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When Yards Go Native

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Yard prior to landscaping

Last month I mowed the front yard for the last time because we just went native in our front yard.  That is, we replaced our grass lawn with a diverse landscape comprised of 70 native plants.  As it grows in, it will be increasingly attractive to the eye as well as to birds and wildlife.

What prompted us to do this?  Maybe it was the ghost of my great grandfather landscape architect, Jens Jensen, whispering in my ear.  Jensen advocated tirelessly for native plants and used them extensively in his own landscapes of parks, gardens, and private yards back in the mid-1900s. He thought native plants were under-utilized and denigrated: “It is often remarked that native plants are coarse.  How humiliating to hear an American speak so of plants with which the Great Master has decorated his land!” he fumed.

In addition to my great grandfather’s influence, going native is the right thing to do.  Native plants are specifically adapted to the soils and climate of the area.  Except for the first year of establishment care, they do not require watering nor do they require fertilizers or pesticides.  A native plant landscape is a sustainable landscape.

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Back yard landscape, installed 10 years ago

Yes, there is still maintenance required, including weeding, mulching and trimming, but not much else.  Since replacing the grass in our back yard with mostly native plants, we spend more time there and are motivated to take care of it.  We enjoy the birds, wildflowers, edible berries and other native plants that now occupy our yard.  At least ten new species of birds frequent our back yard since we have gone native.  As my friend, Hilary Hilscher says: “Plant them (natives) and they (birds and wildlife) will come.”

 

 

Interested in going native?  Here is a recipe:

  1. woodyloricolorCreate a thoughtful Design. If you can, hire a landscape architect who has designed native plant landscapes.  We did and are very happy with the results. Landscape architects incorporate practical with aesthetic considerations in their designs. Or, if that is not an option for you, research and plan your own design starting with the resources provided at the end of this blog.  In Jens Jensen’s words: “Every plant has a fitness and must be placed in its proper surroundings so as to bring out its full beauty.  Therein lies the art of landscaping.”
  2. p1070251Remove sod. You can do so forcibly with a shovel – a back-breaking job, or via a sod-cutting machine – available for rent or hire.  You can also place cardboard on top of the sod for several months, then remove it to dig up the sod.  We did this in our back yard, and hired a crew with sod-cutting machine for our front yard.  The crew and their machine did our entire yard in several hours, saving time and our backs.
  3. p1070254Stir in topsoil and compost. The mixing part is best done with a roto-tiller but can also be done with a shovel.  Keep ibuprofen handy if you choose the second option.
  4. p1070258Install pathways for access. Paving stones, cedar chips or gravel walkways provide access to your new landscape.  These can be done artistically with the use of attractive paving stones and winding routes.
  5. Plant the natives. More and more nurseries stock native plants.  Be certain to buy actual native species as there are similar sounding names that are not native species. Jens Jensen would be pleased/amazed by the availability of native plants today.  Planting them is the fun part.  Space them properly to ensure their long-term survival and to maximize their beauty.p1070266
  6. Mulch around the new plants to hold in moisture and nutrients while suppressing weeds.
  7. Watch your new landscape grow. You will find that a diverse, native plant landscape draws you outside more often to check for blooms, to see plants undergo seasonal changes and to watch for birds.  Please do try this at home!

Landscape Architect:  Windrose Landscape Architecture http://windroseseattle.com/

Site preparation, paving stone and plant installation: EcoYards http://www.ecoyards.com/

Native Plantings:

Creeping Oregon Grape Mahonia Repens
Red Columbine Aquilegia Formosama
Tiger Lily Lilea Columbianum
Deer Fern Blechnum Spicant
Maidenhair Fern Adiantun Alueticum
Trillium Trillium Ovatum
Blue Camas Camassia Quamash
Dwarf Redtwig Dogwood Cornus Stolonifera
Bearberry/Kinnickinnick Arctostaphylos Uva Ursi
Mock Orange Philidelphus virginalis

 Resources:

Internet

Audubon’s Plants for Birds program: http://www.audubon.org/plantsforbirds

Find native plants for your area: http://findnativeplants.com/

Make your yard more bird-friendly: http://awaytogarden.com/welcome-to-subirdia-by-john-marzluff/

Books/Booklets

Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest by Arthur R. Kruckeberg

Gardening for Life – An Inspirational Guide to Creating Healthy Habitat by Seattle Audubon Society

Landscaping for Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest by Russell Link

NOTE: There are probably equivalent guides to the last three listed above for other geographical areas


Looking for Accidentals in All the Right Places

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Puyallup River at Gog-le-hi-te Wetlands – photo by bridgehunter.com

Birders enjoy searching for “accidentals”–  species found outside of their normal geographic ranges.  I chase them too, but only if they are within a reasonable distance from home.

