Yesterday I participated in the Christmas Bird Count located at Wind Cave National Park, SD. It had just snowed about a half inch overnight, sprinkling a dose of magic to the already enchanting landscape. Following are a few pictures to document my adventure.
The Christmas Bird Count is a citizen-science annual event hosted by the National Audubon Society and takes place in the U.S., Canada, and many countries in the Western Hemisphere. This year marks Audubon’s 120th Christmas bird count, and—depending on your local count schedule— takes place sometime between Saturday, December 14, 2019, and Sunday, January 5, 2020. On one day within this date range, volunteer birdwatchers of all types and abilities come together to count all the birds seen/heard within designated 15-mile circlar areas. If you are interested in participating, you can find out more: https://www.audubon.org/conservation/join-christmas-bird-count
For questions about the value of this project, the Audubon Society has an answer: “The data collected by CBC participants over the past century and more have become one of only two large pools of information informing ornithologists and conservation biologists how the birds of the Americas are faring over time.”
In other words, through your participation, you are making a (positive) difference! It’s also a great excuse to spend a day in nature therapy.
Even if you can’t be part of the Christmas Bird Count, it is always amazing to find a patch of nature and to listen and watch. She’s a good teacher.
Yes our planet is off-kilter…we’ve known it for years. 23.5 degrees, to be precise.
And with today’s proliferation of wars, global warming, chemicals, habitat destruction, etc., that surround us…it is obvious that living in such an unbalanced, frenzied manner is catching up to us.
As I visited Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks located in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, the trees spoke to me.
They said to have peace on this God-given planet, there are some things you must do:
10. Together you can stand strong. Be supportive of family, friends, and neighbors, including those who live across the globe from you.
9. Create your own habitat. Shelter your neighbors and friends with strong boughs of friendship.
8. Develop a thick skin. Prepare for the fires, droughts, sicknesses, and diseases attacking you way by eating well and taking good care of your body. Keep the big picture in mind by reading the Bible and attending worship; don’t waste your time responding to belittling attacks from others.
7. Stand for what you believe. You are planted where you are, so take root and grow strong.
6. Honor the sacredness of Mother Earth. She gives and gives and so should you.
5. Steward the earth with wise actions. Don’t throw away the things that are irreplaceable.
In the 1880’s through 1920’s, loggers cut the down the Sequoias thinking the trees would provide a goldmine of lumber. Instead, when these thousands of year old massifs fell, their brittle heavy wood would shatter. After harvest, much of the lumber obtained from them was suitable for such unremarkable items as house shingles, fence posts, and matchsticks.
4. Be generous and remember to care for those who are with us and those who will inherit the earth.
3. Even though you haven’t seen it with your own eyes doesn’t mean the fantastic doesn’t exist.
The Centennial sequoia tree was a 24-foot diameter tree that was cut down. Sixteen feet of its outer shell was transported and reassembled at an exhibit in Philadelphia. When visitors on the east coast saw this display, many thought it was a fake and called it a “California hoax”. On the positive side, this piece of wood inspired believers into trying to protect these giant trees, whose native range is found only on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada.
2. You are wonderfully made.
1. (#6 revisited) Nature gives selflessly to us, and let us do the same for her. Let your voice be hers. Join conservation groups who act on behalf of nature. Support leaders and treat this planet like the forever home it is…for the sake of nature, your children and friends, and…you.
If you are a private landowner, take a look and enrich your property to benefit the native ecology of your area. Green lawns might look neat and tidy, but they are ecological deserts; think about making them smaller and plant native perennials, trees, and shrubs in their place.
Looking back it’s been since April (gasp) that I’ve visited this site. Yes, before this summer started, I had suffered from delusions of using a few hours a day to finish editing my latest novel and I realized at the time that this feat would require dropping other writing projects if I wanted to get that done. No excuses, but since school’s out, time has been in hyper-speed mode and I’m just trying to hang on. If you’ve got school-aged kids, you probably know what I mean.
Don’t blink: July is almost over.
Summer vacation started out strangely…my kids had a snow day on the day before school let out (instead of using the day before, if my husband were writing this, he’d use the word “penultimate”—he loves that word). The day before! As I drove to the school to pick up my children on their last day of school, the neighborhood’s lawns were covered in snow.
The kids spent their first day of “summer break” building immense snowballs and watching as they rolled down the hill and smashed into smithereens.
Nature keeps a treasure chest whose delights appear in the most unexpected places and times.
I’ve lived in the Black Hills of South Dakota for eleven years now and I would tell you that, nope, we don’t have fireflies here. Maybe if you travel east, yes, but not here.
