Tag Archives: nature

The Water Ouzel

Out of the corner of my eye I catch the flit of a dark, buzzing bird flying low over the water of Ashland Creek, just above Lithia Park. I’ve caught the melodic babbling brook song over the breeze (Click here for song and another). I pause, and search the riffles and tops of boulders for my favorite denizen of the sky and water, the Water Ouzel.

The Water Ouzel (ouzel) Cinclus mexicanus, or American Dipper (AMDI, dipper), as it is recognized by the American Ornithologist’s Union, is a small dark bird that lives a relatively secretive life in the Western United States’ clear, fast-flowing mountain waters. Being closely related to the wren family, the ouzel is most easily recognized by its slender insect-picking beak, upright-angled tail, and erratic flitting and foraging.

Perhaps the most amazing feature of this small bird is its prowess in the air and water. Much like me on a tropical vacation, the ouzel spends much of its time with its head underwater, looking for its audubonAMDInext meal (though I’m only a silent observer). American Dippers feed on macroinvertebrates, the aquatic larvae of insects, like the stonefly, mayfly, and caddisfly. This unique ability is facilitated by the AMDI’s transparent nictitating membrane, a protective longitudinal moving extra eyelid; an insect eating wren-like beak; strong legs; long, grasping toe-nails; and short powerful wings. While snorkeling, the ouzel moves along on underwater stones and cobbles, searching for tasty morsels. When satisfied with its gleaning in an area, the ouzel flits upstream or downstream, landing on the occasional mid-stream boulder to sing and call. When just the right riffle has been found, the ouzel returns to its feast.

On the walks that I am lucky enough to spy my favorite bird, I know that I am blessed. Nature reveals its secrets to the patient, brave, and passionate. As I sit and watch what I have now come to call my Water Ouzel, the worries of the day, week, and month drift away. I watch this small being in wonder. Alone on the boulder in the big riffle, the little soul sings its heart out in trills, whistles, and buzzes, then flits to a small riffle and begins searching for a bite to eat. In its little niche, the dipper has found its place. Flying up and down this quieter reach, away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Ashland, this dipper is wild and free.



Humbled by Giants

Last weekend, my grandma and I escaped the fog that had blanketed the Rogue Valley for days, venturing beyond Cave Junction, to where the road winds down the diverse rock formations and forests lining the Smith River. We were headed for the coast that I’d had a long overdue reunion with the weekend prior on a field trip. I’d wanted to go back as soon as I’d left and took the opportunity to do so, while at the same time share many of the things I have learned over the course my time here in Oregon.

Our first stop was a short botanical trail that led to an unadvertised wonder.


The scene on our arrival could not have been more perfect as the sun broke through and illuminated the delicate features of the sprawling cobra lilies occupying the fen. We both stood in awe. This was only my third encounter with the unique plants and my grandma remarked on how she’d never in her life seen anything quite like it. Energized, we continued on toward the sea, where the noble Coast Redwood trees live. I have been infatuated with the giants since I was first humbled by their presence and could hardly contain my excitement.

But this was abruptly stifled as my grandma said that the last time she’d visited a redwood forest, she’d felt that “once you’d seen one, you’d seen them all.” I nearly swerved off the road as I gasped and searched for a way to respond to such a blow. I composed myself as I resolved that no one who had truly encountered the trees could utter such a thing. I knew then that before we could reach the sand I was aching to dig my toes into, we had to spend time in the forest.

an ensatina

I took the split off of the 199 that takes you just barely into California and the Jedidiah Smith Redwood State Park. I was headed for the Simpson Reed Trail I’d been on a few months earlier. It was short, but I was hopeful that it would be enough. Within our first few minutes on the trail, I was already babbling away about fire resistance, finding amphibians, and chewing on redwood sorrel. Although my grandma wouldn’t touch the slimy creature I’d discovered, she did humor me and try the tangy sorrel leaves. The tallest of the trees scattered the sunlight in warm rays that lit up ancient looking ferns and soft mosses; it was as though the forest were putting forth its best ‘face’ for my grandma. And in less than a mile’s walk, it worked.

