Saturday, May 26, 2018

22 May 2018 - Hastings Cutoff and Historic Trails

In my travels around the state over the last several years,  I started noticing little historical markers mounted on pieces of railroad tracks. 

The plaque usually has a quotation from someone's journal that is appropriate to the site. As usual, once you see one, you start to see more and more of them. With a little assistance from the googler, I learned these were installed by the Utah Crossroads Chapter of the Oregon-California Trails Association.  Turns out their mission is historic trail preservation. They identify and mark the significant emigrant wagon trails. 

I have been collecting these in photographs as I find them. Many of those have been on the Hastings Cutoff Trail. It is infamous for the Donner Party's disastrous trip to California. The Cutoff was supposed to be a shortcut across Utah. But I digress.

Related image

In May, I like to the do the big loop: Salt Lake to the west side of the Stansbury Mountains, south down Skull Valley to Dugway, east over Johnson Pass to Rush Valley, then back north to Tooele on the west side of the Oquirrh Mountains, or if I have the time and energy, I'll continue on to the east side of the Lake Mountains and take the Utah Lake route back to Salt Lake. 

 On the first leg of the trip there are rail signs at Timpie Springs and Horseshoe Springs for the Hastings Cutoff. 


Last week, as I was headed south through Skull Valley, I decided to take the dirt road up to 8 Mile Spring. I hadn't been there and thought, why not? 

You look at this landscape and wonder what the emigrants were thinking. Miles of scrub with yet more mountains to cross on the other side. Eighty miles of desert to cross with no water.  

The mountains in the background are the east side of the Cedar Mountains. 

The following day I traveled further west on I-80 out to Aragonite looking for a Hooded Oriole. The surprise of the day was finding a small herd of wild horses. 

It didn't dawn on me until I got to the top of the pass from the west that I was looking down on Skull Valley, where I was the day before. 



Today, I went east from Salt Lake up Big Mountain Pass to East Canyon Reservoir then over to Henefer and Morgan. 

Here is the terrain they had to manage in wagons to get down to the Salt Lake Valley. 

About 12 miles to the east is another marker.

I have found about eight markers on the Hastings Cutoff so far. 


For those who enjoy following my Desert Rat routes, here is a map with some of my most traveled/favorite west desert routes marked with a yellow highlighter. And no, you can't drive it in a single day. 

I enjoy these adventures. They are a combination of birding, geology, botany and history. Fun stuff however you look at it. 


Monday, April 30, 2018

26 April 2018 - More about Texas

I am sure many of you who travel in America have this same moment, when all of a sudden it becomes clear you are not in your home state. I had several of these. Sometimes it was seeing something I would never see at home, but often was the signage. 

On our first day in Texas, we were stopped on the side of a road looking at a bird when a bobcat stepped out of the woods, looked at us and unconcernedly crossed the road and disappeared into the underbrush. That was pretty cool. That same day I saw this lizard on a fence post. 






I'll tell you, all the memories of having anoles for pets (25 cents at the five and dime store) came rushing back.  Non sequitur: ever wonder why the keyboard doesn't have a cent sign anymore?

One day we were birding a wildlife refuge, walking on a creek embankment. First the sign:

Then the critter:

He was well hidden in the marsh below us. Gave us all a start. He was only about six feet long but that's when you really know you aren't in Kansas anymore. 

We ran into several iterations of the alligator sign. I liked this one. "Live alligators!"


Another evening just after dusk we were looking for nightjars such as nighthawks, chuck-wills-widows and pauraque, and we stumbled across a javalina. Not sure if it was a loner or part of a herd, we made a lot of noise back to our car. 

There were no signs warning us of possible peccary attacks, but this one at the beginning of a trail didn't seem to attract much notice at all. 

We spent a day at the King Ranch, the second largest ranch in America. While we were there looking for birds, we also learned a lot about the history of the ranch. There wasn't any signage, but the critters we encountered here were awful! Chiggers and ticks. We stuffed our pant legs into our socks, sprayed the union with deet. We still got bit. I'm here to tell you that those are nasty bites!  We brought home many bites as souvenirs. 

Later in our trip we ventured into places where there were big signs saying Hunters and Fisherman Beware! Fever tick eradication zone.  Oh boy. We didn't get any ticks in those spots, for which we were all grateful. 

I always enjoy seeing the lizards. 









We were tickled to find a Texas Tortoise--one of only six tortoises that are native to North America. 

Of all the signs, this was the most disappointing. In ten days we didn't see a single snake.


Texas signs also made me laugh. In  Utah, our signs announce BUMP. In Texas they do something else. 