And then our family goes camping at a lake in Custer State Park.
This particular lake is located about eighteen miles from our house. A couple of years ago at this same campground, I’d thought I’d seen a yellow flash from a lightning bug as I took a stroll in the dark, but discounted it as my overactive imagination, as that particular insect only lit up once. No, on that particular long-ago night, I wasn’t able to satisfy my hunger and catch a second glimpse of the firefly smoldering like the emerging petals of a buttercup. By doing so would bring me back to summer days when we visited my grandparents’ house in Indiana,where we spent hours chasing after these small flying lanterns lighting up the humid dark sky.
And then, just last week, we visited that same campground.
Lo and behold—wouldn’t you know it?— the little buggers flashed us as we sat by the campfire roasting marshmallows. Their erratic, bright yellow beacons added even more cheer to an already glowing campfire and were a cogent reminder of how little I know about life, the universe, and everything (thank you, Douglas Adams). And my little part of the world.
Look at this: these birds aren’t native, but it was still quite astounding to see: I was preparing a cup of tea and noticed a pair of female peacocks as they wandered behind our house then continued up the hill as if they had important business to conduct.
The deer around our place may rival the number of people in China (a slight exaggeration), but, even with my cold, hard, gardener’s heart, seeing a fawn pant after his mother is still worth a few awwws.
I hope you are finding your own taste of nature to be incredible.
Do you like to live dangerously: sky dive after sunset, swim in a river with piranhas, or…
eat jarred pickles one year after the expiration date?
Do you think of
yourself as a balanced individual?
If so, you are the
perfect candidate to experience the premier hike in Zion National Park: Angel’s
My family and I went
up there recently, and I can vouch that it is an apt name for that particular
hike. Only angels would be comfortable fluttering to a perch on that fin of
rock so high…so narrow.
On the brink of extinction in the 1980’s when only about twenty-two birds survived, intensive recovery efforts of condors have led to a global population that is around 400 (about half of these are in the wild vs. captivity). Nearly 70 condors call wild parts of Utah and Arizona (including Zion National Park) their home. Currently, the biggest threat to their recovery is the use of lead shot by hunters (condors are scavengers, and suffer from lead poisoning after eating animals killed by lead shot).
Apparently, these enormous, magnificent birds like to soar near this prominent massif. Although we didn’t see the condors near Angel’s Landing, we did have turkey vultures circling above us; either it was the sound of the wind fluttering through their wings, or they were chanting something that sounded a lot like:
fall, fall, fall.
Yes, fresh from the
hike, I have a few phrases to describe it:
An intense cliff-hanger.
southwestern desert lover’s utopia.
Heart-pounding…or, if you have a fear of heights, heart palpitating (I’ve always wanted to use that phrase)…I kept my eyes open the entire time…let me tell you about the sights: I had a great view of the tan and blush-colored sandstone, my daughter’s blue sneakers, and the silver chain nearly the entire way up. Also, when I looked back, I saw some guy behind us who was wearing a funky totem pole bird-head like figure on his white t-shirt.
Shushh…the sound of the Virgin River’s lullaby from wayyy down below.
Other thoughts also come to mind:
as a parent).
opportunities to commiserate with other people who had the same (healthy) fear
I already say spooky?)
An adrenaline rush upon arriving at the top, yet the knowledge that one would soon be going back through the lines of people near the edge of steep dropoffs loomed like a great shadow. But I found that dread to be unfounded. Maybe knowing we made it up installed the confidence that indeed, we could descend in similar fashion. The view of the valley below was amazing!
Although the hike
was wonderful in a twisted sort of way, it’s not an experience I want to repeat
any time soon because of the sheer volume of people that undertake the climb.
(No offence, people, but South Dakotans tend to get a bit nervous in crowds…where
we’re from, there’s lots of space).
Although we started the hike around 8:15 am and there was plenty of spacing between upward-bound hikers, once we reached Angel’s Landing, we were amidst throngs and throngs of people going up and going down. There’s only one chain, and the width of the cliffs vary from one person can safely pass to a width of I-guess-I-can-let-go-of-the- chain-for-a-little-bit-and-hope-I-don’t-have-a-buffoon-moment-and- trip, or that no one is tumbling down the mountain above me and going to take out myself or my family.
That’s not to say it’s not worth doing. If I were to go again, I’d want to be one of the early birds and go up at 6 am just for the safety factor of being around so many people while we’re tiptoeing along the edges of cliffs.
We went with a ten-year-old and thirteen-year-old, sandwiching parents between each. I had to threaten my supremely confident ten year old mountain goat that his non-bovid mom would have a heart attack right then and there if he did not hold onto the chain.
thirteen year old had no issue with that edict.
