A Baskett of wild surprises

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“Stop!,” I yelled as we slowly drove west on Coville Road. “There’s something in the field.” I rolled down my window and peered through binoculars to find a silver-feathered male Northern Harrier sitting on a hump of plowed farm dirt, preening. I sat there for a few minutes admiring his pale beauty in the bright Oregon sunshine. I’ve seen harriers in flight many times, but never had the luxury to watch one perched and preening for so long.

It was a gorgeous, sunny, unusually warm, spring day, and we were going for a hike at Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge west of Salem. The harrier proved to be only our first surprise. As we hiked up to the top of Baskett Butte and out to the Rich Guadagno observation platform, we learned through interpretive signs that the butte trail was dedicated to Rich Guadagno, a former refuge manager who died in the United Flight 93 plane crash on 9/11. He was 38 years old. It was a poignant and touching tribute to a man who obviously loved nature and nurtured this land where we now stood.

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The views from Baskett Butte are inspiring – surrounding farm fields, the peak of Mt. Jefferson, and beautiful old growth oak savannas (one of the most endangered habitats in Oregon).

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On this day in May, wildflowers dotted the meadows – Oregon sunshine, lupine, Nootka rose, Mariposa lilies and more.

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Mariposa lily (Cat’s ear)

 

Near Morgan Lake at the north end of the refuge, we saw a large area of white, and wondered if it was bare sand. A look with binoculars showed us it was a wildflower bloom, solid white and expansive. We were able to hike around the edge of the lake and get a closer look. Turns out it was a field of white meadowfoam (Limnanthes alba). Turns out, one species of meadowfoam is an important commercial crop in the Willamette Valley. The seed oil is used in cosmetics.

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At one point along our hike, as we emerged from the oak savanna and walked downhill toward the marshes to the north, Keith wondered aloud if ring-necked pheasants lived here. Five minutes later we flushed a pheasant from the tall grass and watched it glide about 200 yards across the meadow to a copse of bushes. Pheasants are an introduced, naturalized species in the US. In fact, they were first introduced in the Willamette Valley from China in 1882. Farmland habitat is a pheasant’s heaven, so it makes sense that they would be sighted here at the edge of farm and refuge.

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As we crossed Moffitti Marsh along the freshly mowed but sometimes muddy trail, we spotted nesting tree swallows in their iridescent blues, striking yellow common goldfinches, cinnamon teal, and red-winged blackbirds.

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Tree swallow
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Goldfinch

There was even a swarm of bees circling around an old barn across the road from the marsh. Hiking back up the butte from Morgan Lake we spotted three black-tailed deer browsing at the edge of the forest.

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Four hours after we had seen that harrier stting and preening in the field, we left Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge with a renewed sense of wonder and light hearts. Our five miles of hiking had provided surprise after surprise, each one marvelous and welcome. Thank you to the US Fish and WIldlife Service for managing yet another amazing natural area for the people!

If you go: Baskett Slough NWR is located off of SR 22, west of 99W and Salem, OR. Some trails are closed in winter to protect wintering waterfowl. Take sun protection in summer; most of the trails are not shaded.

 

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Oregon’s feathered camp robbers

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Gray jay (photo ©Deb Hanson 2017)

Gray jays are one of the most entertaining birds of the Pacific Northwest. They have earned the nickname “camp robbers” because they are quite adept at sneaking into campsites and cabins (and flying onto hikers’ hands!) to steal food.

These little gray jays are cute and sneaky, but they are tough little critters, too! They live in very cold climates (think northern Canada and Alaska, as well as the Cascade and Rocky Mountain ranges), rarely migrating out of high elevations or south. They can do that because they store food in the bark of trees (using sticky saliva to keep it there) all summer, so they have plenty to eat during the winter.

Their diet is varied. They will catch insects in flight, eat seeds and nuts, attack rodents and birds, and eat carrion (left by wolves or other predators) in winter.

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Gray jay (photo ©Deb Hanson 2017)

These little birds are so tough they even nest and raise their young during the late winter and early spring rather than wait for warm summer days like most other songbirds. Typically they lay 3 or 4 eggs. Mom incubates them for 20 or so days while dad feeds her. After hatching, parents take turns feeding the young. They leave the nest at about 24 days, then hang around for parental guidance for another 30 days before they fly off to live their own lives.

