May 12-18, 2024

Some thoughts on this drying and quiet week

scarlet gilia
A single patch of scarlet gilias found on a long hike. Photo by David Lukas

Surprisingly cold winds and turbulent cloudy skies made this an odd week to figure out.

Week in Review

I'm not sure what to say about this week—or this spring in general—but things feel oddly muted to me and I'm curious what you've been noticing.

shrubby penstemon
Shrubby penstemon adding sprinkles of color on a dry, rocky hillside. Photo by David Lukas

On all my outings I'm noticing that everything feels strangely quiet and subdued. The cold wind might be tamping down butterfly and insect activity, but even without the wind there's not a lot going on. I haven't been noticing many wildflowers, and I've only seen three snakes and a few turtles all spring.

A large, beautiful rattlesnake found this week. Photo by Tricia Degernas Spivey

And where are the birds?! It doesn't seem like there have been many singing birds and I've only heard one western tanager, one northern oriole, and no lazuli buntings and these should all be conspicuous and vocal right now.

vaux's swift
A rare, closeup look at a Vaux's swift rescued from a chimney. Photo by Martin J. Novak

There are exceptions of course, and that's why I'm curious what your experiences have been like. For example, I sometimes run across a patch of flowers, or find myself walking through a grove of trees with yellow warblers singing everywhere at once, but so far this year I haven't had one of those classic spring days when it feels like the whole world is buzzing with life and energy.

harlequin duck
A great look at the extraordinary harlequin duck. Photo by Trevin Leon

It's all a little eerie but I keep hoping that we'll still have a few of those glorious days when everything feels alive. Deep down, however, I think that some of us are a little nervous about how dry things already are, and getting worried about how we'll fare this summer.

Whether it's an exciting week in nature, or a week when we worry about what's going on, what matters is that we're paying attention and recording the changes we see over time. That is one of the values of the Nature Notes newsletter and Facebook group and I hope you'll consider helping me with this effort. I volunteer my time to manage this work, but I depend on paid subscriptions and donations to keep this project going. Thank you for your support!

Observation of the Week: Vesper Sparrows

It's possible that the most common and widespread bird in the Methow Valley is a bird we rarely notice. Vesper sparrows are very common birds of open shrub-steppe and grassland habitats, but they live on the ground and stay almost continuously hidden in the vegetation.

vesper sparrow
Even on open ground, vesper sparrows are hard to see. Photo by David Lukas

These are the birds that pop up for a moment, fly a short distance, then drop back to the ground as you walk or bike on local trails. In this frustratingly short glimpse, you almost never get to study the bird or see enough features to figure out what kind of bird it is.

vesper sparrow
A lucky sighting of a vesper sparrow who didn't want to fly on a cold, windy day. Photo by David Lukas

At best, you might notice a thin, white outer edge on the bird's tail, and if you're even luckier the bird might perch in the open, giving you a chance to look for its diagnostic chestnut shoulder patch (which is usually mostly hidden by other feathers). However, in general you can almost dependably identify vesper sparrows as the birds you see for a split second as they dive back to the ground.

vesper sparrow
After a fire, shrub-steppe habitats come alive with the flowers and new vegetation that vesper sparrows favor. Photo by David Lukas

Because vesper sparrows stay hidden and we rarely get to appreciate them, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that they're an important indicator of healthy habitats. This is especially true because they favor shrub-steppe and grasslands habitats after a fire where there's a mix of both open ground and vibrant new vegetation. We tend to think of fires as a negative, but fires promote healthy plant and animal communities that birds like vesper sparrows depend on.