April is here at last, and the first quarter of the new year is history.
The six-week-long winter is also over.
Despite its short duration it was very hard on most wildlife and many native plants that had already been coaxed out of dormancy by the warmer days of January.
This short, sharp winter caused great mortality among many species of birds that got caught in this normally warmer region.
We noticed that one area especially clobbered by cold and snow was in central Walla Walla County across Eureka Flats and into the Skyrocket Hills northeast of Prescott.
Many wintering raptors and seed-feeding birds found most of their forage base was covered by snow.
We also noticed that there was some mortality among the mule deer in central and northern Walla Walla County.
This dryland/shrub-steppe plant ungulate species often die during rough winters when the water is mostly ice and the ground is covered with deep snow. These carcasses then provide vital food sources for entire communities of animals, from robins to coyotes to golden and bald eagles and mice.
Coyotes, foxes and wolves also will clean up on winter-killed deer and elk.
All these native wild animals provide an important service to the natural system when they fill the role of sanitary disposal specialists whose systems are designed to consume all kinds of dead animals.
Mice and other rodents also utilize large dead animals by feeding on fat and gnawing on bones and antlers for the badly needed calcium they must have for a balanced system.
These predators/scavengers bring balance to the natural system that allows for hundreds of native species to live and survive in Walla Walla County.
Spring bird migration is here, and some of those early species have already arrived or passed over us on their way north. Spring passage is a rapid one, with many birds racing north to claim prime breeding territories.
Native bird migration is well worth your time to read up on or, better yet, to go outside and watch as species move past you. Start by identification of the birds, then work into finding out their different migratory strategies and where it is they will end up breeding.
For this column, we will take a look at the mountain bluebird. This spectacular species is a member of the thrush family and is a migrant that leaves the western face of the Blue Mountains, where they nest in mid-October, and slowly move south through deserts, forests and on into the dry deserts of the southwestern States.
The males and females are termed sexually dimorphic as they look very different in color. Adult males are a bright pale, sky blue with white bellies. Their eye-catching blue cannot be ignored once you see it.
The amazing deal with this bird is that there is no blue pigment in the feathers; rather, all that glorious blue comes from refracted sunlight. The feathers act as prisms isolating and expressing only the blue wavelength.
The beautiful females have blue in the tail feathers and some splashed across the primaries, and a bit of blue on the leading edge of the wings.
The rest of its feathering is gray-brown with a pale belly area.
These 7.75-inch birds are both fructivores and insectivores, and have great aerial skills to hover in midair and to catch flying insects on the wing.
These blue wonders are cavity nesters in large, dead trees in holes excavated by woodpeckers.
Snags are vital for these eye-popping bluebirds to survive.
They also take to nest boxes when there is a shortage of snags with cavities.
They lay up to five eggs, and once the chicks hatch, they require constant feeding by the two parents.
Some nests full of young are attacked by blue bottle-bot flies, and these flies’ maggots will kill the young birds in the nest at which point the adults abandon the nest and go elsewhere to nest nearby.
Mountain bluebirds are migrants that start appearing in late February in the valleys of the intermountain west.
In some years, they start nesting in late March, but most start in early April above 2,500 feet.
Watch for these beauties this spring, and please never disturb their nests as they feed huge numbers of pest insects to their young.
On April 27 at Pioneer Park, there will be an Arbor Day celebration — do not miss this event, after all, it is our trees that add so much to our Valley!
Remember, life is good!