WILD FILES - First hints of spring make 2012 debut in Valley

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Species of lichens on a basalt boulder in Wallula Gap are among glimmers of spring appearing in the area.

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A common redpoll.

Yes, it is February 2012 and some very interesting things are happening around you as glimmers of real spring appear across the landscape. Several species of desert native plants are abandoning dormancy and starting to put out the first fist of growth, knocking the cap off winter.

It was 58-degrees Fahrenheit in Wallula Gap on Jan. 28, and many organisms continue to awaken. The Sandburg's blue bunch grass is already up and out, as are the first gnats and early native flies.

The salt and pepper lomatium (pronounced low-may-shum) will soon bloom around the Gap. It is the first blooming native plant, and announces the arrival of spring across the desert areas of the Lower Columbia Basin. It brings with it the first spark of renewed life in a drab, silent landscape. The small white and purple flower often blooms right behind the retreating snow drifts, bursting out of the cold earth looking for longer days and a warmer sun.

One very primitive type of plant that is in full display year-round in the Gap area are the many species of lichens ( pronounced like-ins) that grow in concentric circles and blotches. Some looking like blotches of chewed gum stuck on a rock, they are colored day-glow orange, pale lime-green, burnt rust, bright yellow and flat green, as well as black and many shades of brown, gray and white. These plants abound in brilliant colored colonies on all the basalt rims and boulders found within the Gap, leaving the whole area looking like a giant paint ball target range.

Hard as stone, these bright colored plants plastered against the surface of the ancient lava are starting a process that will over time break the surface areas of their host rocks into microscopic hairline fractures. Over many years the process will slowly turn the rocks into sands and soils after drawing nutrients, minerals and salts from this magma as they grow under the desert sun on very hot surfaces.

All about you right now in Walla Walla County is yet another irruption of an Arctic species of bird. A small winter finch known as the common redpoll has arrived. This 5-inch-long bird has a distinctive red cap and a small conical bill tooled to feed on thistle, catkins, knapweed and small grass seeds.

They arrive here solo and in small flocks. A large flock of 300 redpolls were seen a little more than a week ago in a dense patch of yellow starthistle that had gone to seed. These winter finches are challenged when feeding on this knapweed species as it has a halo of one-half- to quarter-inch-long sharp, yellow needle spines that protect the seed head.

The last time we saw common redpolls in Walla Walla County in these numbers was the winter of 1985-86. So as you look at birds visiting your feeders, watch for a red cap, very small bill and some dark streaking on the flanks in a background of white. They also have a forked tail, a black chin and a pink upper chest in the case of the adult males. Keep your eyes for these little Arctic beauties.

Other major events swirling about you this month are the arrival of thousands of snow geese and greater white-fronted geese, along with many species of other waterfowl out at McNary National Wildlife Refuge. And the American robins have arrived from the high-desert juniper belt around Bend, Ore.

The first Say's phoebe are soon to arrive. This flycatcher species will pass through headed north, as will the first violet-green swallows.

The first nesting birds have also taken up their posts since late January. Among them are the great horned owls.

This month red-tailed hawks, western screech owls, black-billed magpies and great blue herons will all start building nests and defending territories.

The American dippers along Mill Creek have started singing their loud, amazing song. And wintering bald eagles along the Columbia, Walla Walla and Touchet rivers are going to be very obvious sitting in big cottonwoods along shorelines.

Never seen a bald eagle in the wild? There are more than 50 of these big birds in the county right now. So get out there and enjoy these first few days of real spring and all the other life we share this county with. And remember, all native birds are federally protected.

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 6-8 p.m. weekdays at 529-0080.

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