Simone, a large number of our cohorts, and I are off to the Malheur Bird Observatory for Memorial Day weekend. It’s a tradition upheld by Steve Herman, seeing as he is the proud owner of the observatory. So – down to Central Oregon for the weekend! It’s a time of celebration, old friends and new, wonderful birding, and peace. I for one can’t wait. You’ll hear more about it when we get back. Here’s some shots I took last year for now:
Archive for the Road Tripping Category
(When I go on week long trips, see massive amounts, and come back with a lot to say, brevity goes out the door. I appreciate all my readers, however few, and I promise shorter entries in the future. However, I hope you enjoy my notes from a week in Arizona.)
“Can we go to the Sun City Golf Course?” came a voice from the back of the van. “They have water there.”
If you guessed this the plea of a link-obsessed geriatric under my watch, you’d be wrong. The voice belonged to one of the six high schoolers in the van, one in particular I was on the verge of strangling. I didn’t want to hear about the course one more time, mainly because I abhor golf (not the sport, the implications of green grass in places such as Arizona), and also because this wasn’t a golfing trip. Because one of their grandparents happened to see a few things on the edge of the golf course he lived by, this waste of water had been elevated to Mecca.
Wedged into a van we’d been driving around Southeastern Arizona for the past week. A little over a year ago I started volunteering with this mad hatter group of teens, Seattle Audubon’s Birdwatch program. My reasons, that is, beyond a pure benevolent nature? I’m alumni.
At the risk of revealing my tender youth, I joined Birdwatch 10 years ago, a bird crazed freshman. Already a seasoned Seattle Audubon member and I was chomping at the bit to be of age. It turned out to be one of the most important experiences of my life. Finding peers was paramount, but through Birdwatch I spent a summer volunteering in the ornithology collections at the Burke Museum. As a paid intern (!!) for a local bander Don Norman, I was introduced to the art of banding birds. I practiced environmental education. I went on fantastic spring trips all over the country.
Continuing to help a program so formative for me only makes sense. When I moved back to Seattle after college, I did. The fringe benefit is getting to go on the annual spring trip, which for the past years I have helped fundraise and organize. Peddling shade-grown coffee, executing rummage sales, and working in people’s yards – Birdwatch finds ways to make the trip happen. In an ideal world Seattle Audubon would be able to find grants and monies to float the entire trip, but we’re a non-profit. And not so secretly, I insist the importance for the kids to truly own the trip, providing most of the funding. They pay a fraction of the cost out of pocket because an accessible trip is essential.
For those who didn’t know, the many and jagged mountain ranges and baking deserts of Southeastern Arizona provide for some of the best birding in the United States. Part is due to the steep climbing mountains allowing for the so-called sky islands of stratified, distinct habitats and the summer storms with origins far south to revitalize every July and August. The proximity to the border of Mexico has much to do with the diversity too, but it also provides for an uneasy police state. The fact that it’s chalk full of specialty birds is a strange contrast. Calling them specialties is slightly misleading because almost all of these birds are just across the border, in higher abundance. Calling them specialties is a figment of our imaginary American divisions (the same goes for the Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas – where went last year). No matter, the experiences these kids got scrambling around in the Southwest were priceless.
The value of cultivating teenage interest in the natural world is that these kids will go on to save the world. That’s not even vaguely a joke. Many of them have the passion and drive to change our planet. Birdwatch gave me that empowerment and I want to continue that legacy.
Starting our tour in the florid Saguaro National Monument, flush with new growth and pungently fresh from a week of rain, we headed south. The Santa Rita Mountains and infamous Madera Canyon were the first stop. Without going to Mexico you can’t stray too far – so we veered east at the border town of Nogales. Patagonia, the only vibrant riparian area we visited along the way, was on way to the steep Huachuca Mountains. Finally, we strode on to the Chiricahuas, the land of Jeronimo’s final stand, before circling back to Tucson. Whirlwind week is an understatement.
And oh the birds we saw! Although it was slow, with extended winter chill, we found almost all the species we could expect considering this constrained schedule. Any experienced birder knows a rushed schedule doesn’t leave time for error or time sunk into looking for uncooperative species. But I’ll be damned if we didn’t luck out (we missed some stuff, but who cares?!).
A nearly resident Flame-colored Tanager visited the bird feeders in Madera Canyon. A first for many, I’d only spied them through a patchwork of canopy. In neighboring Florida Wash, we teased out a Rufous-capped Warbler (Basileuterus rufifrons), which had been skulking about in a birder typical, trickily specific location. Unusual for Arizona, raucous water from the snowmelt made it impossible to communicate as we scoured the creek basin scrub for the bird. A male Elegant Trogon (Trogon elegans) at Patagonia Lake that was magnificently cooperative, hamming it up as we slammed down our shutters. Cave Creek Canyon in the Chiricahuas provided us a rather intimate moment as a pair of Elf Owls (Micrathene whitneyi), unabashedly going about the “business.” At the South Western Research Station where we stayed in Cave Creek, a Whiskered Screech Owl (Megascops trichopsis) was readily found. At the risk of boring the non-birder, I’ll stop the prattle on bird species.
