A Different Day

Yesterday was yesterday, with me finding small things to shake me out of the cabin fever rattling around in my own skull (skull fever?). Today was a different day. The fog burned off, revealing brightness and a big landscape to explore. Jon and I were confined mostly to the truck, as our assignment was to patrol the Sno-Parks on the east side of the ranger district. We noticed the blue flash of a Steller’s jay, and that got us talking about the movie “The Big Year”. It’s about three guys who try to see as many bird species as possible in one year, and how they compete and discover friendship. Highly recommended, even without car chases, explosions or lots of special effects. Anyway, it didn’t take long for us to have the idea of keeping track of the all birds we observed in one day. Paying attention really enlivened our travels.

We stopped to eat lunch at Reecer Creek, where the forest meets the shrub-steppe. It’s a dry country of grassy slopes and sagebrush, and the ponderosa pines grow in open stands higher up. There are dark basalt cliffs, and every draw and creek bottom is filled with dense brush—hawthorn, willow, aspen, wild rose. Shadows were blue on the blazing white snow. We had the windows rolled down and were listening to the radio while we ate. Suddenly the sound went off. We had a dead battery.

What’s winter without one dead battery incident? While Jon called for assistance, I got the jumper cables out of the back and we settled to wait. Looking out across the field, I saw a small dark shape moving. It was a hump with a pointy nose that scurried on short legs. A vole. As I watched, a bird flew in and dropped on the rodent and flared up in a flurry of wings. Then it hovered. My jaw dropped, and I looked toward Jon. He was still on the phone. The bird was gray and about the size of a robin, with a white-edged black tail. A shrike. I watched as it struck again and again, each time hovering between attacks. Voles are ferocious, and this one reared up on its hind legs to fight back. After several unsuccessful attempts on the rodent, the shrike flew off.

I told Jon what I had just witnessed. He’d missed the whole drama. I got out and walked over to where I’d seen the vole. I found no marks in the snow to show that anything had happened, but I did see the bird perched on a scrawny serviceberry bush nearby. It was a gray silhouette, looking nonchalant but also extremely alert.

A pickup towing a snowmobile trailer came up the road and the driver offered us a jump. In no time we had our truck started, and were grateful for the kindness of strangers.

Here are the birds we saw today: Common raven; Steller’s jay; Bald eagle; California quail; Dark-eyed junco; Black-capped chickadee; Starling; Mourning dove; Black-billed magpie; Red-shafted flicker; Redtailed hawk; American kestrel; American robin; Brewer’s blackbird; Redwing blackbird; Horned lark; Shrike (couldn’t tell if it was loggerhead or northern); Wild turkey. Of course there were others that flitted across our field of vision that we couldn’t identify because we both staunchly maintain that we are not birders. No way.

I drew a loggerhead shrike for The Birds of Yakima County in 1996. I couldn’t remember ever having seen one, so my work was done from researching illustrations and the descriptions of Andy Stepniewski, the author. As I sat upstairs in my studio drawing on a winter day, a ruckus erupted at the bird feeder. I looked out the window and there was a shrike—the very bird I was drawing—perched in the bushes with a dead house finch in its claws.

Sometimes life brings us exactly what we need. The image of a bird hovering in the sunlight sweeps the cabin fever right out of my skull.

Cowiche Canyon

A trip to Yakima today meant I could take time to walk at an old haunt–Cowiche Canyon uplands. In another life, this was prime dogwalk territory, the place to start hiking after winter slothfulness, the place to watch spring arrive, and sketch. Today I found that I had missed the grass widows and yellowbells.

But there was phlox and Hooker’s balsamroot.

There were sagebrush violets, coyote tears, and thyme-leaf buckwheat.

It would have been good to spend more time. The air was still today, and full of moisture under a flat gray sky. I would have liked to walk down the trail to the creek, past the basalt columns. Maybe another day–my heart isn’t yet strong enough to climb back up. I came home and found a sketch from 10 years ago.

Relief from Gray

This has been one of the grayest winters I can remember. Maybe it’s the El Nino, but there have been very few sunny days, and many foggy ones. See photos in previous posts. Yesterday the weather cleared, and today was glorious. Blue sky!

Spring comes to the shrub steppe of Washington much sooner than it does to the mountains. It has become an annual pilgrimage for my friend Jon and I to visit a canyon northeast of Ellensburg to look for the first spring wildflowers. Today was the day. Mission Ridge rears up at the head of the drainage, snowy and white beneath the woolly clouds.

Living in Yakima for ten years taught me to appreciate the subtlety of this desert. The foundation upon which this ecosystem grows is made of basalt: cliffs and columns, broken talus slopes, powdered down into soil that swells with moisture when the snow melts. It seems strange to find moss in the desert, but it thrives here, plumped up on recent moisture.

There are plenty of lichens too, from black crusty ones on rocks, to the yellow-green ones on silvery sagebrush branches that catch the eyes from yards away.

Our intended quarry was the sagebrush buttercup (Ranunculus glaberrimus), a bright yellow cheerful flower that is the first to open to the sun on a south slope. We found it low down on the hillside nestled in cottonwood leaf litter, but also found many leaves and buds as we climbed up.

The buttercup’s companion is salt-and-pepper or Lomatium gormanii, the first desert parsley to bloom. This is a small inconspicuous flower, so small that you might step on it and miss it. Spring in the shrub steppe is brief and spectacular–it’s over by the end of May when the hot weather arrives. The plants have gone through their blooming and fruiting cycle and spend the summer in a state of dormancy. I like to walk along and look at signs of last year’s flowering. Here are the dried leaves of Hooker’s balsamroot, the seed pods of the wild onion, a silvery clump of buckwheat. I like the tufts of Sandberg’s bluegrass–it really is blue, and miniature.

We sat perched on knobs of basalt, feeling the warmth of the sun and listening to the exclamations of ravens. I heard a soft dusty birdsong nearby and recognition was at the tip of my memory. Bluebird? Horned lark? We marveled at insects, pointed out deer tracks. And mostly we were grateful for the blue blue sky, and the world with color returning to it.