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A Spring Paddle

From where I sat, I could feel the water swaying beneath me. A light breeze pricked at my flushed face. We sat, waiting for them in hushed anticipation, punctuated by an exhale of four wispy puffs of breath, and a matching explicative from someone in our boats. Then they’d go down for several minutes, and we’d wonder where they’d surface next. Moments later, they were right along side and their hydrophobic skin pushed the water away in skeins, deep Vs sliding across first their dorsal fins, and then their heads. All we could do was squeal and look them in the eye, because two of the Transient Killer Whales that passed our raft of kayaks, gave us a look as they passed within meters.

A little bit of me thought, “well, if I have to go, at least I’d be the first person to go down by a wild Killer Whale.” My logic told me that this family group of mammal eating Orcinus orca were probably searching for seals, and had no desire to eat me. Because…..that had never happened before. My gut, which dropped precipitously when they took a series of shallow dives on a line incredibly close to our boats, as we floated and waited for them to go by as to protocol, told me that that big male might weight 20 thousand pounds and that him and his family could do whatever the hell they wanted, history be damned. I still think we probably just don’t taste very good.

A male Transient Killer Whale moving through the Haro Strait.

I have a long standing love affair with the San Juan Islands, so when my former employer wanted to do a video shoot of his products, e.g. whale watching and kayak camping, I jumped at the chance to be one of the models. So, this last weekend, along with several old co-workers, I got to spend a weekend playing in kayaks and having close encounters with Killer Whales. The best part was knowing that this isn’t the last time I’ll have the privilege of enjoying the company of friends in these cherished islands.

The goal of the trip was to document what a typical overnight kayaking trip to Stuart Island would look like. I’ve done dozens of these trips and despite the absolute privilege, by the end of my time doing them for work, I was totally burnt out. Guiding is stressful and extremely hard work. It takes a very mentally and physically fit person to be a good guide. You have to have attention to detail, like people, be well spoken, be a good decision maker, and enjoy being outside. I like to think I was an excellent guide, despite the fact that I lasted one season of full time overnight trips. Some of my old co-workers have now done upwards of eight seasons. You’d think I wouldn’t want to get back on board with this, even for a weekend, but the islands were calling, and this was going to be a staged weekend, with friends as fellow “guests.”

There’s no bad time of year to be in the San Juans, but don’t tell anyone. Spring is particularly magical because there’s fewer people, the wildflowers are glorious, many seabirds are still around, the year-round resident birds are very active, and summering residents are just starting to arrive. This combines for quiet mornings on a rocky coastline free of stumbling visitors, with chocolate lilies nodding in the wind around you, the whirr of Surf Scoter wings over slate blue water, and Townsend’s Warblers singing overhead. Magical is a word that comes to mind.

Chocolate lily (Fritillaria affinis)

We left Roche Harbor at 6 am, not because of why we’d usually leave early on a trip, favorable tides and wind, but because low angle light is always a must in a shoot. As the sun stuck out through clouds over Orcas Island, we paddled around the wildlife refuge of Barren Island, enjoying the Black Oystercatchers squealing in alarm at an immature Bald Eagle flying by. Canada Geese were already paired and holding down nest sites on the island. A Steller sealion poked its head out of the water off the island, surely searching for food along the rocky shore. The bull kelp beds weren’t quite poking up, still growing back after dormancy throughout the winter. Large camas grew tall on the Eastern end of the rock, a surprise, as I’d never paddled by this early in the year.

Almost none of us were in kayaking shape and it was a slog against the ebbing tide and Northerly wind across Spieden Channel. By the time we made it to Sentinel Island, we were happy for a chance to rest in its shade from the tide and stretch feeling back into our legs and bottoms. Sentinel was once the homestead of an intrepid couple, and then called Gumdrop for its round shape. Now owned by the Nature Conservancy, it is private and inaccessible. This alone makes me want to explore there, but I had to settle for paddling around Sentinel Rock.

Harbor seals sat in wait for the best spots to haul up as the tide went out. Twenty of them watched us as we passed by. Harlequin Ducks foraged in the shallows, keeping their distance from our bright boats. A few Dunlin surprised me, fully dressed for summer, as they poked about in the rocks. The ubiquitous Bald Eagle was there too, looking for handouts, and it occurred to me that every island I have ever seen in the San Juans has had an eagle on it at one point or another.

We headed on toward the shore of Spieden Island, a long, thin island that is known for extremes. On its slowly sloping South face it is largely bare, trees having difficulty taking hold in the hard ground, sun exposure, and Southwesterlies. The shaded Northern side drops steeply and is dark with trees. Privately owned, it was once home to a private game lodge. After that a nature focused summer camp. Today, I consider the most obvious extreme is the number of feral fallow deer and mouflon sheep still on the island, a hangover from the days of the game lodge, and the fact that despite being green in spring, Spieden never has a wildflower bloom. Any other island with this much open prairie would be full of flowers this time of year. Instead the South side stays neatly cropped by ungulate incisors.

Seablush and friends on Gossip Island.

Still, passing by Spieden is a pleasure, because there is little outright evidence of people. Seals sprawl on the thin shore, bracketed by seeps that feed fluorescent green algae when the water flows. Giant glacial erratics, granite boulders brought here from far away in the Cascades by glaciers, dot the hillside above you as you paddle by sea cucumbers and blood stars magnified in the water below. We startled a pair of Black Turnstones on our paddle West toward Stuart, who burst into chattering flight, archs of contrasting black and white on a muted cloudy day. Pigeon Guilemots also scattered as we came around Spieden Bluff, congregated in large numbers because they nest in the hollows worn away in the cliffs. They lifted off in a bluster, only to come skidding down on orange feet a few yard away, calling to each other and lifting their wings in display.

Though it wasn’t lunch, we got out at the spot where our trips would normally break for lunch after crossing New Channel just North of Spieden. Gossip Island island is tiny, but it never fails to astonish. The only landing is a little beach made almost entirely of ground up barnacles, nestled between the dark igneous rock that makes up the island. This little beach just happens to be in the perfect tidal position to collect the chalky remains and the contrast between dark rock and light shell is stunning. Above the beach is a squat island with a few Douglas firs, a spattering of madrone, several gnarled juniper, and impenetrable thickets of oceanspray and snowberry that otters have carved weasel shaped pathways into. Much of the island is grassy and host to wildflowers. Pink seablush spread across the top of the rock and yellow monkeyflowers bloomed out of the cracks that seeped enough water to sustain them. A few chocolate lilies poked out here and there in the grass, a reminder to walk carefully for the sake of blooms yet to come. White-crowned Sparrows sang sweetly despite the gloom of a threatening storm.

The barnacle beach on Gossip.

The benefit of this being a photo shoot was that we could cheat: load up the support boat, and jet off to our next spot. With weather pressing down on us, we pulled the boats on board, and saddled up in survival suits to ward off the cold wind. Minutes later, in what would have taken at least an hour of paddling in good tides, we were in Prevost Harbor on the North side of Stuart Island and setting up camp.

Taking a break after setting up camp, I took a moment to explore, despite being intimately familiar with the side of the state park we had taken over. Warblers sang overhead as I tromped down the path to where I’d heard there were a few Oregon fawnlilies, a real treat because Erithyroniums are a favorite. A few nodding white flowers faced North toward Boundary Pass and a bonus fairy slipper orchid was a pink beacon in the green and brown nearby.

Fairy slipper orchid (Calypso bulbosa)

Oregon fawn lily (Erythronium oregonum)

Spring is a time of firsts of the year. Within a few minutes at camp I heard both my first Purple Martin and my first Pacific-slope Flycatcher of the year, surely just back from weeks of traveling from the tropics. Although I’d seen my first Osprey of the year a few days earlier, I enjoyed watching a pair display out over Satellite Island, flying in circles with slow exaggerated wing beats while calling and holding down their legs. Later at night I hoped to hear Western Screech Owls but didn’t, and feared I never would again as a result of the Barred Owls that frequent Stuart.

The dock at Prevost Harbor.

After a spattering of rain, we were able to get out on the water for more video and images. Turn Point, which is one of the most Northwesterly points in the Lower 48, happens to also be visually iconic, with huge cliffs, a historic lighthouse, and often epic water where the Haro Strait and Boundary Pass meet with the combined effects of prevailing wind. This is one of the must-see places on the island and a bit of a right of passage for paddlers in the San Juans. When we rounded the corner in our powered vessel and saw the current collision of opposing water movement, I wasn’t so sure I wanted to be paddling; large standing waves of several feet and roiling eddies were right off shore.

In the shade of a point South of Turn, we found enough space to launch our kayaks and paddled in the pretty evening light. The water wasn’t nearly as bad as it looked and we had a blast ripping around the water beneath the lighthouse, over and over, to get the right shot. We all held our breath when a Steller sealion appeared at the point and disappeared underwater, none of us relishing the idea of the head of a bear-like pinneped bursting suddenly from the water near us. Thankfully we didn’t see it again.

Paintbrush and red-flowering currant bloomed on the edges of soil on the tall cliff, called Lover’s Leap, above us. I was struck by the resiliency of the bigleaf maples growing from mere cracks, exposed, yet still growing. The natural beauty contrasted sharply with the constant tanker traffic in the deep water of the strait, symbolic of the threats we pose to such a beautiful place with our consumerism and international trade. An oil spill here would devastate the region and as of now, our counterparts in Canada have almost no plan for a response, which is admittedly not much better than on our side of the border.

Looking across to our campsite on Stewart Island.

Before dinner I managed get a moment to climb a lofty, leaning madrone in camp and enjoyed the sunset from high over the heads of my friends. Tacos and brownies consumed, beer and wine in hand, we then settled in for a night by the fire. But, I was beat, and I turned in not long after we’d prepared our camp to weather the storm of mice and racoons that swarm over the campsites at night. We’d started at 4:30, I think I was justified.

Me, up in a madrone.

The next thing I knew, I woke to croaking ravens and a rain subdued dawn chorus. We’d been allowed to sleep in because the day before had been so photographically fruitful. I allowed myself to sleep a bit longer before struggling up and helping cook breakfast. Many hands made light work of the effort of cooking, cleaning, and breaking camp, and before we knew it, the boat was pushing off. Once more I was saying goodbye to the grizzled cedars bent into the saltwater and the shining green leaves of Douglas maples of Prevost Harbor.

As we left, we were headed for opportunities to see whales. Our boat was fast, and initially we were headed for far North into the beautiful reaches of Active Pass in the Gulf Islands of Canada. But our plan quickly changed and as we sped out of the harbor, we turned West and almost immediately picked up two groups of whales that had just been reported. The water was perfect, the kayaks were in the water, and we had whales. It was a good weekend.

It’s always awesome when you get to see a whale’s eye!

