Category: Wildlife photos


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The holy grail of Monteverde bird watching:  the resplendent quetzal. Photo by Kim

There- you have the reason everyone goes to the Cloud Forest:  to see the resplendent quetzal.  This member of the trogon family is understandably a key fixture in Mayan and Aztec legend.  Apparently, the quetzal lost its most beautiful song when the Mayan lost their country to the Spaniards, and will only sing again when the land is once again free. These striking birds symbolized freedom since they reportedly would kill themselves in captivity. In fact, a breeding program at Zoológico Regional Miguel Álvarez del Torohas produced only about a dozen birds since 2003.  The song they sing is, for the time being, distinctive.

When we arrive, there is a pair of resplendent quetzals in trees by the parking lot. Astonishingly, some people decide they will skip the tour because they’ve seen what they came to see without leaving the parking lot.

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Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve is internationally famous and so amazingly busy.  We are advised of two things:  arrive for the first tour if you want to see any birds, and hire a guide.  If you get there late, the throngs will chase the birds away.  And if you think your untrained eyes will find birds and animals, well, good luck to you.

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The potoo on super zoom. Seriously, not finding this one by myself due to camoflauge.

I learn thoughout this trip why ecotourists should hire local guides.  It’s not just for their sharp eyes.  Guides at reserves share with each other information on where there are potoos posed still on a nest within a broken snag, bats roosting for the day, sloths sleeping, and hummingbird nests with young. You are benefiting from the sharp eyes of many guides.

And along with dollars that go to lodging and food, your guide fees and tips give the local communities reason to preserve these lands, to let the jungle come back.

At Santa Elena Reserve, our young guide tells a tale of wanting to guide only for the tourist dollars.  “I knew nothing about our birds and animals here,” he says. “But it was better money than cattle farming at home with my family.”

An older guide gave him a pair of broken binoculars.  He managed to fix them, and  found his world transformed when he saw his first bird in fine detail.  It stopped being about tourist dollars right then:  he was instantly hooked on his country’s wildlife .

When we walked with him, he demonstrated excellent tracking ability and found a quetzal breeding pair in the forest by subtle sound.

In Monteverde, the guides have equally interesting stories. Our guide walked us throught the complex life cycle of the strangler fig as if it were a suspensful drama, an unfolding story.

These strange trees are completely dependent on pollination by the fig wasp, which in turn depends on them. These are not bad trees, according to our guide, despite their name. “Tourists hear that they strangle trees, kill them, and they want them all to be removed,” he tells us.  “But they are part of the forest.  They’re natural. They help the birds and animals.”

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I think about that rule- removing things that kill other things- and how ironic it would be if we applied it to ourselves.

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Looking up inside a strangler fig that has swallowed its host.

Our companions on this tour are two artists that sit for coffee with us in the cafe afterward.  Greg Frux has completed multiple trips to beautiful Death Valley, first as an artist-in-residence because, he said, the artist who was supposed to go didn’t realize he or she would be camped out in a tent in the desert.  He shows me his wonderful field book and says he wants to do a painting of the strangler fig.  I don’t see anything from Costa Rica on his website even today, but he’s had many other grand adventures.

Aside from the wonderful coffee shop, there is a good gift shop with work from local artisans.  And there are hummingbird feeders.  The day is darkish and foggy, as it should be in the mist-shrouded mountains, and my photographs are only marginal, even though there are unbelievable numbers of hummingbirds there.  A local woman weaves nearby, and I’m interested, but I don’t know if we share a language.

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It’s hard to compete with the brilliance of hummingbirds, but this weaver was just as colorful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

montehummer1After the tour, we walk the trails, but it is getting hot now, with the sun out.  The guide has said the sun shines more than it should in the Cloud Forests.  “Climate change,” he tells us.  “Sun will destroy the forest.  It needs clouds, and mist, and cool.”

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The next day, we traveled to Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve, much smaller and more peaceful. This is a community-run reserve, and it has a much more intimate feel.  It has fewer rules than Monteverde, so the guide takes us in the opposite direction of the other tour groups.  This is where we track the sound of a quetzal dropping fruits in the forest, and hear the “rusty gate bird”- the black faced solitaire.  It does sound like its common namesake, but its song resonates through the forest and with the song of the lonely toucan, means Costa Rica to me from there on out.

