The unflagging exuberance of young birders (or simply those enamored with nature) is draining on those even just slightly older. Certainly it’s uplifting and I felt energized as we left the Sage Grouse Lek on Foster Flats. Energy was entirely welcome after all, we still had a full day ahead of us.
Vesper Sparrows (Pooecetes gramineus) and Horned Larks (Eremophila alpestris) serenaded us down from the lek “parking lot.” In a couple slimy sections of the road, I inwardly thanked our lucky stars for making it up. After the other visitors had squirmed upslope, the track was a sloppy mess of mud ruts. The refreshing air wafted through aromatic shrubs had a calming effect though. The were windows rolled down and ears pricked at notes from the steppe.
Just as I expressed doubts about the promise we’d see a certain sage obligate, we heard cheery, ebullient notes tossed across the shrubs. The Sage Sparrow (Amphispiza belli) is a delicately colored bird, enjoyable and beautiful in subdued shades of gray and brown in the way we find subtle geology dazzling. I’d also reckon it has one of the prettier sparrow songs. The first individual sat dutifully staking claim, broadcasting for mates long enough for Eric and I to creep near clutching cameras.
Before we made it back to the highway we couldn’t resist a few more stops to enjoy the sunny morning. A Ferruginous Hawk (Buteo regalis) sailed far above and more sparrows sang around us. We all developed platforms of mud, inches thick, caked to our soles that had to be scraped off each time before returning to the van.
Already pleased with the sights, we curved down the highway to the The Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Diamond Craters Outstanding Natural Area. The mention of the BLM never gets me excited except knowing that the land has few rules to fetter the adventurous. When entering their properties (or as many say, “our property, our land”), I vacillate between imagining open pit mines and overgrazed riparian areas festering with watery cow pies. “The Bureau of Land Mismanagement.” Let it be said that the road we traveled in to see the lek was a derelict BLM road, so I can’t entirely grouse. Diamond Crater’s must be the crown gem of all the BLM land.
What pleased me the most about visiting this area was the fluency of the Birdwatch kids in all things natural. Sure, they wanted to go far and see much birdwise, but they could enjoy roaming geology and settling down for a good old fashioned lizard catching romp too. Before we’d even made it past the first designated stop on the auto tour of the “Outstading Natural Area,” we were crawling over the thin crust of a basaltic flow in search of reptiles.
Midday birding what it is, we had the geology and herps to keep us busy. This first stop saw us clambering on a vertically tilted slab of basalt attempting to outwit several behemoth Western Fence Lizards (Sceloporus occidentalis). A cooperative Sagebrush Lizard (Sceloporus graciosus) proved much more easily caught and photographed. At the same time, someone noticed that many of the cracks in the rock were filled with Pacific Chorus Frogs (Pseudacris regilla)! Between trying to capture images of frog faces wedged in fissures and snagging lizards, we laughed and scrambled away an hour. This was good, respectable fun that had nothing to do with age or ability or knowledge.
The Diamond Craters are true geological wonders, much deserving of their cornball designation. I’d visited previously but hadn’t been compelled to contemplate the spread. Much of the rock we’d seen before this point was from a comparatively ancient 9.2 million year old vent located near where Burns, Oregon is today. The Diamond Craters are a geologically young formation, around 25,000 years old, and display a huge array of basaltic volcanic features localized and easy to see. Massive craters admired are in various states of erosion, collapsing in on themselves. The evidence of explosive events, fueled by the interaction of water and magma, were strewn about. I couldn’t help but wish to have viewed this from afar over the thousands of years of activity. The tumult, the explosions, the flows of viscous lava bubbling from vents to cover lakes and millions of years of older formations. I reckon I could probably give up television for that opportunity.
Possibly the gravity of the geology was lost on some of the students but they couldn’t ignore the unique features. Nor could they deny the desire to roam the slopes or climb into the craters. (Parents, don’t worry, this is no longer volcanically active). At the particularly stunning Lava Pit Crater, a collapsed shield volcano that repeatedly flooded lava over the surrounding slopes until it subsided and began to crumble, we had another good scramble. Here we found some delicate Side-blotched Lizards (genus Uta) near the crater rim and the more intrepid accidentally sussed out both a Great-horned (Bubo virginianus) and Barn Owl (Tyto alba) while exploring a particularly large vent.
The day went on like that. Driving, stopping at a gaudy volcanic feature, spreading out over it till we looked like ants, and circling back up to pile into the car. I don’t think any of us could have asked for a more enjoyable afternoon to cap the day and the trip. As the weather began to foul again, we turned back to the field station, satisfied and tired.
Back at the field station we discovered a Bushy-tailed Woodrat (Neotoma cinerea) that had been captured in the director’s residence and left for us to release. Only in this bizarre world I’m a part of does releasing giant rats count as fun. The giddy troops were dispatched and those of us who drove at 3 AM took a rest. Somehow, when they returned, I got convinced to hunt Kangaroo rats one last time.
So, excuse my lack of eloquence here: this shit is important. These kids are going to grow up and change the world. They are going to be stewards of the environment, no matter what choices they make in their career paths (doctors, business people, politicians need to have a connection with the natural world too). The volunteers of the program said this about my cohort when I was in Birdwatch and they were right; we’re working on it. I can think of little that is more important than helping this generation along, particularly considering this is a dying pursuit amongst the youngsters of America. Nature Deficit disorder may not be diagnosable but it is real. There is a widening disconnect between young people and nature, in my generation, and those after. I’ll never stop asking this of you, of myself, of anyone: how we can expect to save things we don’t understand, let alone care about? Simply knowing an animal or a landscape is endangered doesn’t inherently fuel action.
I’ll calm down and stop jumping on my soap box in just a second. My point is, if you have kids, get them outside and let them get dirty. If you are a kid (read: if you are young of heart), get out yourself. You don’t need to know what everything is or fret over dangers. For shit’s sake, live a little!
There are plenty more details, stories, and exciting things to share about our travels in Oregon but I choose to leave it here. We had an immeasurably good time and were all sad to leave and head back to the city. All ten hours back there were constant pleas from students (and whispered from the volunteers) to stop and explore. To get sidetracked.