By the beginning of May, the Western Larch needles are fully out of their buds at the lower elevations, and many shrubs and grasses have become green with chlorophyll. Yellow Glacier Lily is showing its bright yellow, down-turned flowers, often in large patches on moist sites in the mountains. More migrant birds have arrived, including Red-naped Sapsuckers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Nashville Warblers, and Rufous Hummingbirds. As the days grow longer and the sun traces a higher arc across the sky, its heating effect is apparent in the moderating weather. Morel mushrooms are poking their fruiting bodies up through the ground, and you may notice the bright yellow flowerheads of Arrowleaf Balsamroot in dry areas, like miniature sunflowers. The mountain peaks and ridges are still white, and may be for another month or two, but the snow is melting fast, and spring is moving up the mountain. This is one of the fascinations of spending time in the mountains: as you climb in elevation you see the seasons marching backwards. Columbia Spotted Frogs reappeared more than a month ago in the lowlands, but at the higher elevations they may just now be emerging from where they wintered under the ice. Sometimes even while ice remains at the water’s edge, these relatively common frogs of the mountains gather to breed. The males give their quiet calls from ponds with both aquatic vegetation and open water. Once the females have arrived and paired up with a mate, they will lay their eggs communally in shallow areas.
As May comes to a close, the low-elevation Huckleberries already have green fruits developing, those at the mid-elevations are in bloom, and yet higher the bushes are still covered with snow. As the trails to the lofty peaks lose more of their white blanket, wildflowers of early spring start to bloom at the higher elevations, while the same species may have already fruited at the trailhead. In the last two and a half months, the landscape has transformed dramatically. The contrast of dark green trees against a muted palette of brown, gray, blue, and white has been softened by an outburst of luxuriant green foliage. Morning and evening is filled with a chorus of birdsong; most migrants have returned, and birds are using the growing abundance of insects as fuel for reproduction. Black-capped Chickadees may be feeding nestlings. Black-headed Grosbeaks have arrived, and their melodious, whistled songs brighten the forest – both the males and the females sing. Western Tanagers, the males a bright yellow with black and white wings and an orange-red head, may be seen moving methodically along tree branches, gleaning insects. Listen for the distinctive, otherwordly songs of Swainson’s Thrushes, spotted gray-brown woodland birds that are more easily heard than seen. Many species of gray-toned Flycatchers are back from their southern wintering grounds, darting from perches to catch insects in midair.
In the meanwhile, plants have been making the most of water, warmth, and light to put on rapid new growth and to reproduce. Mallow Ninebark bushes are covered with flat-topped, white flower clusters, and another shrub, Redstem Ceanothus, is showing sprays of small whitish blooms. Some moderately dry slopes are bright with the blue pealike flowers of Lupines and with yellow flashes of color from Heart-leaved Arnica. You may be lucky to find one or several of the low-growing Fairyslippers, light pink- or purple-flowered orchids of moist, shady areas. Fairyslippers have a single elliptic leaf at the base of the stem, and when they are not blooming they are hard to spot. These intriguing plants are very sensitive to trampling, and picking the flower usually kills the plant, so admire them but tread carefully. In some places, you may find the forest floor covered with Bunchberry in bloom. Each individual flower is tiny, but the whole cluster is surrounded by four showy white bracts.
Female Mountain Goats may be giving birth, leaving their small groups and finding a rugged, precipitous spot protected from predators. Kids are wobbly on their feet for their first day or two in the world, but they develop quickly. Very soon they are trying to climb, and in less than a week they and their mothers are ready to rejoin the larger group.
In early June, keep an eye out for Common Nighthawks – relatively late-returning migrants – zooming around for insects in the twilight hours. Nighthawk populations have declined significantly in the last half century. I often find these birds feeding at dusk over low-elevation lakes, but I’ve seen them in and above dry forest habitats as well. They require somewhat open areas to nest, and loss of breeding habitats such as open forests may be a factor in their decline.