 

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The Last Days of Winter

Winter is a season we love and hate. When you step outside and are immediately cold and wet, you curse it, and the wind it rode in on. Yet an afternoon crowded with sombre clouds dropping fluffy snow, a night of sparkling hoarfrost casting rainbows in the moonlight, or a frozen, shining morning filled with the tentative calls of waking birds, make it all worth the unpleasantness. Even a frothing, blustery storm can be relished. I work outside every day, so I know what I’m talking about.

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Just when a season passes, I feel like I’ve missed it. I realize that as I write this, and you read it, we are about a third of the way through spring. I don’t work that fast and I take time to decompress and analyze. Nature moves fast certainly, but we could all use some slowing down these days. I’m present, so I can write about it later.

What do you think of when you think of winter? I know many people who think of mountains and snow. I think more of gray days, wintering waterfowl, and sparrows hunched in thickets of blackberries. In a chance moment as I walk down the street in Seattle, I hear the chip note that promises to me a hint of golden yellow, as a Yellow-rumped Warbler passes through the trees overhead. I sit with the ceaseless discussions of Snow Geese in dormant fields, looking up to see Trumpeter Swans flying by on a frigid January day in the Skagit Valley. I pay attention to the brown birds skulking in the bushes, because what I might assume at first glance is a Song Sparrow might actually be a Hermit Thrush.

Sometimes I catch myself in the ignorant notion that it would be easier if the world ended and I could go feral. Not the world itself, just the human world. In this little dream, I am able to run off into the forest and subsist. I like to think I would do reasonably well, which is absurd because without my modern gadgetry, I would probably starve, freeze, and defecate myself to death; not necessarily in that order (not to mention witnessing the horrors of the post-apocalyptic world). I’m tough, but not as tough as I like to think.

When I drive around Seattle, I see a lot of homeless encampments. I have these bizarre thoughts about how I would set up my camp, how it would be better, and then immediately feel ashamed. I know these people don’t want to be living in the cold, polluted cesspits that our society has somehow cornered them in. And then I feel even more ashamed because I know my way of life isn’t sustainable for the planet. That while I sit inside warm and dry, not only are there destitute members of my species outside in the muck, there are wild animals and plants that have to deal with this every day. By living my life, as I do, I’m making it even harder. A simple Song Sparrow or bigleaf maple endures so much more than we give them credit for.

When I go out birding or into nature at any time of year, I always try to be sensitive of my impact. Winter is when I take this particularly to heart, (evidenced by my scolding my girlfriend for paddling into and scattering a flock of ducks during January on Lake Washington). When I’m cold or wet, but in the elements for recreation, I imagine myself in the place of one of the birds I’m watching. While I may catch hungry songbirds at daybreak, so concerned with not freezing to death that they will let me approach them, I try not to take advantage of their hunger. A little bit of me wants to anyway, to somehow demonstrate that not all humans are inherently awful, but that is a wasted effort at best. So I keep my distance and I try to just watch. When I get cold, I can go back to my warm conveyance, and eat some food, put on another layer, or just leave. They don’t have that option, they have to be out everyday. I don’t necessarily think we have it better in the long term either.

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A Golden-crowned Sparrow eyeing a morsel.

Birders don’t watch enough. They count. They scan. They eBird. They observe details in plumage, or look for a standout in the crowd. Everyone is in such a hurry. I do it too. But because I get out less frequently than I want these days, I remind myself to slow down and pay attention. And get off my phone.

Funnily enough, carrying a camera slows my pace. The light catches my eye and I stop. I hear a bird I’d like to photograph and pause for an opportunity. I come across some obliging models, going about their day, unconcerned with the odd person making a clicking noise. As with writing, I become more patient, because unlike when I say, participate in a big day of birding, what matters isn’t the numbers but the moments I can capture with word and image. The cold makes it harder to slow down, but I do it nonetheless.

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Winter color in the willow tops.

Winter is over. No matter how hard I try to make it, it won’t be back for several more months. Maybe I’ll remember to enjoy it then. Outside my apartment I can hear an American Robin. It’s incessant flutings driving home the point that Spring is here.

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He won’t be quiet, but that’s ok, testosterone is driving him insane.

During work the past couple weeks I’ve seen the signs. Two male Downy Woodpeckers chasing each-other in a vine maple, so incensed I could almost reach out and touch them. Yellow-rumped Warblers, still around from the winter, but now occasionally murmuring tidbits of song, and molting into the yellows and blacks that define breeding plumage. A hen Cooper’s Hawk flying circles overhead, fluffing her under-tail coverts, and calling that unsettling cackling of accipiters; a sure sign of a nearby breeding territory. Familiar birds always tell me much about the world’s seasonal momentum, regardless of the actual date. Nothing says winter is over more than the greenbelts of Seattle, flowing from the reddish brown new leaves of black cottonwoods to the chartreuse and true yellow of flowering bigleaf maples.

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A Myrtle, Yellow-rumped Warbler, a purely Winter visiting subspecies.

Of course, it’s still wet, but the damp no longer creeps into my bones. I hate being hot and dread summer’s swelter. Maybe all seasons bring on feeling of love and hate? Either way, I miss them when they’re gone. These days, I just hope we’ll have winter again.

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A Natural History Lexicon | Epiphyte

ep·i·phyte
Noun

ˈepəˌfīt/

a plant that grows above the ground, supported nonparasitically byanother plant or object, and deriving its nutrients and water from rain,the air, dust, etc.; air plant; aerophyte.


My experiment didn’t go well. The shop was too warm, dry, and dark. No matter how many times I spritzed them, the ferns just wouldn’t bounce back. I suppose I was asking too much of them. Licorice ferns (Polypodium glycyrrhiza) like it very wet, and these, harvested off the trunk of a dead elm, didn’t want to grow inside a garage in an industrial park. They’d worked wonders by surviving as epiphytes, high in the air, with seemingly little to thrive on. I cared for them, but it wasn’t enough, and after a week they were crispy.

I’m entirely not sure why I love epiphytes. Yes, the notion of a plant growing on another plant is amusing. The bizarre adaptations of epiphytes are certainly fascinating. But then again, I can get myself worked up about most corners of the natural history cabinet. The more you learn about practically any plant, the more you appreciate them.

Licorice fern growing on a vine maple.

Whether or not you knew the word, you probably understood what an epiphyte was. You’ve seen lichen (ok, not really just a plant) and moss growing on the sides of tree trunks. If you’ve spent time in a wet environment, you’ve probably noticed those ferns waving from the trunks of trees. If you live in the tropics or have traveled there, you’re intimately familiar with rabble of plants growing on plants. That Spanish moss you saw all over the trees at that venerable plantation home in the American South, while not actually moss (it’s a type of bromeliad), they’re most definitely epiphytic.

Orchids. Cacti. Bromeliads. Ferns. Mosses. Lichen. Liverworts. Members of all these plants are epiphytes. However, the term is descriptive of an adaptation, not a Linnean classification. Many disparate groups of plants have figured out may ways to be epiphytes.

Some, like those we call airplants or tillandsias, members of the bromeliad family (of which pineapples are also members), have gone long lengths to occupy an open niche. Unlike normal plants, who anchor themselves, draw up water and nutrients, form symbiotic relationships with mycorrhizae, and communicate with other plants (I know this last one sounds nuts, but it’s true) through their roots, airplants have given all this up and chose only to anchor. As a result, when I water my tillandsias at home, I mist their foliage, or soak them in water because they absorb water (and food) through scales or hairs that cover their leaves, called trichomes.

Lichen growing on pitaya cactus in Sonora, Mexico.

Ferns on the other hand, are plenty happy to get what they need from their roots. The licorice ferns I mentioned above, will grow as epiphytes but they are also root in the regular old ground. More often than not, when you find them growing on a tree trunk, it’s simply because a spore found a nice little nook that collects airborne particles of soil and gets good exposure to moisture. They may ground themselves in the trunk, but they aren’t quite as stalwart as airplants.

When I visited the Amazon rainforest in college, I wish I’d been a little less bird crazy, and a little more everything crazy. Had I been paying more attention as a naturalist, I would have noticed epiphytes galore, from tank bromeliads, hosting their own unique flora and fauna in the puddles trapped by their foliage, to aerial orchids and cacti, living the entirety of their lives hundreds of feet up in the air on tree branches. In retrospect I’m slightly amazed I don’t have strong memories of these aspects of the rainforest. Then again Amazonian biodiversity is completely overwhelming. Visiting another loci of tropical biodiversity, in Borneo, I did find myself enamored with the local epiphytes.

Nepenthes pitcher plants growing in Mt. Kinabalu National Park in Sabah, Borneo.

Beneath the bare rocky massif of one of the tallest mountains in Southeast Asia, Mt. Kinabalu, I couldn’t quite decide what I wanted to look for. Birds were singing everywhere, and some where endemic to the mountain, but I kept my eyes trained on plants. And finally, I found what I was looking for, a nepenthes pitcher plant, fluorescent green and sanguine scarlet. But this was not just any pitcher plant, but one growing on vines from the branches of the stooped subalpine tree only a few feet taller than me. What was really exciting, if I was correct in my identification, was that this one was only found on Kinabalu. And it was an epiphyte, and like most eiphytes, it was living life and doing no harm to its host. All the while though, it was happily supplementing a substrate poor in nutrients, by luring insects into pitchers, trapping them, and digesting them with the liquids within. An epiphytic, carnivorious plant that only lives within a dozen square miles on a mountain on the 4th largest island in the world. Pretty frickin’ nuts.

I’ve seen epiphytes almost everywhere I’ve traveled, but this was the beginning of my love affair. I was so taken by these plants, that I decided I needed one for myself. So, a few months ago, I found myself walking out of the local indoor plant shop, with my very own nepenthes. It doesn’t grow from a tree branch, but it is now draping nicely out of a hanging pot in a west facing window. Nearby is a staghorn fern mounted to a board, eleven tillandsias, and a creeping cacti I am sure would have grown in a tropical canopy though I have no clue as to its identity. Turns out, I like epiphytes.

Nepenthes growing in my living room!

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The Journal of the Unknown Birder

The notebook has been stashed in a beat up cardboard box, one that I’ve hauled from home to home, for years now. It has mingled with my old journals and notebooks, saved over years of scribbling and jotting. Someday I’ll look through them all. Or maybe I won’t and will be mortally embarrassed when, haunting my ancestors, they read my sprawling “prose” and salient thoughts. However, this specific notebook about isn’t mine. I don’t know who it belonged to.

I keep a journal, I keep notebooks. They’re full of complaints over my life’s limited travails, but I keep them up under the guise of discussing nature as it relates to my life and explorations. There’s also quite a lot of lists in there, mostly lists of birds.

