Posts Tagged ‘western birds’

It seems like we’d taken every road available to cross southern California—all four interstates (yes we’ve even gone through Vegas on I-15) as well as backroads like State Route 62 through Twenty Nine Palms which we got to by driving through Joshua Tree National Park. While they’ve added distance as well as time to the journeys, the detours have provided ways to see backcountry SoCal that many people never experience.

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The Salton Sea © SR Euston

This trip we chose to return from LA via I-10 through Palm Springs and then head south at Indio. Looking for lunch we ended up at Mecca, a crossing of the roads where we continued south around the eastern side of the Salton Sea on State Route 111.

I’m not sure what I expected but it definitely wasn’t this: a beautifully glistening enormous lake, 228 feet below sea level, the largest in California with a 380 square mile surface compared to Lake Tahoe’s 193. This particular iteration of this inland sea, a sink which has been alternating between flooded and dry for thousands of years, was created by Colorado River overflow flooding which began in 1905 and was finally blocked off in1907.  Since being closed off from the river, the sea now receives water only from a few small rivers; its major source is runoff from the adjacent farmland in the Imperial and Coachella Valleys.  Consequently, salinity rises each year and is now 25% higher than the Pacific Ocean. In 1930 a National Wildlife Refuge was established; in 1955 a state park.

The ecosystem is a study in contrasts and conflicts. On the one hand, the fish, introduced tilapia especially, continue to thrive and the Salton Sea is considered by some to be the most productive fishery in the world. On the other hand, it’s so productive that periodically there are massive die offs, probably the result of overpopulation leading to oxygen depletion. The blazing summer temperatures don’t help either. Evaporation increases the Sea’s salinity and reduces the ability of the water to hold oxygen.

On the third hand, the Salton Sea with its mix of marine, freshwater, desert, wetland and agricultural lands, is considered California’s “Crown Jewel of Avian Biodiversity”, with over 400 species sighted, second only to the Texas Gulf Coast. Several million birds migrate through annually relying on its ready supply of food. On the other (fourth?) hand, major bird die offs have happened periodically, particularly in the 1990s when 170,000 eared grebes, as well as 1000 endangered brown pelicans and 15 to 20% of the white pelican’s western population died, probably from an deadly mix of avian viruses and bacteria.

From the crusty shoreline (which looks a little like Yellowstone’s mineral hot springs) we easily spot white pelicans and black necked stilts. Rather than sand, the beach is made up of millions of fan shaped translucent fish scales and a lot of dead fish.

Shoreline, Salton Sea © AME

Shoreline, Salton Sea © AME

An eerie feeling of abandonment hangs in the air.  Forlorn, almost abandoned.

What’s happening to the Salton Sea?

Next: Salton Sea past, Salton Sea future

For general park information see: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=639 and http://seaanddesert.org/facts.html.

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There is a magical garden tucked away within Mingus Park in Coos Bay.

Morning Song Bridge

Morning Song Bridge © SR Euston

We discovered it recently while having a picnic at the park. At the west end of the big pond we spotted a gracefully arched, bright red bridge. It turned out to be the entrance to a lovely Japanese-style garden named for Choshi, Japan, Coos Bay’s sister city.

Quiet Pond © SR Euston

Quiet Pond © SR Euston

Work on the garden began in 1985 by the  local architectural firm Crow/Clay, assisted by an army of volunteers, and in consultation with city officials from Choshi. It was dedicated in 1996 ceremony which Choshi representatives attended.

From Morning Song Bridge © SR Euston

From Morning Song Bridge © SR Euston

It is a 2.4 acre promenade-style garden, where a seemingly meandering path leads from one “scene” to the next, each meticulously composed with tranquil diagonal view lines across moving water and among carefully chosen plantings. It includes the standard Japanese garden elements: water which begins in a small pond and then cascades gently down a narrow stream (the “Creek of Whispering Waters”) and ultimately into the park’s main lake; carefully chosen and placed rocks; artful bridges and benches; a 3000 pound granite lantern (“Snow Lantern”) on a tiny island in the “Pond of Illusion”; fish; and plantings including flowering cherry trees, Japanese maples, dogwood, azaleas, rhododendrons and bamboo. Taken together they form a lovely, seemingly natural but perfectly conceived garden which welcomes leisurely strolls and quiet contemplation.

