.......and Reflections

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Grand Canyon National Park 2013

It’s been over 30 years since I visited Grand Canyon with my family. I probably should have come sooner because it sure is different than I remember. I have to say that it is as busy as any natural place I have ever visited. It has traffic, congestion, and mobs of tourists with Americans being a huge minority. I have met people whether I wanted to or not from France, Germany, Italy, Scotland, China, Japan, and even New Jersey.
I am amazed at how well orchestrated the chaos is handled by the National Park Service and contract services. I am confident that GCNP is one of the elite funded National attractions and I suppose it should be.
There is so much emphasis on the Canyon and the geology that it is the only National Park that neither the National Park nor the Grand Canyon National Park Association publishes a bird checklist. It seems odd to me that the communities of flora and fauna created by this geologic marvel would not attain a much prominent interpretation than it gets.
With that said, it is absolutely breathtaking in every regard. It may be the biggest point of interest on the planet. It is incomprehensible for humble humans to appreciate. It is beautiful, in every way. It changes with the light of the day and it is mesmerizing.
It is really big, it is really deep, and people cannot help but marvel.
Then again the Canyon being the magnet as it is also creates opportunities to avoid the mobs, get where it is quiet and there is plenty of natural history and birding to explore along the rims and into the canyon itself.
As I write I have had Chipping Sparrows, Pygmy Nuthatches, Western Bluebirds, Common Ravens Abert’s Squirrels, Cliff Chipmunks, Black-throated Gray Warblers, and yes yet another herd of Elk visit my campsite.
This morning I walked Hermit Road which is open only to Park shuttle buses  and away from a popular Rim Trail. I saw Williamson’s Sapsucker, Mountain Chickadees, Rock Wrens, Northern Flickers, Juniper Titmice, Pygmy and White-breasted Nuthatches, Western Tanagers, Black-headed Grosbeaks Plumbeous Vireo, White-throated Swifts, Western Bluebirds, and Western Scrub Jays.
Yesterday I walked about a mile of the Bright Angel Trail into the Canyon for a different perspective. It is an easy walk down and a killer trek back up….literally! I walked the easy part. As I was about to turn around because the habitat was pretty much the same farther down I looked up and across the massive canyon and not far from me and at eye level were two soaring California Condors. It was a rare life bird for me and an experience I will never forget.
I have looked for Condors since their reintroduction in California and other places with no success. To see them in the back-drop of the beautiful Grand Canyon was well worth the wait. I got great looks and I got pretty good pictures of them in flight. After they finally disappeared over the Rim of the canyon I did a little ridiculous dance. Don’t tell anybody.
I kept looking for them as I huffed and puffed my way back UP the trail. I never saw them soaring but I discovered them resting on the very edge of the canyon rim. More very distant pictures ensued as did the jubilation.
A footnote to this part of my adventure comes from one small interpretive sign just yards from the Condor perch. It interprets an inconspicuous hole in the ground and some mining equipment artifacts below the rim. It is a now abandoned uranium mine from the 1950’s. It was a desperate but significant necessity of the cold war.
The significance of this obscure exhibit is that we all need to be reminded that all our natural treasures are at risk when our country’s economic, political, and national security interests over shadow saving Condors from extinction. There are fences around the site to protect visitors. The site is still accessible by wildlife and Condors and it is still after clean up toxic. National treasures are and will always remain under siege and only you and I can prevent the loss of these magical places.
When you visit the big places remember that the little things are perhaps the most interesting and the salient part of any visit is what you take away from the experience provided. Make it more than the ride on a tour bus

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Rocky Mountain National Park; The Spine of the Colorado Rockies; and McPhee Recreation AreaRocky Mountain national Park; The Spine of the Colorado Rockies; and McPhee Recreation AreaRocky Mountain National Park; The Spine of the Colorado Rockies; and McPhee Recreation Area