In areas of montane coniferous forest with patchy meadows, you might see an Olive-sided Flycatcher, another late-returning, long-distance migrant. This species, which winters in South America, feeds entirely on insects; look for one perched at the top of a snag, darting out to grab a meal. Mountain Lady Slipper and Spotted Coralroot are starting to bloom, as is a pretty native vine, Western Trumpet Honeysuckle. You may startle a female Ruffed Grouse with a dozen or more chicks, recently hatched from a well-concealed nest on the ground.
As we pass June 21, the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, we find many forest plants continuing to develop rapidly. In the lowlands, look for the low, nodding pink blooms of Twinflower and the striking white flowers of Queencup Beadlily. In an amazing variety of colors, shapes, and arrangements, plants are advertising to pollinators. Bunchberry and Lupine are still blooming, and Three-spot Mariposa Lily is showing its 3 broad, cream-colored petals. If you are observant, you may notice the bizarre purplish flowers of Wild Ginger, hiding under two heart-shaped leaves. Keep an eye out for Tiger Lily, showing stunning purple-spotted, orange blooms. Arrowleaf Balsamroot has finished flowering, and may have seeds, unless some animal has eaten them. The early bloomers among the common introduced, invasive plants are covering disturbed sites such as old roadbeds with a sea of invading color: the showy white and yellow flowerheads of Oxeye Daisy, and the small, bright yellow and orange clusters of the various non-native Hawkweed species.
At higher elevations, the Rocky Mountain Maples and Sitka Alders may just be starting to leaf out; you may see blooming Mountain Arnica, Meadowrue, Glacier Lily, and Western Springbeauty. The streams are still running high and cold as the snow melts in the high country. Intrepid hikers have already been climbing peaks for a few weeks (or many months, depending on how intrepid they are), traversing the rapidly melting snowfields and experiencing firsthand the march of the seasons up the peaks. As you venture up the mountains, you can’t help but notice the singing of the songbirds, as they hurry to complete their reproductive cycle in the confines of their brief, high elevation season. Listen especially for Hermit Thrushes, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Varied Thrushes, Chipping Sparrows, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Western Tanagers, and Mountain Bluebirds. The emphatic, whistled “quick THREE beers” song of the male Olive-sided Flycatcher is another distinctive voice in the avian chorus; whenever I hear it, I think of the high country in summer. Listen for American Pikas calling “nyeah” from rocky areas. These relatives of hares did not hibernate, but they fed during the winter on vegetation that they gathered and dried in piles.
By the end of June, Idaho’s shrubby state flower, Lewis’s Mock-orange, is covered with large, fragrant, 4-petalled white flowers, offering contrast to its opposite green leaves. The small, delectable fruits of Wood Strawberry are getting ripe, as are the twin insipid, red berries of the bushy Utah Honeysuckle. Another striking red fruit is that of Canada Buffaloberry, a shrub with male and female flowers on separate plants. Buffaloberry bloomed before the Western Larches had fully grown their needles. Now, the female plants show quite a contrast between leathery green leaves and translucent reddish berries, which are rich in vitamin C but quite bitter.
Scientific Names of Species Mentioned
Western Larch – Larix occidentalis
Yellow Glacier Lily – Erythronium grandiflorum
Red-naped Sapsucker – Sphyrapicus nuchalis
Ruby-crowned Kinglet – Regulus calendula
Nashville Warbler – Leiothlypis ruficapilla
Rufous Hummingbird – Selasphorus rufus
Morel – Morchella spp.
Arrowleaf Balsamroot – Balsamorhiza sagittata
Columbia Spotted Frog – Rana luteiventris
Huckleberry – Vaccinium membranaceum
Black-capped Chickadee – Poecile atricapillus
Black-headed Grosbeak – Pheucticus melanocephalus
Western Tanager – Piranga ludoviciana
Swainson’s Thrush – Catharus ustulatus
Flycatcher – Empidonax spp., Contopus spp.
Mallow Ninebark – Physocarpus malvaceus
Redstem Ceanothus – Ceanothus sanguineus
Lupine – Lupinus spp.
