Redwood Parks in Spring


Rhododendron, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

I set off into the darkness, toward the sound of the creek. Though I hadn’t been here in a long time, there was a familiar feel to a trail in a redwood forest. My feet knew the surface below me, and I smiled to myself hearing the sound of my footsteps on the wooden footbridge as Godwood Creek, shallow but swift, moved below me.

I might have hesitated on a dark night, but tonight with the moon above nearly full it was bright enough to read an interpretive sign on the reflective metal: New Growth.

I had come to Prairie Creek Redwoods multiple times, but never in the spring. Even in the darkness, I could see small white flowers adjacent to the trail. At an opening, I watched for bats and saw a few.

New growth. I couldn’t recall so much water here before, audible from a good distance away at Elk Prairie adjacent to the visitor center.

I knew this was a well-groomed, flat trail without obstacles or anything to trip on, but I placed each foot carefully. Not because I was afraid I would stumble, but because each footstep connected me with this forest of ancient redwoods.

There is something ironic about writing about an inherently wordless experience. It was about natural silence. Eventually, I tore myself away from the darkness and the creek to head back to my campsite. But I laid myself down on the same soft earth, to the soothing sound of the smaller Prairie Creek before it flowed into the bigger one.

More delights awaited me when I visited the trail in daylight. I had walked right past a large cluster of rhododendron blooms adjacent to the bridge, now just beyond where I could reach with my fingertips, and snapped the picture above. The new growth referenced in the sign was the vibrant green and delicate leaves of vine maple. The small white flower I’d seen was one of many, the blooms of redwood sorrel. This was the beginning of days meandering among the giants above me and tiny beauties below me.

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What a treat to visit in the spring after a near-record wet winter. I had never been there when so much was blooming.

Western azalea

 
Bleeding heart

Giant trillium

Hairy buttercup

Salal

Coast twinberry

I meandered through Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park and neighboring parks, Redwood National Park and Jedediah Smith State Park, collectively managed together to best protect them. Trail damage was extensive from the winter storms with some trails still closed. For the ones that were open, they still had a lot of downed trees and limbs to climb over, under, or through.

Since May was still a bit rainy before the tourist season, I had little human company. The Ten Taypo Trail in Prairie Creek in some places was a carpet of moss from little use.

I was fortunate to observe lots of wildlife. Previously I had seen Roosevelt elk in the fall breeding season, when the bulls have their enormous antlers and aggressively vie for the cows. This time of year, instead the males herded together and the cows stayed as a separate group with juveniles. The young bulls had their new antlers for the season covered in velvet, and many of the elk had a patchwork of hair as they were shedding their winter coats. I watched them from a safe distance.

However, just because I gave them space didn’t mean they did the same. One day, I pulled my car over on the shoulder of the road to watch a herd, and they calmly strolled by just a couple feet away. I took the following photo through the open window.

It was nesting season for birds. This barn swallow glared at me when I got too close to his nest under the eaves of the bathroom at the Trillium Falls trailhead.

Everything was so lush, a tangle of green upon green, with every available spot occupied by something growing, including the dead logs that provided a home for everything from moss to whole trees that sprouted out of them.

Even the picnic table at my campsite had a couple tiny plants sprouting where rainwater had soaked them. I transplanted them where they wouldn’t get trampled, and gave them a drink from my water bottle before I reluctantly headed home.

Happy blogger in Redwood National Park

Soundscapes—Winter Birds

It’s the season when the birds that overwinter return to join the local residents, and I once again journey to join them. My intention with these videos is to share the soundscape of calls and wingbeats that is so much of the experience, not the wobbly handheld video in the poor light of dusk and dawn. These were filmed at three national wildlife refuges in California—Pixley, San Luis, and Merced.

Pixley National Wildlife Refuge is a small pocket of wetland habitat surrounded by the enormous fields typical of industrial agriculture. At sunset, thousands of sandhill cranes begin to arrive. They roost each night in flocks that stand together in a shallow wetland to avoid predators on dry land.

Wrapped in warm layers, I returned at dawn to watch them depart. They took to the air and dispersed in family groups to forage in the surrounding fields.

Later that day, I traveled to San Luis National Wildlife Refuge. I walked the trail to a platform overlooking Sousa Marsh. Visually obscured by tall reeds, there’s little to see and it’s not obvious at first how much life is in this wetland until sunset. Standing alone in the fading light, I could make out the notes of a few songbirds winding down their day as the owls were just beginning theirs. All of them were nearly drowned out by the increasingly loud chatter of countless ducks, invisible until they took off in a whir of wings for their evening roosts elsewhere. There were so many they were lifting off for half an hour.

I walked back slowly back in the dark, much quieter now. I listened to the hoots and screeches of owls and the yipping of distant coyotes.

The following morning, I arrived at Merced National Wildlife Refuge for sunrise. The calls of snow geese were unmistakable but they were visually hidden in the thick tule fog at dawn.

Eventually, I could see the flocks of geese. They had spent the night feeding in the farm fields adjacent to the refuge and were returning to rest for the day, but something had startled them and they all took to the air. I couldn’t see well enough to tell if the cause was a common one, the appearance of a bald eagle.

