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-smallRed-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

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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.

 

Portraits of Spring Neighbors

Common merganser female right at Las Gallinas smaller
Common merganser at dusk

There’s a period early in the year in the Bay Area when the wintering birds overlap with the spring wildflower season, and I can hardly contain myself. Here are a few images from a couple months ago.

One of the best birdwatching sites nearby is the unglamorous Las Gallinas Valley Sanitary District sewage treatment facility. Multiple ponds not only allow natural processes to break down waste, but provide habitat for waterfowl, songbirds and raptors. While some are residents year-round, the place really comes to life with the migrants present throughout the winter and spring.

Common merganser female left at Las Gallinas
A different view of the same common merganser

Canvasback at Las Gallinas smaller
Canvasback

On a different day, I headed to see forest-dwelling flowers at the Martin Griffin Preserve of Audubon Canyon Ranch. Posting these a couple months after the fact feels like waving goodbye to familiar friends that I’ll see again next spring.

Douglas iris ACR 4-2016 smaller
Douglas iris

Western columbine ACR 4-2016 smallerWestern columbine

Coral root ACR 4-2016 smallerSpotted coralroot

Miners lettuce ACR 4-2016 smallerMiner’s lettuce

Death Valley Landscapes

Mountain view 1 with desert gold Death Valley 2-2016 smallerMy Death Valley trip last month was so spectacular that it’s taken three posts to include everything. Well okay, part of it is is that I finally got a better camera and just took a lot of photos.

One of my hikes was a loop through Golden Canyon and Gower Gulch.

Zabriskie Point from Golden Canyon Death Valley 2-2016 smaller
Zabriskie Point above Golden Canyon

Golden Canyon view toward Badwater 2-2016 smaller
View from Golden Canyon Trail toward the Badwater Basin,
the lowest spot in North America

Badwater view Death Valley 2-2016 smallerThe aptly named Badwater—no plants can grow in these salt flats

Beverly with Badwater sign Death Valley 2-2016 smallerDesert rat posing for a photo

The geology of Death Valley National Park is complex and it would take me a long time to figure out all the rock types. One of the places I meandered through was the red rock in Natural Bridge Canyon.

Natural Bridge Canyon Death Valley 2-2016 smaller                                     The trail through Natural Bridge Canyon

Natural Bridge Canyon looking up Death Valley 2-2016 smallerLooking up from Natural Bridge Canyon

On my final day in the park, I traveled to the north end for a hike at Ubehebe Crater, or Tem-pin-tta Wo’sah in the language of the Shoshone Paiute. Ubehebe Crater is a half-mile across. It’s at a higher elevation than the valley floor, so the wildflowers weren’t yet blooming. It has the kind of stark moonscape that Death Valley National Park is known for.

Ubehebe Crater rim view Death Valley 2-2016 smallerView of Ubehebe Crater from the rim

I had intended to take the rim trail around the crater, created by an ancient volcanic steam explosion. But having never hiked inside a crater, instead I chose to head down the very steep trail, a 600-foot descent in a quarter mile. I figured that since I’ve been able to grunt up from the bottom of the Grand Canyon with a heavy backpack, I could manage this short climb.

Ubehebe Crater view of the bottom Death Valley 2-2016 smaller
The other-wordly bottom of Ubehebe Crater

Heading down in loose scree was a blast, like cross-country skiing with my feet skating along in front of me. Of course, that meant the ascent was a beast. My feet sank up to my ankles. I’m convinced that whoever coined the term “two steps forward, one step back” took this hike.

Ubehebe Crater trail view Death Valley 2-2016 smallerThis might be the steepest trail I’ve ever taken.
See the people at the rim and the bottom of the trail for scale.

In concluding this series about my travels to Death Valley, it’s fitting to finish with more photos of this year’s extraordinary wildflower bloom.

Mountain view 2 with desert gold Death Valley 2-2016 smaller
Desert gold carpeting the valley floor for miles

Desert gold close-up Death Valley 2-2016 smaller
Desert gold

Desert five-spot multiple blooms Death Valley 2-2016 smaller
Desert five-spot

Gravel ghost 2 Death Valley 2-2016 smallerGravel ghost

Golden evening primrose and notch-leaf phacelia Death Valley 2-2016 smaller
Golden evening primrose and notch-leaf phacelia

Lesser mojavea close-up Death Valley 2-2016 smaller
Lesser mojavea

Desert-star and scented cryptantha Death Valley 2-2016 smallerDesert-star at the top with tiny scented cryptantha in the lower left

Desert gold landscape 1 Death Valley 2-2016 smaller
For more about Death Valley, see the previous two posts featuring photos of wildflowers and my adventure in a storm.

 

Storm in Death Valley

Storm approaching Death Valley 2-2016 smaller

I based my trip to Death Valley National Park last month at Emigrant Campground, a remote location at an elevation of 2,000 feet. It features 10 tent sites, no electricity, water and a bathroom across the road, and expansive views. Unstaffed and first-come first-serve far from the developed areas of the park, the campground attracts people like me who seek quiet and solitude. My neighbors and I respected each other’s silence and didn’t speak to one another.

An unseasonably hot day in the 90s rolled in so I left my base camp and drove up the Emigrant Canyon Road to high elevation for the day where it would be cooler. The term “wide open spaces” came to mind with views all the way to the Sierra Nevada 75 miles away. I stopped often just to take it all in.

