Category Archives: Wonderings and Discoveries

Flying Home

The erratic weather patterns of late winter seem to be the signal for birds to return to the Klamath Basin.  Some will stay in southern Oregon for the warmer months while others just lay over here as they journey along the Pacific Flyway.  With over 350 bird species migrating through the area and a significant concentration of bald eagles, the Klamath Basin is a winter haven for birds and birders alike.

I have been doing my own bit of migrating lately.  As a nontraditional student with a family and a career, I commute from my home in Keno, OR driving 110 miles a day to attend graduate school at SOU.  Imagine then, my delight, when our program director decided to lead a birding trip to the Klamath Basin to view Ferruginous Hawks and other migratory birds.  I would finally have the opportunity to share my home with these people who have become my second flock.     

Early on that crisp March morning, seven members of the Environmental Education cohort piled into Subaru Outbacks (stereotypical, right?) to make the journey from Ashland to Keno.  They came in their own kind of winter plumage dressed in cold weather gear, and equipped with binoculars, spotting scopes, and bird guides.

Owls_Klamath Basin_By JohnWe started the day along Townsend Rd., a.k.a. “raptor road” due to the plethora of birds of prey which can be found there.  We saw Red-tailed Hawks, Bald Eagles, and Rough-Legged Hawks hunting the open fields.  The highlight of raptor road was two Great Horned Owls perched above an irrigation ditch. John, the photographer of our group, cautiously made his way around the canal to capture this amazing photograph just before the owls took flight down the canal.  

Flock_Klamath Basin_By JohnNext, we moved on to the Klamath Wildlife Refuge along Stateline Rd.  This vast marsh area is home to abundant water fowl and shore birds.  It was salt and pepper skies as thousands of Ross’s Geese flew in.  Our professor had fun challenging us to a game of ‘name that waterfowl’ as we fumbled through our bird books trying to identify the many species on the water.  I can definitively say that we all got the Northern Pintail right.  

Sandhills_Klamath Basin_By JohnJust outside of the refuge, we spotted Sandhill Cranes mixed in with livestock drinking from a pond.   Joyful expletives were shouted as we rushed out of the cars to get a better view of the birds which for some in the group was their first crane encounter.  This moment depicted all that I love about living in the Klamath Basin: spectacular natural resources, wildlife, and people, existing in juxtaposition.   

Fruggy_Klamath Basin_By JohnThe final leg of our trip took us across the California border near Dorris to find Golden Eagles, Bald Eagles, and Ferruginous Hawks.  At one point, we found all three perched on a single irrigation line.  As I watched these large birds of prey take off and soar above us, I couldn’t help but be envious of their ability to fly (it sure would make my commute easier).  

As we pulled into my driveway at the end of the day, we noticed a Merlin resting on a utility post across the street.  One last bird to close out this epic birding adventure.    

To learn more about birding in the Klamath Basin, visit http://klamathbirdingtrails.com .


 Below is the full list of birds we saw on this trip.  

-Common Raven

-Lewis’s Woodpecker

-Stellar’s Jay

-American Robin

-Black-billed Magpie

– Great Blue Heron

– Canada Geese

-Rough-legged Hawk

-Bufflehead

-Red-winged Blackbird

-Mallard

-Red-tailed Hawk (Dark morphs and regular plumage)

-House Finch

-Great Horned Owl

-Common Merganser

-Common Goldeneye

-Lesser Scaup

-Tundra Swan

-Northern Pintail

-Greater White-fronted Goose

-American Wigeon

-Gadwall

-Northern Shoveler

-Ruddy Duck (Winter plumage)

-American Coot

-Bald Eagle

-Ross’s Goose (One dark morph was spotted)

-Eared Grebe

-Sandhill Crane

-Ferruginous Hawk

-Say’s Phoebe

-Golden Eagle

-Northern Harrier

-American Kestrel

-Downy Woodpecker

-Merlin 

-Mallard

 

