Tag Archives: national park

The Canyons Keep Calling Me Back

It’s spring break, which means some folks are headed to Myrtle Beach.  Some lounge around on the couch and watch a lot of TV.  One teacher friend of mine curled up with a big stack of English papers and a green pen (yikes!).  I traveled to southeastern Arizona for some quality time alone in the deserts and canyons.

Saguaro National Park

Well, not alone exactly – I went to spend some time with the birds of the arid Southwest.  April is a great time to visit.  The weather was beautiful during my trip, mostly sunny with highs in the 70s to 80s depending on the elevation.  I have to say that even though it is more pleasant temperature-wise in April, not all of my favorite birds are really back yet from their wintering grounds (I’m looking at you, Red-faced Warbler!).  May, and even late July and early August score slightly higher on the cool bird index.  Still, it was a great week here in Arizona.

Magnificent Hummingbird

Hummingbirds were a highlight.  I’ve seen nine species, which isn’t too bad.  A late summer visit can net you 12-15, depending on how many rare ones are about.  The one pictured above is the aptly named Magnificent Hummingbird.  Light refracts off of special feathers on its head and neck giving rise to amazing iridescence in the sunlight.  Even in the shade, they can look pretty remarkable.  The one below is a male Broad-billed Hummer.

Broad-billed hummingbird

While the deserts have a few specialty species, many hummingbirds are found at slightly higher elevations.  I had some good hummingbird watching in Madera Canyon, Miller Canyon, and Ramsey Canyon.  Speaking of the canyons, another one of my favorite canyon birds is the Acorn Woodpecker.

Acorn Woodpecker

They look (and act) just like clowns.  I love to watch their noisy antics.  Acorn Woodpeckers are a fascinating species.  They often live in loose colonies, and practice cooperative breeding strategies in which not only the two biological parents but also other members of the colony participate in raising the young.  The colony also usually maintains a “granary tree” – which is a tree or snag that is used for storing copious numbers of acorns.  A woodpecker drills a small hole, and then stuff a single acorn in so that it fits tightly.  A granary tree many contain thousands of cached acorns.

While I was in Ramsey Canyon at the Nature Conservancy preserve there, I noticed that the next door Ramsey Canyon Inn is for sale.

Photo Apr 07, 7 36 44 AM

I’m very happy as a teacher, but in my daydreams I think it would be awesome to cash in all my savings and run a birder’s B&B somewhere.  It’s probably a ton of work, and not nearly as much fun as it seems in my dreams.  But it gives me something nice to think about as I drift off to sleep here in my last night in Tucson.

Lest you think that my days were all filled with fun and frivolity, I want to set the record straight.  Birding in Arizona is a highly perilous affair, with dangers lurking around every corner.  Take for example, the sign I saw in Florida Canyon, south of Tucson:

Photo Apr 04, 7 32 44 AM (1)

 

I was lucky to escape with my life.  And even luckier to see a pair of very rare Black-capped Gnatcatchers building a nest.

Despite finding most of the birds I was looking for this week, one particular Arizona species has been giving me trouble for years – and this trip started no differently.  When you’ve been birding in Arizona as many times as I have, there aren’t many birds left to see here for the first time.  But when I arrived, there was one on the rare bird alert that had managed to escape me during all of my previous trips: Rufous-backed Robin.  These birds are quite uncommon, but there are usually multiple individuals sighted each year.  They are most likely to appear in winter, however, and I usually visit in the spring and summer.  Also, they can be very sneaky and skulky.  I have looked for them on multiple occasions – perhaps 7 or 8 times in total.  But they had always eluded me.  These Robins are, in short, my nemesis bird.

The week before I left Seattle, I noticed that a particular Rufous-backed Robin had been hanging out at Catalina State Park for several months.  Nemesis bird, prepare to meet your match!  Actually, the Robin lived up to its nefarious reputation.  I spent nearly four hours scouring its last known location on my first morning in Arizona, but it was a complete no show – and it hasn’t been seen since.  Damn you, robin!

Then, last night, as I was deciding about what to do with my last full day in Arizona, I saw another report of a Rufous-backed Robin.  This one was in Cienega Creek Preserve, a protected natural area just south of Tucson.  I had never been there before, in part because a permit is required just to enter the preserve.  I didn’t have a permit.  But I found that you can apply for one online; three hours later, the completed permit was emailed to me.  I was headed to Cienega!

