Thankful for the Opportunity

Fall sparks a time of reflection and thanks, and the Thanksgiving holiday is a perfect time to be thankful for our public lands and natural wonders.

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Published in the Waitsburg Times, November 7th, 2019.

The month of November is a special month. Not only because it’s like an extension of October in the Walla Walla Valley, or that the late season big game hunts are open. Rather, November offers a time of reflection as winter approaches and we gather with friends and family to give thanks. Given my love for fall, I spend many cool evenings reflecting on the outdoor opportunities I have been afforded over the years, and the magnificence of our nation’s natural resources.

One extraordinary September evening a decade ago, twelve hours to the southeast of Waitsburg, I stood amid the roar of the Maison River in Yellowstone National Park. The sun had settled peacefully behind the western peaks while the cool humidity of fall sank into the river bottom. A soft, white haze began to form about ten feet off the water as the cool air from above fought to smother the moderately warmer temperature and moisture rising from the river.

To my left was a pewter-colored, house-sized boulder with a massive log jam against the upstream side. The river had undercut the boulder and placed a couple logs on the downstream edge as well. The twilight cast a dense glare across the river surface, but climbing up and standing atop the boulder, I could peer down and see a few very large mountain whitefish in the eddy on the downstream side. They darted swiftly in and out of the flow beneath the shelter of the logs.

Time was wearing thin, so I dropped back into the river on the thalweg side. There was a glorious seam near a gravel bar across the current, and my size 18 Adams was destined to be picked up by a feisty rainbow or brown trout. Preparing to cast, I stripped out a fair piece of my floating line and began loading the rod with short casting motions. Glancing to my left, the sight of my beautiful little blonde girlfriend, Ali, waist deep in the current and laying out a dry fly with her golden locks trailing behind her brought a warm smile.

I stood momentarily entranced in the scene of my future bride fishing the Madison, but my revelry began to fade with the faint sound of a cow elk mewing, and then another, and yet another. Spotting movement behind Ali, I gawked awestruck for minutes as the dark evergreens under the fading light began to writhe with elk. Big, tawny bulls with rich, molasses manes, raghorns, cows and calves maneuvered among the trees on the opposite river bank. They slowly fed and drink directly opposite us as we remained stone still. I felt a fleeting sense belonging, as if welcomed into their world. We were just part of the woodwork.

Ail Fitzgerald fishing the Madison as a bison watches

Daylight vanished with my rod held at my side. I simply stood there and drank in every precious moment of that scene as the final shred of visibility faded around a couple fly fishermen engulfed by the ambient tumbling river and the screams of rutting bulls. We climbed from the chill of the river, stripped out of our waders, and fired up the heat in our rig as we returned to our West Yellowstone hotel. That trip was noteworthy for a number of reasons, all of which are owed their own story, but fishing the evening hatch on the Madison will remain one of my fondest memories of Yellowstone, and early dating with my wife.

Recalling that moment on the Madison conjures another elk story, only this one occurred an hour from town. It was modern firearm deer season and I had packed into the Wenaha, spiked a camp, and hunted the high ridges with my buddy, Marvin, in hopes of spotting a good mule deer buck and making a move on him.

It was frigid for October and spitting snow. The Eagle Caps appeared as two small, snow-covered hummocks to the distant southeast. The atmosphere lit up around the peaks, pink as cotton candy from the few straggling rays of sun clutching the horizon. I could feel darkness approaching; an impenetrable cloak meant to shield the world from its own inhabitants.

In years past, I had seen mule deer in this meadow, and packed a buddy’s elk on a pack string after clawing our way up from the jagged bowls of the canyon bottom. My only encounter this day was cutting the tracks of a lone cougar and wolf, both on the same meadow trail, and both the diameter of a softball. Worn out and cold, I headed for camp only to suffer the fitful sleep of fall wilderness tent camping.

Awaking the next morning, the sky was incredibly clear with a billion shimmering stars. Within an hour, the warmth of golden sun would breach the eastern tree line to end my frozen torment for eleven glorious, yet laborious hours of searching for backcountry bucks. Standing peacefully over the hiss of my pack stove, as the soothing aroma of hot coffee curled up, tickling my mustache, I stared wide-eyed at the first twinge of pink kissing the low horizon.

The black silhouettes of surrounding evergreens stood tall and firm like the sentinels of dawn. And unexpectedly, a bull elk let out a single bugle, not 100 yards from camp. His guttural squeal echoing around the edge of the meadow sent a chill down my spine, prickling me with goosebumps.

