Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Camping in the Klamath Basin

Klamath Basin, CA and OR: June 2010

An old juniper snag. Long ago the center was burned out of the main stem, yet for years one branch continues to thrive.

It feels so delicious to go camping. The first year we owned this van ( 1994 ), we spent 99 nights in it. Because of Dale’s immobility we slowed down to a total of seven nights in five years. With two new hips we feel as though we are on go again. The Klamath Basin is one of our favorite spots to savor nature. We camp at Lava Beds National Monument and spend our time both in the Monument and on the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges.

Close to freezing last night. Now, at 8:30 AM the sun is warming the day. We find a very energetic western fence lizard on the shoulder of the loop road above the Monument Visitor Center. The lizard seemed more interested in shoveling pebbles than our presence. Dust and little pebbles fly. He paws with one front leg, the other front leg and finally his hind legs, one after the other. I watch to see if he is unearthing edibles, working on a spot to rest, territorial posturing because of our presence …? …?...? I sit down to steady the 100-400 mm lens on my knee.

After several pawing sessions, the lizard comes over and rests on some long dried tar at the edge of the asphalt, about six inches from my foot.

Maybe he is just trying to get warm. The black tar would be warmer, and once on it, he squishes down as if to take advantage of what little warmth there is. The more I think about it, I think this may be an example of thermoregulation .

If anyone has seen this behavior or knows more about it, please let me know.

I just disturbed a pika! I’m not happy I disrupted his morning activities, but I’m delighted I got to see him. We were just finishing up our peanut butter on bread, hard-boiled egg and V8 juice breakfast at Merrill Cave, when I decided to finish my juice at the lip of the collapsed Lava tube and see if any rock wrens were about.

Suddenly I realized I was about six feet from a pika. He zipped into a crevice, but then came out to peer at me. His nose seems a little pointier than Yellowstone’s pikas. Maybe it is just because he has a summer coat on. – Later reading enlightened me. It is a different subspecies.
As I sit watching and waiting, I see he has already harvested some buckwheat blossoms and a current twig. The blossoms and their long stems are neatly laid out parallel to each other, but with some blossom heads facing one way and the others the other way. A clump of buckwheat grows just a couple of feet from where I first spotted him. I bet he was on his way to nip off another few stems.

Suddenly the little guy turns back into his crevice and out again, this time carrying more buckwheat. He scoots down the steep tumble of lava and out of sight. So he had more cut stems stored there! Pikas cut and dry vegetation and end up with hay piles big enough to fill a bushel basket. I can’t see his hay pile. The cured stuff should be stored safely under a rock overhang where it will keep through the winter.

We’ve bothered him enough. I wish I’d spotted him from farther away. He might have kept right on harvesting.

Grebes! Lots of grebes. Mostly Clark’s grebes and a few western grebes. We’re at a picnic site near the Pelican Marina in Klamath Falls. While we eat lunch I pick up my binoculars and keep checking grebe backs for babies. I had just about decided we are here too early in the season when I spot a sweet little head poking up from amongst the feathers on its parent back. The chick is tiny. So young I can see an egg tooth still sticking on the dark bill of the one that is looking at me. This Mama has two chicks. Soon her mate arrives, carrying a fairly large minnow in his bill. She accepts it for herself. He’ll have to find smaller ones for the babies.

After lunch I leave Dale with the big lens at the picnic site and I walk over to the nearby bridge with a smaller lens to where I’m hoping to get closer to the little grebes. At one point during our lunch the little guys left their parent’s back and bobbed on dark green water like little cotton balls. They are back on a parent now and a little far for my lens. But to my right two grebes are chattering up a storm. I swing around and focus on them.

Oh my gosh! The pair rear onto the surface of the water and off they go for a hundred yards or more. Grebe dancing is such a delight …. And to think we got to see both tiny chicks and dancing on the same day. Just a few more dances, but enough to give us a huge thrill.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Learning Crane Language


Laure Ferlita’s nice comment to my last blog post make me realize I didn’t elaborate on how I can tell a female from a male crane, only that I can easily tell these cranes apart because the female has a broken toe, permanently frozen at an odd angle. But first I had to figure out which sex had the broken toe. It’s not easy. The male is usually larger, but not always. Their plumage looks the same. So how do you tell?

I once thought how much red how on their forehead was the giveaway. The red can be quite small, or stretch back to a spot behind their eyes. Many years ago we were watching a sandhill crane nest. It was a blustery, snow-spitting day. I succeeded in setting my scope up inside our van so Dale could photograph from the front seat window and I could peer out of the same window to draw.

We had been parked and watching for over an hour. Dale dozed off, still holding ‘Big Bertha’ (our 500mm lens) in his lap. I was enjoying the chance to draw.

The cranes had exchanged places. The newcomer had a lot of red it its forehead. I was working on these sketches. My notes say it all too well – I did have the question marks in my original notes:

2:05 pm She (?) stands and bugles several times. The mate has arrived. Both bugle. This small valley resonates with their calls. The newcomer reaches down with its long bill and gently rolls the pale, lightly mottled egg. One egg.