This trip is planned around my attendance to an annual Summit of the Association of Nature Center Administrators (ANCA) in Huntington Beach, California. Although I am retired I still enjoy catching up on the nature center field and spending time with great professionals and people.
With that said, late August isn’t the best time to see many birds since most breeders are done and the adults and young birds are dispersed. Singing has ceased for the most part and birds are often elusive in the heat of the late summer.
Birding in Iowa and the plains was really pretty slow. The same could be said for the Rocky Mountains. But post breeding dispersal provides more opportunities to find the birds that have left their nesting habitat.
Make no mistake, the grandeur of the Rockies is unparalleled. Rocky Mountain National Park is the signature of the Rocky Mountain State, Colorado. The east face of this park is better than the west face simply because the natural diversity is greater. I stayed in Moraine Campground on the east side.
Again the birding was disturbingly quiet. Then I ran into a flock of mixed species and I realized that most of what I had hoped to see was there, but I just had to find the flocks. These flocks were made up of representatives of various habitats. I had Yellow, McGillivray’s , Townsend’s, Wilson’s, and Yellow-rumped Warblers, Cordilleran Flycatcher, Western Tanager, Mountain Chickadees, and Stellar’s Jays, sometimes in a single flock.
I looked for two species that are togh to find. The first was Northern Three-toed Woodpecker. I found it in an area known for breeding in Quaking Aspens.
The second was White-tailed Ptarmigan, a bird of the tundra above tree line. I tried several places above 10,000 feet with no luck. I finally went to a trail on Medicine Bow Curve  where they are known to breed. I had no luck and was not surprised. This is a bird I have seen only once and searched for many times and places.
The next day I tried again. No luck with the bird but I and a research student studying the Ptarmigans  got run off the trail by an approaching high elevation thunder storm. She was tracking two broods of Ptarmigans with broods that were moving and feeding up and down the slopes.
The storm broke and the sun shined as if it had never happened. I went along the trail again. But there were no Ptarmigans. So I slowly worked my way back to the parking area and I saw some movement in the very short tundra grass. It was a WT Ptarmigan chick! Then there was 2 and then 4 and eventually I counted 6 chicks with a very disciplinary hen. I was elated!
On this same trail I also saw a patrolling Northern Goshawk trailed by a Prairie Falcon. The Ptarmigan is difficult to find because it is difficult to survive in a harsh and hostile environment where predators are a real threat especially to innocent and inexperienced chicks. A bonus was a Brown-capped Rosy-finch, the only one I saw in all the Tundra.
From RMNP I traveled the spine of the Rockies more or less along the Continental Divide where the birding was more of the same as RMNP without the specialties. I moved on to McPhee Recreation Area in SW Colorado not far from Mesa Verde National Park.
I picked McPhee by default on line because my choices were already booked. I t is in the Middle of Nowhere and the scrubby arid landscape wasn’t all that inviting. However, what do I know? IT was the BIRDIEST PLACE I HAVE BEEN TO since May at Magee Marsh.
I did some pishing in the Pinyon Pine/ Juniper in the evening and I had about a dozen Black-throated Gray Warblers, Virginia’s Warbler, Grace’s Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Black-headed Grosbeak, Rufous Hummingbird, Gray and Plumbeous Vireos, Gray Flycatcher, Spotted Towhee, and Western Wood Peewees to mention in the juniper and pine.
I also visited Mesa Verde National Park where the birds were similar as was the habitat. It was a very interesting place with a rich Native American Pueblo theme. The structures that adorn the cliffs are incredible. I intend to go back to satisfy my interest in archeology.
The highlight of my stay in SW Colorado was being serenaded by a surprising Ferruginous Pygmy-owl at my campsite. This is a tropical owl that I know well from my time in Central and South America. I played the vocalizations of other “tooters” that are known in this habitat and it wasn’t Northern Pygmy-owl, or Saw-whet Owl.
I am writing from Grand Canyon National Park and I have some exciting experiences to share and I’ll start sharing the wonderful things that looking for birds can produce in exploring little or well known places in the middle of nowhere.

