Monthly Archives: July 2012

Canyons of Arizona

I’ve been spending the last several days in the “sky islands” of southeastern Arizona.  These are the border mountain ranges that rise out of the desert thousands of feet, creating a host of different habitats for plants, birds, and animals.

While many people think of southern Arizona as desert, that’s far from the whole story.  Yes, there are lowland areas of beautiful Sonoran desert, with the saguaro cacti, elf owls, and scurrying lizards.

But when you get to the mountains and start to ascend, the habitat changes.  As the air rises up the mountain and cools, some of the moisture condenses – so the higher elevations typically get cooler and wetter.  The next area up from the Sonoran desert is the mesquite scrub, where you find short trees and birds like this Black-throated Sparrow:

Moving higher still, you get into juniper and then oak trees.  The canyons often have creeks and streams which provide additional water, and sycamores, maples, and oaks mix with some pines.

Up in the canyons, it is often at least 20 degrees cooler than the deserts below, and you can find a multitude of warblers, flycatchers, vireos, and other goodies like wild turkeys.

And Spotted Owls!  I managed poor photos of an adult sleeping…

… and nearby a fledgling not too far out of the nest.

Above the oak canyons you actually get into firs and spruce – a true coniferous zone!  The mountain tops at 7000-8000 feet same kind of habitat you find in much of boreal Canada.  Some scientists have estimated that for every 1000 feet of elevation gain, the temperature and humidity differences are equivalent to travelling 300 miles north.  So by driving up the mountains a dozen miles or so in the Arizona sky islands, you can visit most of the different habitats you would see by driving from Mexico to Canada!  Which explains why they are such great places to go birding, as each local “life zone” has its own distinctive suite of inhabitants.  Also, quite a number of essentially Mexican birds reach the far northern limit of their distribution here.  If you want to see Red-faced Warbler or Painted Redstart in the US, this is the place to come.

My time in Arizona is rapidly coming to a close, and while it has been a great trip I am excited to get back to Seattle to see my family.

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Funny Signs and Other Silly Stuff

First things first – I’m in Arizona!

I survived the drive over from California, and have been exploring the Tucson area.  Tonight is just a short post since I’m pretty tired.  I’ll tell/show you a few of the crazy signs I’ve seen this week.  I didn’t get a pic, but I saw one last week driving along a state highway through the mountains that said THIS ROAD MAY BE CLOSED AT ANY TIME.  No other context, no other information – just a notification that I may suddenly have to detour 100 miles out of my way without warning.  Sweet!

The one this morning actually cracked me up:

Um, OK.  How exactly am I suppose to alter my driving to take this into account? And why do I need to exercise caution?  In case I accidentally look into the eyepiece and see an extremely distant object?  I can hear the complaints before this sign went up – “Why didn’t you tell me I might see the Omega-Centauri Globular Cluster!  The horror!”

Here’s another one that I should have worked into my last post about the Salton Sea, but I forgot:

Yep, that fabulously unique place that I called the Salton Sea is ACTUALLY the Sonny Bono Salton Sea NWR.  Yes, THIS Sonny Bono.  I looked for Cher’s National Park, but haven’t seen it yet.

In other news, the prickly pears are ripening nicely.

I can tell you now from personal experience that the fruits are soft and deep purple when ripe, they contain a wonderful smelling juice, and the outside of the fruit is covered with many dozens of tiny, almost-invisible spines that can nevertheless penetrate deeply and painfully into one’s fingers.  Ah, curiosity.

Finally, I will leave you with a bad picture of what Wile E. Coyote sees at the end of every episode:

It’s the blurry backside of a roadrunner zipping away at high speed, never to be seen again.