Contemplation © SR Euston

Autumn Scene © SR Euston

Time seems to slow down for everyone who enters Choshi Garden. Nothing rushes; no one skate boards; people talk in lowered voices. It is immensely calming.

The red bridge, “The Morning Song”, was rebuilt in 2007 and shored up in 2009. It is painted red like the Japanese garden bridges which it copies.

Choshi is maintained by volunteers who keep its trees and shrubs artfully manicured and is a part of the Coos Bay City Park system. When you go, perhaps you’ll even be greeted by this graceful bird—a perfect symbol of  a magical  Japanese jewel in this lumber city by the sea.

Heron © SR Euston

Snowy Egret © SR Euston

Choshi Gardens is open every day. Off US 101, take Commercial Street west to 10th Street. Turn north. Mingus Park is one block away on the west side of 10th. Choshi Garden is on the west side of the park.

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Madera Creek © SR Euston

Madera Creek © SR Euston

On Monday we visited a beautiful, remarkably biologically diverse habitat, Madera Canyon, in the Santa Rita Mountains about 15 miles southeast of here. Renowned for its bird life and rare riparian habitat, it’s a naturalist’s paradise.

Or so they say. While it’s true Madera Creek is running (an unusual and delightful) event, water music was the only sound I heard the whole morning except for airplanes and a crow (or maybe it was a raven, I didn’t see it.) And along the trail we saw any number of unidentifiable plants including a flexible, soft two-needle pine, (like a white pine but it has five needles or perhaps it was a mutant three-needle Chihuahua?), and a multi-trunked shrub with alternate, smooth, leathery oval leaves with grey undersides (like a silver buffaloberry but they don’t grow in Arizona).

For me, this describes my all-too-common naturalist experience: Rarely do I see anything (especially wildlife) and if I do I can’t figure out what I’m looking at (especially plants). So I’ve come up with a few observations and recommendations for other amateur naturalists as they head out on the trail:

  1. You’ll almost never see what’s in the guide. Be it animal, vegetable or mineral, your specimen will always be unique.
  2. So go ahead and be decisive when identifying. Probably nobody else saw that bird you just  pointed out. And if anybody did, do they have a photo? If not, louder, bigger and absolutely certain usually wins. So go for it. Case in point: that was a Mexican Jay we (hardly) saw in Madera Canyon.
  3. Shrubs are a real thicket. Oaks too. Nobody knows and don’t let anybody  tell you otherwise. Your Emery oak is bound to be somebody else’s Gambel’s. Not to worry. Even the oaks don’t know. They’re too busy interbreeding. And shrubs? There’s a reason why most guides use line drawings. It’s up to the identifier to sketch in the details. Ferns and grasses? Forget it.
  4. My best advice? Marry a naturalist who’s been looking around at the natural world longer than you have. Even better, marry one with an encyclopedic memory for everything from the Golden Guide to North American Birds to the Boy Scout Handbook to Thoreau’s Journals (all fourteen volumes). Then go forth (together) and identify!
    Unknown Pine © AME

    Unknown Pine © AME

    Unknown Shrub © AME

    Unknown Shrub © AME

    Naturalist on the Snowy Trail at Madera Canyon © AME

    Naturalist on the Snowy Trail at Madera Canyon © AME

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Two days ago we were on a lonely beach near the New River, a bit north of Cape Blanco, the wind whipping the sand. Ann saw something in the far distance. She pointed. It took me a while to make out the thin undulating line far in the distance. Then we heard the unmistakable cries and honks of the migrating geese, approaching nearer and nearer, soon overhead in steady flight, headed to their breeding grounds in the mist shrouded Aleutian Islands.  Flustered, I nearly dropped my camera in the sand. I had no high powered lenses, and am not a wildlife photographer. I just looked into the sun and shot. I previewed the LED screen, and the image naturally was terrible. Well, it was just as well, because I now could concentrate on this wilderness journey heading north to lands I will never see, but can imagine. Suddenly, we see more incoming, waving wild banners, Vs folding into long wavy horizontal lines, regrouping, separating, lead birds rotating, a few stragglers. The honks became a wild cacophony. I keep thinking, unimaginatively,  “call of the wild”. But it is wild, as wild as the Amazon. Geese flying north as they always have, following instincts and urgings we know nothing of, this surge of life heads to it’s native grounds. Ann and I don’t run out of excitement, even after the passing of twelve or fifteen flocks, maybe 1500 birds. At some point in all this I was a bit more prepared with my camera. No close ups —no lens for that. But the waving, flying banners? That’s what I hoped to capture—just to hint at this life force in motion.