We’ve seen them at Mirror Lake near Mt. Hood, begging food. Friends of ours had them land right on their hands eating gorp while they were out snowshoeing at Trillium Lake one day this winter. They make a lot of different sounds, from whistles to harsh, scolding cries. If you are up in the mountains here in the Oregon, be on the lookout for these cute little “camp robbers.”

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Gray jay with nut (photo ©Deb Hanson 2017)

 

Pacific poison oak: hiker’s scourge

What is it?

Anyone who has done much hiking in Oregon has seen this plant, even if they didn’t know what it was. Pacific poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) is common in sunny and partially shaded areas and on rocky, south-facing slopes, especially in the eastern Columbia River Gorge and on Willamette Valley’s oak savannas. I’ve seen it on the edges of Doug fir forests and mixed deciduous forests as well, though. As long as the soil is acidic and below about 4000 feet, poison oak can grow there.

As someone who moved from the east, where I sported a patch of poison ivy rash somewhere on my body most of the time, I learned to identify poison oak as soon as I moved to Oregon. Like poison ivy, it typically has three leaves (you know, “leaves of three, let it be”), but sometimes five. Pacific poison oak can grow as a shrub, a trailing vine or a climbing vine. It’s leaves look very much like Oregon oak leaves, but not as deeply lobed. In the spring it is bright green, but in fall turns a brilliant shade of red.

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There are some great photos of its many variations here.

I’ve been lucky to avoid contact with it until now. Last week, I was in the Gorge shooting photos of wildflowers, and wasn’t careful to look for the new leafless shoots of poison oak popping up in springtime. I guess my sleeves must have grazed some shoots when I was down on my knees taking pictures, because two days later I began to feel an itch on my wrist. The next day it had bubbled up, and by the fourth day it turned yellow. I had my first full-blown case of Pacific poison oak.

The rash

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Poison oak rash

Lovely, isn’t it? Like its eastern cousin, poison ivy, Pacific poison oak has an oil called urushiol. It’s on every part of the plant and is active as long as five years after the plant is dead! That’s potent stuff. If you don’t wash it off with soap and water (or neutralize it with Tecnu) within 15 minutes of exposure, the urushiol bonds to your skin and then your immune system kicks in, causing the rash and bubbles and fun. It appears my rash is limited to my wrist and a finger or two, so I’m not worried about it, but there are folks who get much more serious rashes and need medical attention.

It’s not a “bad” plant

In spite of Pacific poison oak’s irritation to us human hikers, it has some redeeming qualities. It is a good food source for animals like deer (which browse leaves and stems) and birds (which eat the berries). The young leaves are high in protein and are sometimes food for goats. I actually found an article suggesting that it be “strategically planted” in a garden or yard for bird food. I’m gonna say no to that one.

Poison oak stands are also used as nesting sites by a federally endangered bird called the Bell’s vireo, and a rare colony of ringtail has been found nesting in a cottonwood-poison oak woodland near the Sacramento River in California. It might surprise you to know that Pacific poison oak is the most wide-spread shrub in all of California (source: US Forest Service). Wow!

Here are ten myths about poison oak busted by the WyEast blog.

Now, you know 🙂

 

 

Western fence lizard

Last week were hiking the Coyote Wall trails in the Columbia River Gorge when we spotted this lizard sunning itself on a rock. It was reasonably unafraid of us and more interested in staying in the sun than running to hide. I was struck by its somewhat frilly neck and abundant, spiky scales covering every centimeter of its skin, even its toes.

This is a western fence lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis), a reptile in the Iguanidae family, sometimes called a “Blue-belly” because the belly and underside of the neck of the adult males are bright blue. I didn’t see any blue on this specimen in the field, but when I blow up the photo and look closely at the scales on its back, I see some hint of aquamarine on some of the scales. Perhaps this one is a female or young male.

Western fence lizards are fairly common in eastern and southwestern Oregon and in the Columbia Gorge. They grow to eight inches in length. They prefer desert canyons, woodlands, boulders, and log piles, but not wet woods or flat valley floors. They are insectivores, eating bugs, beetles, grasshoppers and some spiders.