I learn an important differentiator of my home and this place, something that should have been obvious.  The trees here don’t have rings.  I learn this when I ask the guide about a large, old cedar. Radiocarbon dating, he says.

At Santa Elena, I find beauty in forest plants.  They are dramatic, sculptural and embossed with hairs and modified leaves and flowers.  They grow where ever they can, on the ground, all over the trees, hanging in the air.

At this less crowded reserve, we lingered.  We ate lunch, drank coffee, enjoyed listening to people talk. We bought gifts in the small shop adjacent to the cafe tables. Sure, the ride up to Monteverde was rough. I was still struggling with a respiratory infection, but the moist air felt good on my lungs and I understood exactly why we had come here. It was for the resplendent quetzal and everything else wonderful about this place.

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After 3 years, I haven’t made it back to Costa Rica yet.  I wanted to go back the next year, then the next, and- well, I’m too curious. I wander too much and am easily distracted by new adventures.

But I can tell you why I really want to go back.  It’s not the adventure travel activities and resorts, because my friend and I avoided those like the plague when we traveled to the Pacific coast in 2014. It’s the quiet lodges at refuges where the owners and communities are working to save what is left of the rich wildlife in the country.

This post is about the first leg of our trip, from Liberia to our lodging near the Cloud Forests of Monteverde and Santa Elena. Our trip started in Seattle, with clear skies as we flew over sleeping Mt. Rainier. Mt. St. Helens rises above the clouds in the background, a stubby reminder of what happens when our Cascade stratavolcanoes decide they are too symmetrical and lovely.

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Our travel plans led us to the smart choice of flying into Liberia.  Sure, we drove out past 40 kms of road construction leaving town, with men mixing and pouring concrete from wheelbarrows in 90F heat.  But after we flew out of San Jose at the end, I would recommend Liberia instead.  At the very least, Liberia wouldn’t be hosting the Costa Rica vs. Paraguay soccer game at the national stadium as San Jose was when we were passing through.

We had a stopover in Dallas both ways.  Don’t do this.  Or at least, if you must, give yourself about 4 hours to lay over in this airport.  We almost missed our connection on the way back, making a Chariots of Fire dash in our socks out of security and reaching the gate within a minute of closing – and this after our flight landed 2.5 hours before.

I can’t remember the airline we flew, but it doesn’t matter: the leg room and service are minimal on all of them when you’re in economy class. The only weirdly wonderful, throwback service I’ve experienced is from Air North going to the Canadian Arctic. Expensive to fly, but they have real food, free wine and capuccino and hot, moist towels before and after meals. Oh, and leg room.

I flew with an awful respiratory infection.  A doctor sent me with prescription nasal spray and Sudafed to avoid rupturing my full eardrums.  It was brutal to clear my ears, and the second takeoff felt like a near disaster.  My right ear has had a slight ringing ever since.

We landed in the early evening in Liberia, taxied to our nearby hotel, and sat on the veranda eating fruit and drinking juice in soothing warm air,  listening to night creatures chirping.  A gecko appeared on the wall, making an amazingly loud sound.

The next morning didn’t start out as a dream vacation. We gathered our rental 4WD, after finding the price skyrocketed over the quote with insurance coverage.  Since an automatic was twice the price as a manual transmission, we got the manual. This meant I was doing all the driving because Kim doesn’t drive a stick and that’s all I’ve ever owned.

The Korean SUV was a true Rent-A-Wreck; the suspension was shot by a thousand tourist yahoos and the air conditioning died within 10 minutes.  We kept the windows shut to keep out dust from the 40 km of aforementioned road construction.  That pretty much cooked us.

Then we took a couple wrong turns.  The first wasn’t too bad, but the second was a wrong turn out of Cañas onto 142, instead of continuing to 145.  People complain about the road to Monteverde, but they’re talking about 145.  The connector between was a steep, bone jarring, unsigned route.  The scenery was gorgeous and it was the type of lonely I like.  Kim- well, between no signs and bouncing around on lousy suspension in a crappy 4WD with no air conditioning, she was understandably losing patience.

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Kim, taking a much needed break from the hot, suspensionless SUV on the road to Monteverde.

2222014_sharetheroadThe upside of the drive was that we weren’t lost, and we saw one cause of decline of the resplendent quetzal, a charismatic bird everyone going to Monteverde Cloud Forest wants to see:  a fragmented travel corridor between the mountains and the sea. Cattle ranches have denuded forest, leaving flying quetzals vulnerable to winged predators.

