Writing on the Wild Side #6: Spring Travels into Walla Walla County
By Mike Denny:
What a wonderful spring season it is in Walla Walla County. The above normal air temps in March allowed for early emergence of many wild flowers, insects/pollinators and the arrival of many migrant birds. It was so warm that many wild, native plants are up to ten days ahead of what is normal for this time of year. These seemingly small changes can have huge affects on native insects and wildlife. Be observant, see what you notice, and how early warm weather affects all of our lives. Enjoy this great county and all the opportunities you have to see the living world around you.
This go around I share the story of a great trip from the Pampas of Argentina to Walla Walla County. There is a spectacular raptor that departs Argentina by the late January start of the southern hemisphere’s summer and makes a long, arduous journey north to reach its breeding grounds by the first weeks in April. This beautiful, petit hawk gathers in large groups just before departing the grasslands of the Pampas. Sometimes as many as a thousand hawks will group up in preparation for the flight north through South America, over Central America and the Gulf of Mexico, then across the Mexican border into the states of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Great kettles of Swainson’s Hawks (Buteo swainsoni ) drift high on warm thermals as they cross over the border. These kettles are great swirling vortexes of up to ten thousand hawks at a time. They arrive here in the United States by late March and work their way north ahead of or behind late season cold fronts.
Most Swainson’s Hawks arrive here in Walla Walla County by the end of the first week of April. So here is a species that takes the time and energy to get back to Walla Walla County to spend the summer months feeding on mice and grasshoppers and raising their young. This wonderful hawk is a farmer’s ally and should be protected at all times. As you drive around Walla Walla County watch for this amazing bird of prey until late September when parents and their young start the long flight back to the south and the southern hemispheres.They are identifiable as a 19 inch long hawk with a 51 inch wing span with a recognizable dihedral, white belly and white throat patch and white under-wing coverts. Swainson’s Hawks often follow combines and swathers as the farmers cut their alfalfa in late summer, take advantage of this opportunity to see these raptors as they work for the farmers grabbing up mice and big grasshoppers near the end of the summer. Remember, be in awe of life. Walla Walla County has to be seen to be believed.
Photo provided by Mike Denny