Friday, January 29, 2010

Skagit River Flats

After days of visiting family and painting a playroom to look like a ferny forest inhabited by dinosaurs, I step onto the night ferry from Port Townsend to Whidbey Island, Washington. The lights of town recede, and the dark waters and crisp night air of Puget Sound envelop the ferry.

My friend Jim Shiflett is waiting at the dock for the ferry's arrival.

Next day finds us in the flats of the Skagit River Valley and on Fir Island, which lies between the north and south forks of the river, bordering the estuary. Clouds hide, then reveal the sun. There's hardly a breath of wind. Western Washington is enjoying its warmest January on record.

Dark-morph Rough-legged Hawk (Photo by Narca)

We're in prime raptor habitat, although today the hawks and falcons are little in evidence. A rare dark-morph Rough-legged Hawk regards us. I'm struck again by how small its bill is, when compared to a Red-tailed Hawk's. A couple of Merlins dash past. Bald Eagles abound, numbering perhaps 40 or 50. Pairs perch near their huge stick nests, ready for the next nesting effort.

Thousands of Dunlin sleep in a field. (Photo by Narca)

We find a big concentration of Snow Geese. Those that winter here in the Skagit Valley return each spring to breed on Wrangel Island, in the Arctic Ocean north of Russia. (Wrangel also has the world's highest density of Polar Bear dens, and Woolly Mammoths survived the longest on Wrangel, until about 1700 years ago!)

A storm of Snow Geese from Wrangel Island (Photo by Narca)

The Snow Geese share the Skagit Valley with literally thousands of wintering Trumpeter Swans. Many of the local farmers are paid to raise forage for the swans. However, we see two fields where swans and geese are discouraged in a novel way: the farmer has put out a Bald Eagle decoy in the center of each field, and the ruse appears effective. Neither of the fields holds a single other bird!

Tideland habitat of Short-eared Owls (Photo by Narca)

In the tidelands, masses of driftwood pile up, interspersed with swathes of grass. Short-eared Owls roost in these twisted roots and logs, emerging in late afternoon to hunt. One perches atop a small conifer growing amid the wrack––how beautiful these owls are!

Short-eared Owl (Watercolor by Narca)

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Winter Walk in South Fork

The beauty of the South Fork of Cave Creek Canyon never fails to enchant those who stray into it. Most know it in spring when neotropical migrants pour through the canyon corridors, or in summer, when the croaks of Elegant Trogons echo off the burnt orange cliffs, overlain with lime-green lichens.

Arizona Sycamores in South Fork (Photo by Narca)

Now it's winter, and peacefulness lies as deep as the drifts of sycamore leaves.

I often hike up the South Fork road with friends, usually Peg or Rose Ann, but some days when the call of the canyon is especially strong, I go alone, quietly. That's when a Black Bear is more likely to amble across the dirt road, oblivious to a hiker. That's when I'm more likely to tune into the small flocks of confiding Yellow-eyed Juncos that forage unobtrusively at the road's edge.

Today sparkles, after last night's mix of rain and light snow. The luminous cliffs glow intensely orange against the skyblue. Flocks of ubiquitous Mexican Jays probe into crevices and under leaves. An Arizona Woodpecker taps softly in the oaks.

The cliffs of South Fork (Photo by Narca)

Today a troop of Coatis cavorts in the creek bed and noses through the drifts of fallen, rusty-gold leaves. Females and young gather in troops like this one. The males (like this big guy who visited our house last month) are solitary. In Costa Rica, people used to think that there were two species of Coatimundi––those that lived in groups, and those who were solitary, the "Lonely Coati."

A lone male Coati (Photo by Narca)

When our own quiet matches the forest's quiet, we find its life.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Bosque's Other Birds

Bufflehead drake at Bosque (Photo by Narca)

While cranes and drifts of white geese attract much of the attention at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, other exquisite waterbirds also slip quietly through the ponds. Northern Pintail and Shovelers paddle about; Buffleheads dive.

A subtle beauty, the Northern Pintail hen (Photo by Narca)

We have stopped to study a dark raptor when just the head of a Trumpeter Swan comes gliding past our car. The huge bird is swimming in the canal that runs alongside the road, and is too tall to hide its presence.

Trumpeter Swan slipping past (Photo by Narca)

The Trumpeter Swan Society is tracking all sightings of Trumpeters this winter. If you should see one, please report it to Peg Abbott ( She is heading the effort.