When we got back into the car, she turned to me and said,

“Chelsea, thank you. That was truly magnificent. I was wrong, I understand.”

redwoodsI could have cried. It wasn’t just that she now understood my love for the trees, or even was on her way to developing a love for the forest herself, but the reminder that people don’t need to be convinced of the importance of preserving such natural wonders. More than sharing knowledge and facts, environmental education is about love. Drawn to the enthusiasm you can shamelessly share for what you are passionate about, people’s eyes are more open to see and respect that connection, and they may even begin to develop a passion of their own.

The rest of the day was just as magical. Back across the border into Oregon we spotted a few late southern Gray Whale migrants from Cape Ferrelo and explored the colorful rocky intertidal zone of Harris Beach.

the fluke of a gray whale
the fluke of a gray whale

So absorbed in exploring the coast, I’d forgotten that I’d mentioned earlier on our redwood forest hike that the largest trees in Jedidiah Smith State Park were along Howland Hill Road, which wound from Crescent City to Hiouchi.

As the late afternoon sun sparkled on the ocean’s calm surface and I began to entertain ideas of never leaving, my grandma again took me by surprise.

“Chelsea, do you think we’d have time to go back the long way along that road from Crescent City?”

My heart nearly burst.

Let there always be wild places

At the start of the new year my family lost someone very dear to us under tragic circumstances. He wasn’t someone I knew very closely, but he was someone who I really liked and someone I looked up to.  He and I shared a deep love for wild places, and both of us chose careers following that passion.

After a couple of days moping around the apartment I had to get out, so Jeremy and I took a walk down to North Mountain Park. We followed a wilding trail that curved along a baseball field on one side, and a small but dense woodland marked as protected habitat on the other. As the trail softened to wood chips and split around various artistic and child-geared structures, we chose the path that most closed followed Bear Creek as it flows through Ashland.

The time came for Jeremy to leave for work, but I elected to stay behind. I found a quiet spot next to the creek and sat a while, thinking. A spotted towhee, a familiar face from home, called out from the opposite bank, flashing a hint of black and orange as he popped in and out of the brush. I thought about how, even so far away from the familiar of home, I felt connected by the mountains that ran almost parallel to my own Rockies, the deer and coyotes that moved through both of my backyards, the birds that sing both in Oregon and Colorado.

I listened to the whisper of water over riffles. I watched a clump of fur drift lazily downstream and wondered how its owner had become separated from it, likely snagging brush as it made to cross the shallow stream. Deer? Dog? Perhaps coyote? I thought of the salmon that had recently fought their way upstream to spawn here, and all the time I thought I had, the stories I would have loved to hear.

I considered the tiny little salmon waiting in the stream bottom, the streaks of brown feathers darting in and out of thick brush, the call of a flicker, the small hoof prints in the soft mud. I thought about all of the creatures of fur, feathers, and scales that had come here before me, and those that would pass this way long after I was gone. I was reminded of the nature of energy, how it is neither created nor destroyed, just ever-changing. Finally, I let myself cry.

I could have sat there by the creek forever, but the air was turning chill and the sun was ducking in and out of the cloud cover. I stood somewhat stiffly, breathing in the cool January air. As I turned to make my way slowly back home, I felt full and whole.

As I came up to the top of the hill overlooking the baseball field a red-tailed hawk soared overhead, making constant minute adjustments to hit a nearby thermal just right. As she circled higher and higher, I felt truly blessed to live in such a place where my kind and hers could live side by side.

Let there always be wild places, however small and humble, for they are not just for the wildlife that they protect, but for all of us. Sometimes it’s for quiet, sometimes for play, sometimes for beauty, and sometimes for when life pushes you back on your heels.  For whatever reason we find ourselves there, these are places that help us to feel connected, to feel alive, and to feel at peace.

Screen Shot 2015-01-11 at 9.48.12 PM
in memory of Cousin Larry

So, You Want To Find Some Critters?

