Ranger Kathryn's Arches

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 1, 2011

A day in the life of…

My daily commute. Probably prettier than 99.7% of commutes in America.

It was one of ‘those’ days. The typically clear sky was dappled with lots of cumulus clouds, which made the grand sandstone features of Courthouse Wash sparkle with light and shadow. My task was to hike up the wash and look for any hints of nesting raptors. Clues that would tip me off would be finding fresh whitewash on the cliff wall, seeing raptors enter or exit a potential nest site, or finding a pair exhibiting courtship behaviors. If I found them on the wing, I’d patiently sit and wait and try to spy on them at their perches.

The perfect temps were accompanied by the gusty April winds that whip around the canyons, picking up sand and tumbleweeds, making me shut my eyes when a blast hit. I had a map and a GPS in my pack, and began to wander in a westerly direction to see what I could see. A group of canyoneers tromped by, looking for Ring Arch. They’d be the only people I would see all day.

Swifts and swallows chased insects overhead, and to my delight I could tell the two species of aerial acrobats apart in the mixed group. I wandered farther from my truck; a Spotted Towhee warbled at me from the low branches of a dead shrub. A mile more; I stopped to put on sunscreen, and a Say’s Phoebe started in on his sad song. Up the wash I went, trying to avoid having to bushwhack through nearly-impenetrable tamarisk and sage.

Out of the corner of my eye I caught a familiar movement. A small raptor was flying quickly toward a dead juniper, and took up residence at its top. My binocs told me it was an American Kestrel, our smallest falcon, and it looked as if it would sit a while; I set up my spotting scope to study it.

This female perched and preened, and over fifteen minutes did a 360-degree pirouette for me so I could see every side of her in detail. Her bold face pattern amused me, as did her habit of bobbing her tail incessantly. And then she dashed noisily to another perch close to the cliff, whining intensely for many minutes.

A bright male flew in and sat atop a nearby tree, listening to her vocalizing but doing nothing. Soon the female dashed into a hole in the cliff, the edge of which was covered with fresh whitewash. She led me directly to her nest! Patience pays off! I fixed the point on my GPS and spied on them for a while longer.

Thanksgiving fills my heart for the privilege I have every day to witness goings-on in the natural world that I’ve missed for years. There is no plot to today’s post; it’s a Zen-like bird’s-eye view of “a day in the life of Arches wildlife intern Kathryn Burke.” I just let you tag along with me today. Thanks for your company.

April 12, 2011

Owl, Kestrel, Eagle

Desert paintbrush startles the senses when you happen upon it in the backcountry

I looked up just in time to see a large silent mass of feathers lift off toward the alcove, the rocks of which were covered with decades or centuries of whitewash. A small insistent bird was scolding the Great Horned Owl harshly, having blown its cover. Mr Owl took flight and vacated the area to find a gentler location for his sleep. Training my binoculars on a hole in the sandstone nearby, I could make out the shape of the upper half of his mate’s head, immovable and dark, ear tufts rising unmistakably. We are eager to see owlets later this month, and thrilled to find this nest active.

Caves always beckon me to scramble up and explore them. This one had a large mammalian rib bone in the packrat midden.

A small rise on the slickrock beckoned us to set up our spotting scope at a distance. Sitting quiet and motionless, I soon heard a sharp killy killy killy killy killy approaching high and from behind me. As the male American Kestrel vocalized loudly while approaching this large alcove, a female dropped from a crack in the ceiling and the two met on the top branch of a nearby juniper to copulate. After mating for a few seconds, and sitting in the treetop for a few minutes, he went off to hunt; she returned to the alcove crack, and my partner and I scribbled field notes. Nature unfolds for us when we have eyes to see it.

My perfect raptor trifecta was completed when my boss telephoned me on her way home from work saying that she needed my help immediately with an eagle acting strangely. I drove to where she was and an adult Golden Eagle was moving from telephone pole to the main highway passing through Moab to the rock cliff to the highway surface again to the pole… almost getting run over in the process. Eagles don’t normally act that way. Tricia was late getting somewhere so I kept watch over Mr Eagle to try to see what was up. He flew okay, stood okay, but just wasn’t right. I wonder if he was sick, or weak? After 20 minutes or so he disappeared where I couldn’t follow him.

What a day! My housemates admitted to job envy. I ate dinner with a grateful heart.

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