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.

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