Ranger Kathryn's Arches

June 28, 2011

Death by talons

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 9:02 pm
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With the mercury heading toward 102 degrees, an early start was called for; time to head down Courthouse Wash to find Cooper’s Hawk nests. They should have babies by now.

A mass of feathers are all that remains of a Cooper's Hawk that has been in this nest for many years. Double-click it.

Nest 1D didn’t look occupied, so I set up my spotting scope for a better view. On further examination, it was NOT empty. Feathers were scattered around… and a foot. And what appeared to be the top of a head. Pretty much a violent crime scene, right here in our national parks. The length of the feathers told me it had to be an adult bird, and the colors were right for a Cooper’s Hawk.

I radioed my boss to notify her of my find, knowing she’d want to investigate for herself since the nest was quite accessible. Soon Tricia and I were scouring the nearby side canyon to see if we could find any sign of the only predator that would attack an adult Cooper’s Hawk on its nest. No Great Horned Owl nest, or even a single pellet, was found, although one has been documented a couple miles downstream. We assumed one had dismembered the Cooper’s and carried the meaty parts to feed its own young.

And that’s all I have to say today. Nature can be grisly.

May 28, 2011

Mom, don’t read this

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 10:21 am
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Maddie’s and my eyes met as she asked, “Should we look at the map again?” We had been hiking up-canyon for a considerable time and were encountering cattails and closing-in canyon walls. It did not feel familiar to either of us, but we were following the trickle of water and it seemed that we should be getting closer to the truck. We both knew we weren’t.



I had borrowed a GPS from another vehicle that morning, checked and replaced its batteries before we started out, and programmed several of our nest coordinates into it. When we later tried to use it to find the first nest of the day, it did not seem to be keeping time or giving correct distances. Something was funky with its satellite receiver.

Maddie pulled out her compass and we compared it to the shadows being cast by the afternoon sun. The compass was showing it setting in the northeast. The compass was bad. Really bad.

We were now left to our own devices high up in Courthouse Wash (I now know), five miles from our truck. We had a couple of maps, the sun, the stream flow direction, and our own memories. I will spare you the emotional details, but let me just say that I had plenty of time to rehearse in my brain what I might have to say over the radio. (No matter how it’s phrased, “I don’t know where I am” is downright humiliating when all of Grand County can hear you.)

I’ll jump to what saved the day: Tricia’s aerial map. There was an oddly-shaped rock formation at the confluence of two critical washes, but no topographic map would show that. My boss has a penchant for aerial maps and I am supremely glad she does. The square-nosed corner cliff soothed my nerves and I announced confidently to Maddie that we should turn right and go up this canyon. She wasn’t so sure.


Within ten minutes the familiarity of Seven Mile Wash sunk in; we both knew we were where we needed to be. High fives were happily exchanged, and the long hike out began. I sucked down the last of my water about a half mile from the truck, swallowing my pride with each gulp, and humbly apologized to Maddie. Her wonderful attitude (“The unknown simply adds drama to the adventure! And think of the good stories!”) made her an exceptional getting-lost companion.

It took me about 24 hours to get over the physical and emotional toll of my navigational mishap. I need to go back soon and find the nests with a good GPS. Yes — I have a game plan to prevent future mis-adventures.

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.

August 20, 2010

Chocolate waterfall

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 7:25 am
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Looks puny in photo; need a person for scale

It looked like something out of “Charlie & the Chocolate Factory.”

A couple miles of deeply-puddled 4WD road ended in a sizable pour-off which was disgorging the contents of the thunderstorm. After a 140-foot free-fall, the muddy waters were extruded from the collecting pool into a ribbon that followed gravity into Courthouse Wash and eventually into the mighty Colorado River… which would be flowing intensely red that day. I love the summer monsoons.

Heading, eventually, to the Pacific

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