There’s another set of photos from our last trip to Mt. Rainier that I keep meaning to share – our hike to Comet Falls. It’s a four-mile round trip trek up the side of a mountain that takes you to the area’s highest waterfall, which drops over three hundred feet (maybe even over four hundred – depends on which source you consult).

After we’d gazed in awe at the falls for a little while, Evan surprised me on the way down by reciting a Hebrew blessing, which he said was meant for times when you’d seen an amazing natural sight like this one. I loved the idea that Judaism has a blessing specifically for beautiful things in nature, but when we looked it up later we discovered he’d slightly misremembered things: Shehecheyanu is actually a blessing for the start of something new.

Barukh Ata Adonai, Eloheynu Melekh ha’Olam,
Shehecheyanu v’key’yemanu, v’hi’gi’anu laz’man ha’zeh.

Blessed are You, Lord our God,
Who has kept us alive, and sustained us, and enabled us to reach this moment.

But, it’s still appropriate. When I left my job in Oregon in June to move to Walla Walla, I was purposefully vague on this blog about the reasons why; this blog is supposed to about natural history and enjoying the outdoors, not my personal life, and the move had nothing to do with my environmental education career. Still, I guess at this point there’s no reason not to give a brief life update. I moved to Walla Walla because Evan is here, and two weeks ago we made our engagement official. Since I couldn’t make an environmental education job magically materialize here, I’m spending the next year as an AmeriCorps member, getting to know my new community while continuing to work with youth.

So, Shehecheyanu, here’s to the start of something new.



Big Trees at Mount Rainier

We returned to Mount Rainier over Labor Day weekend for a mini-vacation, and while heavy clouds kept us from getting a clear look at the mountain until we were driving out on Monday, we still got some nice hikes in, including a walk through Grove of the Patriarchs. A boardwalk loop takes you through a stand of enormous old-growth cedars and Douglas-firs, some over a thousand years old, protected by their location on an island in the Ohanapecosh River. Walking among really big, really old trees is always a humbling experience, and this was no different.

I feel really fortunate to have such a beautiful national park within weekend getaway distance, and I can’t wait to go back (again)!



My Week at the Natural Leaders Legacy Camp

I recently realized I totally failed to write a blog post about how I spent the week of July 20-25, and I should: I was one of around fifty people from around the country who attended the Children & Nature Network’s Natural Leaders Legacy Camp at the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. This is a leadership conference and training program for young people (“millennials,” ages 18-29) who are interested in connecting children and nature.

I’ve written before about Richard Louv and his book Last Child in the Woods. The Children & Nature Network is the national non-profit organization he started to continue advancing the mission of that book, and the Natural Leaders program had been on my radar for a couple years now as something I’d like to be a part of. This summer, while between jobs and searching for ways to stay involved with this cause that I’m passionate about, the time was finally right, so I packed up and traveled to the other end of the country for a week to see what the camp had to offer.

I am introvert, and networking with strangers does not come terribly naturally to me. I knew I wasn’t going to “make life-long friends” during a single week at a conference center, despite what all the sunny blurbs describing past years of the program might say. Still, I went into it with an open mind, and it was definitely worthwhile. As I flip back through the notes I took while I was there, here are some of the highlights:

  • To get people interested in your cause, tell your personal story. The Children & Nature Network website has a whole section on peer-reviewed research about the benefits of spending time in nature. However, humans are emotional creatures; you aren’t going to win hearts and minds with statistics alone. There was an entire session on effectively telling a story about why you, personally, think spending time in nature is important.
  • There are many valid ways of defining and experiencing nature. A small win is still a win. Not everyone has the means to go for a week-long backpacking trip in the wilderness. Not everyone wants to. Flying a kite in a city park or planting cherry tomatoes in a container on your balcony should also be celebrated! Related to this, we talked about the fact that, when working with kids, allowing time for unstructured play in natural surroundings is just as important as teaching specific lessons about natural history.
  • You don’t have to have a job or career related to children and nature (or be a parent) to be involved. I’ve avoided writing anything specific here in the last couple months about what’s going on in my life and career (maybe soon), but at this moment, I am no longer employed in the environmental education field. As it turns out, I was far from the only person in the program without a job in environmental education or something related. Regardless, everyone participating in the camp made a commitment to lead four events in the next year related to connecting children in their community with nature, and started generating ideas for what exactly they might do.

The camp was a great opportunity to reconnect and remember why I do what I do, and I’m hoping to stay involved with the Children & Nature Network in the future. Stay tuned for more as I develop my community events here in Walla Walla, and if you have any questions for me about the organization as a whole or the Natural Leaders program, please share in the comments!