The days are cold (thankfully without wind!), and Greater Roadrunners sun along the route, exposing their dark back and rump feathers to soak up the sun's warmth.

Roadrunner sunning (Photo by Narca)

Monday, January 11, 2010

Winter Interlude: Bosque del Apache

Snow Geese at Sunset (Photo by Narca)

The Rio Grande River hosts many thousands of wintering Sandhill Cranes, Snow Geese, Ross's Geese, and other waterfowl. Nowhere can these spectacular flocks be enjoyed and photographed more beautifully than at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.

The experience isn't simply one of enjoying impressive flocks of impressive birds. Somehow, when these birds are placed in the Bosque habitat, rich with the rusts and golds of winter, and beneath the expansive New Mexico sky, the whole encounter wakes me up, deeply. The clear light, the cold air, the rattle of cranes––all of it is profoundly rousing.

This time I've journeyed to the Bosque with Noel Snyder, Tony Donaldson and Rod Drewien. Rod is actually working, counting the geese, while the rest of us play. His counts this year of the white geese reveal a mix of roughly 75% Snow and 25% Ross's Geese. Rod has censused geese and cranes for decades, and brings exceptional expertise to the task.

Tony in the lineup (Photo by Narca)

At the Bosque, ponds along the lightly-used highway north of the refuge are a traditional lounging site for geese and cranes. Photographers also stage here at dawn and dusk, hoping to capture that perfect moment when light bathes the waves of incoming cranes and geese. We endure the early morning cold, to watch as sunlight begins to limn the cranes and to ignite the white geese.

Sandhill Cranes (Photo by Narca)

Two coyotes cruise along the shore and cause momentary alert interest among the cranes.

Coyotes and Sandhill Cranes (Photo by Narca)

The cranes stir, preen, dance. We know when they begin to contemplate flight, because the arousing birds stalk towards the edge of the gathering, craning their necks. Soon wave after wave of cranes is airborne, off to find the day's forage. In evening they return to their safe harbor for the night, as do we.

Dusk at Bosque del Apache (Photo by Narca)

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Pure Magic

Frosty morning at Bernardo (Photo by Narca)

Bernardo Wildlife Management Area, north of Bosque del Apache in New Mexico, is attracting huge numbers of Sandhill Cranes, Snow Geese and Ross's Geese this winter. Their corn crop is ample, and many thousands of cranes and geese are feasting on the bounty.

Noel Snyder, Tony Donaldson and I arrive early on this very cold morning. Frost envelops the sparkling plants. A trio of Mountain Bluebirds watches our progress along the canal. Temperatures plunged to 12ยบ F last night, and many of the flying cranes have folded their legs, tucking their toes under their belly feathers to warm them. Usually cranes fly with extended legs, and these seemingly legless, truncated birds look odd indeed.

Cold toes (Photo by Narca)

At Bernardo we are able to draw closer to the cranes and geese than at Bosque. Our slow arrival by car stimulates the cranes to dance, perhaps as displacement behavior. They are slightly agitated, slightly nervous, and dancing seems the thing to do in response.

Dancing Sandhill Cranes (Photos by Narca)

Snow and Ross's Geese descend in a blizzard of white, against the wintry New Mexico sky.

Geese over cranes at Bernardo (Photo by Narca)

Bernardo is part of the complex of refuges along the Rio Grande between Socorro and Albuquerque. Much of the area is closed to minimize disturbance to wintering birds, but you can drive the 3.5-mile tour loop. Take exit 175 from I-25, and immediately turn north along the road (314) which parallels the interstate. Within a couple of miles you'll reach the entrance to the tour loop. The habitat here is more agricultural than at Bosque del Apache. Getting so close to these impressive birds is a real treat!

Friday, January 1, 2010

The Scissor-tails Are Staging

Here's another image of migrant birds in Costa Rica: just slip into this tropical scene!

The sun and a sliver of new moon are setting in a golden haze over the tropical dry forest of Santa Rosa National Park. Parrots announce their comings and goings. It's March, and hundreds of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers are staging for their spring migration to the States. Glowing rose, they gather to roost in a handful of bare trees. The sunset-lit trees flame with them.

Nighthawks emerge to dive for insects in the darkening void above the golden haze.

Lesser Nighthawk Brooding Chick (Pen and ink by Narca)

A wonderful 2010 to all of you! May your path wind through splendid rainforests and along wild sea coasts, and may you discover the gifts of the land along the way.