West Farmington to California Road Birding Trip 2013: Going West

With all the best intentions, blogging every day along the way just isn’t practical. So I will bring the trip up to date and then report as internet service and time permits.
It is a long way from home in Ohio to California. I am writing from Grand Canyon National Park in Northern Arizona and 2,500 miles from home. I still have a lot of ground to cover! I traveled 12 hours and stopped in Iowa at Prairie Rose State Park for camping and some Eastern birding to set the pace for the rest of the trip.
Prairie Rose is a recreation area that has enhanced habitat: a peaceful place with trees, a lake, and habitats attractive to wildlife and birds. It hints of what Iowa might have been before it became a sea of corn and cash crops.
My next stop was southwestern Nebraska along the Platte River where I visited The Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary world famous for the 80,000 Sandhill Cranes congregate each year. I saw none. It is a great stop in any regard and the staff was friendly and helpful.
I spent the night at Red Willow State Recreation Area but the birds and the landscape remained much like Iowa: lots of agriculture.
But the terrain began to roll and the corn began to diminish and the hills were becoming short grass and pasture. Western Nebraska is very different from the eastern and central cultivation.
The third night I stayed in Crow Valley Recreation Area in the middle of Pawnee National Grasslands in northeastern Colorado. At last the prairie! Now I am hearing Western Meadowlarks. I found a Bullock’ Oriole in a stand of willows. Here I watched a Northern Mockingbird successfully harass a Swainson’s Hawk in flight. Loggerhead Shrikes appeared on telephone wires……..yes those antiquated wires of days gone by. I doubt I will ever see a bird quietly perched on cellular waves or underground cables.
The evening was filled with a thunderstorm, passing close by, that performed a spectacular lightning show and moved on its way to reveal a spectacular star show, including a meteor shower. But the best of this evening was an evening sky filled with Common Nighthawks buzzing the tree tops of the campground. Then, as the night stars glimmered, a Great Horned Owl perched near hooted into the stillness on the prairie.
My western journey was now a reality. Pawnee National Grasslands is a great host into a great adventure to places well known and some others in the middle of nowhere.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Signs of Change and Time to Explore: A Road Trip

I drink my morning coffee out of a thermos. Almost every morning I start my day in my yard with binoculars and coffee, casually looking and listening for all the birds on and around the farm. The world seems to be in order to start the day with the chirping of Purple Martins, the rattle of the Eastern Meadowlark, the bubbly Bobolink song, and the trill of the Savannah Sparrow.
This morning I started my routine as usual, and time is marching on. We are having an unusual cold snap for July and the air is cool, crisp and hinting that fall is approaching somewhere in the not-too-distant future. The pastures are harvested or cut. There is not a sign of any Red-winged Blackbirds, Meadowlarks, or Bobolinks. The chorus is changing. The 2013 crop of nestlings are fledged and the birds are moving. The new pasture growth is rejuvenating, but for all practical purposes summer is closing.
I have been thinking about and planning a trip to California for nearly a year. I envisioned a road trip of camping and exploring the American heartland and west, taking a northerly route to Huntington Beach California and a southerly return through the southwest. I have mapped out my route including birding in Southern California for about a week.  I will travel some 6,000 miles in about 7 weeks. Each and every day will begin with binoculars and coffee, and I will be exploring some of the most wonderful real estate on the planet each day, until my head hits the pillow.
This is but another of many natural history road trip of various lengths and destinations, but by far the longest and farthest so far. I am compelled to do this by my passion for nature, birds, wildlife, and especially wild places. This wander lust, although probably wired within from birth, was encouraged by several catalysts early in my life. There is one that fueled my interest in travel and exploring.
While studying Natural Resources at OSU, I attended a program at the Mershon Auditorium on The Ohio State University campus that was part of a “travel-log” series. It was, I remember, a speaker narration synchronized beautifully to wonderful film. It was a program series that documented the slapstick adventures of two brothers that traveled around the Rocky Mountains in an old flatbed truck with a cabin built on the bed of the truck. This series covered the Rocky Mountains from Mexico to Alaska. I can’t remember the names of the presenters, nor the program titles. It was, as I recollect more entertaining than it was educational but it was a visual experience that resonated and sparked something in my heart that strengthened my resolve for adventure.   
It seems to me that many people have interests and activities they pursue to escape reality. I bird watch, study nature, and seek outdoor adventures to immerse myself in reality. Seven weeks of exploring will have some challenges but it will yield incomparable and memorable experiences that can be found no other way.
My trusty 2002 Toyota Tacoma is tuned and primed for the journey……and I might add, my expert mechanic is Jim Berry, who is the greatest naturalist I have ever known. I am mostly packed. I have checklists of all the stuff I will need for a long journey. I am still working out a system to blog about my experiences and share the discoveries with those that have an interest.
I will depart August 8, 2013 for the Nebraska and eastern Colorado prairies like Pawnee National Grasslands, Rocky Mountain National Park, along the Continental Divide and then east to Monte Verde National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, Las Vegas, and Joshua Tree National Park. Finally I will arrive for dinner on August 24th with my nature center colleagues at the Association of Nature Center Administrators annual Summit at the Environmental Nature Center in Huntington Beach. After about 6 days in Southern California I will be heading once again east for great birding in SE Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and probably Oklahoma before heading home.
This morning’s walk on the farm was telling me that regardless of the weather, the fall migration in August and September is eminent and my timing for a road trip is likely to be more productive than I had envisioned.
Stay tuned for stories and pictures from the field afar. Visit Where The Middle of Nowhere Is Somewhere beginning in August and follow my adventures until I return to the Farm in Ohio.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Life on the Farm with Louie, Boogie, and Purple Martins

