Big Trip, Ch 4, Meandering the Snake

Meandering the Snake

8 June

My last glance back at Malheur led my eyes high over the dry sagebrush where a dark bird soared. The trusty 7X35 binoculars would not bring it in close enough for a definite identification, but my 20X50 scope mounted on a gun stock was always handy for just such an occasion. I nestled the butt of the stock that I had hand carved just months earlier into my right shoulder, took careful aim and there it was, an adult Swainson’s Hawk. The drive north to Burns was otherwise uneventful as the green of Malheur became a speck in the southern horizon. Arid sand and sagebrush surrounded me. Hardly had I left Burns, when a stopped for a noonish meal that put me next to an upset Sage Sparrow. This species was 109 for the trip, one that I had searched for, along with Sage Thrashers, at Malheur. The thrasher would have to wait.

Leaving Oregon, my home state, was a watermark, a threshold of sorts, something that I was anxious to cross. I had birded in Malheur, and even found some of the species I was hoping to find there. I felt I had earned my wings to go onward, that this trip was not just a dream, but that my plans could make the dream a reality. The road eastward held promise and soon I would be crossing the magic border. A steep descent brought me out of the winding Malheur River Canyon and into the Snake River Valley not far from Nampa, Idaho. The thickets of sagebrush began to thin to make room for cultivated crops irrigated by a myriad of water-choked canals. The hills, now behind to the west, blotted out the sun and shadowed the edge of the valley.

Crossing the Snake River today would not be the only crossing during the trip. The Snake River winds or snakes its way for 1038 miles from its headwaters at the nearly 10,000 Two Ocean Plateau in Yellowstone Park to Teton National Park, southern Idaho, and north to form part of the border between Oregon and Idaho. Along that border, the river flows through Hell’s Canyon, the deepest gorge in North America. The mountains at the gorge rise to 9,000 feet or 1.5 miles above the river. The Snake finally bends west in Washington state, at 340 feet above sea level, it empties into the Columbia River near Kennewick. The headwaters of the Snake River, is also the source of the Yellowstone River, which flows into the Missouri River, hence the name of the headwaters, Two Ocean Plateau. I was looking forward to crossing the Snake River again.

It was late in the day once crossing into Idaho. Naturally, I needed some light to set up camp and cook the evening meal, but where in this populated farmland. My only idea was to stop at some home to ask if I might pitch my tent in their pasture for the night. Luck was with me when I stopped at a small white house just off the highway west of Nampa where a 5-foot white-haired lady answered. After explaining the need for a place to camp, she gazed eastward across the wide flat expanse of agricultural land marked by the occasional cottonwood grove planted to abate the wind. She motioned down the road where she directed my attention to a smaller house that she said was unoccupied, and that I was welcome to use the lawn for my campground.

I was grateful to have a place to eat and sleep. Before turning in I wrote Linda a short letter. I wanted her to know that I was alive, and that I had crossed the border into the next state. I wondered what she was thinking. Tomorrow would mark the first week of being on the road. How could that be? What happened to the time? My mind was full of questions and anticipation as I dozed off for a night of sleep interrupted more often than I cared by freight truck tires wearing away while the diesels roared down the highway.

9 June

When morning came, I gathered my things and packed them for the second crossing of the Snake River and short ride to Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is another important site for waterfowl migrants and winter residents. The refuge manager, Gene Crawford, told me that Mallards are the most abundant species found during the peak wintering with flocks about 300,000. Most of the birds wet their feet in Lake Lowell, a reservoir of about 10,000 acres called Deer Flat. Monthly aerial censuses of 28 miles of the Snake River National Wildlife Refuge (now a part of Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge), with its 35 islands in the Snake River, and 11,000 acres of Deer Flat are conducted by Gene Crawford. One of the reasons for making these counts was to determine what areas not situated in the refuge that should be purchase by the government.

The caring manager of Deer Flat talked about his negative opinion of hunting clubs, and their control of so much waterfowl habitat. He was also concerned about the power hunters had on hunting seasons and how they pressured refuges to open more and more land for hunting. These refuges, public lands, once set aside to benefit habitat and the species are now in danger of being alteration or complete destruction by special interest groups, such as hunters, agriculture, and waterpower systems wanting to either to inundate or to drain them. The Glen Echo Dam project, resent threats to Grand Canyon National Park, encroachment of Primitive areas and many other situations are worrisome. Demands for agriculture have taken their toll also. Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge in northern California reduction in size is drastic. Deer Flat was no exception in the water wars between agriculture and refuges.