These Aleutian geese mostly winter on the Northern California and Oregon coasts. A few years ago this sub-species was threatened, headed sadly to the “going, going gone” category. Federal endangered species legislation saved the day. Today, 60,000 to 100,000 of these geese fly north about this time. They face the winds, they make me glad to be alive. Thank heavens for Earth Day! Out of its power came the Endangered Species Act, the most effective conservation tool we have, and sadly one that those short-sighted, stunted politicians who would steal from the creation want to eviscerate. Let’s hope for better times ahead.  SRE


All photos © SR Euston

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Wednesday morning found us on 42S, a narrow, winding road which leaves Bandon on the south side of the Coquille River and wanders up its valley to the picturesque community of Coquille. Coquille, the Coos County seat, has a population of somewhat less than 5000. We were heading there to get a new driver’s license for Stan, on the recommendation of local friends who promised a quick turnaround. Considering the office was empty when we arrived at 11:20 am,  it probably would have been, if giving drivers’ tests between 11:00 am and 1:30 pm weren’t prohibited. Humm….

Still, what could we do but take the office workers’ advice and proceed on to Coos Bay? It was our ultimate destination anyway.

And besides, it turned out to be a beautiful side trip. Warm air, a blue sky with patchy clouds, fog bands against the hills beyond the verdant valley.  Outside Coquille, enormous farms dotted the hillsides, multiple silos lined up beside giant metal barns.

Coquille River Flood Stage © SR Euston

After this past weekend’s six plus inches of rain, it was obvious the Coquille River had flooded its banks. At one ranch we saw a flock of domestic geese who had taken to high ground on the opposite river bank. A pig waddled through the mud towards its shed. Waiting for the water to recede, the large cattle herds huddled their barns. (I guess that’s why they’re so huge!)

Near Riverton we stopped to look across a wide expanse of flooded fields. It looked like the rice paddies of the Sacramento Valley. A large flock of Ruddy Ducks had gathered. Bands of swallows swooped and circled. In places water reached over halfway up the crossfencing.


Coquille Flooded Pastureland © SR Euston

Downtown Coquille is a quiet farm and forestry center with narrow streets. We talked with a nursery owner, a Southern California transplant. How wonderful the climate was in Coquille, he told us. Perfect. Never too cold, never too hot. And, after hearing we lived in Port Orford, not windy! “Oh the coastline is spectacular, but that wind!” he said with a laugh.

The wind? It’s true. But oh that coastline.

Cloud Reflections 1 © SR Euston

Cloud Reflections 2 © SR Euston

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We’ve greeted autumn in our new homeplace—Port Orford, Oregon.

Here We Are © SR Euston

Although semi-native New Mexicans, we’ve spent the last five winters on the Curry County coast, always wondering if we could comfortably change from our high desert’s annual eight inches of rain, to the 80 inches the Oregon coast promised. A beautiful home in Port Orford, our favorite town, lured us north.

But unpacking has stalled as fall weather has played devil’s advocate, beckoning us out day after beautiful sunny warm day, onto the three beaches within walking distance.

Yesterday, we headed for what is known locally as Agate Beach—a long black sand strand just north of Port Orford Heads which offers views to Paradise Point and on to Cape Blanco six miles up the coast. Purchased by Oregon State Parks in 2003, it has been renovated and renamed Tseriadun State Recreation Site. Tseriadun was a finely made village of cedar-plank-sided homes occupied by Tututni, Athapaskan-speaking Native Americans, who prospered at this site for at least 5000 years prior to their forcible removal in the mid-1800s. Like so many other native settlements, only the name remains.

Under a brilliant blue sky, we oohed and aahed over the first giant waves of the season, some over 25 feet high.