The notebook’s unknown author scribbled dozens of lists, mostly about birds. This collection of lists came into my life when I worked at a certain Seattle non-profit that focuses on birds and nature. A brother and sister came into our storefront, holding a little stack of old notebooks. They told me their uncle had written in them, and that they were mostly about birds. They thought maybe we could do something with them. Not wanting to dismiss their uncle’s legacy, I said I’d see what I could do and took the stack to my office. Before I could ask more, they turned tail and rushed out the door. I got the distinct impression they felt they’d just offloaded evidence of their uncle’s terrible kink, instead of helping birds, by donating the notebooks.

As it turns out, there’s really not much to do with a bunch of scribbled notes, no matter how much I’ve come to covet them. They sat in a pile by my desk for months. Finally, while cleaning up my space and discarding most of my collected detritus, I came to the worn little notebook and I just couldn’t bring myself to toss it out. I kept it.

Me, writing in my journal. I also happen to looking out over a beautiful landscape of shrub steppe in Central Oregon.

Why do we journal? Certainly it’s a form of documentation. In my travels to various parts of the world I’ve kept journals. My ornithology professor at the Evergreen State College, Steven G. Herman, taught almost all his students to keep a Grinnell Journal. This system of journaling, created by the famed first director of the Berkeley Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, Jospeh Grinnell, aimed at documentation for naturalists. Steve, who is the best teacher I have ever had, made sure we kept our Grinnell journals up to date during my first class with him,Spring Ornithology. Diligently, we recorded daily activities, accounts of behavior of various species as our class traveled across Washington and Oregon. If I were more focused, I would have kept this up in the years since graduating, but I’ve only managed a few measly months of record keeping in the lapsed time, (I will note that I never got my journal back after the quarter ended due to some mix-ups, which may have influenced my enduring excitement).

Steve in his wall tent (in the same location in Central Oregon) where I am writing in the photo above, catching up on his Grinnell Journal.

Either way, keeping strict record of data has never been my forte. This is evidenced by the fact I don’t actually know how many birds I’ve seen in the world, the greatest of cardinal sins among serious birders. Atop my current unattainable stack of goals for the coming years is to re-initiate my Grinnell Journal (because, shit, I feel like everything is going away and I want to record it) and figuring out how many birds I’ve seen (which is immensely challenging when all the dipshits who study taxonomy keep changing things on me). Recently I managed to count up to 605 birds I’ve seen in the American Birding Association Area (for non-nerds, basically North America minus Mexico), but that’s a fraction of what I assume is around 2000.

But back to journaling, I also think doing so serves deeper purposes. For me journals are one part rough draft for longer writings, one part posterity on a life well and poorly lived, and one part complete and utter catharsis (a well known form of therapy). I am rarely thorough, despite my best efforts, because I am easily distracted and get lazy. On trips I leave with an earnest goal to write in every spare moment and take copious notes; a couple days in I re-neg. The first time I read Travels with Charley, I remember feeling justified in this habit. Steinbeck relates how much effort he put into bringing along reams of paper and a typewriter on his trip, only to never touch them. And yet, if I could go back and get my young self to journal, just like everyone said I should, well, I would. As a child you think you will remember everything but years later you realize you recall only that you thought you’d remember.

In working on this piece I pulled out old notebooks and found details from trips I’d forgotten going on and notes from a trip to Ecuador I assumed were long lost.

We’ve learned great things about history from journals, which is a good reason to keep them. We can’t assume our ideas or experiences are worthless. I don’t suggest that I write because I hope someone will one day discover my journals and find them captivating and somehow illuminating on the human condition of my day (but of course, I do). I write because I like to and journals give me a place to get out the jitters in preparation for more refined writing; a place to think.

If all goes well, I try to write a page a day and leave the facing page blank to jot unrelated notes and doodle (an adapted holdover from Grinnell journaling, where one page is left empty). I try to write about the weather, what natural history events I witness, and about personal things. If I am traveling this takes on the form of basic documentation. If I am on an endless streak of time in the city, I wander and wonder a bit more. I like writing in the morning because my brain is less stuffed with the day’s happenings, but more often than not, it’s the last thing I do on a daily basis.

Journaling in Hidden Lake Lookout in the North Cascades.

What about this notebook I stumbled upon? It doesn’t have a name in it anywhere (I realized few of mine do either and I just now put a label in every one), but it’s fairly meticulous. Every page has a date and a location, just as mine do. For the most part it then follows a typical theme: a list of the species. There’s rarely any notes about the birds, just that they were seen. Yet somehow I was drawn into looking at this little plastic bound dedication to birding from decades before I was born.

Uncle Dan, let’s just call him that, wasn’t a particularly rabid birder, but he kept decent notes. He doesn’t include numbers but until the era of eBird, I rarely kept track of individuals except in unusual cases. However, I know where he went between May 10, 1951 and June 15, 1960, which was mostly birding in South Dakota, Washington, Alaska, and Arizona. Uncle Dan visited places I’m quite familiar with, if he provided a little more detail, it would feel like looking back into the past, (it already does, because many of the bird names from that era are different from today’s). He also appears to have funded his travels by painting houses, which is not all too dissimilar from how I’ve managed to get to far flung places.

The notebook. Pretty much every page looks like this.

These notes don’t really matter to anyone anymore, which is fine. I think I’ve been holding onto them because I want to honor someone like me, who records his life with only a desire to look back someday. I highly doubt anyone will read my journals, unless I meet an untimely death or I somehow have offspring. That’s something I can deal with. But maybe, someday, someone will find one of them and hold onto it, just so they can feel like their writing will be appreciated in the future. I like that idea.

Today I opened my journal and didn’t have much to say. But I wrote about the weather and what’s been going on in my life. There were no revelations, no great records of events, just some every day thoughts. If I’m lucky I’ll keep at it and when I’m done, I’ll have stacks upon stacks of journals, just because.

A sampling of the journals and notebooks I’ve filled in recent years. Here’s to many more!

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A 2016 (Photographic) Year in Review

Truth be told, I’ve been having a difficult time writing lately. I’ve felt spectacularly prosaic, and without anything worth discussing. I’ve been remarkably unsatisfied with the process and the outcome. There’s excuses coming out of my ears. But, mainly it boils down to depression about the state of the natural world, my prospects as a contributor to a better planet, and a demanding job to pay Seattle housing rates. I stare at my phone a lot. And look at objects I don’t need online. And scroll through the screaming vacuum of Facebook. The other day I shook my head, realized I hadn’t posted on Wingtrip for 6 months, and discovered I couldn’t read five pages of anything without getting side-tracked. The year past, 2016, seems to have been a really rough one.

As always, in my vigil of reflection, I looked back through my photos. As always, I found that I did a lot, learned a lot, and took way too many photos. Even now I am including almost twice as many images as I did in years past, as a reconnaissance mission for the good things that copper wiring and gold-plated whatsits zapped from my noggin. And as a reminder that a president I didn’t vote for won’t shadow over the coming year unless I let him. These are the things I need to be present for and fight for. This practice in reflection is a reminder to be present, with an eye on the future by looking into the past.

A few quick facts:

I backpacked more this year that any other year in my past. There’s no impressive number here, I estimate around 75 miles of trail, but it felt good to explore places where the only visitors were on foot. Besides distance doesn’t equal quality.

I saved about 2600 photos this year, which is significantly less than years past. This is partially due to lack of activity. I also like to think it’s also due to a refined sensibility, I take less pictures and get rid of more, I know what’s good and what’s not. If I factor in my smart-phone photos, I’d probably triple the number of images, but they include snapshots as records of information, cats, work, and other moments not worth digging through nor worth posting on Wingtrip.

The farthest I traveled from Seattle in 2016 was a quick trip to San Diego. I pretend that I need to travel to feel whole, but the truth is, I’ve never felt more attached to the Pacific Northwest than this year. Yes, I still have grand travel plans, but no, I don’t have to travel to feel a complete naturalist. (Unfortunately, much of my future travel plans involve trying to see what’s left of the world).

And last but not least, I should give myself a break. For the first half of 2016 I worked a full time job doing tree work, and part time at REI. For the second half, I was still working full time at that very demanding, 40 plus hour a week job, and applying to graduate programs, (ie pouring my heart out to people who don’t know me and being almost universally ignored or dismissed.) I had a full year and I now even more respect the people who write on the side of their full time jobs, because I realize I had no idea how to make it work while still functioning as a human being. But enough about that, you care about the photos, not my fits and starts.

So, finally, below are my favorite images from the year, culled down from around 300. This year I’ve chosen to break the exposition down into four categories: animals, plants, places, and people. These images represent the natural beauty of the places I explored, many of the things I value in the world, and a record of what I saw in 2016.

Animals

I didn’t go birding nearly as much as normal, but I was acutely aware of birds and other animals around me in the urban setting and when I was out and about. I got out when I could and the Long-eared Owl below is testament to what you find when you strike out blindly. A little walk at Discovery Park to try out a new backpack turned into a photoshoot with an off-course owl trying to take a nap right by a path.

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A day at Mt. Rainier, just looking for snow, not birds, still afforded me the beauty of the Common Raven. If I were to choose “desert island” birds the way one chooses records, the raven would undoubtedly be among my ark.

Every year I try to go to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and this year it was more important than ever to visit. As people try to chip away at wild-spaces for profit, places like Malheur are even more important (even if it is a heavily altered riparian system today). The pictures below were taken in the space of 24 hours poking around the refuge. Seriously, we don’t need the hate and awfulness of the Bundy crowd. I don’t care if you are conservative or liberal, you should see the value of this place for future generations, not present day resource hoarders.

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A Burrowing Owl standing on a post right above its burrow near Malheur NWR. The only other place I have witnessed these wonderful diurnal owls in such profusion is in the Salton Sea.

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The cleanup crew. Roadkill is common on the refuge but it feeds many. Turkey Vultures are a common species, but they aren’t boring.

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Pronghorn are more frequent on adjacent refuges like Hart Mountain, but they are still present.

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Eastern Oregon is undoubtedly dry, but the snow that melts off Steens Mountain creates a lush wetland. Marsh Wrens are a continuous part of the soundscape in the low wet places.

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In general, owl diversity seems high on the refuge, likely because of the rodent, insect, and reptile profusion. I remember climbing into a deep cut in a basalt flow and accidentally flushing both a Barn and Great-horned Owl that were roosting there. Though I doubt a Short-eared Owl has much interest in Red-winged Blackbird nestlings, that doesn’t stop pumped up males from chasing away a predatory bird.

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Coyotes are all over the West, and I see them in Seattle fairly frequently, but usually they are harrowed, creeping canids there. On Malheur you can actually observe behavior that isn’t merely their skulking. We sat and watched these two yap and howl in tandem in the middle of a field in broad daylight.

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Migratory songbirds find this oasis in the desert compelling enough to come down in droves during May. Yellow Warblers stay to nest and again, they’re a favorite, lemon-drops in a world of brown, green, and blue.

