The Corvid Method for Approximating Altitude

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This June, during my big cross-country move, I was chugging up toward a mountain pass in my heavily-laden car when I noticed that the pines that had been lining the highway had given way to fir trees. In a few minutes I had crossed the Continental Divide. Just as observing the plant species around you can give you a hint about your altitude, so can noticing the birds.

Years ago, when I was in college, I took a trip with my parents to Washington (the only time I’d set foot in the state prior to passing through on my way to Oregon in June) that included a visit to Mount Rainier National Park. We stopped at two of the park’s visitor centers, one at the base of the mountain and one much closer to its peak. The picnic area by the first one was populated by handsome, friendly Stellar’s Jays:

Stellar’s Jay. Photo by Linda Tanner, via Wikimedia Commons.

At the second one, however, where the air was thin and a few scraggly trees were losing the fight against alpine tundra, the Stellar’s Jays had been replaced by Gray Jays and Clark’s Nutcrackers (also basically a jay despite the different name):

Gray Jay. Photo from, via Wikimedia Commons.
Clark’s Nutcracker. Photo by Steven Pavlov, via Wikimedia Commons.

To a girl from the Midwest, where we had one and only one sort of jay, this was an overwhelming bounty of corvids. That trip came back to me yesterday as I worked my way up into the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness along a narrow, winding gravel road, on my way to do a trail survey for work with a crew of local teenagers. I had checked out the route ahead of time on a National Forest map, but I hadn’t pictured the altitude adequately. The Ponderosa Pines were replaced by Douglas-firs, and then the firs became smaller and sparser, until we finally reached a trailhead that I realized when I double-checked the map later was at well over seven thousand feet (and which was where I took the photo at the top of this post). What really clinched the feeling that we were driving into truly high country, though, were the chunky gray-and-white Clark’s Nutcrackers I could see flying back and forth over the road.

Should you use jays an altitude meter if you’re lost in the woods and need to figure out where you are? Probably not. But what I’m trying to say is that I’m fascinated by both the diversity of jays out west and the way they segregate themselves by altitude. Starting from open, scrubby basins and working your way up, Western Scrub-jay gives way to Pinyon Jay gives way to Stellar’s Jay gives way to Gray Jay and Clark’s Nutcracker. Sagebrush gives way to juniper gives way to pine gives way to fir. Summer gives way to spring (LOTS of spring wildflowers are still in bloom at 7000 feet) gives way to winter (there’s still a patch of snow visible way up on a high slope of Strawberry Mountain).

Mountains compress time and space in weird ways, and to a girl from cornfield country, it’s pretty far out.

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