June 11, 2011

In Praise of Willows

Yesterday, while leading a group up towards Yoho Pass, I (Joel) came across an interesting sight: a pile of what appeared to be toothpicks on the ground at the base of a willow bush.  On closer inspection, the “toothpicks” turned out to be willow shoots that had been stripped of their bark by a vole or mouse.

It was the fourth time in the last few weeks I'd seen willows used as food by animals.  In mid-May, on the way from Jasper to Lake Louise, I watched a black bear munching pussy willows by the banks of the Sunwapta River.  And not just any old munching: this was a sit down meal!  The bear parked itself right beside the bush, and pulled the branches towards its mouth.  One by one, the pussy willows disappeared.  When the bear finished, it walked over to the next willow, plunked itself down, and started all over again.

A couple of days later, our first rufous hummingbird of the season arrived in Lake Louise, and it too was drawn to the pussy willows.  As one of our earliest blooming flowers, pussy willows keep hummingbirds going until other species of plant come into bloom.  There's a willow just outside our front door, and it was a treat to watch our resident hummingbird use it as his local restaurant into early June.

Speaking of “Chez Willow,” the latest diners to visit have been migrating warblers.  The first ones showed up about a month ago, but in the last two weeks, we've seen a pulse of Wilson's, orange-crowned and yellow-rumped warblers come through, and they've all been busy catching insects at the willow thickets.  The bugs go for the pussy willows and the fresh leaves, and the warblers go for the bugs.

Here's to the humble willow.