Ranger Kathryn's Arches

July 10, 2011

Tempus fugit

It happens — relentlessly, incessantly, without end, amen. Time flies. If you say it in Latin instead of English, it adds mystery to the already-inscrutable reality. Every good thing comes to a close.

A sigh escapes as I shake my head and wonder how it can even be possible. Only a few days remain in my assignment, and there are so many more raptor nests to visit. Dozens of remote locations to survey. More miles to hike. I’ll not come close to finishing it all, even if I had another month.

I’ve learned how to leave almost no trace when I hike in the backcountry. I’ve lost my fear of (and confusion about) using a GPS. I’ve found out how fully alive I feel when the cry of a Red-tailed Hawk pierces the sky above me. I’ve added a couple dozen bird songs to my ID repertoire. I’ve confronted my apprehensions about getting lost in the wilderness, and added “finding my way out” to my list of accomplishments. I’ve tracked the phenology of the seasons, from earliest spring blooms to midsummer barrenness. I’ve followed the life-and-death drama of a heron rookery, from nest-building through fledging. Too often to count, I’ve gone where I had never set foot before.

I am changed… and I am grateful.

May 6, 2011

Eyed by two Red-tails

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 7:59 pm
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Red-tailed Hawk (google image)

“Keeeeeeeer!”  The Red-tailed Hawk’s descending cry pierced my marrow and made my neck hairs stand on end. A gorgeous female and male circled directly above me, and I didn’t even need my binoculars to see their heads peering (glaring?) downward at us as we tried to sneak up the sandy wash. We froze and waited for them to move on, but I knew we were in their sights.

We had seen the female with nesting material in her beak twice in the previous 45 minutes; they like to adorn the existing nests with fresh greenery. This pair had co-opted a stick nest occupied last year by Great Horned Owls, and she was now adding her own personal touches to it. I had the privilege of watching her fly directly into the cliff hole with the branchlet, so I knew that had to be her address.

Trying to locate nesting hawks is a hit-and-miss proposition. Timing is everything, and patience is everything else. The red-tails are incubating this month, with hatches coming soon, so you have to be in the right place at the right time. It’s difficult to find a vantage point high enough to see into the nest cavity, but far enough away not to disturb them. I feel like a raptor spy.

This is one happy wildlife intern. Snow-capped La Sal Mtns in background, adding to happiness.

You know, the day couldn’t have been much finer. Sue and I never saw another human being, but a Scott’s Oriole sang to us at lunch and posed at the top of a near juniper. Pinyon Jays, the local avian gossips, followed our every move. Pieces of the finest chert, flakes discarded in the making of stone points, lay everywhere — as if to distract our eyes from the sky-gazing task. And the pair of Red-tails filling my binocular lenses? That’s what I get up for in the mornings.

April 16, 2011

Eagle Park, Part 2

Continued from Eagle Park, Part 1

My eye drifted to tall fins about a half mile east. I squinted. Something was different on top, and I lifted my binoculars. A raptor shape! I had found a perched raptor! You may think that is a “so what” statement, but when you work with a skillful and accomplished birder who sees every speck in the sky (even while driving) and every bump on the rocks, you despair of EVER seeing something before she does. Tricia had predicted that this moment would come, and we exchanged a high-five and then set up the spotting scope to see what raptor it might be.

Spotting scopes magnify the image 30, 45, 60 times... invaluable when birding

The distance made it difficult. We could tell it wasn’t black like a raven, but it gave us no further clues. It sat stock still — for a half hour. Meanwhile, my keen-eyed boss sighted a flying raptor and we lay back on the rock to keep it in our binocs. A handsome Red-tailed Hawk circled effortlessly, peering earthward frequently… and then began an aerial display, rising, diving, rising again, tucking his wings, plunging, over and over again… then drifting north until our eyes lost the speck he had become.

I had given up on the unmoving bird to the east, concluding that it must have been a raptor-shaped rock taunting me, but as I turned my attention to it it took off. Its rufous tail caught the afternoon sun and all the pieces suddenly fit together. She had been the audience for whom the flight display was intended. We had a pair! In my business, a pair is a wonderful thing, and may lead you to a nest if you’re in the right place at the right time.

What a day. Our tiredness only added to the sublime sense of satisfaction we felt. Five hours in Eagle Park was a restorative for our souls; I’ll be back.

March 31, 2011

Pair of courting Red-tailed Hawks

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 9:01 am
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Google Image -- Red-tailed Hawk

We were in the remote 4WD-accessible Klondike Bluffs corner of Arches NP, checking out raptor nests that were active in past years. I’m learning to locate the whitewash (aka bird poop) on cliff walls underneath a perch or nest, and to put together “this seems like good habitat for bird X” with “where exactly should I look for bird X’s nest?” There are other clues, such as ravens’ propensity for harassing birds of prey, or the finding of a widely-strewn collection of years’ worth of prey bones and regurgitated pellets underneath an owl’s nest — all of which we saw this day.

Tricia spotted it long before I even became aware of its presence. A small speck in the sky behind the sandstone pillar circled lazily, and with binoculars we soon made out its red tail. It was a dark morph Red-tailed Hawk, in the vicinity of a historically active nest. We watched it for a while, and when it disappeared to the north we circled around the huge pillar to look for a nest. Nothing but old stuff. Our stomachs were rumbling, so we plunked down on a soft rock to feast on our backpack lunches.

Twenty minutes later the speck returned, and we realized we were sitting right under one of its favored perches. This time, however, the speck had another speck flying with it. A pair! We dared not move from our spot, so we tried to be inconspicuous while watching this duo catch thermals, circle around, and interact with one another as they flew. Even I, an unpolished observer, could see the sexual dimorphism (obvious size difference between male and female); in raptors the female is larger. The light male and dark female eventually left us, but a return trip to this area is in order to see if next time a nest can be located.

April 15, 2010

Lower Courthouse Wash Rocks

Our shady lunch spot along Lower Courthouse Wash

I’ll let you decide whether “rocks” is a noun or a verb in the post title. Either way, I was fascinated on my hike there today. This is a main drainage in the park, and apparently does not dry up. Cottonwoods and willows occupy the wash, and so do nesting raptors. We were there to locate nests for Cooper’s Hawks, Red-Tailed Hawks, and anything else we could find.

(A) Desert Varnish

The red rocks won’t leave me alone. I find them beautiful and mysterious and solidly comforting. The stripes (A) on these rocks are iron oxide and manganese oxide deposits, accelerated by run-off, taken from blowing sediments in the air, adhered to the rock surface by bacteria. It’s called Desert Varnish and it’s lovely. It may take 1000 years to form a layer as thick as one sheet of paper.

(B) Large area of fractured cliff wall, eight planes deep, about 15 yards wide

I’m intrigued again and again by the way sandstone fractures. This face is undercut in multiple layers; one can see a bit of the process of arch formation here (B). The visual texture is quite pleasing.

(C) Conchoidal fractures -- an especially beautiful example

Conchoidal fractures (C) happen when a slab of rock separates from the cliff wall. This example is particularly endearing, with its concentric circles. It was huge — scores of feet across.

And then, rounding a bend in the stream, THIS stares you in the face — an ancient pictograph (D). I am accustomed to seeing rock art in groupings, with multiple images on panels or nearby, but this one stands utterly alone. Sadly, it has been repeatedly used for target practice by rifle-bearing idiots; still, it commands my attention and respect.

(D) Lone pictograph high on wall; perhaps 16" diameter

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