Wednesday, May 30, 2007

When I Grow Up

When I was in sixth grade, a fire lookout/forest ranger came to talk to my class. I was so excited to ask questions, since I wanted to be one when I grew up. My family camped a lot throughout Washington, and I could think of nothing better to do than be a ranger and hike and camp all the time(or so I thought was the job of a ranger) or sit on a mountain and watch the world and take care of the forest.
Time for questions, and my big moment--”Can a girl do it?” And my big disappointment—“No, the forest service will never hire women”(this was, ahem, 1976). Of course by the time I got through college they were hiring women, and I found out the USFS always did hire at least a few women. But I remember how that comment went deep, and knocked me sideways from what I thought I could be, for a while at least.
So I’m not a fire lookout or a forest ranger, I've been happily a mom. And now I can sit on a mountain and watch the world, too. Yesterday this cloud poofed on the western horizon on a cloudless day. It soon drifted north, proving itself to be smoke(there is always the exciting possibility of seeing volcanic poofs of Mt St Helens too, but that’s off to the northeast). Usually there's been a few fires at that spot every year, the local timber company has some sort of yard over that ridge. One year there was an enormous smoke cloud and we got in the car and went looking for the fire to see how close it was and how worried we should get. A large pile of logs had caught fire(a Paul Bunyan sized campfire!), and the fire crews were on top of it.
The smoke cloud in the picture above was a pretty shade of shell pink. And I admit, I enjoy seeing how the upper winds shape the cloud, and how the cloud reveals the layers of winds(and how smoke behaves differently than water vapor)--in other words, I like to watch. The fire didn't last long.
Our local (defunct) fire lookout is called High Heaven. It's well-named!
The other day, during my evening walk, I saw five ravens flying west out over the valley, like they always do as the sun goes down. One raven, the right “wingbird”, half tucked its wings as if it was folding them back for not-flying, and also held them in a curve, like a ballet dancer curves their arms in front of them.. Then it barrel-rolled upside down clockwise(from my view), cronked at the upside down point and rolled back up the way it came(counter-clockwise). Quick, tight, one-two. It didn’t fall, tip fore or aft, skew or tumble, but simply rolled and unrolled like a homebound Blue Angel. And then, because it knew I wasn’t sure I believed what I saw the first time, it did it again, exactly the same, and again once more so I got it straight. Really.
I’m reading Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek(for the third time—1997, 2002, 2007) she describes the indulgent free-fall of a mockingbird…
“The fact of his free fall was like the old philosophical conundrum about the tree that falls in the forest. The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” (Page 8)
And so I was there for the raven’s trick. Although it has taken six years of being “there” to see it.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Wildflower Rainbow

There is such a variety of wildflower colors TODAY, and I decided to pick some and arrange them in a rainbow. And, by chance or by golly, I happened to read this little story in a book I am reading A Touch of Oregon, by Ralph Friedman--really, I'm not making this up ;0)!
"...I asked him(Bob Ogle)to tell his favorite legend.
"This one", he proceeded, "is from the Teton Sioux and it's how rainbows came about."
"The fall was approaching and flowers were talking to each other. They said that it didn't seem fair that when the Indian died he went to the Happy Hunting Grounds. And the other flowers said, 'We just live for a short time and die and we're gone.' And the Great Spirit heard them and didn't think it was fair either, so he created a place for the flowers to go when they die. And when they go up in the sky they form the rainbow that you see after all of the storms."
From left to right:
Mariposa Lily, Nootka Rose, Red Columbine, Honeysuckle, Hairy Cat's Ear, Monkeyflower, Ox Eye Daisy, Pacific Hemlock-Parsley, Camas, Menzie's Larkspur and Oregon Iris.
And remember, Oregon Iris, Iris tenax or"rainbow holding fast"--it's not by chance it's on the end!