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In the middle of nowhere appeared an “Info Center”- with no facilities or people to give information.  Had to stop for the picture, anyway.

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A sign! The speed limit is the funniest one- at that speed, our vehicle would disintegrate.

We finally made it to Cabinas Capulin.  It was a little hard to find someone to check us in: the lodging operation is operated on a restored portion of a working dairy operation. They, like others, are adding ecotourism to their portfolio to weather the uncertainties of farming and to benefit from local tourism.  They’re not as connected as some, so we had to set up our own guide reservations in the Cloud Forest Reserves, which require certified guides.

 

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Our cabin was small and comfortable, with great deck and views.  The wood in the cabins was from fallen trees that can no longer be harvested because they’re endangered.  We learned on the trip that wood is poached along with exotic animals and birds from tropical forests.

The view from the deck was filled with lush, beautiful trees with birds fluttering everywhere.  The family built trails as the jungle began to restore itself, but clearly, some trees had been there awhile.

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We wandered the trails the first day, and I met my first strangler fig.  These tropical plants earned their name by their survival tactic:  they begin to grow in the canopy of a live tree, drop roots to the ground, slowly surrounding the host until they shut it down and become a tree of their own.

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The Capulin strangler fig was on one trail, and on another, enormous ant mound that would be dwarfed by the underground complex and satellite mounds we couldn’t see.  A parade of leaf cutter ants marched along the trail, bounty on their backs.  The leaf pieces are not for their dinner table, but to feed the fungus they farm underneath the dirt. Awesome video of these ants is at Deep Look on YouTube.

 

leafcutterantsThus my first view into the complex, interconnected world of the rainforest:  an environment where any creature that plows the soil and recycles organic important is absolutely critical.  Even a soldierly group of ants with a labyrinthine underground world.

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Emerald Toucanet

We saw other birds here, including an emerald toucanet and pale-billed woodpecker, and came upon the other ubiquitous feature of Costa Rican tourist areas:  the zipline. Cabinas Capulin has a small one, which we did not avail ourselves, but up the road is apparently the Big Daddy of ziplines, and an aerial tram.  We passed.

cabinas_palebilledwoodpeckerCabinas Capulin was really our jumping off point to Monteverde and Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserves, which I’ll cover in the next post.  Suffice to say, it is an inexpensive place to stay, and a coworker recommended it when we couldn’t get into the Ecolodge San Luis, a branch of University of Georgia. And Cabinas was a secluded, relaxing place to be after our rather inauspicious start.

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This is what I do when it gets dreary at home in the winter:  go through my trip photos from the last year, and plan my trips for next year.  It’s a damp, chilly sub-freezing evening that went dark at 4 p.m., and I’m sneezing. In other words, time to spend time bundled up with cups of ginger tea looking back and forward to adventures.

On a September road trip to Montana, I took a day to go to Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge on the advice of a coworker.  She is as much a student of nature and wildlife as I am.  She has a niece in West Yellowstone who drove her to Red Rock Lakes NWR about a month earlier.

It was an excuse to speed away from the madding crowd. I needed the break from Yellowstone National Park, which I love and support but grieve over as it becomes overrun. The drive to Lakeview was a trek:  50 miles of gravel roads winding from Henry’s Lake over Red Rock Pass by Mt. Jefferson before dropping into the Centennial valley.  The drive was first an adventure in elk avoidance, followed by swerving to avoid barreling trucks loaded with logs from a fire prevention project in the refuge.

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Elk crossing the road by Henry’s Lake

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Elk that ran across the road on the mountain, running i nto the woods

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Logging truck coming down the more benign South Valley Road

I unwound on the lovely and wonderfully lonely drive. The road was lit up by groves of aspens that glow different hues of gold depending on how the light falls. I wanted to stop everywhere to take pictures of fall colors we never see at home, but, well- logging trucks. Enough said.

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In Lakeview, I wandered around the refuge headquarters, which were closed since the rangers were in the field. I read signs and chatted a bit with a maintenance person. We lamented house prices in my area, where his kids live.  Way too high, but property was also too expensive around Lakeview, he said.  A recreational lot was for sale for $87,000.  That much, and only 3 acres! He was shocked.  I was, too, because you need a snowmobile to get there in winter.  And spring brings snowmelt and swampy roads.  So you’re using that lot from May to September-ish.

