Musings of a roaming nature nerd

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A field biologist… Part 2

Try to excuse the camera work and fact that I messed up the color! It’s a start and provides a brief, if somewhat shaky, glimpse of where a field biologist works!

Clicking the link below will take you to vimeo where you can watch the video:

Rifle Range Survey


A field biologist… Part 1

A field biologist wears many hats. She dabbles in botany, explores entomology, finds passion in ornithology and ties together the strands of each into that wonderful web of life, ecology. A field biologist also wears an actual hat to protect her from the sun!

A field biologist rises two hours before the sun. Breakfast is eaten, maps are organized, trucks are loaded. She enters the field as the world awakens… sometimes with coffee in hand to ensure her own alterness!

A field biologist carries a lot of gear. Into her pack goes: 3 Liters of water, lots of fruit and granola, binoculars, a PDA for data collection, GPS unit, maps, compass, flagging for trails and territories, first aid kit, an audio lure, rubber boots for wet sites, snake chaps for snakey sites, a machete for clearing pesky poison hemlock, 3 ID badges, pencils and pens, and a radio for being in touch with the Marine dispatch “Long Rifle.” A field biologist must be prepared for almost anything, including artillery fire- hence the radio to double check for the all-clear!

A field biologist seeks out the small to help explain the big. When she swats at flies that means there is available food for endangered birds. When she hears the endangered birds that means there are healthy layers of vegetation for nest building. When she crawls through the dense vegetation, she is crawling through a healthy riparian corridor. And the healthy riparian corridor means an intact ecosystem is sustaining life on many levels. Every bite from a mosquito and sting from a nettle reminds the field biologist that she is a small part of something bigger, something glorious and something worth protecting!

 


Breeding Season Begins

My southern California field season began a full two months ago and I’ve spent my days hiking and surveying for Cactus Wrens in the glorious, steep, chaparral country. But the job I was actually hired for (surveying for endangered Least Bell’s Vireos and Southwestern Willow Flycatchers) finally began just a week ago! Funding issues delayed access to river corridors on Camp Pendleton, but the birds don’t wait on budgets and bureaucracy. Breeding season is in full swing!

What a treat to be out over this past week. Although knee high rubber boots were often a necessity and poison oak abounds, nothing beats a sunrise start to the day serenaded by sweet bird song. Walking the channels of the Santa Margarita, San Onofre, and San Mateo rivers resulted in endless discoveries. Coyotes pranced across the empty washes at dawn. Startled whipsnakes darted away like lightning at the vibration of my footfall… except for the poor one I stepped on! He darted away later (hopefully uninjured), and I was just glad he wasn’t a rattlesnake! A little speckled fawn snuggled into the shade while its mother fed nearby. And baby birds were everywhere! Cottonball-like Killdeer, on tall spindly legs scampered around on the rocky sand banks. Hummingbird mamas frantically defended their button-sized chicks. And Least Bell’s Vireo papas, sang and sang and sang, even through mouthfuls of food for their young nestlings. Seeing what will hopefully be successful nests of an endangered bird especially brightens the days. A long season still awaits and if this first official week is any indication of how things will go, I am very excited to be out there in the thick of it!

 

Least Bell's Vireo nest

 

A Least Bell's Vireo nestling

 

A tiny Anna's Hummingbird nestling

 

An Allen's Hummingbird in brilliant breeding plumage! Look at that sheen of his gorget when he turns his head!

 

River's end

 

Dry river bed

 

Sunrise at the San Mateo

 


Between Bravo and Yankee

Ravens wheel and talk

in a language as foreign

as the military jargon from the radio.

 

The ocean laps at the ridge lines

as a cold dense fog.

 

Voices of grasshoppers

become sparrows

with a flutter of feathered wings.

 

From the ridge

military men, tiny as toys below

play games for a very real war.

 

Blackened grass and sage

scent the air like a smudge stick.

 

Spiders lie in wait

in tunnels of silk and dew drops,

both predator and prey.

 

Between the ridges

clouds drift

ravens drift

minds drift.


Ramblings of a migratory rambler

Perhaps the single most extraordinary feat of any animal is that of migration. Every season, millions of souls follow the path of ones who came before, knowing that the best chance for survival is to move. The Pronghorn of the intermountain west traverse ever shrinking habitat corridors, bottle necking through Wyoming’s Green River and spilling out to the sagebrush flats beyond. Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes form airborne patterns from horizon to horizon during their migration across the great plains. Birds of prey catch thermals off of ridge lines and make their way along aerial highways, following the same routes year after year, decade after decade. These animals move in their effort to survive, escaping inhospitable weather or seeking food or water sources.

And once, humans felt the migratory need too. We spent a good 100,000 years on the move before settling into the comforts of agriculture and a stationary life. As a result of being more stationary we have the chance to connect with landscapes more intimately, to create communities and culture, and those factors have come to define us and our ideal image of “home.” But home in the way we think of it, remains a recent concept. We evolved as nomads.

Jason's photo of migrating Snow Geese in Nebraska

 

With all the comforts we have available now, what drives that prehistoric part in many of us to still want to be on the move? Few people in today’s world migrate seasonally anymore, yet when they do survival and sustenance often propel that movement. I recently crossed our amazing, beautiful country for the 11th time and I’ve thought a lot about what has driven me to migrate. Sometimes I journeyed for pure fun, but other trips led toward the hope of a new life, a better education, a new job; in short a way to sustain myself in the modern world.

My east-west migratory paths have been in cars, on conveniently paved, predetermined thoroughfares. Eating and sleeping are never issues and aside from the occasional automotive breakdown, one keeps moving with mind numbing ease. A far cry from the strength needed for ancient human migration or any other animal migration across vast expanses of beauty and peril. But modern migration has not just provided me with a way to sustain myself; it has helped me connect to the seasons and the rhythms of nature in ways I never would have by staying in one place. My recent journeys have coincided with the migration of songbirds. Migrating with the migrators- job to job, spring to fall to spring! As a result I have come to understand bird migration on a deeper level. Why and how they move and what it takes to make the journey. Rather than idly watching the seasons pass, I move with the seasons and become a small part of the change itself.

Within me the desire to explore is very strong; to see the world and change with its changes. But when all is said and done there is no right or wrong. We evolved to move, but we’ve discovered the luxury and pleasure of staying put, connecting to one place. We don’t have to chose mobility over stability or vice versa, we just need to learn how to function within the duality. Sometimes we’re contented with our stable lives. Sometimes we get a little bored and need a brief escape from routine. And sometimes our internal clock chimes, telling us it’s time to go, time to move, time to follow the figurative herd and see what opportunity lies ahead. When we accept the duality within us, life transforms.

