Signs of Summer
A whole range of flowering plants and shrubs, from the ubiquitous antelope bitterbrush to the spectacular prickly poppy, are in full bloom this month. When you find paintbrush and owl’s clover, look closely and note that, in general, these brightly colored “flowers” are actually modified leaves, known as bracts. The true flowers are actually small, green hood-like structures tucked inside the bright bract clusters. Here’s another cool thing about the paintbrush family: they are hemiparasitic, meaning that, although they are green and can photosynthesize, they can also capture and sequester nutrients from different hosts, such as their most common associates, the perennial grasses.
Watch for crab spiders lurking in various desert blooms, especially those of the Sunflower family. Between their colorful camouflage and their weirdly modified wide-reaching legs, these cool little predators are well adapted to ambushing their prey. Bumble bees are flying now. The huge queens are looking for nesting sites and fueling up on nectar … and occasionally falling victim to a crab spider. A great many smaller native bees are zipping about, too, with just about as many interesting bee and wasp mimics that are actually flies, beetles, or even a clear-winged moth.
When beaver give birth between May and July, their three to four kits are born with full fur, open eyes and all of their teeth. They are able to swim within a couple of weeks. June is also baby bird season, with many a fledgling just out of the nest hopping and fluttering around, and frantic parents trying to keep them alive long enough for the kids to learn to hunt and forage for themselves. It’s a dangerous time!
Keep an eye out for the gorgeous purple sage, adding a soft, somewhat incongruous, lushness to the hot rock piles and harsh cliff faces it thrives in. This spectacular plant is a relative of the mints and culinary sages, and not related to sagebrush, which is in the Composite family. Another great plant to watch for now is the very widely distributed, but never very common, skyrocket or scarlet gilia. Usually starting a brilliant scarlet red, to attract hummingbirds, this spectacularly showy flower can also be orange-red, spotted red on cream, or even close to salmon colored. Interestingly, the flowers often fade from red to lighter colors later in the season, as hummingbirds move on to higher elevations, and they thus attract the night-flying sphinx moths — huge hovering moths whose feeding strategy parallels that of hummingbirds.
As snow finishes melting, water levels in desert streams and vernal ponds will be dropping quickly, making this a good time to investigate the riparian zones for amphibians and reptiles. Toadlets, sometimes in the thousands, are on the move. As soils dry out, many will find a spot to estivate (from the Latin root word aestus, or heat, thus relating to summer and thereby meaning hiding from the heat of it) and avoid the heat of the summer.
Finding rattlesnakes — which is either fun or terrifying depending upon your perspective — is also easy enough now. They’re often up early or late, so be watchful at dawn and dusk. Cute baby rodents, especially ground squirrels and wood rats, and fluffy baby lagomorphs (rabbits and hares), who haven’t yet learned the way of the world, often fall victim to our various snakes.
Migrating shorebirds, such as Least Sandpipers, Western Sandpipers, Long-billed Dowitchers, Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs, are returning from their time in Alaska and Canada and arriving at Summer Lake Wildlife Area and Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Resident shorebirds, such as the Black-necked Stilt, Snowy Plover and Spotted Sandpiper, will have nested and now have downy chicks.
The Alpha Capricornids meteor shower peaks this year on July 28 to 29. Alas, the moon being at about 66% full then will detract from optimal viewing. But go out anyway!
Many reptiles hide in cool subterranean retreats during the peak daytime heat of late summer and only become active as the sun sets and temperatures moderate. Gopher snakes and Great Basin rattlesnakes are usually the first out, with desert night snakes emerging later.
Mammalian babies are growing more competent and able to travel farther each day, so the ungulates (hoofed animals) are often found now at higher elevations, “shading up” through the hotter weather under mountain mahogany trees or among the deciduous trees in riparian zones, and enjoying the generally cooler temperatures that elevation brings. Higher elevations also provide better forage as they retain moisture and stay green longer. If you are hoping to see some of our larger mammals, you might try exploring the high points in the area.
By this time, too, most “baby” birds are no longer babies, often looking pretty much like their parents, and likely to be wholly on their own for food and shelter. Flocks may contain parents and babies, but mom and dad are usually done feeding the young. Everyone’s trying to fatten up for migration now, too.
Listen for owls, and watch for bats, at night now that it’s getting dark earlier again. Bats can put on quite a good show, especially around any form of water, where insects abound. Oregon has more than a dozen bat species. It’s nearly impossible to tell them apart on the wing at dusk, but the little brown bat, big brown bat, several Myotis species, and the pallid bat are the most common. For each mosquito bite you don’t get, thank a bat!
Through most of this month, and actually starting in July, don’t miss the Perseid meteor showers, when, on a good dark night, one can often see more than a hundred meteors per hour. In 2020, their strongest maximum will be August 11-12. Find a blanket and get out there!