Ranger Kathryn's Arches

May 23, 2011

Peekaboo Springs (the Needles district, Canyonlands NP)

There are glorious views 360 degrees around you on the Peekaboo Springs trail.

“This is so beautiful it almost makes me cry.” These words escaped my lips as Tara and I crested one canyon wall and perched on the brim looking to yet another vast horizon of red rock, of green wash, of bluest sky. I needed time to simply stop and absorb the wonder of it all — to feel it on a deep level rather than see only with my eyes.

In the Needles district on a cumulus-clouded day, the dancing light illuminates one pinnacle while shadowing the next; I could sit watchfully in one spot for an entire morning and not grow bored. It is one of my favorite places to explore in all of North America. Peekaboo Springs is clearly one of those hikes that can move me to tears.

Almost as an afterthought at the trailhead I had grabbed my binoculars, and was now scanning the canyon below for evidence of ancestral Puebloan culture. We had already found at least five granaries when something on a far wall came into focus. Wordlessly I handed the glasses to Tara, and her incredulous subdued “Oh, wow” matched my impression.

A round white shield with a flared cross-shaped center, unlike anything either of us have ever seen, stood alone on a sandstone wall. Farther along was a plumb-bob shape and concentric circles out of the same brilliant white paint that looked anything but a thousand years old. We instantly knew we had to make a return trip equipped with good maps and a way to get down there to investigate and photograph this rock art. Here’s the happiest part: there weren’t any trails or even footprints passing by them.

And when the day comes that we get back there to personally explore, our feet also will leave no trace.

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For twelve additional photos of this hike, click on this Facebook album.

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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.

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