Pocatello, Idaho, to Winnemucca, Nev.

The day did not start well. I awakened in the midst of a dream about work — you know a vacation is almost over when thoughts of your job work their way into your dreams. And then when I got to the Minidoka National Wildlife Refuge in mid-morning, I found out that I would need a high-clearance vehicle to access the interesting parts of the refuge. So I drove on towards Winnemucca, trusting to luck.

I followed a sign pointing to Shoshone Falls, and pulled over at the Hansen Bridge overlook. The view from the little parking area was dramatic — the bridge crossing a nine hundred foot wide canyon some four hundred feet above the Snake River. I thought that maybe if I kept walking on the adjacent Bureau of Land Management property, the view up the canyon towards the bridge would be even more dramatic, and it was. I climbed down and out on the volcanic rock of the canyon rim and watched Swainson’s Hawks and Red-tailed Hawks circling far below me, startling flocks of Rock Pigeons roosting in holes in the cliffs as they circled past.

Hansen Bridge over the Snake River, near Twin Falls, Idaho

Then I looked down the canyon, and that view was also dramatic: the canyon became broader, and the river divided into several streams, flowing around islands in the middle of which were buttes, the green of the riparian corridor making a strong contrast with the harsh black cliffs of the canyon walls. I walked around for three quarters of an hour, entranced by the view down into the canyon.

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At last I drove on to Shoshone Falls. There isn’t enough water in the summer to make the falls truly dramatic, but they were dramatic enough. I was almost more interested in watching the tourists watch the falls, than in watching the falls themselves. I thought about walking up the trail to where Evel Kneivel jumped his motorcycle across the canyon, but instead drove up to Dierke’s Lake, which lies in a large flat bench partway down the canyon. The swimming area was swarming with people, including lots of children; it was a friendly, homey scene. I walked up past the swimming area and wound up talking with a man from San Jose who was taking his daughter to tour colleges.

From there, I drove on, stopping briefly in Jackpot, Nevada, where I chatted with the cashier at the grocery store where I bought my lunch-time caffeine; she said Jackpot was the kind of small town where you knew everyone, though she admitted that winters could be kind of long. I ate my lunch at a highway rest area by the side of a stream. Of the three picnic tables in the rest area, two were occupied by single men who appeared to have a lot of possessions with them; one of them had a friendly chat with the workers who stopped to empty the trash cans and restock toilet paper at the pit toilets. I assumed these two men lived in or around that remote rest area.

In Wells, Nevada, I stopped at the Emigrant Trail Center, and talked with the volunteer who was staffing it today. He had grown up in Wells, which began as a railroad town — his parents worked for the railroad — and when the railroad reduced its operations in the late 1960s, jobs shifted to supporting the new interstate highway that came through town. The ranchers in the area, he said, also contributed a good deal to the local economy. After the earthquake of 2008, which destroyed many of the old historic brick buildings in the town, a vein of gold was discovered, and plans are now being made to mine that vein — which, he hoped, would add more jobs to the local economy. On my way out of town, I stopped to take a picture of the Community Presbyterian Church, which — so said my friend who grew up in Wells — had stood for more than a century, pretty much unchanged.

Wells, Nev., Community Presbyterian Church

Only one more day to vacation. I’m looking forward to getting back to see Carol. I’m even looking forward to getting back to work — but even so I wish this trip were not going to be over so soon.

Big Timber, Mont., to Pocatello, Idaho

Every once in a while on a long trip you have a day where nothing goes wrong. That happened today. In fact, today was as close to perfect as I’ve gotten on any cross-country trip. I got up on time, and got on the road on time. The drive was easy, with little traffic and no delays. I arrived at Camas National Wildlife Refuge at four o’clock, with at least four hours to spend there.

The refuge consists of over ten thousand acres of varied habitat — open water, marsh, seasonally dry ponds, uplands with bunch grass and sage brush — along Camas Creek. The refuge provides habitat protection for breeding and migrating birds, but hunting and agriculture are also allowed in parts of the refuge.

Agricultural use of Camas N.W.R.

