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A Call for Submissions!

Hi folks! It’s been too long since I’ve written here. This is mainly due to the fact that I am at the tail end of a Master’s in Environmental Education and that has taken most of my energy (and willingness to sit by a computer any longer than is necessary). However, I am VERY lucky in the fact that I get to use my capstone project (like a thesis, but not strictly research) to launch a idea I’ve been wanting to work on for years. Despite the input of several awesome folks, I never quite got there. Now I can!

To finish up my program, I get to work on putting out the first issue of a magazine called The Field Journal. To explain the project briefly, it explores human relationships to the natural world through art and inquiry. This will be printed at the end of March. The first issue will explore a topic near and dear to my heart, what does it mean to be a naturalist. Over the past couple years, I’ve realized that this a complex idea and overlaps with a lot of different things. Being a naturalist is even problematic from certain perspectives, which has been hard for me to reconcile at times. And certainly it looks different for all of us.

The reason I am writing this here, is that I’d love people to collaborate with. It’s a big world, with lots of ideas. Here’s the original call, but please feel free to reach out and ask questions to

AND, as a reward, below are some of my favorite images from the past year.

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Summer’s Last Murmurs

My morning journaling practice was rebounding, a good feeling in the midst of uncertain times personally, locally, and globally. Absentminded words about what I could hear outside filled in behind my left hand. A flash of shape and color stirred me from my pleasant stupor. The cat had jumped to the window to watch what I was hearing, the movements of birds through the thin walls of my home. I peeled myself from a blanket and rummaged through my backpack. Binoculars might be another encumbrance, but this brick of lens and light is a cherished treasure, a life-long aid in standing up and paying attention.  

Hearing voices in the treetops draws eyes to feathered forms. Echoes of twirls and leaps were flickering on alder boles, mingling with lightly waving shadows of toothed leaves against feathered lichen. Bouncing in the chartreuse were vireos, warblers, juncos, wrens, grosbeaks. I cannot stop myself from assigning names and behaviors, assuming segmentation of their habitual stratigraphy, as these beings went about their day mostly unaware of my second story perch close but also quite far. What I try to call up when I watch birds is not a clinical drone, but the impractical wonder of life that goes on all around. Does it cease to exist if I don’t stand up and peer out the window? 

In my journal I had just been remarking on the number of Hutton’s Vireos of late. They are a much overlooked character, lost in the canopy, looking like a husky kinglet. An endless prattle of single notes and little wheezings pierce the air as they dart across the mottled alder canopy. I can only assume they are eating the caterpillars that have poked holes through many of the leaves, through which I catch glimpses of hooked bills and white spectacles, betraying stout and tan songbirds. Maybe I’ve been projecting, or my subconscious has been making connections without me, because there are a lot of vireos up there. Half a dozen flitting beasts chasing each other in the early sunshine of what promises to be a blazing day.   

With them are their cream-bellied, clear-eyed cousins, Warbling Vireos. I almost missed them because they are silent, but equal in their frantic aerialism. As I wrote that last sentence, the world, invariably recalcitrant, pulled up a series of notes from the bird I was watching. What might be discernible as a bird of the year in my hand while banding, is not from my perch, but I do notice one of them begging for food from another. This is despite that the tree appears to hold plenty of choice morsels. Why else would they be there? 

Also “silent” are Pacific-slope Flycatchers, spending more time sitting and flicking their tails than dancing. These wallflowers need to sit still and watch the flying insects they eat. Vireos busily investigate nooks and crannies, extending necks and tilting heads to peer on the undersides of leaves for green wrigglies. 

I saw a flycatcher recently feeding a baby Brown-headed Cowbird. I couldn’t help but feel a pang of sadness for this parent, doomed to feed only this unrelated bird, who will soon wander off on its own, detracting from the flycatcher gene pool. Fledgling cowbirds this time of year are often found plodding about on open ground, singular and seeming to be lost but far from it. On a nearby beach, while watching Puget Sound Gumweed swarm with bumble and digger bees, I noticed an indistinct brown bird drawn to the insects drifting about the tide wracks. Despite myself, I wondered if it was the same cowbird I’d seen being fed by that flycatcher in the pine tree in my yard. We have cowbirds everywhere because we cut down all the trees and killed all the buffalo in favor of cows, which are now everywhere. By we, I mean White people. 

