Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Early November

November 2011

By Tom Spofford

For the past year I've been writing about my walks in the west Eugene wetlands as a representative of the WREN organization. I observed nature in a specific stretch of the bike
path from the Terry St bridge to just beyond the railroad crossing.

This is west of the WREN offices. As I approach the beginning of my second year I've decided to move east, over to the Stewart Ponds area. I plan to visit the west side area from time to time but will focus on the Stewart Ponds in the coming months.

As I pull into the lot I recall that there is a pair of raptors who nest every year in the evergreens across the street. As hard as I tried I couldn’t see the nest when it was first brought to my attention. On this day it is still well hidden. The drenching rains are late in coming this fall and the main pond area is still dry. It’s disappointing but I will be using this first walk to scout the paths since I haven’t spent a lot of time over here. It’s a chilly and overcast afternoon with a threat of rain as I begin to walk. A familiar call back near the lot and I see a group of waxwings dipping in and out of the trees near the road. I’ve been able to recognize the waxwing call, flight pattern and of course the distinctive silhouette of the head. The Sibley Field Guide points out that the waxwings get their name from them having waxy concentrations at the ends of some of their feathers which is a product of their fruit diet.

I head out on the wood chip path which was spread by volunteers a year previously during an event celebrating the parks service. The grasses have begun to grow back over the chips but I don't have much time to contemplate how quickly nature grabs back what it can from the humans because two very aggressive Chesapeake Retrievers have taken to charging me from the adjoining property. I instinctively yell at them which slows them somewhat and after a brief survey they apparently decide I'm not a threat and head back.

The fields are greening up from the showers of the past month. The brown fields of late summer are now in a second wave of growth. Frogs chirp down in a low spot, quieting as I approach. The trees in this area are a muted palette, more like a Dutch landscape painting versus some of the vibrant Warhol colors of the ornamental maples around town. I love to see photos comparing areas of nature or even urban settings taken 50 or 100 years apart. As a kid I walked through the woods in my neighborhood a lot. Once I came across an old house foundation that was barely visible. Nearby was a goldmine-a dumping area from probably 100 years earlier. It was filled with old bottles, decomposing metal cans and even a horse skull, great fodder for a young imagination.

I squint a little and try to imagine what this field looked like 50 years ago. Was it being farmed? Was it wooded or thick with blackberries? Were there native peoples in this very field 300 years ago?
I’ve learned to watch the ground, the trees and the sky on these walks. There is little bird or animal activity but I do see much scat or animal droppings from many different animals. I keep walking the property perimeter. There are many well-used animal paths crisscrossing the field. A small pond offers up some tracks, raccoon and nutria are the likely visitors.

A trio of crows gab as they slowly fly over. A jay lands on a branch and then I hear a whistling call that could be an eagle. I also hear a kingfisher’s unmistakable call. I quietly come to the edge of a larger pond and see a dark duck with an olive bill. It departs quickly and I’m still not sure what it was. If it was an American Black Duck it’s far from home. I need to sharpen my identification skills!

Flickers fly over towards the oaks and chickadees pop in and out of the brush. On the trail heading back to the car I notice the grasses in the setting sunlight. They are fine and ghostlike in the light, beautiful, unlike anything man-made. Back on the road juncos flit through the bushes. I’ve learned to identify them by the flash of white under the tail.

Soon the rains will bring the waterfowl but for now I can appreciate the finer details of the Stewart Ponds.

I am not an expert in any way regarding the natural world. I am a novice who loves to be out in this world. It’s a fine respite from the daily grind of work. I find something new on every walk. I continue to learn if nothing more than how much I have to learn. It’s been a perfect way to spend a couple of hours and I head home relaxed and recharged.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Roving at Dusk

August 21st, 2011, 7:30pm
by Tom Spofford

I’ve mostly walked the West Eugene wetlands during the daylight hours. As a change of pace I headed out close to dusk on a recent Sunday to both view the area activity late in the day and to avoid the heat that has come to the valley.