More later…

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My Idea of a Good Time

You know what would be fun?  To fly down to LA, rent a car, and then drive a couple hundred miles into the deep desert.  Let’s go in late July, when the temps will top out near 120 F.  You can get a sunburn in about 20 minutes.  I know of a particularly desolate area, with a small amount of water.  It smells a bit like a cross between a particularly boggy marsh and a sewage treatment plant.  We can drive the dusty dirt roads while the air condition tries (and fails) to cool the inside of our car.  Why would we do this?  Well to look for a seagull, of course.  And after we’re done we can drive 30 miles back into town for dinner at the fanciest restaurant in the whole area (McDonald’s).  Any takers?

Sometimes I find it hard to explain my hobby.  Many times it’s much easier to say I was in California, um, visiting relatives.  Yeah, that’s it.  But if I wasn’t into bird watching, I certainly never would have visited the Salton Sea, which is a fascinating and bizarre place.  The Salton Sea is a 400 square mile lake in southeastern California, and is less than 10 feet deep in most places.  The water is 50% saltier than sea water, meaning that only the hardiest of fish species can live there.  It was formed by accident a century ago, when efforts began to channel and dike the Colorado river to bring irrigation to this extremely dry part of California.  The mighty Colorado would not be so easily tamed, however, and in 1905 after heavy rains the river broke through the dikes and began to pour into a low-lying rift valley.  For nearly two years, almost the entire flow of the Colorado River poured into this valley, forming the Salton Sea.  Eventually, engineers managed to repair the damage, but not before a new inland sea was formed, one of the largest lakes in western North America.

Birds and wildlife were attracted to this desert oasis, and people too.  During the early and middle part of the 20th Century, the Salton Sea was a popular resort area.  But eventually the lake began to shrink.  Nearby rivers were diverted to provide water for the growing coastal cities, and the inflow of water slowed.  Meanwhile, evaporation removed water at a fierce rate, concentrating the salt that had dissolved from the rocks when the lake was formed.  Now the lake is dying, drying up.

The Red Hill “Marina” is now nearly a quarter mile from the water!

The boat ramp doesn’t quite work anymore.  Actually this picture is pretty deceptive.  That water is just a puddle that ends right around the corner – the lake is actually another 200 yards away!

Plans are underway to try to save the Salton Sea, but with water supplies in the area so scarce its future is uncertain.  It is an accidental creation after all, and not really a natural feature.  But at least for now, it provides many animals an oasis in the desert.  Among birders, it’s known as the only place in the US or Canada to see Yellow-footed Gull.  If you want to see that bird, you have to come here.  A few of these gulls wander up to the Salton Sea, but typically only in late July and August, when it’s nice and toasty.  After 30 minutes of searching, I found a couple.  Note the yellow legs and feet!

But believe me, 30 minutes walking around in 116 F heat (the highest temp my car recorded today) feels more like 30 hours.  It’s so hot and dry, you don’t even feel yourself sweating – the perspiration evaporates almost instantly.  I drank nearly three liters of water (most of a gallon) in less than two hours, and didn’t have to use the restroom.

Of course there’s more here than just gulls!  I didn’t take a lot of photos (it was too dang hot!), but I saw ducks, grebes, terns, coots, cormorants, and thousands of herons and egrets.  Oh, and about 300 American White Pelicans.

Here are a few of them.  Unfortunately this picture doesn’t really do them justice.  They are magnificent birds, with a ten-foot wingspan.  That’s about 3 feet more than the height of Lakeside’s 6’10” Upper School Director, Than Healy.  There aren’t many things with a wingspan longer than Than.

Oh yes, and the Burrowing Owls.  Too cute!  They spend their days mostly underground, and come out at dusk to look for food.  I saw a little colony of maybe a dozen of them.  There were a few reptiles too, like this four-foot snake.

A California Kingsnake, maybe?

After the sun set, I got back into my car, and put it in drive.  By then, the temperature had plunged to 111 F.  Who doesn’t love a cool evening breeze?

1103.9 miles driven, and an unknown number remaining.  The next morning, I began the long drive to Tucson, passing this sugar plant.

