Wow, winter is slowly dropping out of sight as the sun gets higher over our heads.
Many desert plants are shooting out of the ground, some are already blooming, such as the prairie star, sagebrush buttercup, yellow bell and salt and pepper lomatium.
There are scores of midges, gnats and flies out already, too. I saw my first native ground bee this morning and last Thursday the first butterfly, a Milbert’s tortoiseshell. The Milbert is a member of the brushfoot family, a whole group of butterflies that hibernate as adults in old buildings, hollow trees, under thick bark and deep in rock crevices.
Keep in mind that this season is about the rebirth of life and new generations for the future. Also remember that thousands of organisms are germinating, hatching, metamorphosing, awaking from hibernation, migrating, laying eggs, budding and leaving this basin all at once. So much is happening that it is impossible to cover it all here in this column, but over time I will do my best.
So, with native plants blooming, insects emerging and air temperatures stabilizing, the stage is now set for the return of neo-tropic migrants to Walla Walla County. These are the birds that have spent the winter months far to the south in Central and South America. Some weigh as little as 1.2 grams (calliope hummingbird) to several pounds (turkey vulture). Most of these migrants are in the 3- to 7-ounce range.
Today lets look at a species of flycatcher that appears in the Walla Walla River Basin about the second week of February. It has been named the Say’s phoebe. This energetic bird is named after Thomas Say (1787- 1834), a founding member of the Philadelphia Academy of Natural History and the author of the three-volume set of “American Entomology” (study of insects) as well as the six-volume set of “American Conchology” (study of marine gastropods or snails).
The flycatcher’s Latin name is Sayornis saya, which simply means Say’s bird. Males appear first and set up a territory and then began to give their plaintive whistle-like call that on sunny spring mornings fills the landscape from the foothills of the Blue Mountains west into the Wallula Gap desert along the Columbia River. The female is wired to pay attention to this type of call. Soon she will accept the males invitation and a tight grass and stick nest will be built up under a roof or just under an over hanging rock. In rural areas the bird nests on front porches, in barns, sheds and in abandoned tractors and other farm machinery, even on rungs of ladders hanging under a roof.
This flycatcher ingests thousands of flies, gnats, midges, mosquitoes and flying ants, which it catches on the wing as it works to feed its four young. Some folks dislike the seasonal nesting mess, but when you think of all the insects they feed on it is a small price to pay for three weeks of droppings and calling each year.
Watch for this outstanding flycatcher, with its dark cap, tail and wings and a salmon/orange colored lower chest and belly. This is a protected species and highly beneficial. Consider yourself lucky if a pair select your farm or outbuildings to nest.
Another spring event under way is the emergence of thousands of bright yellow flowers out in Wallula Gap. These blossoms just started blooming last week. They are close to the warming ground and the most eye-catching flower there right now.
They are the sagebrush buttercup, Ranunculus glaberriimus, a Latin name that breaks down to frog plus moist soil. This spectacular dark leafed plant grows prostrate on the ground in seasonally moist, sandy soils across most desert areas of the intermountain West. It attracts all the early pollinators, such as ants, some flies, ground bees, some beetles and mice.
I urge you to get outside and learn to observe what else is out and about. Keep a daily list of what you see and you will be amazed what you discover and how that list grows.
Remember the old standard: “Look, listen and leave only foot tracks.” Enjoy this transitional month.
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.