So why do we do this?  Because it is fun, interesting and novel to find them.  Searching for them takes us to unusual places that often feature other natural and cultural wonders as well.  Witness our last two attempts to find accidental gulls.

One began on an overcast fall day in Puget Sound country.  Although we departed from Seattle in the early afternoon, it already resembled evening! According to E-Bird posts, people had been seeing a Slaty-backed Gull, an accidental gull normally found in the Bering Sea that was found in Tacoma’s industrial waterfront.  Its range is described in the National Geographic Birds of North America guide as “…very rare in winter south through the Pacific States.”  The place where this bird had been found was Gog-le-hi-te Wetlands.

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My wife Lori, who only recently started appreciating gulls, joined me on this quest.  As a former EPA Superfund Director, she was familiar with Gog-le-hi-te.  This 12-acre restored wetland on the Puyallup River Delta is a former city landfill.  It now hosts more than 100 species of birds along with as an array of mammals, fish, reptiles and amphibians.  Gog-le-hi-te derives from the Puyallup Tribe; it means “Where the land and waters meet.”

 

 

 

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Photo by Port of Tacoma

On our drive to this site, the clouds formed a menacing stew to the southwest.  We headed into the industrial port of Tacoma, a world where semi-trucks and other heavy equipment are the norm and birders in Subaru’s are not.

After route finding through various wood products and shipping container storing sites, we found the subtly marked empty small parking area for Gog-le-hi-te Wetlands.  A police car stopped by to investigate us and our vehicle.  Then a recently-scarred young woman with jagged missing teeth walked over to ask us what we were doing.  When we told her what we were up to, she replied “Oh, birds? There are lots of them down there.” (pointing to the river).

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Gog-le-hi-te Wetlands photo by Port of Tacoma

In this setting we felt slightly on guard, the sounds and sights of industry all around, yet grateful that nature in any form still exists here.

We saw a Mallards and American Wigeon on the large pond in the wetlands along with an assortment of Glaucous-winged and Glaucous-winged/Western Hybrid gulls on their way to the Puyallup River.

We finally scanned the shipping containers — the place where the last sighting of a Slaty-backed Gull had occurred several days before.  We sorted through myriad gulls on the multi-colored, and multi-layered containers but alas, no Slaty-backed Gulls.

Meanwhile the rain intensified, the daylight diminished and the wind picked up.  At 3:30 PM it looked like sunset.  We called it a day (night?). Yes, we came up empty this time on our search for an accidental, but outings like these make life interesting.

p1070064This brings me back to our second gull search to another odd place between the Renton, Washington airport and a huge Boeing plant.  Sandwiched between them is the mouth of the Cedar River as it enters Lake Washington.  A long green corridor with a 17 -mile bicycle walking trail extending along the river creates a riparian habitat zone that often draws rare birds to this area. Remarkably, salmon still spawn here as evidenced by the one I saw one wriggling upstream.  Gulls and other birds gather to feed on their carcasses.

We were searching for a Sabine’s Gull, a common migrant off the west coast that is seldom seen on the mainland where we were looking for it.

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So many gulls, so little time…

There were at least 100 gulls of multiple species to sort through, but the petite Sabine’s Gull stood out clearly in contrast to the hulking Glaucous-winged Gulls around it.  It was a “life” bird for us.

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Sabine’s Gull

 

What a fine way in which to spend a part of a day!

 

The entire experience was free of charges except for the price of gas and the initial investment in a car and optics. You can attend movies, plays, sporting events and the like, pay tens to hundreds of dollars to do so, and have very mixed experiences.  When you go out in nature – even restored nature in places like these – you almost never have a bad day.  In our consumer-oriented, human-centered society, it may come as a surprise that the best show on earth is free.  The ticket price is a little time, your senses engaged, patience, and a pair of binoculars.


Fall is Golden in Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem

When it comes to fall colors, the eastern half of our country has the reputation for the most colorful displays. Another less-heralded display occurs in the west that combines brilliant fall colors with a major river, abundant wildlife, a backdrop of spectacular mountains and more than half of the world’s thermal features.

The 22.5 million acres that comprise the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem include Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, but also seven national forests, three wildlife refuges and three major mountain ranges.  This is what makes it so special, so wild, and so beautiful.  Lit by fall colors, but minus the crush of summer tourists and insects, September is a wonderful time there.