As I mentioned, this whole area is a rift valley.  Water poured into the valley in 1905 because it is at such low elevation.  The shore of the sea is about 230 feet below sea level!  This sugar plant, 20 miles away, is also below sea level – note the marking (visible just above the power line on the left) showing where sea level is compared to the height of the building.

Tomorrow – Arizona!


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Extreme California

I’ve been in California for 5 days, yet this is my first blog post.  That’s mostly due to the fact that I’ve been out of range of the internet – in one case almost 100 miles out of range!  And it’s been kind of a wild time.  I survived a trip to the deep ocean, a 25-mile drive through a sand track in the desert, and daytime temps well exceeding 100 F.  And tomorrow it’s really going to start getting hot!  But first things first…

I flew into LAX on Friday, and spent the day seeing the endangered California Gnatcatcher and fighting the absolutely horrendous LA traffic.  Remind me not to complain the next time I’m grousing about sitting on the 520 bridge for a mere 90 minutes.  On Saturday I got up at 4am for the drive to Santa Barbara, where I had a ticket for the Condor Express.  The Condor Express is a 75-foot fast catamaran, and its task today was to take several dozen avid birders on a 14-hr trip to the deep ocean, some 100 miles into the Pacific.  Way out in water two miles deep is the only place you can find birds of the deep water or pelagic ocean.  I was stocked up on Dramamine, warm clothes, and saltines.

The trip was amazing.  We chugged out past the Channel Islands, seeing several species of shearwaters, storm-petrels, and even a Scripp’s Murrelet (a tiny black & white seabird somewhat related to puffins).  The trip was a bit rough, with 12-foot seas (which the Condor Express took at 25 knots, creating incredible spray and bow shocks).  By 8am I was thoroughly soaked with salt water (my over-the-top armored and water-resistent cell phone case doesn’t seem like such a bad purchase now), and my legs were getting a workout as I tried to absorb the heaving and rolling motion of the boat.  I managed to alternately munch a few saltines with one hand (you had to hang on to a railing with the other hand, or end up being thrown to the deck) and wipe the spray off my glasses while tracking an albatross with a 7-foot wingspan glide almost effortlessly past the vessel.  A special treat was the appearance of a rare Red-billed Tropicbird at our “turn-around point,” over 100 miles southwest of Santa Barbara.  In the category of “not a treat” was the engine trouble the boat experienced on the way home (how does one rescue 75 people who are stuck 80 miles out at sea, I wondered at one point).  But we made it back safely to Santa Barbara (several hours late), and I finally made it to bed well after midnight.  Still, I consider it $195 and a box of saltines well-spent.  Needless to say, there are no photos to post from this trip.

After another day exploring Ventura County, it was off to Kern County, about 100 miles northeast of LA.  I usually think about California as absolutely stuffed with people, but the vast tracks of land that unfolded before me reminded me that almost all of the population of this big state are crammed into a few corners of it.

I was also reminded that southeastern California is dry.  Really, really dry.

Most of the rivers are dry here by late July, and deserts stretch in almost every direction.  I spent some time in the high desert, in the scattered lush oases where precious water was present, and high in the mountains.  Special birds here for me were Lawrence’s Goldfinch, the endangered southwest subspecies of Willow Flycatcher, and Clark’s Grebe.

Joshua trees periodically dot the landscape here.  I looked for jays in the Joshua tree “forests.”  At least until the heat of the day sent my scampering for shade or air conditioning (highest temp recorded this week on my car’s thermometer while it was driving down the road: 108 F).  Around here it pays to get up early, go out in the late afternoon, and spend the middle of the day having a quiet siesta.

Lake Isabella (the town and the lake) was my homebase area.  There’s lots of natural wonder available nearby, but not much in the way of services for visiting humans.  Few gas stations, no internet, and limited food options (I did grab a good burger at Nelda’s Diner, though).

I also saw some BIG trees.  Central Kern County is on the edge of Sequoia National Park.  While I didn’t have time to drive all the up to see the biggest sequoias, I did see some giants that rival the big trees I’ve seen in the Hoh rainforest in Olympic National Park.

