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Tag Archives: shrub-steppe

Yesterday afternoon we walked here on our hill. It was nice to get up into the tall bitterbrush and sage that did not burn four years ago.

Seasons have changed. Generally speaking, we have three seasons defined by color – white, green and brown – and we are officially in the brown season now. Or maybe it’s more of a golden season. That sounds nicer. Most of the foliage that grew vigorously in the late spring and early summer has dried to a yellowish tan with a few sparks of color here and there. Remnants of wildflowers and berries. Aspen leaves – some still green, many yellow and some more orangish.

When your birthday is on the Vernal Equinox, the first day of Spring, you might have some expectations for the day. I got it in my head that I wanted to see sagebrush buttercups – one of the first wildflowers that shows up in our shrub-steppe habitats. Well never mind that here at our house, there is still over a foot of snow on the ground. Wet, rotten, sloppy snow. Spring birds like bluebirds, phoebes, juncos and others have arrived so it does sound like spring but right now as I type this, it is snowing. Again. I keep thinking I am done with winter but it’s clearly not done with me.

So if I wanted to see buttercups, I was going to have go somewhere else. I went east and north to McLaughlin Canyon, near Tonasket. The day started out sunny but was soon overcast and breezy and fairly cold at 37° Fahrenheit. Good walking weather. There were a few patches of snow and there was lots of water everywhere. I imagine in the summer this place is very dry and full of rattlesnakes so this was a good time to visit. Melting snow sent cascades of water over the cliff faces and in the shady spots, the rocks and shrubs were covered with ice.

Shortly after I arrived I heard the wonderful song of the Canyon Wren! Have you heard them? Listen here. I heard several others while I walked. The trail starts in a narrow section of the canyon and all that water found its way to the path so it was a bit of a struggle to keep my feet dry. I was somewhat dismayed by all the weeds. This area burned in 2015 when much of Okanogan County was on fire and its recovery is slow. I did see that some pine trees have been recently planted so hopefully they will grow quickly and hold the ground in place during spring flooding.

I walked til I was overlooking the bottom of the canyon and the Okanogan River. Still no buttercups. The hill below me was steep and not appealing for walking but it did look warmer and dryer than the ground I’d been walking on. I used my binoculars to scan the hillside and sure enough, a good two hundred feet below me, I saw the bright yellow color of the buttercups. I found them. It was worth the climb down and back up.

The dogs had great fun exploring a new place and so did I. We were all grateful to be walking on dirt again.

Afterwards, we drove down valley and managed to find some Sandhill Cranes in the snow. It is the time of year when they migrate through this region but most years, the lakes and ponds are thawed and the ground is mostly snow-free. I imagine they are having trouble finding enough food to eat.

And here at home today it is still snowing. Big, fat, fluffy flakes. Winter needs a new calendar.

You’ve no doubt heard of bird watchers who enjoy birding but do you know that there are folks who botanize? Folks that will spend hours kneeling on the ground, looking at tiny plants and referring to big books with small print in hopes of keying the individual plant out to its species? I took a botany class sponsored by the Methow Conservancy this winter in hopes of at least being able to figure out the genus of plants I find in the wild. For me to determine the species on my own is often too much to expect. Making it even more difficult is the ‘powers that be’ in the botany world recently reorganized the plant families, moving them around in a manner that doesn’t even seem to make much sense to the local experts in the field. So any field guides that are now in hand are out of date with the current information. This happens in the bird world also. Whenever a new birding field guide comes out, the species are in a different order and some species are split and some are lumped. With flowers, there are so many more species to learn that it becomes an even greater challenge.

All that being said, our botany class went on a field trip this past weekend to the lower Grand Coulee area. It’s a little warmer down there although it did not feel like it on Saturday and it gets less snow so the flowers are ahead of what we are seeing here in the Methow Valley. It is an area of dramatic basalt coulees dotted with many lakes and seeps. The habitat is primarily shrub-steppe with sagebrush being the dominant plant. We stopped first at Dry Falls to look at plants of the lithosol (thin rocky soil) habitat. Then we went to Lake Lenore Caves and also Sun Lakes State Park to see a dry vernal pond and to observe the Hooker’s Balsamroot.

I have named these plants to the best of my abilities. There may be errors in spelling and species.

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