An adult mountain bluebird in the Blue Mountains.
March 2013 has dropped away into history with unusual extreme
weather ranging from 21 to 75 degrees. Several early arrival dates for migrant birds were established and documented in the Walla Walla Valley. A drake blue-winged teal at the Wallula Habitat Management
Unit on March 30 was a first.
The emergence of seven blooming wildflower species in mid-March heralded warmer air and soil temperatures across the lower elevations in the county. Many moths, butterflies, beetles and other insects emerged to start their mission of reproduction. Everything from bumblebees to shooting stars to morning cloak butterflies are out there sharing the county with you right now.
Neo-tropic bird migration is starting as well, as swallows, warblers, vireos and hummingbirds arrive this month. Waterfowl, swans and most geese — except for resident Canada geese — are all ready headed north into the Canadian arctic and Alaska.
In this month’s column, I’d like to focus on the mountain bluebird and the balsamroot family of composite flowers.
With the mountain bluebird’s hollow “tu-tu-tu,” these wonderful western natives arrive in Walla Walla County announcing their intention to once again nest in the foothills of the Blue Mountains. This spectacular bird weighs 29 grams, with a wing span of 14 inches and a body length right at 7.25 inches long. It is a member of the sialia family, which is part of the thrush group the same as the American robin. The intense sapphire-blue of the male mountain bluebird is not caused by pigments but rather by refracted light, with each feather acting as a prism and only picking up the blue wave length.
Mountain bluebirds are found as breeders only in the interior western North America from central Alaska through Canada south into the highlands of northern Arizona and New Mexico. They first arrive in the Pacific Northwest in early February and start to push north in March. They arrive to nest in Walla Walla County the last week of March.
These bluebirds are cavity nesters and are dependent on woodpeckers and local folks for nesting holes and nest boxes. High above the Walla Walla and Touchet river valleys in the northern foothills of the Blue Mountains are many dozens of bluebird boxes that are maintained by several independent folks and the Blue Mountain Audubon Society.
Bluebirds are very important insect population controllers and also feed on many wild berry species in the fall of the year. They are serious predators and like to go after both ground oriented insects and flying bugs. They are great at hovering and hunting from low perches.
In the fall they will join in with many other migrant birds, like chipping and vesper sparrows and yellow-rumped warblers to hunt lithosol openings in the Blue mountains. Lithosol (thin-soiled, stoney ground) openings host large numbers of grasshoppers and crickets, which bluebirds hunt by hovering 3 to 5 feet above the ground.
Mountain bluebirds migrate out of the interior west down into the desert southwest and into northern Mexico, where they winter. If you’d like to see locally, drive up Jasper Mountain Road and look for their nesting boxes. But so as not to disturb nesting bluebirds, please stay in your car and use it as a blind to watch them.
Now for the balsamroot. It’s a large plant family and even has a hybrid here in the west. These beautiful big flowers are composites or a large grouping of small individual flowers all in one flower head.
They are very important early spring flowers because the provide badly needed pollen and nectar to early emerging pollinators like bumblebees, ants, flies and wasps, to name a few.
On private land in western Walla Walla County is the rarest balsamroot of them all: the rosy balsamroot. Once thought to be extirpated from all of Oregon and very rare in southeastern Washington, this beautiful flower was rediscovered by researchers working on plant surveys before the installation of the Stateline wind farm.
If you wish to see these beautiful big yellow flowering balsamroots, watch for them as you drive west along U.S. Highway 730 through Wallula Gap. They bloom into early May.
Another area to see them in the next few weeks is near the Snake River along Magallon Road, Lower Monumental Dam Road, Walker Pit Road and Wooden Road. Keep in mind that these flowers need to remain on the landscape for the insects that depend on their pollen, so please do not pick them.
Also remember that the bright saffron-yellow of the balsamroot and the electric sapphire-blue of the mountain bluebird are here for a short time and then will be gone until next year. These colors are here only for a flash in time.
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.