+ 1 coyote


Written by:  Christy Vanrooyen

Pictures by:  John Ward

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A Time for Wonder

From weknowmemes.com
From weknowmemes.com

But seriously. How awesome is that waterfall? I mean, maybe it’s no Niagara Falls, but think about it. Just look at it for a minute. Seriously, a full minute. Look at the waterfall too, and not the baby, although the baby is super adorable. Do any questions come to mind? Any images? Any childhood memories of playing in a stream? Maybe looking for crayfish under rocks? When’s the last time you felt that wonderful, exhilarating sensation that we call “childhood wonder”? It’s amazing how many things that we pass by every day that are truly wonderful. And, as imaginative or intelligent or inquisitive or “educated” as we think we are, sometimes it just takes a child’s point of view to see wonder in the world. Maybe we should stop focusing on what comes “out of the mouth of babes” and try to see the world through their eyes instead.

Unlike many of the others in the Environmental Education program here at SOU, I don’t have a very extensive knowledge of local ecology and natural history (although I will before the year is through). I moved from Maine to Oregon at the end of August and thought that my ecological knowledge would be at least semi-transferable to my new home. I was wrong. Oregon is a lot different, and I’m still working on getting to know the wonderful environment of which I am now a part. What I do have, however, is an almost-two-year old.

Unlike many parents, my fiance and I take our daughter everywhere, especially on hikes and other outdoor adventures, and she is the best teacher I’ve ever had. The things that she notices amaze me. I am tested every time she picks up a rock or a flower and holds it up to me quizzically, expecting some sort of answer. Luckily for me, a simple “rock” or “flower” will satisfy her, and she’s on to the next wonder. I, however, am left wondering about the geology of the area, or the taxonomy of the plant, and how all of these little “wonders” are related to one another. At times when I would step over something wonderful in my hurry to reach the top of the mountain, my daughter forces me to stop, to think, to question.

The point that I’m trying to get across is that, realistically, we don’t all have the time or energy to pull out a field guide to identify some bird, or to take an ecology class, or even to go for a hike in the “great outdoors.” Are these things necessary, however, to be a scientific American? I believe that being a scientist or an ecologist or a biologist is simply about one thing: wonder. On the walk from your car across the parking lot to your office building tomorrow morning, stop. Take a minute to take a deep breath, take a sip of coffee, and look around. I want you to wonder about something, to question something. What is that bird that you’re looking at? What is that tree? Why is it there? Maybe later, when you get home from work, you can Google the answer. Maybe you’ll even pick up a book or magazine about local plants and animals. Maybe you’ll never get to finding an answer at all, and while that isn’t ideal, I think the substance is in the question, the attitude.

Most importantly of all, the next time a kid asks you a question, whether it be your own child, a student, a friend’s kid, or a complete stranger, take the time to answer them. Don’t brush it off. Think about the question. We all get caught up in our daily lives, but insightful questions are always perfectly timed. The time to wonder is not tomorrow, but now. All of the best discoveries in Science started with a question, a curiosity, a wonder. You could stumble upon the next one without even trying. Mother Nature is all around us, begging for our attention, and the questions that we could ask of her are limitless.

From Google Images
From Google Images

Searching for Stormi

Call me weird (you wouldn’t be the first), but I absolutely love salamanders. These slippery amphibians come in astoundingly pretty patterns, have a perpetual smile on their face, and, most of all, are so much fun to search for. Many salamander species are restricted to specific habitat types in very out-of-the-way places that the average person just does not see. Recently, when my natural restlessness came to a head, I decided that I needed an excuse to visit just such a place. My destination would be the Siskiyou Mountains in the Applegate Valley, about an hour and a half west of Ashland. This remote region is the home of a special salamander found nowhere else on Earth. This is Plethodon stormi, otherwise known as the Siskiyou Mountains Salamander.

The Siskiyou Mountains Salamander Peter and Jason found.
The Siskiyou Mountains Salamander Peter and Jason found.

Before we get to the meat of this post, I should probably tell you a little bit about this creature. Since this salamander belongs to the genus Plethodon, we know that it does something very unusual: it breathes through its skin. This trait requires salamanders in this group to stay constantly moist. For the Siskiyou Mountains Salamander, moisture is found in deep, wet crevices between large groups of rocks that have collected on hillsides, otherwise known as talus slopes. It is on these talus slopes that the first specimens of this species were collected in 1965 and it is on these slopes where I hoped to come across this mysterious salamander forty-nine years later.

