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Writing on the Wild Side #8: It’s the Good Old Summer Time in the Beautiful Walla Walla River Basin

July 2, 2015

By Mike Denny:

So here we are, fast slipping into summer; the heat is up, the crops are ripe and the wheat is already turning to gold. What a wonderful time to see what is going on in this outstanding valley. In the natural world many amazing events are underway. The first is that fall shorebird migration is beginning; these are birds that nest on the Arctic tundra like sandpipers, plovers and godwits to name a few. The adults leave their highly precocious young in the Arctic to mature and feed on their own. The adult birds wing their way south and start arriving on the Walla Walla River delta by June 20. Their young follow in mid August. Wild flowers are in full bloom all over the foothills of the Blue Mountains. The elk and deer have dropped their young. All the native wild birds are feeding their young and the grasshopper nymphs are hatching from their egg clusters lay underground last fall. Life is exploding all around this unique valley.

One of the most colorful and beautiful native birds that breeds here at all elevations is the Lazuli BuntingLazuli Bunting-JPEG (Custom) (Passerina amoena), pronounced laz-u-lie. Named after the precious stone lapus lazuli. This spectacular blue bird arrives here in late April from Mexico where it spent the winter. Only the adult males have the gorgeous blue plumage from head to tail on the dorsal surface, across the upper chest a band of orange/rust and below that a pure white belly and vent. This song bird feeds on plant seeds all fall, winter and spring until it starts holding territory and then this spectacular bird switches to insects. The uniformly rust/brown females build the nest, lay four eggs and then raise the young. The males sit up on high perches and sing of their territory to all who will listen. By the end of June the constant singing drops off and the business of fledging their young takes over. This is a quiet time, save for the young getting excited about the next meal the adults bring them. Watch for this beautiful 5.5 inch long neo-tropical migrant throughout the Walla Walla Valley where ever there are woody shrubs and standing trees.

June is also the time of year when the redhead ducks (Aythya Americana) settle into small ponds andRedhead McNary (Custom) lakes to set up a territory and lay their clutch of eggs, up to 12 or so. The adults often winter on the Columbia River diving to feed on the spilt wheat that is lost at barge slips. This duck species is a diver and it feeds on both vegetative and invertebrate food sources. When out on ponds in early June the adults stay close together while they are looking for the perfect nest site. Once the ducklings have hatched the family abandons the nest and the young follow mom about the pond in single file feeding on larvae, flies and whatever has fallen into the water. By the end of June the ducklings are 75% grown and pretty much care for themselves in a loose flock. The summer molt season has struck the adults at the end of June and they itch and scratch as hundreds of new feathers are growing in and old ones are sloughing out. To see these beautiful native ducks take a tour of McNary National Wildlife Refuge near Burbank in western Walla Walla County.

With eye popping bright colors, a plant comes into view in the last days of May from Wallula Gap right Indian Paint Brush-6400 Rd. (Custom)across the Blue Mountains and that is the Indian Paintbrush. There are 29 known species of this spectacular wild plant here in the Pacific Northwest. Their colors range from day-glow red/orange to bright yellow to green to purple with white frosted tips. This eight to twenty inch tall plant grows in clumps and singly. It is a parasite that grows off the roots of a host plant. Each species of paintbrush is hosted by a specific plant species. So while you are here watch for this amazing bright flower and enjoy this areas wonderful outdoor beauty.

Walla Walla has to be seen to be believed.

Thank-you Mike Denny