The day passed quickly talking to Mr. Crawford. There were lots of questions and answers about working for the refuge system. Although I had long since passed wanting to drive a fire engine or be a cowboy, I was not sure what I wanted to do the rest of my life. Working for the Fish and Wildlife Service as a refuge manager sounded inviting. It was interesting to talk to someone who was doing what I might like as a career. I did not see many birds during the day that ended by pitching my tent near a refuge service building. Tomorrow would be a day for birding.

10 June

The refuge checklist, updated in 1961, did not include a species seen today. In one of the few marshy areas near Deer Flat, I found two pairs of Virginia Rails. For a valid record, a specimen will have to be collected and identified by an expert for confirmation of my sight record. Before leaving the refuge, another marsh tempted my curiosity enough for a delay of the 200-mile trek to the next destination. At the edge of the marsh was a lone fence post standing in shallow water. Perched at its top was a Common Snipe [Wilson’s Snipe, again] that sat quite still for a number of seconds before suddenly bursting nearly straight up into the air. As suddenly as it took flight, the bird began a steep dive back to its original perch. An eerie hum whistled from its feathers as, with bent wings, the displaying bird plummeted earthward. I walked into the marsh toward the post. Again, the bird sat motionless on the fence post, then exploded high into the air, and plummeted back on whistling wings. The closer I approached, the louder the winnowing.

A few other birds put life into the marsh for the early morning chorus. Yellowthroats seem to say thimk at my intrusion. Yellow-headed Blackbirds were making their grating buzz-saw call in their effort to maintain their territories. A few Red-wings, mostly females slipped from the thicker vegetation and disappeared when I passed. Their nests were nearby. Several species of ducks exploded from an open pool. One of them was a male Cinnamon Teal, and holding true to its fast flying reputation, it quickly passed a couple of Mallards that had labored from the same pool. This is where I discovered the Virginia Rails. My marsh exploration was almost over when first, and then another, Virginia Rail strolled from a tuft of grass from the edge of the bordering meadow and disappeared into the cattails. When I rounded the final corner of my circular path, two more rails sneaked into the protective vegetation.

From Deer Flat I drove northeast to Mountain Home where I began a shortcut on Idaho highway 68. At first, the road was a narrow but paved passage. Not far up the road, I entered Boise National Forest where pavement became dirt. For the next twenty or so dusty miles I wondered about what the short cut was cutting. The road was rough and full of bumps, not unlike many mountain logging roads traveled in southwestern Oregon. This was a long short cut. I did enjoy finding a pair of Mountain Bluebirds that were nesting in a hole of a wooden directional sign that was set in the middle of the road at a junction. When I stopped to peak in the nesting cavity a steely blue male was on the nest. The male bolted out when he saw a strange eye peering into the cavity. He left five gaping and apparently hungry mouths. The male flew across the road, and chattered disapproving notes until I departed.

Dust, unexpected bumps, more dust, and Mountain Bluebirds were left behind as dirt turned to pavement at Hill City. Not all shortcuts are short but not are necessarily bad. Today was a perfect time when I should not be worrying too much about time. The passage of days is far less important than weeks. Watching the passage of seasons was important. The high elevations of the west seemed like late spring or early summer. The nights felt like winter, which made me more anxious to get east of the Rockies. There were still many places to see and there were more western birds on the horizon. After nearly 200 miles I reached Carey, the last town before Craters of the Moon National Monument. I was hungry. Not knowing how long I would stay in the monument, I decided to splurge at a restaurant. I ordered something that I would not cook on my two burner gas camp stove. A local Carey grocery had the peanut butter and mustard and needed to add to my store of food. I arrived at the monument and picked a tent site that overlooked the lunar landscape of dark craters and jagged black lava flows. The cinder and ashy dust made driving tent stakes almost impossible. I ended up driving the stakes deep and out of site into the loose ground. The tent finally had to be secured by rocks placed over the buried stakes. Finding rocks was not a problem.