The weather was perfect, with a temperature of 79 degrees, dry air, light variable breezes, and perfectly clear skies. Almost as soon as I pulled into the parking lot near the refuge headquarters, I flushed a Common Nighthawk from where it was roosting in a tree, and with the sight of it circling around over me calling with a plaintive “peent, peent,” I found myself detached from any thought of workaday affairs. And it got better from there. When you come across inviting green marshlands with large areas of open water in what is close to being a desert landscape, with just over ten inches of precipitation a year, it is an amazing and refreshing sight.

Flooded pool in Camas N.W.R.

The marshlands were teeming with birds. Admittedly, most of them kept far away from me, and I would have seen more birds if I had had a scope. But the light was excellent, and I could make out many of the birds I saw, even from a distance. I saw a good number of birds that had hatched this year. I saw two Trumpeter Swans accompanied a cygnet, a great many Mallards with ducklings, and lots of American Coots with their young — these three species are captured in the photo below, about as they appeared through my binoculars — as well as many other juvenile birds.

Camas N.W.R.

The refuge staff manage the water levels in the pools to maximize food sources, and several of the ponds had been allowed to dry out. These dry ponds looked stark and lifeless at first.

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But a closer look at one of them revealed five Pronghorn Antelope — four adults and one juvenile — who were watching me cautiously. I stood watching them watching me, and as I did so a car drove by without even slowing down. A little boy looked at me through the rear window, and I wanted to tell him to tell his parents to turn around and come back and look — but then I got distracted by two juvenile Northern Harriers flying low over the dry grass.

If there was a disappointment in an otherwise perfect day, it was that I didn’t see any Sage Grouse, even though I spent half an hour walking along a trail in the upland habitat near dusk. These uplands hardly merit the name based on elevation, for they are only about ten feet above the level of the marshlands. But that ten feet is enough: the soil is dry gravel, and the vegetation is dominated by short bunch grass — dried a crisp brown in late July — and sagebrush. But I was more than compensated by this disappointment a little later. While I was sitting eating my picnic dinner, with the sun about to set behind the distant mountains, two Swainson’s Hawks tried to roost in nearby trees, only to be repeatedly attacked out by brave Western Kingbirds, and after ten minutes finally driven away, screaming loudly. It was a dramatic conclusion to the day.

I suppose if you are not all that interested in birds, this may not sound like an almost perfect day. Really, though, looking for and identifying birds wasn’t the point. I think we human beings are meant to be outdoors as much as possible, and we are meant to be interacting with other living things as much as possible; evolution has shaped us to this end. Computers and automobiles and toilets and hospitals have made our lives easier and longer and more comfortable, but not necessarily better and more soul-satisfying.

Posted a day late due to poor Internet connection.

Evanston, Wyo., to Big Springs, Neb.

About an hour from Evanston, I got off the interstate and headed north on state route 372. I drove over a rolling sagebrush-covered landscape; here and there along the road I could see the usual sights of the West: a railroad siding with a string of covered hoppers; a fence and gate with a sign saying something-or-other mine and huge piles of tailings in the distance; some kind of industrial complex blowing white smoke; and so on. Martin Heidegger talked about “enframing,” the way our technological society divides up the world with maps and grids, marking where there are resources we want, where we can run roads and railroads and pipelines, where we can enjoy recreation opportunities, where we can set aside some land for wildlife. I was heading to a national wildlife refuge that was created when the Green River was dammed, and a place had to be found for some of the displaced wildlife.

About a half hour from the interstate, I was pulling in to the headquarters compound of the Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge. I walked down a low bluff about thirty or forty feet high, into the broad basin of the Green River, and suddenly there was life all around me: horse flies buzzed my head, Violet-green Swallows flew overhead, Marsh Wrens and Red-winged Blackbrids calling in the cattails, birds and insects everywhere. In dry Wyoming, water means life, and water flowed throughout the basin, in human-made channels through the highly-managed wetlands.

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I walked down one trail, but it got swallowed up in lush, thigh-high grass — besides which, I was obviously disturbing some Killdeer, who must have had a nest nearby, since they circled around me calling repeatedly, trying to distract me from wherever it was their nestlings were. The Green River was rushing by, little pockets of turbulence marking its surface. A Cinnamon Teal burst out of the rushes and flew away. An Osprey sat in a nesting box on top of a tall telephone pole, and I walked towards it for a closer look. But it grew increasingly agitated, and began to fly in circles around the nest, so I retreated again.

