Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Donner and Blitzen Wild and Scenic River

I did return to spend a second night at the Page Springs Campground (during which I saw a shooting star and observed stellar open clusters, the Pleiades being one example, though not my favorite). Upon awakening I first hiked a nature trail that does a loop to the east of the campground, going up on a ridge with an expansive view. This is the view looking north, into the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

The sun was low on the horizon and the light seemed to catch a spider web in such a way that it refracted all the colors of the rainbow. I guess I've seen dew sparkle on a web, but I can't recall seeing the web itself so colorful.

While I was enjoying the view a Western Meadowlark flew to the top of a nearby juniper tree and as I focused the camera it flew on to another spot. I just managed to get it in the picture as it flew. A little blurry, but the combination of blue, yellow and black is wonderful. Three great colors that go great together.

The trail headed north along the crest of a basalt ridge line above the campground and I had a nice view of the campground, which was quite obviously extensively renovated recently. New gravel, fire pits, picnic tables, restrooms and water spigots were everywhere. There were so many good sites I was not sure if I wanted to camp on the river and use my tent as a blind to watch the ducks or park under the juniper trees to feel a bit secluded. In the end I decided to camp under the junipers and avoided the golf course feel of the grassy north end which is shown in the photo below.

As I enjoyed the sunrise view a bird approached, flying upstream. Perhaps a Bald Eagle? It seemed to be black with a white head. As it got closer I aimed my camera and began to follow it ... and just as I pressed the shutter it passed behind a juniper tree. I got a blurry photo of the tree. But, as quickly as my inexpensive camera would allow (after a few seconds of saving the photo) I reacquired the bird, now slightly past me, focused again and shot another frame. It was a Raven flying with an egg in its beak!

The Raven flew upriver and I took a photo of the view in that direction. It really seemed like I should venture further upstream, to see what would be found there.

The Donner and Blitzen Wild and Scenic River flows through the Page Springs Campground. The river was named by the US Cavalry who were there to fight Indians, the name is German for thunder and lightning. Originally Dunder and Blitzen. It was stormy when they crossed the river on horseback.

The path dropped into a gully and headed back toward the campground, becoming more moist as I neared the springs and river. Water striders lived in little pools in the rocks.

As I was almost to the campground I came to a gate, and on the other side was this sign. I didn't know I was in an area that was part of the National Wilderness Preservation System. Wilderness is an area where the forces of nature predominate, where humans are casual visitors instead of residents, and where the opportunity for primitive, unconfined recreation is outstanding ... an area untrammeled by humans.

After this walk I took the other trail out of the campground and headed upriver. The trail wound through a thicket of teasel. Teasel heads were used by the early white settlers to "tease" wool. For those who have made a sweater from sheep fur, that action is called "carding" today. It is the action of drawing the wool through comb like brushes to get all the fibers aligned and cleaned prior to spinning them into yarn.

The deep blue sky reflected in the water of springs. And the new green water plants made it difficult to imagine I was in a sagebrush desert. The trees and shrubs had not yet leaved out, so this was a nice sign that springtime was fast approaching.

Overhead three raptors circled in the warming air, rising toward the crescent moon. This adult male Northern Harrier flew close to the sliver allowing me to get this photo of both in one frame. While some use digital manipulation to combine elements, or remove elements, from photos, that is something I try to avoid. I do color correction and contrast and brightness adjustments just as a technician in a photo lab would do when printing from a negative. I worked in photo labs for many years, printing literally thousands of photos, some from quite marginal negatives.

I saw a caterpillar and thought about the cutthroat trout that darted for cover when I looked into the river. I imagine that a fishing lure made to resemble this little creature would attract some of those big fish!

The day was getting warm, so I sat by the river for a while, enjoying the musical gurgling and splashing. Can you hear it?

It was tempting to just lie down and go to sleep here in the warm sun, with the sound of the water ... but I'll have to continue to work on my ability to slow down from the pace of modern civilization. It's a skill I desire to regain.

