Saturday, July 28, 2018

28 July 2018 - Escaping the heat

I'm feeling like Garrison Keillor. "Well, it's been a hot week in Lake Woebegon." Or maybe I'm just woebegone because it's been and continues to be so hot. The heat is turning me into my grandmother. She was a dedicated gardener with a very large yard. During the hot days of July and August she became crepuscular. She would get up early and was out in the yard by 6 am. Around ten she'd come in, have some lunch and a nap, then early evening to dark she'd be back out there pulling weeds, irrigating, trimming limbs...all the stuff that never ends. 

The older I get the more I find that this apple is still firmly attached to the tree. So, I too, am out early and out late. In the hot time of the day I can often be found on the couch with a book, and a very (ergh) hot cat in my lap. I swear, cats are the original heat-seeking devices. 

At one point, it was just too much so I headed for the Uintah mountains, where it tends to be 10 to 20 degrees cooler than in the valley.  As it should be since Bald Mountain Pass has an elevation of 10,715'.  I was hoping to see many spring wildflowers, but the snow melted early and quite a few of the flowers were already gone, but there were enough lovely spots to satisfy my urge for alpine flowers. 

There are several places you can take off on dirt side roads. The aspens crowd the road and flowers fill in every space between their trunks. This is the eye-level view looking out the car window. 

 It was also a treat to see pinedrops. These plants are saprophytes meaning they have no chlorophyll, thus no green leaves. 

They grow on decaying or dead organic matter.  Flowers form on straight, un-branched stems. This one is growing on a downed, rotting limb. 

Even the fungus were pretty!

This little guy, a bog gentian,  is only three inches tall, at least half of that is the bloom.  And, yes, I was walking in several inches of bog. Cooling! 

Open meadows boasted wide swaths of color. It was spectacular. 

Elephanthead and Shooting Stars are two of my favorites. The Shooting Stars were long gone, but there were still enough little elephants sprinkled through the boggy areas to make me happy. 

Butterflies were everywhere! 

So were marmots. It looks as though they were enjoying all the flowers as well. Or more likely enjoying them lunch. 

 The big picture is just as gorgeous. 

Do you feel cooler now? Just revisiting this trip lowers my temperature considerably! 

Thursday, June 21, 2018

21 June 2018 - Midsummer Night's Eve

Today is the first day of summer. Longest day, shortest night--or as my brother said, "May your day be long and your shadow short."  So last night four of us celebrated Midsummer Night's Eve by participating in a nightjar survey. All aerial insectivorous birds such as nighthawks, whip-poor-wills,  etc.) are in in decline. There is an international effort to understand what is happening, thus the surveys. The survey has to start 30 minutes after sunset.  We take data at 10 points for six minutes. Each point is one mile apart. 

We met at 6:00 pm and took the scenic route to our starting point. We stopped along the way for birding opportunities. And, since our scenic route took us through Midway, we stopped with only five minutes before closing, to get the best ice cream in Utah. Aggie Ice Cream made at Utah State University. What a way to celebrate! 

What was wonderful about this evening was that we were on the east side of the mountains, away from the Salt Lake valley, so there was little light pollution. As dusk fell we watched the skies as Jupiter, Venus and Mars showed up and became bright. Through our binos we were able to see four of Jupiter's moons. 

The darker it got the more we saw:

  • The summer triangle comprised of Deneb, Vega and Altair was in full view.
  • So many constellations were easy to find such as Scorpio including his full tail. Ursa Major and Minor were bright enough to find the Piute constellation called the jack rabbit.  Cassiopeia and the Teapot of Sagitarius. The Teapot is beside a gigantic black hole that is the center of the galaxy.
In addition, we watched the Space Station race over our heads. There were quite a few satellites including one that gave us an extremely bright Iridium flare as the sun hit one of the antennas and reflected that light back at us. Wow!

About 10:30 we started seeing parts of the Milky Way. Seriously, how often does anyone get to see that these days? 

Our survey was also accompanied by many chorus frogs. and the almost constant tuk-a-tuk-a calls of Wilson's Snipes. To our complete delight we even found some fireflies. These are pretty rare in Utah. The Museum of Natural History has a team that documents sightings. We were able to catch one and it was taken to the Museum today were we learned it was a pyractomena dispersa. 

Our moon was absolutely brilliant in the sky. We probably could have had better views of the Milky Way with a little less moon. Nevertheless, it was a spectacular night. Here is the moon right after sunset.

And later at full dark.

What a fabulous way to welcome summer. 

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.