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Meso-carnivores are around, but often not detected. We watched this Long-tailed Weasel hunting around Paige Spring Campground, wisely investigating a camper for rodent attendants. Moments later, after it disappeared into the bushes, it reappeared carrying a vole half its size.

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Too good to not add a second image of this little monster.

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Death comes from above too and this Ferruginous Hawk was one of several we saw driving around the refuge. Note the symmetrical molting in the primary feathers. And the dour frown on the land-bound visitor.

Even without huge exotic trips, I still managed to see some pretty cool birds.

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This Snow Bunting appeared at Discovery Park during the winter and stuck around long enough for many birders to go see it. Not that I care about county listing, but this was a first for me in King County.

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I visited San Diego for the second time in my life in September. Caitlin and her family, who were were visiting, were gracious enough to let me get out birding a little bit. I hadn’t seen many of the birds of Southern California in years and especially enjoyed the California Thrashers in their backyard.

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Camping above the John Day Fossil Beds in Ochoco National Forest, I took some time at dusk to creep over to this Hermit Thrush singing into the sunset. This isn’t the best picture ever, but it was a lovely moment to capture.

I gave time to invertebrates this year too. As you’ll see later on, some of that time was given to as to consume them. Other times it was merely to marvel at these aliens that are integral to our planet’s ecosystems.

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Not that I should be surprised, but I had never heard of Parnassian butterflies before finding this cold, immobile one in Goat Rocks Wilderness. This is a Mountain Parnassian (Parnassius smintheus) and they live almost exclusively in the montane landscape, this being probably one of the last of their single flight in late Summer.

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Caitlin worked a good portion of the year on the Pinto Abablone project of the Puget Sound Restoration Fund. Declines and extirpation of these algal browsers have led to changes in the intertidal and near-shore ecosystems of the Salish Sea. Her job was to keep a captive population healthy and happy to support a reintroduction program. Because these marine snails are really good at holding on, she uses their main predator, sunflower stars, or Pycnopodia to get them loose. I helped with a little photoshoot of her animals.

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Many people know abalone shells. Few people know their face. Now you do!

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A tiny, baby Pinto Abalone, one of the hopefuls for the reintroduction program.

People

Simply put, part of Wingtrip is exploration of people in nature, our place in the world. I do that on many levels with many people throughout the year.

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That’s me. I’m dirty from four days of camping in the desert. I’m also very happy and relaxed.

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Caitlin is the first girlfriend I’ve ever talked about on Wingtrip, and that’s because she’s down for almost any adventure. She took the photo of me above, and here we are at Paradise on Mt. Rainier.

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She camps!

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She climbs trees!

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She jumps off cliffs!

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She also does pretty bad ass things, like try to set up a small, personal oyster farm in the San Juan Islands with a good friend of ours. Here’s the finished product. Each bag is filled with hundreds of small oysters.

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Here we are getting them ready to bag.

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I enjoyed eating other marine invertebrates in 2016 as well. Dungeness Crab are part of our heritage and I fully support sustainable harvest. On this day we limited out with one pot off Shaw Island. It was awesome.

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Food is probably the best thing to bring people together. These are some of my nearest and dearest feasting during our annual Beltane celebration on Shaw Island. Fresh crab, warm baked bread, tandoor chicken, and much else.

I backpacked the hell out of 2016. Starting with a trip to the Olympic Coast with Caitlin and ending with an epic in Goat Rocks Wilderness. It was a good year for outdoor recreation.

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Beach camping at Third Beach in Olympic National Park with Caitlin.

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These guys are a constant inspiration and welcome adventure companions. Here we are starting our hike into Horseshoe Basin in the Pasayten Wilderness of the Eastern North Cascades.

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Four hours later it’s snowed 5 inches and we’re frozen. Only a true friend would endure smelly trail socks while sharing a hot mug of beef bullion.

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The cold and hard hike into the area was worth it. This view from a saddle below Windy Peak was worth the sweat to get up the ragged trail there.

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Windy Peak behind, granite squatters in the foreground.

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Windy Peak behind, a look of trail pain in the foreground. This is after crawling through miles of trail covered in trees downed by fire and wind.

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It was so wet coming in, we barely appreciated the flowers that covered the trail. Here we are at the end of the trip.

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Later that summer three of us went to the Goat Rocks Wilderness. This is the Knife’s Edge, some of the highest portions of the Pacific Crest Trail in Washington. I accidentally left my camera on a HDR setting, but I appreciate the vibration of the image regardless. We were definitely humming from the setting. Rainier is in the background.

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Hiking down toward our first night in Goat Rocks. Much of the trails here are above the treeline so we had to descend to find a good campsite.

Despite the high adventure, some of my most fond times with friends outside were in the landscape that I’ll forever call home, kayaking and climbing trees, two obsessions.

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Exploring the Nisqually River Delta by kayak.

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Getting 100 feet up in a Douglas Fir with my friend Scott.

Plants

I may not be a botanist, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the world of plants. Atop geology, they are what defines the places I love and are part of the substrate for the ecosystems and the animals I am so passionate about. I constantly marvel at where plants are able to live and their diversity. This year I felt like I know just a little bit more between continuing to explore plants and by my work as an arborist.

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This Pacific trillium image is probably my favorite plant photo of my year. They were blooming all over the rainforested coast of Olympic National Park.

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Continuing on the same color scheme, these vanillaleaf (Achlys triphylla) were all over Mt. Rainier National Park in May when I visited for the Bioblitz.

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Exploring the Pasayten Wilderness while backpacking in June, we alternated between various conditions that changed the makeup of the forest. Engleman spruce was certainly a predominant species, a clue that we were on the verge of the boreal forest.

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On our final night in the Pasayten, we camped in a cluster of larch trees, vibrant with fresh green needles. They were enjoying a wet draw, while just above on the well drained ridge stunted white-bark pine were growing in large numbers.

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Where exposure and fire had opened up space, quaking aspen (Populous tremuloides), which grow clonally, were taking hold. I have fond memories of many summers napping in a draw full of these beautiful trees.

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There are few things that amaze me more than plants growing in extremes. While I know there are extremes. This composite flower (I didn’t have time to key it out) and moss campion (the pink flower) were growing in basically, rock, at 6000 feet, out in the open. Crazy stuff.

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This dwarf lupine was similarly growing on an exposed gravelly ridge in the Goat Rocks Wilderness.

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But this alpine agoseris blew my mind. This is rock. On a crazy slope, thousands of feet from any other plants. I cannot fathom a pollinator getting here, let alone a seed finding a hold in this inhospitable place.

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Although not as insane in terms of the landscape, these bear grass (the while blooms) and pink mountain heather live two thirds of the year under tons of snow!

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I didn’t take much in the way of macro shots in 2016, but this is another denizen of the alpine, the seed head of the Western pasque flower.

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We don’t have a lot of native cacti in the Pacific Northwest, but brittle prickly pear is one species. This plant was in the John Day Fossil beds, but they have a toe hold in the San Juan Islands and even make it almost to the Arctic circle in Alberta.

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Deserts prove immensely challenging for plants, and then you add on highly basic soil and it’s a wonder these buckwheat can even bloom.

Place

I didn’t get far from home, but that doesn’t mean I had a bland time, nor that I didn’t see anything new. In fact, I saw some places I’d never been within just a few hours of Seattle.  I stood atop ancient volcanoes while looking across at active ones. I marveled at the geology of fathomless time. I looked out at wilderness that seemed endless, but which I knew needed my help more than ever.

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Standing atop Old Snowy Mountain, 7880′, in the Goat Rocks Wilderness.

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Sunrise in the Goat Rocks Wilderness, looking North to Mt. Rainier (if you look in the lower left hand corner, you’ll notice some white dots just under one of the fir boughs, those are goats I watched all morning).

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I love the vibrancy of the alpine, this tundra on Mt Rainier is bursting with life just beneath rock and snow.

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In another wilderness area, the Pasayten, I walked through miles of burns, but I never found them sad or oppressive. Here was a landscape rejuvenated with lots of life rebounding. Fire isn’t always bad.

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Neither is erosion, or at least in this case, millions of years of erosion. This was my first visit to the Painted Hills in the John Day Fossil Bed National Monument. These hills of petrified soil from previous tropical climates were nothing short of stunning.

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I had my first encounter with the Northern Lights this year. Having lived on the edge of where these solar storms are frequently visible all my life, it’s surprising I’ve never seen them. We had no expectation of seeing them, they just appeared while we were enjoying a bonfire on Shaw.

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And last but not least, home, as I imagine it. Water. Trees. Mountains.

Yeah, as it turns out, it was a pretty good year. You’d think I’d have figured that out during the process. And by the way, I got into grad school!

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A Natural History Lexicon | Lek

Lek
Noun

/lek/

-Dancing ground; display ground.
-The basic monetary unit of Albania, equal to 100 qintars.

My bag dropped to the ground like a lead weight, as I slumped to the ground, exhausted. We’d just down-climbed 1000 feet to escape a storm, leaving behind grand vistas and a group of mercurial White-tailed Ptarmigan; both of which I desperately wanted to photograph. Instead, I was jumping around a soggy grove of twisted Western Larch, trying to pull my rain gear on over muddy boots and a sweaty, sticky t-shirt.

Looking at the angry sky, my vision blurred and focused between me and the ashen clouds. Little dots were frantically and silently, bobbing about in the space above my head. Gnats or some other member of the family Dipteridae. They seemed to be on another plane of existence, totally oblivious to the storm brewing and my head directly below them. They only had one thing on their mind: breeding.

This was a lek. A lek is a place; lekking is a sexual behavior. Broadly described, a lek is where a bunch of males get together in specific location and display for females, hoping that they’ll be picked. Watching this from the standpoint of a scientist, we believe this nexus allows females to pick the best mate (species that lek are almost always polygamous), based on the male displays, a demonstration of good genes. When you can actually see what’s happening (like when the species in question isn’t the size of a pin-head), leks are worth the effort that can go into witnessing them.

I saw my first lek in college. During mid-winter break, my friend Ryan and I drove to the middle of nowhere Washington, leaving Seattle early enough to arrive before dawn. It was March in central Washington and it was cold as shit. We stood shivering, pushed up against a barbed wire fence on a ridge-line overlooking an expanse of sagebrush. As a magenta dawn pushed through the darkness onto the snowy Cascades to the West , we heard what almost sounded like people volleying tennis balls back and forth out in the rangeland. Sage Grouse (listen, on high volume, below).

 

The most well known of lekking species in the West, male Greater Sage Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) get together in early spring to display, (I omit Greater in other mentioning, because it sounds silly to me, but I am speaking of Greater Sage Grouse specifically, not Gunnison Sage Grouse, which I have no experience with). This involves gulping up about a gallon of air to inflate esophageal sacs, which they then throw about creating a sound in deflation that is altogether difficult to describe (not to mention they also look as if they are waving around large, yellow breasts in the process). They do this every morning for a couple months, disbanding during the daytime and returning before dawn. Sage Grouse look beefy and huge on the lek, but it’s because they are all swelled up with passion and hormones, in reality a very large male only weighs about six pounds. This whole strutting spectacle is totally ridiculous to us, but it’s about as serious as it gets for a male Sage Grouse.

