Anna's hummingbird featured in inaugural wildlife column

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Welcome to this inaugural monthly column on the natural world we all live with here in Walla Walla County. My goals are to inspire, entertain, educate and create questions and interest about all those other life forms among us. Columns will include stories about local wildlife - like the Anna's hummingbird featured later on in this one - announcements of natural events you can witness, general timetables on migration of animals, and I'll occasionally turn things over to a guest columnist.

I hope to improve your powers of observation, curiosity and a desire to get outdoors to see what lives around you. All wild plants and animals are fair subjects for this column.

My quick history is that my family has its roots deep in the Pacific Northwest. Arthur Denny bought land from Chief Seattle on which the city of Seattle was built. Judge Owen Nickerson Denny introduced Chinese ring-necked pheasants to North America from Korea, where he was serving as U.S. ambassador. He married Gertrude Hall who survived the 1847 Whitman Massacre as a teenager.

These two branches of the Denny family have contributed greatly to life in the Pacific Northwest. My own life started in Oregon. I grew up in Southeast Africa, went to high school in Idaho, and studied biology and art at college here in the Walla Walla Valley. My wife, MerryLynn, and I have been married 25 years. I am a birder, teacher, writer and a conservationist. I fish when I get a chance and always enjoy the great outdoors.

So lets move on to bring you up to speed on what is happening with wild animals and plants right now.

November is a transition month for many animals and plants in Walla Walla County, a time when the last of many species of insects, plants and migratory birds are about to depart. Many for a season, some for good as plants drop seeds and die and adult insects lay eggs and die. An exception among insects are brush foot butterflies, which hibernate in adult form.

On days this month when the sun shines and temperatures climb into the mid-50s, you may still encounter yellow/orange sulfur butterflies, a few dragonflies, damselflies, hoverflies and native bees around ponds, rivers and remaining blooming flowers. You may still observe the occasional sandpiper slowly working exposed mud flats on it's way south into central and south America for the winter.

But songbird, shorebird and moth migration is mostly over, with a rare few still hanging around. The remaining insects are the lucky few that will spend cold nights in deep cover away from the light frosts. Most bats have migrated south as the smaller insects on which they depend have died off. Insect numbers determine how many neo-tropic (New World) birds hang back in this county at the leading edge of the winter.

The bird species that are arriving in great numbers starting this month are the waterfowl; such as tundra swans, canvasbacks, ring-necked ducks and American wigeon to name a few. To see these birds check out Casey Pond, on McNary National Wildlife Refuge in western Walla Walla County.

Also arriving to winter in this river basin and will feed at nectar feeders set out by the thoughtful are Anna's hummingbirds.

The Anna's are a recent newcomer to the county. The first photographed record was in Wilber Holly's front yard in College Place on Dec. 2, 1990. There are now more than 15 recorded sightings in the city of Walla Walla alone. The arriving birds are usually sub-adult males or adult females.

Even this tiny bird is dependent on insects for survival, but their food is sparse after the first good hard frost and the supply of insects has vanished until next February or warmer weather, whichever comes first in this changing climate pattern we now live in.

Nectar is the high octane fuel that allows hummingbirds to chase the small insects that survive our winters due to anti-freezing fluids in their systems. So to help the Anna's along, place a hummingbird feeder in your yard and see if you attract one.

The nectar mix should be 2.5 cups of water and 1 cup of white sugar. Do not use any other sweeteners as they are tough on wintering hummers. Boil the solution until it is completely mixed, let it cool and fill the feeder about a quarter full. Place heat tape around the feeder during freezing weather to keep it thawed. Change the fluid every six to seven days.

And while you enjoy their visit, ponder these questions: What role do you think weather has played in the expansion of Anna's hummingbirds distribution into Walla Walla County? What other factors may be at play here? Let me know what you think.

Meanwhile, enjoy this great fall month and keep watch for those still-living insects. Next month we will visit about hibernating mammals, more insects and even birds that go into torpor.

Life is Good!

Mike Denny is vice president of the Blue Mountain chapter of the National Audubon Society. He can be reached at m.denny@charter.net., or by calling between 6-8 p.m. weekdays at 529-0080.

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