Washing dishes in the twilight hasn’t always been my ideal, but the Rock Wren singing from a nearby lava spire made the chore much easier. A Nighthawk boomed earthward and then wavered into the high air on its quest of insect prey. With the aid of a flashlight I glanced through the monument’s leaflet. Terms such as rifts, spatter cones, lava tubes, pit craters and many other new and intriguing items filled the pages. Very little was mentioned about birds except that those found in the semiarid regions in the monument. My eyes became heavier. Tomorrow could wait.

*****

Wintering Mallard population of 300,000 censused by Gene Crawford were reported in 2004 to be as low as 100,000. Yes, I used hence at 18 and I still do at 60]. The slight decline in the acreage of Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge has little to no bearing on waterfowl numbers.

My concerns about conservation discussed with Gene in 1962 have not lessened; the water wars continue, Wilderness Areas, national parks and refuges, to name a few, are under constant attach for their timber and water, and attempts to privatize the land and the employees who our government hired to protect our land. Conservation organizations have grown in number, membership, and power. The populations of those who choose to be ignorant or just do not care about conservation have likewise grown in number and power. Nothing has changed.

While soaking in the experiences on the wildlife refuge, my youthful dreams turned from boyhood desires of fireman and cowboy to biologist. As it turned out, I had already worked on a ranch although I was never a cowboy, I eventually drove a fire engine during three summer’s works in Fire Control at Crater Lake National Park and Lava Beds National Monument, and I worked for the Fish and Wildlife for 25 years at Smithsonian. I could study wildlife and ride herd on a fire.

Checklists and comments on abundance reared its ugly head. Virginia Rails in Deer Flat refuge went from not being on the checklist to uncommon in spring and common during the summer as of 2004. Were these secretive birds simply overlooked or was the population assigned a different number? Idaho highway 68 no longer exists; the route I took in 1962 was gradually improved and renumbered as US 20 when stages of the Interstate Highway system were completed from 1969 to 1978. I had worked hard to find the two rails and I doubt that building an interstate, increased human population and greater demand for water is helpful to bird abundance. Maybe the status of the rails in Deer Flat is, more or less, real.

Craters of the Moon National Monument contains 53,545 acres that embrace part of the Pioneer Mountain foothills to the north, and a vast region of lava flows and cinder cones to the south at the northern edge of the Snake River Plain. Elevation ranges from 7,700 feet to 5,300 feet. Headquarters and the nearby campground where I slumbered are about of 5,900 feet. The monument runs essentially from northwest to southeast for 60 miles, with a width ranging from one and a half miles to five miles. The Craters of the Moon Lava Field was formed by a rift that was the source of over 60 lava flows, 25 cinder cones of varying sizes, and numerous eruptions. In 1962 175,278 people visited Craters of the Moon National Monument. The next year about 52,000 fewer visitors came to the monument. Was it something I said? Visitation in 1964 was near that of 1962, but surprisingly, only 178,823 visited the monument in 2003. In my estimation, that is a good thing. Parks, monuments, rare or endangered birds, and habitats some time are loved to death. That is why the National Park Service is now putting travel limitations in some parks; guided tours on buses in Yosemite National Park, for example are attempts to prevent popular parks from being loved to death. A refuge near Austin, Texas, closes part of its habitat in order to prevent the rare Golden-cheeked Warbler and Black-capped Vireo from being loved to death.

While I visited Craters of the Moon in 1962 I was unaware that there were plans to add about 1000 acres to the monument. The extra acreage, the Carey Kipuka Addition, was first considered in 1956 by F. R. Fosberg from the National Academy of Sciences. Dr. Fosberg occasionally visited my colleague next door to my Smithsonian office.

*****

11 June

A morning chorus of Rock Wrens filled the dark desolation of lava. The sun quickly warmed up everything as the campground began to come alive. People staggered and stretched out of their tents, looked around with squinting eyes, and made their way to the closest restroom. Soon breakfast was frying and popping all around. I heard a few campers grumbling about the “dirty park.” My cup of coffee cleared the way to reason allowing me to realize that the breeze that night had carried dust into the campground. The grit didn’t get into the sleeping bag but it did pepper my exposed hair and the tent floor needed sweeping out.

Night temperatures in Lava Beds National Monument were for the first time relatively comfortable. The black landscape soaked up the sun by midmorning to what some call room temperature. I remembered a trip in 1956 (before I began birding) with my parents in late June. Our visit in the monument was brief because the hot sun pelted the region to a hot, dehydrating, and inhospitable region.