I will post more later.  Tomorrow I’m traveling to the Salton Sea, where it will really be hot!  Yes, Sweety, I am wearing my sunscreen.


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Olympic National Park: Mammals and Birds

We’re spending a few days on the Olympic Peninsula, and Kristi and I decided to spend the morning at Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park while her mom watched the kids back in Port Angeles.  We got up early, and enjoyed a great many mammal sightings (and a few birds).

This mamma bear and a tiny cub were foraging on a nearby hillside.  We watched from the car for a few minutes.  They were chowing down on some low-growing plants and flowers.  Kristi tentatively identified their favorite snack here as Martindale’s lomatium (can anyone confirm this?).

They were too cute.  Mid-July is the season of mammas and babies at Hurricane Ridge.  We saw pairs of mamma and baby bears, deer, grouse, ravens, and juncos.

This Olympic Marmot surveyed his domain from the entrance to his burrow.  We saw some severed marmot feet on the trail, so some carnivores are using these guys as a food source.

Deer were abundant and very tame.  We saw several dozen without even trying.  It’s obvious that the big predators (like wolves) that used to cull some of these deer are missing from the park.

Olympic Chipmunks were always scurrying around, looking for handouts.

My target bird species for the morning was Sooty Grouse, one of the larger grouse species in North America.  This bird used to be part of the Blue Grouse, which was split a few years ago into Sooty (western Washington) and Dusky (eastern Washington) Grouse.  We saw a mamma grouse and two fluffy chicks around milepost 5, and another set of mamma and chicks around milepost 12 on the main road.  Despite some good viewing through binoculars, the low light made photos difficult.  All in all, it was a good day.

Later on this week I’m leaving for southern California and southeastern Arizona.  More then!

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Capitol State Forest

Most Washingtonians will recognize this as the legislative building on the Capitol campus in Olympia, but you might not know that a dozen miles or so southwest of this structure is the Capitol State Forest.  The CSF is state-owned forest land, and is extensively logged (with the money providing revenue for our cash-strapped state).  Anyone can use the logging roads to drive deep into this commercial forest, as long as you pull to the side when the giant logging trucks comes barreling along.  I got up at 4:45am this morning to head to the CSF, in large part because it’s the closest place to my house where one can reliably find nesting Hermit Warblers.

Hermit Warblers are small song birds (ornithologists and birders call song birds ‘passerines’ because they all belong to the same taxonomic order, Passeriformes) which show up in southwest Washington in May and stay until September.  They winter in Mexico and points south, attain a maximum length of about 5 inches (including bill and tail), and weigh in at about one-third of an ounce (9 grams for your SI-enthusiastists, or about the weight of 3 pennies).  Hermit warblers are partial to mature conifers at middle and upper elevations in the CSF, and spend most of their time singing from the tops of 150-foot fir trees.  Needless to say I didn’t get photos with my point & shoot camera, but you can see some awesome Hermit Warbler pics by Robert Royse here.

Hermit Warblers are not that easy to find or see, but after about 45 min in the CSF I tracked one down.  Or at least I thought did.  But of course, in the CSF, all is not always what it seems.  This area southwest of Olympia marks the northern-most breeding range of the Hermit Warbler, which can be found south throughout western Oregon and northwestern California.  But it also marks the *southern-most* breeding range of Townsend’s Warbler, the sister species to the Hermit Warbler.  Townsend’s Warblers are genetically very closely related to Hermit Warblers, and even look somewhat similar (although they have black on the head and yellow on the breast and belly).  You can see some of Royse’s Townsend’s photos here.

Townsend’s Warblers usually breed from northwestern Washington up through BC and into Alaska, but a few stay as far south as the CSF during the nesting season.  Now it’s not that hard to tell a Townsend’s from a Hermit – as you can tell if you looked at the photos.  The problem is that occasionally a Townsend’s male mistakenly mates with a Hermit female (or vice versa!) in this narrow “zone of overlap,” and produces baby Hermsend’s (or Townmit?) warblers.  And these hybrid warblers can be dang tricky to identify, as they can look quite a bit like one or the other parent (or sometimes a bit like a half-and-half mashup of both).

