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.

Black Wolf, Wis., to Alexandria, Minn.

I said my good-byes in Black Wolf, took one last look at the antenna I helped Ed put up over the past two days, and started driving west. After about an hour and a half of driving, I was ready for a break, so I drove a couple of miles south of U.S. 21 to Roche-A-Cri State Park. The main feature of the park is a 300 foot high sandstone formation, a mound known as Roche-A-Cri,” or crevice in the rock. This formation is mostly overgrown with trees, but in one place there is a dramatic sandstone cliff, weirdly weathered with petroglyphs at its base.

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If this cliff were in Arizona or New Mexico, it would barely merit a glance, but it is in Wisconsin and thus it is strange and wonderful. I looked at the petroglyphs, left by ancestors of the Ho-Chunk people; I had passed the Ho-Chunk Nation casino earlier in the day. I climbed the 303 steps to the top of the mound, pausing half a dozen times on the way up to let my heart rate slow to normal. From the top, you can see for a long way across the flat plain of the Central Sands of Wisconsin, where there was once, thousands of years ago, a huge glacial lake. But it doesn’t look like much more than a flat tree-covered plain, so I headed back down.

By the time I climbed down the 303 steps and walked back to the parking lot at the entrance, it was time for lunch. While I was eating, three girls ran to play on the little playground there, and Tom, their grandfather, came over to chat with me. He told me about Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, half an hour down the highway, where Sandhill Cranes nest. So I decided to stop there.

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The first thing I noticed about the refuge is that the soil is that same sandy soil I saw in Roche-A-Cri State Park; the soil of the Central Sands region. The next thing I noticed was the variety of plant communities within the refuge: I walked through woodlands and oak savanna and prairie and walked on boardwalks over marshland, all in the space of less than a mile.

It was the middle of the day, and most of the birds kept themselves far away. But I did see some Sandhill Cranes fly by, giving their loud rattling honking call; I saw a couple dozen White Pelicans glide over the marsh in the distance, their heads tucked back against their bodies, black wingtips barely moving as they soared in close formation. I saw a pair of Trumpeter Swans in the distance, distorted by the shimmer of heat rising from the marsh, with three or four cygnets swimming between them. Way off in the distance, I saw some sort of tall white long-legged wader; could it be some of the Whooping Cranes that have been re-introduced into Wisconsin? They were too far away for me to be sure.

Then, in the middle distance, flying low over the marsh, I saw some white birds with black wingtips flying along, but they weren’t pelicans for no pelican would fly with its neck outstretched, and no pelican would flap its wings like that; against all my expectations, I had just seen one of North America’s rarest and most dramatic birds, the Whooping Crane. True, I had only seen the birds at a distance, and only for a few short moments, but I had seen them; and the birds I had seen were part of a small population with a dramatic story: they have been re-introduced into the eastern half of the continent where they hadn’t lived in over a century, and they have had to be taught to migrate by following ultralight aircraft.

After seeing Whooping Cranes, the rest of the day was anti-climactic.

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.

Winnemuca, Nev., to Evanston, Wyo.

This morning, I had a hard time getting on the road; a week’s worth of twelve-hour days running Ecojustice Camp finally caught up with me. I was a little bleary when I started driving. Yesterday in a truck stop I had found an audiobook, on CDs no less, of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, and I put the first disc into the car’s CD player. When I was in high school, I had loved I, Robot; I found I still liked it, even though there were huge holes in the plot, even though Asimov doesn’t appear to like women very much, even though he mixes slide rules and space ships; I liked it even though the characters were caricatures, but they were engaging caricatures.

At some point after I passed through Battle Mountain, I began to notice how green the mountains looked — green by northeastern Nevada standards, that is. It had obviously rained in the recent past. Then I began to notice the banks of yellow flowers along the edges of the interstate; I could not only see them, but in a few places I could feel the pollen in the air. They ere so stunning in that desert landscape that I finally pulled over at the exit ramp to Welcome, Nevada, and photographed them. They looked bright and dramatic against the freshly green sage brush.

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I rolled through dreary little West Wendover, Nevada, its faintly shabby casinos looking even more shabby in that huge landscape, with towering mountains, and the white expanse of the salt flats stretching eastward into the haze. I rolled across the salt flats — stopping briefly to eat a sandwich in the shade of the rest area in the middle of the salt flats — across the plains and hills on the other side, and got off at the Dugway exit. The directions said to head north, take an immediate left, go a third of a mile, then take the right fork. But the road didn’t fork, it terminated in the exit gate of a huge Cargill salt facility, with a railroad siding and towering piles of salt. Finally I figured out that what I was supposed to do was to turn right at the gates to the Cargill plant, and sure enough there I was at the entrance to Timpe Spring Wildlife Management Area.

One moment I was between the railroad siding and the salt plant, and the next moment I was driving along a narrow dirt road looking out at American Avocets and Black-necked Stilts squawking at me, and California Gulls soaring purposefully overhead towards Antelope Island, which loomed out of the invisible Great Salt Lake in the distance, and a Northern Shoveler dabbling at the edge of the marsh with that absurdly long bill it has.