Birds weren’t the only animals on the platter. We were fortunate to have a good number of budding herpetologists, including Sam Riley, who is well on his way to becoming a prodigy. Over my four high school trips, I never remembered thinking about anything beyond the avian; these kids had a one up on me. The winter also affected the reptiles we found but Sam and his fellows teased out a Black-tailed Rattlesnake (Crotalus molossus), a Banded Gecko (Coleonyx variegates), many Scleropus species, and a Regal Horned Lizard (Phrynosoma solare) (the lizard famed for squirting blood out it’s eyes in defense). Although Sam often tried to hijack the trip for his own purposes, I was glad to have this added element.
In the past (this was my third trip in the area), I’d underestimated watching birds around Tucson. But there were tons of places to visit and I began to appreciate the overgrown vacant lots filled largely with native plants. A rather surreal encounter with a Harris’s Hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus) was had at the Sweet Water Wetlands on our last day.
Although it sounds rather “new agey”, I firmly believe that many species are capable of comprehending human intentions. That being said, I don’t like to encourage tameness and trust in wild animals because while I have faith in humanity on the whole, a rotten few spoil it for the rest.
At the wetlands, one of the other photographers of the group, Colin and I were strolling through the converted sewage treatment ponds. Ahead of us we could see a young Harris’s Hawk perched on some of the treatment equipment. Over the two trips Colin and I have been on, we both think fairly alike in approaching birds. We stand shoulder-to-shoulder, walk slowly, and pause periodically with multiple frames – it’s the digital, nature photographer’s way. But this bird wasn’t phased. Suddenly we were five feet from it. In shock at it’s nonchalance, I didn’t know what to do next.
I ended up taking over 400 photos of the bird. Having the opportunity to fill your frame with a wild raptor’s face or talons is unquestionably thrilling and once in a lifetime. The teens ran to grab their cameras, other people walked up, I left and came back with a fresh memory card. The bird lounged. For a while I though it was sick or feared it would latch to the face of one of my charges. I had visions of a talon pocked face, blood streaming down a face as we missed our flight and took someone to the hospital. Wiggling my toes, I caught the hawk’s attention, muse for an inquisitive twist of the head. I realized that I didn’t want my toes the focus of a predator.
Only when I slid into my seat on the plane did I realize how tired I was. Now I finally understood what the Birdwatch coordinator, Emily Sprong, had meant when she’d wanted another week off to relax. But I didn’t sleep on the plane. Instead of took photos from the plane window for a whole three hours. These kids were non-stop, but I was just an enabler.
Considering myself an adult but being not too far out of the fold, working with teens is challenging. The little buggers are far from forgiving and constantly demanding. Sometimes I felt like I was losing rank with them because I’d have to rein in their perpetual wanderings (in retrospect I was the same way). Paranoid I’d become the grump chaperone, I convinced myself that being a grump isn’t a problem as long as the teens realized I really cared.
Birding is a pastime that very purely selfish. We drive about a landscape, using gas, water, and countless other resources in a manner that has seemingly no purpose. But if only one of the Birdwatch kids (and I suppose I count too), grows up to inspire others, it’ll all be worth it.
And thankfully we managed to avoid that f***ing golf course.
By the quantity of photos in the entry, you can tell I took a lot of photos. I encourage everyone to check out my collection for the trip here. I was fairly satisfied at my results.
The fringe benefit for visiting naturalists and birders are the many boats ready for hire. Tino, who lives and works in the village and for the field station is happy to make money off taking visitors out to the aptly named Bird Island. With the going rate at $10/person and a full boat of 10 people, Tino makes a good wage (there’s plenty of people who don’t make that in a day in the US). And for us, ten bon-a-fide greenbacks was a deal to see breeding Blue-footed Boobies!
We’d been trying to make it out to the island before leaving for Alamos. The wind and Tino needing to accommodate other groups hadn’t allowed the venture until now. The morning of the afternoon departure to Alamos, we clambered on and coasted out to the open water.
In the wide channels that feed the estuary, mangroves and all their charismatic inhabitants flanked us as the boat crawled forth. Although my bouts with seasickness have been directly dependent on being in heavy waves and distance from shore, I was willfully avoiding being ill. Thankfully, as we broke into the open water, I had ample distraction.
As many times as I’ve watched boobies and gannets slice into water on film, it has never done them justice. At the risk of making evolution sound sentient, boobies are perfectly engineered for these stoops. Seeing their quarry from high above, boobies plummet and transform to spears thrust from Poseidon. They shed any resemblance to birds the split second before impact.
Blue-footed Boobies in most respects however, aren’t as graceful as they are when foraging. Well built for living at sea, they quickly diminish in elegance right when they try to land. Feet thrust forward and gangly wings stuck at awkward angles, like someone trying to brace their fall, many of the birds seemed elated in the simple miracle of coming to ground without mishap. Beaks clattering, they’d uttering bizarre noises on successful stops.
Bird Island itself isn’t horribly fascinating from a geological perspective – it’s just an eroding bit of sand. Hardly an island at all. But it was full of birds: both species of Pelicans, Brown and Blue-footed Boobies, cormorants, geese, ducks, shorebirds, pretty much every bird in the estuary. Tino brought the boat up close but to be respectful, we didn’t go to land.