Unexpectedly, tears welled up and my throat went tight. Emotion and memories ran wild. Regrets of moving away from home and family; gratitude for the loved ones I have been blessed with; shame for the times that I failed my loved ones; and bewilderment over all of the undeserved blessings I have been afforded, to include the opportunity to hunt our nation’s wild, public lands. My love of the wilderness, fish and wildlife, and my thirst for these experiences are owed to my grandparents and the heritage they passed on.

Such emotion spurred by a single supremely placed and timed elk bugle. We never found our mule deer buck, but time in the wilderness, no matter how long or short, offers some form of profundity and reward otherwise.

Recollections of wilderness adventures arouse further memories of the most beautiful high mountain lakes I have ever had the good fortune to lay eyes on, just a day’s drive south in northeastern California’s Sierra Nevada range. The John Muir and Ansel Adams Wilderness areas provide astonishing scenery, hiking, and one of my bucket-list trout species, the golden trout.

Thirty minutes of channeling my inner mountain goat, teetering and hopping up, over, and across jagged granite perched me 11,300 feet above sea-level. With burning thighs and short breath, I gazed back at Long Lake about a mile and hundreds of feet below. The gray walls of the high peaks reflected off the deep blue of the lake. The solemn green of the pines cast deep contrast against the light granite with a dappling of brilliant goldenrod from sparse quaking aspen and grasses changing with the season.

Turning around, I faced the Treasure Lakes. Thirteen-thousand-foot Mount Dade peak loomed overhead to the south. A permanently shadowed, remnant snow pack, dusted gray by the wind, was feeding the lakes. Below the shimmering surface of the crystal-clear depths lay pure California gold.

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Sizing up the lake, I tied up a size 14 hare’s ear wet-fly on my four-weight. Stepping down onto a boulder along the lake’s edge, I rolled the olive-green sinking line into the depths and began retrieving the fly with short strips. My breath, still labored from the climb, or maybe just the elevation, was sucked away completely as the line jerked tight between my fingertips; the fly engulfed as it slowly sank on the pause between strips.

A moment of panic overwhelmed me as I realized I was playing a trout I had obsessed over landing on the fly for decades. Kneeling on the flat boulder, rod tip held high overhead, I softly cradled my first golden trout in the frigid alpine waters. An awesome spectacle in a small package with a rich auburn belly, buttery yellow flanks, and olive-sized parr marks. A scene so perfect I will never forgive myself if I fail to relive it again in the near future.

We are incredibly fortunate for the opportunity afforded us by visionaries like Teddy Roosevelt, who realized the importance of setting aside public lands and parks for our enjoyment. The beauty of our public lands, our right to explore them, not to mention the most spectacular pieces of our nation being preserved for the public rather than privatized, is a true blessing.

Of equally good fortune, Waitsburg is a central hub to more than a dozen National Parks and Monuments within a day’s drive, not to mention the myriad state parks.

Think of Grand Teton and Glacier National Parks with peaks towering sharply above the Montana landscape. When was the last time you saw the turquoise depths of Crater Lake or traversed the prickly, jagged lava beds of the Newberry Monument in central Oregon? How about experiencing the tranquility of looming redwoods along the northern California coast, or the picturesque formations protruding from the Oregon beaches? Have you ventured over to Mt. Rainier National Park or Mount Hood to ogle the glaciers and marvel at the history and architecture of the historic lodges? All of this awaits at arms-length.

As we share in our Thanksgiving feasts, late fall turkey, deer and elk hunts, and make new memories with friends and family, take a moment to give thanks to those responsible for setting aside our public lands and parks. Thank our fellow taxpayers and sportsmen and women for contributing funds to the operation and maintenance of these lands. Thank our military brethren who serve to ensure our freedom and opportunity to enjoy our nations specular resources. And thank your friends and family who, alongside you and I, work to perpetuate this rich wilderness heritage.

A Christmas Songbird Tradition

Songbirds are an icon of our natural world, inhabiting nearly every landscape. These remarkable birds are worth noting and saving; just what the Christmas Bird Count through the Audubon Society promotes.

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Published in the East Oregonian, December 21st, 2019.

I talk a good game about hunting and fishing, and most of my fondest memories revolve directly around those two passions. This doesn’t detract from my holistic appreciation for the natural world, sans my double-gun and bird dog.

Among my favorite childhood memories is the barn-shaped bird feeder my grandparents hung in front of their Appalachian living room picture window. Cardinals, tit mouse, nuthatches, downy woodpeckers and black-capped chickadees would chatter and fuss for space at that feeder and suet cakes all winter.