Today, a full day of birding and exploring part of the monument was rewarding geologically and ornithologically. Just 15,000 years ago, a short time geologically, a rift opened to spew lava and volcanic debris of all kinds. Cinder cones dot the weird lunarscape. Many of the cones churned out cinders forming lava froth called pumice, a rock that is so full of air pockets that it will float on water. The largest of the many cinder cones is Big Cinder Butte, rising about 800 feet above its base. Many lava flows cover most of the monument indicating a peaceful rather than explosive period when the rift slowly oozed molten rock from its openings. I hiked across the most recent of these flows called North Crater Flow, which is made of pahoehoe (pah-hoe-ay-hoe-ay) type of lava. Pahoehoe is a smooth, billowing or ropey conformation. This type of lava flow is relatively easy to walk on, while the aa (ah’-ah) that is extremely rough, broken and irregularly shaped formations of jagged corners and sharp spines. That would tear a good pair of boots to shreds in short order and a fall could range from painful to deadly. I suppose the name aa came from someone experiencing the pain of its sharp edges. I managed to stay on my feet, appreciated my heavy boots, and was glad that I came across more pahoehoe, with its smoothish twists, pleats, and folds.

Lava tubes formed by molten steam, some of them collapsed, some weaved their way under and to the surface of the expansive solid rock accented the rough landscape. I didn’t venture into any of the lava tubes. No birds underground. Wind had swirled volcanic ash into holes and cracks in the lava floor. An Indian paintbrush grew in one such crevice giving its orange and silvery green color to the rough and dark basaltic background. The scanty “soil” was a precarious niche. The plant would need enough water to complete at least its reproductive cycle. An obscure lizard darted on the side of a frozen lava wall. An insect, possibly blown off course or looking for a plant to pollinate, winged by to disappear on the lava. Maybe it would be a meal for the lizard. Without appreciation for the plants and animals, the lava flows would be lonely and boring. This place was neither.

Few birds were seen on the North Crater Flow because of the sparse vegetation that consisted of occasional paintbrush and various species of composites or daisies. Of course Rock Wrens, apparently the most common species in the monument, were always nearby. The wrens on the flow were less approachable and usually sung from hidden perches compared to the same species in and around the campground. One had perched on the tent and burst into full song. After crossing the flow I found myself surrounded by birds where limber pine was the dominate plant. Hugging the cinder covered ground were common shrubs including sage, bearmat and rabbit brush. The area seemed a Mecca for more Green-tailed Towhees than I had ever seen. Two pairs of Mountain Bluebirds flew nearby and in a shrub a Warbling Vireo quietly foraged. Audubon’s Warblers [=Yellow-rumped] flitted from tree to tree in every direction. A male Western Tanager out did the warblers for most and brightest colors. Chipping Sparrows and even a Robin found the environment not too disagreeable. Violet-green Swallows glided and circled overhead. A bustling colony probably reverberated from a lively commotion somewhere on the face of some distant crater wall. Back at camp, I noticed Violet-green Swallows winging directly toward Big Cinder Butte. Walking five difficult miles brought four new species to the trip list. These include the towhee, nutcracker, vireo, and Mountain Chickadee. I wondered how I could have missed such species these last 10 days.

I phoned my parents to let them know that I was alright. I also wanted them to know that, so far, I was doing what I planned to do, and to reminisce that I was calling from a place the family had enjoyed visiting several years earlier. In a letter, I wrote my parents after the call that I probably will not call again for a month. Confidence and fortitude were gaining ground.

*****

A summer job in the fire control unit during the college years put me into most of the lava tubes at Lava Beds National Monument in northeastern California, a volcanic terrain just south of Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge. One of our jobs was to remove any refuse left by the public. Those were the days of Polaroid cameras, the throw-away cover of their film and the days of glassy flashbulbs. We found many such items from pretend nature photographers. Over a decade later I learned, that lava tubes were wonderful places for Barn Owls to regurgitate the bones of their prey. The deposit of the bones was a mine for any astute paleornithologist such as Storrs Olson, who started working at Smithsonian the year I began there with the National Biological Survey.