I walked the Sparrow Ponds Trail, despite a recent griz warning.  The refuge worker told me the bruins lurk in the willows if they’re around.  This one wasn’t, nor was much else except for birds.  I wanted to see a moose, but got there too late in the day, he said.

The waterfowl were having nothing to do with me. I tried being sneaky, but a great paddling of wings greeted me as they fled across the lake.  I sat huddled on a dirt mound by the shore in the cold wind for as long as I could stand it.

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Two trumpeter swans, at a very great distance

Then I moseyed on toward Lower Red Rock Lake.  I traveled past the road to the lake out of curiosity, and came upon a little homestead cemetery. I gingerly opened the chain and walked in.  The sign is defiant, protective of the crumbling headstones and resentful of the refuge, a last stand to respect the people who clung to a tough, hardscrabble way of life.

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The last person was buried before I was born. No one really lived that long except Mr. Shambow, the last to be laid to rest here.  Maude, perhaps his daughter, breathed air for only nine days. If there was a Mrs. Shambow, she’s not buried here; perhaps the tragedy of losing an infant drove her away from this place.

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It’s not clear whose headstone this is, but the farewell is resigned, a drop of the hands to the sides. The words convey exhaustion, defeat by a rough land and rough weather.

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redrockscampgroundAfter visiting the windswept cemetery with its oblivious gophers heaving the hallowed earth into mounds, I drove to Lower Red Rocks Lake campground. The gates and the signage speak to the neighbors and their manners.

 

There was no one at the campground, perhaps because it was so exposed.  The upper campground looked full as I passed.  I tip my hat to the National Wildlife Refuge System for installing a handicapped-accessible site in the middle of pretty much nowhere.

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This area, from my perusal of the Web, is a good one to photograph pronghorn antelopes.  The fastest of North American land mammals, they evolved anatomy and physiology to escape long-extinct cheetahs.  The bounding gate, large eyes with 320-degree view, and rump flagging must still be serving them well still- as long as the predator isn’t carrying a firearm with bullets that travel faster than they can run.

redrocksswansI wandered around the campground, took swan pictures rendered fuzzy by heat waves, and then escaped the wind in my car.  I pulled out to the entry road to eat lunch from the shelter of my vehicle, taking photos of the pronghorns.  I thought I might hike Odell Creek trail on the way back, but it was closed for the logging operation, so I wandered back slowly to West Yellowstone, stopping while cowboys moved cattle to winter grounds.

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I wish I had camped, really, instead of coming for the day.  I could have wandered among the aspens, waited until the rangers returned to the office to browse through exhibits and skins and feathers, watched for moose in the cold early morning.  But I needed to get back to my motel whether I liked it or not because my gear was there, along with my food.  Next time I will linger.  No more town life.  Not next time.

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Lest my rant give the misimpression that my September 2016 trip to Yellowstone National Park was an exercise in tourist frustration, I enjoyed a quiet room at the new Canyon Lodge and some peaceful day hikes.  Sometimes enjoying the best of Yellowstone happens when you park your car and use your feet.

On a lovely but cold morning, I drove Hayden Valley drinking hot coffee looking for wildlife while the sun rose. Many folks have clued into this:  drive at dawn and dusk, watch for other cars stopped, and voila, wildlife.  I stopped at a pullout for this lovely view of the river.  Apologies to the gentleman taking pictures of a bald eagle.  I have a nesting pair by my home, and while I don’t take them for granted, their Wyoming cousins don’t have the unique attraction of a pretty sunrise on a foggy river.

I decided to day hike to Sentinel Meadows after perusing the Jake Bramante map over morning coffee.  It was a great choice for solitude. I veered off the common road to the Fairy Falls/Imperial Geyser trail, which everyone else was taking, and ended up with the place to myself.

The trail starts by a thermal, Ojo Caliente, which could be morphed into, “Oh no, super caliente!” if you were so foolish as to enter the steaming pool.

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The trail leads past this  thermal through wide meadows with fresh bison patties, wood debris and enough trees to provide perfect habitat for cavity nesting, insect eating mountain bluebirds.  These busy little birds find perches in meadows to hunt, then dive to the ground to grab their meal. They also hover, which is fun to watch but hard to catch without a great camera.

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The trail winds past the Queen’s Laundry, thermal features that apparently people- well, used for laundry at one time (doh!).

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The trail climbs a small hill, winds around a corner through another small meadow, through some trees, and then drops into another meadow.  In this case, a meadow filled with bison and thermal features.

