October a month of change in the Walla Walla Valley

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October is the most important transition month for thousands of organisms in Walla Walla County as well as the northern hemisphere.

As the sun slips off to the south and weather patterns change, sunlight periods shorten and living organisms alter their average daily activities.

So let me share with you some of the great things happening in nature during my favorite month.

This is the close of monarch butterfly migration as the last few of the long-distance insects pass to the south along the shores of the Columbia River in the west end of the county. These are monarchs that winter in the coast range just outside of Pacific Grove and Monterey, Calif. The species will pass back through Walla Walla County in May of next year.

Other amazing underway are the arrival of thousands of ducks and geese at McNary National Wildlife Refuge and along the Columbia River. We have already seen several flocks of snow geese and many more northern pintail ducks.

Passerine, or songbird, migration is closing down as most of these dynamic little birds have already passed southward into the deserts of southwest and northern Mexico. Many of these tiny birds will fly until they reach the neo-tropics of Central and South America.

The black-chinned, calliope, rufous and broad-tailed hummingbirds are all off and headed south after a long summer here. Your hummingbird feeder out after September in no way alters a hummingbirds migration urges. But one species — the Anna’s hummingbird — remains in the Valley. It weighs in at 2.4 grams and wanders around the interior west all winter looking for micro-insects and feeders.

In the insect world, native wasps, bees and beetles have all laid their eggs underground, under bark, in old hollow trees, abandoned buildings and in and on your home. Among butterflies, 75 percent have laid their eggs, hatched their caterpillars, ate their fill and will winter over in cocoons.

The other 25 percent are hibernating as adult butterflies in old trees, buildings, in basalt rock lava tubes and cracks. They will emerge on warm winter days to soak up the sun light, even in January. So watch for them; they are known as the “brush foot” family of butterflies.

As we all know, trees begin the process of shedding their leaves this month, falling on everything under them or where the wind carries them. When they fall into streams and rivers they introduce nutrients into that river drainage and a whole group of insect larvae called “shedders” take these leaves apart and use their nutrients. These insect larvae are in turn eaten by many amphibians and fish.

October is also when salmon and steelhead native to the Columbia basin return from the ocean and enter the Walla Walla, Touchet and Mill Creek drainages, coming home to spawn in November and early December.

Another great event in the Blue Mountains is the “rut” of the four deer species that live here. This is the time when the males have rubbed all the velvet off their antlers and are ready to go discover a few approachable females. Often these males must prove their value and fitness by taking on other males in a contest of strength. All four deer species joust within their species for the right to breed.

Then there is the world of forbs — most of the beautiful blooming flowers we see in the spring and summer. These plants bloom, form seeds and go dormant or die by October. Their seeds are spread everywhere and are awaiting the spring season.

Life is everywhere about you and right now every animal and plant is or has prepared for winter, the upcoming season of testing. As you are outside this month, be aware of those species of animals that are just arriving from the north, those last few that are headed out to the south, and those that will be hibernating soon.

Go outside and select two items from the natural world and then determine where they are from and what this new month will bring them.

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

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