*****

12 June

Packed and fired up, the VW was ready for a short trip to civilization at Idaho Falls. After three days of living without a clean change of clothes, I was inspired to visit the local laundromat and a hot shower. Probably anyone that came near me appreciated my inspiration. Thanks to the YMCA, an organization that I joined before leaving Oregon, I was able to enjoy the feeling of hot water and soap. It felt great to be clean again. Detouring to the eastern part of Idaho Falls to get that much needed shower at the YMCA meant and back to my route meant crossing the Snake River twice. The second crossing would be the last crossing until sometime later when and if I make it to Yellowstone National Park.

An hour north of Idaho Falls and still on the Snake River Plain, was my last of three major birding stops in Idaho. The destination, Camas National Wildlife Refuge, was also the fourth visited National Wildlife Refuge counting Upper Klamath in Oregon nine days earlier. Similar to Malheur and Deer Flat refuges, Camas was a watery oasis surrounded by sagebrush. Although the Camas refuge checklist offered little promise in seeing anything new, my visit to Camas was unforgettable. When I arrived in late afternoon Robert Twist, the manager, was out in the field so I decided to try my luck. The road along a dike was barely high enough to see over the tall willows and marsh vegetation. Only two species of ducks were missing from my trip list that could possibly be found at Camas. Both were easy.  In no time I had Mallards, Pintails, Gadwalls, Redheads and other checked off beside the two I was looking for, Green-winged Teal and American Widgeon.

By the time I reached a section of open grassland Long-billed Curlews and Willets were becoming agitated by a dark cloud looming out of the north. Wind had begun to blow through the cattails across the road so strongly a Savannah Sparrow practically bounced on the dusty road before regaining its composure and hiding in the vegetation at the other side. At a culvert a Black-crowned Night Heron squawked and lumbered out of its protective nook. A twinge of guilt was felt for flushing the heron, even if it was accidental. The wind became stronger as the dark cloud moved closer and towered over the bent grass. I decided to wait for the storm to pass. Even though the car was headed into the gale-force wind, it shook and rocked at each blast. Now every bird was out of sight, probably clinging to some plant anchor for dear life. The gales swept across the marsh creating flowing waves of water in the cattails. The marsh pulsated to the command of the unrelenting wind. Still no birds were in sight, so, with nothing else to do I tallied the trip list. The storm subsided ever so little during the drive back to refuge headquarters to meet Mr. Twist.

As luck would have it, I was invited to the manager’s home where I was served a great home cooked meal, the first since leaving home. By then the storm had moved on to the south. Robert Twist decided to take me for a drive for some close up waterfowling. Jumping into his pickup, he told me that the best way to see ducks was to catch them by surprise. He was correct. In fact, many of the ducks didn’t flush until they were abreast of the pickup. Sometimes we even passed them; leaving Shovellers and scaups behind as we roared at speeds only a stunt driver would drive and still keep on the road. At no time were any birds harmed by the speeding truck, other than being momentarily frightened. The road was dirt and mud, on top of dikes and through ditches. We skidded around a turn onto a side road. Part of the road was inundated but we splashed through and flooded the engine. Luckily the heat from the engine must have turned the unwanted water to steam. The engine came to life. Again, our ambush was successful as Mallards, Canvasbacks, and ten other very surprised kinds of ducks exploded out of the water as we rocketed past them. On the way back through the flooded road no chances were taken. We rushed through even faster shooting spray twice as high as the pickup cab and out in a wide fan of spray. We crossed several culverts. Almost everyone was accompanied by a Black-crowned Night Heron. Robert said that water flows through the culverts according to the inflow of Camas Creek, the source for many of the lakes and ponds in the refuge, and local regulations. When the water flows over the corrugated steel culverts, fish, frogs, and aquatic insects are carried through the pipes. Evidently, water levels of the numerous ponds and lakes remain about the same with only minor flows from one body of water to another. The night herons have apparently learned that there are easy pickings in the shallow water flowing through the culvert.

In addition to the two needed ducks, American Bittern was added to the trip list. The only other species in Camas National Wildlife Refuge that I looked for but missed were Sage Grouse. Maybe I should have spent more time in the upland habitat but I didn’t miss seeing a frightened pronghorn antelope bolting across my path. Perhaps I should have spent less time in the marshes and racing ducks in a pickup. However, I would have missed what was to me an overwhelming density and number of Long-billed Marsh Wrens. I would also miss the wild evening ride into the marsh and being eye to eye with so many ducks. They were so close I could hear them breath. I wondered if any other visitors had been treated to waterfowling by a speeding pickup.

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