Tag Archive: wildlife habitat


The wild kingdom

TowheeWeb(Video below) A coworker recently discovered that her very tall bamboo was very invasive. When she recently bought the house, she was told it was that non-invasive kind. Right. It had sent roots under a shed and around the sewer pipe.  It was coming up everywhere. Eradicating it would mean digging deep down to remove every bit of root.

“Or I could move,” she said. “And get away from it.”

She won’t be the first to express that sentiment.  Nor the last.  Here in the Pacific Northwest, everything grows- with a vengeance.  If you amend your soil, give plants some summer water, then voila, they grow bigger than the plant list says and take over the earth. If blackberry or ivy is on your property, you can’t turn your back without fearing a coup.

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Even the house is habitat to a Pacific slope flycatcher.

I’ve been planting for 17 years. I buy bareroot plants at the annual Conservation District sale. Then there are plants that I propagate.  My neighbor gives me plants. Plants volunteer on their own, too.

For years, I felt like I had to save every seed, every live stake, and plant it somewhere. There weren’t enough barriers to keep out my neighbor’s cows.  There weren’t enough plants for nesting.

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Goatsbeard, salal and bleeding heart in bloom.  There is a path in there somewhere.

Then the balance started to tip.  I had starts coming up everywhere.  Plants needed dividing.  I started noticing hawthorns and cherry trees growing wild along the roadway.

The volunteer red dogwood reached 20 feet into the air, and 30 feet across. A volunteer willow erupted into an exploding green fountain.  Cherry branches drooped over the gate, dark red leaves shading the entry. Pacific ninebark branches drooped low over the driveway. The weeping cedar in front of the house grabs me as I try to clean the roof.  Oceanspray sprouts in the gravel path, and wood sorrel carpets the garden along with some groundcover the previous owner planted. The rose that beavers mowed down last year springs back as a lush hedge.

I started to be grateful when something died, or the squirrels or rabbits ate it.The giant cherry trees my predecessor planted tipped over.  Oh, darn. The Italian prune plum that grew to 20 feet in two years blew down. Oh, darn. I even gave away hundreds of plants the last couple years to get rid of pots and thin things.

This winter, we got 4 feet of rain between October and March.  The spring wore on, cool and wet. When I came home from a trip to the Montana prairie after two weeks of nice weather, the contrast between the dry, open prairie and my jungle was overwhelming. I felt like I was entering a tight leafy tunnel as I drove through the gate.

CoyoteTwitterWildlife thrives in this florid abundance. American goldfinches show up at the feeders in flocks, and disappear into thickets to hidden nests.  A robin angrily attacks its reflection in one window after another for weeks. Squirrels race after each other up and down trees. A tangle of garter snakes unwinds from the crack between the concrete pad and barn floor. A red-tail hawk hunts from owl perches and weasels roam the fence rails in search of eggs and small birds.

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I won’t complain or move, because I signed up for this. And wielding a loppers beats checking the latest news in this historic crazy time. Dragging cuttings into slash piles and digging out weeds wears me down so that I sleep at night. Diligent effort opens corridors and paths, and gives shrubs and trees a fresh start.

As I work, kingfishers rattle warnings on the river where they have burrows, robin parents escort a fledgling out to forage, bald eagles trill at a youngster testing its wings, hawks soar over the field. A towhee takes a stand on top of a cedar and a Pacific slope flycatcher sneaks insects to nestlings tucked on top of the breaker box.

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You know your habitat is complete when the vultures show up.

I could move, maybe to an apartment in the city, tidy and spare, with no yard work.  I could join a gym and work out without getting sunburned, scratched by thorns or scalded by nettle. Or I could just stay here for awhile, where everything is simpler.

 

 

 

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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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People would feel foolish standing on the deck of a boat looking out over the ocean and declaring that nothing could be living underneath the water simply because they couldn’t see it.  Yet the same people drive past expansive grasslands and open country saying that “nothing’s out there” because they can’t see it.

Grasslands are like the ocean, with a sea of life swimming past.  The land undulates like waves, hiding animals from view. The frothy grass heads washed windward mask a multitude of little things.  You just have to wade through the grass and find these things.