 The beaches were lovely with fine white sand, and the rolling sand dunes were gorgeous. 




We followed the Rio Grande in our travels. In several places you could see across to Mexico. 

We passed through several Border Patrol stations as well. I found it hard to see this wall. It just seems wrong. 

Another odd to me thing was that Texas has imported two deer/antelope species from India for hunters. The King Ranch started importing Nilgai Antelope in the 1930s. Now many ranches have both Nilgai and Blackbuck for hunting. 

The Blackbuck antelope apparently is a sought after game animal. People like to hunt these from helicopters, which I don't find very sporting. Blackbucks have spiral twisting antlers which apparently look nice on a wall. Not for me! 

And insects. Can't forget them! Especially copulating damsel flies. 

I also stumbled across two interesting caterpillars, and as of now I haven't figured out what butterflies they will become. 



Tuesday, April 24, 2018

23 April 2018 - Texas birding and more

I am back from ten days in Texas with three friends. Goal? Migrant birding. This is the time of year when the warblers and other birds make their journey from Central and South America to get to their northern breeding grounds. Some of these birds are on their way to the boreal forests of Alaska. We were hoping to catch sight of many birds that don't occur in our area.  And we did!

Texas. I didn't realize how flat it is. Huge expanses barely punctuated by trees. It immediately made Greg Brown's song Flat Stuff play in my head. You probably need to hear it, so search on google or youtube. 

Not only was it a surprise how flat the land is, but the wildflowers were spectacular! The fields and sides of the roads were covered in flowers. It was gorgeous. I'm not sure if this is due to Lady Bird Johnson's efforts or is natural in the areas we were, either way, I loved it. 







We had many target birds to find while on this trip. The most wanted was the Whooping Crane. There are less than 300 of them left. It took us three days, but the third day was the charm. We were stunned and thrilled to see these elegant and magnificent birds. They stand almost 5 feet tall and have a 9 foot wingspan. Impressive!



When they took off we heard their loud bugling calls. Amazing! 

We saw 228 species in a week, including 45 lifers for me. It was a fabulous trip with dawn to dusk birding. I admit by the time we got home I was pretty exhausted, but happily so. 

If any of you have ever seen the movie, The Big Year, you might remember them talking about a fallout on the Texas coast after a storm. We experienced one of these. A storm came in from the south bringing many migrating birds over the gulf into Texas. The next day we had a north wind which kept them grounded. It was a birder's dream. In a single tree there would be two kinds of orioles, painted buntings, tropical parulas, scarlet tanagers. . . it was hard to do anything but stand there with your mouth hanging open.  Here are a few of my favorites from the trip, in no particular order.  


Painted bunting

Green jay

Least bittern

Summer tanager

Indigo bunting

Hooded warbler

Scarlet tanager

This Altamira oriole is only found in Texas along the Rio Grande.

I loved the Reddish Egret. It also has a white morph, but both of them dance in the water while looking for food. Great fun to watch!

This bird is not about to take off, it is doing part of it's feeding dance. 

Due to the storms we had several very windy days. Many gulls, skimmers and the like would line up on the shore facing into the wind. On one beach we counted 172 skimmers all lined up in a row. 


I should mention Whistling ducks. These are not ordinary ducks, in fact I'm not sure they really are ducks. They are so darned cute and have beautiful coloration.  I'd love to have some in my backyard. They perch in trees, on telephone wires on top of fences and other weird places you would not expect to see a duck. They don't quack, they whistle. Here they are walking down a rope. So odd!

A crowd is always better.

It is hard to know when to quit, but so many birds!

Next is an Aplomado Falcon. It has been on the endangered species list since 1986 and rarely comes into Texas from Mexico. We were so lucky to see one of these. Beautiful. 


The scissor-tailed flycatcher is always a treat to see, no matter how many you see each day. 

One of the birds that was on our list at the King Ranch was the Ferruginous Pygmy Owl. In the US it is only found in a few spots in Texas and Arizona. 

Last June, a white ibis found it's way to Farmington Bay in Utah. It stayed a month, but in that time hundreds of people came in to see it. It was a treat to see quite a few in Texas. 

Great Kisskadee. 

Least tern. 

Ruddy turnstone--in breeding plumage. 

Should also introduce you to three weird bird(er)s. Here are my traveling companions--from left to right: Barb, Vivian and Bryant. 

This is what we look like most of the time. Hats, binos and cameras. At this moment they were looking at both a worm-eating warbler and a Louisiana waterthrush. A good time was had by all.