Typically, I like to be on my own for salamander trips. This day was different. There was something in the air, besides the warm mist, that was telling me it would be a trip to remember. I texted Jason Wilson, a fellow student in the program, and he was down to go. A couple hours later, we were in the Applegate. We rounded the first bend along the lake that the valley stems from and were struck by the eyes that met us. Perched in a dead tree not twenty feet in front of the car was a full-grown Bald Eagle, looking down at us as if to say, “Keep driving..nothing to see here.” The day was going to be a good one.

The realm of the Siskiyou Mountain Salamander is difficult to determine. I knew that talus slopes were their preferred habitat, but Jason and I quickly realized that not all talus was the same. Some slopes were exposed and dry. Others were literally dripping with water. We flipped rocks in every type of talus slope we could find, hoping for a Goldilocks moment. As I looked back on Jason stumbling and cursing under his breath during the descent of a particularly perilous slope, I realized that the next talus slope better be just right.

I don’t remember what made us decide this but, a few minutes of driving after the sketchy descent, we agreed that the slope coming up on our right was perfect. The habitat looked right but, honestly, we were just itching to get out of the car. To our south was a valley of endless forest, with mountain peaks reaching up into the omnipresent high fog. The air smelled so fresh, and the wind seemed to blow the scents from the deepest reaches of the forest right into our noses. The setting was ideal and I wandered over to the best looking rocks and began to turn them over carefully. Nothing…nothing…nothing…nothing. Four rocks into the best-looking habitat, and still no salamanders.

The habitat that was "just right."
The habitat that was “just right.”

I bent down to an especially small, insignificant looking rock. Expecting nothing, I turned it over faster than I had for the last few rocks. And, like a flash of unexpected lightning, there it was: a Siskiyou Mountain Salamander. I hooted and hollered like a madman! This was my most thrilling salamander find in months! I picked up the salamander carefully, being sure to immediately pour water on my hand so that the salamander would not get dry. I put its rock home back exactly as I found it, and set the smiling creature down on top of the rock.

By this point, Jason had walked over with a grin on his face. Here was one of the most endangered and beautiful amphibians in Oregon, and he knew we were fortunate to have seen one. I picked up the salamander and put it in Jason’s hand, in the hopes that he would feel the same sense of magnetism I felt towards salamanders, if even for a few seconds. I think he did.

EE grad student Jason Wilson holding the salamander
EE grad student Jason Wilson holding the salamander

The salamander was over the attention by this point, so I gently placed it back under its rock. As it wriggled away, my smile could not have been larger. The day had been a success and all the poring over scientific journals, topographic maps, and physical effort had paid off. I started up the car, turned to Jason, and stated matter-of-factly, “Well, that was amazing. Now for the next species.”

This is the abridged version of an article that Peter wrote for Insight to Ashland. To see the full version of this story, not to mention some of Peter’s other writings and more about the Ashland area, check out : http://www.insighttoashland.com/blog/

Pilot Rock: Remnants of a Volcano

I am no geology expert.  When I see a rock, I think “rock.”  I don’t usually think about the subduction of the oceanic plate or rocks melting or an explosion of gas and ash.  And I certainly don’t notice that the entire range of the Western Cascades (including Pilot Rock) are slowly tilting towards the east.  Then I attended the hike and lecture hosted by Friends of the Cascade Siskiyou National Monument.  Jad D’Allura, our geologist expert leader, was a passionate professor filled with knowledge and humor.  I hope to pass on just a pinch of what he filled our brains with:

Pilot Rock was so named because travelers in the 1800s would use it as a guide to find their way through the mountains.  There was no freeway.  They had to push and pull their wagon up and down every hill.

1175076_605481814256_827586012_nThe formation of Pilot Rock.  I will keep jargon to a minimum.  The oceanic plate subducted (slid) under the continental plate.  At some depth, the rock began to melt and expand.  The magma (melted rock) made its way to the surface and erupted in a small volcano.  Some of the magma cooled inside the neck of the volcano.  Many geologists believe that Pilot Rock is this “neck” that has been exposed.  Today, the oceanic plate is still sliding under the continent and causing the monument to tilt 20 degrees to the east.

