Writing on the Wild Side #10: Of Ladybirds and a Forest Owl
By: Mike Denny. September 2015 is here and our summer is gone in a cloud of dust and smoke. It was one warm summer full of great events in the natural world. Some of these outstanding happenings were the eye popping wild flower bloom early in the summer, large numbers of cloud free days and the really toasty warm days that blanketed this valley most of the season. Now with fall upon us, the Walla Walla River drainage and valley are once again in transition from hot days and warm evenings to cooler days and even cooler evenings. A great time to get outdoors and enjoy all the opportunities that this month presents.
September is a wonderful time to explore and hike in the Blue Mountains. Grab your camera and get some great images in the evening light along the many country roads or go wildlife watching on one of the back roads in the county. Birding is really good this month all along the rivers. Consider a visit to the Whitman Mission or the McNary National Wildlife Refuge. This is the last month to enjoy all the trees along the public trail from the Walla Walla Community College to Rooks Park. Get outdoors and breathe in the much cooler, fresher air that brings new life to this wonderful area.
This is also the month that many hibernating insects; butterflies, ants, moths and beetles start to collect in groups. I wish to share with you the autumn story of one species of ladybird beetle that inhabits this valley. The small, very bright orange/red, California Ladybird Beetle (Coccinella californica). This species is unique among lady bugs in that it has no spots on its elytra or outer hard sheath over its soft wings. This little beetle is very eye catching as it has one of the brightest colored wing covers. Right now these very valuable predators are still feeding on aphids as they are beginning to join up with thousands of other ladybird beetles of other species preparing to return to their hibernacula. By early October, all these ladybugs will have collected by the thousands to hibernate in the roots of old trees or in hollow logs where they will be insulated from winter’s cool chill. As you walk about this wonderful city and county watch for these bright spots of life and enjoy the color they bring to your life.
High in the Blue Mountains overlooking the Walla Walla Valley is an owl species that up until 1987, was considered very rare and unexpected anywhere in southeast Washington. In the fall of that year, a friend of ours began surveying for Boreal Owls (Aegolius funereus); a ten inch tall yellow eyed beauty, just one of the 9 species of owls that have been seen in this area. These owls are cavity nesters and have a very unique relationship with the Northern Flying Squirrel; a rodent and a flat tailed glider that also utilizes cavities in dead snags. The flying squirrels will take a cavity excavated by a woodpecker, usually a flicker, and cover the bottom of the cavity with about two inches of its own soft gray fur. It then raises its young in that cavity, which is exactly what the Boreal Owl is waiting for; a warm cavity with a soft bottom on which to lay its eggs. Starting in late February, after the squirrels have moved out, these amazing owls select a cavity and by mid-March lay their four eggs.
All owls live by something called photo-period or length of daylight. This species is termed a “deep nocturnal” owl species as it seldom vocalizes before 10 pm. These wonderful little owls become very vocal in February and March then go very quiet until September through early November when they once again start their rapid “boo-boo-boo” calls.
Nature is great and provides so many spectacular animals right here in our back yard. Remember to get outdoors and be on the lookout for the other creatures sharing Walla Walla County with us humans.
Photos by Mike & Merry Lynn Denny