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Thrushes Arrive

The last light shimmers sideways among the pink-pluming grasses bent to the northeast, glancing along silvered knife-edged iris leaves. The last bee bumbles along the stalk of a fringe cup tinged with coral. The air dances with clouds of gnats sparkling one last time as the mountain rises between the sun and us all. Into this full-blown Spring world Thrush arrives on this particular day--not yesterday, not tomorrow--its song spiraling up and away into the nightening air growing heavy with the damp that rises after sunset from the fresh green.
When I first heard Thrush's song, I was dumbfounded. I'd never heard the song before, or at least been in the right woods at the right time. Once you've heard the song, you can't not know it. The beauty of the song surpasses "pretty", "sweet" or "melodious", goes straight through "beguiling" and "ethereal", to where I am only left with "divine". Divine as in the romantic poets' sense of the quality of something so utterly itself, unfiddled with,unspoiled, as it was first spoke into being. And divine in the sense that something can still exist in this world in that way.
During the day Thrush sings pieces and variations of its song, crystalline shards dropped amongst the earthy mosaic of songs and drumming of other birds. But at dusk it all comes together in that long ascending spiral of something so rarely heeded in this world, "proof" I'll call it, of something outside our ken--the More, the Other. Hearing this song as the world transitions from day to night I feel like a window has opened on the new heaven and new earth--it's really there after all.
Thrush belts out this perfection of song exuberantly, over and over again in an extravagant repeat of "I am here in my now, I am in my place in my world, go and sin no more"--or as Thoreau would say it, "Live deliberately". The song sings from the middle of May until the middle of July as Thrush defines his home space for courting and nesting. Then no more Thrush-opera, and they leave for winter in Central America.
Listen one evening(or preferably many) in the thrush's home turf. Just like trying to grasp and truly understand anything, you need to take in the whole package--the song, the venue, the audience, the smells, the shadows, the light--a bird call tape doesn't cut it. Just listen, and it will all become plain and clear as the nose on your face--and then you're hooked.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Odds Are

Each spring a pair of mallard ducks hang out in our vernal pool/pond/swamp. This year they built a nest in the bowl of a ring of ash trees. It is quite a cozy nest, with a mossy floor and enough of a sheltering bower effect from a few fallen fir boughs caught just above. You can see the duck pulled out some of her down to cover the eggs in a layer about 4" thick(it's been pulled back) and licorice fern fronds have been pulled down from above, probably to disguise the down comforter. But sadly the hen is now gone--I don't know if something ate her, or if somehow the ducks decided to move on. The pool is rapidly drying up(the fastest I've seen since we've moved here)--although plenty of cover and water remains(to my un-duck thinking).

Ten eggs, a delicate pale green-blue, lay like cold stones, gradually turning grey from the inside.
0 for 10
The other day as I was walking, I met a wild turkey family. They were crossing the two track into the grasses and irises above. The chicks were only a few days old, with mottled brown fluffy down with a yellow belly. The hen had quite a time keeping everyone together, getting them across the road and back out of hawk sight(I'd just seen a hawk cry and fly off here a few minutes ago). The chicks were still a little bumbly on their new legs, but weren't shy about plunging blindly into the deep grass. The hen kept up a constant gluck and coo with each chick, who responded with a peep. I've listened to this communication with my own chickens, and marveled at how much they spoke back and forth, even when the chicks were still in the egg. Obviously listening and knowing mom's voice is an important survival tactic! The hen wanted to rest under the shade of a small fir's low slung boughs, and tried to gather everyone. But typical of young things anywhere, a few stragglers lollygaggled in the road, having fun running willy-nilly in the wide open. So she herded them back into the safe grass and moved further into the small trees.

The grass quivered as each little chick wove through, walking by faith in mom's voice, not by sight.
7 for ??? so far
Today I found a lone turkey chick huddled on the side of the road. It looked weak, and there were definately no turkeys around. It had gotten sick and was left behind. It squatted on the dead grass that matched its feathers. I took it home, made a bed for it in a dog crate with grass, and gave it little containers of water and chicken food with a fresh worm, and tried to clean its gunked up bottom(a common killer of chicks). I knew it would probably, most likely, inevitably die. But I had a sliver of hope--I imagined it getting bigger and becoming part of my little chicken flock roaming the yard for bugs, or maybe one day following a flock of wild turkeys that pass through(it would have been always free to go), or even being content to stay and get big and fat--and tasty(we did smoke a wild turkey for Thanksgiving one year). So many different thoughts about this little chick: pet, wild thing, dinner. The chick seemed to like sitting in my hand, maybe it felt warm.
Such a delicate small thing to try to keep up.

0 for 1

There are, by my guesstimate, about 50 resident turkeys here in an apparent steady number year to year. Say 25 hens hatch 10 eggs twice(if the first batch goes badly), that's 500 chicks. Maybe 5 or 10 or 25 survive into adulthood each year. That's a lot of "bad luck", and that's just the way it is.

I like to read memoirs of pioneers, homesteaders and native americans. Survival odds were often much the same for them. Some dealt with it by not naming the child and not becoming "attached" until the child made it to around 4 or 5. Others cherished the child fully, knowing full well the investment would probably end in grief, and blessing its existence with love and thankfulness. I know I'm a "namer".