Heart-leaved Arnica – Arnica cordifolia
Fairyslipper – Calypso bulbosa
Bunchberry – Cornus canadensis
Mountain Goat – Oreamnos americanus
Common Nighthawk – Chordeiles minor
Olive-sided Flycatcher – Contopus cooperi
Mountain Ladyslipper – Cypripedium montanum
Spotted Coralroot – Corallorhiza maculata
Western Trumpet Honeysuckle – Lonicera ciliosa
Ruffed Grouse – Bonasa umbellus
Twinflower – Linnaea borealis
Queencup Beadlily – Clintonia uniflora
Three-spot Mariposa Lily – Calochortus apiculatus
Wild Ginger – Asarum caudatum
Tiger Lily – Lilium columbianum
Oxeye Daisy – Leucanthemum vulgare
Hawkweed – Hieracium spp. (in part)
Rocky Mountain Maple – Acer glabrum
Sitka Alder – Alnus viridis ssp. sinuata
Mountain Arnica – Arnica latifolia
Meadowrue – Thalictrum spp.
Western Springbeauty – Claytonia lanceolata
Hermit Thrush – Catharus guttatus
Varied Thrush – Ixoreus naevius
Chipping Sparrow – Spizella passerina
Yellow-rumped Warbler – Setophaga coronata
Mountain Bluebird – Sialia currucoides
American Pika – Ochotona princeps
Lewis’ Mock-orange – Philadelphus lewisii
Wood Strawberry – Fragaria vesca
Utah Honeysuckle – Lonicera utahensis
Canada Buffaloberry – Shepherdia canadensis
Retrieved March 19, 2015 from the Integrated Taxonomic Information System on-line database, http://www.itis.gov.
References AmphibiaWeb: Information on amphibian biology and conservation. [web application]. 2014. Berkeley, California: AmphibiaWeb. Available: http://amphibiaweb.org. Accessed: December 5, 2014. Chadwick, Douglas H. 1983. A Beast the Color of Winter: The Mountain Goat Observed. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books. Ehrlich, Paul R., David S. Dobkin, and Darryl Wheye. 1988. The Birder’s Handbook: A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds. New York: Simon and Schuster. Foote, Jennifer R., Daniel J. Mennill, Laurene M. Ratcliffe, and Susan M. Smith. (2010). Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus).The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.), Ithaca: Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online database: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/ Heinrich, Bernd. 2009. Summer World. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. Idahobirds.net. 2012. Accessed December 5, 2014. http://idahobirds.net/reports/idaho/counties/2012countycumulative.html. Idahobirds.net. 2013. Accessed December 5, 2014. http://idahobirds.net/reports/idaho/counties/2013countycumulative.html. Idahobirds.net. 2013. “Latilong Distribution by Species.” Last Update October 9, 2013. http://idahobirds.net/distribution/dbase_spec.html. Idahobirds.net. 2014. “Regional Reports.” Accessed December 5, 2014. http://idahobirds.net/reports/reports.html. Kershaw, Linda, Andy MacKinnon, and Jim Pojar. 1998. Plants of the Rocky Mountains. Edmonton, AB: Lone Pine Publishing. Miller, Jr., Orson K. 1979. Mushrooms of North America. New York: E.P. Dutton. Reid, Fiona A. 2006. A Field Guide to Mammals of North America, 4th Ed. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. Savignac, Carl. 2007. “COSEWIC Status Report on the Common Nighthawk (Chordeiles minor).” Accessed November 26, 2014. http://novascotia.ca/natr/wildlife/biodiversity/pdf/statusreports/sr_CommonNighthawk.pdf. Sibley, David Allen. 2014. The Sibley Guide to Birds, 2nd Ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. Thompson, Christopher W. 2001. “Cardinals and Allies” in Chris Elphick, John B. Dunning, Jr., and David Allen Sibley, eds., The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, pp. 536-541. Wells, Allison Childs and Jeffrey V. Wells. 2001. “Tanagers” in Chris Elphick, John B. Dunning, Jr., and David Allen Sibley, eds., The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, pp. 512-515. Werner, J. Kirwin, Bryce A. Maxell, Paul Hendricks, and Dennis L. Flath. 2004. Amphibians and Reptiles of Montana. Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Co. Wilson, Linda M. 2006. “Key to Identification of Invasive and Native Hawkweeds (Hieracium spp.) in the Pacific Northwest.” Kamloops, B.C.: B.C. Min. For. Range, For. Prac. Br.