High Surf at Agate Beach @ SR Euston

They arrived on the heels of our first brief winter storm which dumped slightly less than two inches of rain over 24 hours, mostly in series of downpours. Scores of gulls congregated at the wrack line, oblivious to the nearby crashing surf.

Sand Ridge between Ocean and Garrison Lake © SR Euston

Sand Ridge between Ocean and Garrison Lake © SR Euston

Behind the dune line is Garrison Lake, a remarkable shallow lake where freshwater “floats” on top of salt. It was created less than 100 years ago when shifting sand blocked the mouth of Garrison Lagoon. Thousands of rainstorms later, the heavier saline water has been topped by about ten feet of fresh.

As we watched, a bright yellow/orange-billed Western Grebe floated by, diving occasionally for dinner. Two Black-bellied Plovers foraged at the water’s edge in a mix of beach grass and seaweed.

Today is cloudy. Rain is coming. Still I hope we haven’t seen the end of the Oregon coast’s sunny autumn yet.

Agate Beach Looking South © SR Euston

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Today our neighbors are having their home re-stuccoed. I’m sure as the workmen climbed up on the roof they were surprised and, perhaps amused, to see in the adjacent yard, two pajamaed folks gazing through binoculars, at what must have appeared to be a blank back wall.

What they couldn’t see was that we were watching our hummingbird feeder.

We have two species: the larger, rose throated Broad-tailed and the smaller, more feisty coppery Rufous hummingbird. The Broad-tailed is identified by its particularly shrill metallic wing sound, while the Rufous dominates the scene with its sheer aggressive speed and daring.

At the Feeder

Our block has become a sort of “restaurant row” for the hummers. Three houses in a row have feeders dangling from ramadas and trees. Dozens of hummingbirds begin in the early gray dawn, zipping and zinging, scolding and chasing. For such tiny creatures they seem to expend an inordinate amount of energy chasing each other away from the sugar water we humans provide.  I guess between the sips of liquid sucrose power and the protein provided by the ever-present ants which wander into it, the hummers have discovered a veritable “all you can eat” buffet.

If one can get to the feeder.

I could swear that the Broad-tails hush their wings to sneak in under the ever-vigilant Rufous guard,  trying to swoop down to the feeder’s perch, drinking quickly and very very softly. But all too often the tiny male Rufous dives in with a flash of copper and red and chases off the intruder. Then everybody adjourns to the spruce hedge in search of tiny insects.

The Rufous has the longest migration (up to 3000 miles!) of any North American hummingbird. Maybe the long trip is what makes them so aggressively protective of their food sources.

In the late spring the hummingbirds return to our neighborhood to mate. In May and June, they provide an aerial show of remarkably fast U-shaped dives and climbs accompanied by very loud chitchitting.

Now it’s just the summer time food fights that entertain us. And that occasional, breathtaking rush of cochineal.

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Sunday promises to be clear, cool and breezy as we head for the Piedra Lisa Spring Trailhead. We’re not alone. The parking lot is close to full.

Piedra Lisa (it means smooth stone) is a fairly steep trail, gaining 1200’ in about two miles. This does not stop the large number of families we see as the trail begins but after about the first half mile we find we’ve got the trail to ourselves. On the lower trail, cholla are in magenta bloom. As we head up Juan Tabo Canyon two types of Prickly Pear are flowering, one low runners with yellow or apricot blooms, the other with larger pads, its edges studded with bright yellow blossoms. Higher up we reach piñon/juniper forest dotted with the occasional douglas-fir and white fir. Gambel oaks cast mottled shade; the Fendlerbush is almost done flowering. The smokelike seed banners of Mountain Mahogany wave in the breeze.  Scarlet Claret Cups bloom.

Farther on we get great views of granite formations on the Sandias’ western face—the Shield, Needle, Prow and the UNM Spire, and panoramic views west toward the city. The trail itself reflects its Sandia geology, pulverized weathered sandy granite overlaying a smooth granite base. Heading up is slippery, coming down is treacherously slippery.

In a flash of color we spot a Western Tanager in the tree tops—almost tropical with its red head, yellow breast and black wings with white wing bars. He and his less showy olive-colored mate eat insects in a dead piñon. As birds often seem to do, he approaches and sits in direct sun, as though to encourage a positive ID.

At a snack break we watch red breasted nuthatches work their way down the tree trunks, snatching whatever little morsels they can find.