After a brief interlude of nest building, one walks off and out of sight. The newcomer rolls the egg again and starts to settle down onto it. Ouch! That position isn’t quite right. He (?) stands again and attempts to turn. The crane is standing on its own foot! First it must untangle its toes, then settles down again. With its back to us, the crane tries again, but that position isn’t right either. He(?) stands and pivots to the right and settles for a third time. Better.

2:20 PM: He preens on the nest. Still one dab of snow on the nest. More is falling, but it isn’t sticking.

2:25 PM: Stands, then eases down and sits on his (?) elbows and looks around. I think he is trying to find a solution to this lumpy problem (the egg).

2:30 PM: Still sitting on his elbows. He (?) is pumping sort of – deep breathing?

2:32 PM: SHE just laid an egg! Damn. I missed the actual egg laying by a hair. I was busy drawing her head .. and looked back to the crane and saw she was standing over two eggs. Damn! Damn! Damn! I should of, could of, seen that egg pop out.

I really was that clueless as to what was going on! I obviously needed to learn more about cranes. Over the years I have, both through reading and watching. One spring we tallied over 130 hours watching at Floating Island Lake. Of course we weren’t always watching the cranes, but we learned a lot.

Sandhill cranes have a specific neck-stretched-out posture when about to fly.

A bird on the nest lays its long neck flat out when a wolf, coyote or dog is too close; and they have a wonderful quiet ‘churring’ sound we only hear between pairs during special moments in their life; how much red they show on their forehead is a reflection of excitement, the more red the more excited the bird is.

But how to tell a male from a female? We pondered on the issue with George Bumann, a wonderful naturalist / sculpturer who lives just outside the park. The next day is came up to us with a treasure, George Archibald’s description of the ‘unison call.’ George is one of the founders of the International Crane Foundation.

When paired sandhill cranes bugle in unison, the male’s bill shakes more slowly and tends to point straight up; the female bugles a little faster and her bill does not reach straight up. Once we realized one had a broken toe, it was only a matter of time before we knew the sex of that crane. Looking in my 1999 journal I realized I had painted a unison call without knowing the significance of the stance.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Black Bear at Floating Island Lake

INTRODUCTION: The pair of sandhill cranes that nest at Floating Island Lake, Yellowstone National Park, has been a treat for us for several years. We were first aware of the pair in 1998 and 1999 when they nested in the marshy swale just over the rise from Floating Island Lake. In 1999 year wolves killed an elk just a few feet from their nest. The cranes deserted. The next four years they nested in the thick bulrushes at the far inlet of Floating Island Lake. Years of drought have stranded most of the bulrushes onto dry ground. In 2004 the cranes moved to a tiny spot in the center of the pond. They harvested bushels of aquatic muck and have gradually built a little nesting island. The continued dropping of the water table has enhanced this little island. It is very exposed and offers wonderful viewing , near enough to see an egg pip, yet is far enough we don’t disturb them from the road’s pullout.

Of course I can’t be sure we’ve watched the same two cranes all these years, but I do know that for several years it has been the same female. Her inside toe on her left foot is broken and very distinctive. I look for it each year. And books tell me cranes stay mated until one dies and they can live twenty years or more.

April 21, 2010

What a revolting development! A lot of snow and ice has melted during the past two days. Now we see an elk carcass is emerging from the ice and right next to where the Floating Island cranes have nested for several years. The skin on the carcass has been opened, but I think a lot of meat is left. The cranes are nearby, feeding on the sage slope just east of the pond.

April 24

The carcass that has been moved to the talus slope that reaches down to the far edge of the pond. Friends watched a black bear swim it to shore a couple of days ago and today the carcass is pulled up onto the talus slope behind the pond. A good sized black bear sleeps nearby.

April 25

The bear naps near the elk carcass. He is a sleepy fellow and only occasionally raises his head. I bet he has a full tummy.

He finally wakes up and spends about 15 minutes grooming – a little scratching and a lot of licking. It’s a rather slim bear, but glossy.

Its snowing when he finally goes back to his carcass for a meal.
Snowing hard. The bear goes under a Douglas fir to settle down. It looks like a lumpy, steep bed, but the old tree offers protection from the weather.

About 12:30 our two cranes flew to the slope east of Floating Island Lake. They foraged on the sage slope and disappeared over the knoll.

April 26

Black bear sleeps on the carcass – an elk leg sticking out near its nose and parts red and brown under its rump. Both a raven and the collared coyote feed on the scraps. No sign of the cranes. Usually they have laid their first egg by now. We suspect the bear’s presence is disturbing their nesting.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Beautiful Blogger Award

River Jewelwing (damselfly)

Several days ago Elizabeth Smith over at www.natureartjournal.blogspot.com sent me a “Beautiful Blogger Award.” I’m new to blogging and learned a little later that proper blog etiquette says I’m to pass it on to four other blogs I enjoy and post ten things about myself. I immediately bushed both off. I don’t know how to do the first; and thought I was going to ignore the second. But I find I’m enjoying the ten things other bloggers write about themselves, so maybe I should take a deep breath respond at least to the second part.