I "know" turkeys do not name their chicks, although listening to them communicate and obviously endeavor to keep track of the entire brood makes me wonder. Birds certainly have some sense of individual identity of themselves and one another--they defend territory, choose and know their mate among all others. Yet it is seemingly hardhearted to leave a chick behind, or let it go if it can't keep up. But that's just the way it is. Life goes on and on, it flowers every year. The thing is to keep going, to keep trying.

I put the dead chick on a stump. It will keep going on, as will many other chicks, in the gut of Beetle, the craw of Raven.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Butterfly Day

The warm spring afternoon brings out the butterflies. An Anise Swallowtail (Papilio-- "butterfly" zelicaon--a name from The Iliad) spent a while nectaring on my lilacs. It visited each lilac blossom bundle, shivering its wings as it sucked lilac juice. I teetered on tiptoe on my chopping stump and took LOTS of pix, these two were my favorites. Anise Swallowtails like the tops of hills and ridges for breeding, and will stake out a territory and defend it, king of the mountain style. As I watched this swallowtail, two Spring Azures spiraled by overhead, and an orange Fritillary looped along the ground.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Taming of the Shrew

The tiny shrew is a wonder. At about 2 1/2" long(in body) the Trowbridge Shrew is at the lower limit for how small a warm blooded mammal can be. To get an idea of size, the tip of this guy's nose is the size of a pin head, his foot is the size of a grain of uncooked barley. It sniffs around in the duff with it's array of whiskers, looking for any meaty morsel(earthworms, bugs), fir seeds and selected fungi. The Trowbridge Shrew is "stronger" and can burrow into the soil--look at those feet and think about how small those bones are!!

Shrews have an incredibly high caloric need. They eat their body weight each day, and can't go more than 3 hours without food. They need the calories to keep themselves warm because they are so small. Shrews do not hibernate or sleep--they carry on through the winter of their one-year lifespan, scuttering through the forest floor, even under the snow.

A shrew's heart beats up to 1,200 times per minute(and it's the size of a sunflower seed maybe?). All that hard work makes it easy for the shrew to be literally scared to death. Poor hearing and eyesight make it hard for them to evade predators, but they do have one defense-- they taste bad. However, owls, jays, and trout don't seem to mind.

So you're probably asking how I got this little guy to sit for his picture. I found him expired on the path. It's mind boggling how tiny he is, and like birds, he is mostly fluffy fur, his little body is maybe the size of a small peanut(in the shell).

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Turkey Prom

Each year, around the end of April, the wild turkeys come together for Turkey Prom. They like the cow pasture, which isn't much of a cow pasture since cows are only in it a few months out of the year on the early summer grass, which really makes it a great cow pasture--I would love it if I were a cow, and even as a human that green grass makes me want to put my head down and munch away! So the cow pasture remains a remnant of the oak savannah and wetland prairie that covered the foothills of the Willamette Valley.
So for Prom activities the hens peck for woolly bears in the new grass, while the 2 or 3 biggest and baddest Toms strut around trying to impress them. A few small groups of young batchelor turkeys without dates skulk around the edges of the party. When the Toms are showing their stuff, they are quite oblivious to who might be behind that tree, so I can get pretty close. The hens are still pretty wary though, and start moving away. All sorts of birds singing, mostly White Crowned Sparrow and Red Winged Blackbird, and the occasional beat of assorted woodpeckers(Pileated, Hairy, Northern Flicker, Red Headed Sapsucker) make up the band. The sparkly spring sun makes a great disco ball--and that shiny disco ball has quite the party effect on winter-rusty Oregonians, feathered and not-so-furry.

The turkeys are pretty thick around here, and aren't shy at all if you are in a car. I always stop and roll down the window and tell them how pretty they are as they waggle their warty blue heads. It's fun to listen to them gobble amongst themselves, and I'm sure they're so NOT telling me how pretty I am!

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Counting Ravens

(from May 2) SUN! Clearing clouds, everything still wet from last night's Noah Rain--a thick, juicy, soaking downpour. Wind in the treetops, high and thin. Birds perch in the sunshine, warming up, drying off. The weatherman promises hail, lightning, thunder and funnel clouds today.

And just like that the sun is gone. A shower passes over, wind whips the trees, tearing loose lichens, fir needles, bits of bark, new green tips and infant pine cones. Hail! First come 1/4" pellets, and chickens run across the lawn for their coop to escape the falling sky. Then 1/2" musket balls shoot from the sky. A flash of light, an immediate crack of thunder(woo-hoo!). Sheets of hail pelt the world, and yet a hummingbird dares to dodge hailstones!