They love to bask in the sun atop rocks and fence posts. They can change color from tan/brown to black, often to help them absorb more of the sun’s heat. When attacked by a predator they will bite and/or defecate on their attacker.

Interestingly, one study has shown that when ticks with Lyme Disease bite western fence lizards, the blood of the fence lizard kills the bacteria that causes Lyme Disease, essentially cleaning the blood of the tick. For this reason perhaps, Lyme Disease is less frequent in areas where western fence lizards live.

Western fence lizards fully mature in about two years. Females lay a clutch of 3 to 17 eggs up to three times each breeding season. Eggs hatch in late summer. They hibernate for some time during cold winters.

 

 

Another Gorge-ous Hike: Coyote Wall

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Spring is here and the wildflowers are starting to pop up all around Oregon and Washington, especially in the Columbia River Gorge. We decided to hike Coyote Wall last week, knowing that the grass widows would be in bloom. What we found there was a treasure trove of natural wonders unlike anything we’d ever seen before in the Gorge. Coyote Wall is on the Washington (north) side of the Gorge just 4.5 miles east of the Hood River Bridge. It is a hiker and mountain biker paradise, for sure. We arrived around 10 AM on a Friday morning, and by the time we left at 3 PM, the parking lot was full, and cars were parked all all the way down to SR 14.

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Coyote Wall from the trailhead
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The beginning of the trail

Coyote Wall is an impressive formation of columnar basalt, often nicknamed “The Syncline”. The wall itself is two miles long and over 200 feet high, with it’s highest elevation at 1800 feet. Above the cliff wall are rolling, rocky meadows, and below are oak and pine woodlands. These trails were once an unmarked mecca for mountain bikers, who made many unofficial trails throughout the area, including into private property nearby. Hikers and wildflower buffs discovered the trails in the early 1990’s – still unofficial and unmarked – and the combination of use and abuse made it necessary for the US Forest Service to create a recreation plan and an “official” trail system.

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Currently, there are eleven different numbered and marked recreation trails in the area. We hiked the Old Ranch Road Trail, part of the Coyote Wall Trail, the Coyote Wall Traverse, and the Little Maui Biking Trail, for a total of about eight miles.

After a short hike along the south-facing edge of “the wall” on abandoned SR 8, we stepped onto the dirt trail that led us four miles uphill, switch-backing along the rocky, open meadows dripping with spring snow melt and bursting with wildflowers. Desert parsley, grass widows, prairie starflowers, and yellow-bells dominated the display, but there were many other small flowers blooming as well.

Mountain bikers huffed their way up amid the hikers. Dogs ran free everywhere, something the trail rules clearly prohibit during certain portions of the year. Loose dogs concerned me since we were hearing meadowlarks singing all over the place, and it is nesting season for these ground-nesting birds.

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Western meadowlark at Coyote Wall trail

Mt. Hood loomed over the south side of the Gorge in all it’s snow-white glory. The further up we climbed, the more of Hood we could see. The Columbia River shimmered below us as tiny creeks and waterfalls cascaded down the hills toward it.

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We left the Old Ranch Road trail to traverse over to the edge of Coyote Wall. When we arrived and peeked over, it was easy to imagine falling to your death below. In fact, a mountain biker did just that in 2005, and there is a sign reminding visitors of it further down the wall trail.

As we sat there, having a snack and taking in the view, an immature bald eagle glided silently past us, not 30 feet away from the edge of the cliff where we sat. It isn’t often I get to see an eagle from above and so close, and this was a highlight of the day.

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Our first glimpse of the wall from the edge

 

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Down into the Labyrinth

Once we had our fill of vista views, we headed back down to the Little Maui trail, which curves through an area known as The Labyrinth. Steeper, rockier, and filled with lush green grasses and waterfalls, this part of the trail made us think of parts of New Zealand as seen in the Lord of the Rings movies. Basalt outcroppings, lava rock, stunning, crooked oak trees all made it feel like a place of medieval times.

