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.

____________

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.

Trillium Falls

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.

Pinnacles National Park – At a Distance and Up Close

After many years of drought, Northern California this spring was a vibrant palette of colorful plants. Back in April before the blistering heat of what is now summer, I spent a few days at Pinnacles National Park exploring the contrast of the rough rock and the graceful flowers and bright lichens.

The pinnacles are a geologic formation that grew out of two plates of the earth’s crust coming together, with an ancient volcano and erosion thrown into the mix. The humps and spires of the High Peaks Trail arise from the rolling hills below, and they are a frequent haunt of endangered California condors that have been reintroduced here.


View of the High Peaks from below

As I hiked up, the unique formations began to come into view.
The High Peaks Trail is not for the faint of heart with its overhangs and steep steps carved into the rockface. Some places have handrails.
In some places, the rock surface itself is the option to steady yourself.
Climbing up to the top rewards you with sweeping views.

As always when in nature, many of the wonders require a look up close. Spring life was everywhere, from lichens on the rocks to wildflowers.

Lizard in the sunshine

Bush poppy

Blue witch

Fiddleneck

Silver bush lupine

Pipestems

Wooly paintbrush

California poppy, the official state flower

Fremont’s monkeyflower

Gray mules ears

Bitter root growing on the trail, with the protection someone constructed around it

Unknown flowers

Lichen

Multiple species of lichen

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.

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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

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.

Worth a Thousand Words – Wildflowers in Death Valley

Desert gold landscape at sunset 2-2016

Death Valley National Park has the hottest overall temperatures on earth, including the highest recorded air temperature of 134 degrees. With an average of less than two inches of rain a year, the plants there manage to eke out their survival in harsh conditions.

So during the rare years when several inches of rain show up in a few months in fall and winter, it’s miraculous for plants. The long-dormant seeds burst out in carpets of wildflowers across the desert floor. Luckily for me, for five days in February I was able to experience this spectacle.

I have stories to share about my journey in a future post. For now, it’s all about photos of the flowers.

Desert five-spot close-up 2-2016
Desert five-spot, an uncommon flower

Desert goldDesert gold, the showy and densely growing flower that turns entire landscapes yellow

Scented cryptantha
Scented cryptantha, easy to miss with its tiny blossoms

Notch-leaf phacelia 2-2016
Notch-leaf phacelia—I was glad a ranger warned me that touching it can cause a rash

Brown-eyed evening primrose at dusk 2-2016The night-blooming brown-eyed evening primrose, at sunset as blossoms opened

Lesser mojavea
Lesser mohavea

Golden evening primrose 2-2016
Golden evening primrose soon after sunrise, with the notch-leaf phacelia

Fremont pincushionPebble pincushion, the only one of this species that I saw

Purplemat 2-2016
Purplemat

Desert-star 2-2016
Desert-star, looking like miniature daisies

Gravel ghost 2-2016
Gravel ghost

(Two additional Death Valley posts feature my adventure in a storm and more landscapes.) For more of this ephemeral beauty, check out Death Valley National Park’s video about this year’s bloom.

Return of the Water


Redwood Creek, Mt. Tamalpais State Park

It’s always special when the rainy season returns after months of no rain, the typical dry season in California. Except that the rain hasn’t come for years, with a record-setting drought that has left us over and over crossing our fingers each winter for rainfall that never came.

Until it did this winter.

Everywhere, the green has returned. The moss in the forest has once again revived as a big sponge along the tree trunks and rocks. Mushrooms of all colors are emerging from the soil. I’m savoring the squishiness of mud underfoot instead of hard-packed trail. Just being outdoors, you can feel the earth soaking it all up and coming back to life. I can’t help being energized by it.

Today I walked a favorite seven-mile loop, starting in Muir Woods National Monument early before the crowds, heading uphill into the quiet of Mt. Tamalpais State Park, and eventually descending back where I started. What was distinctive this time is that I could hear the welcome sound of rushing water the entire way—first as I hiked up the steep canyon on the Bootjack Trail along Redwood Creek, where the water surged in waterfalls and narrow channels, and then along the smaller braids in the adjacent gullies along the TCC, Stapleveldt, Ben Johnson and Hillside Trails.

Creek on TCC Trail 1-2015Redwood Creek passes through Muir Woods into Golden Gate National Recreation Area and eventually to the ocean. After years without success, this year, the endangered coho salmon and steelhead trout can make it back to spawn.