Oh yes, from a mom’s
perspective, I had thought a different trail, the Observation Point trail
sounded much more attractive and reasonable for our family to undertake, since
that one isn’t fraught with quite so much excitement and offers similarly
spectacular views. Unfortunately, my plans were thwarted as many of the trails
in Zion National Park were closed due to rockfall, excess water volume (the
Narrows), and or road construction (without undertaking a two hour and change
car ride), so there we were.
And there I was. Praying. You can do that as you walk, you know? I don’t think God cares whether you’re kneeling our standing, as long as you’re reverential.
Zion National Park has become one of the U.S.’s Disneyland Parks, meaning that if you want to experience the most popular trails, you can expect to wait in line. And if you want to do some of the most popular off-trail hikes (like the Subway) you need to apply something like three months in advance to do so (we entered a last-minute lottery for any leftover permits remaining, but weren’t selected).
Fortunately, my prayer was answered and our family survived to hike another day (much to the chagrin of my son; he thinks mountain biking is a far superior activity). Maybe, someday if/when we return…we’ll be one of the lucky ones and see the condors.
After all, with its
vertical cliff faces and prominent hoodoo at the top, Angel’s landing is
perfect for them.
It’s spring in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and, as of today, April 3, the mountain bluebirds have been here for about three weeks. Their winter home is in the southernmost west states of the U.S. (California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas) plus northern Mexico. But if you didn’t know where they were coming from, you would think pieces of the sky were indeed falling, for these birds are colored the most brilliant blue imaginable.
Mountain bluebirds (along with gardeners and farmers) are the
ultimate optimists. The day after I saw the first pair for the year, a blizzard
struck the plains about an hour to the east of us.
No, in the Dakotas, winter doesn’t give up easily. Today, we awoke to an inch-and-a-half of the white stuff on the ground (a bit more is on the way). With a diet comprised mainly of insects and spiders, mountain bluebirds have their work cut out for them. What self-respecting spider, wasp, beetle, grasshopper, or caterpillar is going to be doing loop-the-loops in the air or taking an upside-down stroll on the underside of a leaf? (especially since the leaves here have yet to emerge).
Yet, as you might imagine, there are still insects and spiders
outside, but they aren’t nearly as accessible or in as large numbers observed
Fortunately, mountain bluebirds have other places to look for six- and eight-legged prey. Currently, mountain bluebirds along our road spend a lot of time foraging in a large unmowed field where the dried stalks of grass and thatch provide shelter to over-wintering insects. Other places the birds may search include: tree cavities, under the eaves of buildings, in the leaf litter, or in galls. Other insects, like ants and termites (not really mountain bluebird food anyway), aren’t accessible, for they winter in the soil below the frost line; nor are the larvae of dragonflies and damselflies, who grow and thrive under winter’s blanket of frozen water.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. When spiders and insects are scarce, mountain bluebirds will resort to hackberries, grapes, currants, dogwoods, elderberries, and dried fruits of other plants for food. I can attest to the value of hackberry trees to songbirds in early spring: just last week in Pierre, SD, the neighborhood’s hackberry trees were dripping with robins and cedar waxwings as they devoured the trees’ berries (When I spent time in west Texas, I observed a goshawk nesting atop a hackberry’s main trunk, while in the vicinity, a pair of Bell’s vireos and several hummingbirds built their nests in some other hackberry trees’ branchtips).
Warmer weather in South Dakota will eventually prevail. And with it will come other birds, adorned in the spectacular palettes only nature can conjure. I look forward to the day when I see the first western tanager of the season. Black and bright yellow feathers color the wings and breast of this bird, while the fire of a sunset blazes atop their throats and crowns.
When that highly anticipated moment finally arrives and I hear the tanager’s characteristic upward tik-tik-tik declaration in the canopy of a pine tree, I’ll be the first to say:
When my husband Dan returned from his awesome cardio workout—a cross country ski through Cold Brook Canyon in Wind Cave National Park—he was dismayed to find our family’s efficient little Impreza disfigured by a hit and run. He frowned (and said a few choice words) as he studied the new four-inch long scratch and three-eighths of an inch deep crease in the car’s metal.
When your car gets marred and messed-with by someone else, you expect them to do what’s honest and right…
But alas, there was no note on the dash. No address, no name, no…nothing. But despite this lack of forthrightness, he found plenty of clues as to the perpetrator’s identity.