Here is a taste of what we experienced on a Naturalist Journeys tour I led with Greg Smith this fall:

p1060277Stupendous views opened up along nearly every turn of the Snake River in Grand Teton National Park. Golden-green – rosy hues of Aspen, Willow and Cottonwood trees were illuminated by an ever-changing cloudscape with the Grand Tetons as a backdrop.

p1060308At Oxbow Bend, the astounding fall colors reflected in the Snake River in impressionistic fashion creating a view that Ansel Adams would have probably photographed and Claude Monet would have likely been inspired to paint.

p1060889We awoke in Yellowstone to the haunting sounds of elk bugling.  Later, we saw the buglers in action:  a bull elk herding his small harem of four cow elk.  On the way to Hayden Valley, we met a lone Bison calmly wap1060666lking toward us in the opposite lane of the road.  He continued strolling beside our vehicle, unperturbed by our presence.

At our first Hayden Valley viewpoint we once again heard elk bugling and then saw a herd of 20+ elk on a high bench across the Yellowstone River.  A was coyote hunting on the hillside just below us – he would walk a few steps, side-step, pounce, sniff, dig and then repeat in its never-ending search for food. We then moved to another viewpoint in sight of a known wolf den.  We found two in the scope:   a black and a gray morph wolf.  What a treat to see them on our second day out!

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Hayden Valley

Acting on a tip from other wildlife watchers, we headed to Bridge Creek in search of a Great Gray Owl.  Soon, we were watching in amazement as one perched, flew, hunted, pounced to the ground and at one point flew to a perch within ten feet of us.  Seeing this, the largest of p1060442all North American Owls, was a life bird for most in our group, including me.

Moving on, we walked to several viewpoints above the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, including the upper and lower falls with their 100-p1060436300 foot drops into the multi-colored canyon.  It is so vast and beautiful that photos and paintings cannot do it justice.  Thomas Moran, renowned national park painter and promoter said that it “was beyond the realm of human art.”

Continuing into the center of Yellowstone and its huge super p1060537volcano caldera, the animals just kept on coming:  Big-horned Sheep seen on a hike and along the roadside; Elk lounging on the hot water and travertine formations at Mammoth as if it were there personal spa;

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a large cinnamon-colored Black Bear foraged on a hillside near the Tower area, walking and balancing on logs with the grace of a gymnast.

 

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Lamar Valley

 

 

Heading east we entered Lamar Valley where thousands of Bison were joined by Pronghorns, Coyotes and other birds and wildlife.  This valley, along with Hayden Valley, offer a glimpse of how the west might have appeared to Native Americans and early settlers.  These valleys have been referred to as North America’s Serengeti due to the abundance of wildlife they host.

Indian summer weather prevailed as we continued northeast from Yellowstone Park to the Beartooth highway which the late great television journalist Charles Kurault said was “America’s most beautiful.”

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Beartooth Mountains

Our group described the Beartooths as: “Indescribable, majestic, sublime, overwhelming, intoxicating, fantastic, beautifully brutal, awesome, humbling, breathtaking, expansive, spiritual, ineffable, stark/beautiful, dazzling, joyous, and unbelievable. “

p1060573At Beartooth Pass, just below 11,000 feet, we searched for Pikas on a rocky scree slope.  It did not take long for us to find them.  First we heard a nasal “beep!” and then saw one perched on a rock.  Other beeps!”  and more Pika sightings followed.

p1060720Our last stop in Yellowstone was Old Faithful geyser basin.  There we hiked to the iconic Morning Glory pool that resembles a giant piece of Southwestern Indian jewelry with its deep tones of blue, green and yellow.

As we reluctantly departed from Yellowstone, the fall colors increased in intensity in Grand Teton National Park along the Snake River valley, reaching a crescendo at Oxbow Bend. Everyone departed from Jackson with fond memories of the natural wonders of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem embellished by brilliant fall colors.  This is a magical time in which to visit a magical place.

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Oxbow Bend on Snake River with Grand Tetons behind

 

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The Guides:  Greg Smith and Woody Wheeler

Photos by Lori Cohen & Woody Wheeler

 

 


On 100th Birthday National Parks Loved But Not Secure

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Oxbow Bend, Snake River, Grand Teton NP

On the summer of the 100th anniversary of our nation’s national parks, I had the good fortune to visit two of the most popular:  Grand Teton and Yellowstone.  What makes these parks special is not only the spectacular flora, fauna and scenery contained within their boundaries, but the fact that they are part of the larger 20.5 million acre Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE).

yellowstone day 2 001The GYE encompasses seven National Forests, three wildlife refuges and the two enormous national parks.  The result of this intelligent design is a place that has been referred to as America’s Serengeti,P1050660 where wildlife ranging from grizzlies to wolves to bison to pronghorn abound.

