You don’t have to be an angel to read this post (but it helps to have wings)

View of Angel’s Landing from the West Rim trail

Do you like to live dangerously: sky dive after sunset, swim in a river with piranhas,

…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 Landing.

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.

Angels—or condors.

Picture of soaring California condor; these birds have a wingspan around 109 inches, or just over 9 feet)

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.

A 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).

Exhilarating.

Shushh…the sound of the Virgin River’s lullaby from wayyy down below.

Other thoughts also come to mind:

Spooky (especially as a parent).

Crowded.

Alarming.

Many opportunities to commiserate with other people who had the same (healthy) fear of heights.

(did I already say spooky?)

View from the top of Angel’s Landing

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).

An early start to the Angel’s Landing Trail

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.

Hang on!

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.

Seriously.

Fortunately, my 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.

These desert beauties, Indian paintbrushes, are in full bloom.

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.

Waiting for the free park shuttle from Zion National Park Visitor Center

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 much better). 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.

But not for me…I’m no angel.

Have a good one and thanks for reading!

Sources:

https://www.nps.gov/zion/learn/nature/condors.htm

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/California_Condor/

The Sky is Falling!

Male mountain bluebird

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).

Not one.

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 in summertime.

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.

A Hackberry tree (Celtis occidentalis) makes a great tree for songbirds and hummingbirds.

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:

Male western tanager

The sun is falling!

Have a great one.

Credits:

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Mountain_Bluebird/lifehistory

https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/mountain-bluebird

https://www.si.edu/spotlight/buginfo/winter

Of Cracker Jack and Flying Prizes

Having a bird feeder is like indulging in a box of Cracker Jack.

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?

References

Dunn, J.L., and Alderfer, J., 2011. National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. National Geographic Society

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Dark-eyed_Junco/id

Merriam-Webster. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/leucism