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

Twas the Month Before Christmas

(or Hard Knocks from Not-Santa)

you can blame this little red squirrel (aka Not-Santa) who lives in the Black Hills for what follows— an inane taste of rhymey-ness. Apparently, he thinks it’s WAckY Wednesday

Something’s clattering there, up on the roof shingle. November: no snowman, no Kristopher Kringle.

No child’s wishful gazing through frost on the pane. And jingles aren’t jangling to merry the game.

Boots of black or reindeer can’t account for this loud chatter. Curiosity beckons me to see what’s the matter.

Another loud noise as I open the door, step onto the deck. There’s no one around, only the sound peek! and the sound of a peck.

A pecker of wood hops up the side of a tree. Cocks its head sideways, stops and peers shyly at me.

I look to the sky. And, behold…what do I see? Industrious movement near the top of the tree.

A figure in red, not a shade fire engine-tinged; But the red of the rust on a pail or a hinge.

Instead of laughter behind a snowy white beard; There’s white on his face yes, but concealing a leer.

The creature’s tail is orange-red and jitters around. As he searches the treetops where treasure abounds.

Eyes gleam like the belt around Santa’s coat. Downy gray fur at the base of his throat.

The chuckling begins, not a bowl full of jelly. Revealing ill humor inside that round belly.

Tis not the season of giving or thanking, says he. No…it’s time for stashing and stowing frantically.

Human, get yourself gone, get out of the way.I needs enough cones to fill more than a sleigh.

Go rake some leaves, pull out thistles untidy. But leave me alone with this project…Alrighty?

One second more do I linger and wonder: When will he finish and stop this roof-thunder?

For two-thousand words I’m attempting to write. Today, not tomorrow I’ll finish this fight.

I linger and watch as he returns back to work. Scolding, tail twitching, to say “What a jerk!”

In contrast to him, my task isn’t survival. And honestly, Writing Muse needs a revival.

So I whistle to Timmy and up the hill we both trot; Uptightness untightening, mind no longer knotted in knots.

Mountain bluebirds flit, ringing sad-noted calls. Saying goodbye, goodbye, goodbye to you all.

And hello. Hello. Hello to mid-fall.

Thanks for reading. If you have a sec, I’d love to hear:

Are your squirrels (or other critters) acting squirrelly too?

Advice from a Sequoia Tree: Top Ten Roots of Wisdom

Nature gives and gives…let us show the same generosity toward her.

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.

Sequoia bark grows around eighteen inches thick and protects them from many wildfires.

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.

What’s left of a giant sequoia tree logged sometime around the end of the 19th century.

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.

Sequoia cones retain their seeds for decades until a wildfire dries out the cone and it opens. Seeds need full sun and bare mineral soil to germinate and for seedlings to thrive.

3. Even though you haven’t seen it with your own eyes doesn’t mean the fantastic doesn’t exist.

Walking and wondering amongst the giants.

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.

Lupines grow amidst the towering sequoias.

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.

Have a great one!

Credit: https://www.nps.gov/seki/learn/nature/bigtrees.htm

The Journey Begins

Thanks for joining me! My name is Anita Swanson, and I am a wildlife biologist who used to work in the field, but now I write novels and short stories about the connections between people and nature. Me and my family live in the Black Hills of South Dakota, a place, according to the natives, that doesn’t experience “real winter;” they are a hardy people, for in the ten-plus years we’ve lived here, October has been a month accompanied by a blizzard, nine-inch snowfalls, and subzero temps:  I’m thinking I don’t need to know what a “real winter” looks like…

“You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” —Jane Goodall

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Monarch butterfly sipping nectar from a purple coneflower.