Thursday, April 23, 2009

Strange Birds

In early March I went bird-watching in the valley here with some Audubon Society folks. Birdwatchers are gentle people, people who take time chase after small creatures. So it was a nice day.

We saw sandhill cranes, lots of gulls, some swans, geese, and other birds that I've forgotten already. Most of these birds were just passing through on their way to Canada or Alaska or the Arctic for the summer.

Here's a picture of some of my Audubon friends looking out into a field at a falcon perched on an irrigation pipe. I was driving one of the "getaway" cars. We had a route mapped out and we followed it very slowly, until someone spotted something of interest. Then we'd pull over and all pile out with our binoculars and scopes. It's a good thing there wasn't any other traffic on the roads.

These are swans we saw walking around in a farmer's field. I think it's the first time I've seen swans out of the water. It's not their prettiest pose, I suppose.

Birdwatching involves standing still for long periods of time. You're an observer in foreign territory, which is a cool thing to be, especially for people like me who always have to be doing something. There's no reward in birdwatching other than the outdoors and the fun of looking for and finding beauty, diversity, and whimsy in the wild bird population. It's not physically challenging which is probably why old people do it (so I guess I must be an old person now?).

One thing is sure -- if I'm going to take pictures of birds I'll need some better equipment. They're small and usually far away too. So you may need to click on the picture and enlarge it to really get a good look at them.

I have managed to attract plenty of birds to my yard through the Winter. The starlings are in and out of the garage, which doesn't have an enclosed soffit in the back. I can hear a nest of babies chirping somewhere in there too. The starlings are also nesting under (or in) the eaves of my house. I can hear them rustling around overhead when I wake up in the morning.

I went to an Audubon Society dinner last week. Lots of university professors and their wives were there, 150 people altogether. They were celebrating the signing of an agreement between the society, The Nature Conservancy, and Rocky Mountain Power Company. The Audubon Society received a conservation easement from Rocky Moutnain Power for 500 acres of bottom land next to the Bear River -- they will manage it as a wildlife habitat and as a natural plantlife biofilter to protect the river from pollution from farm chemical runoff. Here's a photo of the area. All the subtle colors and differences in texture are interesting, aren't they?

These "riparian" (riverside) zones are among the most diverse biological systems on earth. They perform services that human effort and technology can't do as well. So this is an important project, and it's an example of how the people here just go ahead and do whatever needs to be done. That goes for snow removal and wildlife refuges.

The keynote speaker at the Audubon banquet was a woman from Hawkwatch International. That organization pays people to camp out on mountain tops and watch for (and count) birds. I want that to be my next job!

The day I went birdwatching with the Auduboners, we saw some sandhill cranes. They are made for the job of foraging in the unplowed fields -- notice how they blend right in. If you weren't looking for them, you'd drive by the field every day and never notice them.

Here you can see the cranes a little better against a contrasting background. But their color seems to mimic this environment too. Some are doing their crazy dances.

I saw a strange blackbird crossing the street on my way to work the last week. It was a yellow-headed blackbird (something unique to the West). Its head and breast is really orange, though. They hang out in the tall cattails, as you can see. But when they're waking across the street, they look like they have safety vests and superhero capes on all at once.

Here are some nice Pelicans that have been drifting around the sloughs nearby.

My favorite bird photo so far is this one of Cattle Egrets (I think) foraging on a big manure pile down the road. The farmer cleaned out the barns just in time for the birds' arrival. I wonder if he planned it that way.

It's kind of awful - these white birds with long silky feathers standing on a dung heap all day. I had to hold my breath to get the picture.

When people forage, there usually seems to be some sense of shame. But these birds act like they are kings of this mountain. In Dayton, I remember the way the alley pickers used to keep their heads down and eyes averted when they went through our garbage. After you watch migrating birds for a while, it seems like foraging is a natural way of meeting needs, like people shopping at the second hand store. Rich people may not want their old shoes. But poor people sure can use them. The little birds can eat what the pigs and cows are too big to notice. Of course, foragers are at the bottom of the food chain, or the social hierarchy, in the case of humans.

I felt a kinship with the white birds on the dung heap. I know I have to pick through a big pile of poop to find something of value, something to sustain me -- on television and the internet, in churches, schools, jobs, movies, and even in the fancy grocery store...

One thing I know for sure is that I'd much rather watch the strange delicate dancing flying swimming birds than the stock market, the demise of my 401K, or even this computer screen. They fly and swim and dance and do their best to avoid us humans. Birdwatching, like whale watching or the job of a night watchman, is healthy exercise. It requires alertness, patience, vision, a good book, fresh air, diligence, and a little bit of plain old luck.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Signs of Spring

I went out to check on the asparagus I planted last weekend. Nothing so far. But one of the raspberry bushes I put in along the fence has one leaf bud. And it looks like my new strawberries survived last week's snow just fine.

