May 26, 2011

Wildlife of the Dungeness Spit

On my journey to the lighthouse at the end of the Dungeness Spit, I had the great pleasure of seeing literally hundreds of animals. Since I was the only person on the spit, the wildlife had not been scared off or turned skittish, allowing me great opportunities to take some pictures. So, below you can check some of the out.

The first thing I noticed was a group of bald eagles swarming around in numbers I had never seen before. I estimated that there must have been at least 30 of them hanging out on driftwood, flying overhead, or hopping down the beach. Thus, I knew there must have been something stranded on the beach. Eagles may be famous for their plucking of salmon from rivers, but in reality mostly they are just scavengers.

Eagles are such wimps. They easily could have swarmed me with their sharp talons and beaks and sent me running off in horror. Instead, they simply hopped up onto the logs and let me walk right up to their food source. I could have "eaten" it and they wouldn't have done anything. Instead they just waited for me to move on and then jumped back in to feast again.

Sure enough, as I approached I found a dead porpoise with a newborn/fetus. I am not sure if the mother died giving birth or if the fetus was just very close to term, but it was fully developed. I could not tell if it has been born or simply removed from the mother by the scavenging eagles. I suspect the latter.

Also along the way I came across a group of about 10 harbor seals who were hanging out about 30 feet offshore watching me.

Pacific Loons

A common loon in summer plummage

I was shocked to see a common loon in summer plummage. They are very common along the Puget Sound area in winter. But, generally they take off for the summer to head north to the lakes of Canada and Alaska. But, apparently this one decided to stay behind.

Harlequin Duck

There were a number of Caspian Terns soaring about and diving into the water over and over catching fish.

Caspian Tern

A group of Western Gulls

May 24, 2011

Shoshone Falls, Idaho - Spring versus Late Summer

Shoshone Falls is called by some the Niagara of the West. These 200 foot falls of the Snake River located in Twin Falls, Idaho mark the historic location furthest inland that Pacific Salmon could migrate before reaching this impassible boundary. We first visited Shoshone Falls in September of 2009. At that time it looked very different.

September 15th, 2009

When we visited in September, the Snake River was at the traditional lowest point of the year. The snow has melted from the mountains and much of the Snake River has been siphoned off for agriculture all summer long. Thus, when we visited, it was not much more than a large rock wall with some ribbons of water streaming down.

May 23rd, 2011

But, in May of 2011, with Rocky Mountain snowpacks at 200% of normal this year and the late spring rains still coming, the Snake River is really full. The falls are tumbling and roaring and now it really deserves the title of Niagara of the West. Except that Gloria says that Niagara Falls is not even this loud or wild.

This record year for wet weather and snow is causing both blessings and curses depending on the location and situation. Lake Powell is filling up and is able to send water down to help refill Lake Mead. Back in 2005, Lake Powell got so low that is almost reached the dangerous "Dead Pool" stage where no hydroelectricity could be produced and inadequate water levels could not be released into the Grand Canyon. So, that is a welcome change. Hydropower is booming all across the west from the volume of water going through generators. High elevation forests will not be stressed this year from the historic droughts they have been facing the last decade or so.

September 2009

On the other hand, rivers are topping their banks and threating to flood communities and farmland. The Great Salt Lake is rising and may encroach into low lying areas and neighborhoods. The roads through the high mountains will open late as they plow through 20-30 feet of snow and hiking trails will not be free until July or later.

May 2011
Well, so goes Global Climate Change or as I recently heard it called "Global Weirding". Climatologists have long predicted that the impacts of rising temperatures (even as subtle as a 1 degree) are not that it feels warmer or melts snow faster, but that is rearranges our normal climate systems. Dramatic events like more frequent and more powerful tornadoes, massive flooding in some places and droughts in others, and just more dramatic weather than we are used to (and our infrastructure is built for) is going to become more of the norm than we grew up with.

May 17, 2011

What changes since last fall in the Mississippi Valley

The view from the bluff in Vidalia, LA in November

It's been crazy watching the weather in the midwest recently, since we were in the region in much nicer times last fall. First came the amazing tornadoes and now the record flooding.

The RV park we stayed at is underwater lower right below those blue buildings

Back last November, we stayed several nights in Vidalia, LA right across the river from Natchez, MS. At the time, the Mississippi River was down near its normal low-water mark of the year. So, as we walked along the riverwalk, we were 50+ feet above the river level and wide sandy beaches were at the bottom of the bluffs.

The view fron Natchez across to Vidalia

But, as the Mississippi River Floods reaches record levels, the exact location where we were picking pecans and wanding along the levees is now underwater. The RV park we stayed at is that open area in the lower right of the image above. We walked the riverwalk up under the Natchez bridge past the convention center and hotel in the upper portion of the image.

The view of the convention center and hotel on the waterfront in Vidalia, LA

Here is another image of the flooded banks of the convention center and hotel. We were walking there a few months ago standing 50 feet above the river.

If the backup levees behind this waterfront park area were not to hold, then these low-lying extremely poor neighborhoods in Vidalia, LA would be flooded. As for the granduer of Natchez? Not to worry, it stands on a huge 200 foot bank. It was specifically built there to protect plantation owners from the river, while the cotton fields in the lower stretches flooded.