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Just about to deflate.

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For those reading who insist on the ever present majesty of nature, I’m sorry, you’ve no argument in this case. We go look at Sage Grouse because it’s a fascinating spectacle, not because it’s majestic. They look like they’re flashing yellow bras at each other. Or pushing egg yolks out of their chests. Either way, absurd, not majestic.

Lekking, may sound like a fairly simplistic concept. However, there’s overall disagreement about how and why leks form. Maybe they form in places where females congregate most? Maybe they form around particularly desirable males, with less fit males hoping to benefit and get a little of the action on the side? Or maybe they form because it is a low cost to females to visit many males in one spot, so they visit leks with more males, driving higher congregations of males? Quite possibly it’s all of the above, or one or the other, for the species we know to lek.

In the case of Sage Grouse, the most appealing males, Alphas, Betas, and Gammas get to mate most. This would mean female choice would exacerbate certain traits to the point that all males end up being similarly equipped. This of course doesn’t happen, because of genetic mutations and environmental factors difficult to follow. Models can only do so much, and we find there are still less desirable males out on the lek.

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A Sage Grouse lek. Notice there’s few things to block sound or vision and it’s virtually flat. They choose this site specifically for those traits.

It would seem that lesser males wouldn’t benefit much from this situation, knowing that females ignore them for the hunks in the middle. You’d be right to an extent, but often they’re younger males that wouldn’t be mating anyway. They watch, they learn, and they might sneak a copulation here and there too.

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A deflated, non-displaying grouse we saw on the edge of the lek. Presumably a lowly male checking out the scene.

The second time I saw a Sage Grouse lek was much more satisfying, because we sat in a 15 passenger van and watched from a few meters away. This time I was with a group of high school students from Seattle Audubon’s Birdwatch Program on a trip to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Pulling up a disconcertingly muddy road in the depths of early morning, we blindly hoped we had the right spot based on our van’s trip meter. Soon we knew this was the spot, as that popping, unworldly sound drifted through the open windows. The center of the lek wasn’t too far from the road and we could see the hierarchy clearly, with dominant males taking up more area. On the edge, more squabbles happened as lower down males battled for space.

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A confrontation between two males.

 

Back in the North Cascades, it was very obvious how costly this system of breeding could be. Making a racket or congregating in one spot means predators know exactly where you are. Sure, there’s safety in numbers, but when you are out of your mind on hormones and displaying, you are putting yourself at risk. A gaping goatsucker could have wiped out the insects above my head entirely. Ferruginous Hawks and coyotes routinely survey Sage Grouse leks, and predators often scare off all the birds for the day (not the day you want to be visiting).

 

In the Northern hemisphere, the vast majority of birds lekking are grouse. As you approach the equator, more and more species have the luxury of this strange breeding system. It gets elaborate, with crazy colors and even coordinated efforts between males. The Andean cock-of-the-Rock and Red-capped Mannikins are among my favorites, though I’ve never seen them display in person. Someday I hope to get to the Arctic to see Buff-breasted Sandpipers on their leks (although, they’re polygynous). If I’m lucky, I’ll head to New Zealand before Kakapo calls no longer echo around the mountains at night.

I’ve barely grazed the surface of the story of leks, because I’ve only talked about birds and one specific, nuclear form of lekking. Some males on leks display from far distances, but are close enough to be heard, like the flightless nocturnal parrot mentioned above. The Kakapo and possibly even harbor seals, display their dominance on these so called, exploded leks, within earshot but not eyesight. They are of course gathered in a specific area, not just spread out all over. That would just be simply territorial displaying, like American Robins singing on their patch with some neighboring males adjacent. Few mammals lek, some pinnipeds and ungulates, are known to lek.

Lots of theories have developed as to why this behavior evolved. I don’t think you need hear them all to appreciate how bizarre and spectacular a lek can be. Just click through to these videos and you’ll get it.

Thinking about all this, I came back from the cloud of insects to my current situation. My three friends and I were all exhausted, but trying to look relatively tough. A group of males, clustered around, looking at one another with no ladies in sight. Good thing none were going to show up and evaluate us. They’d have left for another lek without a doubt.

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What the hell is a BioBlitz?

If I told you I was going to attend a BioBlitz, what would you think I meant? Part of me thinks it sounds like a hurried bowel movement, but I’m sure I’m alone there. Outside my twisted imagination in the real world, a BioBlitz is an awesome gathering of scientists and citizens that should happen much more often.

Broadly, a BioBlitz surveys as many species and individuals, of as many taxa as possible, within a prescribed area with the help of the general public. The counting of various taxa is an important task and quite honestly could never cover all the bases, no matter how many citizen scientists got on board. The real goal is to (re)introduce people to their landscape and give them experience as citizen scientists, while also connecting them with taxonomic experts (who often rarely have an opportunity to champion the species they study). Pretty cool right?

I’ve been wanting to attend a BioBlitz for years, something seems to always come up. So, when a friend asked if I’d like to help with one where she works, I had no second thoughts. Her place of work being Mt. Rainier, it didn’t hurt that there was potential for me to see some new areas and feed my obsession with the mountain. I was going to be leading a group of birders, meaning I wouldn’t be learning about other taxa, but I knew I’d still have plenty of fun.

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Alpenglow on Rainier.

The first BioBlitz was in 1996, when a group of government scientists got together with the idea of accounting biodiversity in Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in Washington, D.C. Their survey found roughly 1000 species in this 700 acre park operated by the National Park Service. The idea was born, and now the concept has spread, building on a theme of public engagement (which again, I think is the actual important part).

August 25, 2016 marks the 100 year anniversary of the National Park Service, so it only made sense that in celebration they planned a nationwide effort. All over the country parks set out to see what they could find on their land with the help of the public. With luck they’d inspire some new stewards and scientists at the same time.

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Alder and lichen on a rock. A double exposure.

I drove out to Rainier the night before and camped at my friend’s house. This being a community building opportunity, she was hosting a potluck, and a place to gather before heading out for a bat survey along the Nisqually River. I was dazed from Friday night traffic and a week on the job, so I stumbled, bleary-eyed, into a gaggle of students, biologists, and natural history enthusiasts. Before the night was out I’d made some friends and felt energized about natural history (which, admittedly happens easily). Knowing rain was in the forecast, I curled up under the drooping limbs of a huge Western red cedar and drifted off to the sounds of the forest.

Rain came in the morning, and though I was optimistic, the forecast didn’t look good. Here we were, getting ready to hold a BioBlitz and the weather wasn’t cooperating. Typical.

This is the reality of a field biologist, citizen or otherwise. There are just plain old miserable days, when you can’t get data and you have to suck it up and deal with it. This being a national event with a crowd of people ready to go out and explore with local experts, we didn’t have that luxury. Thankfully I was decked out in rain gear and buzzing off of the previous night’s gathering. This was going to be fun.

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The road to the other side of the Nisqually.

At Longmire, I admired the sturdy, one lane suspension bridge to the other side of the Nisqually River. Crossing over, I pushed through a thicket of damp alder and looked across the boulder strewn river bed and into the clouds where the peak of Rainier was hidden. A steady mist swirled about me and only a Common Raven honked from the treetops.

Behind me was the community building where we were meeting, a place I’d never taken the time to notice. Most visitors to Paradise hardly realize there’s another side of the Nisqually River. The campground there has slightly forgotten feel, but the community building was quite cozy and people began crowding the space.

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The bridge, the river, and the misty mists.

I chatted with familiar faces before we got seated to hear the lowdown. Federal land meant federal rules, so there was a fair amount to discuss. By the time we’d broken down into groups, mine somehow the largest, (probably because no one wanted to hike and like me wanted to explore other places besides the road to Paradise), I was anxious to get going. Birding is an early morning activity and it was almost nine AM by the time we were ready to go. The destination was the Ohanapecosh Entrance to the park, which we’d get to by highway 12 and a back road accessible to us as volunteers to the park. I won’t lie, I was pretty excited to get to travel down a dirt road no one else had access to.

Somehow, we ended up with a convoy of five cars, and I drove on my own because I wanted to be in control of leading the group’s stopping places. Maybe this is silly, but being an environmental gathering, it bothered me that no one would ride with me and wanted to stay in their own vehicles. Sure, I was doing exactly the same thing, but I was the leader.

After traveling along National Forest Road 52 to where it meets Packwood at Highway 12, and then driving up to the entrance, another hour had passed. Heading straight toward the Grove of the Patriarchs, we started down the trail with our ears open and our eyes wide; completely missing the sign that said the bridge across the river was closed. The rain was still steadily, but I was trying to be optimistic and cheery despite feeling a bit hopeless about our prospects. It was mid-May at 4000 or so feet, and it was raining. The climax forest of Western hemlock seemed to close in on us, dampening sound, light, and spirits.

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The Ohanapecosh River in the glory of a gloomy day.

Near the Ohanapecosh river, we started hearing our first birds, Hammond’s Flycatchers calling overhead in the mid-story. At the river itself we looked across to see several Western Tanager, an Orange-crowned Warbler, and several more Empidonax flycatchers. A quick flash of pumpkin wing bars, almost brilliant in the gloom, a flyby Townsend’s Solitaire. Pacific-slope Flycatchers sang their sweet song up in the dripping foliage.

Then we finally discovered that the bridge to the Grove of the Patriarchs, a famously enormous group of Douglas firs, was closed. I half considered forging across, but the thought of being the asshole who led a group of volunteers to plummet into a river stopped me. Later, one of the park staff told me I could have done it. Bummer.

As the day progressed, I started to feel like a broken record. I’d hear something few of our group initially heard and call out a bird, with no hope of seeing them. Rain and cold diminish activity, so I knew we were missing a fair amount of individuals and species, I had to take anything we could get and tried to teach the hardest part of birding, identification by ear. This takes years of practice, so it was a crash course, and for the uninitiated beginning birder, probably not as exciting as seeing the bird. Nevertheless, people were attentive and excited to learn.

After visiting the  nearby campground, which had almost nothing moving, we headed up in elevation. I decided that we might as well get up to Cayuse Pass, where Highway 123 and 410 meet on the East side of the mountain. My hope was things would get better with a bit of a rain shadow, despite elevation.

The ponds by the Ohanapecosh entrance were one of the most productive places on the trip. Efforts to see as many species as possible make Mallards exciting (we saw one) and other less expected birds, like a Belted Kingfisher, melted us with glee. It seemed insane we hadn’t seen an American Robin till noon, but here we also picked up the common Turdus as well.

