The Angels of Hell Canyon

Greetings!

Today started out like one of those days when one may be a bit irritated with the challenges of living a mile high in a northern clime. The promises of spring are here, yes, but on any given day they may be snatched away by winter’s firm grip.

Thirty-nine degress Fahrenheit with snowflakes flitting down. As you might guess, their appearance beneath the looming clouds was most unwelcome:

Like a swarm of mosquitoes. Toilet-water raining down from an airplane.

…Or a stranger breaking the distance barrier at the grocery.

Since this quarantine-thing has started, our family has persisted in making sure we get out each and every weekend for some sort of hike. Today was my turn to pick, and so I chose my local favorite: Hell Canyon.

When he heard about my choice, knowing how many birds we’d see along the way, Panther—our two year old cat affectionately known as Fuzzy, or Nid—didn’t want us to leave him behind.

Panther wearing my backpack in anticipation of what surely would be the ultimate bird-stalking adventure.

Although it was 11:00 am, the high had already been reached, and there was nowhere for temps to go but down. After packing a simple lunch consisting of cheese-and-crackers or crackers-and-peanut butter, we loaded up in our car and set out for a short ride to the Hell Canyon trailhead, about ten miles from the house.

Seriously, you gotta take me.

We are fortunate to live near one of the gems of the Black Hills. Half of the trail is situated along the bottom of a canyon, where thickets of shrubbery grow in abundance: chokecherry, serviceberry, red osier dogwood. Trees of birch, aspen, and box elder are prolific, and a small intermittent stream weaves through part of the canyon.

Starting out on the Hell Canyon Trail traveling counter-clockwise.

Hell Canyon is a nirvana of shrubbery, a haven for birds such as spotted towhees, warblers, and chickadees. In much of the Black Hills, the deer populations have mauled the native shrubs (the whitetails and mule deer are browsers, which mean they enjoy getting their daily dose of fiber from twigs of shrubs and trees). Hell Canyon is a beautiful anamoly and is one of the all-too-few places in the southern hills where shrub habitat remains intact.

It didn’t disappoint.

Near the start of the trail, along the creek, an orange-crowned warbler was flitting erratically amongst the dogwood bushes. I was barely able to glass it before it flitted away, down the creek. These small birds are transients in the Black Hills, loading up on insects as they continue their flight further west or to Alaska or Canada.

Orange-crowned warbler
Credit: USFWS, D. Menke

Hiking with family is a catch-as-catch-can birding experience; one doesn’t have the luxury to stop and gape at the bushes for five minutes, in search of an LBJ (little brown jobbie)—or, in this case an LYJ (little yellow jobbie). There isn’t enough group-patience for that, so I try to limit my hey, come look at this!‘s to a few times a trip and a more cooperative subject.

Fortunately, birds each have a distinctive call: if you can recognize what it is you’re looking for, it is much easier to know where to find it. As we were hiking, three different wrens (feisty little LBJs) called from somewhere in the canyon: canyon wrens, rock wrens, and a house wren.

Canyon Wren
Credit: Public Domain/D. Faulkner
A subtle arch along the Hell Canyon Trail; if you blink, you might miss it!

Also along the way, a gallery of floral beauties presented themselves:

(Clockwise from upper left: star lilies, phlox, violets, and pasque flowers)

These are just a sample of the amazing flowers blooming along the trail, yet they don’t measure up to one thing that happened on the hike. On the way into the canyon, my husband turned around to say something to me, but then he looked up at the sky and pointed.

Rainbow-amped sky

Of course this photo doesn’t do it justice. Not even close. It looked like a rainbow had been doused with sugar, transforming it into celestial sherbet. I was tempted to Photoshop the image to coax out the colors as we experienced it, but I didn’t want to make it look artificial.

Seraphims were flitting and floating and singing, Gabriel trumpeting his horn, the air euphorically thrumming holy holy holy…(ok, not quite, but it wouldn’t have been totally unexpected). It was that kind of moment, when you’ve swallowed a lungful of Helium (don’t try this at home) and any moment now your feet are going to leave the earth.

Wishing you a day with that kind of experience. Filled with faith that God is indeed good. And His love endures forever.

No matter what.