My camera batteries are nearly all exhausted and the memory cards nearly full. For me, half the fun is downloading the photos and seeing what is there, and sharing them with friends and family, like on this blog. You might think I know what I have when I click the shutter ... but that's not the case. Will the photo be blurry or in focus? No way to tell at the time. What was that bird that just flew off? I'm not sure, but I'll have time to study the photo and decide later. The camera lens is similar in magnifying power to my binoculars and the constantly active birds are frozen in the moment when I press the shutter.

I said goodbye to the Say's Phoebe that was building a nest by my campsite and headed out of the campground.

I saw about a dozen gulls circling on a rising updraft and this Ring-billed Gull was close enough to see the ring on the bill. Gulls can be difficult to tell apart, especially if two species interbreed.

When I told them at Headquarters that the White-faced Ibis were back they were interested in the location. The woman at the desk wanted to go see them herself. That is understandable because they are a large, beautiful bird. They're the size of a Great Blue Heron, but their feathers shine with a glossy green or dark violet color, depending on how the light hits them. There were a few hundred in the flock. They were a bit far away, but the color still shows nicely in this photo of a few that were closer than the others.

I then turned homeward, taking a route I've never traveled before, across the sagebrush ocean. I mentioned that I had seen gulls and others circling on updrafts. Did you know that a dust devil is where a bubble of warm air is breaking the cohesion it has to the ground, rising above the cooler air like a hot air balloon, and often at the top of this vortex a puffy white cumulus cloud forms where the warm moist air hits the cooler air in the upper atmosphere. There are a lot of ways to "see" the invisible air, such as dust, birds circling and rising without wing beats, or ripples on a grassy field or surface of a lake.

As I drove I saw a huge bird in the distance on a utility pole. A juvenile Bald Eagle.

And, a sleek bird in a field caused me to stop for a look, and this Prairie Falcon circled once before going on its way. And, with that, I made my way home past the flowering fruit trees of southwest Idaho, arriving home after dark; tired, but excited to start editing all my photos and blogging about all the cool things I saw and experienced.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Page Springs Campground and Diamond Craters ONA

I must say that I really and truly enjoyed the Page Springs Campground. First of all, when it got dark, everyone went to sleep. Not like when I visited the Everglades National Park. There when it got dark everyone got drunk, ran their generators for their RVs, and had these nifty camping lanterns that were so bright one could not see the stars. Now, for those who like that kind of thing, by all means go to a campground that resembles a singles bar. But, for a birder, this is one great campground.

The Donner and Blitzen Wild and Scenic River goes right through the campground and there is a trail up the river. Another nature trail goes into the designated Wilderness area, part of the National Wilderness Preservation System.

So, before the sun rose, the ancient call of Sandhill Cranes roused me to get out of the sleeping bag. There was frost on the ground so I found the best way to warm up was to go for a hike, first just a short distance up the river, then around the campground. The campground was full of birds, including some I had never yet photographed!

This tiny ball of fluff is a Bushtit. They never hold still! There was a Ruby-crowned Kinglet with the flock, but I had never, ever, seen a Bushtit in my entire life so even the Kinglet showing off his spectacular red crest wouldn't distract me from struggling to focus on this hyper little critter among the brambles.

As I walked further in the campground I came to a tree full of ... hmm, what are those? Are they Black-headed Grosbeak? No, Evening Grosbeak! I have seen them before, but didn't get a photo. This time they were sitting in the morning sun, warming up with a flock of Cedar Waxwings.

I was torn between going to see birds and seeing birds. Why go anywhere if the campground is full of birds? There's a colorful Spotted Towhee.

What a dilemma. Well, maybe I will have to return to this campground again tonight.

I set off with no particular destination in mind, but thinking that there was a lot of the auto tour route yet to be completed. I had only made it to stop #9 of 19. And, there was a big pond that I had not yet looked at. On the way to the pond I heard the raucous chatter of Marsh Wren and snapped a photo.