 


A Landscape of Irony

The official start of the avian field season, and week one brings: ticks, rattlesnakes, cows, birds, weapons magazines and razor wire fences … wait- what?! Much of my upcoming field season will be spent on the Camp Pendleton Marine base and during this first week I’ve been surveying for Cactus Wrens on the Fallbrook Naval Weapons Station. Two levels of security checkpoints are required for my admittance to the area. Training, regarding the hazards found in the area include recognizing and staying away from unexploded ordinance, just in case the ordinance should “function as designed, creating a mass fragmentation event.” The ground and the air occasionally shake from nearby training exercises and I instinctively flinch while attempting to stay focused on the chattery songs of my wrens. I feel a brief yet intense sense of anxiety and can only imagine what soldiers and civilians a like must experience when those same vibrations shake their world.

Yet where I survey is almost idyllic and peaceful in its beauty. Strolling across closely cow-cropped grasslands, into fragrant sage, and across rocky, cacti strewn, chaparral hills lead me to believe I could be anywhere in the western wilderness. Tiny wildflowers, pollinated by busy bees, burst forth in colorful reproductive glory. The wrens sing and call for mates atop scrubby perches and I spend my hours carefully tracking them and looking for colorful bands on their legs. The combinations of band colors indicate where and when the bird was first captured and documented.

The irony of a weapons station preserving thousands of acres of wild habitat amazes me. Within this conflict, I somehow still feel grateful that amidst the absolutely endless sprawl of southern California some relatively natural habitat still exists. And if the presence of Cactus Wrens are any indication, they too don’t seem to mind the bunkers and barbed wire; contented to have expansive habitat to forage and breed in. Although I find it difficult to rejoice at times, I realize that in an ever more urbanized world it’s important to value the small victories for conservation wherever they can be found…


Birds

As a general lover of nature, I tend to find almost anything I encounter to have some fascinating quality. Amidst the mind-blowing beauty of the Teton’s gneiss and granite peaks, I’ve marveled at ants scurrying to and from their nest. Their cooperative network bringing in food 10 times their size. In Florida I’ve fallen in love with drastic change in vegetation when elevation drops a foot or two. Imperceptible change leads one through pine, oak, sawgrass and wetland. Forget the multi-thousand feet terrain of the west- nothing beats the biodiversity occurring between sea level and three feet!

So I suppose with an inherent curiosity, my interest in birds developed as well. Jason first discovered his love of birds by canoeing in the pre-dawn hours of New Hampshire, surrounded by diving loons and listening to their eerie call. As his enthusiasm built over the years I found it contagious. The more we traveled around the country, the more I began to realize that birds were absolutely everywhere! The same American Robins which hopped around the backyard were also popping in and out of Lodgepole Pine stands at 7000 feet in Wyoming. Atop a remote New Hampshire peak, a tiny Northern Saw-whet Owl swooped in at dusk to check out a backpacking friend and me. This same species is also spotted regularly at urban parks in the Bronx. I certainly wasn’t running into moose or alligators everywhere- but with just a keen eye and the help of binoculars I found little feathered beauties!

The more I traveled and learned, the more excited I became by the natural history of each bird. Cactus Wren males furiously build nest after nest before escorting their desired female to see them all, hoping that she’ll be impressed enough to choose one and mate with him. Prothonotary Warblers, the length of my palm (not my fingers, just the palm!) and weighing about as much as 10 pennies, beat their tiny wings and fly 600 miles or more across the Gulf of Mexico each year without stopping. Bald Eagles lock talons mid-air and spiral earthward in an apparent bonding ritual before mating (or sometimes when fending off rivals). Every bird from the tiniest, brownest, most boring looking sparrow to the flashiest, fastest falcon has an amazing story and a unique niche in this world.

Going out birding with someone who has little or perhaps casual interest in birds can often renew my own sense of excitement too. One of my brothers is into extreme things: downhill biking, rally cars… but birds? It seemed unlikely! However when we took a camping and birding trip last week he was thrilled with what he saw. The idea of sneaking around off trail, hiding behind bushes and acting like a stealthy spy appealed to his adventurous testosterone side. But the birds themselves held appeal too. His enthusiasm grew with each sighting. He found the beauty of the Painted Redstarts to be unmatched. He delighted at the adorable bug-eyed appearance of the Acorn Woodpeckers. And our hour of sneaking in a canyon, searching for the very rare Rufous-capped Warbler was rewarded with three of the tiny birds landing within arms reach of him. For my brother, a seed of interest was planted and he loved seeing these creatures he hadn’t thought much of before.

I believe it was David Allen Sibley (bird artist and field guide guru) who wrote a piece a number of years ago, stating that watching birds appeals to almost anyone on any level. It can be passive or active; competitive or cooperative; urban or rural. If you’re in any way inquisitive about nature, birds can be a natural extension of that desire to learn more. Even watching a city pigeon carefully feeding and tending to it’s chicks can be heartwarming if given a chance! Sometimes passions and interests are difficult to explain to those who do not share them. During a bird walk years ago, our group spotted a Black-throated Blue Warbler and went crazy with excitement. Jason and I didn’t even own binoculars and could not see this tiny bird amongst the dense, dark undergrowth. Jason leaned toward me and whispered “We’ll never be like these people.” Oh the irony! After finally getting some binoculars we most definitely became those people and in the process learned that the beauty, the diversity, the stories, and the relative accessibility of birds truly set them apart in nature. It is from this that my passion blossomed. Perhaps with the next bird you see- an American Crow, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, a Downy Woodpecker- you’ll pause for a moment to really watch it and learn its story. And perhaps your passion will begin to blossom too!

 

Black-throated Blue Warbler

 

 

Lesser Goldfinch

 

 

Acorn Woodpecker

 

 

Rufous-capped Warbler (Level 3 Rarity in Florida Canyon)

 

 

Mexican Jay

 

 

Magnificent (female) and Broad-billed (male) Hummingbirds

 

 

Nutting's Flycatcher (Level 5 Rarity in the Bill Will NWR)

 


Off the beaten cow path

Under a blue Utah sky, a proper reunion of hugs and smiles and chatter brought Jason and Kathryn and me back together after more than two years. Then, just as quickly it was time to get down to business. Equipped with a hand drawn map promising colors! slickrock! and awesomeness! we searched for a fence, a cattle guard and a gate, which would indicate our jumping off point. However, this being BLM grazing land we found a number of said locations. We finally chose one with fingers crossed that awesomeness! would indeed await.