May 10, 2011

Late Spring in Sycamore Canyon, Verde Valley, Arizona

For the past couple of weeks, the temperature was rising faster than an oven on broil. By late last week, temperatures were pushing 90 degrees in Sedona and it looked like summer was here in full force. But, then a big cold front rolled down from the north dropping temperatures back into the 50's and even bring snow to Flagstaff.

Linda's parents came down for a visit, so luckily for them the temperatures were just like what they left behind in the Pacific Northwest, so there was no shock to their system. Knowing this might be the last chance to hike down in the Verde Valley, I took them down to Sycamore Canyon on their first full day here to see the amazing riparian forest there.

I wrote up the exact trail description for this site some time back, which you can check out below. But, that was for a hike I did in October when the trees were in beautiful autumn foliage.

Mesquite bosque just above the riparian zone with golden grasses

Today, it was all about the green! The Arizona sycamores, Arizona ash, Arizona walnuts, Fremont cottonwoods, alder, soapberry, and hackberries were in lush, vibrant shades of green that provided an amazing contrast to the desert surrounding it.

The riverbed is full of colorful rocks from the many layers of the Mogollon Rim

Linda's parents dog Mo was in absolute heaven as he loves to swim and Sycamore Canyon provides lots of swimming holes. He could have swam around in there until his legs gave out and he drowned!

The cliffs are made of Redwall Limestone. This 250-million year old formation is actually gray in color, but is red because it is stained on the surface by the red shales of the Supai Group above it. Redwall limestone is also one of the most distinctive cliff-forming areas seen in the middle of the Grand Canyon.

Storm clouds brewing

But, after about 3 miles, the skies darkened and big clouds rolled through. Thus, we turned around and started back before the rain began to fall. May is usually one of the driest months of the year in Arizona, so it was a bit surprising to see. But, rain it did... Luckily we made it back to the vehicle before we got soaked.

May 2, 2011

Cactus Blooms...Late Spring in the Sonoran Desert

For the past couple of weeks, the temperatures had been in the upper-70's in Sedona and mid-90's in the Sonoran Desert. But, a cold front rolled through Friday night dropping temperatures significantly. With temperatures down to a far more bearable 80 degrees in the desert, we decided to make a little camping trip down there to see what the Sonoran Desert looks like in late spring.

Our first stop was Lake Pleasant, located just north of Phoenix at about 1,500 feet in elevation. This lake is created by pumping water from the Arizona Canal (originally pumped out of the Colorado River) into the basin of the Agua Fria River. 98% of the water you see here is from the Colorado River, as the Agua Fria is little more than a small creek that mostly flows beneath the surface.

The water is used primarily as a summer storage pond for watering Phoenix's golf courses and gardens in the summer. They pump water in during the spring snow runoff and allow it out during the summer. The lake is extremely popular with Metro Phoenicians, especially those with boats and jet skis. Hilina enjoyed playing along its shores. We were going to camp there, but the campgrounds were full and its was pretty choatic, so we decided to head over to Wickenburg to disperse camp instead.

At this elevation, the saguaros had already started to bloom. They bloom mostly in May. They are primarily pollinated by bats, moths, and in the day by bees. Each flower opens at night and stays open for 24 hours before closing up. Their fruit mature in late June, and then open up during the summer monsoons to release their thousands of seeds on the wet ground. A mature saguaro will produce over 2 million seeds in its lifetime, of which only about 1 on average will survive long enough to produce its own fruits.

Palo Verde in a brilliant display of yellow flowers

Saguaros are worshipped by the Tohono O'odham people because their fruit were a critical source of food and water at the peak of the summer heat and their presence signified the arrival of the refreshing summer monsoon season.

While the increasing heat and arid conditions have resulted in the death of most of the annual wildflowers, late spring is the season of the cactus blooms. Cholla, prickly pear, hedgehog, and pincushion cactus put on brilliant displays of pastel flowers!

Buckhorn Cholla flowers

Velvet Mesquite in bloom

While the saguaros and palo verde are in bloom in the lower elevations near Phoenix, up a little bit higher in Wickenburg, at 2,300 feet elevation, not nearly as many things are blooming. The saguaros and palo verde do not even show any signs of budding. It'll still be a few more weeks up there. But, there were still plenty of cholla and ocotillo flowering.
Prickly Pears in bloom

We camped in a small sandy wash off a dirt road on BLM land. It was nice being away from the yahoos at Lake Pleasant and having the entire desert all to ourselves. Also, with temperatures in the 70's on May 1st, it was also very comfortable.

Ocotillos in bloom

Hilina had a wonderful time camping. She was so wound up that she was chatting all into the night. But, once she finally fell asleep, she was out like a rock. In the morning, she was hyped up again and said to us "thank you for taking me camping!".

Our campsite "off the beaten track" near Wickenburg

When we were last near Wickenburg in January 2010, we climbed up that peak, called Vulture Peak. You can see the images of that climb from this blog post below;

A view of Vulture Peak from the campsite