Although California’s drought has been severe, Oregon’s rainfall until this winter had been below normal as well. On a recent visit to see my friend Bryan in Portland, the one activity I insisted on was a visit to the Columbia River Gorge to see the gushing waterfalls. They were so loud that Bryan and I had to shout so we could hear each other.

Beverly at Latourell Falls in Columbia River Gorge 1-2016
Standing beside Latourell Falls, Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area

Photo by Bryan Aptekar


Horsetail Falls, Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area

Covered head to toe in raingear, it was fabulous to be in the wet forest tromping around in the downpour. Water everywhere. Bring it on.

Beverly portait Bridal Veil Falls Columbia River Gorge 1-2016
Bridal Veil Falls State Scenic Viewpoint, Oregon – Photo by Bryan Aptekar

Time and Textures – The Company of Old Trees

Bristlecone pine portrait White Mountains 9-2015Bristlecone pine, Inyo National Forest

Craving the company of old trees, in September last year I ventured to the land of the world’s oldest living things—the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in California’s White Mountains. I’d fulfilled a dream to visit with my first trip but at the mercy of altitude sickness, I was only able to stay for a few hours. The place beckoned me back. This time I had medication that enabled me to camp for several nights at 8,600 feet and hike the trails as high as 11,000 feet.

The bristlecone pines’ gnarled trunks speak to their endurance, through fires and thousands of winters in blasting wind, and snow that sustains them through the dry summers. Many parts die back with just a few branches sprouting needles and cones. They grow in nutrient-poor soil at a profoundly slow rate, sometimes reflecting 100 years in tree rings that are only an inch across.

The oldest known tree, Methuselah, is more than 4,600 years old. The trail winds through the grove where Methuselah grows anonymously among its neighbors that are 3,000 and 4,000 years old. Their shapes and textures are striking.

Bristlecone grove on Methusaleh Trail White Mountains 9-2015Bristlecone pines siilhouette White Mountains 9-2015Bristlecone fire-scarred bark White Mountains 9-2015Even after they die, bristlecone pines can take thousands of years to decompose.

Fallen bristlecone that died in 1676 White Mountains 9-2015Log from a bristlecone pine more than 3,200 years old that fell in 1676

Along the Methuselah Trail, I came upon a tree that was about my height and I wondered about its age. Certainly it must have been at least a few hundred years old, perhaps 1,000 or more. I held its young green needles in my hand, a contrast in old and new.

Bristlecone branches White Mountains 9-2015

Walking among the bristlecones is a journey of awe. I am moved by their persistence.

Moonrise at Patriarch Grove White Mountains 9-2015
Moonrise over the Patriarch Grove at 11,000 feet

Wind and Wings


Snow geese near Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

In early December each year, I head off for a solo retreat. I drive to see some of the millions of geese and ducks in the wetlands of their winter home, the wildlife refuges and agricultural fields of California’s Central Valley.

This is a different kind of nature experience than I usually seek out. The setting is ordinary—agricultural fields, highways and dirt roads. There’s often a strong wind that chills to the bone whether it’s rainy or sunny. I barely leave the car to avoid scaring the flocks into flight, and when I do park on the shoulder, I’m careful not to step in the concrete-like mud that can glue itself for days to my shoes.

The journey is about the birds, a spectacle of thousands of them all around me. Their honks and quacks are audible long before they’re visible. Up close, their wings whir like thunder when a flock of snow geese takes to the air all at once. The whole experience leaves me teary-eyed and breathless with wonder.

A late start meant I missed the sunset at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, when snow geese typically take wing en masse heading to the surrounding rice fields to feed, and other birds fly in for the night. Just as it got dark, I decided to drive the six-mile auto route anyway before the staff locked the gate for the night. Blasting the heat with the windows rolled down, I could hear the honking of invisible geese in the air. I switched off the engine and just listened in the darkness. It’s a sound I crave all year during their absence, and there was something magical about hearing it for the first time this season in darkness.

I spent the night at a motel in Willows and climbed into the car in the rain before dawn. It was 47 degrees, about 20 degrees above what it can be when it’s clear. I arrived at the refuge and awaited the return of the geese at sunrise. Only they didn’t come that day, a first in my experience.