Breeding bird colonies are not places of glamour either. Behaviorally, yes – very fascinating. But let’s not ignore that fact that this island was mostly bird shit from obligatory piscivores (we got a full whiff of this one the far side of the island). The excrement of birds that eat fish all day and exude it to bake in the sun, does not remind one of rose petals. Then there’s the noise and the complete lack of shade – you can probably assume I’m not destined to work with Nasca Boobies in the Galapagos.
But you don’t visit these places for the ambiance. You come because you get to see a White Pelican stretch its proboscis skyward, the absurdist yoga. To watch Blue-footed Boobies assume courtship displays, clownishly raising their latex gloved feet up and down in unison. To hear the excited whistling and humming of the birds as they go about lives that don’t include our own. And best of all, to admire the babes.
Baby boobies are the oddest baby birds I’ve ever seen. These fluffy white muppet like birds were few in numbers and easily missed amongst the whitewash, mainly because they were sprawled about like discarded feather boas. They didn’t look comfortable and I was reminded of two days earlier when I’d slept one off. This was probably akin to that, an inescapable, nauseating discomfort. However, I’d had the option of not baking in the sun (and not imbibing so lavishly).
I stared at one for about ten minutes, willing it to move. It didn’t. Even when an adult bird pummeled the ground adjacent during a particularly graceless landing, it stayed motionless. Finally it half-heartedly nibbled at the nearby adult’s chin. Not the penultimate of begging. But I’ll be damned if they weren’t deathly cute. You can take baby penguins, I’ll take these nonchalant albino Elmos over them any day. I’d probably suffer less hangovers if I spent a few months watching them valiantly avoid sun stoke.
After looping to the west of the island and quickly retreating because it smelled like rotten fish guts, we started back. We were leaving Navopatia when we came to shore. I could have stayed; written some Steinbeck sluiced book and found a beautiful Mexican wife who could plump me on hand made tortillas and seviche.
But we had to meet the Mays in Alamos that evening and explore Tropical Deciduous Forest (TDF). Everyone was going to be glad to no longer hear me spout on about “TDF”. It sure was hard living this lavish life of natural history worship
Although I knew I’d be back, it was hard to leave our friends. We’d see all the people from Evergreen back in the Northwest but who knew when I’d see any of the locals again. I made a goal with myself to relearn Spanish and find my way back soon and actually communicate more than monosyllabically. My flailing attempts to do eloquent justice the Thornforest, Navopatia, and the Mangroves won’t suffice. Whoever is out there reading this will have to visit. Really that’s the point of all this laborious self-indulgent verbage – to inspire you to explore and care about our world.
“Probably every subject is interesting if an avenue into it can be found that has humanity and that an ordinary person can follow.” – William Zinsser, Writing to Learn
That about sums it up!
Drops of water kept falling on my face. I tried to roll over and cover up with my sleeping bag but instead nuzzled a pool collected at a low spot on the floor of my tent. Cactus Wrens churred away and Curve-billed Thrashers whistled their double note call mere paces away and Whimbrels screamed incessantly only a bit further off. Here I was rolling around in a soppy tent. The sun was up, time to rise.
After driving nearly 700 miles – from Madera Canyon in Southern Arizona to within a short hike of the coastal Sonoran-Sinaloan border, I wasn’t quite expecting this. Sore from the slog south, squeezed into various seats with my friends Alison, Jeff, and Jenny in my friend Danner’s truck, I was ready for some sunshine and lots of birds. Somehow there was enough fog that I couldn’t see past the two tall cacti next to my tent.
We’d gotten to Navopatia late the night before after braving some seriously boggy roads. Apparently our friends at the field station had endured epic rainfalls unusual in duration and frequency. The field station was far from running water and a truck delivered non-potable uses. Trucks hadn’t been able to get in and they’d not been able to leave to get drinking water either. Things were actually looking a bit serious.
Fog and a weeklong bout of torrential rain in the Sonoran Desert? This wasn’t the winter Mexico I’d expected. I needn’t have worried; we weren’t in for anything but spectacularly pleasant sunshine.
Almost everyone else was up wandering about. The other vehicle in our convoy included my friends Sarah and Alex, the latter of whom was still sleeping off a jetlag from a flight back from New Zealand. Those of us who’d never visited before stumbled about wide-eyed. Several mystical looking White Ibis flew by, pink faces glowing in the ethereal light.
Everyone was dumbstruck by the fog, truthfully quite beautiful, creating dew on all the vegetation and casting a wonderful glow about everything. I noticed lichen growing on all the tall plants nearby apparently thriving off coastal moisture, a floral arrangement quite unexpected. The horizon was like nothing I’d ever seen, cactus crowns towering above all else. A jumble of skyward spires lined my scope in all directions except over the water to the west.
I had already seen two new birds – Mangrove Swallow and Yellow-footed Gull. The bird life just at the beach of the field station was astounding. Several species of Terns, large numbers wading birds from over wintering shorebirds to resident herons and egrets, and oh the songbirds. Pyrroloxia, Orioles, Gnatcatchers, Towhees – a surprising number of songbirds wintering from the north.