1383400_605481739406_1063427855_nWhen Pilot Rock cooled, it cracked and created columnar joints (shown above).  As the rock cooled, the cracks began at the top and bottom then met in the middle to make a column.  The columns were easy to see as we climbed to the top of Pilot Rock!

IMG_2277Hornblend (above) is black and shiny.  Apparently rare to find in the area, Hornblend was created when magma (underground) mixed with water.   Where this water came from (ocean? ground water?) is still a mystery.

IMG_2281When the rocks melted, they expanded.  When they cooled, they contracted – and cracked!  In these cracks, other rocks and crystals fill in.  Over time, the rock weathers away and leaves only the cracks like this quartz (above), this other green rock (below), and others.  Notice how flat and smooth they are.

IMG_2282

IMG_2278This rock I call “Grape Rock.”  Jad D’Allura calls it “Botryoidal.”  Botryoidal is a greek word that means a cluster of grapes.  Obviously, the name describes the texture of the rock shown above.  When this rock filled in a crack, some space was left.  In that space there was room to make the bubbly globs.

Most of the rock surrounding Pilot Rock (the road and slopes) is Breccia (a fancy Italian word for bigger rocks glued together by smaller rocks – similar to a conglomerate).  When the gases and ash exploded from the ground, much of it poured down the sides of the volcano picking up boulders and trees and eventually settling.  In the two boulders blocking the path to Pilot Rock, you can see bits of tree in the rock!  When eroded into soil, it is a very sticky clay.  The BLM must “armor” the road with rocks to make the road drivable (“drivable” is a relative term).  I won’t give you a picture of this one – you’ll have to drive out there and see it for yourself!

Exploring Conifer Country

Conifers abound around Little Duck Lake. Photo by Sarah Burstein.
Conifers abound around Little Duck Lake. Photo by Sarah Burstein.

Recently, I went on a mini backpacking adventure with the goal of exploring the immense diversity of conifers of the Klamath-Siskiyou region. Following Michael Kauffmann’s Conifer Country: A natural history and hiking guide to 35 conifers of the Klamath Mountain Region, we set off for Little Duck Lake in the Russian Wilderness Area, an area known as the “Miracle Mile” for having 17 conifer species all within a square mile.  Conifer Country acts as both a field guide to identifying conifer species, as well as a hiking guide, leading readers around the region with extensive tips on where to find conifers.

Check out the drooping dreadlock-looking branches on the Brewer Spruce. Photo by Sarah Burstein.
Check out the drooping dreadlock-looking branches on the Brewer Spruce. Photo by Sarah Burstein.

With Kauffmann’s guidance, (including additional top secret conifer clues that can be downloaded from his website with the purchase of the book), we hiked the trail to the lakes spotting TONS of conifers along the way. Even without hiking the ridge above Little Duck Lake, we identified 14.5 out 17 conifer species (possibility 18, I heard a rumor…), with the half a point going to a binocular-assisted spotting. And, of course, we got to see many prime examples of my favorite conifer, a rad relic species, the Brewer Spruce (Picea breweriana).

Check out Conifer Country at http://conifercountry.com

New cones forming on a Brewer Spruce. Photo by Sarah Burstein.
New cones forming on a Brewer Spruce. Photo by Sarah Burstein.
The Brewer’s dreads also make the prefect shady rest spot. Photo by Sarah Burstein.
The Brewer’s dreads also make the prefect shady rest spot. Photo by Sarah Burstein.

Rock Art

I grew up with a geologist for a father, so many childhood road trips were out in the desert, looking at rocks. An extension of this was hunting for rock art. In general, rock art comes in two forms: petroglyphs and pictographs.  Petroglyphs are pictures that are chipped into the rock using another rock. They have texture, though you shouldn’t  actually touch them since the oils in your hand can damage the glyph.  Pictographs are painted on to the rock, using pigments and usually an animal fat binder. The famous cave paintings from France are a prime example of pictographs.

Since I have yet to pull my camera out this summer, I thought I’d treat you to some of the rock art I’ve recorded over my life.  First up is an example of Paiute workmanship, located at Petroglyph Lake on the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge in Eastern Oregon.

