Monday, October 27, 2014

Farewell to the Sun: Idaho's Kootenai Wildlife Refuge

      It is the third week of October.  Normally this is a time where we’d expect weather such as early frosts, with cold rain closing in on us.  Not so much this last weekend when we drove through eastern Washington to Idaho to explore some family history.   Although most of our trip was focused on explorations of my great-grandparents 1903 homestead in Bonner County, Glen and I snuck out for a quick trip to Kootenai Wildlife Refuge.  It was an unforgettable experience.
    The Kootenai river has its origins in British Columbia.  Born out of the glaciers of the Canadian Rockies, it runs due south into Montana, then loops through northern Idaho on its way to join the Columbia in eastern Washington.  For much of the year it handles a large volume of water and so is very fast moving, with many rapids.  But here in the Kootenai Wildlife Refuge, at the end of a dry summer, the water levels are low and the river is a quiet dream.  It is in fact so quiet we are able to see beautiful reflections of the autumn cottonwoods in its waters.

     Today as we arrive at the refuge it must be at least 70 degrees.  The sun shines strongly out of a blue sky, though high wispy clouds hint of weather changes to come.  As we drive through the refuge the sun hits with real force on my side of the car and I am roasting.  It looks and feels like full summer.  Except in the surrounding hills, clothed with pines and larch, the larch trees are turning golden-orange, preparing to drop their needles.  They look like so many candle tapers, lighting up the hillside,  giving early warning of fall.

     We went to the refuge to look at birds.  But there wasn't much bird activity;  what we saw instead were masses of insects, rushing to finish out their life cycle before winter starts in earnest here in northern Idaho.  And what an array of insects, what a surge of pulsing life:  they were flying around fast & furious, frantic to mate, frenzied to finish out the season with a bang (so to speak).  The horse flies were particularly prevalent, and eager to be insect phlebotomists and drain our blood.  We did not cooperate.

     We stopped at the refuge office for a quick break and took a look at the spotting scopes mounted there:  no birds to see.  But the wall of the main office faced south and was almost hot to the touch with the reflected sun.  The wall acted as a solar collecting panel and many insects were drawn to its heat. Since many insects are more or less solar powered, it makes a lot of sense to find them congregating there. 

    There was a Satyr's Anglewing butterfly.  These are butterflies who overwinter in adult form, but will take flight on sunny warm days to feed and enjoy the rays.  Notice the cryptic coloration: when it folds up its wings, it looks like the bark it prefers to roost in.  But when its wings open up, there is a lovely flash of spotted orange and white.
     The edges of this butterfly's wings normally look like someone took some pinking shears to them.  But this particular butterfly was especially battered:  the extensive ragged edges speak to a hard life dodging bird beaks.  This individual was quite friendly and fluttered around me, even trying to land on my shirt. I later watched it follow some children and try to land on them. As the evening cools it will find some bark to crawl under and it may well stay there for several months.  Until the sun lures it out again, or the sprouting tops of nettles next April will bring it out to lay its eggs.  

     Glen went walking out in the grasslands to explore what he could find.  There were yellow sulfur butterflies, finding nectar in napweed and dandelions.  These butterflies are common in northern Idaho because their host plant is alfalfa, which is extensively planted in the surrounding fields.  We saw a few golden butterfly pairs dancing around each other, eager to finish out the mating before it was too late.

     We also found a weird black grasshopper:  when it took flight away from our intrusive feet, there was a scarlet flash of wings and a harsh rattle as it found a safer place to hang out.  On later research we found this was called the Red winged Grasshopper Arphia pseudonietana and is a common late summer denizen of grasslands.  Its red wings and rattling flight are distinctive identification cues.
      Meanwhile I continued to watch the bug show on the south wall of the refuge.  A damselfly ( a smaller relative of dragonflies) showed up. This one had impressive dark bug eyes;  it perched for some time on the wall, basking in the sun.  For identification, I had to contact dragonfly expert Dennis Paulson.  He told me that it was a female Spotted Spreadwing, Lestes congener and it is the latest damselfly to still be on the wing in the Pacific Northwest.  That certainly fits with what we saw.

     Then Glen got a picture of another insect.  We puzzled over it for awhile;  we knew it was some kind of true bug but beyond that, had no idea what it was.  So we checked Bug Guide:  this is a Western Conifer Seed bug Leptoglossus occidentalis.  The young nymphs reach adult status by August and then feed on ripening seeds of conifer trees such as Douglas firs.  As the summer season draws to a close they can be found on walls of houses, near windows and other openings, where they lurk, waiting for opportunities to move indoors to overwinter.  So it was no coincidence that we found it on the refuge wall, near the windows.
     As the sun went down in the western sky, the temperature began to drop and insect activity slowed.  We too needed to wrap up our activities and head back to our place.  We drove out along the five mile refuge road that followed the Kootenai river;  here we saw our first significant birds.  This was a pair of adult Bald Eagles, no doubt perched along the river waiting to feast on the large flocks of migrating waterfowl who will be passing through the refuge.  These eagles too are a sign of the changing seasons.

     And then there is the last picture Glen took as we left the refuge:  here were open fields of alfalfa, now harvested, tilled under and awaiting next year’s seeds.  The golden grasses of late fall lined the edges of the refuge road, while overhead the blue skies began to fill with mares’ tails proclaiming the changing weather to come.  
     The next day we woke to the sound of the first rains, pelting our windows.  And we knew that the wheel of the year had turned…




  • Thanks to Dennis Paulson for the damselfly identification
  • Dragonflies and Damselflies of the West by Dennis Paulson
  • Bug guide:  You can send photos of insects to Bug Guide and do an ID request.  These folks are great.
  • All photos by Glen Buschmann

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