On up, I kept stopping just to listen, but with five cars, it was hard to find places to get off the road. A creek crossing finally revealed an American Dipper, something I expected to be a gimme. Another pull off had a Townsend’s Warbler singing (which I’d heard at Longmire, but that didn’t count). Before long we were approaching the subalpine and the snow started to build up.

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Birding at Cayuse Pass. Basically standing on the side of the road.

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Sub-alpine forest. There were actually birds calling back in there.

Cayuse Pass, a confusion of East and West slopes, mid and high elevation trees, had a lot of snow and surprisingly, traffic noise. However, there was no rain, and the birds were relatively active. An Audubon’s Warbler flew from tree to tree calling. A Red-breasted Nuthatch yanked away in the tress (get your mind out of the gutter) and a Norther Flicker called in the mountain mist. Somewhere a Sooty Grouse boomed, difficult to hear over cars speeding by.

My group was in pretty good spirits considering the weather and the low numbers, and I tried to be informative about the birds and the ecosystems we passed through. On the way back down, I made one final stop at a burn, hoping for some woodpeckers and other birds who use old woodpecker nest cavities. From working in burns for two years, I knew there was good potential here, and despite only finding a Hairy Woodpecker and Steller’s Jay, I wasn’t wrong because we hadn’t found either of these common forest species elsewhere. We stood at the edge of these giant burned spires, enjoying the company, the bunchberry flowers, and the brilliant green clusters of vanilla root. Despite the rain, we’d had fun, and I couldn’t help but mention to everyone that the forest was more spectacular in dreary weather than full sunshine. What a Pacific Northwestern cliché I am.

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Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis). It’s a ground cover, but it’s also a dogwood! Pretty crazy, right?

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Vanilla leaf (Achlys triphylla). It’s hard to believe this is in the same family as Oregon grape.

Driving back to Longmire I thought about the trip and if I’d impacted anyone or taught them much about birds. I wasn’t exactly sure, though everyone seemed pretty happy by the time we parted ways. Over years of teaching people in professional and casual settings, you never know what people will pick up on. You can never assume that all was for nothing. I’ve been continually surprised to find, hours or even years later, what someone took away from a learning experience.

Back at the community building, the groups tallied and presented their findings. While I’d felt like we’d had low numbers, with 28 species, this was actually the record for the day. The wildflowers group had the most species period, with 65 flowering plants recorded on a small section of the road to Paradise. A group looking for Cascade fox scat had been successful, but hadn’t actually seen any of the animals. Other groups found both native and invasive species, valuable information in an assay of biodiversity.

Grabbing snacks and some hot coffee, I remembered that I’d collected a bit of moss for another quest for species. Have you ever heard of a Tardigrade? How about a moss piglet or a water bear? Well I won’t judge you if you haven’t. One in the same, they’re microanimals that are incredibly durable (I’m talking surviving the vacuum of space and extreme high and low temps), and are mostly found of wiggling around in moss or lichen. As it so happened, my sample of moss was the only one that revealed a little one, wiggling around in the stuff washed into a petri dish. Having wanted to see a new species as part of my time at the BioBlitz, this was the perfect send off.

I had to hurry back to Seattle and I was physically tired from a long day, but still happy about the outcome. Again I was reminded of why I love nature, and why I want to continue to communicate through writing, teaching, and photography how important birds, plants, rocks, Tardigrades, and so many other parts of the world are. Maybe we didn’t see a lot, but that’s part of being a scientist and an enthusiast, not every day can be spectacular. And besides, my group learned a few things despite the weather. In my mind the BioBlitz was a success, because it connected people, not because we made major discoveries or saw the most. So in the end, I Blitzed and it was good. (Gross).

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The author getting very close to some columbine.

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Weekend Reading | July 2016 Edition

Welcome to the weekend and here’s another installment of weekend reading for you. It seems like every time I do this, the list of articles I want to include gets longer. What can I say? I like reading about natural history and current events surround nature. I hope you enjoy my curated list below.

Every May I (try to) go to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to visit old friends and a beautiful place. When it was under bombardment from a gaggle of morons this past winter my friend Dan Barton wrote three pieces about Malheur area, focusing on its personal significance and history. There’s three parts, read them in sequence and in one sitting. Much of the press about the area wasn’t from people very familiar with the location, this is very different and well done.

On that note, some people really want to get rid of public, federal land. They’re insane, greedy, and they have power. It’s scary as hell.

As we discuss federally held lands (ie OUR land), we should always keep in mind that we weren’t the first people here. This piece is worth a read, because horrible things have happened to make our federal lands (and not to cattle ranchers). While nothing new, it’s a good thing to consider in tandem with our celebration of the National Park Service centennial.

In Malaysia, they’ve created a new marine park, which presumably protects a million hectares of marine habitat. However, they’re still allowing commercial fish harvesting and there’s a lot unanswered in terms of real conservation efforts there. And along the lines of the piece above, I worry what it means for the people that have lived there traditionally. I never really got to see or meet the Bajau, or sea gypsies that live in this area of Sabah in Borneo, but I don’t know that tourism will help them. More than likely it will continue to marginalize their way of life. However some protection is probably better than none for our tropical seas, whose health the Bajau rely on.

While we worry about extinction, even tracking the extinction of birds we never really knew were there, an extremely rare bird was rediscovered; and found to be extremely rare.

It’s very difficult to cover all your bases in research. Many bird population studies don’t do a good job of looking at species across their seasonal gradients, most focus only on their breeding season. Two new studies, one looking at wintering birds, suggest that a third of all North America are in decline, and that without action they could face extinction. It’s scary to think I could witness the loss of so many species within my lifetime. (I was, however, proud to see a fellow I know quoted in the article).

I keep coming back to the notion that we need more general natural history study. What do we do with this? How do we fix it? We just don’t pay enough attention, especially to dragonflies.

As if in response to the outcry for more natural history studies, the National Science Foundation decided to not take away funding for natural history collections completely. They’re just taking some money away, you know, because studying dead animals doesn’t typically create billion dollar drugs.

We try to get rid of fat, which the weekends seem to bring more of. Birds need fat, and it seems that having excess fat when arriving on breeding grounds is beneficial and may be a tactic for success in songbirds.

As every new AOU supplement is passed lately, it seems I gain a life bird or two. This year is no different; I have now seen four species of scrub-jays. Do I get to count Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay even if it’s been a few years since I’ve seen one? I love this stuff, even if lumping and splitting can seem pedantic.

Have a great weekend everyone!

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Navigating the Nisqually

I’ve always appreciated the language we use to describe rivers. They bend and stretch. They have a reach and run. They carry things. Really, they’re alive.

Not too long ago it occurred to me I’d never seen a wild, major river. What a thought. Thinking about all the rivers I’ve sat beside, floated on, or dipped into, and I still can’t come up with one I can verify was unfettered by dams. People are good at making rivers lay down flat and giving them collars. Sit. Stay. Fetch.

For all the time I’ve spent at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, I’d never been on the water. I’ve found an interest in rivers lately and this prompted a day kayaking trip here with a good friend. We were looking for an alternative to a multi-day trip that injuries and work had postponed. He wanted to paddle and explore. I also wanted this, but I had an ulterior motive, I wanted to do some birding at the same time.

The refuge sits right up against Interstate 5, which, for those who don’t know, is the major freeway that runs between Canada and Mexico on the West Coast of the US. If you told me this as a first time visitor, I’d probably wrinkle my nose, as if you told me I had to spend the day at the mall. However, proximity to the freeway does surprisingly little to dampen the exciting things at Nisqually.

The main focus of the refuge is on the river delta, the estuary where 80 some mile long Nisqually hits the Puget Sound a few miles North of Olympia. I would never call this area wild, because it’s heavily altered, the site of a large farmstead which created a series of dikes to take advantage of the heavenly soil. Later, we “restored” the habitat by ripping out the dams. You’d think all this disturbance would deter wildlife, but boy does this place teem with life.

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The veiw from a boat on McAllister Creek.

We put in at Luhr Beach, a public water access and site of the Nisqually Reach Nature Center, facing the refuge from the South. Despite the gray day, it felt like spring with the constant chortling of Purple Martin and their smaller cousin Tree and Barn Swallows. As we headed out in our boats, I could hear more birds singing nearby and was happy to find that many of the neotropical migrants I wait expectantly for every year were back.

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My paddling companion.

McAllister Creek drains out on the South side of the Refuge and we decided that with the tide still coming in, we might as well explore its reaches. Immediately I was struck by the banks of mud that dropped three feet into the water, something I’d never seen from a boat in Western Washington. They were hollowed out, pock marked from a metropolis of tens of thousands of small crabs that live on the shoreline. More and more birdsong echoed from the forests cliffs to our right as we paddled. A few Spotted Sandpipers bobbed along the mud to our left, scattering with anxious calls as we came their way. Harbor seals popped up in the wider sections and a lone river otter played hide and seek with us as the creek narrowed.

I was fascinated by how far up the creek I saw evidence of the estuary. Where I’d expect only freshwater plants, the banks crowded with willows, rockweed, a common brown algae in the genus Fucus, drooped heavy from the banks. When we passed beneath the Interstate, it occurred to me that this must be one of the few places on the entire length of I-5 where barnacles grow on the supports of the overpasses.

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The interstate overpass. Note the distant Cliff Swallow in the image.

Besides the din that increased as we moved closer to the freeway, things started to change on the creek. It became channelized, with armored banks. The plants transitioned from mostly native to a profusion of weeds running up the bank. Fewer birds were nearby, except the Cliff Swallows, which nest in large colonies beneath the several places where roads cross over the creek. This proximity to constant disturbance I found odd. Paddling and thinking on it, I supposed that Cliff Swallows might nest in naturally noisy places anyway, like nearby a waterfall. Maybe the freeway might not be that bad? Yeah, right.

Equally at odds with the din of semi compression breaks and roaring engines was the history of the creek I was sitting on. In 1854, it was known as Medicine Creek by settlers, She-nah-num to the various tribes in the area, and it was the site of a historic treaty between the United States of America and nine tribes and bands of Native Americans in this part of the world. If it were not for this treaty, the land that was once farmed, later becoming the refuge I was here to visit, and the freeway, which was carrying travelers, commuters, and the like, might not have been. In an idyllic world, the Treaty of Medicine Creek would have cemented the rights of the tribes involved. Instead it sent them off to reservations on poor land, often away from the places they’d relied upon for livelihood. Despite the treaty (and many others like it across the West) offering to uphold traditional hunting and fishing grounds, these rights were almost universally ignored. The Nisqually and others like them, who’d lived lives moving through the landscape in response to seasons and available resources, were strongly encouraged to farm instead of relying on traditional resources, like salmon. The fish now belonged to the state. Some of the tribe did farm, and some were successful enough. Others, including the man who Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge is now named for, Billy Frank, Jr. would not stand down in the face of opposition to their right to fish for salmon for survival.