Hart Mountain -- Petroglyph lake. Photo by Jenna Raino.
Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge: Petroglyph Lake. Photo by Jenna Raino.
Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge: Petroglyph Lake. Photo by Jenna Raino.
Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge: Petroglyph Lake. Photo by Jenna Raino.

I took these photos this spring, on the mammology field trip with Hillary and Stewart. I had a wonderful time! The high steppe sagebrush desert of Eastern Oregon feels nearly like home to me, and my dad loves the place, so he came out and saved us all a campsite (very important on Memorial day weekend).

On the right side of the picture is "She Who Watches" (scary lady all around). Photo by Jenna Raino.
On the right side of the picture is “She Who Watches” (scary lady all around). Photo by Jenna Raino.
Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge -- Petroglyph Lake. Photo by Jenna Raino.
Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge: Petroglyph Lake. Photo by Jenna Raino.

Next up are petroglyphs from Celebration Park, near Melba, Idaho. They are carved on basalt Mellon Gravel, which are essentially giant, smooth river rocks deposited from the Bonneville Flood. This rock below is about as tall as I am! Imagine the sort of water power it would taken to tumble a boulder this big.

Petroglyphs from Celebration Park. Photo by Jenna Raino.
Petroglyphs from Celebration Park. Photo by Jenna Raino.

The reason the petroglyphs stand out so clearly is due to something called desert varnish, or patina. Essentially, there are little microorganisms that poop all over the rock and, over time, this forms a sort of protective outer coating on the rock. When a petroglyph is chipped into the rock, it breaks through to the natural color of the rock below. As the petroglyph ages, it too takes on the darker patina.

This translates roughly as light = young, dark = old.

These are much older than the preceding panel, hence me trying all sorts of Photoshop tricks to get the contrast to show up. Photo by Jenna Raino.
These are much older than the preceding panel, hence me trying all sorts of Photoshop tricks to get the contrast to show up. Photo by Jenna Raino.
This is a very young petroglyph. One of the theories about its origin is that it documents the first time the Paiutes saw sheep being herded in the Snake River Valley. Photo by Jenna Raino.
This is a very young petroglyph. One of the theories about its origin is that it documents the first time the Paiutes saw sheep being herded in the Snake River Valley. Photo by Jenna Raino.
What do you think, are these petroglyphs young or old? Photo by Jenna Raino.
What do you think, are these petroglyphs young or old? Photo by Jenna Raino.

Quality petroglyphs tend to be in the desert for the same reason it takes the Basin and Range region 500 plus years to accumulate an inch of soil — there is very little water to break down stone, so things on rocks tend to stick around.

You can see below the Snake River flowing through the desert. This area was highly prized as wintering grounds for the Paiute, especially before the dams on the Snake and Columbia were put in. Local accounts record the salmon being so thick that one could walk across the river on the backs of them all.

Despite historical accounts, there is not a single salmon in the Snake River today. Photo by Jenna Raino.
Despite historical accounts, there is not a single salmon in the Snake River today. Photo by Jenna Raino.

This next picture is from Mesa Verde, Colo. The spiraling line is thought to indicate a journey.  The artists for Mesa Verde, Sand Island Bluff and Newspaper Rock were all Hopi, or their cousins and ancestors.

Newspaper Rock, Colo. The desert varnish is very striking on this rock. You can see different motifs than what we get with the Paiutes. Kokopelli is a common figure, though it came as a shock to me when I found out many were x-rated. Photo by Jenna Raino.
Newspaper Rock, Colo. The desert varnish is very striking on this rock. You can see different motifs than what we get with the Paiutes. Kokopelli is a common figure, though it came as a shock to me when I found out many were x-rated. Photo by Jenna Raino.
Sand Island Bluff, Colo. Photo by Jenna Raino.
Sand Island Bluff, Colo. Photo by Jenna Raino.

The last group of pictures are of pictographs in Barrier Canyon, Utah. These were done by western archaic people, and show definite influences of datura trips.  These pictographs were absolutely stunning in person, with figures being eight or nine feet high.