It is triumph of conservation made possible by linking public lands into a massive integrated ecosystem.

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Yellowstone Park’s Magnificent Hayden Valley

 

People love the GYE and show it by visiting the area in droves.  Last year more than seven million came to the GYE, setting a new record. In 2013 our National Parks, Wildlife Refuges, monuments and other public lands had 407 million visits, contributing $41 billion to the regional economies and supporting 355,000 jobs according to a Department of Interior report.

Given such popularity and economic benefits you might assume that the future of national parks and public lands is secure in America.  You would be wrong. The current U.S. Republican party platform calls for selling public lands off to states and divesting the lands from federal management.

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Grand Canyon, Yellowstone NP

This is bizarre given that the architect of our public land system was the great Republican president, Teddy Roosevelt, who once said “There can be no greater issue than that of conservation in this country.”  In her inspiring new book The Hour of Land, Terry Tempest Williams pointed out that: “He (Teddy Roosevelt) was a man of his word.  During his administration, Theodore Roosevelt was responsible for protecting 150 National Forests, 51 federal bird preserves, 4 federal wildlife preserves, 18 National Monuments, and 5 National Parks, 230 million acres in all.”

Will Rogers, president of Trust for Public Land addressed the disconnect between the Republican party’s view on public lands and that of the vast majority of Americans in his recent column in the New York Times Our Land Up for Grabs: “Rather than selling off the lands we all own, or looking for other uses for the many approved at the ballot box for conservation, our leaders should listen to voters and find ways to protect more of the places that make America special.”

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Grateful tourists thank me for showing them a grizzly

As a guide, I have witnessed the profound appreciation that travelers from around the world have for the vast, beautiful wildlife haven that is the GYE.  Author Terry Tempest Williams interviewed a traveler from London who shared this deep appreciation: “In London, there’s nine million of us in a very tiny space.  Here there’s only a handful.  What can I say?  I’m just so grateful some people had the foresight to protect these lands for me and my children and their children for the future.”

While celebrating the remarkable legacy of our National Park system, will we work to continue to cherish and steward them or compromise them for short-term exploitation and profit?  I have faith that Americans and visitors from all across the world will not allow the latter to happen.  We are better than this.

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Yellowstone still one of best places for wildlife encounters

 

As Tempest Williams reminds us “Our public lands – whether a national park or monument, wildlife refuge, forest or prairie – make each one of us land-rich.  It is our inheritance as citizens of a country called America.” May we steward and enhance our public lands for the next 100 years and beyond.  They ARE, as Wallace Stegner said in 1983, our best idea and they ARE sacred places.


Bicycling’s Best Idea

The year 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of AP1050486merica’s National Parks. Author Wallace Stegner referred to their creation as “America’s Best Idea.”  It also marks the 40th anniversary of Bikecentennial, bicycling’s best idea.

Bikecentennial was a massive organized ride across the country that intentionally coincided with the nation’s bicentennial. As Lael Wilcox,  a Montana Bicycle Celebration banquet speaker and long-distance bicycle racer put it “Bikecentennial laid the foundation of bike touring in America.”

 

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More than 600 bicyclists gathered this summer in Missoula for the Montana Bicycle Celebration.  It featured organized rides, exhibits, speakers, music, a trail dedication, banquet and other festivities.  Despite the troubled times we find ourselves in, the spirit of this event was unabashedly positive.

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Me with Dan Burden – a Bikecentennial founder – photo by Jeff Miller

 

Conceived by four cyclists while on their epic 18,000-mile Hemistour from Alaska to Argentina, Bikecentennial was intended to be a cross-country tour to celebrate America’s bi-centennial in 1976 and to establish a trans-America bicycle trail.  The founders – Greg and June Siple; Dan and Lys Burden; along with an intrepid crew of people they hired or recruited as volunteers – fleshed out the concept.  What they created was a stroke of bicycling genius.

 

Bikecentennial attracted 4,100 participants, including more thanP1050488 2,000 who rode the entire 4,250 coast-to-coast route.  There were a mix of bicycle camping and bike inn groups, the latter who slept indoors each night as opposed to pitching tents outdoors.  The route was glorious, winding through mostly rural, low-traffic roads in extraordinarily scenic and historically-significant areas.