Standing out among the mossy backs of the other birds are Wilson’s Warblers. Not skulking in shrubs, spitting out staccato songs as they do in spring, but out in the open, part of the alder fest. Two unimaginably yellow birds with black caps, that out hue the few turning leaves, yellow from many dry days and impending fall. Even more than the vireos, they can’t seem to sit still and they shortly drift beyond my spyhole. 

It seems almost ridiculous that I can stand and watch these birds out my window. They prepare to fly off to the Neotropics. I prepare to write words they’ll never comprehend about their lives, which I will never fully comprehend. 

I sometimes wonder what will fail me first, my eyes or my ears (as if those will even be singular events). When I first got glasses, I remember walking outside the downtown Ballard optometrist, and looking up to the top of a Douglas fir, and seeing the individual fresh needles on its peak and the papery husks that fold away from male flowers. I saw such detail that I had forgotten was there, in a combination of near-sightedness and being a twenty first century teenager distracted by girls, computer games, and the need to be cool. 

Recently I went to the doctor because I had a strange deep reverberation in my ear. I discovered that liquid had built up in my inner ear from some unknown mallady. Like my donning of glasses, bringing out details in the world, this was temporary and I seem to have my full hearing back. 

If I had to choose which would go first, I’d choose neither because they are interwoven with my senses, reminding me that being human is about looking outside yourself as well as attending to the deep vibrations within. What if I lost my sense of touch or taste instead? We take too much for granted. 

My morning, had I simply sat and pondered the noises out the window, wouldn’t have been a terrible one. My coffee would have been sipped warm. Currently it is tepid, from the hour I stood at the window gawking while the cat lobbied for an early breakfast with soft twists between my bare legs. Would I have been more, or less human without this pause to step outside my head to admire the intricate shadowboxing across the late summer layers of alder leaves? I suspect I would have merely continued to have a conversation with myself, unheard and unseen, but pretending to pay attention.

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The Way Round Jack Pt. 1

The moment we crawled onto a flat that weaved into a beautiful alpine meadow, I was fairly certain I hated backpacking. This was after we’d enjoyed the expansive Jack Mountain and the Nohokomeen Glacier. This was after I sat in the shade, listening to Sooty Grouse boom, and turned to see a snowshoe hare hopping down the trail. Despite these things, I still couldn’t determine why I thought 7 miles and 5000 feet of elevation gain, with a backpack for 4 days of camping, was a good way to spend some time off.

Type two fun is one name for such approaches. My left hip had started to spasm in cramps and I couldn’t seem to walk without stopping to wheeze. Truth be told I was out of shape, but this was definitely harder than I’d imagined. When we finally broke the treeline and sat down alongside a stream that dropped through lime green meadows, filtering some much needed and deliciously cold water, we were met with a cloud of mosquitoes. How can a place be simultaneously so beautiful, yet so ruinously uncomfortable?

The wilderness boundary on Devil’s Junction from Ross Lake.

Sam, had been pushing for us to hike Devil’s Dome Loop in the Western Pasayten Wilderness for years. He is a friend from high school, and one of a group who gets out hiking together at least annually. I’d had no objections, but the first attempt was foiled by fire near where I currently go to school, in 2015. Then came years where it didn’t quite make sense with our schedules, so we went to the Eastern Pasayten early season, or circled the Goat Rocks Wilderness. I may or may not have forgotten the challenge those hikes presented. Yet, I cannot imagine my life having not strode up the great open flank of tundra on Armstrong Mountain amidst tinkling Horned Larks, or crawling out to the perilous perch atop the jumbled summit of rocks that is old Snowy. These were things worth doing, even if you forgot the pain.

A panorama of Jack on our hike up from Ross Lake. The big patch of “snow” on the left flank of the peak is the Nohokomeen Glacier.

