Ranger Kathryn's Arches

September 20, 2011

Narrowest, Deepest, Steepest

The Grand Canyon, a mile deep, will always hold the ‘grandest’ honors. The Black Canyon of the Gunnison, however, is the ‘deepest, steepest, narrowest’ canyon in North America. When it was being surveyed for hydrological uses in 1900, it ate up wooden boats. All further exploration had to be done on inflatable air mattresses; the walls were too steep to walk along. But surveying was not my purpose in visiting.

It's 2000 feet to the bottom of this chasm. Awfully impressive.

I was there to see Colorado instead of Utah for a change. Mountains instead of desert. Metamorphic rock instead of sedimentary. Rain instead of sunshine. First hints of fall colors instead of cacti. To experience 8200 feet elevation instead of 4100. To shiver instead of sweat.

Don’t laugh, but I was wearing my light down jacket, warm hat, and gloves when we got to the mountains. Desert life has certainly made this hardy Minnesotan more cold-sensitive.

The tent was up, the supper cooked and eaten, and the fire crackling when raindrops began plopping with disquieting portent. My campmate Bill threw an armful of branches onto the flames as we dashed for the car; 45 minutes of rain didn’t extinguish them, after which we gladly absorbed the fire’s heat while listening to coyotes yipping, an elk bugling, and other assorted mountain sounds before retiring.

A Great Horned Owl hooted us awake during the early morning hours, as moonlight invited itself in through the open tent doors. I can’t think of a finer welcome for the new day.

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.

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.

March 31, 2010

Lithic scatters, bones, biscuitroot, and aerie

knapped flakes found within a few feet of each other

Here’s your new vocabulary for the day; see if you can use it in conversation.

LITHIC SCATTER: a surface scatter of cultural artifacts and debris that consists entirely of lithic (i.e., stone) tools and chipped stone debris. This is a common prehistoric site type that is contrasted to a cultural material scatter, which contains other or additional artifact types such as pottery or bone artifacts.

As Tricia and I hiked out to locate a Great Horned Owl’s nest near Delicate Arch, we had to veer from established paths. I’d say four of our six miles were off trail, and what a treasure hunt THAT was. Staying off the biological soil crust (formerly ‘cryptobiotic soil’) was tricky, but it took us along the slickrock edges and down sandy washes. I felt as if I were on a scavenger hunt; Tricia’s experienced eyes found all manner of remarkable items.

1. The sharp thin razor-edged flakes from knapped chert were lying ALL OVER in certain places. I picked them up and marveled at the people who made them, and then returned them to their spots despite wanting to keep a couple for souvenirs.

Part of the food web

2. The area below the owl alcove that we found (with about 5 gallons of whitewash blanketing the rocks) was strewn with regurgitated owl pellets and bones of small rodents and young rabbits. I hooted, “Who’s awake? Me, too…” to no avail. We’ll have to go back early in the morning to hoot again.

Canyonlands biscuitroot


3. The Canyonlands biscuitroot is blooming!!! This species of concern grows ONLY at the base of fins of Entrada sandstone. Such a narrow niche allows it to be found in only two counties in the world. It is a precious and protected plant.

We concluded our day scoping out what a recent visitor directed us to: a possible Peregrine Falcon aerie at the north end of the park. This will be closely monitored for nesting activity in the coming weeks.

Two threatened species in a day. Happy.

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