As a Bikecentennial tour group leader, I was one of the fortunate participants.  To qualify as a leader, I had to apply to and then pass a bicycling leadership course in Tillamook, Oregon.  They had us lead short rides for the rest of the trainees, taught us how to fix bikes as well as how to manage group dynamics.

 

Most Bikecentennial riders were between the ages of 17 1976_Bikecentennial_01_001and 35.  The oldest was 86 and the youngest, nine.  Men outnumbered women by a 3:1 ratio.  My group, pictured here, reflected these statistics. We rode from Reedsport, Oregon  to Yorktown, Virginia in 82 days.

The ride remains one of my finest memories, a movie permanently etched into my consciousness.  As Erick Cedeno, aka “The Cycling Nomad” said during his perceptive talk at the Montana Bicycling Celebration banquet “…everyday miracles happen pedal by pedal” when you travel by bike.

 

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This journey was not only a great experience, but it resulted in a great legacy for bicycle travel.  The legacy has so far been manifested in the form of the Trans America Trail, the Adventure Cycling Association  with its 50,000 members, its 45,000-miles of bicycle routes upon which it leads regular tours and its advocacy efforts that enhance and expand bicycle travel in the U.S.

1976_Bikecentennial_01_019When we rode across the country in 1976, very few places had bicycle infrastructure.  Eugene, Oregon was one of the first cities to have a designated bicycle trail.  Now most, if not all cities ranging from Butte, Montana to New York City have and continue to build bicycle trails, lanes, signage, racks and other facilities.

Missoula, Montana, home of Bikecentennial/Adventure Cycling, has built the impressive “Missoula Bicycle System.” It includes three large bicycle/pedestrian bridges that cross the Clark Fork River.

Adventure Cycling’s mission is to inspire and empower people to travel by bicycle.  Bikecentennial did this for all of its participants, big-time. Some former Bikecentennial riders have become advocates for bicycle travel in their home towns.

The Siples and Burdens hit a metaphorical grand slam with Bikecentennial.  They envisioned and then implemented bicycling’s best idea.  The rest, as they say, is history.

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Still The Place

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Gazing at Green Bay from Door Bluff Headlands County Park

Where does your imagination take you when you think of nature? Is there a formative place?  A place that you revisit frequently; a place that for you defines a beautiful natural environment?  A place that inspires, refreshes, restores and invigorates?doorcty

I revisited such a place earlier this month on the northern tip of the Door County peninsula in Wisconsin.  This “thumb” of Door County projects into Lake Michigan, separating the main lake to the east from Green Bay to the west.

Both are connected via Death’s Door Passage, a notorious place for ship wrecks.  At least 24 ships were lost from 1837 and 1914 in this narrow, turbulent passage.  This prompted the construction of a canal at Sturgeon Bay to allow safer passage of ships between Lake Michigan and Green Bay.

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One of Door County’s shipwrecks – photo by: kayakdoorcounty.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prior to the shipping days and the coming of Europeans, Potawatomi Indians used this bluff as a strategic fortress to repel marauding Iroquois, Winnebago and Sauk Tribes. Pictographs from this era still exist here.

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Canoeing with my sister Wendy to Door Bluff

 

During my youth, my family spent summer vacations on Garrett Bay, facing north toward the fishing and ferry port of Gills Rock and Washington Island beyond.

This is one of the places where my life-long love of nature began.  Whenever I close my eyes and imagine a sacred place, this one comes to mind.

An unassuming place at the end of a gravel road, Door Bluff Headlands County Park has a rough trail that leads downhill to the rim of the bluff. In this mostly-coniferous forest, White Cedar grows in contorted fashion, twisting among the steep cliffs overhanging Green Bay.  Although not particularly large in girth, some of these trees are hundreds of years old.  Their roots cling to the cliffs, resembling bird or dinosaur feet grasping the rocks and thin glaciated soil.

The view of Green bay is framed by White Cedar along with Balsam Fir. Sixteen miles across the bay, Michigan appeared as a thin green line. HerringP1050196 and Ring-billed Gulls soared by at eye-level.  Caspian Terns flew close to the water with their heads tilted downward ready to dive suddenly to catch fish, periodically uttering their raspy, dinosaur-like “grrrack” calls.

Red Columbine and Starflower decorated the trail-side.  Bird song from Winter Wrens, Eastern Pewees, Red-eyed Vireos, and Ovenbirds comprised the forest soundscape along with the steady gentle breaking of waves against the rocky shores.