It’s a rainy day. I planned to use today to mend fences on our one enclosed pasture. But had no choice but to spend the morning on our enclosed porch, drinking coffee, and watching whatever birds braving the damp elements. I often see or hear some forty species of birds on a summer day on this Trumbull County farm. Watching birds always makes a damp day a little brighter.
Our house is Amish built and once Amish owned but now converted to modern utilities or to “English” as the Amish might say. With the property we inherited two very active Purple Martin houses just off the front porch. The Amish appreciate the Martin’s insatiable diet for pesky insects and especially mosquitoes. Summer days are full of Martin chatter, acrobatic flights and plenty of social interactions within the colony.
The Purple Martins have fledged several young birds and still in the process. This morning I noticed a young Purple Martin on the ground in the vicinity of the feeders. Martins are pretty much aerial creatures but like to perch on wires, sometimes trees, and occasionally on bushes. They do not land on the ground and if so aren’t there but for a few seconds.
The fledgling Martin is in trouble, or at least very vulnerable to predators. The young bird cannot yet fly. It won’t be long…..but it is an eternity when there is danger all around. The problem is compounded by rain soaked wings and body. A safer place to be would be in a tree with some cover from the rain and off the ground.
Being the human that I am, I began to think about ways I might help this poor helpless fledgling bird from the many hazards of the farm. I could go out there, fetch the bird and place it up in a tee. I could stand guard until the bird is ready to fly. So I did none of that, but watched, took pictures and thought about what the hazards might be and a little more about the best course of action.
I watched, no less than, a dozen Purple Martins over the course of a couple of hours tend, in their own way to the protection of the single bird. They would fly around and over very close to the fledgling. At first it seemed only a presence. Then I realized they were coaxing the fledgling closer to bushes by the porch where the bird was out in the open expanses of the yard.
I saw two immediate threats that I could control. The first and greatest is our barn cat Boogie. The second threat, although I am not so sure how serious, is our rescue Pit Bull, Louie. So I retrieved Boogie and put him in the house where he spends most of his time when not patrolling the barn for rodents. I locked Louie on the porch with me where he mostly sleeps, snores, and probably contemplates life, like I do.
While I was pondering and observing, I heard the familiar call of our resident Red-shouldered Hawks. It caused me to recollect that last year I witnessed the hawks fetch two Martins. In spite of several attacking Martins, I saw martins in the hawk’s talons as they made off for a meal. I assumed that they were fledgling martins, probably on the ground just like this bird…unable to escape the opportunistic Red-shouldered Hawk. It is important to note that this species of hawk is not a bird eater. While it eats mice and snakes it is not equipped to catch the normally too quick and fleeting birds.
The Purple Martins were prepared to dive bomb the cat and thwarting the would-be predator, I surmised. They would have done the same to Louie, although I doubt that Louie would pay attention to either the fledgling or the attack of the Martins. But the Martins ultimately were most concerned about the Red-shouldered Hawk, who demonstrated that it would surely take advantage of the situation.
By waiting and watching I was reminded of my firm belief that intervention in nature is usually not a wise or effective course of action. I spent more than 20 years administering and engaging in wildlife rehabilitation and I learned very early on, that taking nature’s course was an important element to the balance of nature. I sometimes results in outcomes we do not prefer but the odds of the outcome being positively resolved is far greater without intervention. I have learned to trust the system and to control my humanitarian inclinations.
I can’t control nature but I can control the hazards I have introduced into nature. So Louie and Boogie were deprived of acting badly, and the fledgling Martin left to its own devices and the appropriate support built into the life-history of the Purple Martin.
I got a little smarter on a rainy morning. I saw another example of how much more complex nature really is than is generally acknowledged. We are better served to control what we do, than to try to control nature. I still remove turtles, snake, and frogs from busy highways but I will contemplate that another time, perhaps, on a nicer day when I am repairing pasture fences.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Amiable American Toad

