Musings of a roaming nature nerd




Spending the 150th anniversary of Thanksgiving (and my favorite holiday!) alone and sick is not what I anticipated this year. After a joyful reunion with my new heart-home, the Grand Canyon, I planned to spend one more weekend with my love in the southern desert, before returning here for the winter. Alas, like nature, the cold virus is unpredictable and I went down hard. Finding myself with generous amounts of quiet time, I allowed myself to partake in a favorite hobby of sorts: introspective, psychoanalytic, nature reflection. And I share these reflections in two different blog entries.
Two weeks ago I was reunited with several friends here at the canyon and one of them, Gaby, helped me learn a new way of giving thanks; thanks to the earth, the sky, the two-legged ones, the four-legged ones, and many other elements and creatures of this world. I realized that while expressing thanks for friends and family, for living in this beautiful country and enjoying a comfortable life, I rarely reflect on true thankfulness outside of this norm. Not being a religious person I do not chalk up life’s mysteries to a great spirit but I do believe that expressing thankfulness and gratefulness to the world helps bring us together and see the good in each other. To honor that thought, I found my weekend reflections turning to what Gaby shared with me.
I offer thanks to the Earth, with a capital E, for being so rich with life and beauty and culture that it has to be the best damn ride through the solar system we could ever have!
I offer thanks to the sky for producing rain and snow which freeze and then thaw in rock cracks on the ground, producing ice-wedging, and thereby eroding the Grand Canyon into the magnificent feature that it is today.
I offer thanks to the two-legged ones in the form of my grandmothers. One has been gone for almost 20 years and the other lives 2000 miles away, but both have always been a constant source of support and love throughout my life.
I offer thanks to the four-legged ones in the form of moose. These seemingly prehistoric creatures intrigued me from my first New Hampshire sightings years ago. Their solitary nature, their ability to eat 3% of their body weight every day (as someone who loves to eat I enjoy this in particular), their adaptation to winter so that they don’t feel cold until temperatures drop to about -30F, their tendencies to roam and disappear undetected, and their ability to hold their breath while eating vegetation at the bottom of ponds impresses me to no end.
I offer thanks to the winged-ones in the form of Least Bells Vireos. Not only does their existence provide me with regular employment, but they are feisty and spirited and secretive which resonates with me. I am also thankful that as an endangered bird they have been making a come back in part through habitat rehabilitation and protection.
I also lastly want to offer thanks to the moon, without which there would be no tides, and without which I never would have discovered the beauty of illuminated nighttime walks at the ocean with my someday-husband 14 years ago.
We all have more to be thankful for on a day to day basis than we realize. Heading into the hectic season of consumerism and distractions, simple reflection on true thankfulness regrounds me. What are you thankful for? What makes your world spin?

Vireo Chronology

The fact of the matter is that the real world, (ie. nature; the world outside of the world we have created for ourselves) is a rough place. I find that when I work in environmental education I feel an even keeled sense of satisfaction. There are good days and there are bad days, but over all I know that slowly, the work I am doing is nurturing in students the potential for life long investment in our planet. Doing field biology is like an emotional roller coaster! The highs are super high: the thrill of finding a new nest; the excitement of seeing fledglings for the first time, fluttering and begging for food. But the lows are super low: yet another nest full of eggs just about to hatch, depredated and knocked to the ground; a baby bird being eaten in front of you by a scrub jay; oh, none of it matters because the highway is being expanded into their habitat anyway. Sigh…

Those variations are of course what keeps things ticking. Without some tragedy and some success we would be a rather unbalanced world. Today, I thought I’d share one of the highs which depicts the full successful breeding cycle of the Least Bell’s Vireo. These photos are not from the same nest, because I’m not lucky enough to capture every nest at the right moment, but honestly, the Vireos all look the same so this gives an idea of the chronology of their spring time cycle!

After building the nest together for 4 days, the male and female rest for a day. On the 6th day of the cycle she will lay the first egg.


A typical full clutch for Least Bell's Vireos is 4 eggs.


Both the male and female incubate the eggs which take 14 days to hatch. They begin incubation when the second to last egg is layed. This male must have been excited because he was incubating just one egg!


Day Zero or Hatch day! These brand new babies are about the size of your thumbnail.


By Day 5 the nestlings are demanding food about every 15-20 minutes.


Day 9 and these babies have almost outgrown the nest. In three more days they will be out of the nest with their parents.


A tiny 2nd day fledgling waiting for a tasty morsel to be brought from mom or dad. I can happily report that this young one and its two siblings are still alive 3 weeks after fledging and are just about ready for full independence!


Nest Searching

This field season I am monitoring Least Bell’s Vireo (LBVI) territories on a section of the San Luis Rey River. Monitoring the nests is relatively easy; show up, watch for the adults birds either foraging nearby or incubating eggs, take a peek in the nest and skedaddle. It is finding the nests that presents more of a challenge!  LBVIs are not much bigger than my thumb. They are a dusky grayish, white and are in constant motion in dense vegetation. It honestly feels at times like finding a needle in a haystack. Fortunately the males instinctively feel the need to sing as close to 100% of the time as they can. Sing, sing, sing, preen, preen, sing, sing, flutter, sing, smash a caterpillar, smash, smash, eat, sing, sing, sing. He sings while he and his female build their nest together, he sings while she incubates the eggs, he even sings periodically while he incubates the eggs. Hear a bird singing that hasn’t moved in 10 minutes? Nest!