Moving along deeper into the refuge, the sun warmed the air and burned off the fog. I watched and listened to another population of sandhill cranes. They flew above me, then disappeared as they headed out to the neighboring pastures to feed.

Despite the fact that this migration is predictable and occurs year after year, it is no less magical every time. What a privilege to be an earthling.

Total Solar Eclipse in Oregon

Wonder. Awe. That was the experience of watching the solar eclipse. Words rarely fail me but this one is a challenge to describe.

My sister, our friend and I took in this extraordinary event from the deck of my sister’s house overlooking the forest. We stared through our eclipse glasses at an image of a diminishing orange orb surrounded by absolute blackness, and alternated with taking the glasses off to watch the changing light around us. We wondered what behavior we’d see from the birds that ignored us during their repeated trips to the feeders—hairy woodpeckers, hummingbirds, juncos, red-breasted nuthatches, Steller’s jays, chestnut-backed chickadees.


Red-breasted nuthatch

Red-breasted nuthatch


Hairy woodpecker


Steller’s jay


Chestnut-backed chickadee

In the beginning, there was no obvious change in the landscape. But what a show unfolded above us, as the curve of the moon’s shadow began to make its way across the face of the sun, a barely visible spot that we watched gradually reach totality in a little more than an hour. The image reminded me of a harvest moon with its amber color through my glasses. Except the expanding crescent shape looked nothing like the moon.

The temperature dropped and a breeze picked up. The shadows around us grew longer. We were astonished as all around us, countless crescent shapes of light shone on the wood grain of the deck, juxtaposed against the shadows of the leaves.


A chair made of simple beige and gold lined fabric became the sun’s canvas for a work of art.

The light continued to fade. It was unlike any light we had ever seen, not at all like dusk. The birds fell silent.

Then… the lines! Shadow bands raced across the ground. And the light suddenly vanished.

We took off our eclipse glasses and stared at the dark image and the corona shining around it, listening to essentially the whole town of Corvallis cheering along with us. How could we not?

As the moon’s shadow moved, a bright flash like a strobe pierced the sky as the first sunlight returned. Over a bit more than an hour, we watched the sun come back. The birds sang again and eventually the crescent shapes disappeared.

It left us breathless. We agreed there really are no words to genuinely describe the experience. Everyone who shared it that I’ve spoken with has said the same. Millions of people on our small planet twirling in the universe, unified in amazement.

Watch a 30-second timelapse video of the eclipse in Corvallis, from the Washington Post/Reuters.

The North Coast in Winter

redwood-stump-at-humboldt-beach-1-2017-smallOn New Year’s weekend, I journeyed to California’s North Coast. Although I’ve blogged about hiking through the giant redwoods in this region when it’s warm and dry, this was my first trip in the winter. My friend and I stayed on the coast, the seasonal home of wading waterfowl. I often get these look-alike birds mixed up, so it was helpful to travel with expert birder Brian who could identify species.

Layered up in the cold rain with few people around, we spotted wildlife at Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary. A peregrine falcon plucked the feathers from her breakfast. A trio of otters watched us before swimming away. I managed to sneak in a few photos between the raindrops.

otter-arcata-marsh-1-2017-smallotter-duo-arcata-march-1-2017-smallmarbled-godwit-and-dunlins-arcata-marsh-1-2017-small
Dunlins with a marbled godwit

snowy-and-great-egrets-arcata-marsh-12-2016-smallSnowy egret (left) and great egret

Visiting a place in a different season is a wonder of discovery. At Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge, we encountered dramatic dark clouds and enormous storm waves, miles of beach with no other footprints, bright berries and spongy lichens as the earth thrived on plentiful water after so many years of drought. Waves swirled around giant redwood stumps as the sanderlings skittered between the waves to feed on molluscs in the wet sand.

ground-berries-and-lichen-humboldt-bay-nwr-1-2017-smallLow-growing berries and lichen

beach-strawberries-humboldt-bay-nwr-1-2017-smallBeach strawberry

beach-sky-stumps-grass-humboldt-bay-nwr-1-2017-smallredwood-stump-and-feeding-sanderlings-humboldt-bay-nwr-1-2017-smallredwood-stump-and-flying-sanderlings-humboldt-nwr-1-2017-smallredwood-stump-and-solo-sanderling-humboldt-bay-nwr-1-2017-small

This may have been my first trip to the North Coast during the winter, but it was so beautiful that I don’t think it will be my last.

Hawks, Cranes, and Pintails

Here are more photos from my recent travels ooo-ing and ahh-ing at wintering birds in California’s Central Valley. On two occasions, I was lucky to get close to red-tailed hawks.

red-tailed-hawk-merced-nwr-12-2016-small
Red-tailed hawk at Merced National Wildlife Refuge

red-tailed-hawk-sac-nwr-11-2016-smallRed-tailed hawk at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

For many years, I’ve traveled to the Llano Seco Unit of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s North Central Valley Wildlife Area. It’s a reliable place to find graceful sandhill cranes. In the past, I’ve visited in the afternoons and have spotted a few cranes in the distance or flying overhead. This time on my solo overnight trip, I decided to bundle up in my warm layers and go early in the morning instead. What a difference that made.