Wait awhile, the sky rips open again to the sun. Top heavy tall clouds barrel in from the southwest, like cresting ocean waves in slow motion breaking over the ridge, trailing swirling gusty winds.

Every once in a while, a raven lauches from the ridge out into that roiling airspace above the valley. Opening its wings, it seemingly lets the wind decide its course and attitude, pitch and roll, altitude and stall and tumble. The bird stretches its wings and simply lets go.

Watching all this, how can I not think the bird knows it can fly, it's designed to fly, it's gifted to fly, and above all, that it's fun to fly? Why does a hummingbird fly in a hailstorm? Because it knows it can dodge hailstones? Because it wants to try?

Both of these birds have particular character(personality? attitude? or just a wild feather-hair?) trait that seems to inspire these flights--curiosity for Raven, daredevil-ishness for Hummingbird. Or maybe it's "just" some other need, like courtship or hunger.

So, what do birds know that we wish we knew?

(PS, today May 7--I SWEAR I saw a hummingbird zip-shoot straight up in the sky to about 100 feet, then stall and fall, then zip off like a UFO. Its metallic ruby throat was quite snappy against the blue sky!)

Friday, May 4, 2007

Iris Season

Oregon Iris (Iris "rainbow" tenax"holding fast"--isn't that a beautiful name? and what an interesting image, a "rainbow holding fast") is blooming everywhere! They love dry sunny meadows, road edges, and even grassy clearcuts. They seem to grow very easily from seed, and spread quickly. The bloom opens up with a deep thistle purple, then gradually fades to pale lavendar. They also have pretty dark brown seed pods in late summer.
David Douglas, a Scottish botanist, came to the Pacific Northwest in 1824 to "discover" new plants(the Douglas Fir is named for him). He reports seeing Native Americans braiding these iris leaves into snares--for anything, rabbits and ELK!!

Poor David Douglas should have stayed in Oregon. He died at 35 in Hawaii, after falling into a bull trap-pit and being crushed by the intended trappee--the bull.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

BioBlitz 2007--Conclusions and The End

(Above) A shot of the oldest living thing on Indian Hill, Cougar Tree. Read more here:

(above)My perch on the south side of Indian Hill. It's a great place to watch birds, both scuffling on the ground and flittering through the treetops. It's got a nice steep drop off to dangle the feet over. Cougar Tree is directly to the left.

(above) The trail home.

(I counted species found, not individuals—most all had many representatives!!)Trees—6
Flowers—58, *1
Fungus—13, *9
Birds—19, *15
Insects—14, *12
Mammals-- 6, *8

Grand Total-- 180, *55 =235 species altogether(so far)
*=resident species observed at other times of the year, just not during the Blitz week.
This includes two endagered species(*Spotted Owl and *Marbeled Murrelet).

April 21, 2007
Lo 40.5’, Hi 47.2’, barometer—down, humidity(3pm): 82%
Low clouds skimming treetops, following slopes down into valleys. Steady rain all day sundown, lifting of clouds, clear at nightfall, stars!! Collected moss and lichen samples, branches with lichen on Indian Hill.

April 22, 2007
Lo 43’. Hi 57’, barometer—up, humidity (4 pm): 67%
High piled sharp edged cumulus, 30% blue sky towards east, late afternoon showers. Wind SW.
Late morning. Birds seen: Rufous Hummingbird, American Robin, Steller’s Jay, White Crowned Sparrow, Wild Turkey, Raven, Red-Headed Sapsucker, Pacific Slope Flycatcher, Chestnut Backed Chickadee, Mallard Duck, Varied Thrush, heard calls of Redwing Blackbird.
Found fresh deer, raccoon and bobcat tracks on a deer trail into tree farm(pix). Found a raccoon skull and a jawbone of a squirrel?(Pix)
Found a new-to-me flower, a catchfly/campion? Under mature spreading oaks in cow pasture. Camas blossoms rising up, blooming soon. Four turkeys. A woolly-bear caterpillar, black middle band with long white hairs on sides, in the grass. Found lots of a smoky brown coprinus mushroom all along west edge cow pasture(shaded and wet). Watched a shower pass in the dry shelter of a big fir(south side of Indian Hill), chesnut-backed chickadees kept popping by to get a look at me.
After supper. Heard a Pileated Woodpecker laughing. Helped a Rough-Skinned Newt completely cross the road. Just enjoyed the small beings and wild gestures—the wish of raven wing fingers through spring air, the bright rust of a robin’s breast against the twilight blue sky, remembering the watchful companionship of the nesting mallard pair on the pond.