Winded but at the top close to the trail’s halfway point, we reach the Rincon Ridge. From the ridge we have a spectacular northeast view toward Placitas, where the trail ends at its northern terminus, after plunging down steeply into Del Agua Canyon and into the sandy box canyon below.

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Pelican Ocean Sunset copyright SR Euston

Seems we’re not the only Oregon coast watchers who’ve noted the unusual winter brown pelican population. The last week of January pelicans made front page news around the state. And it’s not a pretty picture.

All the south coast local papers ran stories about too many pelicans: scavenging and begging for food at docks, in parking lots, in backyards. Pelicans even made the front page of The Oregonian, top left above the fold. “Lingering pelicans in peril at coast” the headline read, followed by: “Migration: Flocks that usually leave Oregon before winter face starvation and threats from humans.” (The Oregonian. 1/29/10)

This news report came on the heels of the previous day’s press release from the US Fish and Wildlife Service cautioning kind-hearted but misguided human ‘friends” not to feed the pelicans, sad as they may appear. Their diet is strict and very limited and, like zoo animals, they die from ingesting human fare like hamburger buns and chicken nuggets.

So what has happened? Scientists note that in recent years a shift in ocean and wind patterns has kept the pelicans’ diet staple–bait fish–plentiful throughout December. So the pelicans have stayed here rather than following their usual migration pattern to Southern California and Mexico. When deep water upwelling finally pushes their food down and offshore, the pelicans are stranded here in the Pacific Northwest.

Now many are starving. But as far as I can tell, there doesn’t seem to be much concern about this biological turn of events, even from marine biologists. Maybe it’s because overall populations have slowly rebounded from their near extinction numbers. Just this December the brown pelican was removed from the Endangered Species list.

On the other hand, maybe DDT-thinned eggshells–how their populations plummeted and they made the original Endangered Species list–was just the first sign of pelican fragility. Still, none of the biologists interviewed by The Oregonian would go beyond “perhaps” in considering global warming the cause. The closest any got  was ‘big picture eco-change.”

Last week we saw a dead pelican floating amongst the other jetsam collected at the Gold Beach jetty. Such a sad end to such a magnificent flyer. What will it take to connect these, oh so obvious, dots? By then will it be too late for more than just the brown pelican?

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Every rain-soaked morning we’ve watched south-flying, storm-avoiding brown pelicans. In ragged lines of ten or so, they glide along the breakers, just above the water, looking gracefully elegant. Just like the gulls, while soaring and banking occasionally northward, they’ve always returned to their southward course.

At first Stan didn’t believe I was seeing pelicans. We’ve never seen them in our five years coming here to Nesika Beach. Besides I’ve been known for off-the-cuff bird IDs that have later proved wrong.

But pelicans? False identification seemed to me highly unlikely. Unless they were reincarnated pterydactyls, or a sudden influx of condors, there aren’t many other possibilities for the huge brownish birds I saw gliding long and low over the breakers, heads pulled back into pudgy “shoulders,” wings extended. While gulls flap and tack into the southerly headwinds, the pelicans glide and wheel.

I read that brown pelicans used to winter in Coos Bay, about 65 miles north of here. But Northwest Birds in Winter (Contreras. OSU Press. 1997) noted that, by the 1990s, brown pelican populations—an early casualty of DDT-caused eggshell fragility and resultant high mortality and one of the first birds to be listed as endangered—while rebounding in other locales, hadn’t repopulated Coos Bay.

Pelican Waves © SR Euston

Yet again, Audubon Christmas Bird Counts (CBC) came to my rescue. At Port Orford in 2007, no brown pelicans were counted, in 2008 there were 25. But for 2009, 193 were noted. And in Coos Bay, CBC pelican populations in 2007 were 48, reached over 2700 in 2008, and dropped back to 363 in 2009. Anecdotely, a recent picture in the local newspaper The World, featured a photo of a huge pelican gang roosting in Reedsport, a fishing harbor north of Coos Bay.

What’s it all mean?

Frankly I don’t know. A Gold Beach friend who’s been here for a decade told me at first winter gulls and pelicans were plentiful. Then for years there were virtually none. Now they’re back. Why? El Niño? El Niña? Fate? I wonder….

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