            “Animals are where you find them.” How many times have we, as naturalists, heard that? Some professors and researchers I have worked under in the past seem to have adopted that phrase as their personal mantra. I agree that, at times, luck is the only reason certain creatures are spotted. Most of the time, however, there are ways to increase the chances of seeing wildlife. I’m no expert in finding animals, but I have explored quite a few places in this country and want to share some tips on how to increase your chances of seeing cool critters.


Research, Research, Research! – The best way to find rare or unusual animals is by researching them as much as possible. I used to go to our state archives in high school and read through old journals to find sites for reptiles and amphibians. That might be the nerdy extreme, but that is what it takes sometimes to make interesting finds. Check local message boards, read journal articles, and familiarize yourself with the specific needs to the creature you seek. The more you know, the better your chances of coming across it. Fact.


Time And Weather – Searching for animals early or later in the day is a good idea. Yeah, I know it can be a pain to wake up at the crack of dawn but birds and mammals are really active at those times. Additionally, unusual weather makes for unusual finds. Warm spells in winter or cool spells in summer can be great for increasing animal activity. Some of my most productive outings have been in the middle of torrential downpours in the middle of the night.



Drive! – Not all animal-searching needs to be hardcore. You can cover far more ground, see many more different habitats, and be less tired if you stay in the car. Snakes, for example, are far easier to find when basking on the road than by flipping a hundred rocks on a steep hillside for hours. Birds and mammals love habitat edges. Guess what? Roads are habitat edges.


Interesting Microhabitats – If you are in nature, trying to find animals, keep an eye out for habitats that don’t seem to fit with everything around them. If you see a seepage on a hillside, a cave entrance, a wetland in the middle of a drier area, or an unexplained opening in the middle of a dense forest…be on alert. There could be animals around that may not be found in the rest of the area you are in.



SHH! – I know that it can be tempting to belt out your favorite Creed song on the trail (just kidding, Creed is terrible), but noise is a big turn-off for most animals. Walk carefully, avoiding sticks and dry leaves when possible. Resist the urge to go, “Oooh ooh, guys look at that!” as soon as you see something interesting (guilty…). This is probably the reason why I have far better luck finding creatures when I’m alone.


Follow The Food Chain – When you are out in nature, keep your eyes peeled for abundant prey. If you see a large number of tadpoles, insects, or fish in a pond, you can bet that birds, mammals, and reptiles will be in the vicinity. As annoying as they can be, biting insects are also good indicators. There are times I have been driven close to the point of insanity by deer flies and black flies, but you have to think about what these insects feed on when humans are not around. Clearly there are plenty of other animals around!




            Hopefully this little guide helped. The one tip I didn’t mention, but that is probably most important, is experience. The more time you spend searching for animals, the better you will get at finding them.  Just go out, explore, and have fun.

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.

Celebrate Butterfly Diversity at Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument

The 4th of July is a time of the year to celebrate being a United States citizen. In this land of opportunity, our ancestors were wise enough to have the foresight to set aside public land for all to enjoy. As Oregonians, we are surrounded by some of the most marvelous public lands in our country — Crater Lake National Park, National Forests, Wilderness, Monuments and more! This weekend, July 5 -6, the Friends of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument  is providing an opportunity to celebrate your public land by joining entomologist Dr. Pete Schroeder on the Hobart Bluff trail to search for butterflies and other insects.

The Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument (CSNM) is the nation’s first monument designated in recognition of an area’s biological diversity. The Monument’s remarkable ecology is a product of its location at the crossroads of two different mountain ranges—the Cascades and the Siskiyous—as well as its proximity to the Great Basin. Numerous butterfly species provide evidence of the Monument’s ecological diversity. Butterflies are good indicators of plant diversity since the caterpillars of individual species only feed on specific plants, called host plants. The presence of a butterfly indicates that its host plant is nearby. To date, field surveys have identified 111 butterfly species in the Monument, compared with 162 in all of Oregon.

Join Dr. Shroeder for an intriguing lecture about the butterfly diversity that can be found at CSNM on Friday, June 5 from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Southern Oregon University Science Building. Hike along the Hobart Bluff trail the following day, June 6 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., to search for and celebrate butterflies. See the flyer below for more information. Happy 4th of July!!!

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.