With no people around to spook them, there were more than 100 greater sandhill cranes cooing to each other, and they didn’t seem to mind my presence as long as I was quiet and moved slowly. Visiting Llano Seco is usually a relatively short visit, spotting a few cranes and enjoying the usual crowd of colorful ducks. But this time, the company of so many cranes was mesmerizing as I enjoyed the place without other people there. It wasn’t until I got in my car to leave that I realized I’d been staring in awe for two hours.

For those of you who geek out on species identification, I have to say I’m not good at telling the difference between greater and lesser sandhill cranes. Llano Seco’s website says the place is home to the greater variety, so that’s how I know.

sandhill-crane-portrait-llano-seco-11-2016-smallGreater sandhill crane with ducks and geese at Llano Seco

sandhill-cranes-llano-seco-1-11-2016-small
sandhill-cranes-llano-seco-3-11-2016-small
Finally, here is a series of images of northern pintails taken on various trips this winter. I find these ducks incredibly beautiful, so I kept snapping away. With their blue and black striped bills, brown heads with a white flourish stretching upward from their chests, extended tail feathers, and streaked profile, they look like artwork that someone sculpted.

pintail-pair-preening-12-2016-small
Pintail pair at Llano Seco

pintail-pair-on-shore-12-2016-smallResting on the bank

pintail-swimming-2-12-2016-small
Cruising along in the sunshine

pintail-group-at-llano-seco-11-2016-smallThese two seemed to be having a dispute

pintail-dabbling-12-2016-smallA common position—butt up while feeding

I stumbled upon this homemade sign on a dirt road through the agricultural fields. Clearly one of the locals appreciates the pintails, too.

pintail-lane-sign-12-2016-small

Wintering Waterfowl and Wading Birds in the Central Valley

rosss-geese-and-pintails-12-2016-smallRoss’s geese and northern pintails

As I’ve shared here before, I follow the migratory waterfowl and other birds—my own personal migration on winter weekends. Here are some portraits from recent trips to California’s Central Valley. These are highlights from this season’s trips to several national wildlife refuges—Colusa, Merced, Sacramento, San Luis—as well as the as well as the Llano Seco Unit of the North Central Valley Wildlife Management Area and various agricultural fields.

I feel such joy being around these birds, who bring so much life during the cold, dark months of the year. More photos to come.

geese-flying-above-sutter-buttes-12-2016-smallGeese silhouetted against the Sutter Buttes

white-faced-ibis-merced-nwr-12-2016-smallWhite-faced ibis

gadwalls-sacramento-nwr-11-2106-smallGadwalls

northern-shoveler-12-2016-smallNorthern shoveler

black-necked-stilt-san-luis-nwr-1-12-2016-small
Black-necked stilt

black-necked-stilt-san-luis-nwr-2-12-2016-smallAnother view of the black-necked stilt

snow-and-white-fronted-geese-12-2016-smallGreater white-fronted geese (foreground) and snow geese

snow-geese-at-sunset-sac-nwr-11-2016-smallSnow geese

white-fronted-geese-11-2016-smallGreater white-fronted geese

turtle-and-cinnamon-teal-11-2016-smallThe odd couple – western pond turtle and cinnamon teal

pintail-swimming-1-12-2016-smallNorthern pintail

wigeon-pair-11-2016-smallAmerican wigeons

tundra-swans-11-2016-smallTundra swans

egret-and-mallards-12-2016-smallGreat egret and mallards

great-blue-heron-silhouette-sac-nwr-11-2016-small
Great blue heron

Seabirds and 100 Years of National Parks


100 years ago today, the Organic Act became law: 

“Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that there is hereby created … the National Park Service… to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

I’ve written on this blog about many of my adventures in national parks, the well-known iconic wilderness areas and historic sites. Recently, I’ve been appreciating the national recreation areas created to provide access to nature and history in urban areas, specifically my local Golden Gate National Recreation Area established in 1972.

In the middle of San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz Island in Golden Gate National Recreation Area hosts more than a million visitors a year who come to tour its infamous old prison. What is less known is that Alcatraz is an important sanctuary for nesting seabirds, egrets and herons. I find it unappealing to tour a prison that’s much like the inhumane places we still have, but it’s a treat to visit the island and find nature thriving in a place filled with broken structures and mobs of people.

Snowy egret adult and chick Alcatraz 6-2016 smallerSnowy egret chick and parent

Nesting bird count sign Alcatraz 6-2016 smaller
The census of nesting residents

Pigeon guillemot Alcatraz 6-2016 smaller
Pigeon guillemot, with just a tiny bit of her bright orange legs showing

Western gull with chicks Alcatraz 6-2016 smaller
Attentive western gull parent with chicks

Brandts cormorants Alcatraz 6-2016 smaller
Brandt’s cormorants

Egret feather in concrete crack Alcatraz 6-2016 smaller

Western gull and SF skyline 6-2016 smaller

On this 100th anniversary of the national parks, my wish for everyone is to have an experience in a park or historic site that is the heritage of all of us. Find your local treasures here.