Sunday, May 17, 2009

Emma and I went on a nature walk today, up to the Spring Creek area of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. It was hot (85deg F), but we had so much fun. The wildflowers are blooming, the birds are back, the butterflies are out, and you can't beat the views...

There were swarms of Western Pine Elfins (Callophrys erephon), which are possibly my favorite early spring butterfly. They're so amazingly intricately patterned. Then again, I say that about almost every species. They're all my favorites.

The Larkspurs are in full bloom up there right now, tinting the hillsides purply-blue:

There were a good number of Silvery Blues (Glaucopsyche lygdamus) fluttering around. These are possibly my favorite early spring butterfl... Oh wait, we already discussed this.

This one was working a mud puddle. I think it's a female, because of the gray-brown tinge to the upper surface of the wings. The males are brilliantly blue on top. Don't you wish you had black and white striped antennae?

At this point in our walk, we sat down on the side of the path and had a rest and a drink. Emma was watching the chickadees in the pines across the path, but I was distracted by watching her.

Oh, those freckles, those eyes, those almost-dimples. Can you stand it? I actually got all chokey, right there on our nature walk.

Monday, May 11, 2009

This weekend was the Fourth Annual Ladd Marsh Birdathon. This was the third year I've participated as an "expert birder," staffing a station in the marsh and helping people look for birds and know what they were seeing. As always, it was great fun.

Saturday was the marsh day; 6:00 am to noon in the marsh looking at birds, followed by a cookout and program on raptors. I was at Station 5 again, right on Ladd Creek at the fish ladder. This is a pond behind the dike, looking west to the Blue Mountains.

The water in the marsh was incredibly high this spring, and the entrance to my station was flooded. Normally the roadside ditch has an access road across it to get to the dike, fish ladder, and water control structure, but this year it had about a foot and a half of water over it. It was a ford, not an access road! I had an Oregon Dept. of Fish and Wildlife truck that I used to ferry people across the flood to get back to this pond.

I spent six hours at my station, and saw 61 species of birds, including two (Great-tailed Grackle and Black Tern) that were new for my life list. Not rare birds at all, but I've never happened to spot them before. In the case of the grackle, I've never lived in their range before. The sighting at the Birdathon was the second record for the county.

After the cookout, there was a presentation on raptors by Blue Mountain Wildlife. They brought six rehabilitated but non-releasable birds with them to show: a golden eagle, a red-tailed hawk, a barn owl, a great-horned owl, a kestrel, and a western screech-owl. They also had a fully rehabilitated red-tailed hawk that was released that day, which was cool.

Golden eagles are beautiful.

They are also HUGE.

This is a mature female, and she has a 7-foot wingspan. Very impressive.

I signed up to go on one of the field trips on Sunday (because Mother's Day is the perfect excuse to go off and do whatever I want for an entire day.) The trip I went on was up north of Enterprise, Oregon, to the Nature Conservancy's Zumwalt Prairie Preserve and Clear Lake Ridge Preserve. Unfortunately, I think we were about 1-2 weeks too early for the birds, and didn't get the species diversity we'd hoped for. It was still beautiful.

We started off at Clear Lake Ridge, and hiked up Devil's Gulch a little way. The serviceberries were in full bloom:

and we did see a few warblers and flycatchers. We also were treated to a female Rufous Hummingbird zipping around us and scolding, which we realized after watching her for a few minutes was because we were standing about three feet from her nest!

I claim the honor of spotting it first, but if she hadn't zipped in briefly, I never would have seen it. It was beautifully camoflaged with bits of lichen and spiderwebs, and as we hastily left the area, she settled back on top of her two tiny eggs. The opening of the nest was about an inch across, and the eggs were at most, a half inch long.

Back at the car, we continued our trip up a winding canyon road toward the prairie.

We saw some birds here, mainly lazuli buntings and sparrows, with golden eagles and hawks soaring overhead. The riparian habtat around the creek looked fabulous for birds, but our guide was eager to get to the prairie at the top, and we didn't stop often. One place we stopped had a wonderful big mud puddle, and while everyone else was looking at the treetops for buntings, I was stalking butterflies at the edge of the mud.

There was quite a convention of Anise Swallowtails (Papilio zelicaon), probably 20 or so. They are beautiful butterflies, and to see a big swarm of them like that was amazing.

There was also a nice little group of spring azures (Celestrina ladon), which are always cheerful; bright clear blue and very lively. Luckily, they were busy getting drunk on the tasty, tasty mud, and agreeable to having pictures taken.

We finally made it up to the Zumwalt Prairie, and wow, is it beautiful! This is the largest remaining area of northwestern bunchgrass prairie, totalling approximately 160,000 acres, of which 33,000 acres is owned by The Nature Conservancy.

The land is gently rolling, bordered by mountains all around. This is looking south toward the Wallowa Mountains:

and this is east, toward the Seven Devils Mountains on the other side of the Snake River and Hells Canyon:

Amazing, wide-open spaces, too much air to breathe, and unbelievable quiet. It is wonderful to know that places like this still exist.

The wildflowers were beginning to bloom, and I got to see white shooting stars in amongst the more common pink ones.

The bluebells were also blooming:

After we birded around the prairie for a while, we went to the Nature Conservancy house (used for visiting researchers and TNC volunteers) to see what we could find. In addition to a new bird for my life list (Say's Phoebe), we found this pair of Great-horned Owls in the old barn.

They were not terribly amused to have us invade their barn, so we left them to it.

By this time, it was getting on toward late afternoon, so we headed back to La Grande. The drive down off the prairie plateau was beautiful, with a backdrop of the Wallowa Mountains.

This is a remote and harsh place to try to farm, but it does have a few residents. The agriculture is mostly ranching, as the soil is too poor and the climate too arid for crops. Thus, the land escaped the plow and the prairie remains intact. Managed properly, the native grasslands can support summer grazing of cattle.

Most of the ranchers don't live up here year-round, but move up in the spring, bringing their cattle with them from the winter pastures (or feedlots) in the river bottoms. Small, old barns and farmhouses are scattered near the streams, many falling in. I can only imagine what it must have been like for the first families that settled up here in the 1850s and tried to make a living.

Monday, May 04, 2009

I don't think I mentioned it here, but I got a new bike this winter, a road bike. I've been riding Shaun's old mountain bike since last summer, and still have it set up for pulling the trailer, but it's heavy and somewhat slow, with the big knobby tires, and the shifting mechanisms are somewhat jumpy (as in, I can only get into about half the gears). The mountain bike was great for riding back and forth to work in the winter, when the roads were wet or snowy, but the road bike is so much faster and lighter.

Anyway, Shaun and I did a charity ride yesterday, which benefits the Mt. Emily Safe Center. I am quite happy to report that I successfully completed the second-longest course, a total of 33.7 miles! I did it in 2 1/2 hours (average speed: 13.7 mph), and I am extremely proud of myself. That's the longest ride I've done since college, twenty years ago. AND surprisingly, I didn't feel wiped out when I was done. My feet were frozen (oh, yes, it was raining and in the low 50's, did I mention that?) and I was tired, but not destroyed. Of course, I did fall into bed a bit after 9:00 last night, but I'm not at all sore today.

Biking is fun.