October is a great month in the natural world of plants and animals here in Walla Walla County.
It’s a month when many plants are fast slipping into dormancy, producing seeds, fruits or, like the Russian thistle, just coming into bloom. I’ll talk about this amazing plant a bit later in this column.
There are a number of plants that are currently blooming like the spectacular hoary aster, gray and green rabbit brush that are covered in brilliant yellow blooms, and Basin and big Wyoming sage, part of the sunflower family.
All of these plants are considered part of the shrub-steppe plant community and live in the desert portion of the county, those areas that get 10 inches of precipitation or less annually.
These late blooming plants provide the last great offering of sustenance to small mammals, moths, beetles, native bees and wasps before the first blast of winter slams the door shut, forcing these plants to stop producing nectar, pollen and their beautiful colors.
So lets talk about the common old Russian thistle, also known as the tumbleweed. It’s an invasive non-native weed species introduced from Asia that starts to grow in earnest about the middle of July after temperatures have climbed into the high 90s and surface soils are dry.
It is striped with green and pink lines that run the length of the rapidly lengthening stems and branches. This tough plant has a center stem that grows straight up through the middle with many branches coming off that axis (all the better to roll with). As it grows its base branches start to extend near the root base. The branches are graduated shorter in length as they grow closer to the apex of the plant.
By late September into early October the Russian thistle goes into full bloom. Some produce bright pink, red or green blossoms, and after the first good freeze the plant becomes dark reddish gray or almost slate gray.
It then waits for the next big event in its existence: winter. Powerful cold fronts create blasting winds that will snap its anchor to the earth, roll the now seed-loaded plant onto its side and kick it like a tire bouncing over the ground. With each jarring return to earth this big plant — some tumbleweeds reach 6 to 7 feet across at the base — releases thousands of seeds as the wind pushes it along its rolling path.
That is until it piles into a fence line, road cut or a hillside gully, where these and other wind-blown plants form huge drifts that can be 20-plus feet deep. These drifts, in turn, become outstanding thermal cover for many small birds and mammals during the winter and well into the summer.
October is also a good time to spot ring-necked ducks along the waterways of western Walla Walla County. The bird belongs to the Aythya (pronounced A-thee-uh) duck family. Although commonly known as the ring-necked duck, the name is a gross misnomer because this waterfowl has a dark, difficult-to- see reddish ring around its mid neck. The big noticeable ring is the one large white one around the bill about three quarters to the tip.
Male ring-necks have a purple head and a gray bill that is outlined in pure white. They have a black chest, a white thumb of color between the chest and gray barred flanks, and a black mantle, rump and tail. They grow to about 17 inches long.
They nest in northeastern Washington but have never been found to nest here farther south in Walla Walla County. We do have several records of summering ring-necks, but no known breeding birds. Many dozens of these stylish birds, however, winter in this county.
This month start watching for these beautiful ducks out along the Columbia River from Wallula Gap north through to McNary National Wildlife Refuge. They are divers and can be found at most of the grain terminals on the big rivers as they feed on sprouting wheat spilled into the rivers when grain barges are loaded.
Life is good!
Mike Denny is president of the Blue Mountain chapter of the National Audubon Society. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by calling 6-8 p.m. weekdays at 529-0080.