Writing on the Wild Side #15 – Come Have a Hoot!
By Mike Denny: After a wetter, cooler winter season spring has gone and jammed its foot in the door here in the Walla Walla Valley. Life is bucking to renew bringing energy, color and action to this very beautiful valley in southeast Washington. The Walla Walla River basin already shows many signs of new growth and life. Yesterday, out in Wallula Gap in far western Walla Walla County we came across wild native flowers blooming. We located the delicate Salt and Pepper Lomatium (a species of tiny biscuit root) and the emerging Sagebrush Buttercup with yellow buds just about to pop open. These natives are emerging in an area that suffered a large shrub-steppe fire this last fall. Now within a few months of this habitat destroying fire these tough native plants push up out of the blackened, charred soils and are ready to bring new life to this naked water gap. With the sun shining on these burned areas the soil warms quicker due to the dark colors and extra carbon now available from the fire. The issue after fires is the rapid invasion of non-native weeds. We shall see what time brings in this very special area. Other wildlife is also on the move as day light hours lengthen and air temps rise. The natural world lives by time tables that seldom include our own. Most humans are unaware of individual wild species cycles of life around us, except for those that spend time outdoors hunting, birding, fishing, photographing or other slow activities. Here in this beautiful valley you have the opportunity to slow down and learn what special amazing secrets nature has to share.
The species that started nesting in the last two weeks is the Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus). This large and powerful owl is also known as the tiger owl for its willingness to take down prey larger than itself. This 23” tall owl has a 45” wing span. These wonderful big birds of prey are entirely dependent on other large birds for old nests on which to lay their eggs. No owl species in North America builds its own nest structure. Birds like black-billed magpies, American crows, common ravens, great blue herons and red-tailed hawks all provide important nest platforms that a Great Horned Owl will never hesitate to take ownership of to lay its eggs. Great Horned Owls perform a duet this time of year with the males giving a low pitched; hoo-boo boo-ah hoo call to the females higher pitched; hoo-hoo-boo ah boo call. Take a walk in the evening around the older parts of town or the big city cemetery and you will hear these love songs.
These owls lay up to four eggs, two days apart to ensure survival of the first couple of chicks. The first to hatch is the dominate sibling and gets the bulk of the prey items brought to the nest. Only in years when the prey base is large do all the chicks get fed and reach maturity. These spectacular raptors are powerful with a 300 psi grip that allows them to feed on many tough customers, such as skunks, big snakes, opossums, house cats, red-tailed hawks and many big rodents. They also frequently take other owl species, rabbits and are able to easily kill other birds like geese, ducks and herons. If you have never seen or heard one of these master hunters you have come to the right valley. Walk or drive some of the county roads that wind along riparian stream buffers from February through April. Take time to listen for these big native birds and be amazed. Their distribution reaches from the Arctic tree line south across all of the Americas to Terra del Fuago at the tip of South America. They come in many different races, sizes, colors and habitat preferences. Please come visit this wonderful valley while these big beautiful owls are singing for you.
Remember that the Walla Walla Valley must be seen to be believed!
Thank-you Mike Denny
While in Walla Walla consider an outdoor adventure by joining in on the Tuesday morning walk around Bennington Lake starting at 9am at the main parking lot. It’s a great way to see the local beauty!!