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

Why I’m Going to Arizona for the Election

flag-lapel-in-hand-10-2016-cropped-smallIt was in July that I made my decision about what I needed to do.

I had already watched the Supreme Court decimate the Voting Rights Act. I’d been appalled at how state after state subsequently passed laws to restrict which Americans could vote. And when the Republican Party named their candidate for president with his hateful rhetoric, I resolved to act.

With no issues in my home state, I’m volunteering for the presidential election in Arizona. I’ll be joining the efforts of the Arizona Advocacy Network’s Election Protection team in the Phoenix area, where the Maricopa County sheriff is nationally infamous for violating civil rights.

I’m going because I’m patriotic.

With so much at stake, I am compelled to counter those who reference American values in the most perverse language possible—citing freedom as a basis for hate and promoting violence against those who don’t meet their standards of whom their fellow Americans should be. I’m reclaiming their adjectives and slogans to promote the best of American values. Liberty for all. Regardless of what we look like, what language we speak, what country we were born in, what religion we believe in or not. And so many other freedoms.

I cannot let the fear-mongering go unchallenged. The America I believe in doesn’t discriminate. My America opens the door for every voter.

On election day, I will be there with my flag lapel on. For liberty and justice for all.

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.

 

Speaking Up as an Ally for My Fellow Humans

“As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage.” – Peggy McIntosh

Some years ago, I was waiting in line for the bathroom at the grocery store when someone mentioned it needed attention and she was going to find an employee to take care of it. The man waiting behind me, white as I am, commented to me that the bathroom wasn’t appropriately clean because employers hire Mexicans and they don’t do a good job.

I wanted him to stop saying such horrible things, so initially I wasn’t responsive. The door to the other bathroom opened and I went in, giving me just enough time to prepare for the rest of the conversation I knew I needed to have when I came out.

The man was still there. I politely said something like this: “I need to let you know that just because I am also white, it doesn’t mean that it’s okay with me to categorize an entire group of people based on their ethnicity, and I found what you said offensive.” At first he was stunned, and then he grew angry. I responded: “I realize you are describing your experience. That is not my experience, and however you intended it, what you said landed as offensive for me.” I ended the conversation and left.

Beneath my external calm, I was shaking. But I had taken the critical step across our societal line of complicity. I landed on the side of using my privilege to make a difference instead of taking advantage of it in silence as I had for many years before that. I doubt that I changed that guy’s mind. But there’s a good chance he would hesitate before saying such poison words to someone else.

I cannot return to a place of silence. The nonviolence trainings I participated in decades ago when I was attending protests against nuclear power and logging of ancient redwoods seem even more relevant in these times of increasing hate and violence. I stand upon my Buddhist practice as another layer of the foundation. With so much at stake, I must keep reaching out to make that human connection for a better world.

How do I look bigotry in the face and see the humanity of the person on the other side, to change our society in my daily interactions without falling into a hateful place myself? This is my ongoing practice.

With that in mind this Independence Day weekend, I took myself to the county fair where volunteers had set up booths for this year’s presidential candidates. I have never met anyone who supports the Republican Party’s scary nominee—I can’t bring myself to type his name on this blog—and I wanted to look in their faces, have a conversation with them, try to understand.

I spent the first part of the day soaking up the upbeat energy of the fair—the determination of the kids in 4-H showing off their dogs’ agility training, the jugglers and music, the artwork and photographs in the galleries, the taste of roasted corn on the cob. Then I made my way to the red, white and blue booth.

So much of understanding is just about listening, so I started there. I listened to the man beside me explain to the volunteers that he believes in the Constitution, and that’s why he is going to vote for the nominee. I believe in the Constitution, too, I thought, which is why I came to the exact opposite conclusion. Someone came by and bought a bumper sticker. And then it was just me and the three women, facing me across their table piled with books, stickers, a clipboard to sign up to help the campaign. They appeared to be about my age or a little older. One of them greeted me.

“I’m here because I’d like to find out why you support the nominee,” I began, as politely as I could. Two of them took turns responding with the catch phrases I’ve been reading for months. “A strong military.” “Securing our borders.” “Keeping us safe.” They then asked me about my opinion.

I started with explaining that when the nominee was asked a question by a reporter with a disability at a press conference, he made fun of the reporter’s disability. All three of them nodded and one softly said, “Yes, that was unfortunate.” Another said, “Well, he doesn’t practice, he just says what he thinks.” Indeed, I thought.

“I’m Jewish,” I said. “And a lot of what he says about Muslims and immigration reminds me of what so many people said about Jews during World War II when they refused to let them into their countries when they were targeted by the Nazis. You could swap the word Jews for Muslims and that’s how it seems today. I think that’s racist.” The reply: “Oh no, it’s not the same. Jews weren’t terrorists.”

And so the conversation went, as they ticked off familiar buzzwords about the Koran and allowing Muslims into the U.S. To keep my center, I visualized the darker-skinned faces of Americans I care about who were born in other countries. That helped me stay calm. I said that the Bible promotes some pretty awful things but that doesn’t mean Christians act on them all, and asked if they’d personally met anyone who is Muslim. They stammered.

One woman asked me who I liked in the election. “I don’t like either of them, actually,” I said, “but I am voting for the other candidate because I find the nominee so frightening.”

We talked a little more. Our conversation was uncomfortable. They drew closer together and I think they might have been a little afraid of what I might say or do. It was time to wrap up. “Well, I see we disagree. Thank you for talking with me.”

I walked away, breathed deeply and set out to locate something uplifting. As a counterpoint, I happened upon the booth for the firefighters, people who risk their lives responding to anyone who needs help without discrimination. I smiled watching them help little kids climb into the fire truck and listened to the children laughing as they placed their tiny hands on the steering wheel.

I came away with a few things from the county fair. A book on local trails, information about where to recycle some old electronics, a framed photograph of a beach that I’m attached to. And a reminder that there is no us vs. them—there is only us. To create an equitable world requires dialogue even with those whose world view I find harmful. Staying silent is staying complicit. On this Independence Day, I recommit myself to freedom for all, being an ally and continuing to speak up.

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.