Nonetheless, nest searching still has its challenges, such as today when I donned a full body Tyvek suit to enter a shoulder high stand of poison oak just to confirm a nest location! A few days ago my boss joined me in the field, to help sort out a challenge. I’d pin-pointed a small area as a likely nesting spot for one pair of LBVIs but hadn’t yet located the actual nest yet. We hunkered down to wait near the spot I’d focused on and heard the male singing close by. Soon we spotted him pop up from a shrub and start to forage. At this same moment we saw the female enter the shrub down low. As LBVIs typically nest only 1 meter off the ground we knew we’d nailed down the likely spot. As we continued to wait and observe, the male took off and sang about 50 meters away. Within a couple minutes he arrived back and approached the nest area. We heard her give a scolding, warning call and he backed off. Suellen whispered “Oh wow! She might actually be laying an egg right now and doesn’t want him disturbing her.”

A few more minutes passed and finally she flew out of the shrub and he flew back in. Immediately he began making these super squeaky noises and singing really fast; noises they usually only make when they are excited or agitated. Suellen again whispered “What do you want to bet, he’s excited about seeing a new egg in the nest?!” He eventually calmed down and became quieter. My excitement was still building and after a few more minutes we finally approached the site. A quick scan and I spotted him tucked into a tiny nest completely camouflaged inside the vegetation. With our approach he took off and I used the opportunity to extend my mirror pole and take a quick peak inside the nest. Two perfect little eggs sat inside. One white and one pink, pink indicating being freshly laid!

I dropped a GPS point and we hurried away so he could go back to incubating. What a thrill to not only locate the first nest I’d seen with eggs this season, but to bear witness (at least auditory witness!) to an amazing moment in the life cycle of an endangered bird. If these first observations are indicative of the season ahead, its going to be a great one!

A different male LBVI tending to a nest with three eggs!

The Grand Canyon: Week Nine and Beyond…

Day 57: Into the canyon we go! One last weekend romance with our new found rocky, craggy love. Although mere miles from the Bright Angel, the terrain and landscape along the South Kaibab trail provided new perspectives and surprises around every bend. I found myself exclaiming cliches “It’s so amazing!” “We’re so lucky!” “Just look at the colors!” as if I had not been living here for the past two months. The fresh excitement of the experience reminded me of just how little I have really seen of this most magnificent place, and truly how lucky I am to be here at all.


Day 58: The Inner Canyon Rocks! (Click below and then click the link a second time in the next window, to watch a short video)

Inner Canyon


Day 59: Serenaded by canyon wrens as we walked, our ascent was long and hot and completely awesome. Condors soared high in the sky, ancient ruins hidden above ancient trails beckoned with mystery, and soon ten miles and 4400 feet disappeared behind our laughter and delight at spending another day in this place.


Day 60: Beginning of my last week on the job. Back into the distance learning studio to connect with schools around the country. I observed and practiced with my coworkers today, getting back into the groove of high-tech teaching!


Day 61: An early morning text from Jason “EVGR near the market!” made me drop everything and race off for some spontaneous birding. Evening Grosbeaks (EVGR) are birds I have been hoping to see since we arrived. Their fantastically brilliant yellow color, their ginormous bill, their gregarious, charismatic behavior and their yet to be explained population decline make these birds intriguing on many levels. Not only did I manage to see (though unfortunately not get great photos of) about a dozen Grosbeaks, but numerous other residents as well. Below is a Mountain Chickadee, Evening Grosbeak (female), Red-naped Sapsucker (female), and Pygmy Nuthatch.


Day 62: Back into the studio to connect with schools in North Carolina and on Long Island, NY (of all places!). This grant and donation funded set-up allows for hundreds of students to experience the magic of the canyon and gain important earth science knowledge each week. As much as I love the personal connection which only comes from classroom visits, the kids who join us over the internet are usually bubbling over with enthusiasm and are ready for a memorable and hopefully life-shaping experience!



Day 63: A farewell lunch and photo-op with my amazing coworkers! While the canyon itself has undoubtedly reached me on a very personal and (I almost hesitate to say it) perhaps even spiritual level, it is always the friends and community which will perhaps be missed the most. Not only have I rediscovered myself as an educator through the help of these wonderful people, but I feel that my life has been enriched through knowing each and every person in this photo. I can only hope that in a small way, the contribution I have made to the canyon and to this incredible team of people has a positive and lasting impact as well.


Day 64, 65, 66 and 67: As we packed and cleaned and shared meals with friends and hiked and laughed and bought a few souvenirs, our time began to run faster and faster. Despite the joy, each hour began to feel like a long, painful, drawn out good-bye. If there is nothing else I have discovered over the years, it is that while many aspects of the nomadic lifestyle satisfy me greatly, the transitions become ever more difficult. As I write this from our “new-old home” in hot, sunny southern California, I do realize that every place offers something special and unique and as for the Grand Canyon it is not “Good-bye” but just a simple “See ya later…”  So without dwelling on the bittersweet, I offer the last images from our last days.