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There were lots of bison sacked out, and spread out over a wide area.  A couple trailing groups approached them in a line.  The orange trail markers indicated my trail crossed their path, so I sat on my pack to eat lunch and waited for them to cross. Or not.

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Two cows suddenly felt the need for a siesta, and plopped down right by the trail.  A giant bull stood sentinel over them, killing my plan to have a short lunch while the parade rear guard moseyed past. It was going to be a really long lunch, or a detour.

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Not passing too close to this big guy, for sure…..

After awhile, I decided it was a detour. With the thermal features in the area, I was cautious about picking a route.  There was a social path blocked by a tree limb that I used (sorry, YNP) to head down valley from the bison.  I swung wide across the valley, watching for bison trails and picking a narrow part of the marshy stream to hop across.  After the stream, I followed more bison paths back toward the trail.

The whole time I detoured, I kept an eye on the bull even though I was well distant from him and his girls.  He turned his head a couple times, but never lifted his tail, so I figured I was paying appropriate respect.

The trail passed small thermal features before crossing a stream on limbs and entering a forest. Then it crossed back to a connector with Fairy Falls and the common gravel road again.  I walked the road chatting with a couple from Seattle who had made a last minute decision to visit Yellowstone to hike since he was nursing a bad ankle.  We passed one more group of bison on the way out, and then reached our cars for a cheery au revoir and off to our evening destination. All in all, a peaceful pleasant day in a super popular national park.

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aprbuffalocampIt’s cold.  A thick layer of sparkly white frosting coats the tent like a muffin.  I’d say the temperature is somewhere in the 20’s.  It’s fall, so I expected this. I’m swaddled in synthetic puffy fabric and fleece, with rain jacket and pants to keep the slightest breeze from stealing heat. I brush most of the frost off the tent and then make coffee and read maps.

I’m at the Sun Prairie unit of the American Prairie Reserve, a privately funded island in an ocean of ranchland.  A place where people are working to put back on the land what we took away over a hundred years ago.

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Bison skulls awaiting processing for fertilizer. Unknown photograper, public domain, Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library.

The bison, a keystone species and our new national mammal was almost exterminated forever by the early 1900’s.  Mass kills were followed by mass efforts to pick the prairies clean of bones for fertilizer.

Everything changed with the death of bison and arrival of people determined to completely alter the landscape.  Wolves and bears feasted on bison carcasses, then were themselves shot, trapped, and poisoned.  We eradicated prairie dogs, hawks, snakes, anything that got in the way of our cattle, sheep, and chickens. Where there was water for cultivation, native flora gave way to the plow.

Now temperate grasslands are considered the most threatened communities of plants and animals on earth. Internationally, we’re recognizing that grasslands have been “cradling the needs of humans for millenia“.  We’re working to correct the past with more than a national designation for an animal.

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If this late-born red calf survives the winter, it will represent another hope for the future of bison. Yellowstone National Park, Sept 2016

Northeastern Montana is an area where large scale grassland preservation can be meaningful. Although the land has been changed at the surface, it hasn’t been plowed extensively.  Public lands can be bridged to provide large scale habitat.  The Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge spans 1.1 million acres of land along 125 air miles of the Missouri River. Enter APR, first a foundation, now a place, buying ranches from willing sellers, building fence, and trying to restore the prairie landscape.

aprlocalwelcomeIt won’t be easy, mostly because of people,  past as well as present. I pass signs on the road protesting the Reserve. Ranchers worry about their way of life, though farm radio news indicates  the economy and ranch debt is more threatening than conservation. People have introduced diseases like sylvatic plague that kills prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets alike. And we all know what weeds are like:  psychotically clingy stalkers that reappear at every turn no matter how you try to ditch them.

But there is hope.

The BLM has introduced the Undaunted Stewardship program to help ranchers protect natural and historic resources; the video below shows how people are working to make ranching more friendly. APR is also promoting ranches that protect wildlife with the Wild Sky beef program.

Promoting responsible ranches is commendable, but cows are not bison. Using private funds, APR is piecing together land, and retiring grazing rights to Russell NWR where it can. They are restoring grasslands and streambanks. They’re growing a bison herd that can help restore the natural grassland processes. As a privately funded organization, APR can be creative because they’re not beholden to politically-influenced federal land management practices. And very creative people are at work even in the government: the USFWS has plans to use drones and candy to vaccinate ferrets against the plague.