Cross country travel (ie. not following designated trails) is challenging in the Colorado plateau, as one attempts to avoid crushing the delicate biological soil crust crust called Cryptobiotic Soil. This “living soil” is a cyanobacteria (or blue-green algae). When it’s wet it moves slowly across the ground binding together tiny grains into little sand towers, stabilizing the soil and preventing erosion. It also adds nitrogen to the nutrient poor desert soil allowing for plant growth and thus further soil stabilization. Without cryptobiotic soil, southwestern dust storms would be even larger than they already are and few plants would survive. Unfortunately one footstep can destroy decades or even centuries of work from this slow moving cyanobacteria. In an attempt not to “bust the crust” our relatively flat traverse became quite difficult!

Crypto towers- holding the world together!

 

Although we gingerly made our way through the little ancient towers, the free range cattle clearly took no heed so we ended up following their well trodden path as to not further the impact on the land elsewhere. We traversed plains of golden grasses and black brush, and passed through shadows of spring creeks, now dry with winter drought. We eventually gave up on the circuitous cow paths and started rock hopping wherever we could. Junipers, heavy with berries lined the edges of dry washes and popped up in unexpected groves where water must occasionally collect in underground reserves. In a region, which averages 7 inches of precipitation a year, it’s a wonder that trees as large as juniper survive at all. But, as with all desert life, one must adapt.

Junipers allow themselves to die while continuing to grow, giving off a sense of immortality in a seemingly desolate land. During a wet season the trees will thrive, but during drought they will sacrifice limbs and trunks in order to keep their core alive. As a result many juniper look half dead, yet still manage to hang on for hundreds of years! Their adaptation is almost as if a thirsty person allowed one of their fingers or arms to die off in order to send more nutrition and water to the heart and brain.  It may sound silly, but on a different scale this is kind of what happens with Juniper trees! Even in death, junipers’ parched skeletal branches reach skyward as reminders of their longevity and vitality.

A very lush and healthy Juniper.

 

We entered one such sparsely scattered juniper stand and rested in its shade. We discussed continuing toward a large slickrock outcropping in the distance (possibly our colorful, awesome destination?!) and in the end decided to go for it. Within moments awesomeness! was upon us, but not amidst the expected slickrock. Shining in the sand lay a lithic scatter. Razor sharp flakes of chert (a very hard sedimentary rock) lay strewn across the ground. We had stumbled upon the trash heap of ancient stone tool craftsmen! Flint knapping (as ancient stone craft is often called) involves chipping away at a hard rock, like chert, in order to form arrow heads, spear heads, digging tools like hoes and other handy items. The left over flakes were often just too small or oddly shaped to be particularly useful and were left behind in what are now called lithic scatters. The ones we discovered were both large and small. Shining in the sun, they looked as if they could have been discarded yesterday, not 1000 years ago.

Lithic Scatter

 

An imperfect and thus discarded spearhead???

 

If this exciting prehistoric find weren’t enough we hadn’t walked a hundred meters more before we came upon the rusty remnants of an old cowboy camp! Some numbered pottery indicated a date from the 1920s. Broken glass, bits of pottery, cans and tobacco tins littered the ground. An ornamental gun poked out from under a bush. As we wondered at the history around us, we also wondered what could have drawn both Cowboys and Indians, hundreds of years apart, to this same flat expanse amongst the junipers. Perhaps an invisible water source sustained both plant and human life. While the landscape was beautiful, no wise person of yester-year would have settled there simply based on beauty. Water, food sources and shelter always took precedence. For us it was to remain a mystery, but the discovery of such treasures alone gave us endless stories to ponder!

Pie Plate?

 

 

Ornamental gun

 

Having explored for 4 or 5 hours and starting to wane under the intensity of the sun, we headed for home, quite happy that our initial goal of colorful slickrock had been trumped by unplanned awesomeness! And isn’t that the way of life? When you deviate from the beaten path, if you chose to explore and learn and take a chance, then, as Kathryn mused “Adventure waits around every bend.”

Just before deviating from the beaten cow path...

 


Who goes there?

Tracking. The art and the challenge of reading and following the clues animals leave behind, while piecing together who passed by and what happened. Anyone who prides themselves on being highly skilled at tracking, be it for survival, for science or for fun, might find my definition lacking in the technicalities, which give this incredible skill its credence. However, as someone who knows just a little bit about a lot of things, this description suffices!

For the layman (yours truly) winter is by far the most interesting season for tracking. Animals’ “foot prints” easily embed and remain in snow and half-frozen mud. Their scat (yes, their poo) also lies visible, darkly glistening against fresh frosty whiteness. The world seems to come alive with activity in the winter. Of course many animals are much more active in other seasons, but it is harder to see what they’re doing. Unless you move with the utmost stealth you aren’t likely to see too many animals as you walk through the woods. A few brave black-capped chickadees chattering at you; a chipmunk darting between the rocks of a stonewall; maybe a white-tailed deer crashing away through the underbrush. When you learn to read tracks, even on the most basic level, you have just learned to read what happens in the natural world when you aren’t around. A storyline unfolds, written into the earth itself.

 

Gray Squirrel tracks and a bit of a human boot print.

 

Think about your own backyard. Maybe you regularly see squirrels raiding the bird feeders and the neighbor’s cat occasionally wanders through. You don’t seem to have much activity in your little suburban enclave. But check out your yard the morning after a fresh dusting of snow covers the brown matted grass. You’ll notice tracks crisscrossing that little space. Tracks of a small canine meander through and stop near the compost pile. Why? Well, another set of teeny tiny tracks with teeny tiny toes meets the canine tracks and then disappears under some frosty leaves. Without ever seeing the animals themselves, you have just discovered that a teeny tiny deer mouse must have scampered into the compost pile, peaking the interest of a red fox who paused to sniff around for this potential meal. If you follow the tracks further, you might learn more about the fate of that little mouse!

 

Teeny tiny rodent tracks with my wedding ring for perspective.

 

During a recent snowy hike in a beautiful Pennsylvania state park, Jason and I found ourselves following the trail of three coyotes who had passed through ahead of us. Periodically one set of tracks wandered off, presumably to sniff something; occasionally marking a tree (and the snow!) before rejoining its mates. One coyote must have gotten a little ice or a thorn in its paw because a bit of red blood stained a single track for several paces before fading. All three sets of tracks stopped, moved in a circle near a tree surrounded by squirrel tracks and then headed into the forest away from our path.

*               *               *

Stories and encounters as read through tracks in the wild, often add another level of interest and excitement while hiking and exploring. A few months ago in Utah, we took a walk in a muddy wetland near the Colorado River. We had seen a number of mule deer, rabbit and raccoon tracks as we quietly walked beneath the trees. Suddenly from around the bend, not 15 meters away, came a thud, a crashing sound and then silence. Uncertain what had spooked we hurried ahead and entered an open sunny spot with a fallen cottonwood slanting horizontally just off the ground. We peered into the underbrush. We listened. We saw and heard nothing; until we looked down. Mountain lion tracks covered every inch of the ground! Back and forth to the river, deeper into the wetlands, and to and from the sun-drenched cottonwood. We likely startled this cougar from its warm napping spot! With all the deer and rabbit tracks nearby we should have considered that this quiet spot by the river could make ideal territory for a young lion. Although we never saw an animal (except for a few ravens) during our walk, the clues in the landscape allowed us to start piecing together that particular habitats ecological story.