I thought I'd have a productive Saturday. But it was 65 degrees. There were bicyclers coming through town from every direction. There's still snow on the mountains, but the valley is bright green with new hay. So I went on a walk with a neighbor to enjoy the sun and breeze.

After that, I had a book (a really nice biography of John Muir) to deliver to a nice man who chopped up a tree that was down in my yard. His wife showed me their old rock house, their hen house, plans for the garden and landscaping projects.

Then I picked up my order of artisan bread from the town baker who has a big pizza oven in his garage, admired his kids' newly-acquired garter snake, rescued from a snake-fearing neighbor.

On my way home from Jim the baker’s house, I saw more signs of Spring. Here's a 3-week old colt trying its legs.

Here she is with her mom.

This little town has family farms interspersed with the houses. I think just about everyone has animals of one kind or another. I, myself, resisted the urge to buy some baby chicks last weekend at the farm store. Aren't they cute?

It was Easter weekend too! Three or four laying hens wouldn't hurt anything, would they? My neighbor said there would be plenty of people willing to help me build a henhouse. But around here, they buy the chicks in the Spring and kill them for the pot in the fall. I don't think I could kill a chicken. I'd have to find a way to heat the henhouse for the Winter.

Here are some mother and baby goats that live around the corner. One of them came up to the fence and tried to eat my pants.

Liz is expecting a baby and I promised her some pictures of mom and baby animals. So here they are, Liz.

I took a drive up the hill to the dairy farm, looking for baby calves with their mothers. They had plenty of babies there, about 25, I'd say. But they separate the calves from their mothers, since the mothers are milk cows. This one is a Swiss Brown, which farmer Jeff said will be ornery, given half a chance.

Here's the youngest calf they had -- just 3 days old.

They gave me a tour of the farm, which has 93 milk cows. The cows were huge -- the largest one weighs 1400 pounds and produces 57 pounds of milk every day. There have been lots of articles in the papers around here about the plight of the dairy farmers, with milk prices low and hay prices high. But I didn't hear any complaints. I think these farmers like what they're doing. They knew the quirks and "freckles" of their cows.

In the milking barn there was a constant parade of cows. Fourteen of them were attached to milking machines at once, and moved out after 20 minutes or so. I definitely have been getting an education about farm life. It's funny -- I spent a lifetime learning things about literature, computers, music, art, eastern plants and birds, and children. Now I discover that I could spend another lifetime learning about a totally different part of life -- Utah plants and bugs and geology, the cross-fertilization needs of fruits trees, breeds of cows, milking equipment, ways of building fences, what to do with manure, how to mix feed for animals. I only get one life, though.

Whenever I walked toward one of the cows, I noticed that she was expecting food. I guess that's what we humans are good for. Who really needs a pat on the head, anyway?

They say we'll have more snow before the warm weather is here to stay. But my neighbor came over this afternoon and we sat and chatted and fed the fish in my pond until the sun was low in the sky. Another neighbor helped me plant a couple of fruit trees last Saturday ... it got dark and we had a rambling conversation about our younger days, whether pine or spruce trees are easier to grow, Easter egg hunts, the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho, the value of spare time ... and we looked off into the cool field of a million stars hanging over my house.

Happy Spring, everyone!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

It's a Big State

I thought I had thoroughly covered the topic of the Moab area of Southern Utah in my last post. But, looking at it later, there's a lot more I could show you. So I thought I'd share a few more pictures.

Check it out.

Here's a picture looking across Canyonlands National Park. I think those are the La Sal mountains through the clouds. You might need to enlarge this picture (click it if you're on he blog) to really see it. The picture is so small, and it covers such a vast landscape. I think the upright rock formations are at least 5 miles away and the mountains are probably 25 miles away. Isn't it amazing that you're in the sky (on level with the the clouds), and there is snow on the distant mountains, but you're standing in the desert?

Here's a pictures taken at Natural Bridges National Monument. It's a fun park to visit because there's a 8 mile loop road that includes several different bridges and the hikes to them from the road are pretty manageable for us old folks. And the rocks are sort of porous and light and delicate, somehow.

Here's a picture taken at a place called Muley Point. It's down a long dirt road in San Juan County, near Blanding and Bluff and a place Moki(another word for Hopi) Dugway (one of those Utah words that means a road or way sunken below ground level) and Valley of the Gods. This overlooks part of Glenn Canyon. There was no one there but us. A year ago, I couldn't have imagined looking out over vistas where I could see 40 miles ahead without seeing a single person out there. By the way, Liz was holding onto my belt loops as I leaned out to take this picture.