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The easiest to find are the birds because they will rise above the waves of grass.  Harriers swoop low over the land, trying to scare up rodents. Falcons, hawks and owls perch on fenceposts and  in trees by creeks to scan for meals.  Even doves and meadowlarks use whatever they can find as a singing platform.

Then there are the mammals that can move through the grass, but use it for shade and cover.  Deer, pronghorns, bison all eat the grass, bed down in it, move through it.  Deer have a way of appearing suddenly out of grasslands, invisible until you get a white flag flipped in your face and see slender legs bounding away from you.

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Prairie dogs live under the sea bottom, and coyotes hunt at the bottom.  Black footed ferrets, rabbits and badgers keep the dogs company, while the real canids sniff around looking for a rodent, berry, or insect meal.

And then there are the really little things- bugs and bones, plants and fungi, rocks and flowers.  Even geologic monuments installed long, long ago. Finding all the interesting living and non-living things in a grassland sea even a mile square can take you hours, from dawn to dusk to catch them all.

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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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CoyoteRealizaton

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.

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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.

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

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

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Success- chewing on a vole

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

 

It’s the baby time of year- they’re starting to leave their nests and find their way in the world.  Sometimes mom and dad is there to help, but eventually, they gotta fly on their own.  None of this college graduate living at home with a mountain of student debt for them….

 

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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.
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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

ShortieRoots2The short-eared owls aren’t yet rare, but we still stand breathless waiting for them to fly moth-like as they hunt at sundown.  We listen for their raspy barks in flight, watch for them to land on a post, rootwad, or elderberry stem,  then their heads to wither us with the piercing owl stare.  I know they are reliable here at the Welts-Samish restoration area, overwintering before returning to northern breeding grounds.ShortieSunset

On a cold, sunny afternoon, we are all here chasing nature:  the duck hunters, the bird watchers, people taking kids for a walk, wildlife photographers, and me.

It dawns on me that nature used to chase us, and if we were chasing nature, it was just to get a meal.  Now, we chase what’s left of nature just for the experience.  Big game hunters spend tens of thousands of dollars on multi-day journeys to go on safari far away.  People fly to remote Churchill, Manitoba to view polar bears from the safety of lodges and snow buggies. Big Year birders look plain crazy to me, burning fossil fuels to tear around the world just to sight as many bird species as possible in a sort of manic stamp-collecting competition.

But I’m just as guilty of leaving a trail of carbon as I chase nature: flying to Costa Rica and driving from the Cloud Forest where the vanishing resplendent quetzal lives to the Osa Pensinsula to find the engandered Baird’s tapir.  I will be flying to Whitehorse in the Yukon to see the Northern Lights.  I’ve driven several times to Montana to hike and camp where grizzlies and bison roam. This year, I took three flights on my first trip to the barren and beautiful Canadian Arctic.

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I’d rather walk out the back door and see nature, so I’m doing as much restoration as I can. A long-eared owl stopped by for a couple weeks in 2012. Shorties stop by my property  every year in the fall, but they never stay. This fall, one landed in my pasture to snatch up a rodent, and did fly-overs for about a week.  I was hopeful for a winter resident, but it eventually flew away.  The hoots of great horned owls and screeches of barn owls in our fields at night don’t bode well for the long-eared owls and shorties.

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Long-eared owl at my house; attention posture

Highly nomadic and migratory, short-eared look for open grasslands where ground shelter is decent and rodent hunting is good.  Samish Flats makes good overwintering ground for a number of raptors even with duck hunters lurking in blinds around the area.

I’ll keep working on my habitat so I don’t have to wander far to see owls.  I’ll not put up farm lights that pollute the night sky with glare and make it impossible to see blood moons and northern lights on the rare occasions we see them. But I’ll still have to get on a plane to visit polar bears and tapirs, and will have to road trip to see bison and grizzlies, long gone from most Western landscapes. Like everyone else in this changing world, I will chase nature.

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My fuzzy picture of the September 27 blood moon, from my pasture

 

 

 

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.

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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!

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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.