 

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Rose-breasted Grosbeak

A Rose-breasted Grosbeak paid me a visit, singing his florid, melodious song. He reminded me of my Grandma Katy, a bird-watcher from an earlier era who was fond of this species. She thought they resembled exotic ambassadors from Asia.The combination of this stunning bird with the gorgeous seascape below was spellbinding.

I am eternally grateful to those who protected Door Bluff Headlands Park.  It is a very special place for me and for many others. May it endure forever.


Big Day in Wray

Grouse Conservation and Ecotourism Benefit Small Colorado Town

Most who travel to Colorado spend their time in the western portions of this majestic state.  Denver is often the starting point.  From there, they fan out westward to places like Pikes Peak, Aspen, Telluride, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Colorado National Monument or Rocky Mountain National Park.

Few travelers venture to the eastern part of the state.  Why would anyone go there, to the agricultural flat lands?  In a word – grouse. P1040971

It turns out that Colorado is one of the best states in the U.S. in which to see multiple species of grouse dancing on their leks during the spring breeding season including:  Greater and Lesser Prairie Chickens, Northern Sage, Sharp-tailed, Gunnison, Dusky, and White-tailed Ptarmigan. There are “chicken tours” that take people around the state to see them.

We decided to take our own modified chicken tour that featured Greater Prairie Chicken and Gunnison Sage Grouse:  one in the eastern and one in the western part of the state.  Doing so fit into our plans to visit our daughter Audrey in Denver. She gladly accompanied us since she had previously researched grouse conservation efforts as a part of her job at Conservation Colorado.

Wray, Colorado is the best place to see Greater Prairie Chickens dance.  This small town is 3.5 hours east of Denver in the northeast corner of the state, close to the Nebraska border.

Driving east of Denver, you enter the realm of large scale industrial agriculture.  This is the land of corn, sugar beets and cattle ranches.  It is also the pungent home of several huge feed lots.

P1030857Much of the landscape is flat until you approach Wray.  Here badlands appear with small rocky outcrops, along with a creek and the first large trees seen for miles.  This town has a pulse, natural beauty and at this time of year, Greater Prairie Chicken tours.  We are signed up for one at 4:30 AM the next morning.

On the eve before, there is a brief presentation by the Colorado Wildlife Department.  Here we learn from a ranger named Wendy from Brush, Colorado, that Greater Prairie Chickens were once down in numbers to only 600 individuals in 1973.  This led to their being listed as Endangered.

Since 1973, significant progress was made.  Collaboration between agencies and private landowners (how refreshing!) led to an increase in Greater Prairie Chicken populations to 7,000 by 1990 and 10,000 by 1998.  Now they are off the endangered list and limited hunting is allowed.  Apparently 20 were harvested in the last hunting season.

We were in Wray to hunt these birds with cameras and binoculars.  At 4 AM when we arose, the temperature was 34 degrees and it was pitch black outside.  Our crew of 24 intrepid birders were heavily bundled to ward of the chill while sitting in an unheated, open-air blind for several hours.

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Audrey at bus that transported us to and from lek

Following a ½-hour school bus ride over dirt roads, we arrived at the blind – a trailer with benches inside and two large pop-up windows. Our instructions were to be quiet, to avoid eating, and to sit still.  The windows were opened, ushering in a blast of cold air, and revealing total darkness under starry skies.  We sat in a silent, eerie meditation for the next ten minutes.

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Inside the viewing blind at dawn

Then a series of two-note low hooting sounds resonated from the darkness.  As the first bit of daylight, we could see forms of the grouse scurrying about, emitting their deep, other worldly vocalizations.

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Botox eyebrows?

As dawn broke and more light filtered in, we saw increasing numbers of Greater Prairie Chickens.  Many had their bright orange sacs inflated and eyebrows puffed up as if they had received Botox injections.

These were the males, who also frequently stamped their feet in a rapid, staccato burst, like a super-intense tap dance.  Occasionally, they made short flights into the air, cackling as they went air-borne in part bird/part ape-like tones.  It was an all-out, crazy display. P1030920

Mingling with the 52 Greater Prairie Chickens were four Burrowing Owls, two Prairie Dogs and a Pronghorn.  Eastern Meadowlarks, Horned Larks and Northern Harriers made a cameo appearances too.P1040001

Just when we thought the show could not get any better, one of the Prairie Chickens hopped on top of our viewing blind trailer and proceeded to stamp and dance on top of us.  This added a metallic, scratching shuffle to his other sounds and antics; a sort of heavy-metal dance to attract females and repel males.