Frank, a member of the Nisqually Tribe, was arrested over 50 times during the course of his activism on fishing rights. By activism, I merely mean exercising his right to fish in the estuary and fishery his ancestors used for thousands of year. Thankfully, by 1974, district court judge George Hugo Boldt ruled in favor of area tribes against the State of Washington. This gave 20 treaty tribes joint management of the salmon in Western Washington and reaffirming the right to harvest half of all the salmon that flow through our waters. Billy Frank, Jr. became the first Fisheries Manager for the Nisqually Tribe.

I’d never suggest that any of this makes up for the land grabbing, racism, and destruction of natural resources the tribes in Western Washington have endured. In my mind, all these things, add up to genocide. However, what we have today: a refuge renamed after a member of a tribe who fought for their rights, and won, well, I feel about as good as I can about that.

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More of the gray day and the delta.

We came out of the creek, feeling the water’s confusion of incoming tide mingling against perpetual outwash. Both of us wanted to drift into the flooded area that the farm dikes formerly held away from saltwater, but it was off limits. I may ignore some legal suggestions, but Fish and Wildlife officers have made it clear they aren’t worth messing around with, and I know my caring about birds more than the average person doesn’t give me to right to trample all about. Birds need space away from birders as much as other people. So, we headed toward the river.

Stretching for a moment on the outer mud banks, I peaked my head over the grassland sitting mere feet above the water. Even in a lonely little patch, an island away from the main, I could hear a Savanna Sparrow’s song, reminding me of a tiny sprinkler head. Caspian Terns screamed like pterodactyls over the flats, and I watched them dive out where the water was deeper, toward the former site of Fort Nisqually near DuPont, Washington.

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An immature Bald Eagle that was startled when we rounded a bend in the flats.

Fort Nisqually was the first European settlement descent along Puget Sound. The Hudson’s Bay Company needed a midway point between Fort Vancouver and Fort Langley and in 1833 Achibald McDonald came with Dr. William Fraser Tolmie to build a permanent fort there. The Hudson’s Bay Company may have been the leading edge of the storm of manifest destiny, but I enjoy thinking of Tolmie’s explorations in a largely unfettered Puget Sound. Those who enjoy plants in the Pacific Northwest will recognize the name, because Tolmie was not only the Chief Factor of the Fort and later a prominent politician in Victoria, BC, but a botanist whose name is affixed to several plants, including Tolmie’s onion.

Back in the present, we’d reached the mouth of the river and took another break. The grass grew thick on the banks, but the hint of saltwater was still there in the form of more rockweed. We watched swallows gathering in great clouds overhead and enjoyed a fantasy of being on a wild river delta away from it all.

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Rockweed growing well into the mouth of the Nisqually River.

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The high bank of the river and a Barn Swallow. I could have sat here all day.

Paddling upriver, into the noise of the interstate again, we hid in the shadows of the current and took breaks from the steady push of the Nisqually. The river is born from the flowing ice of the Nisqually glacier which creaks down from Mt. Rainier. When I was very little, I didn’t quite understand, that when we talk about river sources, that doesn’t mean the water in the river only comes from one place. Of course there are tributaries that make the Nisqually’s flow so substantial, but in my young mind this misunderstanding made the process of glacier to river seem even more outlandish. And when you see the Nisqually glacier, even in it’s diminished form today, it’s easy to believe that it could feed the delta on its own.

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Sea grass never stops moving.

I wondered what our paddle would have been like if the Nisqually wasn’t tamed at La Grande and Alder Dams upstream. As it was, we had to hide from the current in places. My boat was slightly less sleek, so I needed a few more breaks. A good excuse to drink in the sounds of newly arrived migrant songbirds and to watch a pair of Cinnamon Teal peel around a bend in the river.

As we moved along, the willows dotting the bank gave way to more and more venerable trees. First only Oregon ash (Fraxinus latifolia) stuck tall above the banks. This was a tree I have given little time to over the years and which I’ve only just started to notice. I suppose this is a result of growing up in a place dominated by conifers. This blinded me to many interesting trees over the years, including these ash trees, here at the Northern end of their range. Oregon ashes are dioecious, meaning there are male and female plants. According to my meticulous research (ahem *wikipedia*), only 6 percent of flowering plants are thus divided, which means this system of reproduction is fairly uncommon.

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Cottonwood, maple, alder, ash, willow. A nice array of the deciduous trees that grow on the Nisqually.

Another dioecious tree started to tower over all else as we got closer still to the freeway. Black cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa) stood tall and beautiful above the big leaf maples and red alders in the midstory. Somewhere back in there was a female tree called “Nisqually-1,” the first Black Cottonwood to have its genome sequenced. She didn’t do this out of vanity, black cottonwoods are an ideal a model species because of their quick growth and economic worth. So some folks took a sample and had it sequenced, hoping to better understand it’s genetics. This was the first time any tree, individual or species, had its genome sequenced.

We didn’t make it much further beyond where the green bridge of I-5 crossed over the river. At a sand bar just on the other side we took a break. I found the delicate paw prints of mink that had coursed the bank and the larger, oddly human like tracks of a raccoon. We’d seen one swim across the entire width of the river earlier, presumably startled by our presence. We were just as startled to see one swimming hard against the pull of the river.

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Mink tracks.

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Looking downstream to the green bridge, where I-5 crosses the Nisqually.

Pushing just around the bend, the current got too tough and we had to turn. As we did, a father and son come by in a speeding boat, zipping upriver. If I had to guess they were members of the Nisqually tribe, which now calls large sections of the river home (after being pushed off their land a second time in 1915 by the army, making way for Fort Lewis). They’d obviously been out fishing and I thought of Billy Frank, Jr and his legacy as we turned and followed the current out.

I’d known the mud flats of the Nisqually delta, teeming with life and a vital part of the ecosystem, were not far beneath the water when we’d passed by the first time. Now I saw that they were just inches below the surface. An entire sand bar we’d not seen before was exposed and covered in dozens of harbor seals, unsure about our sudden appearance, glancing nervously our way. Somehow Dan managed to skirt over the veneer of water, but I was too heavy and had to get out and walk. At the end of a 14 mile paddle, it wasn’t my first choice to slog across a mud flat.

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The outer reaches of land at the refuge. Also where I had to get out and walk.

After I finally got back in my boat, I was ready to be done. Still only a few inches above the mud, our boats startled some small starry flounder, presumably trying to escape the shadow they expected was a predator. Instead they bonked into our boats, flipping across our bows and even smacking into us a few times. This made me chuckle all the way back to the landing, even if it probably wasn’t very funny for the fish.

We got out, stretched out legs, and looked back at where we’d been. The Nisqually has always been a place I admired, but seeing it from the water gave me a new understanding. Now, thinking back to this paddle, I realize I need to go again and see more and explore as many angles as possible. Though I’m always raring to get out and explore new lands and see new birds, every local excursion these days seems to bring me round to an important notion: there’s no place like home.

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A happy naturalist.

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Adventure in the Olympic Wilderness

I stare across at the mountains often; seeing adventure, seeing wilderness, seeing an escape from traffic. The jagged horizon of the high places, seen from the East, looks pasted up, a green screen across the water. Crossing the inland see between us, the surreal aspect doesn’t abate, instead intensifying the further you go. I don’t know every parkland nor stretch of coastline, but I know the Olympic Peninsula holds untold treasures. If I’m so lucky as to spend the rest of my life in Washington, I plan to see a great deal more.

My girlfriend, Caitlin, and I made a bucket list about a year ago. A haphazard list jotted in one of my many simultaneously running notebooks. I added permanence by recreating it on nicer paper, inked with illustrations of the modest goals we set for exploration as a couple. She framed it, and it sits by the windowsill in our bedroom, with the Olympics and their nearly permanent layer of clouds floating in the background.Brendan_McGarry_160209_00003

I’m very familiar with bucket lists; mine mostly involve birds or nature. I’ve been making them all my life, as I assume most other birders, naturalists, and outdoors people do. Some are grandiose. Some are simplistic. Very rarely do you get to simultaneously plunk several in the proverbial bucket. By heading to the Pacific coast of the Olympic Peninsula on an opportunistically rain free weekend, we kicked a few of these coupled goals off the list.

In many ways the Olympics are a wilderness surrounded by enemies. Humanity gobbles greedily from all angles, while the elements fling off anything not properly secured. In David Moskowitz’s book Wolves in the Land of Salmon, he describes what it would take for wolves to reestablish in the Olympics. Unlike other of the wild spaces they’ve found their way back into, welcomed or not, the Olympics are distinctly shut off. Water, major highways, and miles and miles of quiet, but not empty rural farmland and stagnant factory forests stand in the way. It seems essentially impossible and was a reminder for me how isolated the Olympics are, no matter their size.

This is also what makes them so special, that we didn’t stride up into the mountains and cut everything. The Olympics, of scraped together marine rock, pushed up by colliding plates, and mangled together by time and pressure, have stood against many a test. When I look across at the Olympics, I not only see National Forest, but a National Park which is 95% designated Wilderness, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a United Nation’s Biosphere Reserve. Glaciation, the sculptor that has further chiseled the Olympics, also molded its flora and fauna. Thousands of years in isolation, a sky island above water and ice, the Olympics had species that held on that in evolutionarily short, but strikingly cold isolation. They became endemic, stranded from relatives across on Vancouver Island and in the Cascades.

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A dark grey day on the coast.

Not every one of my trips has to be about endemic species though; we merely wanted to visit the park and camp by the beach away from people. A pretty short order, considering it was April in the wettest place in the Lower 48. If we saw gray whales or sea otters or the odd seabird, great. If we saw few people, even better.

The journey to Third Beach from Seattle was made by car, the only way we could make full use of a three day weekend. Driving there, you curve through endless Douglas firs, monocropping interspersed with former resource towns being revitalized by tourism and a renewed urban interest in rural traditions. Regardless, the trees and water are beautiful and by the time you slip through the rainshadow land of Sequim and Port Angeles, you’re used to beauty paired with destruction. Almost enough to stomach the former clear-cuts on publicly owned forest land between you and the coast. Until the very last moment, regardless of the signs directing you there, there’s few clues of your adjacency from virgin old-growth forest and National Park land.

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A Pacific trillium along the trail.

Trotting down to Third Beach doesn’t feel like you’re entering a wilderness area, which you are. Nor does it feel like an epic adventure waits at the other end, which I blame on the digital world. There you would be led to understand that adventure is only for gopro adorned athletes screaming through chartreuse rainforest or climbing vast peaks. The Sitka spruce and Western hemlock forest is beautiful, if slightly unremarkable from the perspective of a mossybacked local. We walked past lots of banana slugs, all an off-putting yellow, the color you’ve had to pull out of grass with an inside out plastic bag after a dog. We stopped to admire trilliums, brilliant white blooms against a backdrop of brown and green. We plodded down the gentle trail to until we could first hear, and then smell the ocean. This was a quiet weekend adventure, and indeed we were entering the wilderness.