In your 9th grade biology textbook you might have learned that different species cannot successful breed with each other to produce fertile young.  That’s true most of the time, but there are a few closely related species of birds that CAN successfully interbreed.  Which makes biologists scratch their heads at times wondering what a “species” really is, and how to decide which populations are true species and which are just highly variable subspecies.

Back to my warbler in the CSF – a careful inspection showed that it was (at least to the limits of my observational powers) a pure Hermit – a totally yellow face and no visible yellow below the black bib.  I ran into at least 9 Hermit Warblers in a few hours of knocking around the forest, and almost all of them seemed to be lacking visible signs of hybridization (although when they’re playing peek-a-boo 150 feet up offering 1-2 second glimpses, it’s sometimes hard to tell!).

Around lunchtime I headed back down the logging roads and back to the interstate.  Passing right by the state capitol, I decided to stop and take a brief tour (the main capitol building is 3 min off the highway!).  It’s definitely worth a stop – free tours leave from the second floor every hour on the hour from about 10am to 3pm.  And after you tour the capitol, you can zip down to the Capitol State Forest to see a Hermit Warbler (easiest to see May through mid-July along the B- and C- roads near Larch Mtn and Capitol Peak – bring your binoculars!).

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Eastern & Western Washington

It’s been great just spending a little time home in Washington state, enjoying our “early summer” weather (55 degrees and raining).  I had one free day last week, and decided to make a quick run across the mountains to do a little birding.

One of the few good things about getting up at 4am – the amazingly spectacular sunrises:

In less than two hours I was on Umtanum Road, southwest of Ellensburg.  This area is one of my absolute favorite places in central Washington.  The scenery is gorgeous, and the birds are usually plentiful.  I lucked into a nice male Bullock’s Oriole in the first 10 minutes.

This area is predominately sage brush, open Ponderosa pine forests, and some brushy riparian areas near the creeks (which were running high).  There were still some areas of wildflowers blooming amongst the sage.  [And Umtanum Falls was bee-free, Jonsies!]

I soon came to a little creek, where a Lazuli Bunting was singing his little heart out at the top of a small tree.

Other highlights were Western and Mountain Bluebirds – I saw dozens of them, including this nice male Mountain below.

I was a good trip, and I headed home around noon to do some errands and mow the grass.  I picked up most of my target species, but I dipped on White-headed Woodpecker – next time, Mr. Pecker!


I spent the weekend with my family on the Olympic Peninsula.  While the weather was mostly marginal, we enjoyed our time there.  Sunday morning was actually quite nice, and Kristi and I hiked the Geyser Valley trail in Olympic National Park.

This is one of my favorite hikes in the northern Olympics.  Bird highlights were Hammond’s Flycatcher, Warbling Vireo, and Western Tanager.  We also saw a Northwestern Garter Snake.

Despite its otherwise rich biodiversity, Olympic National Park is home to only three total species of reptiles – two of which are garter snakes.  It’s just too cold and rainy here for herps, I guess.

We wrapped up a visit to the Peninsula with a trip to Graysmarsh Farm in Sequim.

If you’re ever in the area, I highly, highly recommend a stop there between early June and the end of August.  They have (in rough chronological order of ripening): strawberries, boysenberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and marionberries.  The berries are delicious, and it’s easy picking – as opposed to many of the places around Seattle that are usually so picked over it’s hard to find a ripe berry.   We picked about 6 lbs of strawberries in less than 30 min with the kids “helping” – and it was less than $11.  You can also cut your own lavender there in mid-July.

All in all, it has been a relaxing couple of weeks.  I’ll be mostly around Washington state for another two weeks or so before heading to southern California and Arizona.




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