I vividly recall one particular lazy weekend afternoon kicked back in an old recliner, sipping hot cocoa; my grandparents reading the paper and working word-finds. Their wood furnace stood atop a beautiful river rock hearth my grandpa had built. The blower kicked on, filling the room with the irreplaceable warmth of wood heat as I gazed contently at the first snow of December falling around these flittering songbirds and settling thick atop the feeder.

The American robin in its modest appearance has always been one of my favorite birds; their glorious melody signaling spring as the dew settles cold on freshly greened lawns. And then there are the jays. Blue jays were a common bully in my hometown, but the first time I laid eyes on a Steller’s jay was the first time I moved to the Pacific Northwest, cruising Highway 12 along the Lochsa River in Idaho. I still marvel at Steller’s jays as I scramble across the ridge tops in the Blues pursuing grouse and mule deer.

The two masked western species that I enjoy the most are the sleek, olive-yellow cedar waxwing, and the Bullock’s oriole with its black-accented, pumpkin plumage. Each sporting a Lone Ranger eye patch and swapping seasonal appearances at my little homestead near Waitsburg, WA. The Bullock’s oriole drops by in the spring to enjoy fruit bits that I hang from the clothesline and raise a clutch in the massive white alders along my spring seep. The cedar waxwing drops in from the higher elevations about the time snow finally settles in our little canyon. They gorge alongside robins on our ornamental crabapples and mountain ash.

Other common winter visitors to the local drylands are the house finch, gold finch, house sparrow, Oregon junco, white-breasted nuthatch and spotted towhee.

My musing over common songbirds may seem curious, but songbirds are anything but common. Songbirds have the ability to bring nature’s beauty to virtually any landscape. Be it a city block or secluded ranch home, songbirds are ever present. They connecting us with our natural world, inspire artists, develop ornithologists and arouse wonder in young and old. What’s more, songbirds seasonally migrate thousands of miles across North America from Canada to Mexico and points south. Their extensive migration makes songbirds vulnerable to severe weather patterns, food shortages and predators.

Aside from the natural life challenges, songbirds have been imperiled by hunting since the 19th Century. Hunting for plumage caused the extinction of species like the passenger pigeon and Carolina parakeet. Fortunately, our conservation ethics in North America improved, and the Lacey Act was passed in 1900, followed by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918. Both Acts still stand today, protecting songbirds from harm in the U.S.

Prior to our conservation legislation, early ornithologists sought to change a Christmas tradition known as “the side hunt” where folks would choose sides and descend upon the hills. The side returning with the most species of fur and feather claimed a win. One hundred nineteen years ago on Christmas Day, the bourgeoning Audubon Society and ornithologist, Frank Chapman, imposed the Christmas Bird Count in lieu of the traditional hunt. That first Christmas, 25 different counts tallied 90 species, and the tradition stuck.

One of the longest-running datasets in the history of wildlife science, the citizen-driven data collection effort provides critical input to long-term population trend monitoring, as well as helping to guide conservation efforts in North America.

“The data collected by observers over the past century allow Audubon researchers, conservation biologists, wildlife agencies and other interested individuals to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America.” Explains the Audubon Society.

Understanding population trends is important for understanding the effects of environmental changes on migratory birds and natural resources. And, in some cases, population trends can serve as the proverbial canary in the mine shaft.

The beauty of the Christmas Bird Count is that anyone with the desire can participate. Bird counts are held within a 15-mile radius of a designated point. Participants may travel to a common location and disperse with an organized group or, if living within that 15-mile radius, folks can simply report the species that visit their feeder on the given count day.

Presently, Umatilla, Wallowa and Baker counties have a designated count center with point of contact information below. Union County has a count center but is not currently available for new participants. You can learn more about the Christmas Bird Count, participation in counts and review prior year and population status data by visiting https://www.audubon.org/conservation/science/christmas-bird-count.

If you are looking for an exciting family activity over the holidays that gets you outdoors and contributes to a good cause, look no further. Even a hunter like myself is fascinated with the splendor of our native songbirds and bird-watching. And who doesn’t enjoy some friendly family competition over the holidays?

Winter Birding Brings Nature to All

Published in the Waitsburg Times, February 6th, 2020.

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Growing up a hunter, my mother and I agreed rarely in our views of humans interacting with our ecosystem, save for our thoughts on habitat conservation and a deep appreciation for nature’s beauty and songbirds. Sitting together by the back-porch door of her Appalachian home, sipping a warm beverage as a light snow falls through the naked deciduous forest, marveling over visitors to her bird feeders is something I have dearly missed since leaving home.