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Our first camp site at Third Beach.

I really wanted to see gray whales. As the first wild cetacean I remember seeing, they hold a special place in my heart. Setting up camp at Third Beach, crowded in with other people above the high tide line, I kept glancing out to sea. The number of people around, both day hikers and campers, made it feel like we were car camping with a gaggle of idiots in a state park; everyone seemed ill-prepared and had garbage strewn about their spots. Trying to ignore this by looking out to sea, I spotted sea otters and a Steller sea lion, and thankfully the constant noise of the waves drowned out our neighbors. Settling into our little camp, we snuggled down for an evening of the restless ocean crashing against the sand and the tree tops brushing together in the breeze.

According to the Wilderness Act, the definition of said designated areas is as follows:

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.

I bring this up because Olympic National Park has 1369.9 square miles of Wilderness Area. Mt. Rainier National Park has 357. The North Cascades, second largest in Washington has 991.5. Many Wilderness Areas abut one another, so in reality, the complex of various lands in the North Cascades really is the largest spread. But Olympic, with six other such spaces abutting it, makes up one of the largest wild spaces left in the state, including the only significant marine wilderness as well. Where we camped, we looked from Olympic Wilderness, here a narrow band along the coast, roughly between the Makah and the Hoh Reservations, into the Washington Islands Wilderness, which spans from Cape Flattery South to Kalaloch.

Part of me wondered how much we were fooling ourselves with this designation here on the coast, or anywhere else. Largely inaccessible, of course it makes sense that we’d put it aside as such. I’m not arguing against Wilderness Areas. Instead, considering where these places are and why. We were in one of the few that didn’t begin after climbing several thousand feet into the mountains. The Olympics, with their constant rain meant that the land wasn’t gobbled quite as quickly by civilization, so one can hike large swathes of river bed, like along the Queets to the South and not be constantly reminded of people. However, things are missing and that makes me wonder about our definition of wilderness, it’s not completely wild. The gray wolf is gone. Other predators are much diminished. We introduced mountain goats. Countless invasive plants are here. The lakes are stocked with non-native trout, which diminish riparian diversity. The big trees aren’t as widespread as they should be.

When we woke up, it was to a gray morning with a lot of campers nearby. At 10pm, a group had stumbled mere feet from us and set up shop, talking loudly and clinking beer bottles. These neighbors and others had even more trash from the previous revelries strewn about the shoreline. This didn’t feel much like adventure, nor much like wilderness. It was time to get going.

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“You said there wasn’t much elevation gain.”

Heading South we had to first summit Taylor Point, which involved a series of rope ladders and steep steps. We felt fortunate to find ourselves here on a dry weekend, because the climb wouldn’t have been nearly as pleasant in the mud. At the top, we found ourselves in a pleasant Sitka spruce forest, glowing green, sprinkled with the songs of elfin Pacific Wrens. We didn’t see another soul until we reached the other side and descended to beach once more.

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Heading toward Strawberry Point.

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This purple ochre sea star looked like it was taking a dip in a hot tub.

Being a Sunday, we expected to see people mostly leaving and after jumping about slippery rocks, looking at the low tide’s offerings, people started trickling by. By the time we’d crossed several more beaches, crawled around a boulder strewn cape barely above the tide line, and made it to Strawberry Point, the movement had slowed. Everyone wanted out at low tide, and we expected to see almost no one else.

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The typical view of the coast here.

This section of coast is rugged. Hundreds of craggy islands with tufts of vegetation and barely exposed reefs span the shoreline. As a result, there’s always something catching your eye out in the water, and I continued to think I was seeing something other than a wash rock below the surface. As we hiked, my head was constantly on swivel for exciting developments.

Bird life was surprisingly sparse. Only a few gulls, cormorants, and the odd scoter or grebe were off shore. This was a bit of a birding shoulder season, before the Pacific Flyway heats up with travelers, and after many wintering seabirds have sped off to breed elsewhere. I am always listening for birds, so the constant din of the ocean made that difficult. American Robins were the only species not in short supply, and they seemed to have the beach divided in territories, foraging for tasty marine invertebrates in the tide wracks. Northwestern Crows (or American, I’m not here to argue), in small family groups were also busily flipping things about and hopping away from objects of uncertainty.

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Hauling garbage around.

The notion of being in wilderness was again challenged by the amount of garbage. I know this has little to do with the visitors, and much more to do with the way the Northern Pacific currents work, but it still felt a bit strange when the beach is half covered in fishing floats and other boating refuse. Being a bit of a hoarder and a hound for free stuff, I had picked my way down the coast, wondering what bits were from Japan and what were merely from irresponsible locals.

Where we ended up stopping for the night was a camp that seemed to have been built by various visitors over the years. Leaving no trace was a distant concet, with various amenities fashioned from beach detritus and drift wood. We walked up a promenade from the beach to the woods, which was lined with with logs stuck vertically in the sand and adorned with floats. In the forest, a series of benches surrounded a fire pit. Every camp site was like this, so there was no point in seeking a spot that seemed untouched. Besides, this one had a large cutting board that obviously had come from a fishing boat.

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Entry to our campsite the second night.

After a nice lunch in a sun break, I sat looking out to sea, watching for animals, and thinking about what this place really was. Two hundred years ago, the only immediately obvious difference would been the lack of garbage on the beach. The trees and islands would have been about the same. I could imagine a duggout war canoe cruising the coastline filled with Quileutte or Makah Warriors. I wondered if there would have been more animals, perhaps wolves walking the beach in search of food, or many more whales migrating the coastline. Looking around again, the future seemed to be inheriting nothing but plastic, between the garbage on the beach and the outdoor gear we’d hauled out for our “adventure.”

Adventure is a funny thing, and like wilderness, I tend to question it. My personal idea of adventure, like wilderness, isn’t bound by strict definitions. I think people can have adventures within the bounds of their imagination or at a local park. I think adventure isn’t always about extreme athletes, hokey Instagram photos bragging about distant locales, nor about brands trying convince you their objects will breed new experiences in their purchase. The concept and the simple word are used far too often and they make me cringe sometimes, especially after working in the world of tourism. Adventure is getting dirty, its immersive, and most of all, it’s about learning place. People leave their homes, their local ecosystems, to fly off to distant lands to find adventure, when it’s really right there in front of them. At the forefront of any adventure should be a goal to come away with a better understanding of the world and your place in it, which is why I tend to gag when it’s used as a sales pitch or in branding. Adventures are also about respect for what encounter and bringing that home with you.

As we sat, enjoying the solitude, Caitlin saw a lone kayak out on the water. The boat looked cumbersome, the user inexperienced. They also looked to be taking a b-line for our camp. I grumbled something about hoping they weren’t coming to camp nearby and we both agreed this seemed almost laughable. There were miles of empty camp sites nearby. Besides, this was probably someone out for the day from elsewhere.

As I read my book, the boat edged closer, until it met the shore and a soggy figure hauled out of the cockpit. Pulling his boat just out of the waves, he rushed to the bushes to relieve himself. I figured this was reason for stopping, but was horror struck when he started unloading his boat. Now, I don’t hate people, but I just couldn’t believe that this fellow was aiming to camp next to the only other people for miles around. I know a kayaker getting ready to stay awhile, so I ambled down to have a chat, wishing I had the gall to tell him to go somewhere else.

His name was Lief, and he immediately told me he was kayaking to Costa Rica. I took this in stride, despite his lack of a PFD, an extra paddle, his all cotton clothing, and no marine radio. However I was flabbergasted when he told me he was taking it slow because this was his first day kayaking, ever. In my astonishment, I didn’t even think to tell him to turn around, I just nodded dumbly as he said:

“It’ll be an adventure. I figure if you’re going to do something, you might as well do it big.”

I helped Lief haul his boat above the tideline and left him to his unpacking. He had no dry bags, so all his gear was soaked. His boat was enormously heavy, which I later realized was because it was weighed down with a pulaski, a machete, two liters of lighter fluid, and a lot of water from improperly secured hatches. Leaving him to set up his camp, which was fifty feet from where we’d set up on a previously deserted beach, I walked back and related the story to Caitlin. A good portion of our evening involved watching Lief pull sodden garments from his boat and wondering aloud if he’d be a body washed up on shore in the next few weeks. He didn’t attempt to socialize that evening, which was even more strange, but we were fine with this facade of solitude.

My second night of sleep was fitful, unlike most second nights under the stars; peaceful slumbers of acclimatization. Sometime before bed I’d realized that Leif could be out of his mind, and I imagined waking up with a pulaski blade lodged in my skull. Adding to my paranoid nocturnal starts was the wind changing direction and blowing into our shelter from the North. When dawn finally broke, I was excited and happy to find Caitlin and I unharmed.

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Heading back to Third Beach we noticed the lines of thousands of dead Velella or By the Wind Sailors.

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Climbing back down off Taylor Point.

We left early, making breakfast to the songs of Varied Thrushes. Our spot on the beach had transitioned from beach paradise to an oddly distopic slum, the new day showed us the undug feces of previous visitors, and still more garbage tucked into the salal behind camp. While squatting by the camp-stove, I looked into a bucket of seawater I’d collected for dishes and found a deer mouse floating dead. I left it for the crows, who were having breakfast on the beach. We wrote a quick note to Leif with a piece of charcoal on a piece of wood, wishing him the best of luck, but also quietly wondering how far he’d get before he faced his mortality in the Pacific. Then we booked it.

Who were we to judge Leif? I felt a bit guilty for thinking that his lack of skill or proper equipment made him ineligible for adventure. He could have been better prepared, because he was bound to capsize, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t make an adventurous undertaking and be proud of it. The rich and elite who can afford gear aren’t the only ones who can have adventures; this was exactly what I’d railed against earlier here. As we slogged up the beach, peering around at the wilderness and poking at rocks and other beach detritus we found on the shore, I silently wished him luck and vowed to tell the park rangers.

Back at the Wilderness Information Center in Port Angeles, stinking of woodsmoke and perspiration, I mentioned Leif to a ranger. While she seemed concerned, I could also tell there was little to be done. Still, I felt I was washing my hands of responsibility by telling someone.

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What the rain brings.

If I could wish anything on Leif in his personal adventure, besides his bodily safety, it’s that he learns something along the way. He’ll pass through wilderness, but he’ll likely find his learning or experiences have little to do with who owns the land or how it’s governed. This being the Centennial of the National Parks system, I hope everyone remembers our impermanence as species and individuals, our impact on the landscape, and in turn appreciate what we’ve got no matter what we call it.  Best of luck Leif, and happy adventuring.