Signs of Spring

Erica Loftin

By Scott Bowler and Lace Thornberg

After months of rejuvenating itself in subtle ways, Oregon’s high desert begins pulsing with undeniable signs of spring’s arrival in March, April and May.

Spring’s ‘arrival’ varies widely. By mid-April, a few rounds of wildflowers will have already come and gone along the banks of Whychus Creek, outside of Sisters, and the high slopes on Steens Mountain will still be blanketed with snow.

Here’s a look at just a few of the seasonal shifts taking place across Oregon’s high desert in the weeks and months to come. We invite you to share your own phenological (cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena) observations with us. Email them to onda@onda.org, or, share a photo on social media with the hashtag #highdesertspringtime.

watch

Stewardship Fence Building Timelapse

Stewardship Fence Building Timelapse

fact

What defines Oregon’s high desert?

What defines Oregon’s high desert?

Bounded by the Cascade Mountains to the west and the Blue Mountains to the north, Oregon’s high desert covers approximately 24,000 square miles. Annual rainfall in the high desert varies from 5 to 14 inches. The average elevation is 4,000 feet; at 9,733 feet, the summit of Steens Mountain is the highest point in Oregon’s high desert. The terrain of the high desert was mostly formed by a series of lava flows that occurred between 30 and 10 million years ago.

Sources: The Oregon Encyclopedia; Wikipedia  

voices

Durlin Hicock, Alice Elshoff Award winner

Durlin Hicock, Alice Elshoff Award winner

“Protecting public land is part of my spiritual being. It’s central to my identity to be in wilderness and to see it protected.” Durlin is proud to protect public lands for future generations, saying, “The highlight of my childhood was our family’s weekend outdoor trips. I look forward to my grandchildren having similar experiences outside in their lifetimes, and it wouldn’t be possible without ONDA.”

Sagebrush buttercup

Scott Bowler

Hood's Phlox

Scott Bowler

Western bluebird, western juniper

Tara Lemezis

March

Many perennial herbs and forbs are “greening up” at this point, providing welcome tender, green, and highly nutritious forage. Meanwhile the fruits that have overwintered on their stems are continuing to serve as a valuable food source for birds and other wildlife, notably rose hips (Rosa gymnocarpa), netleaf hackberry (Celtis reticulata), snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus), and western juniper (Juniperus occidentalis).

In the hills, canyons, and across the flats of Central Oregon’s basalt canyons, sagebrush buttercup (Ranunculus glabberimus), are one of the earliest, if not the first, wildflowers to bloom. Other wildflowers to expect in early March include the yellow bell lily (Fritillaria pudica), which changes from bright lemon yellow to sunset orange as the flower matures, Gray’s desert parsley (Lomatium grayii), which smells like a slightly rank parsley and interestingly has leaves and flowers that both continue to grow taller and wider as the plants mature. Also in bloom in the sunnier spots is the always gorgeous, tiny Hood’s phlox (Phlox hoodia), which grows quite low to the ground and is covered in minute, sharp, gray hairy leaves that make it look like a pincushion. Wooly pod milkvetch (Astragalus purshii), begins to show its gorgeous purple pea-like blooms and softly hairy and silvery leaves underfoot in the sage lands.

Bluebirds are actively surveying for nest sites, perhaps checking out last year’s nests and inspecting new discoveries. Snowmelt is swelling streams, mud holes, springs and seeps, thus attracting wildlife. Pollinators, especially the native bees and bumble bees, begin to hatch out and can be found working the blooms as soon as the day becomes warm enough.

Greater Sage-grouse

Devlin Holloway

Sand lily

Greg Burke

Bitterroot

Chris Christie

April

Greater Sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) steal the show this month, as early April is the height of their congregations at select spots, known as leks, with males performing their iconic mating dance to impress their female audience.

One of the most culturally significant plants for the desert’s Indigenous inhabitants, bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva) begins blooming in April in many places from the Central Oregon Backcountry to the Owyhee Canyonlands. In Central Oregon, you’re likely to come across buckwheat (Erigeron sp.), wallflower (Erysimum sp.), Oregon sunshine (Eriophyllum lanatum), the spiny gooseberry shrub (Ribes uva-crispa). Low to the ground is where Showy Townsend’s Daisy (Townsendia florifera), a gorgeous daisy relative, and Douglas’ dustymaiden. (Chaenactis douglasii), a charming little pinkish-white composite flower, are coming up. April is also when the white bloom of sand lilies (Leucocrinum montanum) begin brightening the sagebrush steppe as well as juniper and pine forests.

Arrowleaf balsamroot

Chris Christie

Pronghorn

Chris Christie

Dwarf monkeyflower

Chris Christie

May

By May, arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) are bursting forth with cheery yellow blooms and can be widely seen east of the Cascades at low to mid-elevations. There are several other endemic Balsamorhiza species, too, such as the lovely hairy balsamroot (B. hookeri), growing throughout the sagebrush steppe, or serrate balsamroot (B. serrata), a small dryland balsamroot found notably on Steens mountain, where it sometimes hybridizes with hairy balsamroot.

Moving up in elevation, the nutritious spring growth and intact plant communities at Hart Mountain offer some of the most important fawning grounds for pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) in the northern Great Basin. After a 250-day pregnancy, female pronghorn give birth to precocial twin fawns in May and into early June. Weighing up to 9 pounds each, pronghorn fawns are able to walk within a mere 30 minutes of being born.

We have two lovely low-growing annual monkeyflowers: dwarf monkeyflower (Diplacus nanus) which is more common in the eastern part of our region, and Deschutes monkeyflower, also known as Cusick’s monkeyflower, (D. deschutenesis), which is more common in the western half of the sagebrush steppe. Both are fairly uncommon overall, and their bloom time is short-lived, but in 2019 these delicate low-growing flowers were out in force, painting the Oregon Badlands Wilderness and other areas hot magenta pink. Perhaps we’ll see a show of them again this year? Note that the former genus name, Mimulus, is Latin for mimic, relating to the monkey face seen on several species—do you see it?

Check back for more seasonal updates from Oregon’s high desert throughout the year. And follow ONDA on Instagram for daily doses of high desert flora and fauna.