As I sit and drink my coffee, waiting for the sun to dry my tent, I try to get into the minds of settlers.  Why did we needlessly slaughter 65 million animals that took care of themselves and provided healthier meat than we can raise even with intensive management?  Why did we start this endless effort to manage the land for animals that can’t thrive here without protection and help? Why did we make it so hard for ourselves?

I imagine the mass migrations of bison Lewis and Clark saw: the grasslands teeming with bison, deer, pronghorn antelopes, birds, punctuated with the warning yips and yelps of prairie dogs.  I’ve heard the low, rumbling sound of a bison herd moving through Slough Creek Valley below my camp, grunting and murmuring drifting up the hill. But that herd was over a hundred, not tens of thousands. I wonder which future generation will hear those sounds again; when we’ll again see the abundance we’ve lost.

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After speeding away to a special assignment that includes social media, my life and my blog have been left in a dust cloud, pressed flat in the gravel like dehydrated roadkill. I worked my old job and my new job for five weeks until my work got transferred. Days never really ended. I forgot things. I needed everything to slow down.  I needed a break.

And there is the crazy, polarizing presidential campaign, the racism nightmare, terrorism. The national stress level is crushing on top of too little sleep/too much work.

Thankfully, I had long ago set up a trip to Montana to visit American Prairie Reserve and Yellowstone National Park.  After the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation, I wanted to visit some refuges to – you know, take public land back.  Back from those cowboy hat Trojan horses funded by the resource extraction industries. The next few posts are about this trip.

What with my work-squashed neurons, I did a marginal job packing, and had to fill in a few things at Missoula.  Mostly, I had enough or maybe a little much.  Why I brought 3 pounds of cheese is a mystery. Simple math and consideration of cheese’s gastrointestinal effects would have fixed that.

I relax driving long distances and watching scenery slide by.  It’s meditation for a former Midwestern road tripper. By the time I reached Buffalo Camp at APR’s Sun Prairie unit, my brain had emptied, and I’d heard enough farm radio to forget about the world.  And I agreed with the greeting on the sign.  It was good.

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On cue, the Welcome Wagon bison showed me the location of my tent platform.  I didn’t ask him to stay and fluff my camp pillow, but he seemed willing to linger.

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Don’t worry- the deepest part is hidden on the left.

Of course, the first thing I decided to do was to cut my wrist with a knife.  Because too much crazy going on. For the first time in my knife-wielding life, I reached one hand over the other to grab something and neatly sliced my skin with the upward pointed tip.

The wound wasn’t terrible, though it was a bloody mess and will leave a scar.  It doesn’t really look like I tried to off myself:  I would get a D- for the effort. But if that tip had been 1/4 inch lower and an inch to the right- well, that would have been pretty dicey so far away from help. I’ve been there, long ago in northern Minnesota, with knee slices, broken ankle, appendicitis, and nearest medical care 45 miles away.  This one was easy, something pressure and gauze could fix once I decided to quit dripping blood on the tent and do something about it.

bridgebuffalocamptrailFinally, after setting up my temporary abode, I could stretch my legs walking out to the prairie dog town across the creek.  I could watch the prairie sunset and moonrise and curl up well-insulated in my sleeping bag, ready to start exploring the next day.

 

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The Harvest Moon is almost upon us…

 

 

 

 

 

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Canis latrans follows humans where ever we go, living off our leavings. They pursue our scraps and the animals atracted to our waste and the table we set for birds and pets.  Coyotes have walked in our wagon tracks and footsteps, across trails and highways, to occupy North and Central America.  As we exterminated their enemies, especially wolves, their populations grew and their territory expanded.  They grew bolder. After grey wolves were re-introduced in Yellowstone National Park, coyote populations dropped by half, and they abandoned the apex predator behavior they had assumed.

My valley had a stable coyote pack for a long time, until the neighbor without adequate protection for his sheep started taking them out in revenge for lamb nabbings.  A year later, the rabbit population exploded and garden destruction began.  Worse, the mesh fence my neighbor put in to keep his wayward cows out of my yard blocks the travel of coyotes. Now, I’m happy to see any coyotes at all.