I started out the mud room door the other morning, and sitting quite where I was ready to step, was an American Toad. So I gently reached down and picked up the large amphibian and relocated it in the grass off the porch. I felt good about having that big old toad around. I like toads and I’m not sure exactly why.
So a few days later, I decided to organize my wood pile on the porch and split a little kindling for those cool evening fires we will occasional raise this summer. As I worked, I looked down and there was that toad just sitting there apparently unconcerned about being exposed or threatened by my presence. It wasn’t going anywhere. It just sat there.
Well, I couldn’t help but admire this fearless amphibian. It’s hard not to like a wild thing so cool, calm, and collected. Then I began to feel a little silly because I really don’t know as much about toads as I should….or at least enough to admire them so. And when one is quilted into stupidity it was time to do a little research. That’s what wild things can do.
Toads and frogs are related but they aren’t the same. There are a whole lot of anatomical differences, but the best description works great for me: frogs leap and toads hop. This is a brilliant and accurate description, requiring no PhD. It is truly fitting that the unconcerned toad would hop away and not “leap to safety” like its more skittish relatives.
It’s hard to imagine that toads are considered by some to be repulsive and, in a less enlightened time, associated with sorcery and who knows what else. I guess it must be the “warts” on their back and the fact that they “pee” on you when you pick them up. These observations evolved into the myth that toads can give people warts. Many a responsible parent has exposed their wisdom, or lack- there-of, when they told their children not to pick them up for the potential to end up with warts. I guess it is better to speak with conviction, than it is to actually know what you are talking about.
The warts on the bumps of toad’s backs and “peeing” when handled are part of the toad’s survival strategy. The bumps are glands that produce a liquid that can burn sensitive mouth tissues of other animals. Most animals will quickly drop the toad because of the irritation and will cause hesitation to make the same mistake of trying to eat the inviting toad the next encounter. The same toxin is usually expelled through the cloaca when the toad is picked up. So while it would irritate the mouth of a person, the toxin is harmless to humans. Wouldn’t it be better to encourage generations of children not to “eat” toads rather than that other thing?
Like frogs, toads gather in shallow pools in the spring, where each female lays about 12,000 eggs that hatch into jet-black tadpoles that become tiny toads in June. Toads like moist areas where they absorb water through their skin because they don’t drink water. They are found in such places almost everywhere, urban and rural. If you mulch your beds, you are inviting toads. And you want toads around because they eat a lot of insects, slugs, earthworms, sow bugs, and larvae. One report estimates that the average toad eats about 10,000 insects during the three months of the summer.
I learned a lot about toads that I should have already known. It does not, however, explain why I never met a toad I didn’t like. Thankfully there are things in nature that one can love and respect without knowing all the facts: like hearing a flying hummingbird and not having to see it to bring a smile on your face or finding a toad in the woodpile. I just like the amiable American Toad and a myriad of life in “nowhere”, large and small.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Something Wonderful This Way Comes

Nature study is about learning about natural communities. Bird watching is an avocation that provides a window into natural communities. If you have followed my blog you should know that the Middle of Nowhere is somewhere where interesting, captivating, enlightening and often fascinating things are revealed.