The ground is dry and hard since we haven’t had significant rain in months. Grasses are quite brown and many plants are dropping their seeds. Swallows have been a constant all summer and they are out this evening, perhaps feeding on the insects I can see in the low sunlight. The stream is down to a very slow flow with much algae growing in areas of the sluggish water.

Blackberries ripening along the bank reminding me of a few years ago when we were hiking in Northern California. We had been warned that a bear and her cub had been seen in the area where we stopped for a quick hike. A ranger was at the trailhead but had yet to see the animals that day and was allowing people into the area. We hiked the trail and, on the return to the parking area, as we came around a bend we came upon the pair heading toward us at 25 yards. We calmly turned and headed back to where we could safely watch where they were going, which was a thick patch of blackberries. We were able to get back to the parking lot. Days later we read a story of a couple who surprised a bear and the wife had to fight it off with an ink pen as it attacked her husband.

I picked some berries in the wetlands and as usual some were perfectly ripe and others were still sour. I’m curious to know which birds and mammals eat these berries. It’s a fleeting yet abundant food supply.

A nutria makes a big splash in the creek then waddles back up the bank scratching it’s side and making a high pitched grunt. A kingfisher flies along the stream making it’s telltale call and flight pattern, not a subtle bird at all. I enjoy the kingfisher. It’s a large and handsome bird, easy to identify by call or sight. Some chickadees come through the low bush. I hadn’t seen any out in the wetlands or our yard for a few months. They must head to some elevation in the summer to breed, escape the heat or maybe find a different food source. I recently saw a few mixed into a gang of cheerful bushtits who swoop through our hedges every evening hunting for spiders.

As the sunlight begins to fail I can sense that the season is shifting. The sound of the leaves in the trees is much different. They sound drier in the wind compared to the lush young leaves of spring and summer. The light is changing as well, appearing slightly muted to my eye.

Down the path the setting sun is seen through thistle that is dropping it’s seed in a slight breeze. It’s not autumn yet as the crickets are still chirping a high note. For years we had generations of crickets outside our bedroom window and their tune slowed more and more through September and October.

The sun tucks in behind the west hills glowing orange while the clouds in the east picked up a striking pink tone at the same time. I take many photographs of the sunset through some plants and I try to capture the pink clouds.

Swallows appear again as I head back towards the car. I make a mental note to learn the difference between swifts and swallows. I can hear birds now but it is too dark to be able to see them. This is when I wish I was more adept at identifying by calls.

This fall I’ll be sure to come to the wetlands at various times of the day. I’ve been more apt to walk in the afternoons. The more difficult will be a sunrise visit but I’m sure it will yield more surprises. The birds will be returning as the rainy season begins and I look forward to noting the changes to the landscape as nature’s wheel turns.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

July Roving Report

Mid July 2011

I took the month of June off from walking the wetlands and so I was looking forward to seeing the various changes to the environment I’ve been walking through since December. It was late spring when I last walked the West Eugene Wetlands but today was certainly summer. It was a warm, breezy day of full sun as we arrived. I had forgotten to bring a hat but fortunately did have sunscreen.

It was very quiet and calm with few obvious birds in the skies and vegetation. No one was walking but there were many bicyclists on the path. Much of the grasses had headed to seed and browned. A mix of green and brown was the view across the fields. Many flowers had also seeded.

Summer was in full swing as evidenced by the slow current in the stream and the changes in the flora. Swallows swooped over us catching insects with their graceful turns. I was reminded to watch for the return of the swifts to the chimney of Agate Hall on the U of O campus in late summer. Two summers ago we watched them flying into the chimney at dusk and a hawk was perched at the edge and grabbed one as it came in.