April 23, 2007
Lo 41.6’, Hi 61’, barometer—up
Deep blue sky, small round fuzzy edged clouds fill 50%, gradual overcast into evening. Enough wind to creak trees, SW.
Early afternoon. Followed three bachelor turkeys in pasture(young males hang out together in the Spring while hens and the Big Guys are doing their thing). Found 6 Striped Coralroot under a mature spreading oak. Two deer in the tender new grass.
After supper. Heard calls of Pileated Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, various sparrow, junco, towhee, Steller jay, redtail hawk, robin, and other birds I recognize their calls, but don’t know which faces go with which songs.

April 24, 2007
Lo--, Hi—(not working), barometer—up
High bright overcast, then darkening grey bottoms of clouds. Occasional gusts from the N, sounds seem amplified
Noon. Lots of high flying birds today. Turkey Vulture soaring. Canada geese flying NW, calling to each other.
Late afternoon. wind high in the treetops, then it suddenly dies to silence, hush. I can hear birds at least ¼ mile away through the trees(I’m hearing red-wing blackbirds, and I know their pond is about ¼ mile away). Complete silence, punctuated by few bird songs. Strengthening sun, every leaf holds one raindrop.
After supper. Ravens flying west, like they always do in the evening. They pause in the treetops, speaking to each other. It’s easy to hear how Raven seems to have speech, their sounds seem formed by a tongue, rather than just a squawk or song, like other birds. High wind in the treetops, listen long enough, by hours or days, and you can hear what the wind is bringing tomorrow—rain, cold, warm, sun. Listen long enough and even silence will speak what you need to know.

April 25, 2007
Lo 42.5’, Hi 59’, barometer—up, wind swings from N to SW and back.
Overcast, a cold wind picks up in the late afternoon. The trees creak and clack in the indecisive wind. White Crowned Sparrows follow me, singing in the cascara, or maple, or Saskatoon along the road. Each individual sings a slight variation on a basic song. Maple chains swing heavy and golden in the wind, their newly unfolded leaves flitter like paper.


I discovered two new plants, one I didn’t know the name of—Grove Lover (Nemophilia parviflora, waterleaf family), and one completely new flower I hadn’t seen yet and can’t find at all in my field guides.

I learned that it is a good thing to have multiple field guides to help identify cousins. Photos or illustrations in guides may be made of plants 500 miles away, or 3,000 feet up in elevation, and examples will “never” be exactly like what I have in my hand. I learned more about how shade or sunlight changes the form of a leaf, and how better to understand all that stuff the book says about sepals and hairs and axils, and then use it to better my ID skills.

I learned it’s easier to see birds when I have a prior understanding of where a bird likes to hang out—chickadees like firs, flycatchers like thickets, woodpeckers peck in the canopy.

I decided my Indian Hill has come a long way in transitioning from a grassy savannah hill to a conifer forest in the past 80 years. Most of the species found prefer a moist, open conifer stand of mature trees. I am amazed to find Fairy Slippers, they require a very particular environment and relationship with firs and fungus. The firs have topped the oaks, which means the oaks will die soon in the fir shade.

I understand better how it takes a long time to understand a place, and discover its secrets. My tally is a result of 6 years of watching this place, and I know there is even more to find.


Acorn, John and Ian Sheldon, Bugs of Washington and Oregon. Lone Pine Publishing, 2001.

Alden, Peter and Dennis Paulson, National Audubon Society Field Guide to the Pacific Northwest. Chanticleer Press. Inc, 1998.

Alt, David, Roadside Geology of Oregon. Mountain Press Publishing Company, 1978.

Baron, Nancy and John Acorn, Birds of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Lone Pine Publishing, 1997.

Gunther, Erna, Ethnobotany of Western Washington. University of Washington Press, 1945.

Laessoe, Thomas, Mushrooms. Dorling Kindersley, 1998.

Lincoff, Gary,ed, Guide to Mushrooms. Simon and Schuster, 1981.

Matthews, Daniel, Cascade-Olympic Natural History. Publisher’s Press, 1999.

Moore, Michael, Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West. Museum of New Mexico Press, 1979.

Pojar, Jim and Andy MacKinnon, Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast; Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Alaska. BC Ministry of Forests and Lone Pine Publishing, Vancouver, 1994.

Searfoss, Glenn, Skulls and Bones. Stackpole Books, 1995.

Field Guide to Fungi(Pacific Northwest)

Field to Terrestrial Mollusks(WA and OR)

Northwest Oregon State Forests Management Plan (2001)

Oregon Flora Project,

Rare, Threatened and Endangered Species of Oregon,

Two eyes, two ears, two hands, two feet, one heart.