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Rocky outcroppings
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Waterfalls along the trail
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Starflowers bursting forth along a creek

It was a beautiful day and an extraordinary hike. I expect it will get busier as the wildflower season goes on, but its worth the hour and a half drive from Portland. Just get there early!

Grass widows: harbingers of spring

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It’s peak bloom season for grass widows right now in the Gorge. Grass widows (Olsynium douglasii) are traditionally the first spring flowers to bloom and a sign of warmer days ahead. This year, the grass widows are more abundant than during the past few years, and, after this long, cold, snowy winter, they are an especially welcome sight to see!

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Grass widows along the Coyote Wall trail

This species of grass widow is in the Iris family and the only species in its genus in North America. They are native to western North America from British Columbia to California and east to Utah. The bright purple bell-shaped flowers are about one inch wide. The slender green leaves and stalks are rarely more than 12 inches tall.

They seem to love wet rocky meadows. We hiked nearly 8 miles through the Coyote Wall trails and the widows were absent unless there was water seeping through the soil under them. In places they grow so thick, they formed a carpet of purple covering the sun-filled meadows high above the gorge.

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In a large flourish like this one, an occasional rare white grass widow may be spotted, so be on the lookout as you hike. Grass widows are fairly common in the Columbia River Gorge east of Bonneville, west of the Cascades in the Willamette Valley and east of the Cascades down through Wasco County.

(All photos by Deb Hanson, 2017)

 

 

Hiking the Little North Santiam River Trail

 

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Little North Santiam River

Just 35 miles east of Oregon’s capital city of Salem, the Little North Santiam River Trail gives visitors a hint of the unparalleled beauty that lies upstream in the Opal Creek Wilderness. The Little North Santiam River is a 27-mile long tributary of the North Santiam River, which, along with the South and Middle Santiam Rivers, flows into the Willamette.

The North Santiam has been impounded to form Detroit Lake and the South Santiam has been impounded to form Foster Lake, changing the flow of both over the years. This isn’t the only thing that has changed the watershed. During the late 1800’s gold mining and timber companies began extracting resources, decreasing the diversity of vegetation and wildlife in the watershed.

Fortunately, the BLM and USFS have put into place management strategies to protect the water resources and listed species in the area. It is home to bald eagles, spotted owls, rainbow and cutthroat trout, and Chinook salmon. The Little North Santiam (LNS) is now a designated State Scenic River, and no wonder…it is quite beautiful.

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We began our hike at the LNS Trailhead off of Elkhorn Drive SE near Mehama. It was an early spring weekday, and only one other car was parked at the trailhead. We would have the trail to ourselves! Yay! The trail was soggy and soft amid the birches, but turned rocky as soon as we reached the hemlocks and firs closer to the river.

One thing about this trail…most of the time you are either going uphill or down, there’s not a lot of flat. That made it a good workout day for us, especially with our already sore quads and glutes from the new 7-minute total body workouts we’d been doing at home.

As soon as we saw the river, we were entranced. Crystal clear water, blues and greens in the deeper pools, rapids, rocks, and waterfalls made it hard to both watch where we were walking and look at the river. It meant we stopped a lot along the way just to take it all in.

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When we weren’t gazing at the emerald waters, we were fascinated with the plump, soft, green mosses and lichens that covered every inch of rock and tree along the trail. Numerous waterfalls/rapids in the river and on the opposite side of the river gorge provided plenty of “stop-in-your-tracks” moments. It was definitely a sensuous feast.

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One of the pools below a waterfall

A few wooden bridges helped us cross several creeks, except at one place where the water was cascading swiftly down toward the river. There we rock-hopped using the trusty walking stick.

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The trail climbed to a viewpoint high above the river with great views of the gorge, Henline Mountain, and cliffs formed by the volcanic and glacier activity from 17 billion years ago. It then descended rapidly back down to river level. Lots of downed trees gave us ample opportunities to practice both our way-finding skills and our tree-hopping or tree-ducking skills.

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At high viewpoint above river looking at Henline Mountain
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One of the falls along Little North Santiam River

The rugged, curvy nature of the Little North Santiam River, with its steep cliffs, waterfalls, and deep, blue pools made this hike an extraordinary adventure and well worth the drive. We will be back.

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Triple falls
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The creek we had to rock-hop across