The Krumbo Reservoir was full of birds, but closed to entry until next weekend, so I set up my scope on the overlook. Far, far away was an Eared Grebe, one of the species I had come to see and photograph. It would have been smaller than a speck in a photo. It was also the first reported sighting of the year for that species for the Refuge, as was the Pied-billed Grebe. I even was the first to report the Say's Phoebe, and they had been there for months no doubt because they were paired up and making a nest next to my campsite. It isn't always that I was the first to see these birds, but I took the time to write them down on the list at the Headquarters.

Disappointed at the distance to the Grebe and concerned that it would get very hot on this clear day I decided to go to the Diamond Craters Outstanding Natural Area. If one is going to visit a lava field, early morning when it is cooler is always a good idea. On the way there I had to stop in the road as it was filled with a herd of cows and calves, two cowboys on horseback, and some black and white cow dogs moving the bovines from one pasture to another. After the traffic jam passed me by I drove spattering through cow pies for a few miles. The little truck formerly known as Dusty now became his alter-ego, Stinky. Maybe the guys in 10-gallon hats were in cowhoots with the car wash industry?

Once again I found there was a kiosk with an excellent full-color brochure with marked auto tour stops to learn about geology and natural history. I loved the colors in the rocks.

This is the overlook to Big Bomb Crater.

In the near distance is a shield volcano, where lava flowed out of the vent and slowly built up height over time. Let's go look into the hole!

That sure looks like a lot of white bird poop on the far wall. Let's look with the scope and see what's going on. Aha! Don't tell anyone, this Great-horned Owl might even be on a nest for all I know. At the very least, it is a well-used roost.

I read on the interpretive sign that this is one of the very few places, if not the only place, where both the Rock Wren and Canyon Wren coexist in the same very local habitat. They do have very different songs and coloration, but usually they also have somewhat different habitats. I heard them both singing. Here's the bright rufous Canyon Wren now.

Another interesting resident is a melanistic lizard. Melanin is the dark pigment in their skin. They need that to blend in with the dark rocks.

Well, it's starting to heat up ... time to get back to photographing ducks at the Refuge!

OK, *another* of my "favorite" birds ... the fanciful Ruddy Duck. It is a stiff-tailed duck. See what I mean? And, yeah, that silly blue bill is just beaked right onto the face.

Whoa, brakes. I've only seen a shrike one time in my life, and that was just this year, in the Everglades. I took this photo hanging out the passenger side window (after I stopped Dusty and put it in park, of course) then tried to back up for a closer look. The shrike would have nothing to do with the blind coming back for a second pass, and it flew off. I subsequently read up on the difference between the Loggerhead Shrike, which I had seen in Florida, and the Northern Shrike which occasionally can be found in wintertime throughout Idaho and Oregon. Now maybe I'm wrong about this, but the very narrow mask is quite different than the wide mask on the bird I photographed in Florida. And, the Evening Grosbeak is also a winter bird and I photographed one this morning. So, perhaps this is a photo of the first Northern Shrike I have ever seen. OK, you talked me into it. I'm putting it on the list.

The Black-tailed Jackrabbit rarely sits for a photo. This one was photographed through the bug-spattered windshield, then disappeared into the sagebrush.

There must have been a million coots there. This is just one of them.

Most of the Ring-necked Pheasants were very wary, running away as I slowed to photograph. This one was perhaps dumber. It'll be under glass come autumn. I wonder if they get the name "ring-necked" from the godawful squawking noise they make.
It was getting on toward dusk, and again I had not finished the whole auto tour route. I kept stopping to take photos and enjoy the scenery. There was this odd shape on the side of a ditch, and so without being really sure I just braced the camera without a tripod, jamming it onto my fingers and bracing against a boulder to hold it level and shot three frames of what really seemed to be a Black-crowned Night-Heron. Yeah, I'm looking at the photo now. That's a Black-crowned Night-Heron all right.
Stay tuned, there's more to come ...

Bully for Malheur NWR

Created in 1908 by President Teddy Roosevelt, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Oregon is an important stopover point for ducks, geese and other birds on their northward migration. I drove over on Friday and explored this beautiful area which is only four hours from my home.