There was a moment during the hike up where I wasn’t sure I was going to make it. We were staring up at Devil’s Dome and from our perspective, it seemed impossible. I stopped looking at the wall of rock and focused on my feet, taking small steps and measured breaths. Usually I splatter my gaze across the trail and the world around me. That’s how I spotted the Northern Goshawk that flew by earlier, or picked out a male Sooty Grouse displaying from a log in the shadows of subalpine firs. For now, it was time to focus on the energy I had left and stagger atop the fucking dome.

Somehow, the last moments before reaching a summit, your feet begin to lighten. I’m no mountaineer; that’s never going to be my thing. And, I still I know what it’s like to push my limit for a summit and then feel the burning lift away as the top levels out. After a solid six hours trudging uphill, we’d finally hit the peak.  

What motivates me to backpack isn’t the challenge, it’s to see what’s out there. What is happening in the lives of the organisms, at this moment in time, during this year, in this obscure place? Who do I expect to see, yet find no trace of? Who will surprise me? Who am I trying to pretend I am not searching for every moment of every second we are hiking, in the hopes that fate will toss one across our path? The views don’t hurt either.

Our first camp was complete with a beautiful view, but I was also captivated by the plants and animals making a living up here. This patch of juniper must spend at least half its year under snow, and yet, here it is doing just fine. Sometimes I think I take on these challenges to be continually humbled.

Jack Mountain is the spire you circle around on the Loop.  This hike could also be called The Many Faces of Jack. At 9017 feet, it is a very tall mountain by Washington standards, and one I’ve seen countless times as I’ve driven back and forth across Diablo Dam during the past year. Admittedly this was from the southwest and no glaciers or snowfields were visible from that aspect.

Much of the settler history in this part of the Upper Skagit sits in the shadow of this peak. The mountain itself was named after Jack Rowse, who had a mining claim along Canyon Creek. Henry Custer was the first topographer to describe the mountain, while surveying the area in for the Northwest Boundary Commission in 1859. George Holmes, a freed slave from Virginia, had a mining claim in Ruby Creek drainage that he acquired in 1895. He operated this until 1925, toiling in solitude on the southern flank of Jack. I can say next to nothing of the women who knew this peak during that period of history. I can only assume Lucinda Davis, at her roadhouse on Cedar Bar knew of Jack’s immensity well, if not intimately. Similarly I know nothing of the indigenous relationship to the peak, but it is difficult for me to believe it hasn’t played a significant role for people who have traversed these rugged hills since time immemorial.

Crater (left foreground) and Jack (right) from Devil’s Dome.

Jack is formidable and it drew our attention as we watched the sun glissade down the sea of peaks that is the North Cascades. Yet, we weren’t there just to stare at a big peak. Jack was merely the foreground to the spread of peaks with names I knew, and other names I didn’t. I was drawn away from this vision by the twittering of Vaux’s Swifts, a group of six that drifted up to this elevation, presumably for an evening snack. For some reason I felt an affinity for this ascent and yet utterly feeble by their seemingly easy climb. Surely they would descend to a roost tree, while we sat among the alpenglow, almost unable to move.

Sundown over the snow on top of Devil’s Dome.

I woke up sore, stiff, and much later than I would on a typical backpacking trip. Hermit Thrush whistles still rose from the treeline as I crawled out to greet the day. With the enormous view from the highest point of the trail, we were in no hurry to get underway and sat with our morning vittles as the sun crept over the horizon to our backs.

The snowfield on Crater Mountain, a slightly lesser mass to Jack, was entirely pink with snow algae, and visibly so with the naked eye. Baker hid behind the mountains I drove beneath every day. I finally saw Mount Ross as a snow covered peak instead of a rocky wall, as viewed from Newhalem. Big Devil looked like a volcanic cone enough to confuse me considerably, nothing like the snowy talus slope I see from Highway 20. There were so many jagged summits stretching into Canada, I had no hope of remembering them all. It’s much better to surrender to the sea instead of playing the name game.  

Finally it was time to get saddled up. We’d already seen more people than we expected, several early morning hikers, as well as the woman who’d snagged the best spot on the dome the night before. This place felt remote, but we were concerned that other camps might be occupied.