P1040074After what seemed like endless displaying moves, dancing, leaping and calling, the males would finally receive female attention.  When they did, the most common reaction we saw from the females was indifference.  One, pictured here, has the female showing at least passing interest.

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Males stand off at territorial boundary

 

 

 

 

 

We watched this spectacular show in silent awe for two hours before adjourning to a nearby ranch for a hearty farm breakfast. At this point it was only 9 AM, but we had already experienced a lot. The spectacular dance performance we witnessed gave new meaning to the old expression “strutting your stuff.”


Honoring Darwin

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Darwin with 4 of his 13 finch species

April 19 marks the 134th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s passing.  Darwin was not only the father of evolution, but also a giant in the advancement of science. Author of at least 20 books, Darwin was best known for one: On The Origin of Species.

Having read three books about Darwin, including one that he wrote, and having traveled recently to the Galapagos Islands with Naturalist Journeys, I am in greater awe of him now than I was before.

Imagine leaving your friends and family behind at age 26 for a three-year globe-trotting adventure in a ship filled with people, most of whom you did not know.  During the voyage on the Beagle, Darwin endured long bouts of sea sickness, various other ailments, threats of violence and profound loneliness. Darwin collected a tremendous number of specimens and took copious notes on species he found in at least a dozen countries on four continents. The journey lasted much longer than expected — five years!

One of the things Darwin postponed was his higher education at divinity school.  The man that religious conservatives have condemned for his theory of evolution for the last two centuries was training for a career in the church.  Darwin remained a committed Christian to the end of his life and denied that his theory of evolution was in conflict with the church.

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Galapagos Mockingbird

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Large Ground Finch

His theory of evolution was heavily influenced by the adaptations made over the years by Mockingbirds and Finches on the Galapagos archipelago.  The key to the finch’s survival was their beak.  He noticed that they came from a common ancestor (as did the mockingbirds), then through adaptive radiation developed specialized beaks to maximize food and survival opportunities on the islands.  This allowed them to adapt to conditions on different islands.  As we discovered on our recent trip to the Galapagos, the islands often have great distances between them, up to 100 miles, with a wide variety of habitats ranging from bare volcanic basalt to scrub desert and Palo Santos forests.

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Marine Iguana with Sally Lightfoot Crabs

Evidence of evolution was and still is everywhere on the Galapagos. Darwin referred to the islands as a “living laboratory of evolution.” In addition to noticing the variations in beaks of the finches, he noticed different species of Mockingbirds living on different islands, variations in giant tortoise shells from island to island, iguanas that could swim (Marine Iguanas), and the world’s only flightless cormorant.

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Galapagos Flightless Cormorant

Twenty-four years after his epic voyage, he submitted a paper together with Alfred Wallace to the Linnaean Society of London.  Wallace conducted his field studies in the Amazon River Basin and in Malaysia, Singapore and the island of New Guinea.  The two great naturalists independently arrived at the same theory at about the same time.  Natural selection was the mechanism for evolution they both discovered via their field work and analyses of species in different parts of the world.

In 1859 Darwin published the Origin of the Species.  The central idea was in fact simple: organisms change over time to adapt to their surroundings.

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Giant Galapagos Tortoise

Darwin and Wallace’s discovery not only revolutionized our thinking in general, but it also showcased the power of science.  As Eric Weiner said in his brilliant book The Beak of the Finch “Science formalizes our special kind of collective memory, or species memory, in which each generation builds on what has been learned by those that came before, following in each other’s footsteps, standing on each other’s shoulders.  Each generation values what it can learn from the one before, and prizes the discoveries it will pass on to the next…”  Thanks to Darwin and Wallace, science and medicine in particular have made tremendous advances.

Finally, there is a very human context for Darwin’s discoveries.  Adaptations are not only apparent in Galapagos wildlife, they are apparent in humans.  In Weiner’s words “Our minds and talents are variable for the same evolutionary reason as finch’s beaks are variable in the Galapagos:  jack-of-all trades master of none.  And what drives this radiation within our species is a process like character divergence.  Though we may not think of it as Darwinian, we all feel its pressure, wanting and needing to do what we are made for – seeking the task for which we are most fit.”

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Darwin arch & monument, Puerto Ayora

Darwin’s extensive field work, studies, specimens and writings have formed the basis for biological understanding ever since. We should all be grateful for the man’s intelligence, dedication and courage.

 

Sources:  The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin; Beak of the Finch by Eric Weiner; The Origin by Irving Stone


Psst! (It’s the climate)

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It took a famous actor to say it.  Leonardo DiCaprio, during his recent Oscar Award acceptance speech for the nature-themed film The Revenant reminded us that:  “2015 was the hottest year in recorded history.  Climate Change is real; it is happening right now…It is the most urgent threat facing our entire species.”

