Ranger Kathryn's Arches

May 17, 2011

Striped Whipsnake

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 5:22 pm

snake in the cheatgrass (click to enlarge)

My hiking partner ahead of me stepped right over it, unaware of its presence. It was well-camouflaged, but something tipped me off; I quickly set my camera to macro and got this shot. What a sweet snake to pose for me  in Clover Canyon
and let my lens get an inch or two from its face. I’ve not had one that un-perturbable before. Twenty-four inches of loveliness! It disappeared in the blink of an eye.

May 15, 2011

Ungulate down

What a way to dieWhat an agonizing death. Its left antler pinned between two aspen trees, the mule deer pulled and pushed and rubbed and yanked… until it died of thirst or was ravaged by a mountain lion. The skull of this ten-point buck told the horrifying story in minute detail.

Perhaps it had been trying to rub the velvet off its antlers; somehow it wedged that multi-spiked antler between the large aspen and the medium one and, no matter its strength or wits, could not extricate itself. Large rub marks on the big tree suggest a monumental effort. The vertebrae and ribs scattered downslope tell the outcome.

For the full photo documentary, go to this Facebook album.

May 14, 2011


We drove to the crowded trailhead parking lot to begin our backcountry trek, passing hordes of folk out for a gorgeous day in their national park: bicyclists competing with vehicular traffic, a man throwing up on the side of the road, giant rental RVs jockeying for a parking spot. Tricia and I looked at each other wordlessly, communicating with our eyes the desperate “let’s get out of this madness” that we both felt.

By the time we broke off from the main trail 45 minutes later, we were most grateful for the escape. Traversing the trail-less (but sadly trodden) desert backcountry for another mile, we arrived at our destination: a hole in a cliff where we had found Great Horned Owls nesting last month. We sneaked — and I mean sneaked — stealthily to a far viewing point so as not to disturb its occupants, and lifted our binoculars.

Great Horned Owlet (google image)

A fuzzy owlet was sitting like a motionless snowman right at the hole’s entrance, black beak standing out from downy fluff. We two human mothers simultaneously emitted sounds that even an alien could identify as meaning “isn’t that the cutest bird you’ve ever seen” — high squeaky sounds that would never escape a male’s vocal cords…

Mother owl appeared to be asleep in the back of the nest hole, as only her ear tufts and top of her head were visible. I wondered whether she had given her child the ‘Harold, Mommy is going to close her eyes for a little bit, and she needs you to remain still and quiet’ talk. We set up a spotting scope, trained it on them, and began our long wait. Since Great Horned Owls often lay 2-3 eggs, we wanted to know whether the youngster had any siblings, and we also wanted to see if the other adult might come back. With perfect weather, no bugs, and a nearby American Kestrel nesting pair to entertain us while we watched, it was pure joy to stake out this nest.

May 11, 2011

Handy to know our rescue routes

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 7:45 pm
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Folks canyoneer up here above Park Avenue. Imagine trying to lower someone with a broken leg, as was recently done.

Today six of us RMVP (Resource Management & Visitor Protection) staff scoped out several entrance/egress routes for canyoneering in the park. In case of an accident, which is a matter of ‘when,’ not ‘if,’ we need to know where folks are using climbing ropes inside our boundaries, and we need to be aware of helicopter LZs (landing zones) if a major rescue is needed.

Half of the law enforcement rangers on duty here are seasonal (six-month) hires, and for all of them it happens to be their first season at Arches NP. This makes it especially important that they be taken to places where a difficult rescue might occur.

I appreciate being granted training hours and getting out in the field for things like this. The rainstorms in the outlying areas of the park made it even more exciting. I’m waiting for the first big flash flood of the year…

May 9, 2011

Wind Scorpion 2

This photo of a wind scorpion comes from an exterminator's website.

What the heck is a wind scorpion?!? Sorry to disappoint, but they aren’t scorpions at all. They are in the class Arachnida — spiders, ticks, mites, and true scorpions. Sometimes they’re called “sun spiders,” and in the Middle East “camel spiders” because of their humped profile. Their jaws can reach up to a third of their body length. As Mark Moffett describes graphically in his July 2004 National Geographic article: “Wielding those jaws like a combination pincer and knife, they chew their victims into pulp with a sawing motion. Then they exude an enzyme that liquifies the  flesh, which they suck into their stomachs.” Mm-m-m-m!

Apparently a wind scorpion will take on lizards, snakes, small birds, rodents. They weigh up to two ounces (!) and have leg spans up to five inches. Fearless, they are equipped with jaws larger in proportion to its body size than almost any other animal on Earth. Their sex lives are pretty vicious and dangerous, often with the male ending up as a meal. The July 2004 issue of National Geographic has a lively article if you want nightmare-inducing close-up photos of these fascinating creatures, or you can look here if you dare.

While the wind scorpion has been designated the official arachnid of the war in Iraq, here in Utah I am sure I’ve walked right by them numerous times. Because they are nocturnal and I am not, I never get to see them even though they and I occupy the same habitat. That makes me a little sad, since I would like to meet one… from a distance.

May 8, 2011

South Mountain Saturday

Mt Tukuhnikivatz -- 11,760 feet -- second-tallest in the La Sals

Five distinct paws of bear on this trunk.

At 8,000 feet in the La Sal Mountains, I felt as if I’d been abruptly transported to Far-Far-Away-Land. We could have been a thousand miles from the desert, instead of twenty-five, as I hiked with my colleague in secret locations he’s walked for decades. My Minnesota roots were evoked; my heart leaped at things that felt familiar.

