Ranger Kathryn's Arches

June 4, 2012

Adrift on the Green River

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 10:07 am
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Utah’s Green River. Today: windless. Tomorrow: watch out.

(Continued from “Down the Switchbacks“)

The bow of my inflatable duckie circumscribed lazy spirals like a leaf in a creek; the panorama before me was new every few breaths. On my lap the paddle sat listlessly, waiting to be dipped into the river on rare occasion. I was on the water with our wildlife biologist looking for the endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher (SWFL). Last night’s cowboys — who had dismounted, walked their weary horses through the obstacle course of our belongings, and disappeared into the moonlit night — were a gauzy memory.

Milkweed in full bloom. Photo by W Sloan.

The river’s rhythms now become my rhythms. My only task is to observe. At less than three miles per hour, everything is more visible: a pair of Blue Grosbeaks, new rockfall, a Great Blue Heron fishing stealthily, muskrat slicing the water, peregrine falcon circling overhead, old cottonwoods staking their claim on a bank, beaver chewing on willow. Huge cliffs of Wingate sandstone tower, guardians of the canyon: 600 feet of ancient sand, now lithified, silent, stunning. Breathing slows.

Lathered in sunscreen, senses heightened in the wilderness, I reclined in my boat to watch the world go by. When we approached appropriate habitat Bill played a recording of the SWFL song; males would respond to a perceived territorial threat by singing back. Seven times in two mornings on the river we heard it: fitz-bew! It was one of those simple pleasures in life that inserts itself into the heart, an unexpected gift, giving me hope for this species.

~ To Be Continued ~

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[Ecology note: According to the USGS, Empidonax traillii extimus populations declined during the 20th century, primarily because of habitat loss and modification from activities, such as dam construction and operation, groundwater pumping, water diversions, and flood control. It was placed on the endangered species list in 1995 and has only 280 known breeding sites. Critical habitat continues to shrink.]

Sunset from our campsite at the mouth of Horseshoe Canyon.
Green River meets Barrier Creek. Ranger Kathryn basks in joyful color.

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August 28, 2010

Riparian habitat? Not here.

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 10:27 am
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Mancos shale forms the inhospitable lower elevations of Book Cliffs, southeastern Utah

Mancos Shale forms the inhospitable lower elevations of Book Cliffs, southeastern Utah

Job description: evaluate every wash system in a half million acres of public land, looking for suitable habitat for an endangered species. Translation: get paid to hike and make notes. I tagged along this weekend with Bill, our park service wildlife biologist, as he is looking for any place that the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher might be able to breed. We started in the Book Cliffs, inhospitable-looking outcrops of Mancos Shale north of Arches National Park.

Getting paid to hike is a sweeeeeet way to spend your days… especially if it is in wilderness and you never see another human being. This day we would walk about 8 miles round trip up Crescent Wash, noting that the 1987 USGS maps mentioned springs in two or three places. Upon arriving at said “springs,” all that remained were a few scattered tamarisk trees — huge water-users, invasive species. Bone-dry sand. Not a drop of water anywhere. Tamarisks half-dead. Habitat? You’ve got to be kidding. For rattlesnakes, sure, but not flycatchers.

Crescent Wash -- representative of many local drainages. Not a single drop of water unless it has rained recently.

Hiking in hot parched washes in Utah in August might not be on top of just anyone’s list of Fun Activities, but I enjoy it. It’s just me and the natural world — without any buffer, any distractions. I sense my thirst, feel my muscles working, savor the few shady overhangs where a water break happens. I study the plants and soils around me for clues about local history; flash flood evidence is everywhere in this particular drainage. There is quite a story to tell, if only I can develop the skills to decipher it. I think I need more time in the wilderness.

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