Cold Brook Canyon is a treasure-loaded trail situated in Wind Cave National Park. Following an old roadcut, in the summer it is a place for viewing such gems as lazuli buntings, rock and canyon wrens, numerous woodpeckers, Clark’s nutcrackers, swallows, eastern phoebes, and many other birds. The various seeps in the canyon provide habitat for reptiles and amphibians in the park, and, on one hiking occasion, we discovered an elk rack laying in a nearby drainage.
Wintertime in the Southern Black Hills oftentimes provides sporadic opportunities for cross country skiing. This year, we have been blessed with more white stuff than usual, so on this particular day, my husband decided to take advantage of this fact to get his heart pumping. He likes to brag that he’s put in around 50 ski days this winter so far (with a minimum of 30 minutes of actual ski time each episode). I like to brag right back that I’m at least at 75 ski days; there is a lot of Forest Service land in the Black Hills, and most are crisscrossed with logging roads—perfect for cross-country skiing (after you make your own tracks).
Because of their concern for damaging the park’s outstanding underground resources (Wind Cave), the park doesn’t salt their roads (they are worried about the chemicals seeping down and compromising cave resources). Consequently, any cars driving into the park function basically like salt blocks on wheels. Whenever a vehicle is parked for any length of time, bison and/or deer gravitate toward it and start licking the door panels, bumper, fenders—anywhere that might be splashed with salt.
And when several bison crowd around a single car, they tend to get a bit feisty to maintain their territory. Horns and head butts/swipes are common tactics used to tell competitors to back off.
And that’s what my husband speculates happened: a bison, crowded and annoyed by his buddies, tossed his head and, in the process scraped and dented our vehicle.
(Here’s the other part I didn’t tell you: when Dan returned to his car, there was a large male bison licking the car’s passenger side door. Bison are unpredictable; they can decide to lollygag in one place for hours on end. Dan didn’t have that kind of time, so he snuck over to the driver’s side, quickly opened the door, jumped in, put the car in reverse, and made a quick getaway. By then, people had driven into the parking lot and saw this entire ridiculous episode. They were laughing. I would be too, assuming everything went as planned).
Dan is 99% sure that our car’s damage was made by a bison.
But I know better. That lightning-shaped scar gives it away.
The real culprit was:
Voldemort (and I’m guessing he doesn’t carry car insurance)
As a child, every once in a great while, my parents would treat us kids with a box of Cracker Jack. For those of you not in the know, Cracker Jack is a type of caramel/molasses-coated popcorn, into which is added peanuts coated with a sweet glaze. Now, I must admit, I just remember the Surprise Inside…Guess What’s Inside? label in blue and white on the outside of the Cracker Jack box. I can’t really recall any of the prizes. But at the time, the best part was the moment when I discovered the prize amidst the mass of caramel corn crowding my fingers: a little red-and-white-striped package about the size of a postage stamp.
Having a bird feeder is a bit like indulging in that box of sweetness; when you look out the window on a dreary gray day and see an entire flock of goldfinches lighting up the entire tube, your eyes savor and absorb the wondrous sight. And, in the Black Hills, the other “caramel corn” commonly visiting the bird feeder include white and red-breasted nuthatches, pine siskins, chickadees, and dark-eyed juncos. You enjoy watching the “peanuts”: the occasional blue jay, gray jay, hairy or downy woodpeckers stopping by, causing the feeder to swing from side to side as they wolf down one sunflower seed after the next.
And then that moment of excitement when you find the prize…
This strikingly-colored junco (above)—a bird like no other
Most dark-eyed juncos in the Black Hills are soot-colored birds that look like their bellies are dipped in snow, their wings lightly sprinkled with snowflakes. The bird in the top photo, however, is a zebra of different stripes.
According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, there are fifteen described races of dark-eyed juncos. These birds come in many different variations of color, but the following five are some of the more distinguishable ones: slate-colored, white-winged, Oregon, pink-sided, and gray-headed. The Oregon subspecies of dark-eyed junco is the most common one with a truly black head (vs. dark gray or light gray), but its wings tend toward brown than gray (unlike the bird in the photo, which has gray feathers). Perhaps the bird in the photo is a hybrid between Oregon and another subspecies, and touched with leucism?
The online Merriam Webster Dictionary defines leucism as an abnormal condition of reduced pigmentation affecting various animals (such as birds, mammals, and reptiles) that is marked by overall pale color or patches of reduced coloring and is caused by a genetic mutation which inhibits melanin and other pigments from being deposited in feathers, hair, or skin.