I travel far from home to surround myself with wildlife that has long departed most of the more developed places in Ohio and the Great Lakes region. I often wonder what Ohio must have been like decades before I arrived on the scene. My travels gives me insight into what once was, and still thrives in wilder North American places.

Yesterday was like almost every day. I started a route I often take through Mosquito Creek Wildlife Area some 10 miles from home. I stopped to listen for birds along the way. Without hearing much, I watched a Meadow Vole scurry across the road in front of me. I thought to myself that it is fortunate to see one of the refuge's smallest mammals.

I continued to another location a few hundred yards down the road to a place I know Prothonotary Warblers nest. I got out of my truck and strolled casually along the road. There was a lot of activity. A Baltimore Oriole was calling and a Warbling Vireo competing. The Prothonotary Warblers sang too. A Pileated Woodpecker flew along the side of the road and wood ducks announced their flight with a familiar drawn out "wheep". Three Wild Turkeys crossed the road ahead and I thought I should move further along to try for a singing Cerulean Warbler.

I was thinking about how the sky, the habitats, the sounds and sights reminded me of many other wild places I have visited. As I walked casually toward my truck I looked down the road flanked by wet, I looked toward the wooded forest to where I would next stop. I was astonished to see an American Black Bear walking slowly and casually across the road about 300 yards away. I was so shocked I forgot to use my binoculars.

As if in slow motion the Bear traversed the span of the road and disappeared into the forest. I said to myself.........and to the whole forest....."I can't believe I just saw a bear in Mosquito Creek!"

After gathering my emotions I realized maybe I could get down to the spot where the bear might be. I jumped in my truck and went to a place close to where the bear entered the forest. I quietly exited the truck and began walking and listening with hopes of just one more glimpse.

I saw nothing. But out from the forest came a nearby, and distinct "crack!". It was a branch breaking that could only resonate from the weight or strength of something formidable. It was the bear I could not see but moving away from my intrusion. Although disappointed, the breaking branch was a fitting conclusion to the encounter. The bear wanted nothing to do with me and was perfectly content to continue on his way through his forest.

Bears are no strangers to Ohio and the Ohio Division of Wildlife keeps "credible bear sighting" records hoping to keep tabs on their movement in the state. Bears come to Ohio's eastern counties from West Virginia and this case Pennsylvania. I am pretty certain this bear was a male as he was perhaps trimmer than a female. This particular bear is of interest because most sightings are in May. A June 5th sighting isn't too far from normal but there is a possibility this may be more than a wandering visitor so the Ohio Division of Wildlife experts will hope to get more reports so they can piece the situation together.
This was an awesome sighting and punctuates the purpose of getting "out there" and exploring the natural world. After spending a lifetime exploring Ohio I was rewarded with a rare and beautiful sighting of an American Black Bear.

Reflecting on the whole incident gives me hope. I have always felt starved for the adventure of co-existing among those creatures that are often feared but grossly misunderstood. Bears rightfully deserve our utmost respect and, in my opinion, our greatest admiration. I strongly believe that the Middle of Nowhere belongs to wild things. That bears are rare here, is probably good for them and us. Where bears frequent the human community, it often results unfavorably, usually for the bears.

Once that bear walked into the woods and no matter how rare that may be, my belief that the Middle of Nowhere is often in our own back yards is confirmed. The Mosquito Creek Wildlife Area is a diverse community of wild things as small as a Meadow Vole and as large as a Black Bear. That it revealed its secrets through the bear is simply awesome!!