 

Young mountain lion tracks with Jason's hand for perspective. These were just under 4 inches.

 

Scat, pellets and other signs provide insight into the identity of an animal, its whereabouts and even its health. The lack of snow during this particular winter has meant relying on many of these other clues while tracking. In New Hampshire, the mostly snow-less ground is covered in funny little tube shaped scat and bits of churned up leaves and dirt. This might not sound like much, but these are signs of Wild Turkey making the rounds as they kick up the duff looking for insects and seeds. The small patches of snow deeper in the forests are covered in their tracks. As we explore these forests, Jason and I look for splattered white-wash and pellets at the base of evergreens. These sings indicate the favorite perch for an owl. When we’re lucky we might see the owl high in a tree peering down suspiciously!

It is easy to learn a few common tracks and signs by picking up a field guide or browsing the internet. And with that new knowledge intriguing stories may be revealed. Reading the clues left behind by our wild neighbors opens an unseen world in the backyard and beyond.

New Hampshire turkey tracks

 

Red Squirrels often leave behind little midden piles of tasty seeds and pine cones they've been eating. Finding this sign indicates a favorite dining spot!

 

A gigantic pellet of this juvenile Snowy Owl.

 

 

 


At home in winter

As brown fallen leaves decay into the bright blooms of spring, winter reflects back to us raw images of all the seasons. During this quiet reflective season my mind lingers over the images of the year gone by. The darkness with which the year began: on a crowded lonely island. The lightness with which the year transformed: with a rediscovered sense of place under the desert sun. The vitality with which the year progressed: amidst rejuvenating mountains and rivers and canyons. And the familiarity with which the year now ends: with a return to roots underneath the soft gray skies of the granite state.

A cold whisper pushes through the double paned glass and fading warmth from my ceramic mug of tea strains in competition. Outside, a sky the color of smoke seems to mute the dormant landscape. A gentle breeze visibly moves the white pines, but only the occasional creak and clatter from the basement furnace breaks the silence. If it is to be said that home is where the heart is, then with each journey, each adventure, my heart breaks further into pieces scattered by the wind; impossible to say where the heart fully rests. But today, at the end of a long year of choices and discoveries and landscapes unknown, the cold, gray breeze of a New England winter is all I need to find myself home again.

 


Pennsylvania is…

 

… lichen covered rocks under foot.

… the difference between red and white oak.

… warm rain and earth worms.

… ever green mountain laurel under ever gray winter skies.

… ticks in the grass.

… cows and corn and farms and fields and country lanes woven into a rural tapestry.

… early spring flowers.

… leaves scattered in reds and yellows and browns.

… the smooth, soft, gray bark of a beech tree.

… carolina chickadees, red-headed woodpeckers and turkey vultures.

… brown, crunchy, summer grass.

… cold wind howling against numb ears.

… red-tailed hawks on roadside posts.

… unavoidable, pond sized puddles.

… old mountains becoming new hills.

… the taste of apple cider and the smell of fresh earth.

… fireflies in the millions.

… rocky creeks and wide rivers.

… humid air and lightning in the clouds.

… peepers celebrating the summer sunset.

… a timid yet grounded sense of home.

 


Put a band on it!

 

I absolutely love bird banding. Handling and studying birds up close is a thrill and a privilege that truly makes my heart sing. It is said that having “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Although this old saying does not directly relate to banding, its origin goes back to medieval falconry, when having a bird (one’s falconry bird) in the hand was a valuable hunting tool. And falconry was actually one of the origins of banding! To me, a bird in the hand is worth spending freezing mornings shaking ice from mist nets and running in place to stay warm; worth wading through gigantic reference books of molt limit information; worth being bitten and poked and pooped on by seriously irritated little birds. Its worth it for the tremendous amount of data that can be gleaned from just a few short minutes with a bird in hand.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet, just barely showing his ruby crown.

 

Aside from the obvious “cool factor” of being able to take any wild animal into your own hands, banding of course does hold great scientific value. Placing a numbered (or sometimes colored) band around a bird’s leg identifies it if captured or found in the future. When compared with data from a previous capture a bird’s life span, health, molt patterns and other morphological characteristics can often be determined. This type of data builds greater knowledge of individuals, species and populations within a variety of the world’s ecosystems. Location, date, weight, wing chord, age and sex are recorded as basic data. Slightly more advanced techniques look at other factors such as feather molt limits- is a bird transitioning between plumages, thereby indicating a particular year of its life? Or accumulation of fat in the keel- is this bird building up a fat store for migration or is it a lean local resident.

Bird banding itself is both a new and old form of tracking birds. Since roughly the early 1900s banding has been a highly regarded and frequently used tool in the ornithological community for collecting morphological and migration data for thousands of species. However, as early as the 1500s the very first data was collected about the movement of birds based on banding. One of the privately owned, and therefore banded, Peregrine Falcons belonging to the King of France took flight and disappeared in 1595. Because of the presence of a leg band this same bird was able to be identified when it showed up 24 hours later in Malta, over a thousand miles away! This moment stands as one of the first times humans began to grasp the speed of which flight and migration could take place.

At the Rio Mesa Field Station, 30 miles east from Moab, Utah, sits the banding station at which Jason and I are currently volunteers. Mist nets (fine mesh nets which birds can’t see) are opened 15 minutes before sunrise and checked for birds every 30-45 minutes for 6 hours, 7 days a week. In our time here the net runs have been slow. The big migration push has passed and most of the birds we capture will be spending the winter in the area. In the past few days, we’ve been capturing few new birds at all and are mostly seeing the same banded population again and again. Although locally recaptured birds may not provide immediate revelations on an individual or species, the data is still valuable in understanding local populations. Just today, we captured a Sharp-shinned Hawk, which promptly drew blood by footing me with its talons! Although we had not banded this Sharpie before, we had all expected that it was just a matter of time before this local resident was caught up in the nets. Sharpies are bird-hunting birds and occasionally get entangled in mist nets when they see easy prey and swoop in. This one was alone in the net, so it must have just been passing through rather than hunting. Seeing such a beautiful, wild, and fierce bird so close is always a thrill!

 

The banding station

 

Sharp-shinned Hawk

 

On the left, Amber and Jason do some figurin' about the age of this Sharpie. On the right, the Sharpie has its band in place and is ready for release.