Close Encounters of the Bird Kind

Hello!

I hope this finds you perservering during what most of us are are finding a challenging time. Please keep saying those prayers and being supportive: to those in the healthcare field, those who are ill, immuno-suppressed, and/or elderly. If you are one of those people…may God bless you!

Despite that, please, please have faith that magic is yet afoot in this world.

…or should I say a-winged?

It’s been too long since I’ve updated this page, but something happened over the winter that just makes my soul sing “amazing grace how sweet the sound”. I could almost fly after feeling the special awesomeness of the moment, and it is one thing that I shall cherish in my heart for a long time. It was so cool, I’d like to share that moment with you, and maybe get the chance to hear from you—of your own magical moments.

We were X-country skiing with family in the Sawtooth mountains of Idaho when it happened. My son Bryce was right in front of me and stopped suddenly. He pointed his ski pole into the woods nearby. A small grayish-black bird with bright red eyebrows (a structure known as a comb) was walking toward him. About the size of a small chicken, the bird came out from the forest, stepped onto the groomed snow trail, and approached my son who was quietly watching. When he reached Bryce, who was standing still, the bird calmly and speculatively gaze up the trunklike features of my son’s black snow pants. After a moment of eyeing this curiosity of a human boy, the grouse decided to hop at Bryce’s pant legs, pecking gently at the black fabric of the snow pants.

Spruce grouse are hardy birds, and their main diet in the winter is composed of needles (including those from spruce, pine and fir) from evergreen trees. As a result of consuming all of this roughage, the birds’ gizzards grow by about 75% and their intestines lengthen by about 40%.

Given its diet, I wasn’t worried that the little pecker was about to sample this smallish human for lunch. And it wasn’t nesting season, so there wasn’t much in the way of territorial behavior. I had heard spruce grouse were supposed to be relatively tame—one of their nicknames is fool’s hen—but reading about it and experiencing it are two different things.

The rest of the ski group stopped to watch this amusing spectacle, and the bird kept hopping up and delivering short pecks to my son’s pants. Eventually, it moved on to do similar hop-pecking motions at my daughter, who was watching nearby. And then, after a few minutes, the bird just kind of wandered amongst the tall pillars of humans surrounding it.

Occasionally, it would pause and make a guttural clicking sort of noise sound; at the same time, it’s tail feathers would fan out then contract.

And then I knelt in the snow and held out my hand toward the bird, my index finger extended. I didn’t know what to expect; didn’t really expect anything to happen. But then to my surprise, the bird boldly walked up to my hand and studied it for a moment. With a flutter of wings, it flew onto my extended finger. Its feathery feet tickled my fingers as it just perched there and eyed me curiously.

And then, as if nothing special had just happened, it calmly flew back down and resumed its wandering amongst us.

But the magic.

It was sparking and glittering all around us, transforming the moment into one that will be forever etched inside the cupboard labelled with “special family moments.”

There is something incredible about interacting with nature, with the feeling that you are part of something bigger…something awesome.

Amazing!

All too soon, it was time to continue up the trail. Spruce grouse followed us as we swished forward on our skies. As we were too fast for his little legs to run, he soon fell behind. We thought that was the end of it, and giggled as he dropped from sight.

But no!

Moments later, we heard a fluttering sound behind us as the creature took to the skies to keep up. He landed just behind us and started running, his neck outstretched in pursuit. Eventually, though, he tired and said his goodbye. No longer could we count the little, chickenlike bird as a physical member of our group. But our hearts will always be filled with just a touch more whimsy because of our paths crossing in the middle of the forest that day.

Wishing you days that are touched with magic, no matter how big or small. They are great, after all.

If you have a moment, share your own magical encounter.

References

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

Free Nature Therapy (aka The Christmas Bird Count)

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.

An American robin was singing very quietly from atop a sunny perch.
Box elder seeds donning crystals of ice.
Snow icing on rocky orange cliffs.
A northern flicker “becomes one” with the snag he’s perched on.
By afternoon, most of the snow along all but the northern aspects had melted.

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.

What amazing things have you seen lately?

Have a great one!

Reference: https://www.audubon.org/conservation/science/christmas-bird-count

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, 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 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 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.

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