Eventually in full daylight, I meandered slowly down the dirt road watching the many species of ducks emerge from their evening resting spots. Bundled up in my thermals and layers, I opened the windows. For the first time in my years of morning visits at the refuge, I could hear the ducks’ calls that are typically drowned out by the chattering geese. It was a sweet, soft chorus. I smiled coming around the bends and greeting the species I hadn’t seen since last year.

Where were the geese? I would have to explore the backroads and look for them.

I took off in search of the snow geese, white-fronted geese and tundra swans, driving the backroads and stopping on the shoulder for whatever surprises greeted me on the way. I love these discoveries, the mix of knowing that something amazing will show up, just not knowing what.

At 8:00, the temperature had risen a single degree to 48. I’d been up for three hours. The wind was blasting now, whistling against the car even with the windows closed. A bald eagle on the ground took flight, working hard as it flapped in the wind and drizzle. A kestrel was wobbling on a wire, barely able to hang on. The horizon was full of distant geese aloft and on the move.

The sky opened up with rain in earnest as I slowly drove down Road Z in anticipation. And there were birds I always seek out, in their usual spot feeding and resting in the flooded field near some rice silos—tundra swans, this time in the company of ducks and white-fronted geese. I rolled down the window to listen to them cooing and put my binoculars up to my eyes. Immediately I was pelted in the face with rain so I leaned over to keep it to a drizzle. And then… thousands of snow geese flew in, circling and cackling away as they descended into the water with the swans. I turned the car around to watch instead through the passenger window, letting my belongings get wet instead of me.

The roaring in this video made on my older generation camera is the sound of the wind masking the more appealing sound of the geese.


Snow geese flying above tundra swans and ducks

I decided to take one more spin through Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge before my drive home. The visitor center staff, who have come to know me, explained that the geese typically spend the day in the refuge only when it’s sunny and prefer the farm fields when it’s overcast and rainy.

I drove the auto tour route again, well under the speed limit of 15, and looked upward for raptors. A soggy peregrine falcon was perched just above me. Further along, I saw a distant dark triangle in a tree, looking like a kite that had gotten stuck. Once I used my binoculars, the kite became a red-tailed hawk, spreading its wings and tail out to dry. There were multiple raptors in that position along the route, soaked from the earlier downpour and unable to fly until they dried out.

Turkey vulture drying wings in Sac Refuge 12-2015
Turkey vultures in Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

I was a little sad when I pointed the car toward the freeway to head home. I drove across the overpass and as I descended before the entrance to I-5 South, in the field in front of me was an enormous flock of snow geese. I stopped on a pull-off and made the short video that’s posted at the top of this post. I couldn’t imagine a better way to end this year’s birding retreat.

Snow geese photo by Len Blumin
Photo of snow geese by Len Blumin, used with permission

I don’t know why being with these birds draws me so irresistibly. I only know that I am deeply moved by their company. My homing instinct brings me every winter on my own rejuvenating migration.

Len Blumin’s stunning bird photography can be found at his Flickr photostream.

 

Dreaming of the Canyon Country

Bryce viewed from the trailhead before descending into the canyon
The view from the trailhead of the Fairyland Loop, Bryce Canyon National Park

Recovering from an injury, this year’s spring hiking season came and went. Although it’s now summer, I’ve been yearning for a favorite springtime destination, the canyon country of the Southwest, so I poked around and found my photos of a trip to Utah. My explorations there date back to the 1980s, but this trip in 2004 was the first to include the new technology of a digital camera.

Although photo-sharing sites have been around a long time, I haven’t wanted to use them because the images alone convey an incomplete picture without a narrative. It’s the writer in me. Now I can unearth the photos and share them with the full story, bringing the experience to life until I can explore the canyons again in person.

Spring in the canyon country is my favorite time to visit. It’s also a gamble, an experiment in arriving late enough to avoid snowstorms but early enough for sufficient moisture to see wildflowers before the dry, intense heat bakes the high desert.

On this particular trip, it was warm and sunny when my friend and I set up camp in Dixie National Forest just outside Bryce Canyon National Park. Without the crowds that come in summer, we had lots of solitude, another reason to come this time of year. Hiking in our tee-shirts through the striking rock formations, we planned to spend at least a couple days there.

Bryce doorway with pine
Archway on the Fairyland Loop, Bryce Canyon National Park

The aptly named Fairyland Loop was stunning. Our eight-mile walk began and ended with a sweeping view for miles. When we returned to the canyon rim, we could see approaching clouds.