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The remnants of an old log cabin and some agricultural implements were almost lost in the grass. I stopped to look at them for a moment, the new buildings of the refuge headquarters in the distance, and thought about how humans of European descent had made use of this land for a century and a half.

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What I really wanted to do was talk over what I had seen with my father, but he really can’t talk on the phone any more. He likes wetlands as much as I do — Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge is one of his favorite places, and the last place he took a real walk outdoors — and he would be interested in the birds I saw. When I see him in a few days, I’ll tell him about Seedskadee, and show him the photos I took.

Seedskadee N.W.R. was the highlight of my day; everything else was an anticlimax, even though I drove through some fantastic scenery. I already want to go back, and spend a week there, and fish in the Green River, and maybe see some Sage Grouse on their leks.

Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area

As promised to E, photos of Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area, from my birding trip there yesterday.

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This wildlife area is huge. It covers about 25 square miles along the Sacramento River, and when you’re in the middle of it, you’re more than a mile from the east and west boundaries, and maybe five miles from the north and south boundaries.

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About a third of the land is still farmed, and you can see some of the fields on the right of this photo. While I was there, they were prepping several fields for rice cultivation. Rice farming is getting a bad name in California right now because of the drought, but migrating birds love rice fields. Diverting water away from rice fields to big cities is going to reduce the number of places migrating waterfowl have to rest during their travels.

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This Turkey Vulture flew quite close overhead. Notice the worn primaries — P5 on the left, and P3 on the right — as well as the missing left tertials.

Three predators

This afternoon, we went for a walk at Purissima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve in the Santa Cruz Mountains southwest of San Mateo. It was a stunning afternoon, warm but not too hot, with fog beginning to roll in up the canyons from the ocean.

As we hiked down into the preserve, we kept hearing a hawk screaming somewhere in the distance, but we never saw it. And then when we were hiking back up to the parking lot, there it was overhead: an accipter flying over the ridge we were on, then turning and riding the breeze coming up the canyon to our right. And what kind of accipter was it, a Cooper’s Hawk or a Sharp-shinned Hawk? I’d say it was perhaps a little larger, the neck a little longer, the tail a little more rounded, the wingbeats a little more deliberate: probably a Cooper’s Hawk, but I’m not good enough at field identification to be sure. It wheeled around, high above the canyon floor but at eye level for us; a couple of Band-tailed Pigeons came over the ridge, saw the accipter, and quickly ducked into the trees below us. Then the fog rolled up the canyon, and it was gone.

As we continued up the trail, Carol got about a hundred feet in front of me. Suddenly we both froze: walking the trail well up the hill in front of us was a dog-sized canid: a Gray Fox, its long tail behind it, its head turning from side to side, giving us a flash of the rufous fur up the side of the neck. It didn’t seem to notice us; it was busy watching the undergrowth on either side of the trail, and at least once it pounced at something.

We got back to the car a little after seven, and decided to go down to the beach to eat dinner. It was a beautiful foggy evening, and we walked along past Heerman’s and California Gulls, but the real attraction of the beach was the Velella velellas. When I was reading up on this species last night, I found a Web page by Dr. David Cowles that gave a possible reason why so many Velella velellas have washed up on northern California beaches:

“The angled sail makes it sail at 45 degrees from the prevailing wind. Some have a sail angled to the left, others to the right. Off California the right-angled form prevails, and these remain offshore in the prevailing northerly winds. Strong southerly or westerly winds, however, may bring huge aggregations ashore.”

We walked down the beach, making an unscientific survey: of the dozens of individuals we saw — ranging in size from less than two inches long to one that was as long as my notebook or approximately four inches (10 cm) long — all the sails had the same handedness (according to Dr. Cowles’ terminology, right-angled sails). Here’s a sketch from my notebook:

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I picked one up by its sail to look at the tentacles hanging down underneath. The velellas, like the fox and accipter, are predators, feeding on smaller organisms with their dangling tentacles. The tentacles seemed to descend from the central oval, and were of varying lengths. The sail itself felt smooth, flexible, and slightly rubbery; I dropped it back into the waves after I had looked at it.

Three very different predators — but each one a fabulously beautiful organism.