The day dawned cool and cloudy.  I parked at the Preserve’s dirt parking area about 20 minutes after sunrise.  I placed a copy of my permit on the dashboard, and headed off down the trail.  Cienega Creek Preserve is spectacular.  The trail winds through a vibrant Sonoran desert scrub.  I had to shuffle my feet to keep from stepping on several coveys of Gambel’s Quail as I was serenaded by Cactus Wrens and Bell’s Vireos.  About two miles in, the trail entered an extensive stand of cottonwood trees, and the creek began to flow faster and deeper.

Cienega Creek Preserve

The cool air was scented with sage, cottonwood blossoms, and sweet petrichor.  I arrived at the place where the Robin was last seen, and began to search.  And search.  And search some more.  Then I took a break.  And a walk.  And had lunch.  And searched some more.  Suffice it to say that there were no robins on the trail this day.  Part of me was pretty disappointed that my nemesis bird had again somehow escaped my grasp.  But part of me was also deeply grateful that I keep missing these birds.  If I hadn’t been tempted by the prospect of maybe meeting my nemesis, I never would have bothered applying for a permit to visit this unique and beautiful area.  And I never would have gotten to know this special place.  My nemesis taunts me, sure.  But it also encourages me and inspires me, goads me on and fires my determination.  So laugh, robins, laugh while you can.  On my next visit, I’m going to hunt you down.

And thus ends this visit to Arizona.  I don’t know exactly when, but I’ll be back in the not too distant future.  There is always more to see.

Cactus flower

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under Birding

The Kenai Peninsula

Travelling south, I passed through Anchorage and continued down the Seward Highway to the Kenai Peninsula.  This area is in many ways very different from Denali, but just as spectacular.  It borders Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound, so for one thing I’m back on the coast.  The Kenai area is also home to the Harding Icefield, which spawns several dozen glaciers.  I visited a number of them on a trip through Kenai Fjords National Park.

Exit Glacier

The photo above it Exit Glacier, which is one of the most accessible glaciers in the park.  You can drive to within a mile of it, and hike right up to its “toe.”  Exit Glacier is retreating, probably due to global climate change, having become over a mile shorter since 1895.

Glaciers are the outflows (the “drains” if you will) from the Harding Icefield.  The Icefield is a basin area that gets well over 30 feet of snow per year on average.  Over time this snow is compacted into very dense ice.  The ice slowly slides downhill, forming glaciers and carving out new valleys.

Yesterday I took a 9-hour boat trip out of Seward to tour Kenai Fjords, to see the glaciers and the wildlife of the area.  I was not disappointed.  The scenery was impressive.

Kenai Fjords

Kenai Fjords

Sea Otters were common, and not shy at all.

Sea Otter

We saw five Humpback Whales, including this one very close to shore:

Flukes

And this one farther out:

Humpback whale

A transient Orca swam by, making some of the smaller marine mammals a bit nervous.  But these Harbor Seals in the shallows didn’t look too concerned.

Harbor Seals

Nor did these Steller’s Sea Lions high on the rocks:

Steller's Sea Lions

Steller’s Sea Lions are one of several Northwest animals named after Georg Wilhelm Steller, who travelled with Vitus Bering on his 1740s expedition to Alaska from Russia.  Steller was a doctor and naturalist, and described a number of new species of flora and fauna unknown to the Old World.  Several of Steller’s namesakes are now extinct (Steller’s sea cow) or endangered/threatened (Steller’s Sea Eagle and Steller’s Eider).  Steller’s Jay, however, is doing quite well and can be seen in my yard back home in Washington state (and throughout much of the American West).

Glaciers were another highlight of the boat trip, and we spent some time at the incredible Holgate Glacier.

Holgate Glacier

Holgate is a tidewater glacier, meaning it flows directly into the ocean.  You could hear thunderous cracks and booms as it calved giant boulders of ice directly into the sea.

Whole Lotta Ice

The bluish color of the glacier comes from light that gets scattered by the densely packed ice.  Most frequencies of light pass through the ice, but blue tends to be absorbed and re-emitted by the electrons in the water molecules, scattering the light and making the ice appear somewhat blue.

Nearby, we could see the much smaller Surprise Glacier.