Hiking south off the Dome.

The hiking was easy as we got off the Dome and wound down the ridgeline. The Pasayten, to our left, was brown, the orographic effect vividly displayed, but we were also seeing a different geologic mixture that added to the feeling of a water scarcity. Where we stood it green and this carpeted the mountainsides up to treeline to our right and west.

Passing from trees to meadow, we felt it heating up and began to get a little worried about water. Our map had a spring marked on it at Devil’s Pass, but there was no other evidence of water, snow having recently disappeared from the aspect we were walking. Thankfully the spring was there, and running.

While Sam pumped water, I ran back up to our bags, because I’d heard a raven croaking from that direction. Just as I rushed to the saddle of the pass, our bags had been dropped to spare us the crawl down to the spring, a dark shape drifted through the trees overhead.  

I settled into guard duty on this lonely little pass. The only sound was of the birds and the flies attracted to my sweat stained shirt. I imagined the animals that must use this pass throughout the year. A wolverine passing across a vast territory, headed where ever it feels. A wolf, leaving the natal den for a wider world. Countless birds that pause long enough to breed, or just to rest as they journey to another locale with better resources. Millions of insects unseen or unobserved. I imagined my body staying where it lay and feet of snow piling up over me, a stratigraphy of thawing and freezing, until the sun’s warmth could no longer be shrugged off overnight. This little pass in the middle of nowhere felt timeless.

A group of Outward Bound students and their leaders met us at the high point of the day’s walk. Trail talk is an art, where you balance the need to keep moving with the desire to get beta from those who have already walked where you’re headed. Yet, there’s also a genuine nature to it, and often you have meaningful exchanges you remember far beyond the grip of most random human encounters. In this case, one of their leaders knew a graduate of my Master’s program, and the co-founder of the non-profit where I currently spend my time. Such an expansive place can slim substantially with a chance meeting. It can also be an affirmation of good taste.  

Devil’s Creek drainage.

We traversed another series of meadows, full of ground squirrel burrows dug beneath nodding pasqueflower seedheads. I always get excited about these spaces, because surely predators lurk nearby. The dusty track ahead of us was crenulated with the soles of hiking shoes, but I kept hoping I’d pick up an interesting track. A wolf? A fox? A cat?

My hope for the day was the stop early, drop our packs, and head up to a small bight in Jackita Ridge called Anacortes Crossing. Stopping for lunch, it was clear that we could go farther and that the bugs weren’t going to be friendly where the best camps were. Sam wanted to push further, and though I was after some scrambling and peak bagging, I admitted that four miles wasn’t enough distance to cover for the day.

Part of the reason I’d wanted to stop was because of what I knew was ahead. The trail sloshed through the creekbed straight down, and despite trekking poles, we had to arrest our momentum continually with our sore legs. The water was plentiful and beautiful, and admittedly the trail did wend through spectacular flower-filled bogs. And, as soon as it leveled out, it climbed straight back out again. Dripping with sweat and spitting obscenities at the person who thought this was a good grade, we pushed through overgrown paths swollen with slide alder and yellow cedar.

Our second camp’s basin.

The camp that waited for us on the other side of the ridge couldn’t have been much better. The insects were tolerable, water was easily found, and there was a nice flat spot for a tent. Our stuff exploded, we enjoyed the lift that occurs when you’ve dropped a heavy pack, wandering about making camp. A fire lit, dinner eaten, food hung, we sipped whiskey by the fire and ran into the adjacent scree bowl to watch the sun dip behind Jack. You can’t help but feel immensely grateful when a day ends in a good place, with a good friend, with days of adventure ahead of you.

Watching the sun go down on Jack.



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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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



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.


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.



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.


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.


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


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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


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.


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


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.


She camps!


She climbs trees!


She jumps off cliffs!


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.


Here we are getting them ready to bag.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


Windy Peak behind, granite squatters in the foreground.


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.


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


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.


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.


Exploring the Nisqually River Delta by kayak.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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!


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.


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.


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


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.


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


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).


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


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.


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.


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.


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



-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.


Just about to deflate.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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


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).


The author getting very close to some columbine.