DiCaprio was right about the importance of this issue and about 2015 being the hottest year on record.  Even more disturbing is that according to the National Center for Environmental Information at NOAA, nine of the ten hottest years on record have happened since 2000, and the tenth was in 1998.  Climate change at this pace and magnitude should concern us all.

So why aren’t we in the U.S. doing much about it?  Our current presidential politics offer a revealing glimpse.  This issue barely merits a sidebar in the campaign, and from some candidates, it elicits outright denial.  When asked is climate change real?  Trump and Cruz deny its existence.  Rubio acknowledges that it exists, but does not believe it was caused by humans and is unwilling to take action.   Clinton, Sanders, O’Malley and Kasich not only agree that it is happening, but that it was caused by people, and requires action. The Obama Administration has attempted to lead on this issue, but has often been blocked by members of congress who are beholden to the fossil fuel lobby, including (especially) the Senate Majority Leader.

National Geographic continues to be a beacon in educating people about climate change.  In its powerful November 2015 issue “Cool It.” The venerable earth-friendly magazine stated resolutely that “Climate change is here.”  The issue further reported that “The earth has warmed 1.5 degrees on average since the late 19th century and that most of the warming has occurred since 1960.”

Meanwhile, countries like Germany and Denmark are taking serious, corrective actions.  Germany, with the fourth largest economy in the world, is a good role model for the U.S. in dealing with climate change. According to National Geographic, Germany is “pioneering an epocal transformation it calls the energiewende – an energy revolution that scientists say all nations must one day complete if a climate disaster is to be averted.”  Its goal is to cut carbon emissions by 40% from 1990 levels.  As of 2015, it has already achieved a 27% reduction.  Nearly 30 percent of Germany’s electricity comes from renewable sources such as wind and solar…more than twice what the U.S. gets today.

Denmark is also taking impressive steps to deal with climate change, as proudly stated on their official national website:  “Danish strategy for adaptation to a changing climate.”

“Climate change is a reality. In the years to come, we can expect more extreme weather incidents such as droughts, flooding, storm surges, tornados and rising sea levels. These changes mean that society must adapt within a number of areas.”

“Creating a green and sustainable society is one of the key goals for Denmark. More than 20 per cent of Denmark’s energy already comes from renewable energy, and the goal is to reach 100 per cent by 2050. Much of the renewable energy comes from wind turbines, where Denmark is a world leader when it comes to developing new technology.”

Beyond the compelling scientific reasons for dealing with this issue, there are moral reasons too.  Pope Francis addressed these in his Encyclical on Climate Change and Inequality:

“The world is on the brink of suicide if it doesn’t address climate change…We are not God.  The earth was here before us and it has been given to us.  This allows us to respond to the charge that Judeo-Christian thinking, on the basis of the Genesis account which grants man “dominion” over the earth (cf Gen1:28) has encouraged the unbridled exploitation of nature.  This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church.”…instead, our “dominion” over the universe should be understood more properly in the sense of responsible stewardship…Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations is, first and foremost, up to us”

climatesummit cartoon If we care about our children and our grandchildren then we need to act now.


Do You Enjoy Pareidolia?

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Rock “monster” peers into Denver Arboretum

You just might, even if you don’t know what it means yet.  To some extent, we all enjoy it.

Pareidolia, according to Dictionary.Com is “The imagined perception of a pattern where it does not actually exist.”  It originates from the Greek words “para”(something wrong) and eiddon (image, form or shape).

Here are a few examples of pareidolia:

  • The man in the moon
  • Star constellations with human forms and names
  • The Virgin Mary, supposedly seen on a grilled cheese sandwich
  • A cinnamon bun in Tennessee that apparently resembled Mother Theresa
  • Numerous landforms like Sleeping Lady Mountain in Washington
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Tree “wolf” in Olympic rain forest

Often the shape that we imagine is that of a human face.  Carl Sagan believed that recognizing faces from afar was a survival tool.  This fits into a broader hypothesis that pareidolia is the result of natural selection over the years that favors people who can quickly identify the mental state and/or face of people or animals around them.  This in turn provides them with opportunities to trust, flee or attack as needed.

 

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Rock “turtle” on Olympic rain forest floor

 

Aside from the survival value of recognizing human or animal images, pareidolia can also provide a form of amusement when outdoors.  It gives us yet another reason to look up and engage our senses.