My first stop was the Headquarters. This is known for its amazing variety of warblers when they come through around Memorial Day weekend in May. Anytime of the year it seems to be a haven for birds and wildlife. The Belding's Ground Squirrels were my favorite. I don't know who gave them the nickname "Sage Rat".

I saw two different kinds of snakes. Though there can be rattlesnakes there, I was pleased that the first one I encountered was not a rattler because I was looking up at a hooded gull, which as it turned out was the first Franklin's Gull sighting of the year for the National Wildlife refuge. By the time I had left I had about six "first for the year" sightings to my credit. I think of this as participating in citizen science. By creating records of when birds arrive and depart in different areas of the planet our store of knowledge is increased.

So about the snake. The first was a racer, and it feinted toward me ... they do that. It's very unnerving, since they can go very fast. The second snake I saw, a different species, was warming in the sun as well, but didn't race. It posed for a picture.

The headquarters has bird feeders, and this California Quail and a White-crowned Sparrow were enjoying the seeds on this warm April day.

The area has a long cultural history of peoples who lived in this area for thousands of years, eating the Great Basin Wild Rye seed and gathering locally-produced food. Let's not be too specific on the location, because cultural artifacts are not to be collected, but I will say that it is obvious that many people have either overlooked this broken spear point, or have done the right thing and left it lying where it was dropped a very, very long time ago. I also saw an obsidian flake on one of the hiking trails.

There is an auto tour route that I printed off from the website before I went there, but upon arriving I found that nearly every entrance to the area has racks of weather-protected brochures: the auto tour route, information on a nearby Outstanding Natural Area, a bird checklist. This place is geared toward interpretive services with excellent materials, a fine staff, great overlooks and signs. It's like a National Park in terms of quality. So, let's get going and see what's on the auto tour route!

The Patrol Road runs north-south for about 40 bone-jarring miles on a dirt road. OK, so sometimes it is smoother. And, maybe it was just that I need shocks for the little pickup truck I call Dusty. One drives the road with windows down, listening for the call of the Western Meadowlark, the Long-billed Curlew and others. The temperature is about 78 degrees and the vehicle is a blind. Wildlife sometimes depart when they see the vehicle coming, and if one stops the birds swim away.

Get out of the vehicle and they'll fly ... so stay inside and enjoy the view.

A few raindrops spattered the windshield but it was still a sunny day as the sunset approached.

There goes a Cinnamon Teal now, one of my many "favorite" birds. What amazing color. And if they stretch their wings, they have white armpits and beautiful powder blue patches. And very orange, I mean bright orange, feet. Um, I guess they must have LEDs in their eyes, too, because all three of my photos have that glowing red eye. Maybe the low sunset light.

Hmm, low sunset light, raindrops and ... voila ... a photo op!

Well, it is getting on toward sunset, and I'm supposed to find my way to a campground that's at the southern end of the Refuge, and I'm sure going slowly with everything there is to see. There goes a Trumpeter Swan.

Sandhill Cranes are featured on the sign at the entrance to the Wildlife Refuge, and they are everywhere. Some will even stay and raise a family here. Others will continue on to other less-crowded areas.

I guess it should have said something about just how much there is to see, because the auto tour route is only just beginning ... but I have days to spend here so will go back to the paved road and head south to the campground to try to arrive before dark. Well there is a scenic overlook, and the light is quite nice, so I drove the short distance up to Buena Vista Overlook. I was not disappointed. With my spotting scope I could see lots of birds down on the ponds I had just been driving past. It is a vast area. I think I saw a total of two other cars while driving the Patrol Road.

Looking south, toward where I would camp, over near the snow-capped Steens Mountains ...
By the time I arrived at the campground it was dusk. The Western Screech Owl was sitting in a branch calling as I filled out the self-registration envelope. I ate some dinner and flopped down to fall sound asleep under a vast canopy of stars.

... To Be Continued