 

A favorite recaptured bird of mine was actually netted back in New York state at my former Sanctuary’s winter feeder banding station. A Red-bellied Woodpecker appeared in our nets one day with a band already on its leg. When our lead bander submitted the band’s number to the USGS Bird Banding Laboratory in Maryland a response came back that this Red-bellied has been banded in our area 8 years prior! For a bird with an expected lifespan of less than 12 years, this was truly a remarkable find in the tiny patch of forest at the Sanctuary. While watching the feeders each morning in New York, we had also gotten the impression that two pairs of Downy Woodpeckers visited regularly. The two males and two females predictably showing up together. As it turned out, after we started banding, there were well over a dozen which cycled in and out all day long.

On a day to day basis, we may not be revealing great undiscovered information about a species, but what we do collect builds a knowledge base of local populations and habitat, and adds to the greater ecological picture. At a banding station a bird in the hand is worth everything!

 

Song Sparrow

 

Checking for fat in the keel of a Dark-eyed Junco, by gently blowing apart the feathers

 

Weighing a Dark-eyed Junco

 

White-crowned Sparrow

 

Sage Sparrow- an unexpected late season find!

 

Bushtit- officially the cutest bird of the season

 


Vegging Out

Salgoo. Progla. Bacemo. Parflo. Pluser. No, these are not the characters and places of a recently discovered Dr. Suess book- though I would love to see how Salgoo manifests from the imagination to paper! These six letter codes represent just a few of the plants that prickled and prodded their way into our hearts this season. Six weeks of intimate involvement generally allows one to nickname, in friendly terms, those they come to know. We do it with people and we do it with plants. Therefore not only do these codes help in shortening lengthy Latin from Baccharis sarothroides to Bacsar, but they add a playful element to otherwise quite tedious work!

Each plant plays a role in the ecosystem and potentially in the lives of our surveyed birds of interest. Tiny Bell’s Vireos bury themselves deep within the safe thorny branches of Propub and Progla. Bright Yellow Warblers glean insects from the slender twigs of Bacsar. Laughing Gila Woodpeckers nest in the excavated remains of Salgoo. Flashy Summer Tanagers sing out from the tops of Popfre, towering above the riparian corridor filled with Sciame and Typdom.

On the left: Propub, Prosopis pubescens, or Screwbean mesquite. On the right: Progla, Prosopis glandulosa, or Honey mesquite

 

Tiny Pluser and towering Popfre.

 

Although I was not gleaning, nesting or singing (well maybe occasionally singing), I found my favorite plant of the bunch to be the Acagre (Acacia greggii or Cat’s Claw Acacia). We came across very little of it, but when we did it insisted that we “wait a minute” and take a look, as it grabbed our clothing and skin with its hooked cat-claw like thorns.  Nicknamed the “Wait-a-minute Tree,” it doesn’t greet in the most polite manner, but it certainly does demand attention and I found its little trick kind of interesting. Its presence in lowland habitat also indicates dramatic yet natural changes in the area. In order to germinate this small tree needs scouring flash floods to scarify and saturate the ground. With the dammed and controlled flows along the Colorado, huge floods rarely make such an impact on the land anymore. Therefore when one finds an Acagre it’s a sign that some natural processes are still sneaking their way into the heavily managed landscape.

Vegetation surveying is difficult and monotonous work. But when all is said and done, discovering how much my personal understanding of this amazing ecosystem has improved, makes all the prickles, heat and discomfort a little more worthwhile!

Acagre, Acacia greggi, or Cat’s claw acacia

 

An abridged version of our 2011 plant list:

Progla-  Prosopis glandulosa-  Honey mesquite

Propub-  Prosopis pubescens-  Screwbean mesquite

Anecal-  Anemopsis californica-  Yerba Mansa

Typdom-  Typha domingensis-  Southern Cattail

Salexi-  Salix exigua-  Coyote Willow

Bacemo-  Baccharis emoryi-  Emory’s Baccharis

Bacsar-  Baccharis sarothroides-  Desert Broom

Pluser-  Pluchea sericea-   Arrowweed

Cyndac-  Cynodon dactylon-  Bermuda Grass

Tamsp-  Tamarix sp.-  Tamarisk species

Salgoo-  Salix gooddingii-  Goodding’s willow

Popfre-  Populus fremontii-  Fremont Cottonwood

Acagre-  Acacia greggii-  Cat’s claw acacia

Parflo-  Parkinsonia florida-  Blue Palo Verde

Paracu-  Parkinsonia aculeate-  Foothill or Yellow Palo Verde

Sciame-  Scirpus americanus-  Three-square Bulrush

DYC-  Damn Yellow Composite-  (If you know the plant below, please let me know!)

This DYC grows abundantly in moderately wet areas of the Bill Williams National Wildlife Refuge, yet it even confounded the local biologists.

 


Responding First in the Wilderness

Heart rate and respiratory rate elevated. Sweat beading on the forehead. Mind racing and eyes darting. Who exactly is the patient and who is the rescuer in this scenario?! Having just finished a three day course to re-up my Wilderness First Responder certification, I asked myself this question a number of times. When I allow myself to fully experience the idea of a wilderness emergency (even if it’s taking place in a grassy park near a road!), I can’t help but feel that adrenaline start to flow.

Of course, after a few hours, the fake blood, the oatmeal “vomit,” the overly dramatic, screaming, femur fracture patient becomes common place. I don’t bat an eye when a classmate turns their bruised and gory Halloween like face towards me. And its only when I notice the horrified grocery store patrons gawking at me that I’m reminded of the bloodied ankle fracture I forgot to clean up from earlier in the day.

But initially you lose yourself in it. You know that for the sake of learning and practicing the skills, you need to believe  you’re dealing with a true wilderness medical emergency. The clear difference between a wilderness emergency and an urban one is that one’s proximity to definitive medical care could be a matter of hours or even days, rather than minutes. A wilderness first responder could spend an afternoon hydrating their patient and keeping them cool as they come down from heat exhaustion. Or they could spend twenty minutes reducing a dislocated shoulder, building a makeshift sling with a fleece and then hiking their patient out for two days. The idea is to be prepared for anything from scorpion stings and boiling water scalds to open pneumothoraxes and spine injuries, and to do one’s absolute best for the patient within the given circumstances.

In the five years since my initial training, I’ve been fortunate enough to rarely dig into the first aid kit for much more than band-aids and gauze, but the knowledge that I’m prepared to deal with more is comforting. I would never in a million years pretend that I’m a medical practitioner. But this kind of training just makes sense. I firmly believe that there is a hell of a lot more in the urban world that can hurt a person than in the wilderness. Nonetheless, I spend a lot of time in the wilds. Sometimes with school kids, sometimes with friends, sometimes with my field crew and most often with my husband.  My heart might start pounding, but I know how to clear my mind, look for the signs, ask the questions and treat the wounds, which could mean the difference between a challenging evacuation or another amazing day in the field.

