Big flying beauties, fierce digging beasts

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What a great month November is in the natural world here in the northern hemisphere.

It is the month that pulls winter in through the door and brings with it huge numbers of waterfowl out of the Arctic that follow the Columbia River south out of Canada to our Lower Columbia Basin.

Along with these thousands of ducks and geese that arrive along the river in western Walla Walla County are two very special species of swans that appear in late October into November. The one I am going to write about this month is the trumpeter swan.

This huge bird has an 8-foot-wide wing span and is 5-feet long from the tip of its bill to the tail feathers. The males can weigh as much as 30 pounds.

Whole family groups come south together in November. The trumpeters were almost blasted into extinction by market hunters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Today they are a true conservation success story.

These magnificent swans arrive in low numbers here in Walla Walla County in November into December until freeze-up. They are much more common in northwestern Washington out on the Skagit and Samish flats.

When I first arrived here in 1978 trumpeters were very rare and a person had to consider themselves very lucky to ever see one. A small population was reintroduced to Eastern Washington at Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge south of Cheney after the species was wiped out by overshooting.

So this day and age, 10 to 12 trumpeters are seen during the late fall. They often hang out with their much more common cousins, the tundra swan, out at Casey Pond on McNary National Wildlife Refuge near Burbank.

If you want to see trumpeters locally, visit McNary. They’ve also been seen on Bennington Lake outside Walla Walla. Listen for their muted hollow trumpet as they sometimes fly over the city on overcast nights.

November is swan month and so please keep your eyes and ears open.

Another wild critter in the Valley is one that never takes flight. Indeed, it’s known for digging with its 21/2-inch-long claws.

It is a bundle of energy with no fear of anything or anyone. It is a member of the weasel family and is well known for its 10-inch-wide holes and deep burrows it scratches out in moments while trying to root out an unfortunate gopher or mouse.

I am talking about the American badger. This serious predator lives life at 100 percent all the time. It is flat bodied, about 30 inches long and more than willing to defend itself at anytime.

Its skin on its back and flanks is very loose and its fur is thick and heavy. Running down between the round fuzzy ears are black and white stripes that give this anything but cuddly animal an appearance that maybe it might be friendly. In nature, that color combination is a warning that you would be better off to leave the area.

Because badgers are the ultimate excavators, many arid land animals depend on them for survival. All those deep burrows they excavate are used by many wild animals as places to get out of the freezing winter weather or cooking hot summer days.

Animals like frogs, toads, salamanders, snakes, hundreds of insects and ground squirrels as well as our only ground nesting owl, the Western burrowing owl, depend on badgers for shelter.

These badger burrows also act like irrigation wells out in the dry lands where they are so common. After rains, snow melt or hail storms the water rushes down into these holes and seeps into the ground, allowing for cool moist sites with consistent temperatures. Badgers are an important part of the ecology of this desert county.

Life is good.

Mike Denny is 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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