Our friends Adam and Sallie soon found their way down from camp to greet us. They have been doing research here at the Navopatia Field Station through their non-profit, which they founded with several others, the Alamos Wildlands Alliance (AWA). Along with Heather (and others I will get to), my friend Oliver’s elder sister, they are currently running the field station and working toward the goal of preserving this fascinating and important landscape.
Adam’s master’s thesis is on the importance of Costal Thornscrub (the gringo name for the habitat) for over wintering migrants. The local name is the Pitayal, from the physically dominant, organ pipe cactus or Pitaya (Stenocereus thurberi). With several other species of cacti and multiple decidedly thorny shrubs all typically never growing higher than 20 feet, Thornscrub is appropriately descriptive. I still think “scrub” is a drab descriptor for a landscape so immediately alien and exciting.
As the fog lifted a bit, I couldn’t help but break into a shit-eating grin at the glory of it all.
We weren’t going to waste any time sitting around just yet either. There were the mangroves and here were some kayaks. Time to explore. We paddled across the water to the bank of the saline forest surrounding the main island in the Agiabampo Estuary. Reflecting that this was a habitat I’d seen so often in my travels but I knew so little about except some cursory facts, I reminded myself to steady my excited pulse and to try to observe more effectively. Into the labyrinth our throng of boats went.
Clams clapped closed and we paddled through the narrow waterway. Crabs painted stunning blue and red clung to the mangrove roots and scuttled to the opposite side and out of sight as we passed. Tidal fluctuations obviously dictate the ecosystem and there was a different feeling of fluidity about everything, nothing like landlocked habitats. Filtered sunlight crept through the low canopy of yellow-green leaves, giving one the impression that many secrets were held deep in the trees.
I could hear Mangrove Warblers; a decidedly recognizable subspecies of Yellow Warbler that is so different with its reddish head, distinct song, and specialized habitat that I swear it deserves splitting. And I’m not saying this just because I want another bird to have on my life list. Sure they’d breed with other Yellow Warblers (females are largely the same) but can you really deny the separation their obligation creates? I suppose now I need to look at the research!
Another lifer I never did see was a Mangrove Vireo, though I heard them a couple times as we pushed and pulled through the aptly named little labyrinth. It eventually opened up and I had spectacular views of male Mangrove Warblers singing from the highest points they could find. It didn’t matter that I’d forgotten sunscreen (winter in the Pacific Northwest leaves me cadaver pale) and that my butt was sloshing about in the brackish bottom of my self-bailing boat. Day one certainly wasn’t a bust.
We didn’t have nearly enough snow this year. Driving through the Okanogan Valley, that’s about all I could think of. I could follow the trunks of apple trunks groundward with no obstructing snow. It could have been an early autumnal foray. But it was January.
That’s the problem with chronology, it’s bound to let you down, especially when in search of birds. Last year my friends and I spent a glorious weekend drooling over beautiful animals. A dozen Northern Pygmy-owls perched in reckless adjacency to gawking humans. Sharp-tailed grouse browsing the willow and birch trees that keep them alive during the winter. Bohemian Waxwings in abandon. Two hundred Pine Grosbeak – a probable record for the lower forty-eight. It was a shit show.
This year we didn’t hit real snow till we climbed out of the valley into the Okanogan Highlands. With a few exceptions, the species mentioned above are perfectly happy higher up, as long as it doesn’t get too hoary. And I wasn’t too optimistic because I hadn’t worn gloves all day and we’d hardly seen any birds (well we had a fleeting view of a immature Northern Goshawk). The pessimism of past experience.
Of course, as I was starting to get discouraged, we chugged up a random dell to find the first Northern Pygmy-Owl of the day. My friend Drew called it immediately as we broached the hill. Seeing that Danner (our gracious driver/vehicle owner), Oliver, Drew and I all had big lenses lustily primed for bird – our approach was cautious. First we all got a look – then we moved in for exposures.
At first we tip toed about, largely because this little guy was about 10 meters away. Shutters slammed down, we were harried by the inherent suspicion of humans we’d been familiarized with as ardent nature observers. Pygmy-owls, as it turns, out are wholly undeterred by idiots dancing about making clicking noises. This bird was so relaxed that it decided to barrel into the snow bank opposite us and having missed it’s intended goal – landed two meters from me on the icy road. I subsequently lost all control of rational photographic thought and hammered away, getting only mediocre pictures of this demon eyed bird with oversized, harbinger talons. My command of expressing my passion for this pipsqueak of an owl left me with the flush of adrenaline and all I could talk about was exuding bricks out of unholy orifices. Even now I forgot to mention the three Ruffed Grouse, just below us as we poised for evidence of the encounter.
To say the least it was a heroically lit day. The kind of day that makes you want to exact vengeance upon your foes after striding through numerous and untold snowfields. A few more birds were seen but it was simply a pleasure to slide about this blanket of white in relative solitude. Clark’s Nutcrackers cavorted as only corvids can. Several Gray-crowned Rosy Finches were to be had. We counted twelve Northern Shrikes. We enjoyed our unrivaled company in an overcrowded truck.