 

Playing it safe in the great outdoors!


A Day in the Life

Our return to the Lower Colorado is like a homecoming. After seeking birds across the landscape, learning the rhythms of the marshes and deserts, donating blood to the sands as the tamarisk and arrowweed gouged into unsuspecting skin, I can’t help but feel as though returning to the river is returning home. This time, we are visiting the breeding territories of select bird species of interest and surveying the vegetation therein. By better understanding their preferred habitats we can potentially gain perspective on how to conserve those species in the future.

A typical day begins at 5am. I stumble around with Jason looking for clothes and boots, compasses and data sheets. Dave has the coffee brewing and Dawn and Mike are puttering in the kitchen preparing smoothies and bagels. I manage to wash down some yogurt and granola with a strong but creamy cup of coffee, grab my 4 liters of water, schlep my all-too-heavy pack to the truck and we hit the road.

As the sun rises we’re in the thick of it. “Walking” is an understatement for how the next hour will proceed as we make our way to our first plot of the day. Crawling, climbing, tunneling, hoisting, and when we’re lucky, stumbling along with both feet on the ground is how we roll!

Jason ascends through the tamarisk and fallen willow branches, attempting to reach the center of a plot.

 

With enough navigational know-how, sparsely marked “trails” from previous seasons, and a touch of luck we approach our plot. If we’re lucky, we’ll be able to lay out the 10×40 meter survey site with little bloodshed and colorful language. Fremont Cottonwood and Gooding’s Willow will tower above us while a beautiful understory of cattails and fragrant yerba mansa provide lush ground cover, as we meander about measuring stems and identifying tiny flowers. But as we enter our plot we know that, as with most plots, this glorious rarity is not in our cards. Bull-dozing our way through a wall of vegetation we reach the center point and the survey is on.

Shrubs: 3 Tamarisk with 37 stems and innumerable branches radiating in every direction over 2/3 of plot.

Ground cover: 140cm of dead leaves and sticks, 3 holes of unknown locations to fall in, and 13 biting ant nests.

Trees: 1 Fremont Cottonwood, 17m high, in which a Summer Tanager decided to nest, resulting in the need to survey this area in the first place.

Perched in a tamarisk above the debris and ants.

 

Each member of the crew take turns laying out the plot, recording the numbers, measuring the tree heights, counting the stems, identifying the grasses. We sing, we banter, we bicker, we laugh a lot and we hope against hope that the next site will be better. Data collected, clothes torn, temperature rising above 100… it’s time to move. We stumble and tumble through the biomass to the next plot and it all begins anew.

Jason crawls valiantly toward the next plot.

 

Look for our unexpected trail partner curled amongst the branches. Good thing he rattled a greeting to us before we crawled his way!

 

These challenges are a reminder of a dream. To live without compromising happiness, to spend a lifetime learning and exploring and being as much in touch with our earth as possible. On the worst days, when I’ve been bitten by a dozen different insects and I can’t identify half the plants on a plot and my legs are bruised beyond recognition and I think I might cry, I have to just stop. It’s a choice. I have made a choice to experience the natural world on its own terms through some of the most personally challenging and fulfilling work I’ve ever performed and in some of the most beautiful places I’ve ever encountered. When I crawl through the jungle tomorrow morning, heavy survey equipment straining my arms and back, I can know that I am making not only a small difference in the scientific world, but in my own world too.

Cottonwoods and Willows frame the ever blue southwestern sky.


Life with a photograph

And then there are moments, days, weeks when words do not come. So we snap away, capturing a blurred time in crisp imagery. We reconnect, we remember, we experience it all again through our images. A naturalist savors the details and the unhurried pace of prolonged observation. Thus the photograph becomes a medium for discovery. Observing forever one moment in time.

The Pacific

 

River rocks

 

Sarcodes sanguinea / A Snow Plant busily not photosynthesizing, but rather feeding off the damp decaying matter underneath it. Awesome!

 

Aquilegia formosa / Scarlet Columbine

 

A gigantic praying mantis, rescued by my mom from a parking lot in PA.

 

Milkweed bug babies

 

Water striders and their lovely concentric circles

 

Montropa uniflora/ Indian Pipe also busily not photosynthesizing!

 

A warm summer morning

 

New Hampshire, where the nomadic naturalist took her first steps...

 

Northern New Hampshire


Life without a photograph

My best friend teases me that I need a photograph to remember anything. It’s unfortunately mostly true! However, since I’ve spent more and more time observing nature and fine-tuning my ability to focus I find that I do vividly remember certain images and occurrences without a photo. A photo captures a moment, captures a fleeting feeling, makes it easy to connect to the past. In the absence of a camera or with the decision not to use one, I absolutely must focus on the present and thereby often find myself much more in touch with the details of the situation and with the subsequent memory. I enjoy reliving some of these moments captured without the camera.

*     *     *

I walked alone up a dirt track in the sun and the sage, toward Idaho. Slowly climbing into hills frequented by mule deer, mountain lions and melodious birds of all kinds. Already my heart had pounded in rhythm with the thumping hooves of two mule deer bounding fast down a small wash next to me. I had not seen what startled these two huge bucks into full force flight, but my heartbeat did not settle until long after their thundering bounds had faded. Even more alert than before I refocused myself on the colors of the popping wildflowers and the sounds of the birds I sought. I enjoyed the bright flashes of orange and black from Spotted Towhees kicking at the ground for insects and fluttering from bush to bush singing and mewing their strange shrill call.

I sat in the humble shadow of a choke cherry for a water break and surveyed the baking hillsides in front of me. As I settled in, the mewing of the nearby Towhees grew stronger and from one spot a hundred meters away a distressed sounding mewing carried on and on. Lazily and with half hearted curiosity I raised my binoculars in that direction and landed on the most adorable, fuzzy, red face of a baby fox! Having mistaken its little cries for a slightly odd bird call, I almost missed this wonderful discovery.

For several minutes the kit cried and barely moved from it’s sanctuary of sage. The parent did not appear while I watched, and nervous that somehow my presence might be hindering the natural flow, I moved on. When I passed by later, the mewing had ceased and the kit disappeared from view. No photo. No memento. Yet a beautiful image still remained.

*     *     *

Other memories hold just as strong and clear. Watching a doe chase a coyote at full force down and up and around a hillside! The coyote running for its life from those flying hooves of a no-doubt protective mama.

The dancing of tiny feet on my head, which woke me after a night spent under the stars! Disentangling myself from my sleeping bag, the tiny feet leapt away and I looked up to see a chipmunk scurrying up the side of the truck- looking back at me just as startled as I!