Bear tracks in the snowpack, perfect claw imprints and all. Tiny wildflowers — spring beauty, lupine, marsh marigold — pushing up through the snowmelt. Vernal run-off turning small streams into mighty erosive forces. Fallen logs on which to cross the freezing torrent. Elk tracks in mud and snow, hinting at mass and strength. Birdsong quite unlike that which I hear in the desert. The unique comforting smell of an aspen grove. Glacial erratics. A Northern Goshawk patrolling her thick conifer forest. Flag iris showing just their first two leaves. A fun-to-make snow angel. Birch trees with bear claw marks raking their bark. Pocket gopher eskers criss-crossing the trail. Post-holing through snowdrifts up to your thighs.

All this in 65 degrees while Moab roasted at 86. A more perfect day off is not to be found.

Want more photos? Look in this Facebook album:


Leave a comment: Where do you go to experience something completely different from your everyday life?

May 7, 2011

In which Kathryn ends up in the wrong valley

I took a girlfriend hiking, someone who hadn’t been up to Hidden Valley before. We had heard through some informal sources that there were some ancestral ruins there, but knew only very approximately where they might allegedly be hiding. Julia’s an anthropology major, and we’re both crazy about ancient cultural things, so we elected adventure over predictability. We were going to try to find some “old stuff,” and following established trails wasn’t going to cut it.

Did kangaroos ever live in Utah?!? (Hidden Valley petroglyph)

Exiting the main path at what looked like an appropriate sandy wash, we began to head upward for a bird’s-eye view. Surely a granary or a kiva would be more visible from a higher vantage point. We crested the rocky ridge and followed it along, as I told her that “that huge wall of Entrada sandstone over there is covered with petroglyphs for us to study.” Yes. It was. Only there are multiple huge walls of Entrada sandstone that look similar, and I was pointing to the wrong one. Off we went.

Thus commenced an off-trail adventure following game trails and gut instincts until we found a way to scramble over one cliff wall and into the correct valley. Please don’t laugh; this is my life. After successfully accessing Hidden Valley at last, we celebrated with Clif bars under a juniper tree, a good chuckle, and a most thorough exploration of every detail of the marvelous petroglyphs. Never did find a structure, but isn’t the joy in the journey instead of at the destination?

May 6, 2011

Eyed by two Red-tails

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 7:59 pm
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Red-tailed Hawk (google image)

“Keeeeeeeer!”  The Red-tailed Hawk’s descending cry pierced my marrow and made my neck hairs stand on end. A gorgeous female and male circled directly above me, and I didn’t even need my binoculars to see their heads peering (glaring?) downward at us as we tried to sneak up the sandy wash. We froze and waited for them to move on, but I knew we were in their sights.

We had seen the female with nesting material in her beak twice in the previous 45 minutes; they like to adorn the existing nests with fresh greenery. This pair had co-opted a stick nest occupied last year by Great Horned Owls, and she was now adding her own personal touches to it. I had the privilege of watching her fly directly into the cliff hole with the branchlet, so I knew that had to be her address.

Trying to locate nesting hawks is a hit-and-miss proposition. Timing is everything, and patience is everything else. The red-tails are incubating this month, with hatches coming soon, so you have to be in the right place at the right time. It’s difficult to find a vantage point high enough to see into the nest cavity, but far enough away not to disturb them. I feel like a raptor spy.

This is one happy wildlife intern. Snow-capped La Sal Mtns in background, adding to happiness.

You know, the day couldn’t have been much finer. Sue and I never saw another human being, but a Scott’s Oriole sang to us at lunch and posed at the top of a near juniper. Pinyon Jays, the local avian gossips, followed our every move. Pieces of the finest chert, flakes discarded in the making of stone points, lay everywhere — as if to distract our eyes from the sky-gazing task. And the pair of Red-tails filling my binocular lenses? That’s what I get up for in the mornings.

May 4, 2011

Terrible, horrible, no good…

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 10:20 pm
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It was a perfect day. Tricia and I were hiking through Eagle Park, the remote corner of Arches, looking for raptor nests. Everything about this spring day was exceptional, even though we couldn’t find eagles. We found petroglyphs, an ancient archeological site, exceptional wildflowers blooming, bobcat tracks, a prairie falcon, a red-tailed hawk, a kestrel. Just being out on the search made the day a complete joy.

La Sal Mountains framed by the Marching Men

And then I lost the park’s GPS.

It is an old and well-used one, loaded with waypoints for every single raptor nest in the park, as well as the 45 flags for the breeding bird census, numerous archeological sites, parking areas, and routes. It is the brains of the whole bird operation. And it fell out of my pocket today.

We spent an hour using Tricia’s newly-learned tracking skills (to search for lost people) retracing our every step. If it had dropped into a sandy wash we would have found it. If it slipped into the morass of tumbleweed, we certainly gave it our best college try, but no glint of plastic could be seen anywhere.

My boss couldn’t have been more kind. She did not utter one negative word to me, nor scold, nor even imply that I should have been more careful. I was the one beating myself up, knowing exactly what I ought to have done differently, wishing I could turn back the clock to our lunch stop when I last had it in my hand.

I’m ready to buy the park a new one, and spend my own free time entering a few hundred latitude and longitude numbers by hand. But still… it hurts to know that my carelessness is behind it all.

Leave a comment: Have you ever lost anything of great importance?

May 3, 2011

First heron chicks!

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 9:16 pm

Birth Announcement from the rookery! The Great Blue Heron chicks have just begun hatching! I found some excellent photos on google images, but they are copyrighted so I don’t want to put them on my blog. You can click here and see them! SO UGLY THEY ARE ALMOST CUTE!!

We’ve thirteen numbered nests at this rookery. I predicted the first hatchlings would be found in Nest #7, and Tricia bet on Nest #1. She won; there were already three babies in that nest today! Wish you could see a cool webcam or something!

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