Dragonflies are in abundance now in the wetlands. Add another group to my ever-expanding list of creatures I’d like to be able to identify readily. I see a type with white and black striped wings. I also would like to read more on dragonflies in general. What do they eat? What life stages do they go through? What is the lifespan?

A pheasant scares me for a change as it was very close to the path and flew up in front of me at the last moment. Some bubbles come to the surface of the stream and I wonder what’s down in the cool stream bottom on this hot day.

While there are very few birds, my eye notices how many different flowers are now in bloom. Some have actually already dried and gone to seed, a reminder to enjoy the summer as autumn will come soon. I take photos of at least 15 different flowers with hopes of identifying them later.

The flowers are of various sizes from petite to prehistorically large. I step off the path to examine more closely some of these larger specimens and hear some loud splashing down in the stream. I’d love to see what’s making the noise but the bank is steep and the vegetation tall. It could be fish or ducks. I don’t think it’s a dog as it isn’t quite that loud and I also hear no jingling tags. My shoes, socks and laces are now covered with velcro-like seeds. Nature has evolved some fascinating ways of perpetuating plants. These seeds would grab on to anything and could be distributed great distances.

My legs are also itchy from the plants. I never used to be so sensitive to plants. Now my skin reacts to most all plants rubbing against it. I also seem to come away with some sort of insect bite each time I venture off a path or reach blindly into the garden. I suspect spiders but it could be most anything.

A bug lands on my shirt three times. It looks like what we called Stink Bugs as kids. My entomology class in college seems so long ago...

Minnows can be seen from the bridge trolling small pools. I wonder if they are salmon. A nutria emerges and then disappears again into a stream side thicket. A goldfinch is perched on a dead limb and a wilson’s warbler is feeding on something in the stream.

As we are nearing the car a couple on bikes tells me that they think they saw a fox in the open area down the path near the viewing scope. They weren’t sure because they hadn’t any binoculars. On another day I might make the trip back to verify the sighting but it’s hot and a shade tree, a chaise lounge and a glass of lemonade waits for me.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

May Roving Report

Rove 5-15-2011

It looks like spring outside but it still doesn’t feel like it. I’m tentative about putting in much of my vegetable garden quite yet. I hedge my bet and instead head out to walk in the West Eugene wetlands. One reader of my blog called it the Swamplands. How do the two differ actually? I suppose the wetlands are a seasonal area of varying water levels whereas a swamp is wet year round. Also there is no skunk cabbage in these wetlands and so they can’t possibly pass for a swamp!

As I pull into the road leading to the pathway I scan the trees out of habit for movement. A few crows and starlings are carrying on high in some pines. It’s chilly with tremendous clouds lurking about as I pull into the parking area. The moment I shut off the car rain begins to fall. I sit and wait out the short shower. The sun comes out and quickly warms the air as I walk toward the creek. Off to the side of the roadway there’s a small area of water. I make a mental note to investigate the pool on the way back.

The winds pick up as I reach the creek. Family in the northeast chuckle when they hear I’m still wearing winter hats and fleece but I’m glad to be warm this afternoon. A turkey vulture (I often call them buzzards) floats over quite low to the path. These are huge birds and if they had a bit more distinguished head they might get more respect akin to eagles.

Cyclists spin by but no walkers in sight today. Three male mallards are in the creek. I read somewhere that a particular male bird leaves once the baby birds are born if not sooner. These males fly north for the summer. I don’t think it’s the mallard I’m thinking of but seeing three males together makes me wonder if I can find that article again.

A flash of blue across the stream turns out to be a jay. It’s probably returning to a nest. We have a jay nest in the camellias at our house. We can hear the hatchlings peeping for food and a parent swoops about when we come close. Despite the temperature it sounds like summer out here today. The trees are almost fully in leaf and the wind blowing through them reminds me of warm summer evenings.

The creek is down to just inches in some spots and so the flow is very slow. The trash on the opposite bank is now obscured by the tall grasses. The paper will degrade but the metals and plastics will be visible again come late fall. Blackberries sprawl on the pathside. The thorny growth keeps the public on the path, protecting the nesting areas.