No photo captured the little fox, the angry doe, the tiny dancing feet, but the observations and the memories are complete. Photography is something I greatly value and enjoy both as art and as a tool of documentary. Training the mind to focus and be present enough to remember details without looking through the lens is a skill I’m discovering to be priceless.


Thoughts in flight

Flying 39,000 feet above the earth, encapsulated in metal and artificially pressurized air, feels as unnatural as it gets. Yet flight somehow also brings us closer to the earth we soar above. My dear, longtime friend has spent many years as a pilot. He speaks of mind-blowing sunsets above the ever changing horizon; the immensity and the absolute smallness of our world as cities become fields and fields become forests in mere seconds.

Of course flying is not the most environmentally friendly form of travel and it also sadly shows us just how far we’ve encroached on ourselves. Rarely does a minute go by without a light, a building, a road somewhere in view. Our cities sprawl endlessly into each other in ways we can’t conceive of from the ground. Flight reveals a perspective on the earth that is heartbreaking, but also miraculously beautiful and unlike any other on earth.

I’ll avoid the endless cliches of humanity’s intrigue with flight, our timeless envy of those with wings as they fly and see what we can not. But I will admit to my own fascination and rediscovered connection with nature while in flight. A river flows from its mountain headwaters to a hazy disappearance at horizon’s edge. A snowy pine forest is illuminated by the light of a full moon. A colorful mosaic of fall foliage blankets the hills. Delicate ice crystals form from high altitude vapors on a cold dark window. With every ascent toward the clouds I feel that I have been given the chance to see the world again for the first time. The experience is like no other. Put down the magazine, turn off the ipod, peer out toward the closest window and think about the contradictions of the beauty and the sprawl, the finite boundlessness of the only world we have.


The Santa Rosas

A few weeks of work, travel and fun has prevented a proper update, but I’d like to slowly start sharing some experiences again. From the mountains of Nevada to the redwoods of California to the wonderful and welcoming log home of dear friends in Utah, we have seen an amazing stretch of the country in recent days. This little update is just the beginning of the next set of naturalist musings.

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The Nevada Experience

Several years ago I told Jason that although seeing and learning about a new landscape or the culture of a unfamiliar society often impressed me and brought me great enjoyment, I was rarely surprised by anything anymore. That is not to say I’d seen or done it all- not by a long shot! But that I’d seen just enough of the country and certain parts of the world that I did not necessarily get that wonderful feeling of surprise, of really being blown away by what I was experiencing.

Exploring Nevada brings that feeling of surprise, of awe, of pure pleasure flooding back again! Mountain range after mountain range after mountain range cuts across the landscape. The world in between, filled with sagebrush and aspen communities, pinyon-juniper forests, tiny cowboy towns, rough dirt roads, cattle and horses, birds, bugs, rocks and creeks is not so different on a superficial level from other places in the west. But the sheer expansive remoteness, the endless sky, the layers of mountains somehow provides a new sense of wonder for me. In the past few weeks, we have gone for days without seeing another person, hearing a car or a plane. I didn’t think places like this existed in the lower 48 anymore. More appropriate words escape me, so for now I’ll share these photos as a continuation of the story...

A valley on the California/ Nevada border just north of Yosemite

 

Antelope Valley

 

Eureka

 

Fossil found in the Fish Creek Range

 

Asters

 

Favorite campsite of the week

 

Egan and Cherry Creek Ranges

 

Wild Iris in the Steptoe Valley

 

Ruby Mountains

 

Northern Nevada

 

Western Nevada sunrise

 

 

 


Lesser Nighthawks

Certain mammals naturally captivate our interest- Grizzly Bears, Wolves, Moose, Bison. Our admiration, curiosity, sometimes even hatred or fear of these animals is as considerable as their silhouettes. So it is with certain birds. We find charisma, beauty and intrigue in many species- Great Blue Heron, Northern Cardinal, Wood Duck, Bald Eagle. Yet our continent is alive with thousands, millions of more creatures than the ones so immediate and bright in our gaze. And occasionally the subtle and elusive lives are those which intrigue us the most.

Out here on the western edge of the Sonoran Desert the inconspicuous bird, which has captured my interest and affection is the Lesser Nighthawk. Whether watching them forage for insects over the rooftops of Yuma or enjoying their acrobatic maneuvers over the Colorado River at dawn, I can’t help but be fascinated by these little mottled brown birds, which all but disappear by sunrise. They circle and trill and eventually settle down to roost in the shade of the cool sandy ground, and are typically only seen again as the sun begins to set. Unless of course one goes traipsing through their habitat as I do everyone morning during my surveys!

Startling a Nighthawk from its roost is one thing, but this is nesting season and carefully trying to navigate through their territories without spooking them from their nests is quite another. Nests are mere scraped indentations on the ground, usually at the base of shady vegetation, and typically containing two little gray speckled eggs. Chicks are born partially precocial and are able to walk and run within 2 days of hatching. They are very rarely seen due to their camoflagued coloring and their ability to sit absolutely still and look like dirt until danger passes by. A month ago I found my first nest after flushing the mother when I inadvertently walked too close. She landed nearby fluttering her wings in a half-hearted broken wing distraction attempt, while puffing her throat and calling softly. Females spend all day sitting on their eggs, without moving, so I felt guilty for disturbing her, but was thrilled at my first look at her pebble like eggs.

A well camouflaged female Lesser Nighthawk sits on her nest

 

Little speckled pebble-like eggs amongst the fallen arrowweed leaves

 

Since then I have diligently watched for chicks and found evidence of their presence in the form of recently hatched eggs. Yet only by accident did I finally get a look at them this past week. As I blazed through yet another plot covered in arrowweed and tamarisk I happened to glance down and notice two slightly discolored patches of dirt on the salty surface of the soil. With a second look at this oddity, I realized I was standing over two tiny chicks about the size of my palm. Completely still in the middle of my transect, tiny slits for eyes watching my movement, I would have stepped right over (or on!) them had I not glanced down at that moment. I snapped a few photos and watched them for another moment and then moved on. When I walked back 10 minutes later there was no sign except two little droppings left where they had sat. My gigantic shape stomping through their home had obviously startled them quite a bit!

Evidence of hatchlings!

 

Chicks!!! Still as can be and carefully watching my every move.

 

Notice that their tails haven't yet grown in. Also notice how ridiculously cute they are!

 

Once grown and fledged and independent (a process that only takes a few weeks) these juvenile Nighthawks will join their parents and dozens of others in aerobatic feeding, opening their wide mouths and swallowing up insects by the hundreds in the waxing and waning light of the sun. It was while watching and hearing their cousin, the Common Nighthawk diving at dusk in the Tetons years ago that first opened my eyes to a world after dark I thought had only belonged to stealthy predators such as fox and owls. At that time I also recalled Whip-poor-wills singing their fairytale like songs in still, cool New Hampshire nights. This world of low light, hidden nests, and subtly enchanting little birds is one I am delighted to have been privy to over the years and recent months. As we now head to Nevada I look forward to discovering what hidden life may emerge to capture my interest and my heart in the weeks ahead.