This is a place I intend to settle. Not only is it one of the more wild places in Washington but it’s full of magical birds. Seeing past the frozen crust, I can imagine the indulgence of summer in the high country. As the sun dipped below a bank of clouds we were treated with the deep navy of sparsely lit snow and the pale orange of refracted light.
We explored the glorious Methow Valley the next morning, lucky to have the help of our champion Drew. Being a bit older (and wiser), he secured places for us sleep both nights and private places to explore. The most magical place was a homestead we visited in hopes of a Northern Hawk-owl, which had been seen earlier in the winter. Although we dipped on the owl, we got to see pretty much my ideal vision of an off the grid home. I couldn’t have dreamt up a more ideal spread, tucked away in the hills with land a plenty and an unobstructed view south into wilderness.
We ended out trip beyond Winthrop with a good find. As we walked around Pearrygin Lake State Park, I wandered off to try to find some Pine Grosbeaks feasting on the ash seeds we’d seen them gulping down previously. As luck would have it, I heard a few chuckling away to each other through beakfulls of seed. Eight grosbeaks in total finished off our sortie into the Methow and we watched them merrily munch away for quite some time.
We had been toying with the idea of going through Lassen National Park enroute to Chester, where our job training would start. I was a bit anxious to just get there because Simone had lost her confidence in driving stick during a mishap a couple year ago, leaving me to pilot the entire trip. We rose at sunrise and crammed back into the truck for the final leg of our journey.
Birding along the way south didn’t prove all that fruitful but we did find a large group of Elk bedded down along 101. It was an unfamiliar oddity to see them in a field nex to horses, adjacent to the highway, and completely unconcerned. I couldn’t help but fret a little bit about an accidental collision with a bull elk.
Aracata came and went as we headed up into the Coast Ranges. The climb was putting some serious stress on the overloaded vehicle, which made for a white-knuckle drive until we crested and headed into the rain shadow. A landscape thriving off ocean driven moisture transformed rapidly into pine dominated red soil with the amethyst Redbud dotting the hillsides. The Trinity River follows highway 299 most of the way into Redding and once you’ve slid down lower its teal waters combined with the blooming Redbud were eye-catching to say the least.
Before we knew it we were down into Redding and back on I-5 South through the upper Valley. It was a bit of a shock going from the cool winding mountain lanes to a huge freeway in the hot lowlands. I was anxious to get back into the mountains and we soon were.
Highway 36 took us through open fields with Oak woodlands on either side. Giant rocks stood alone in the middle of fields, a reminder that a volcano was nearby and had once flung these erratics 60some miles away during eruption. Western Kingbirds and Bluebirds abound in the open areas and soon we were climbing again. Worrying about my aging truck, I had to remind myself to enjoy the landscape as Lassen came into view. The woodlands transitioned into tall pines and fir with the occasional mountain meadow. This was going to be an amazing place to work for the summer!
Chester was only ten miles away when we hit the cabins we’d be staying at initially. Although it seemed like it should be open, ready to live in, the place was apparently deserted. The only cabin open was a trailer in disrepair and full of mouse droppings. Fearing hanta virus, we vowed to sleep outside and went into Chester for dinner.
Back at the cabins, there was still no sign of anyone and we started to get a little anxious. Two friends alone with deserted cabins and a lonely highway – it sounded like the premise of some horror movie. It was then that I remembered I had seen Cougar tracks on the property and thoughtlessly mentioned this to Simone. The look of horror on her face was hastened me to offer to let her sleep in the truck and to take the edge off we watched some of Attenborough’s Life in Cold Blood before a restless, worrisome night of sleep. I kept waking up expecting to find some deranged mountain man asking why we were sleeping in yard.
When we woke in the morning, Simone still wasn’t feeling any better but there was barely time to dwell on snot or strep throat. The trilliums were amassed in diffuse colors, the colossal redwoods stretched up around us, and the eerie echo of a Pileated was somewhere in the vicinity. The air had the perfume of healthy decay you only experience in the best of forests.
Driving back into the Stout Grove we marveled at the houses along the Smith River. Perched upon the both jagged and water worn banks of the river, with some of the largest Redwoods in the world in their backyard, it was hard not to feel the twinge of jealousy. The sunlight arrowed through the tall trees as we traveled back up the dirt road from the night before.
When I enter old growth I feel immensely humbled and I think that’s what a lot of people are looking for there. In fact I believe it’s the most appropriate of reactions. You are supposed to feel dwarfed, feel outnumbered, and helpless in the midst of giants destined to be eons older than yourself. To marvel at the natural world is to realize that the earth doesn’t revolve around your tepid life and that although you can do great things, you aren’t Atlas and you can’t rock the boat. That’s how I felt when we took a stroll through the Stout Grove. With the Varied Thrush whistling all about and poison oak vines snaking up the trees in the morning radiance it was hard to imagine coming into this place and seeing only board feet.
