September 6, 2022
The sun is high and the afternoon is hot by the time I make it over to Spokane Bay. A lone turkey vulture teeters as it glides along the ridge, riding the wind that flows across the grasses with a distant sigh. Since last week, smoke has blown in from fires in Idaho, a dirty white haze that fills the sky. The smoke hides the distant mountains and blurs the dry, tan hills across the lake. Around me, the rocky slopes hold Spokane Bay in a bowl, cut off from the outside world by the grip of the haze.
I let my kayak drift slowly into the bay, through the mats of green algae where the carp hide and the damselflies hover. Eventually I reach the shady shallows where the crack willows (Salix fragilis) hang over the water. Just like last week, dozens of yellow-rumped warblers are spending the afternoon here, chipping energetically from the canopy. But today, floating on the water, I have a better view of them.
Yellow-rumps and mallards
The yellow-rumps are darting forth over the water, catching flying insects. Four or five warblers will fly out at the same time, as if they’re choreographing the hunting. It doesn’t always work, though. Several times I watch a warbler try for a large white moth. But this moth is a survivor. Each time, just as the warbler is closing in, it casually changes course, leaving the unfortunate bird snapping up a beakful of air.
The yellow-rumps are hunting along the willow branches, too, looking for caterpillars and other foliage-dwellers in an intense stop-and-start. The noisy clicking of the Great Basin cracklers floats in from the steep, dry slopes above us.
In many ways, the bird community today seems similar to what I saw here last week. An American white pelican glides in and lands on the water with a heavy splash. The mallards are feeding at the water’s surface, darting this way and that at the outer edge of the mat of algae. Every few seconds, a quack emanates from the group of foraging ducks.
But a hint of fall migration is evident in the turkey vultures that glide over the ridge every so often. As they fly south, they search out updrafts and thermals to save them from flapping. The wind across this ridge is providing just such an updraft. And today’s yellow-rumped warblers are probably different individuals than the ones I saw here last week. They’re spending every moment of this afternoon fattening up on insects, 12-gram athletes getting ready for another night’s marathon. Though yellow-rumps don’t migrate as far as many of our songbirds, by the winter a continent’s-worth of them will be concentrated in the southern United States and Mexico.
Algae: bad and good
Slowly, I paddle back out of the shade of the willows, paralleling the shore. Remember how the ducks last week were swimming in the open channels between the algae? I haven’t been as smart as them today, and now I realize why it matters. The algal mat is thick and heavy here. Within a few feet, my kayak is pushing a mattress-sized carpet of algae ahead of it. It’s hard to make any progress.
But the algae isn’t just a trap. It’s also an interesting microhabitat at the interface between water and sky. Besides the hundreds and hundreds of damselflies that are hovering over it, there are also tens of thousands of minute flies crawling on this bright green mat. Are the flies what the mallards are feeding on?
Eventually, I make it through the mats of algae and beach my kayak. Near the water’s edge, two banded garden spiders (Argiope trifasciata) have set up their webs. One web has four damselflies in it. It seems that this spider may be benefitting from the algal mat.
Marsh elder and a merlin
I wander along the creek upstream of the bay, passing more crack willows and a cattail marsh. A young white-tailed deer, its coat still spotted, stares back at me from among the snowberry.
I come across a rank patch of tall plants, covered with arrays of seeds. This is marsh elder (Iva xanthifolia), an impressively large annual that typically grows in wet areas. Its seed crop has not gone unnoticed: as I walk past, a dozen American goldfinches leap into the air and fly away.
As I look up from the marsh elder, a mourning dove flies past with a faint whistle of wings. Then, seconds later, it flies back past – a merlin is in hot pursuit! The small, maneuverable falcon is flapping hard, intent on the possibility of lunch. But the mourning dove has too much of a head start. Soon, the merlin peels off and continues out of sight past the willows.
I stop to sit and reflect in the shade of the willows along the creek. In spite of the smoke today, it’s peaceful here. A black-capped chickadee flock is calling from the canopy. In the twigs of a golden currant overhanging the stream, a common yellowthroat is foraging silently.
The drastic changes that fall migration will soon bring aren’t yet very evident here. A few common loons have shown up farther out on Hauser Lake, where a large flock of gulls are now staging. Here at Spokane Bay, last week’s yellow warblers are nowhere to be seen. These warblers are relatively early migrants; they may be gone for the year now. They’ll spend the winter in Mexico, central America, or as far south as Colombia. And a few green-winged teals have joined the mallards on the bay – though maybe they were already here last week and I overlooked them.
A hot afternoon isn’t the best time for spotting bird diversity: an early-morning foray would be better for checking up on fall migration. But even in the midst of this hazy afternoon, I’ve made new connections with this place. I’ve gotten to spend time with the yellow-rumped warblers in the willows, fattening up on insects between marathons of nighttime migration. I’ve learned about the possible hazards and opportunities that the mat of algae on the bay poses. And I’ve learned to watch for goldfinches in the marsh elder.
Even in the smoke and the heat, we can go outside and get to know the world around us. It’s still beautiful, still alive. On an afternoon like this, there’s nothing I’d rather do than be here, where the steep orange rocks meet the water, getting to know the life this landscape supports.