During the night at our campsite at 8,000 feet, it started to snow. There were already a couple inches on the ground when we awoke and it was coming down heavily. We broke camp and skedaddled out of there before we got stuck in the infamous muck that the red rock trails and dirt roads become when wet. We drove through the snowstorm on the paved highway to just outside Capitol Reef National Park, low enough at 5,000 feet that the snow had become rain. We spent the night indoors, dried out our wet gear, and waited for the storm to pass.

The next day was cloudy and cool, with ephemeral waterfalls gushing over the canyon walls above the valley in Capitol Reef. With our four-wheel drive car, we navigated the drying but sticky dirt roads to our backcountry campsite. A couple times, we stopped and stuck a trekking pole into the water flowing through the washes across the roadway, measuring the depth to make sure it was safe to drive through them.

At first, the arid environment dried the landscape so thoroughly that there was no sign of the previous downpour and the resulting flash flooding only a day earlier. But then we were lucky enough to be there for the burst of flowers that the high desert is famous for. Within a day, sprouts were visible. Within two days, the first flowers appeared. By the third day, the landscape erupted in color. For the rest of our trip in Utah, everywhere we went, the red rock country had been transformed by the rain.

Dwarf evening primrose blooming after Capitol Reef stormDwarf evening primrose, Capitol Reef National Park


Golden mariposa lily in Capitol Reef vertical croppedGolden mariposa lily, Capitol Reef National Park

Oak and sandstone in Capitol ReefOak and sandstone, Capitol Reef National Park

Common prickly pear near Moab cropped

Common prickly pear cactus, near Moab

Globemallow explosion after desert rain in southern UtahGlobemallow, near Moab

Prince's plume near Moab

Prince’s plume, near Moab

Claret cup cactus in Capitol Reef

Claret cup cactus, near Moab

Another great joy when visiting the canyon country is discovering the rock art by the native people who lived there up to 2,000 years ago. Yep, I need to get back there in the spring.

Petroglyph panel in ArchesPetroglyphs, Arches National Park
(I don’t know the era or tribe of the artists—I welcome that information by email)

Winter Portraits in Contrasting Climates

Stairs and Mississippi River 11-2014

I find it incredible that we can step on an airplane and in a matter of hours go from one climate to another. Although I grew up in frigid and snowy Michigan, I’ve been on the West Coast for many years. Since I don’t have to navigate the day to day difficulties associated with living in northern climes for more than a few days at a time, visiting the Midwest in winter has become novel and exciting.

On Thanksgiving morning a few months ago, I headed out from my relatives’ home in Minneapolis for a walk alone in the park along the Mississippi River on a sunny windless day. It was three degrees.

Covered in every layer known to humanity head to toe except for my nose and eyes, I was comfortable. I wore insulated boots, thermals on top and bottom, a flannel shirt, a fleece jacket, and the vintage thinsulate and wool coat that I’ve had for almost 30 years. Under the insulated hood was a neck warmer covering my chin and a fleece hat, and on my hands were the wool mittens my mother knitted for me decades ago, doubled up with two on each hand and rewoven multiple times to repair the fraying thumbs.

I was delighted to be outdoors in the quiet solitude of the morning. It had been so cold that there was no open water in the broad channel, with solid ice along the banks and mini floes in the middle. I descended down the long stairway to the river’s edge.

Stairway descending to Mississippi River 11-2014 3Between the sounds of crunching through snow underfoot, an accompaniment that took me back to childhood memories of Detroit, I stopped to observe the long shadows of the bare trees and the contrast of grays and browns against the bright blue overhead.

Snow trees and shadows 11-2014 1

Black-capped chickadees flitted above me, adapted to spend the whole winter in such a fierce climate. I later learned that these little songbirds have no measurable fat every morning, yet are able to create and store a fat layer each afternoon that gets them through the night.

Bare tree silhouette 11-2014I returned home to California at the peak of the winter waterfowl migration, what is typically the green season when the rain starts. In early December after the first rains, the parched earth in the Central Valley wildlife refuges was sprouting with green.

Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge sprouting 12-2014Hundreds of thousands of snow geese had arrived to escape the northern winter, congregating in Sacramento and Colusa National Wildlife Refuges.

Snow geese feeding at Colusa 1-2015

Snow geese in Sac 12-2014And later, I enjoyed the return of the green season myself on a favorite trail in Mt. Tamalpais State Park.

Beverly at Mt. Tam 1-2015