This also brought to mind a story my father told me about coming to the redwoods with his brother Johnny who lives in Australia like most of his side of the family. Apparently when my parent’s were living in Los Angeles before I was born, Johnny came to visit and they wanted to show him something special. Heading into the redwoods, they thought, would be a great treat. But apparently he refused to camp in the forests upon arrival because he figured if the trees were that large, then Bigfoot had to be too large to want to encounter. Despite the fact that he worked and still does work with hundreds of exotic ways to get killed in Australia, the thought of a mythical creature was enough to deter him. And I’m silly for being afraid of Tiger Snakes?
We wound through the rest of the drive relaxed as can be. In places the truck barely squeezed through the trees on either side of the road. Other revelers passed, often at a loss for words, only nodding slack jawed as we came close. However, before we knew it, 101 loomed ahead and we were heading south.
Having gotten word that Gray Whales were at the Kalamath River outlet, we drove to an overlook to see if we could glimpse a few. In no time we were seeing breaching blowholes of young whales and their mothers, resting in the calm shallow waters below. I helped some people from Minnesota, who announced: “We don’t have whales in the Midwest” take a look at their first through my scope. The ease of observing the whales makes them seem somewhat mundane but these animals were halfway through a lengthy voyage from far to the south and would end up in the seas around Alaska, many with young. Can you comprehend a many thousand-mile journey with a toddler using only your natural means of transportation? Whenever I see them, I’m reminded of standing atop Cape Kiwanda on the Oregon coast as a child and watching distant sprays from traveling pods. It always made me wish for a Yellow Submarine so that I could join them.
Once again filled with a passion and curiosity for the natural world we moved on. The next stop was the old Coastal Highway. This road was once the old way of travel along the coast and though we were assured that Model-T Fords had once traveled this way, I had an astringent time imagining it as the truck rattled up the road in low gear. It sounded like a buffalo dying inside the hood.
Spring was truly in full swing as we bounced along. Between stops to survey the calm Pacific (living up to its name), we found some great wildflowers including a new species of trillium for both of us. The views were astounding, making you feel like you were going to slip off into the turquoise water down slope without even realizing.
Relieved to be off the potholed road, we were back on a scenic route through Redwood National Park en route to Prarie Creek State Park (a sub region of the giant park complex). Again the road narrowed, giving precedence to the towering redwoods and we seemed to be solitary in some shaded mythical land. Snapping back into reality we reached the Prairie Creek Visitor Center, entering again the full sunlight and a large meadow with signs warning not to approach Elk. Although typically these signs are for the most absurd tourist, it wasn’t too terrible of a reminder for Simone and I. We perused the extensive book collection and museum at the visitor center, resisting the urge to spend the money we’d soon be making on field guides. After seeing a picture of the Gold Bluffs and Fern Canyon in the museum, it was an easy choice to stay down on the beach.
Quickly finding a camping spot at the Gold Bluffs with a direct view of the reflective pacific, we found ourselves at the entrance to Fern Canyon. It’s hard to describe the extreme beauty of this deep cut into the hillside. For 50 feet on either side, a least six species of fern grew on moist, vertical walls. The debris of floods and landslides clogged some areas, while some openings were nothing but creek bed and chartreuse walls of vegetation.
Despite its sublime beauty this isn’t a natural canyon at all. Formed by early mining for gold along the beach, miners apparently used water canons to wash away topsoil in their pursuit of wealth. Home Creek – the natural vein of water in the canyon also helped to continue to erode away the canyon but the sheer walls are artifacts of human disturbance. At least now you can’t even tell.
There are no real paths up the canyon and in many places you have to search out crossings. In some places I didn’t have the patience to walk until I found one. On the way back I decided to start cutting corners by jumping some expanses of creek.
“Watch this,” I said to Simone, indicating my intent to span the wide creek ahead of me.
She looked as me as if to suggest I was explaining calculus, “You can’t make that”
“Sure I can – watch me”
Knowing this was going to be worth having on film, Simone readied the camera.
I didn’t make it.
Feet wet, tired from the long day of exploration, we retired back to camp. After a quick dinner we walked the beach in search of dead birds (seriously) but unsuccessful, found ourselves back at camp again. Although it seemed a shame to turn in right at sunset (I’ll be damned if I didn’t miss photographing that last bit of light before the sun dipped below the horizon), we were both ragged from the road.
My first night in the truck proved magically restful and both Simone and I slept nearly 10 hours (we were both tired from several days of little sleep, a snotty sick, and preparing for our adventure). During the night we heard the raucous calls of a Common Loon, which worked its way into the subconscious landscape of our dreams. Around our campsite Red Crossbills twittered above us in the Sitka Spruce and Douglas Fir. We started practicing bird songs we had to know for work right off the bat with Golden-crowned Kinglets and Dark-eyed Juncos serenading our breakfast foraging.
The dunes proved to be impressive but then again nature nerds aren’t too hard to please when they’ve been in the city for months! The Hairy Manzanita, kinnickinnick, and Shore Pine quickly took over the landscape. While we were investigating the new habitat we found a male Rufous Hummingbird displaying, diving its reckless loops above some shrubs. To our surprise we heard a Mountain Quail!
