Musings of a roaming nature nerd

Archive for May, 2011


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.





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.

The Intensives… A

Our third survey tour just ended, which means the halfway point of this season has come and gone. I will visit 3 “Intensive” plots 8 times each during these months and have now visited each 5 times, watching for breeding evidence, mapping territories and occasionally being rewarded with a glimpse of fledglings following parents around, begging endlessly for food.

Intensive A has proven difficult to understand, being half flooded by a rank water and mud, smelling of rotten sauerkraut. The rest is covered in tamarisk and arrowweed and nearly impenetrable, but for the narrow trails hacked out by crew members two months ago. Black-necked Stilts, Cliff Swallows, Yellow Warblers, and the occasional Lesser Nighthawk share this space and don’t seem to mind the disgusting stench in the air and oozing glop on the ground. Although the birds are not plentiful somehow they manage to eke out an existence in the dense vegetation.

With each visit to this muddy tamarisk haven, I find myself covered in salt. Tamarisk, an invasive shrubby tree commonly known as Salt Cedar, drinks copious amounts of water, taking up and redepositing salt on the ground; then leaving the soil covered in salt without sufficient nutrients to encourage other plants’ growth. Wriggling through the tamarisk maze leaves me covered in their residue, every sip of water I take from my encrusted camelback hose leaving just a hint of the ocean across my tongue.

Salty plants and barren soil, birds in unpredictable locations during each visit, mud caked on my boots and the smell and taste of some sort of primordial sea in the air and on my lips. Although I enjoy every minute I spend outside each day, I’m rarely disappointed to leave this plot each week. I am often escorted out of the plot and all the way back to the car (about a kilometer away) by a noisy Killdeer, doing its damnedest to ensure I leave immediately and go nowhere near its precious nest. Its distraction technique works; by the time I’ve walked away from the plot, from the nest, from the salty plants and stinking mud I am once again thoroughly distracted, not only by the bird’s endless calling but by the beauty around me and the blindly hopeful thought of what I’ll discover next time.

Dragonflies of all sizes and colors call this plot home


One would never guess that such a beautiful scene could smell so bad


Tiny mushrooms pop up in the mud in areas where the stinky water has receded



Low and narrow path through the tamarisk. I've seen hummingbirds trying to feed from the biodegradable orange flagging we use as trail markers, mistaking it for bright flowers. Other birds eat it out right!

Surveying in California

7 miles of pavement and stop lights… 19 miles of washboarded dirt… 8 miles of rocky, narrow, 4WD-required tracks… and then we were at our campsite in Picacho State Recreation Area in California!

Mosquitoes, a Great Horned Owl, Common Poorwills, coyotes, and a handful of the several dozen bat species of this region joined us at river’s edge. Evening silence and long shadows cast by a bright quarter moon were jostled and broken by the deafening drone of a Marine Sea-Knight helicopter performing night maneuvers. I felt every palpitation of those massive dual rotors as it pulsed past our site, lights low, 100m off the water. Within minutes it was gone, as were the coyotes and owls and poorwills, and silence took the night.

With the first hint of light in the sky at 430 this morning, we were up; Jason and Bob traversing back down those narrow, rocky miles of the day before, while I waited for just a little more light to slip my kayak into the water and venture over to my survey site across the river in Arizona. Arriving, I secured the boat and clambered up the huge craggy cliffs that made up 2/3 of my plot. Echoing from every rock like crazy vuvuzelas were the calls of wild burros. I joined in by singing my own song about how the calls of burros are kind of scary sounding in the dim morning light and that the burros shouldn’t stomp me if they find me. But burros aren’t bears and they don’t need songs sung to them out of vague nervousness, so I quieted my voice and listened for the birds I was there to track and map.

4 hours later, after seeing few birds but having discovered a cool old stone hut hidden away at the base of a cliff, I cursed my way back to the kayak through the tamarisk.  1.5 miles of beautiful open river led me to Jason and Bob, waiting down stream at their sites. From there the rocky narrow tracks, washboarded dirt, and pavement and stoplights led us home.

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Cultivating a simple life of exploration grounds me in ways that putting down traditional roots never has. An anatomy of place is mapped through my veins; the rocks and soils of New England fuse with my bones to define my sense of personal history. Yet rocks move and blood and water shift course. From the northeast to the unknown… Discovering and enjoying the fluid character of nature while learning how it shapes us into the people we are, is home enough.

The Lower Colorado River where Jason and I are currently exploring, ensures an endless and fascinating supply of discovery as humanity collides with nature and both attempt survival. Our work conducting avian surveys provides an incredible look at those two entwined worlds every morning at sunrise. The messy mix of tamarisk, cottonwoods, and marsh reeds safeguard historically low, yet still thriving numbers of birds, reptiles and mammals. Meters away, agricultural fields halfheartedly support native flora and fauna, and attempt the daunting task of feeding millions of at least one species spread far and wide.

By sharing photos and words of what we do, I hope to better understand and appreciate the natural places in which we live and roam and call home.

“I long, as every human being does, to be at home wherever I find myself.” – Maya Angelou

Surveying the marsh


Nature and culture meet at an old squatter camp by the river


Colors of the desert


Sunrise on the first day of surveys


Bill Williams National Wildlife Refuge


GBBO crew in a cottonwood snow


Desert Lilies


Entering Cibola National Wildlife Refuge


Saguaro in bloom


Happily listening to the Common Yellowthroats


Madera Canyon


Lake Havasu


Imperial National Wildlife Refuge


Moonset at the marsh