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!

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What I Bought At Powell’s

When I was in Portland last weekend, I got to pay a visit to Powell’s City of Books, a bookstore so big it takes up more than a city block and they hand you a map when you walk in the door. However, I displayed some restraint and managed to emerge with only two books to add to my sagging shelves. Both are about natural history, so I thought I’d share them here.

Must-See Birds of the Pacific Northwest, by Sarah Swanson and Max Smith. Having become somewhat acquainted with the authors through the magic of Twitter, I was eager to check this one out. I love the fun, idiosyncratic life histories of their eighty-five chosen “must-see” birds – my favorite is the Marbled Murrelet, which nests in huge mossy trees and catches fish in rough ocean waters and “if it drank microbrews and wore fleece, could be the region’s mascot.” They also include some suggested itineraries for weekend birding trips in Oregon and Washington, which are going to be highly helpful as I keep exploring my new state. The only downside (for me) is that the book focuses on the coastal third of both states, not the dry side where I live, which is why I also bought…

Oregon’s Dry Side: Exploring East of the Cascade Crest, by Alan D. St. John. I’m looking forward to reading more of this one as I have time. It includes chapters on the geology, flora, and fauna of the whole region, plus more detail on exploring specific areas within the dry side, with lots of color photos. This will be another one to pack along on weekend adventures.

What good books have you discovered lately?

Sax-Zim Adventure!

When I told one of the people I work with that I was taking a weekend off in February to go to a birding festival, he said, “Isn’t February an odd time of year for that?” Well, sure, normally. But not if you’re talking about Sax-Zim Bog. Then it’s the perfect time of year for it.

Sunrise over Sax-Zim.
Sunrise over Sax-Zim.

I first heard about Sax-Zim Bog back when I was in college, when I started reading the blog of “Birdchick” Sharon Stiteler. It was also in college that I first read the book The Big Year, in which the area is mentioned prominently as one of the characters criss-crosses it again and again, searching in vain for his Great Gray Owl. (In the movie adaptation this nemesis bird is switched to the Snowy Owl, probably because the Snowy is more familiar to the non-birding public, but they still slipped a quick mention of Sax-Zim into the script.) This out-of-the way patch of rural northern Minnesota, named for two all-but-abandoned settlements on its edge called Sax and Zim, is known as one of the best places in the country to see boreal birds. This winter, with the bog only a four-hour drive away, I couldn’t resist signing up for their annual birding festival and going to explore it for myself.

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Festival transportation.

So I spent this past weekend being driven around on a yellow school bus with a bunch of other birders from around the country and a couple guides familiar with the area, hunting for interesting birds in the bog and in nearby Duluth. The festival itself was fascinating – this was the sixth year they’ve been doing it, and it’s put together by locals who are mostly not birders themselves but who are clearly thrilled that people from all over the country believe this place is special and want to come see it for themselves. The buses were driven by regular school bus drivers, giving up their weekend to ferry us around and show off their home turf, and our Saturday driver told us how much he loves seeing how excited the festival attendees get when they see new birds. It was a fun dynamic.

And oh yeah, we did see some really good birds… more on that later.

Further readingBirders add to life lists during Sax-Zim Bog Festival, from Sunday’s Duluth News Tribune. The reporter was on my bus, but I wasn’t interviewed and somehow didn’t end up in any of the photos he took, either. Which is fine with me.

Back from Backpacking

I made it home alive from my week backpacking in the Porcupine Mountains (in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula) with my students. The photo above is a storm rolling in off Lake Superior, taken looking out from the mouth of the Big Carp River – luckily that was the one night we were in cabins rather than tents. The real excitement was on the very first day, when one of our students sprained her ankle and yours truly heroically bushwhacked out to a ranger station in the pouring rain, navigating by compass, to get help evacuating her.

Anyway, I’m home and I no longer smell like a combination of sweat, smoke, turkey jerky, and damp wool. Regular blogging resumes this week.

A Jekyll Island Adventure

Rebecca here! I’m still away on my backpacking trip, but today’s guest post comes from longtime reader Bob Plath, a.k.a. “Catskill Bob.” Reading about his adventures down south brought back some fun memories for me.

About twenty years ago, we spent a couple of days at Jekyll Island, Georgia, as part of a trip to take our then eight year old daughter to Disney World. We regretted that we had only allowed such a short time for a visit because the island clearly merited closer exploration and we promised ourselves we’d return someday.

Then I discovered Rebecca’s blog this past winter, when she was working at the 4-H Center on Jekyll [note from Rebecca: this would have been the winter of 2010-11]. Her enthusiasm and the valuable information she provided, as well as a three week window of opportunity in May to justify the long drive from our home in upstate New York, were all the provocation we needed to begin planning a trip. Our itinerary would include some other points of interest on our route.

We rarely get to the shore, so the morning we spent on the beach in the company of Black Skimmers, Redknots, Ruddy Turnstones, Sanderlings, Oystercatchers and others was probably the highlight of the Jekyll part of the trip. The pond at the old amphitheater yielded Anhingas, Black-crowned Night Herons and Roseate Spoonbills. We also added Painted Buntings, Parula Warblers and Wood Storks to our life lists, but the exotic (to our Yankee eyes) vegetation was also cause for wonder. Who knew that cabbage palmettos put out spikes of showy white flowers? We were like kids in a candy store. Less intriguing were the salt marsh mosquitoes, which put our northern mosquitoes to shame for their ability to land and bite before being detected, robbing the victim of the satisfaction of an occasional pre-emptive strike.