Here's a shot of a place in Arches National Park that shows a little more of the vegetation and just sort of captures the feeling of a lot of the trails there, it seems to me:

Liz, my daughter and travelling companion, took the best picture of the trip. Here it is:

Hope you enjoyed the show --

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Another Planet

When I first came to Utah, people often said, "It must be culture shock for you here." I'd usually respond with something like, "Well the people are nicer and the land is more beautiful here. But everything else is about the same." Back then, I was just a tourist. Now I'm experiencing culture shock. It is quite different than St. Anne's Hill in downtown Dayton, and it is the other side of the universe from Oakwood, where I lived just 4 years ago.

I haven't seen a single BMW in Utah. The best vehicles are pickup trucks. My neighbors have mud-encrusted llamas and lambs instead of well-groomed yellow dogs. I observe herds of cows on my way to work instead of the homeless making their way from the night shelter to the day shelter. There is no zoning, and not a thought about doing anything as silly as passing an ordinance about paint colors or the types of fences allowed. There's no real need to hang curtains in my windows. There are more chickens and pheasants than people in this little town. The sky is full of stars and the churches are full of people.

My daughter Liz visited me the week before last. While she was here, we took a trip to southeastern Utah, where all the red rock is, along with vast amounts of empty public land, cattle grazing on the open range, mountain bikers, four-wheelers, and other Utah enthusiasts. It was nice and warm down there, and I was glad to get a break from the cold and snow.

We stayed in a rustic cabin on a little ranch in Blanding, explored Cedar Mesa, where the Indians known as the Anasazi, which means "ancient", lived. We saw lots of natural bridges, went to Moab and hiked in Arches National Park and Canyonlands, and even glimpsed a little corner of Glenn Canyon. The rock and land formations were fabulous -- a geologist's dream. There were giant rock goblins everywhere, mexican hats, temple-like formations, bridges and rock rainbows. More than once, we said, "Wow. It looks like another planet!"

Here's a picture of the little ranch where we stayed, called Abajo Haven in Blanding. It is out of the way (6 miles outside of a tiny town), has fire rings outside the cabins and places to corral your horses if you want to bring them with you.

The rancher cooked some terrific ribs for us and took us on an interpretive hike that covered several epochs of Native American history and a Utah nature lesson too. Did you know that pine nuts come from Pinon trees, which don't produce pine cones and nuts every year? Back when the cliff-dwelling Indians were basket weavers (around 500 AD) and then clay pot makers (by 1000 AD) and living in large colonies in southern Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, a year with pine nuts was a cause for celebration. Pine nuts are very high in protein.

The trip was just one amazing sight after another. Here is a picture of Liz standing at the base of a rock formation in Arches National Park. She looks like one of those little action figures, doesn't she?

Here are some ancient Indian pictographs on rocks. The Anasazi Indians didn't have a written language, even though it is estimated that there were 2,500 native inhabitants of the San Juan valley. The lack of a written language might explain why the pictures look like children's drawings.

This made me start wondering about the development of written languages. Why did civilizations develop them? Why did some cultures get along without any written language? Historians see that the development of written language corresponds to the development of cities. Did people need to write laws as the population density increased? Was it for accounting purposes? Did it reflect a need to record history? Today, it seems as if the main reason we need written language is to communicate with people who are far away. Since I am a writer by trade, I've noticed that our culture used to be more oriented toward the written word, before the invention of film, TV, and now digital cameras. Written communication started out as pictures, evolved to use shorthand symbols (alphabets), and is now evolving back to pictures.

Here is a photo of the famous Delicate Arch in Moab. It really is a beautiful spot. To give you a sense of the scale, those little black dots in the patch of blue sky to the left of the arch are people walking around.

The most amazing place we saw was Dead Horse Point, a state park that overlooks Canyonlands National Park. Here's the view from there:

There was a huge dust storm when we first arrived at Dead Horse Point, and we saw a little rainbow reflecting in the dust in the air over the canyon. The place is called Dead Horse Point because, according to legend, cowboys corralled wild mustangs there on the "neck" of the mesa, which is 2000 feet above the Colorado River. They closed off the only exit route with brush, and left the horses there too long without water.

My friend Rose called from Ohio the other day and told me that the Magnolia tree in my back yard in Dayton is in full bloom. Back here in northern Utah, it has been snowing off and on all week. Spring is still somewhere down the road and around the bend. Liz has gone back to Ohio, which might explain why the sun has disappeared and the sky is still falling (as flakes of snow).

When Spring finally comes to northern Utah, I wonder if there will be something as wonderful as the old magnolia trees of southern Ohio. As I go through the transition from a tourist to an inhabitant of Utah, if this is another planet, I wonder if the native people speak my language. I suppose I'll need to learn theirs. But I think I'll try drawing some simple pictures, first.