Pictographs in Barrier Canyon, Utah. Photo by Jenna Raino.
Pictographs in Barrier Canyon, Utah. Photo by Jenna Raino.
Pictographs in Barrier Canyon, Utah. Photo by Jenna Raino.
Pictographs in Barrier Canyon, Utah. Photo by Jenna Raino.

There is still no consensus on whether petroglyphs actually communicated information, or whether they were just done out of artistic endeavor. If you’re interested in finding out more information about how to interpret rock art, follow this link: http://www.rocklanguage.com/index.html. This Web site has information about a very interesting book done by an adult adoptee of a Paiute man who said his adopted father told him how to interpret the rocks. For now, the mystery behind these beautiful works of art still lives on.

Hart Mountain Mammology Memories

Photo by Mandy Noel.
Photo by Mandy Noel.

Hillary and Jenna took the most fabulous field trip to Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge with their mammology class over Memorial Day weekend. As part of their masters program, students take 3-4 biology classes (mostly with undergraduate students). Hillary and Jenna are the only graduate students in mammology taught by Stewart Janes, the coordinator for the graduate level environmental education program.

Prong horns by the road. Photo by Hillary Lowenberg.
Prong horns by the road. Photo by Hillary Lowenberg.
Hillary holding a boquet of indian paintbrush flowers and sage.
Hillary holding a boquet of indian paintbrush flowers and sage.

We loaded the vans at SOU on Friday afternoon and drove the 5 hours past Lake View and up to 6000 feet in elevation to Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge. Some time after the refuge was named, scientists reclassified the “antelope” as the “prong horn” but never changed the name of the refuge. The name should actually be Hart Mountain Prong Horn Refuge. The landscape was breath-taking. The high-desert shrub steppe was dotted in sage brush, grasses and colorful low-lying flowers such as monkey flower, yarrow and many different shades of indian paintbrush.

We camped at the Hot Springs camp ground and enjoyed soaking in three different pools filled with sulfurous hot water. We set live traps at night with oats and peanut butter. In the morning we visited our traps and as a class we caught 4 deer mice and 3 least chipmunks. When we put the chipmunks into the bin to view, they almost flew out with great speed and we would see them scurry away. The deer mice were more timid. We let all of our catches free and did not harm any living thing.

A deer mouse caught in a live trap. Photo by Hillary Lowenberg.
A deer mouse caught in a live trap. Photo by Hillary Lowenberg.
Students setting traps. Photo by Hillary Lowenberg.
Students setting traps. Photo by Hillary Lowenberg.

We took a day trip to Petroglyph Lake. We saw hundreds of years old petroglyphs of animals and shapes. We found obsidian flakes from rocks that must have been carried by people at least 50 miles or more to Hart Mountain. One of our classmates nearly stepped on a rattle snake curled up on a rock.

Stewart took small groups of us exploring near cliffs. He likes to explore these “fall zones” because that’s where he finds the most bones, skulls, nests, feathers, eggs and other signs of life that have fallen from the tops of the rocky outcrops. We found bones of voles, birds and pocket gophers, a raven’s feather, obsidian shards including an arrow head, wood rat nests and eggs shells of the greater sage grouse.  We would bring handfuls of things that we found to Stewart and ask what he thought they were. Stewart always knew the answers and many times he had elaborate stories to tell about the species or when he was in the field and saw one of those. We were so fortunate to have such an expert guiding us. Stewart is a wealth of knowledge and always willingly and enthusiastically shares.

This was truly the best field trip I have ever been on. Can’t wait to go back someday…maybe with my own students.

Petroglyph Lake. Photo by Hillary Lowenberg.
Petroglyph Lake. Photo by Hillary Lowenberg.

 

One of the petroglyphs that are etched into the rock. Photo by Hillary Lowenberg.
One of the petroglyphs that are etched into the rock. Photo by Hillary Lowenberg.
Stewart with a blade of grass in his mouth. Photo by Hillary Lowenberg.
Stewart with a blade of grass in his mouth. Photo by Hillary Lowenberg.

 

Stewart Janes on top of a rock outcrop looking out at students. Photo by Hillary Lowenberg.
Stewart Janes on top of a rock outcrop looking out at students. Photo by Hillary Lowenberg.