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I started walking out across one of the dikes, but Forster’s Terns and Black-necked Stilts began circling closer and closer to me, and Song Sparrows came up out of the brush at the edge of the dike, all of them giving calls of alarm. Obviously, I was getting too close to their nests. So I walked out along the other dike, but soon an American Avocet and a Wilson’s Phalarope came out of the marsh grasses giving their calls of alarm, so I retreated once more. By that time, I had been walking around for most of an hour, and the temperature was one hundred degrees even, and I was longing for a drink of water. I walked back to the car.

The birds were not so bothered by me while I was in the car. I drove out very slowly, stopping several times to see if I could see the nests of the American Avocets and the Black-necked Stilts, but I could not; the nests must have been well down in the marsh grass. I swatted one last biting fly, slow and stupid from the heat, that had landed on my face, rolled up the window, and drove on to Evanston, Wyoming.

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San Mateo, Calif., to Winnemuca, Nev.

As usual on one of these cross-country trips, I got a late start on the first day. Carol was going off to Lake Tahoe with her friend Elaine, and I sat and talked with Elaine while Carol finished getting ready. Elaine has lived all her life in the Bay Area. She grew up in the city — that is, in San Francisco. Even though San Jose is more populous and has more land area, San Francisco is “the city” in the Bay Area, while San Jose is not even a place. Joan Didion, a fifth generation Californian, once wrote that the problem with California is that every place is starting to look like San Jose; not a real place, just featureless sprawl; but San Francisco is still a real place, and so it remains “the city.”

Even though I’m a relative newcomer to the area, Elaine and I both agreed that the Bay Area is a lovely place to live — except for the traffic and the cost of housing. Then Carol was ready to go, and they left, and I finished packing the car and started driving sometime after eleven.

I got to Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area at a quarter past two, my head still buzzing from the Bay Area traffic. At Parking Lot B, I got out of the car. Marsh Wrens were calling all around me. Through the cattails and rushes I could see that there was still water in some of diked areas. There were flowers everywhere: most prominent were banks of plants in the carrot family — call it Queen Anne’s Lace — with nodding umbrelliform flowers three to seven feet off the ground. I stopped to watch honeybees buzzing around these flowers.

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There were plenty of birds, too: Black-necked Stilts, White-faced Ibis, Snowy Egrets, Greater Yellowlegs, and many more feeding in the shallow water. As usual at Yolo Bypass, the birds were very aware that there was a human nearby, and as I got closer they moved farther away.

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Then it was time to get back on the road. Up over the Sierras where I could see dark clouds and lightning to the east, then down into Reno where the roads were still wet from a thunderstorm. Thence up through the Humboldt River valley, with dark clouds all around. Everywhere I looked, the hills were washed with a faint green, the desert coming to life after rain. At dusk, I pulled over to get gas near Mill City, and pulled over near the exit ramp to stretch my legs. As I walked through the low grass, grasshoppers sprang to life to get out of my way, and small burrs wormed their way into my socks, and swallows swopped close to my head catching evening insects.

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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.

Yolo Bypass Wildlife Refuge

This afternoon, I spent about three hours at the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Refuge, some 25 saure miles of managed habitat for waterfowl just east of Davis, Calif.

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Above: Yolo Bypass Refuge, near parking lot B.

A huge portion of California’s Central valley — about four million acres — was once wetlands. These vast wetlands once provided a winter home to uncounted waterfowl, and resting places for migrating birds. Today there are only 395,000 acres of Central Valley wetlands. (David Carle, Introduction to California Water [University of California Pres, 2004], pp. 37-40).

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Above: Looking west across the wetlands, with the Coastal Ranges visible in the distance.

Even though Yolo Bypass Refuge is heavily managed by humans, and even though Interstate 80 and the skyscrapers of Sacramento are visible from everywhere in the refuge, being there gave me something of a sense of what the pristine Central Valley wetlands must once have been like: birds everywhere, birds in the tens of thousands: ducks, curlews, egrets, heron, owls, blackbirds, sparrows, ibises, coots, falcons, doves, harriers; all those birds supported by the amazing fecundity of the wetlands.

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Above: Sunset near parking lot A.

In three hours of desultory birding (and I’m not a very good birder), I saw forty different species of birds. And I only had time to visit one small corner of the refuge. The vast expanse of wetlands, the diversity of the fauna, the beauty of the land — simply amazing.

Wetlands, Concord, Mass.

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Above: Cattails in a wetlands along the abandoned Old Colony Railroad (later New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad) grade that parallels Old Marlboro Road, Concord, Mass.

This wetlands area has a substantial expanse of open water, due to beaver dams; in the photo there is open water on the far side of the cattails, and you can see the grey trunks of dead trees, trees which could not survive the flooding from the beaver activity. Beyond that, you can see hills covered mostly in white pine (Pinus strobus), with some red oak (Quercus rubra) mixed in; this mix of pine and oak is typical on upland glacial till soils in eastern Massachusetts.

These are characteristic colors of mid-November wetlands in Concord: the dull brown and white of dead cattails and their seeds and the grey of dead or leafless deciduous trees; a sky covered with dull gray clouds above; and in the background, the dark green of white pines with a few spots of dull red provided by the red oaks which still retain their leaves.

Great Meadows, Concord, Mass.

It was a perfect New England summer day — breezy, about 85 degrees, gentle blue sky — so Carol and I decided to take a walk at Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge this afternoon.

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Above: Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, Concord, Mass., looking north over the lower impoundment

 

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Above: Northern Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon)
 

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Above: Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), with unidentified pollinator