A photo Jason took of a male feeding on insects at daybreak over the water

 


The Intensives… C

The marsh. I always feel a sense of guilty pleasure as I slip the kayak into the river and let the morning chorus envelop me; gliding by, enchanted and focused on deciphering each voice in the cacophony. Am I really working?! The marsh changes constantly. The birds, muskrats, beaver, fish, insects and I all share borrowed water. Unnatural releases and holds on water slated for downstream irrigation mean tiny channels for paddling one day and wide open water the next. When the water is low and there appears to be more territory to go around, the birds somehow seem to tolerate each other less. They sing and defend their territories aggressively. With high water and less space, rather than creating competition, everything quiets. Birds seem to abandon the marsh completely rather than fighting for what is left. But the ones that remain loudly keep up the chattering, warbling chorus, perhaps in some way sensing how fortunate they are to still have nests in tact and food to be found.

A recent high water day exposed three American Coot nests, which are otherwise buried deep within the bull rush. With everything flooded, I could paddle into areas formerly inaccessible and discovered the nests. Two contained carefully guarded eggs (the parents splashing around and calling nearby to distract me away from the nests) and the third housed two fuzzy chicks. Still too hidden to photograph, I watched through binoculars as mama nuzzled and preened her babies and they climbed all over her and the grassy nest!

Secretive marsh birds, such as the Least Bittern, Sora and Yuma Clapper Rail creep about amongst the vegetation and occasionally reveal themselves in awkward moments teetering between bravery and foolishness. As I pulled my kayak out of the water the other day to survey the fields which make up part of my plot, a Clapper Rail watched me for several minutes before ducking into the grass never to be seen again!

The recent wildfire scorched the land to within 200 meters of the edge of the marsh, but fortunately didn’t make the jump across the fields to impact the marsh itself. While I surveyed, three coyotes watched me very warily as they trotted along through the burned trees. Through much of the west, coyotes are considered vermin due to their portrayal as livestock killers. If unlucky enough to cross property boundaries they are often shot on sight. Despite being one of the only large predators left, (most of their prey being mice, rabbits, quail and the occasional small deer) their key role in the ecosystem is overlooked due to this reputation. These coyotes had every reason to watch me cautiously as they skirted the now open territory between cultivated fields and charred cottonwood groves. They have learned over time what the presence of humans can mean.

Every survey site I visit offers something unique and special, but getting to know this particular plot has been a real joy. Next week I will glide through the channels, walk the fields, and get algae and wet bull rush slopped across my clothes for the last time. And when I paddle the somewhat grueling 364 strokes up the Colorado to my take out point I will undoubtedly feel melancholy, but also so fortunate to have been part of this amazing habitat and witness to its changes over the weeks and months.

The marsh during high water

 

Water level changes of almost a meter are common

 

Least Bittern making a quick flight between patches of bull rush

 

American Coot nest and eggs

 

Not the best photo of a Yuma Clapper Rail

 

Agricultural fields

 

Fire damage across the ag. fields

 

As this map of Marsh Wren territories shows, boundaries can be confusing week to week!


Sunrise

One of the first sunrises I remember was on my first international flight with my family. The sky darkened, but the curve of the earth never quite stopped glowing between sunset and sunrise. My small adolescent reality gained new perspective on the world as I peered at the horizon, glowing dark blue and red and endless. Several years later, across the ocean again, my best friend and I sat in the cool sand and watched a faint, silvery, pink sunrise emerge over the Adriatic Sea off the Italian coast. A quiet, contrasting closure to the night before. Though rather subdued as sunrises go, it meant so much to share the night’s fading and the world’s reawakening with someone so special.

The sun has risen for my husband and me over the years too. New England’s rocky coast, sandy islands in warm Florida waters, glowing red rocks of the Southwest have hosted the sun’s first rays.  We have felt warmth and relief creeping into our frost filled tent on chilly mornings. We have greeted the sun with coffee in hand, mountains in our gaze, boots on the trails, and sometimes just tired eyes and bodies ready to crawl into bed. The tenor of sunrise resonates quietly in my heart and my memories.

Now, more often than not, I watch the sunrise alone. Already on the job, staying focused, listening, watching for faint fluttering movement. As the season began I anticipated the potential for this meaningful moment to drift into banality. But every sunrise still compels me to pause. It has not become run-of-the-mill, just another part of the job.  Dawn’s glow crescendoing slowly and brilliantly to the eventual cresting of light over the horizon fills me with joy and contentment of a most sincere and calming kind. These months of early waking provide opportunity to tune into the world’s natural cycle and ground me to the earth, to myself, to my memories and to a future filled with sunrises.

 

Cibola Sunrise

 

Yuma Marsh Sunrise

 

Kofa Sunrise

 

Laguna Dam Sunrise

 

Anza-Berrego Sunrise

 


The Intensives… B

The plants and animals of Intensive B have been on my mind a lot over the past week. A 751 acre wildlife burned over the southern and eastern sides of Mittry Lake. I haven’t yet been able to access my survey site on the east side of the lake due to continued road closures. I’m hopeful that next week I’ll be able to get in and see how the site has fared.

A mix of prickly desert plants, fan palms, thick cottonwood and mesquite trees, and marsh grasses and rushes, leads to a tremendous diversity of birds and a lot of data collection during each visit! Over the past few weeks I’ve been fortunate to see over half a dozen Black-tailed Gnatcatcher families, the young with tiny stubby tails, fluttering and calling for attention. A few successful Verdin nests have also produced broods of little puff balls with orange bills, bouncing around on the branches of mesquites, while the parents feed them frantically. Discoveries of the non-bird variety vary as well. A coyote trotting through the arrowweed with a dead quail in its jaws; a small ball of bees buzzing and rippling at the edge of the marsh; and just across from the plot on the Army bombing range, a herd of 9 borregos- 3 babies and 6 adults. With each visit there has been something new and I have to wonder how it all may have changed over this past week.

Wild-fire is critically important to the cyclical rejuvenation of landscapes world wide. Unfortunately this one was human-caused and while it did burn through several invasive tamarisk groves it also destroyed a lot of healthy riparian habitat.  For better or worse everything changes with time; soon we’ll see what changes have been brought about during this mid-season turn of events.

Surveying

 

Cottonwood

 

Arrowweed flowers at sunrise

 

Mittry Lake and moonset

 

Ball of bees! Apparently this is called budding, which is when worker bees surround and protect the queen as a new colony begins.

 

Desert berregos on the bombing range. Good luck little ones.