Wide open spaces looking down Death Valley 2-2016 smaller
The view from about 5,000 feet looking down toward the distant Sierra Nevada range

Wide open spaces looking up Death Valley 2-2016 smaller
This is the view looking up to the snow-covered Panamint Mountains within the park. An old dirt road below shows the massive scale of the place.

The pavement ended and the bumpy dirt road began. It was closed at 6,800 feet due to snow beyond that point. When it’s open, the road ends at a higher campground. Further up is a hiking trail to the highest point in the park, Telescope Peak at 11,049 feet. The road closure was at the Wildrose charcoal kilns, masonry structures built in the 1870s that created smelter fuel for lead and silver mines. I was impressed that the kilns are in such good shape. The black stains on the inside walls are still visible.

Charcoal kilns Death Valley 2-2016 smallerWildrose charcoal kilns

With a comparable forecast the following day, I drove up the same road to leave the heat in the valley behind. This time I left my car in one of the few turnouts along the road and hiked at Pinon Mesa on an old rocky mining route toward a canyon that sounded interesting. The weather forecast turned out to be incorrect. With the wind picking up, the sky darkening, and the temperature dropping, I changed my plans and turned around.

I took shelter for lunch in my trusty Subaru that’s well-suited for the rough dirt roads. Hearing a loud pop outside the car, I looked up to see that the sound was the wind ripping a leafless bush from the ground. It was now a tumbleweed rolling away. The car was shaking.

Rainstorms in this topography often don’t make it all the way down to the valley itself, but the water they drop does. I didn’t want to get cut off by a flash flood along my route downhill, so I headed back to check on my campsite a few thousand feet below.

View of storm arriving Death Valley 2-2016 smallerFollowing the weather down the mountain—unlike the day before, the Sierra Nevada was invisible

Storm view descending Emigrant Canyon Road Death Valley 2-1016 smaller
Back on pavement, descending on the Emigrant Canyon Road

When I got back to Emigrant Campground, the storm created an instant community among a group of us who had not previously spoken. Two other solo hikers returned from their wanderings around the same time, all of us recognizing that we had needed to skedaddle back. While we were gone, our tents collapsed and pieces of them were blowing across the desert. Joanna from Nevada, who had been camping in her van and hadn’t left the campground, explained that the force of the wind had knocked her down and she scraped her hand. Nevertheless, she had grabbed our scattering gear. She piled rocks on the wreckage to hold it all in place until we returned.

Ron from Utah and John hustled over to my campsite to help wrestle with my stuff as the sand and rain pelted us. We stuffed the tent, sleeping bag and air mattress willy-nilly in the back of my car. John told us his own tent was shredded but he had his truck to sleep in. Ron declined my and John’s help with his damaged tent. He calmly shrugged and said his brand new tent was a lost cause, and he was just going to wait out the storm and sleep in his van. Not having a roomy vehicle myself, I needed to find a place indoors to spend the night. I turned the car toward the road and stopped when Joanna flagged me down. She handed me the tent’s groundcloth that she’d grabbed before it blew too far away.

En route to the lodge in Stovepipe Wells nine miles away, I could see that rain wasn’t falling in the valley below sea level ahead. Instead, there was a massive dust storm enveloping the landscape and blocking the view of the mountains I’d seen clearly just hours earlier.

Emigrant Campground view Death Valley 2-1016 smallerThe view from Emigrant Campground in the morning before the storm

Sandstorm view from near Emigrant Campground Death Valley 2-2016 smallerLater that day looking in the same direction at the miles-wide sandstorm below sea level

Sandstorm in valley dose-up Death Valley 2-2016 smallerA closer look at the sandstorm

Exiting my car, I stopped before I entered the lodge and savored the sweet scent of the air, countless creosote bushes damp from the rain. I booked the last available room and set up the tent inside to survey the damage. The poles hadn’t snapped and the body was intact. The rainfly had multiple holes so it would be useless for a future rainy trip. With the storm inevitably passing quickly, the tent was in good enough shape for the rest of this trip.

The wind continued blasting throughout the night. Much of the next day, I was blowing dust out of my nose. Some of the sand particles still hung in the air, gradually settling under clearing skies.

View across valley after storm Death Valley 2-2016 smallerThe view across the valley floor the morning after the storm as the clouds were clearing

The raindrops that had fallen at the campground the night before hadn’t reached the ground below sea level. Instead, the rain from the mountains moved through the valley in flash floods. By the next day they had already disappeared, leaving behind damp surfaces and sediment in the washes and across the road below sea level—rare water in the desert that extended the life of the equally rare bloom this season, the best since 2005. (You can see Death Valley wildflower photos in a previous post.)

Desert gold flower in muddy wash Death Valley 2-2016 smaller Desert gold blooming in a muddy wash

After exploring during the day, I got back to Emigrant Campground at nightfall. I was surprised by how much I hoped to see the others because I was concerned about how they had fared. I was pleased that none of us let the weather chase us away, and over the next few days we continued our parallel outdoor adventures. The storm had broken our silence and we swapped contact info. I brought cookies from Stovepipe Wells to thank Joanna, passed along some food I wasn’t going to use to John, and got the link to Ron’s website for his landscape photography.

As desert storms do, this one blasted through in a hurry. The friendships it created continued.

View across Devils Cornfield Death Valley 2-2016 smaller             View across Devils Cornfield

Two additional posts about Death valley feature photos of wildflowers and landscapes.