This is a simple example of the power that songbirds have on society as a whole. They may seem common, but are extraordinary in their natural abilities and habits. Equally extraordinary is their ability to bridge the gaps among cultures, ages, and social differences, connecting us with our natural world, inspiring artists, developing ornithologists and arousing wonder in young and old.

Birds represent spiritual and religious symbolism among many nations. They stand at the helm of conservation movements and non-profit organizations. They represent sports teams. Racheal Carson’s incredibly motivating Silent Spring touted the detrimental effects to songbirds from rampant DDT application in the 1950s, swaying her readership to pursue environmental legislation which eventually led to the formation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Songbirds serve as our most common connection to nature and can be admired by anyone, virtually anywhere and at any time, like today, right now, outside your kitchen window or patio door, from a city block or a secluded cabin.

Some of the typical species to the Waitsburg area in winter include the house finch, cedar waxwing, red-winged blackbird, house sparrow, Oregon junco, American robin, brown creeper, red-breasted nuthatch, golden-crowned kinglet, northern flicker, and the list continues. The cedar waxwing is the masked species I enjoy the most as it descends from its montane habitat to overwinter in the foothills and valley floor.

One of the most fascinating aspects of songbirds is their plumage that changes with the seasons. The brilliant spring and summer colors, like the sunflower yellow of the gold finch, are shed for calmer winter plumage suited for survival. Songbirds can tough out incredibly cold temperatures by fluffing up their feathers, creating an insulating layer around their small bodies. Some species grow additional plumage to serve this purpose when molting during late summer or early fall.

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⇑⇑ A sneaky wren grabs a seed from beneath a flock of voracious gold finches as a female cardinal awaits her turn. Photo courtesy of Carolyn Phillips. ⇑⇑

Feeding and metabolic strategies support songbirds through the winter as well. They generally maintain an active body temperature at about 106 degrees Fahrenheit, and may slow their metabolism to reduce body temperature and conserve energy as they sleep. Like other animals, songbirds store fat to fuel their metabolism and insulate their bodies. Some species will store as much as 10 percent of their body mass as fat during winter.

Additionally, songbirds seek strategic roosting areas like natural tree cavities, dense grasses and evergreens or shrubs. While a common practice to remove birdhouses outside of the nesting season, Birds and Blooms recommends leaving them up over winter to provide safe, warm roosting opportunities. Specific roosting houses are available on the retail market as well.

Similar to birdhouses, hanging bird feeders is the most common method of “backyard birding”. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2016 census, over 65 million Americans have hung a bird feeder at some point, if not consistently. In winter, high-fat food sources including black oil sunflower, safflower, and suet cakes packed with seeds are what birds seek. But beware of “economy” seed mixes as birds largely discard the filler millet, milo, corn, etcetera, to get at the fattier sunflower seeds.

Would you like to see a specific species frequent your feeder? You may want to consider separating food sources or feeding stations. This will allow species to hone in on their favored items or feeding methods rather than jockey for space at a crowded feeder or avoid the feeder entirely. Additional information on different types of bird feeders and setting up feeding stations can be found online at https://www.fws.gov/birds/bird-enthusiasts/backyard/bird-feeding.php.

What about the birdbath? Having a water source in winter is important to songbirds. This is less critical in our banana-belt area of Washington, but when the temperature dips below freezing, birdbaths are well attended. A wide range of birdbath heaters can be found at Amazon.com. It need not be spendy, just reliable, and they actually make excellent holiday or birthday gifts for the birder in your family.

 

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⇑⇑ Eastern bluebirds flock to the birdbath on a frigid, Virginia afternoon. Photo Courtesy of Carolyn Phillips. ⇑⇑

With the above in mind, feeder and birdbath placement for birding from the comfort of home is important, particularly for photography. Place the feeders where you and the birds can access them easily in all weather. Maintain a good line of sight to the feeder and place it an appropriate distance from the house to provide the desired photo effect (or to ensure that those of us with failing vision can still identify the species). Maybe you have a spot inside to set up a tripod and train the camera to the feeder. This will allow you to capitalize on quick opportunities when that special bird shows up. This can also contribute significantly to photo quality and clarity, as will clean windows.

Songbirds are the tie that binds humans to our natural world, and clearly arouse interest and emotion. The ease of birding at home provides an undeniable opportunity to experience that emotion and wonder from our couch or kitchen table; an especially attractive prospect when the jet stream delivers an arctic blast.