After a bit of waiting and listening we were graced with a quick but auspiciously lit view of a male Mountain Quail. Unlike the California Quail, who inhabit much more open landscapes back in Washington, Mountain Quail are rather scarce lurking in dense coastal forest. This was a serious treat and had us as excited as a pig in shit.
Songbirds abound with Song Sparrows and White-crowned Sparrows singing non-stop. We picked out a singing Hutton’s Vireo, which although widespread in the Puget Sound area, are rarely seen. I had come up with a mnemonic device to help remember the song and all we could hear was a demented “Tree. Tree. Tree,” from the pines. Another coastal specialty churred away in the scrub, a Wrentit who was determined that we shouldn’t find it. I suppose crashing through the bushes isn’t the best method to finding a notoriously shy bird.
Wrentits are particularly strange birds. They are actually probably relatives of Old World Babblers or Old World Warblers, probably via a bird that found it’s way over the Aleutians long ago when there was a land bridge. Above all else when I think of Wrentits, I am reminded of the bird’s spectacularly inadequacy at flying. I’ve seen them appear to struggle across a parking lot and it’s no wonder they’ve never made it across the Columbia River into Washington, when they hardly manage a few feet above the ground. It would have been nice to see this gray little bird, but an ample amount of his gulping song had to suffice. They are one of the few native species that have thrived in the logging along the pacific coasts, because they inhabit scrubby habitats.
There’s a certain type of atmosphere I find myself entering when everything in the natural world around me seems intensely fascinating. Simply put – once I start getting excited I’m all a flutter, actively seeking out anything noteworthy. I feel as if my senses are heightened and I notice much more. I’ve also noticed this in my fellows and suspect there may be a connection between this sensation and the potential for a dopamine flush paired with discovery. There’s probably plenty of work already published on this feeling of exploration but it’s just now occurred to me.
Walking out to a promontory, it was dunes and the conifer/shrub landscape to the Pacific. An Osprey flew overhead, ducking down to harass a Bald Eagle probably up to something nefarious. Simone summoned a distant Peregrine Falcon far above, typical of her prescient raptor obsession.
The only thing reminding us that this wasn’t untouched habitat were the distant sounds of the abominable ATVs tearing away at landscape and a couple errant beer cans. I have a very finite patience with the types of people that cultivate these behaviors. But if I got upset every time I saw erosion from an ATV or a beer can in the sweetest of oases I’d probably already have some gray hair and an aneurism by now. It’s sometimes the healthy admission to tune out the motors and pick up the beer can, so I did just that and stopped foaming at the mouth.
Back in camp, we were feeling great after a morning of explorations. Yet the road beckoned and I was feeling drawn to California. We looked around here and there on our way south. A rest area in the Humbug Mountains of South Eastern Oregon had a pleasant stand of Myrtlewood and a nice array of wildflowers basking in the moist habitat along Brush Creek. A beautiful green Icuenomid wasp was very cooperative as she sat on a post apparently unbothered by my papparatizi treatment. If I was a little more tolerant of handling strange insects I think I could be very happy studying hymenoptera (wasps. bees, ants). There are so very many of them and I know so little. I suppose that’s the draw of the unknown! (p.s – read The Snoring Bird by Bern Heinrich and I suspect you’ll be inspired by insects as well).
California was there before we knew it and we soon had our first views of Monterrey Cyprus and at last Coast Redwoods! I’ve never seen these amazing plants growing in their native array and I was naturally thrilled to finally see them. Grooved, rusty trunks with fleshy, scaled foliage flashed by on the 101. Simone and I tried to stay our enthusiasm for when we got into the real forests.
In “metropolis” of Crescent City we got maps of California and information on places to visit for the next couple of days. It even seemed like we could find free camping. On our way to check out a potential place to sleep, the day seemed like it couldn’t have gone better.
Then we had a bit of a reality check. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to the North Coast of California, but it was quickly the source of a new word coined for our uneasiness, “Sketchakan.” Many of the people in North Cali hold a very special aura not unlike people of the backwoods in Georgia, except many of them are half crazed from bad trips. While the place we intended to camp was a hike in from a parking area, we figured we’d just figure out a way to sleep by the truck (seeing that all our worldly possessions were stashed all about it). A beautiful sunset was on course, Blue Ceanothus was blooming like mad, and it was great photograph after great photograph. Then we started noticing all the characters about.
Five mangy dogs behaving as if we were going to beat them were soon about us, cowering and wagging their tails in frantic submission. We could see the stumbling silhouettes of several crumpled people coming up the path. The first pair leaned on each other and held the tattered remains of a rack of Steel Reserve, walked by with a boozy hello. The third figure was a grimy gentleman who noticed my camera and decided to tell me about his brother’s photograph of the sunset – “that really looked like a sunset”…. And the final two showing the spectacular grease of years of drinking and smoking in the sun, were barely walking and asked me for another cigarette. Confused by this (because I didn’t have any cigarettes), I declined to share, only to realize that they mistook my toothpick for one. I watched apprehensively as the most unabashedly sloshed of the party climbed into the driver’s seat of their decrepit van and they lumbered off into the shadows.