Surprise Glacier

Birds, of course, were also a highlight.  I saw eight species of alcids, seabirds of the puffin, murre, and auklet family.  Seeing hundreds of Horned and Tufted Puffins was a highlight, as well as a half-dozen Parakeet Auklets up close –  a new bird for me.  The heavy clouds, drizzle, and rocking of the boat made photography difficult, and most of my bird pictures didn’t come out at all.  But I did get a few pictures of some Common and Thick-billed Murres resting on a cliff:

Murre lineups

And hundreds of Black-legged Kittiwakes swirling around their nesting colony:

Kittiwakes

Kittiwakes are a kind of gull.  They make their nests on sheer rock walls on offshore islets to protect them from predators.

Kittiwakes nesting

Returning to Seward, we passed huge rafts of murres on the water – thousands of them.

Whole Lotta Murres

Despite the cold and wet weather, and some difficulty in finding some of my target species, I have thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the Kenai Peninsula.  I’ll be here another day or so, and then I’m headed northwest to Nome and Gambell.  I’m not sure when I’ll be able to update this blog again, but I will when I can.  I’m about to head into parts unknown (at least unknown to me!).

AK warning sign

1 Comment

Filed under Birding

Denali

Denali landscape

I had heard a lot about Denali National Park in Alaska, but none of that prepared me for the sheer magnitude and majesty of this place.  Denali is six million acres of protected wilderness in the midst of some of the most breath-taking geology in all of North America.  Almost everything about it is at least a little fantastical.

Denali peekaboo

For starters, I’m just a couple hundred miles south of the arctic circle.  Sunset tonight is at 11:51pm, which is followed by several hours of twilight, and then sunrise again at 3:51am.  The sun rises in the north (NNE, actually) in an almost horizontal motion, slowing creeping above the horizon.  After five hours or so, the sun is halfway up in the eastern sky.  By midday (five hours after that) it’s swung around nearly overhead and slightly to the south.  For the next 10 hours it treks westward and then northward, finally setting again in the NNW, not too far from where it rose.

Even though tomorrow is the first day of June, in some ways it still feels like winter here.  The Denali lowlands got 9 inches of slow last week.  While daytime highs have been climbing into the 70s, I see ice and snow all around me, sometimes several feet deep.

Denali landscape

Just getting here was an adventure.  Denali is 250 miles north of Anchorage, most of it on a two-lane road, the George Parks Highway.  I was swerving around moose in the middle of the road less than 10 minutes from the Anchorage airport, and things only got wilder from there.  On my journey north, I could see that spring is indeed late this year.  Many of the rivers were still in various stages of breakup, as the long winter’s ice cracked and buckled under the warming sun and the surrounding rush of meltwater.

River Breakup

I stood on the bridge over this river, and watched icebergs of various sizes and shapes float by, as thunderous cracks upstream heralded the arrival of new chunks of loose ice barreling downstream.

River ice

I stayed in the tiny town of Healy, about a dozen miles north of Denali’s main entrance road.

Healy

Aside from this sign, there are a few hotels, two restaurants, and one gas station in Healy.

There are a couple of different ways to experience Denali National Park.

Me at Denali

There is a visitor’s center and some trails right at the entrance, and you can drive in the first 15 miles on the park road in your own car.  But if you want to go beyond the Savage River at milepost 15, you need to take an official park shuttle or bus.  The narrow and sometimes treacherous road that snakes west for 92 miles just isn’t built to handle the 400,000 people who visit Denali annually.  I bought a ticket to Toklat at MP 53; the road beyond that was still closed due to snow.  At 7am, I boarded the bus for the seven-hour round trip.

Denali bus

While Denali does have some interesting birds, the highlight here is mammals.  And what a highlight they are!  In two days, I got great looks at Dall’s sheep, moose, caribou, collared pika, hoary marmots, snowshoe hare, arctic ground squirrels, a gray wolf, and a lynx.

Arctic Ground Squirrel

Arctic Ground Squirrel

Snowshoe Hare

Snowshoe Hare – still turning from his winter whites to his summer browns

Dalls sheep

Dall’s sheep, with babies

Caribou

Caribou

Bad moose

WHY did my camera freak out and refuse to focus right when mama moose and her two cute mooselings appeared right next to the road??  I guess I’ll never know.

While Denali is the best place in North America to see large mammals, I saw a few birds too – including possibly my new favorite bird, the Willow Ptarmigan.

Willow Ptarmigan

They are just so comical and charismatic, perched in the top of spruce trees and muttering their cackling chicken-language under their breath.  I found them utterly charming.

Willow Ptarmigan in the rain

Even aside from the animals, there was so much to look at in Denali.  The landscape itself was breath taking.