Regardless of how you do it, birding is entertaining, and a great way to knock the edge off of cabin fever. So, are you ready to get your birding on?

SIDEBAR:

Suet cakes can be made at home with a simple Crisco, peanut butter and sunflower seed recipe. Place ingredients in a medium sauce pan and warm. Mix ingredients together, let it cool, shape it in a container or on wax paper. Place in the freezer for 30 minutes to solidify and it’s ready.

  • 1-1/2 cup Crisco
  • 1/2 cup peanut butter
  • 1 cup sunflower seeds.

Phantom of the Uplands

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I must admit I am my mother’s son, and apparently that of her mother as well. Both enjoy collecting beautiful things to display, as well as practical materials that may be of use at some unknown (and inexplicable) point in time. I am not a collector, per se, but I am guilty of keeping things like useless wood scraps and old nails and bolts. And I just can’t bring myself to discard antlers, handsome game hides or upland bird plumage.

Art is a recurring theme among my tales and reflections of venturing into our natural world. Whether wielding a fly-rod or chasing my setters across the autumn bunchgrass, the poetry of interaction with our ecosystem, and the brilliance of the autumn canvas, upland bird plumage and the rich colors of high mountain trout always provide fodder for my pen. I find the beauty in these things so significant that I feel responsible for somehow preserving the memories of fin and feather through practical application and admiration.

 While I enjoy crafting varied upland bird displays and shadow boxes to perpetually capture experiences, a friend of mine takes the artistic side of the uplands to a new level.

I met Janet Marshman during my graduate school days at James Madison University’s Edith J. Carrier Arboretum. I was a staff arborist and Janet arrived as a welcome volunteer. And it wasn’t long before her talents turned up in our visitor center.

Channeling her creative side, Janet decided once upon a time to make a drama-style mask as a birthday present for her sister-in-law, an art teacher. Clearly impressed, she encouraged Janet to sell her masks. Running with the idea, Janet sold her first lot to an art gallery in Charlottesville, Virginia. That was 1983.

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Upon learning of my hunting and fishing hobbies, Janet asked if I had anything furred or feathered that I could part with. And, given my tendency to hang on to such items, I returned with a variety of material from whitetail and mountain goat hide to eastern fox squirrel tails and thought nothing more of it. Until the day Janet presented me with a shadow box containing a mask made largely of moose hide, tree bark, shelf fungi and lichens. Its natural beauty was so striking, the shadow box was one of the few “natural displays” that made the living room wall after I got married.

When asked why she appreciates natural items like fungi, Janet replied “There is so much beauty in natural materials.”

Fungi and lichens are among the common “fauna” I have noticed in Janet’s masks over the years. But what draws her to these materials so readily?

“I love fungi, lichens, moss, and textures of bark. The colors are often muted and blend well with colors of feathers, but provide variation in texture to the mask.”

While Janet’s affinity to use natural materials has always spoken to me, her tastes and innovation dive far deeper and include mechanical and electronic items like sprockets, wires and mother boards, even digital camera parts used for her husband, Frank, who once owned a camera repair service. Abstract, eclectic, organic.

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She never took it full-time, but has sold at shows across the eastern U.S. from New Orleans to Philadelphia, and regularly donates to charitable causes. Interestingly, somewhere in there she took a 20-year hiatus to raise her family. An experience that she claims brought her “…visual maturity and creativity into bloom” and contributed to the depth and intricacy of her later pieces.

Janet has collaborated costume design with the James Madison University dance theater. Her masks have been on display in various galleries and restaurants, as well as the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C. She has even won a Halloween contest or two. But she doesn’t stop there, keeping her fingers in photography, sculpture and mixed-media.

“I believe a true artist continues to grow in their art and see things differently. I don’t believe in finding a niche and staying there.” Janet says.

This past winter I sent Janet a few pheasant capes, only to unexpectedly have them partially returned in March, stunningly crafted in dramatic whimsy. Her use of lichens, rooster tail and body feathers, corn husks, dried brome, and river birch bark delivered multiple complex layers of the environment in such a way to compliment themselves to their utmost potential.

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Clearly, I feel a bond with Janet’s masks; her tie of my passions to true artistic talent and conception. She captures my eternal desire to immortalize the memory of those who have blessed my home and table.

Additionally, Janet’s creativity exemplifies the beauty and elegance of our natural world, cast in the glow of perfect complement between flora and fauna. Her masks emphasize the intrinsic value of the natural world to human existence and emotion, portrayed through the eyes of an esteemed artist and her theatrical design.