After five great days at Jekyll we headed for Florida’s gulf coast and visited the Lower Suwanee Wildlife Refuge, where we hoped to see a gopher tortoise. Despite getting down on my hands and knees to peer into the maw of a few burrows I found, I didn’t spot any.

Our next stop was at the Okefenokee, where we had a very close encounter with a five foot Diamondback Rattlesnake. If it hadn’t rattled, we might have stepped on it. We retreated to a safe distance and took some pictures. My wife suggested that I move in closer so that my presence in the photo would give a sense of scale, but I demurred. We were much more impressed with the snake’s girth than its length.

Later we read that this, the most venomous snake in North America, is fond of escaping the midday heat by sheltering in gopher tortoise burrows. I recalled with horror my up close and personal inspection of these burrows a few days before.

We wrapped up our trip at Grayson Highlands State Park in southwestern Virginia, where the conjunction of southern and northern hardwood forests produce astounding diversity.

It was a great adventure, and it sprouted from a seed planted by Rebecca in the Woods.
Thank you!

Bob Plath is a 60-something cabinetmaker living on an old dairy farm in the western Catskills in upstate New York.  When he’s not breathing sawdust, he and his wife Annette enjoy hiking and nature photography locally and also in the Adirondacks, and nature-themed trips further afield when we can. They’re both impatient for retirement when they’ll have more time to pursue our outdoor interests.

Newer readers who weren’t around when I lived on Jekyll Island might be interested in checking out the archives. Fun places to start include my encounter with a cottonmouth, my description of the massive live oak we called the Grandfather Tree, my explanation of spring tide, and my photos of sea turtle tracks on the beach.

Lizards in Europe

Hello! Rebecca here. I’m backpacking in the Porcupine Mountains right now, but before I left I scheduled some awesome guest posts for you. The first one is from one of my best friends, Scarlett Rebman. When we were in eighth grade we wrote a bad fantasy novel together, and it boggles the mind a bit that we’re now both legit published writers.

I am not a biologist. Nor am I an environmental educator or much of a naturalist. I am a curious person who finds being in nature rewarding. Pausing for a few minutes to look at a banana slug in Oregon or pulling off the side of the road to rescue a turtle in Michigan are moments that give me perspective. All the stresses of living in a fast-paced, technology driven, globalized world melt away when I meet an amazing creature in nature.

For the 2011-2012 school year, my husband and I had the opportunity to live and teach English in Hungary. We traveled during every school holiday. I am a landmark and museum junkie, yet one of my favorite parts of traveling was taking nature hikes and seeing interesting animals. To my surprise, we had encounters with lizards in at least three countries: Hungary, neighboring Slovakia, and exotic Sicily (which, yes, belongs to Italy, but often seems like a different country altogether). Only a few agreed to pose for pictures.

I came across this little lizard in October 2011 at Devín Castle, a castle outside of Bratislava, Slovakia. Its ruins sits perched on a hill overlooking the Danube.

Aren’t you jealous that it gets to call the castle home?

We went hiking at the Reserva Naturale della Zingaro in Sicily in early April 2012. The Zingaro is a stunning nature reserve along the northern coast of the island. We were excited the first few times we caught a glimpse of a lizard. When we realized that they were sunning themselves on almost every rock, we kept snapping pictures anyways. I believe they are Sicilian wall lizards.

In June 2012, my ninth grade students and I were rewarded for climbing a steep hill in northern Hungary by encountering this lizard with a stunning blue face:

He is (I think) a male European Green Lizard (Lacerta viridis). He was more impressive than the pile of rubble at the top of the hill. What used to be a bustling castle had been destroyed by man, reclaimed by nature, and now the greatest attraction is the wildlife.

When most people think of Europe, they picture the Eiffel Tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, or the Coliseum. I am thrilled that I got to see all of those places, but my lizard encounters will stand out just as much in my travel memories.

Back in the States after her school year in Hungary, Scarlett Rebman is currently a canvasser for an environmental nonprofit organization. When she isn’t trying to save the world from the evils of hydrofracking, she is usually hanging out with her husband, playing with her cat, reading, cooking, or taking a walk. People tell her she thinks too much. You can read more about her year in Europe at Hungary for Adventure, or for current posts, visit her new blog at Scribbling Scarlett.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Arches National Park and Rocky Mountain National Park are both famous, and with good reason, but on our way home we stopped at one more that you may not be so familiar with: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, in southwestern Colorado.

To get there, you drive along a winding road through fairly nondescript hills covered with juniper, pinyon pine, and Gambel oak. Shortly after you pass through the entrance station, though, you arrive at the first overlook and are confronted with this.

A jagged canyon plunges before you. Even though the Gunnison River is so far down that in some places you can barely see it, the roar of the rapids below is always in your ears; the river drops an incredible forty-three feet per mile.

Two facts jumped out at me as we read the brochure and looked at the displays in the visitor center. First, although American Indians and fur traders had certainly known of its existence long before, no written description of this massive canyon was published until the latter half of the nineteenth century. (It’s so rugged that, unlike at the Grand Canyon in Arizona, there’s no evidence that American Indians ever lived within the gorge – the Utes stayed to the rims.) Second, it’s believed to have formed in a fraction of the time it took to form the Grand Canyon, even though the Black Canyon is carved into much harder rock. Apparently some of the oldest exposed rock in the world, over two billion years old, is found here.

This post brings me to the end of my photos from Road Trip 2011. While you’ve been reading about my adventures in Utah and Colorado, I’ve actually been on my way up to northern Wisconsin to begin my master’s degree, stopping to visit some friends along the way. This post is being written and scheduled ahead of time, but by the time you read it I will have been in Land O’ Lakes for a week. Now that I’ve had a chance to settle in, watch this space for my first posts about the North Woods!