Feeling like we’d avoided some sort of major catastrophe involving being robbed or attacked we started to notice more odd people about the small parking lot. Two cars pulled up and one of the drivers got into the other’s car and they seemed possessed by some task below window level. A panel truck drove down to the lot, barely fitting on the coastal road, only to turn around after eyeing us all. The final straw was a seedy character that reminded me of Gollum appearing out of nowhere. He took a look at my camera and computer (which happened to be out at that moment) and disappeared without a car or any other apparent means of transportation. I suspected he had some sort of mildewed lair nearby full of loot from hapless travelers that he lorded over in maniacal fixation. Although we didn’t want to pay for camping, this didn’t seem like the quietest or probably safest place to spend the night.
So we headed off toward a campground in the shadowy hills leaping from the coast. A wrong turn took us instead of on the highway to the Jebidiah Smith State Park Campground but on a long dusty road that ended up being the idyllic way to finish our evening and relax after the creeps by the ocean. This road was a track leading through some of the larger redwoods in the area and into the Stout Grove. The light was failing but en route we knew we had to return the following day.
Simone and I started off at 8 am out of Seattle. The city sent us off in full form, with a good swath of rain as we slid through traffic on our way to meet up with Dr. Steven Herman in Olympia. Steve was first Simone’s and my professor at Evergreen for Spring Ornithology in 2005. It was a serious turning point in my environmental education and it set us up for some amazing experiences and great friendships. As this was our first field job it seemed only right to meet up for some breakfast to have him send us off. Besides he continues to be an amazing mentor and friend!
Onwards down the road from Olympia, we approached the Columbia, and it was clearing up. Portland came and left and soon we were cruising for Corvallis. In no time we were pulling up to the Rogue Brewery in Newport for a quick drop for the road. Getting onto Highway 101 south felt like the fun was really about to start.
The sun was shining and a fierce wind was blowing against the coast. We couldn’t resist stopping to enjoy the glinting light over the pacific but we wanted to get down to the Darlingtonia Wayside. The light was getting longer as we finally were a few miles from Florence and slid into the wayside parking lot.
Darlingtonia californica is a type of pitcher plant that lives in Oregon and California from nearly 6000 ft to sea level. It is the only of it’s kind in Oregon and is uniquely suited to the poor soils in the boggy areas it grows. Its leaves are modified into a “pitcher” and hold water with a sweet smelling attractant at the base of the opening to lure insects. Once they’ve crawled into the plant, sharp “hairs” pointing down prevent escape. The insects are decomposed by bacteria, supplementing the resource poor, acidic habitat these plants grow in. The trees around us were stunted attesting to the sub-par growing conditions. Sometimes called cobra lily, Darlingtonia have a beautiful purple flower with a yellow center, which unfortunately wasn’t visible. In all honesty the plants weren’t in full show as they weren’t fully rejuvenated but the new leaves were probably 20 inches high.
Our flora fascination satisfied we needed to find a place to eat and somewhere to sleep. The food we got in Florence was far from adequate but we ended up finding a great camping spot. Like most young people traveling on their own dime we wanted a free place to stay but after a bit of searching we realized that this wasn’t going to happen. Luckily we found a campsite just south of the Florence in the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area.
Tomorrow my good friend Simone and I are starting to make our way to Northern California for a job with Point Reyes Bird Observatory (PRBO for short). We’ve given ourselves a good cushion of time to travel and explore, about four days to play around with between Seattle, WA and Chester, CA. We’ve planned to cut to the coast midway through Oregon and spend our first night in the Florence area to see the Darlingtonias at the Darlingtonia Wayside. I’ll be saying more about them once I’ve seen them, but just keep in mind that these are carnivorous plants (pitcher plants in fact) and they are right off Highway 101 in large concentrations. After that it’s the Coast Redwoods, which I have also never had the pleasure of visiting. Between all the beautiful coastline and those two places we should have plenty of time to get to work barring any unforeseen distractions.
It’s interesting to think that all across the country (and in fact probably the Northern Hemisphere), people like myself are headed out for field work. We get suckered into highly skilled jobs for a seasonal or temporary position because of our love of the natural world. We make both social and financial sacrifices for the opportunity to do something we love. I don’t see a lot wrong with that!
But I suppose what I am getting at, is that there is a whole world out there to explore. Not only explore but to protect. That’s the goal of all these seasonal positions (unless of course you are working for a typical mining company). Sure our job is surveying birds in the Northern Sierras for a forest service management plan. We will drive a car all the way down the coast (a truck in fact) and during we will be tooling around in beastly Forest Service vehicles. We won’t be living any more sustainably than a lot of the population. The data collected will inevitably help to diminish habitat, while protecting “important areas.” The more I think about it, the more I get the creeps.
Most of us have to start small to do something great. Simone, myself, and our group of friends intend to do some important things for the biosphere but my point is that we aren’t perfect. This blog is about how we aren’t perfect, particularly how flawed our obsession with birds and the natural world is. Most importantly it’s about asking questions and containing some thoughts from our travels.
In the coming weeks you’ll hear about Simone’s and my adventure south, the begining of our job. My thoughts, videos, and photos will accompany with some light facutal information for the more demanding of viewers.