up. (Notice that this is happening a month earlier this year!!!)