Musings of a roaming nature nerd

Archive for March, 2012

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...