I knew I had a coyote around somewhere in June:  scat with cherries and occasional hair was appearing on the road and in my horses’ paddocks.  I finally caught sight of a young coyote as I was meandering around the fields on a rental tractor, mowing thigh high grass.  Many raptors follow tractors, for good reason.  The rumbling and vibration of the machinery chases mice and voles from the grass, where they become easy prey.  Those that don’t survive the tires or blade become dinner for scavengers.

CoyoteNotSure

This young pup is on her own early.  In the morning, she would flee when she saw me.

At first wary, this young coyote figured out after several hours that the tractor meant food, and by evening was following at a safe distance.  I can’t imagine how the scrawny little thing stuffed so many rodents down her gullet.  She was still at it after the tractor got turned off at sunset, stalking the grass for confused voles. Another coyote learning the ways of her ancestors, following people for our scraps.

SkinnyCoyote

Not a great picture, but you get the idea how young and scrawny this coyote is.  Most pups don’t survive their first year.

CoyoteThinkingOnIt

She seems to have figured out that the tractor means food.

CoyoteVole

Success- chewing on a vole

CoyoteGotOne

She got braver as the evening wore on, even though her belly started to look round with the feast.

 

I look like one of those people, but I’m not.  No, I don’t watch television.  There is too much else to do. But that “else” isn’t pursuit of the spiritual, the religious, the social. I do things with my beat up hands, with my land, with my horses. In my spare time, I either stay home or pack bags and go:  near or far, with a pass or a passport; drive, take the bus or train, or fly; stay in a tent or a motel or a hut.

I’m not a total luddite:  I will indulge in crazy animated movies once in awhile. I obviously use electronics, digital cameras, a computer, a smartphone, a tablet.

 

But a bald eagle tumbling through the air grabbing at the talons of a territory-invading hawk is a commercial free distraction. The dark eyes of a harbor seal that has followed my kayak home and hovers in the pool by the beach is a soulful farewell. A hummingbird that weighs less than a nickel defending a stand of bee balm from butterflies, bees, and birds entertains.  These moments are far more arresting than a conversation over chai tea in a carefully designed faux salvage cafe decor.

HummerBranchThis region’s legendary traffic is my excuse for not indulging in urban cultural events and going to dinner with friends.  My friends live three dozen miles away, south on a perpetually crowded freeway, or a thousand miles away.  My family, like many, is spread across the country. But travel isn’t really the barrier, because I do that a lot.  I just like wandering around by my lonesome, in the moment, in as natural an environment as I can find. dragonfly1

I paid my dues retrieving my mother’s blood spattered, broken glasses from the wreckage of her truck 30 years ago. Already supremely independent and restless, I’ve never again been that easy close to people after that little tragedy.  I wander afar, road trip, hike, and camp on my own, or stay home to do artwork and landscaping in the company of animals, most of them wild. In practice, I’m an absent, unrelaible friend, checking in sporadically with pictures and stories about travel and home. RedSnake

So I don’t watch television, attend retreats to become mindful and soulful, seek cultural events and stimulating conversation over gourmet meals. I sound awful.  But I’m not a hermit: I work with the public and give volunteer presentations and workshops whenever I’m asked. I’m friendly to every friendly person I meet. I care about the friends I don’t keep up with. I’m interested in other people’s stories. It’s just that when the day is done, I take my stories home, disconnect from humanity, and go where the wild things are.

And that’s okay.  The world has enough people- it doesn’t need me out there.

VultureOnSlashPileThe animal company I keep does need people, though.  They need us to plant more trees and shrubs, build more rock piles and slash piles, hoist up more nests until there is enough nature to build their own.  They need cleaner, cooler water and skies without flight hazards and light pollution. At my little sanctuary, they reward my efforts by mulitplying and bringing their offspring back each year. My visitors are a study in simplicity, with simple wants:  food, family, turf, home. This, I understand.

 

Over increasingly large areas of the United States, spring now comes unheralded by the return of the birds, and the early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song.
Rachel Carson

 

This was true in Rachel Carson’s United States after people annihilated bird populations with DDT and other pesticides meant to protect us from pests.  New Zealand’s birds have been silenced by another human behavior: bringing the world of pests with us when we travel.

TakaheKapiti

Takahe on Kapiti Island. The North Island takahe went extinct.  The South Island takahe seen here was thought to be extinct until a small population was discovered.