If a bird is affected by leucism, it will usually have paler or white feathers than other birds of the same species. This bird in the photo has a variety of things going on…there are patches of white where the feathers should be gray, or possibly black, which would support the leucism idea, but the bird in the top photo has pure black feathers on its crown plus gray feathers on its sides (the widespread gray is uncharacteristic of the Oregon subspecies), which suggests a possibly a hybrid amongst one or more of the junco subspecies…?
No matter what its genetic makeup, this dark-eyed junco is certainly a beautiful creature, a prize well beyond what I could hope to find in any box of snacks.
Wishing you joy as you go through your day, that you may find a delightful Surprise Inside.
…Who knows what it will be?
Dunn, J.L., and Alderfer, J., 2011. National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. National Geographic Society
Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge has around ten miles of hiking trails to provide a fresh-air escape. Two of the trails, Lake Mary (.6 miles long) and Lake Ledora (1.8 miles long), feature sections of floating boardwalks which add interest to your walk; both trails offer up-close views of cattails and willows as they weave and sway in the wind.
The holidays brought us to the Denver area, where we visited family and took time each day to escape going to the wilder parts of the city. One amazing place is the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, a nearly 16,000 acre oasis in the midst of suburbia, where you can mine the quiet places in your mind and be still.
View from floating boardwalk on Lake Mary, where abnormally warm December temps have kept the ice thin. Chunks of ice atop the glassy surface are attributable to recreational ice breaking (a fun activity for kids and those who are kids-at-heart).
Geriatric black-footed ferrets (previously used in a captive-breeding program) are on display near the refuge’s visitor center. Wild versions of these members of the weasel-family love feasting on black-tailed prairie dogs and reside in the tunnels and homes of their prey.
Bison behind glass.
An eleven-mile loop around the refuge allows you to get up close and personal (from the safety of your car) to a small herd of bison that call the refuge home. These powerful animals can run up to 35 miles an hour.
Wreath-making is not just a craft for me; this is an opportunity to get outside and experience the forest surrounding the Black Hills in the wintertime: to hear the chatter of red squirrels, the electric zip of pine siskins, and listen to the see see see calls of ruby crowned kinglets foraging in the evergreens. Time seems to slow within the solitude, with the slow metronome crunch of one’s boots in the snow and the click click click of clippers nipping off the tips of Black Hills spruce trees.
One of my favorite aunts showed me how to make these wreaths, and ever since she’s taught me, I’ve been making wreaths practically every year. They make great gifts for teachers and friends, plus look great on your own front door.
Per recommendations from our one-year-old kitty Panther, cut-up boxes make great cat toys (especially if you put a pencil or other roly-poly objects inside).
Roll of jute string
A large piece of cardboard (big enough to accommodate a 16-18″ wreath)
Shower curtain ring (to hang wreath)
Evergreen boughs cut approximately 10″ long
This plastic sled-ful will make about one and a half 17″ wreaths.
Pine or spruce cones
Hot glue gun
Make the Wreath Form:
Tie a pencil around the end of a piece of string and pin a thumbtack to the other end. Measure the radius of the wreath you want to make (I usually make somewhere between a 16-18″ wreath, so have about an 8-9″ length of string).
Pin the end of the thumbtack into the center of the cardboard piece. While holding the thumbtack in place, pull the string taught and use the pencil draw a circle to form the outside perimeter of your wreath.
Subtract 4 1/2 inches from the string’s length. Again, pin the thumbtack in the center of the cardboard box, draw the string tight, and use the pencil to draw the outline of an inner circle.
Cut along the lines you drew…and wallah! you have a wreath form (hint: if you are making several wreaths, use this form as a template and trace its outline for the additional wreaths you’d like to make.
Your circle doesn’t have to be perfect…the boughs will cover any imperfections in your cutting job.
Make the Wreath:
Wrap the jute three or four times around the top of the wreath form and tie once or twice with a sturdy knot, leaving a little extra string (about three inches).
Twine the jute around the cardboard wreath form (like you’re making the stripes of the candy cane; keep each “stripe” about 1-1/2″ apart.
When you get back to the piece of extra string, tie both ends together.
Your form should look like this:
Now the fun begins: starting at the top, tuck the largest stem of the evergreen boughs under the wrapped jute until you have about 6-8″ of evergreen exposed. I usually use about three boughs per stripe, but it depends on what type/size of evergreen you’re using.
Progress from one string to the next, tucking your way around the entire wreath. When you get back to the beginning, use your boughs to conceal any exposed jute.
Decorate as desired…(or leave plain). Fasten the shower curtain ring around the jute at the top of the wreath.
Close your eyes and inhale.
For the cones on this wreath, I hot-glued the butts of three spruce cones together, then used floral wire to attach them to the wreath.