The skies are turning dark to the south and west. I can see that it’s raining in the distance but I’m walking towards blue sky. The sun feels good, strong enough to seep through my fleece. The lupins are in full bloom, a spectacular architectural display of purple. I step off the path to take a photograph and notice a large black spider. This reminds me that there is a whole society of small creatures underfoot and in the air. Flies, a bee and a cricket show up as I slow down and look closely. The lupins don’t appear to be much of a pollen source and so there aren’t many bees amongst the mass of flowers.

A meadowlark calls from a small tree. My mother came to visit when I lived in No California and we took a drive to Table Mountain in Oroville to see the spring wildflowers. It was a cold, cloudy day and a little early to see many flowers. I do remember the meadowlarks from that day as does my mom, the unmistakable call and brilliant yellow.

The tree full of white blossoms just two weeks ago has dropped it’s flowers and is now all green leaves. One day last week I was bicycling home on No. Polk and came across a wind drift of pink blossoms filling the street up against the curb. I photographed it and rode by the next day and the petals had browned. Nature gives us some fleeting bits of beauty and then it’s gone; all the more important to slow down and take notice. Life is that way in general. We miss far too much beauty of all sorts.

I see a new purple flower and sketch it as my camera battery has failed. It seems like every time I walk I decide I want to learn to identify some other aspect of nature. Birdcalls, trees, mammal tracks, grasses, raptors, sparrows, and now flowers. I’ll be busy.

I wonder if this flower is new growth of a dried stem with seed pod that dots the bank. Where’s the botanist when I need one? A small group of geese fly over. A small songbird drops into a tree but the leaves obscure it and identification will be difficult. It calls out and now I do wish I was more adept at call identification.

I’ve ridden my bicycle through here countless times over the past couple of years but failed to really notice anything until I started this roving assignment. We speed by so much in our haste to do, do, do. The Buddhists have it right in focusing in on the moment at hand. The small trail created by the nutria up the bank, the various calls of the red winged blackbird, the blue heron taking flight 100 yards away with a trail of white excrement in it’s wake. Zipping along on my bike I wouldn’t have noticed any of this.

Three vultures fly in smaller and smaller circles and land across the creek in a thicket. Starlings gather above in a tree to watch the action. I round a bend hoping to see what the excitement is but the view is obscured. The vultures eat(?) in peace.

A fish jumps in the water. The creek is deeper along this part of the path. I’m hoping to see a kestrel as I have made it a favorite bird of mine. I find it quite intriguing, a small raptor with beautiful markings and color. I will study it through my birdguides.

As I approach the small seasonal pond I see a lone pink rose amongst the greens and browns of the undergrowth. The pool is filling with grasses. The ducklings have moved elsewhere, perhaps to the nearby channel. Swallows dart amongst the trees and a pair of mallards fish around the shallows where a month ago shovelers, sandpipers (?), green wing teal crowded the pond.

A red winged blackbird perches on a dead limb and calls out. It is so loud for such a small creature. I’m amazed at how far it carries. I startle a pair of mourning doves who fly up to the same dead limb. I’m interested in the lack of interest in either party of the other. A couple approaches and they both have binoculars! I’ve been walking this path for months and this is a first. They are looking at a hovering bird believing it to be a harrier. We decide simultaneously that it’s a crow. They chuckle at their mistake and keep walking.

I step off the path near the parking area and look around the small pond I’d seen earlier. There are small bird tracks, waterfowl tracks and a small mammal track. Again I decide to learn to identify tracks.

The clock in the car says it’s 7pm. I’ve been out for almost two hours that seemed like thirty minutes. My work day has washed away and I have a pleasant feeling of having spent time well. I look forward to looking up the kestrel, identifying the new flower and giving my wife a quick review of my late afternoon.