Clark’s Nutcracker Fledgling

One day this past week I found myself on top of Mount Howard, just south of Joseph, Oregon. (It’s a popular tourist area, known as the “Alps of Oregon,” and an aerial tramway takes tourists up to the summit of this particular mountain.) To my delight, one of my favorite western birds was making a racket in the fir trees: the Clark’s Nutcracker, a member of the jay family.

Thanks as always for taking the photo, Evan.
Thanks as always for taking photos, Evan.

I’ve written before about how, in some places in the west, it seems almost possible to estimate one’s altitude based on which jay species are present. You have to get up into the mountains before you’ll see any Clark’s Nutcrackers, but once you get into the right habitat, they’re pretty common.

The birds were making quite a racket. Jays often do, but there was something specific going on in this case: as I watched, I realized I was seeing a pair of birds, one quietly going about its business of foraging among the conifer cones and a second one following it around making piteous keening noises. I’m 95% sure it was a recently-fledged bird, following its parent around and begging.

CaptureCapture2Stumbling across interesting birds is always cool, and it’s even better when you get to see an interesting behavior like this. Part of the fun of living out west is that even some of the fairly common birds of the area (like Black-billed Magpies and Lazuli Buntings and Red-breasted Sapsuckers and what have you) still seem novel. Happy birding!


Sapsucker Nest

Last week I was in the woods of eastern Pennsylvania, on a visit over the holiday weekend. It’s always fun to get a chance to see and hear the eastern birds I grew up with that we don’t have out west – Blue Jays, Eastern Towhees, Eastern Phoebes, and all the rest. This time, the highlight was spotting a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker nest just twenty feet or so off a trail.

DSC_1071 (677x1024)It was the very noisy begging calls of the woodpecker chicks hidden inside that first gave away the nests’ location, and once we stopped and watched we were able to spot both parents coming and going. Here’s Dad emerging from the cavity with a beakful of something, probably cleaning things out a bit – this was actually the only time we saw him and it was hard to get a good picture:

DSC_1075 (681x1024)It was Mom (without the extensive red forehead and chin) who kept coming and going with food, posing for photos.

DSC_1090 (674x1024)I’m normally not great at finding nests (though I seem to be having more luck than usual this year), so this was a treat. Now I’m back home in Walla Walla, and with high temperatures climbing into the triple digits this weekend, I’m not planning on hiking again for a little while!




Close Encounter of the Sooty Grouse Kind

We visited Mount Rainier National Park over the weekend, and after driving up to the Paradise visitor center, opted for a short hike to Snow Lake. The trail was still partially snow-covered but was absolutely beautiful, thick with blooming Avalanche Lilies and providing stunning views of the mountain (I’d been to the park once before, but on an overcast day when the peak was lost in clouds).

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On the way down, a grouse unexpectedly walked out onto the trail in front of us. Unlike Ruffed Grouse, which in my experience flush as soon as they hear you coming so that all you ever see is their tails as they fly away, this male Sooty Grouse (a lifer for me) was remarkably unconcerned by our presence as he pecked at the vegetation.

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We also got to see a female when one flew across the road and perched in a hemlock tree by the trailhead, where she appeared to be eating the needles.

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All in all a great bird to conclude two weekend of travel on the west side with!

Photos (once again) by Evan Heisman.

Two Thrushes on Saddle Mountain

Last weekend we camped at Saddle Mountain State Natural Area west of Portland and made the five mile round trip hike to the top of the mountain and back. It was cloudy, so we missed out on what would have been a spectacular panoramic view of the Cascades on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other, but it was still a lot of fun. (Photos below by Evan Heisman; I somehow managed to leave my camera’s SD card at home.)

As we were on our way down, it was getting late enough that most of the day hikers were gone and the birds were starting to sing. One song in particular caught my attention: it had the sonorous, flutelike quality of a thrush, and the same pauses between phrases, but unlike any other thrush song I’d heard, each phrase was just a single, drawn-out note. I wish, I wish, I wish there was a way to embed Macaulay Library sound clips on WordPress, but there’s not, so you’ll just have to click here to hear it for yourself.

By process of elimination, I deduced (correctly) that this was the song of the Varied Thrush, a robin cousin found only in the forests of the coastal Pacific Northwest.

Photo by Roy W. Lowe, via Wikimedia Commons

Mixed in was this was the beautiful upward-spiraling song of a Swainson’s Thrush. Click here to hear that one.

Living in the Cascades’ rain shadow as we do, sometimes it is very, very nice to spend a weekend on the coastal side of the mountains. It was even worth getting rained on while we were breaking down our campsite the next morning!