 

 

Denali landscape

I even got to see Denali itself (or Mt. McKinley, as the U.S. Congress still insists on it being called).  This 20,320 foot peak is the tallest in North America.  During the spring and summer months it’s often wrapped in clouds (it creates it own weather), but for a few hours yesterday you could see its glaciated summits.

Denali

And this was from some 80 miles away!  Later it rained, and I got to see my first Denali rainbow.

Denali rainbow

With near 24-hour daylight, it’s tempting to stay up all night walking the trails, reading my book, or planning the rest of my Alaska trip – but I think I will force myself to go to bed now.  It’s been 3 days since I’ve seen darkness (the blinds in my room don’t close all the way), but my body still needs sleep.  I think.  Right?

3 Comments

Filed under Birding

The Colima Warblers of Big Bend

I will confess that I didn’t come to Big Bend just for the scenery.

Toll Mountain

I also came to search for the Colima Warbler.  There are about 52 regularly occurring species of wood warblers in the US and Canada (depending on how you count), and I have already seen 48 of them since June of 2012.  The three hardest to get are the endangered Kirtland’s Warbler (check), the south-of-the-border vagrant Rufous-capped Warbler (check), and the Colima.  Colima Warblers are not endangered like Kirtland’s, but almost all of their natural range lies south of the Rio Grande.  Perhaps a few dozen trickle across the border to breed in the high altitude mountains of Big Bend.  In order to see a Colima, though, you need to hike up to where they live.

Up there.

To Pinnacles Trail

It’s not a trek for the faint of heart.  The traditional spot to find Colimas is Boot Spring, about 9 miles roundtrip from the trailhead in the Chisos Basin.  The hike starts at over a mile above sea level, and climbs another 1800 feet or so, mostly in the first 3 miles.  Not being as physically fit as some hikers, I started before dawn so I could reach the Colima’s habitat while they would still be active and singing in the cool mid-morning hours.

I started up the Pinnacles Trail.  The turnoff to Boot Spring is just past the junction with the Colima Trail.

Pinnacles Trail Sign

On the way up I listened to many calling Gnatcatchers, and admired the blooming cacti.

Cactus

The trail is well-maintained, although it is steep and rocky in places, and the switchbacks near the crest are tiring.

trail

As I climbed, I could see out over the entire Chisos Basin area.  The morning sun bathed everything in a golden glow.

Halfway up Pinnacles Trail

I stopped to rest and eat a little trail mix, and a chummy group of Mexican Jays came down to request that I share some peanuts with them.  They were not pleased when I refused.

Mexican Jay

Looking up, I could see the Pinnacles formation.  The end of the strenuous climbing portion of my hike was in sight.

Pinnacles

Near the top, I heard a warbler singing!  It took me a few minutes to track it down, but then I saw it: a large brownish-gray warbler with orange undertail coverts.

Colima Warbler

That’s birder-speak for “it has an orange butt.”  Going a little higher, I got a slightly better view of the rest of him while he was busy singing.  Note the white eye-ring and the faint chestnut cap.

Colima Warbler

Yes, my point-and-shoot camera was not quite up to the job here, but I got a few ‘record shots.’

I climbed the rest of the way to the top, and ate a congratulatory granola bar while I enjoyed the view.

View from top

I hadn’t made it to Boot Spring yet, so I decided to keep going.  The trail leveled out a bit here, so the hiking was much easier.  And I could start to see the other side of the Chisos Mountains.

Other side of Mtns

After another mile or so, I saw Boot Rock (in the foreground):

The Boot

Boot Rock, of course, looks like an upside down cowboy boot – and gives its name to Boot Canyon and Boot Spring.  Boot Rock is a hoodoo, a tall vertical rock formation left behind when the softer rock around it weathered and eroded away.

Near Boot Spring I found many of the expected high elevation birds: tanagers, flycatchers, and vireos – but no more Colima Warblers.  It was later in the day by this point, so it’s possible they just weren’t singing as much anymore.  I also found this guy lounging in my path.  I believe it’s a Texas Alligator Lizard.  It was quite large, and not very reluctant to get out of my way.

Texas Alligator Lizard

I didn’t make it all the way to the South Rim, but my various exploratory excursions and back-tracking amounted to at least 11 to 12 miles, by my rough estimation.  My feet were killing me by the time I got back down, and I had managed to consume all 2.5 liters of water I brought with me.  I took a short nap, and got up in time for a big dinner and one more classic Big Bend sunset.

Sunset at Big Bend

Leave a comment

Filed under Birding