November 26-December 2, 2023

Snow at Last!

snow in the Methow Valley
Waking up to fresh snow this morning! Photo by David Lukas

A week of gray, dreary days ended in a splash—with skies breaking open and sunlight bathing our first big snowfall of the year.

Week in Review

Despite the notable lack of snow, we have definitely crossed the threshold from glorious fall into the depths of winter, and everything has been looking really gray, brown, and dead lately.

leaves on ground
Cold, bare ground. Photo by David Lukas

But, then we ended the week with a new blanket of sparkling white snow, and it's like a sigh of relief. This is what winter is all about!

snow on ground
Cold, bare ground...with a fresh coat of snow! Photo by David Lukas

Now the world feels alive and vibrant again, there are fresh tracks to follow, birds congregating at the feeder, and glints of sunlight shining through icy crystals! I'm thrilled because the timing is perfect for my winter ecology talk this afternoon at the Winthrop Library!

Please join me for today's WINTER ECOLOGY TALK to learn about the lives of our local plants and animals! This event is free, with donations appreciated. Winthrop Library on December 2 from 4-5:30 p.m.

bird feeder
American goldfinches happy for a meal on a cold, snowy day. Photo by David Lukas

With the leading edge of winter upon us, we've been getting a mix of newly arriving winter birds alongside some fascinating late migrants. Our mini-invasion of pine grosbeaks is still going on, though perhaps in smaller numbers, and sharp-eyed birdwatchers have also picked up on a couple common redpolls at Pearrygin Lake.

pine grosbeak
Female pine grosbeak in the fresh snow. Photo by Vaughn Thomas

Pine grosbeaks and redpolls are both finches in the Fringillidae family, and these birds are notorious for staging large-scale movements called "irruptions" in respond to cold temperatures and diminished food supplies.

Other interesting birds have been a trio of sea ducks hanging out on some of our larger lakes. There has been a red-breasted grebe at Pearrygin Lake, plus at least one white-winged scoter, and one long-tailed duck, at Big Twin Lake.

two grebes
Red-breasted grebe (on left), with a western grebe. Photo by Peter Wimberger

All three of these birds breed on arctic tundra in northern Canada and Alaska, then spend their winters along the coasts of North America. The Methow Valley is not their typical habitat, but it's possible that some stop briefly in the Valley while traveling to the ocean.

long-tailed duck
This female long-tailed duck is a rare visitor in the Methow Valley. Photo by David Lukas

Scoters are notable because they are scarce, hard to find even where expected, and their populations seem to be declining. And the long-tailed duck is a special sighting because they seldom venture south of Canada on the Pacific Coast. Finding unusual birds like this make any outing in the Methow Valley a memorable experience!

Another thing that's special are these newsletters. I hope you'll consider becoming a paid subscriber to help keep this effort going, and I really appreciate everyone who has already upgraded to a paid subscription. Thank you!

Observation of the Week: Snow and Ice Crystals

ice crystals
Ice crystals and snowflakes. Photo by David Lukas

There's a lot to say about snow, and I'll be covering this topic in my talk at the library today, but we can start by appreciating the beauty of snow and ice crystals.

ice crystals
The beautiful structure of ice crystals. Photo by Jack McLeod

Snowflakes are produced high in the atmosphere, as supercooled clouds at -40 degrees convert water vapor into ice crystals. Each snowflake grows around a single, tiny particle floating in the atmosphere. These particles include things like dust, soot, pollen, and spores.

Snowflakes grow around particles of dust at their centers.

The nature of hydrogen and oxygen bonds results in an immense variety of fantastic, six-sided geometric forms that we recognize as the classic snowflake shape.

Each snowflake is a unique arrangement of an estimated 10 quintillion water molecules, meaning that no two snowflakes are alike.

But as soon as these fantastic shape form, they begin breaking down, first by colliding with each other and being buffeted by the wind, and then by piling up on the ground.

snowflakes on ground
Snowflakes packing into a snowbank. Photo by David Lukas

Alongside external forces, snowflakes also begin to self-destruct as water molecules at the highest points of the snowflake begin moving to the lowest points. This gradually transforms sharply pointed snowflakes into rounded pellets that stick together to create the dense snowbanks that animals are able to live in and human ski on.