Seasons of Wildlife
On the Monument, the seasonal shifts are gradual. One season flows smoothly to the next; one day it's summer, then the next thing you know, the calendar tells you that winter is beginning. You have to pay attention to enjoy the Seasons of Wildlife.
Spring creeps up on the Monument. There's no sudden thaw, no rush of life. One day you'll see a new shoot poking up. The next day there will be half a dozen. The hills turn green without you even noticing the change. Wildlife is much the same. One day, a returning duck, then two, then ten, then a thousand. Without you even being aware, suddenly you realize life is everywhere around you. The wildflowers come in waves, first the flox, then the balsamroots, then the lupines add to the show. Green is everywhere, highlighted with the yellows and purples and whites of the desert spring fashion show.
Great blue herons and American egrets return to their communal nesting colonies. Cliff swallows rebuild their colonial mud nests. Red-winged and yellow-headed blackbirds send out a horrendous racket from the rushes and trees at rivers edge. Late spring sees does swimming out to islands in the river to have their fawns away from the reach of coyotes, also intent on providing for their young. But while many species are here for the summer, Hanford is also a rest stop for thousands heading on to breeding grounds in Alaska, northern Canada and even other countries of the Arctic Circle. Greater yellow-legs, snow geese and Caspian terns stop by to rest and feed. But the most conspicuous passerby is the Sandhill crane, which is on its ancestral migration from California's Central Valley to south-central Alaska. Everyone loves the cranes.
Summer paints the Monument in a million shades of brown. The Monument sits in the rainshadow of the Cascades—summers are dry here. Days of a 100 degrees and up-canyon winds dry the moisture of winter and spring. The conditions are ripe for wildfire, and the Monument gets its share, augmented considerably by the ever-present, invasive cheatgrass.
With the heat, the Monument grows quiet—at least during the midday. But life on the Monument doesn't cease, it just adapts. Ground squirrels head underground to estivate until the rains return to green the land. Coyotes and deer and all manner of other animals rest the day away under the shade of rocks and shrubs and trees along water courses, venturing forth in the cool of dusk and returning to seclusion with the dawn. Porcupines venture to the rivers edge to sit with their tails in the cooling water. Activity becomes concentrated around the sources of water—hidden springs, small streams and, of course, the river.
Mule deer In many ways, fall begins the cycle of life anew on the Monument. Bull elk spar for the right to establish harems of cows for mating, their bugled challenges to one and all reverberating down the canyons. Buck deer do much the same. Many of the shrubs send forth the seeds of the next generation.
But it's the salmon that signify the continuation of life, perversely through their death. The fall chinook salmon for which the Monument is famous come back to the Reach. After battling their way past anglers and dams, they build their redds, spawn and die. But with their last efforts, they create the young salmon of the following year, and even their decaying corpses bring life. Coyotes come to the river in packs to feed on dead and dying salmon. So do the eagles. So do a host of other scavengers. And the nutrients released back to the river from their decay is a critical source for the nutrient-poor waters of desert rivers, albeit much reduced due to dams, fishing and the other facts of modern life.
Winter can be harsh in the Pacific Northwest, but it's not too trying for wildlife along the Hanford Reach. Yes, temperatures can drop to sub-zero, but prolonged periods of even sub-freezing temperatures are rare. It is for this reason that Native Americans moved here during the winter; the winters were moderate, and much of the game they followed came here, as well. Stores of dried salmon harvested from the rivers just a few a couple of months earlier sustained them through.
Snow in the shrub-steppe is every bit as gorgeous as a Norman Rockwell New England winter scene. Draped from sagebrush, sparkling from Rattlesnake Mountain, blown along with the sands of ridge-top dunes, the snow on the Monument is here, then quickly gone. But while it's here, the rare opportunity to read the stories of the Monument's wildlife in the snow is worth the trip to the shrub-steppe. Follow the tracks of a jackrabbit, and you'll soon find it's daytime hiding spot. But please keep a distance; energy is precious in the winter, even here, and that wasted in flight may make a difference. Less likely to be disturbed, the lucky visitor might find the snow slide of otters along the river. Or track a coyote along its seemingly random ramblings through the land. Or just sit and enjoy the solitude under the wide, pale blue skies.