March 17-23, 2024

Always Changing

leaf buds
It's thrilling to see leaves budding out again. Photo by David Lukas

We're entering that long, moody stretch when warm spring days trade back and forth with late-lingering winter weather—in what T. S. Eliot calls the "cruelest month."

Week in Review

While most of the week was delightfully warm and sunny, by week's end we'd almost predictably returned to gloomy skies, a chill, and threat of rain.

Sunny days were enlivened by swallows darting overhead, butterflies flickering along wooded roadsides, and the first flowers emerging from damp ground, but all this excitement became noticeably subdued with the arrival of cooler temperatures.

native fly
A gorgeous native fly enjoying some warm sun. Photo by David Lukas

It's still early for flowers but there were scattered sightings of single flowers (or even small groups) of our classic early blooming species, including bluebells, yellow bells, spring beauty, and steer's head. All of these, except for steer's head, will become much more obvious over the coming weeks.

Ponderosa pine forests can be carpeted with bluebells. Photo by David Lukas

yellow bells
Yellow bells are widely scattered in dry open areas. Photo by David Lukas

spring beauty
Spring beauty is one of our most common forest flowers. Photo by David Lukas

steer's head
The mythical steer's head is hard to find. Photo by Patti Rossie

Even as a few flowers are poking their heads out, several of our butterflies were in peak form this week. If you had a chance to walk any one of our forest roads you would have been greeted by dozens of mourning cloaks, anglewings, and tortoiseshells dancing up and down and racing back and forth along the roadside or landing on lingering patches of snow and ice.

mourning cloak
The most abundant butterflies right now are mourning cloaks that overwintered as adults. Photo by David Lukas

anglewing buttefly
Anglewings are notoriously difficult to identify, and unfortunately, they are flighty and don't let you get close to look for their key identifying marks. Photo by David Lukas

Milbert's tortoiseshell
If you get tired of looking at mourning cloaks and anglewings, you'll be delighted to spot a Milbert's tortoiseshell. Photo by David Lukas

Birds are also shifting in response to the changing seasons. Western and mountain bluebirds have been checking out nestboxes, while tree and violet-green swallows and Say's phoebe are looking for places to nest as well.

The variety and numbers of water birds have also been increasing. Six trumpeter swans appeared for the first time (since late December?) on March 17, along with a group of 14 northern pintails. Scaup, teal, ring-necked ducks, and coot are among several other water birds that are apparent now.

trumpeter swans
The swans are back! Photo by David Lukas

It's a pleasure to celebrate the changing seasons with you through these weekly newsletters. If you want to help with this labor of love, please consider upgrading to a paid subscription, or make a donation in any amount using the link below. This newsletter is entirely funded through donations and subscriptions.

Observation of the Week: Killdeer

Killdeer are conspicuous and noisy right now. Photo by David Lukas

As soon as snow and ice roll back to reveal moist, exposed soils on open flats around the valley, killdeer return with a noisy show of force. These ground-dwelling shorebirds would be mostly inconspicuous, but they have a loud, and very peeved, way of announcing their presence.

They seem to be especially noisy right now, so I'm guessing they're establishing territories and squabbling over where these territorial lines lie. For example, one pair has been loudly calling and circling my neighborhood, while another pair just down the hillside is doing the same thing.

A killdeer flying back and forth patrolling its territory. Photo by David Lukas

Because these birds live on the ground, they generally want to remain well camouflaged, but at the same time, killdeer specialize in using bold colors and loud calls to startle and distract potential predators.

One side of a killdeer provides perfect camouflage, while the other is a bold display. Photo by David Lukas

Killdeer can turn one way and be hidden by their sandy-colored feathers or turn another way and startle you with the bold, black bars on their chests. If that isn't enough, they will leap into flight and flash a brilliant orange rump at you as they fly away.

Even in a side view, the orange rump is a prominent mark. Photo by David Lukas

Together with their loud kill-deer calls, and a unique "broken wing" behavior, these strategies are mostly used to lure predators away from eggs and chicks that will be vulnerable on the ground later in the season.