New Zealand floated alone in the Pacific for 80+ million years, far away from Australia, Tonga, Fiji.  Like a person spending a lot of time alone, it developed some interesting features. In the beginning, there were only birds, and perhaps a bat species or two.  No mammals at all to scavenge nutritious eggs and snatch fledglings.  The birds didn’t need to go far, so flight fell by the wayside for some birds, and others are weak fliers.Giant moas grew to 8 feet tall at the shoulder; their only predator, the Haast’s eagle, weighed 30+ lbs.

And then it all changed 800 some years ago when the Maori arrived hungry, and accompanied by kiore, Polynesian rats. Then came stoats, cats, wasps, goats, deer, sheep, cows, dogs, red tailed oppossums, ship rats, Norway rats and so on.  Man is often called the worst pest because we hunt animals to extinction, burn down forests for pasture and farmland, and point skyward to justify our destruction.KiwiZoneSign

Today, we continue to bring pests, some too small to be seen.  On my recent trip to New Zealand, we were scrubbing and disinfecting shoes to prevent the spread of kauri dieback disease, a fungus. Then, we were picking through packs for plant material and small rodents before going to Kapiti Island sanctuaryKapiti-IslandWoodSign

ShoeCleaningKauriDieback

Around the world, concern about vanishing nature has occurred in waves throughout history.  We’re at a sort of end time in some places like New Zealand, where it’s an all-out war on pests to keep what’s left alive.  Sanctuaries are established offshore or behind fences, and then pests are poisoned, shot, trapped, lured to their deaths with Judas animals. The Goat Musterer has removed 20,000+ feral goats for food use. There are still a lot to go.

Poison

It’s not a pretty approach, and intolerable to people with softer sensibilities living in sprawling countries like America.  We think there’s enough space, another way to do this. On the other side, some folks believe wiping out the indigenous flora, fauna (and sometimes people that were not considered to be such) is evidence of humans’ entitled dominion over the earth. On the other side, some believe we deserve Zika, Ebola, terrible influenzas.

I believe in balance.DangerTrapInside

In New Zealand, I found it strange to be in lush native bush with no birdsong. Protected sanctuaries immediately stand out for the melodic songs of tui and bellbirds. It’s taken years to bring them back, and constant vigilance to keep them that way, free of pests that overwhelm birds with no ability to adapt. People can live among the wild peacably:the Barrett family of Kapiti Island, holdouts who refused to sell their land for a sanctuary, are perfect examples of this.

When I came home to my postage stamp of a restoration project, rich with birdsong, bees, frogs, and butterflies, I realized we don’t have to take a bow and leave.  Sixteen years ago, I moved in to acres of invasive foreign grass on a horse property barren of life.  Sixteen years later, I come home to a wildlife sanctuary.  If we have courage, it can work.

The weather said, “Go winter camping!” with clear days and the night sky lit up with a fullish moon.  Camping below Mt. Rainier, or high on Artist Point, with coral sunset bathing the mountains followed by the radiant moon and a billion stars.  Bundled in wool and fleece and down in unearthly quiet and silvery cold air sounded like peace.FrostyTreeThreeFingers

But it’s pretty here, too, out in the boondocks of the Puget Sound area.  If I left, my neighbors would have been slogging warm water for the horses because the cold got to my tanks, faucets and hoses before I did.  I never really finished cleaning up after the last windstorm, and another system is coming in with wind and rain this week.

SunriseFreezingFog

Sun rising through freezing fog and illuminating the pasture

It’s also been a long year, with ups and downs, travel and learning and people and change.  We are in a truly crazy and endless election season. Terrorism rages at home and abroad. Home alone for four days, with a break to eat Thanksgiving dinner with friends, started to sound pretty good.  Anyway, those sunny mountains would be trampled by people in droves out for fun and pretty pictures on a long holiday weekend. Good for all of them- enjoy, people!

SwansAtSunset

Trumpeter swans flying at sunset

Oh, and there’s a new kids’ animation movie out- beautiful graphics with doe-eyed creatures and a neatly packaged coming of age story.  “Never growing up” doesn’t have to mean arrested adolescence; rather, it can be the crazy dreams and imagined adventures of childhood. As someone stuck at age 10, with a collection of animal puppets and kids’ adventure books, I was sold.

So I stayed home, doing my usual weird routine of cooking a turkey after spending Thanksgiving with friends- just for the leftovers, mind you.  Filling the house with the scent of savory soup and freshly baked bread the next day. Raking up the last leaves, and wandering out with a camera when the light and animals cooperated.  A quiet, kinda sustainable holiday.  A break.