Ten Things about me:

1. Nature journaling has long been a passion of mine. I am just finishing my 36th volume of sketches and notes.
2. My parents, Frederick and Frances Hamerstrom, were both professional ornithologists, so I was exposed to nature early on. At the tender age of 11 days I was in a prairie chicken blind.
3. I am extremely fortunate in that my husband, Dale, shares my passion for nature. We still surprise each other with tidbits of knowledge … where an otter piles its poop, or being tickled by a hippoboscidae fly .
4. We currently spend a lot of time with camera in hand, watching, photographing and I sketch. I’m often torn as to whether I should grab the camera or the sketchbook.
5. I need way more hours in my day.
6. I spent many years hanging my paintings in galleries, and am now enjoying creating – not trying to sell.
7. One of my accomplishments I’m proudest of is illustrating “Birds of Oregon: A General Reference” put out by Oregon State University.
8. I once kept a bat in my bra. I found the tiny infant Myotis keeni on the floor of a barn and successfully raised it to maturity … but in the interim I needed to keep it warm while I commuted back and forth to my summer job at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago.
9. We have the most overgrown yard on the street – but the birds love it.
10. Yesterday morning I found an acorn woodpecker nest and watched for a good hour. Yesterday afternoon we photographed one of the most beautiful damselflies imaginable, the river jewelwing. Last night I fell asleep when I sat down to watch a Netflix movie.

P.S. If anyone reading this is not a member of google and tried to leave me a comment in the past, I didn't receive it. I think I have it set up now so that those comments will come to me. .... which proves what a computer klutz I am!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Just Watching

Yellowstone: April 21, 2010

Mellow late morning at the Yellowstone Picnic Site. A young doe rests in the shade when we arrive.

Yesterday we found where a flicker is excavating a nest hole high in the broken off top of a Douglas fir. We’ve come back to watch. The male does all the excavating. Lots of chiseling, then he pauses and throws out several mouthfuls of sawdust.

After a midday absence by both flicker, the female flies to the hole a taps a few times around the edge and calls. I think she is saying, “Honey, get back to work!” The flicker has done a lot of excavating today. Maybe he isn’t too eager to start pounding away again. Even though they have skulls specially adapted for pounding, it can’t be much fun. But he comes back. First they copulate, and then it is back to work for the male.

Yuck! A mouthful of sawdust isn’t high on my list of things to put in my mouth! But he persists and tosses anywhere from a few mouthfuls to over a dozen into the breeze before continuing his chiseling. It is a much finer sawdust then I’ve seen when a flicker excavates aspen. I suspect this gnarly old Douglas fir has very hard wood.

Meanwhile it has been very interesting getting to know the picnic site raven. This is his turf… and woe on the raven who wants to take advantage of the free goodies. Twice another raven has flown in, only to get chased by this raven. Twigs snapped as he chased the intruder. The raven even broke a tail feather in the process.

No one is supposed to feed wildlife anywhere in the park, but if I pretend not to be looking, virtually every tourist who gets into their food supply can’t resist the raven’s insistent begging. Many tourists don’t care if we see what they are giving the raven – chips, a piece of ham, even two slices of bread. Most of the goodies are gathered up in the raven’s throat until it is obvious the pouch is full. Off he flies to cache it. He actually stacked the two slices of bread into one unit so he could carry both at once.

Usually I get to see where the raven goes. He never goes to the same spot. Generally he caches out in the grassy opening. I watch carefully to see where and walk to the spot. But I can’t find anything.

I watch again, this time never taking my eyes off the goal. I walk a straight line to the spot, about 100 yards away. Nothing. But then I notice a few pieces of broken, dried grass. Sure enough. Underneath are four chunks of fried pork rind. Raven didn’t seem to mind I was inspecting his goodies. I thought he might quick grab them before I got there, or maybe I caught him by surprise. I doubt if many humans take an interest in his goodies.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Dirty Birds

I've been posting one Yellowstone post after another, and wondering what I would do when the muses move me to post something current .... the muses have moved me. I don't want all of June's happenings to have to wait until I'm finished with my Yellowstone posts. So here goes ......

Cliff swallow peering out of a finished nest.

Dean Creek Elk Viewing, Reedsport, Oregon: We park near the big interpretive pavilion to eat the fish and chips we picked up at Winchester Bay a few minutes ago. The sun is low enough to cast the long grasses and cattails in a warm, late afternoon light. A dozen or more bull elk rest in a cluster off to our right. Elk cows are scattered throughout the flat valley. Their calves disappear into the tall grass unless one holds its head high enough for ears to peek through. Swallows fly low over the tall meadow grass, catching insects. A red-winged blackbird perches briefly on our rear-view mirror. He wants a French fry. Plenty for all.

My fish is delicious, but half my mind is on the vial of fluffy white feathers I’ve been saving for months. Will the swallows be interested? Barn swallows often line their nests with feathers of other birds, often chicken feathers. White feathers seem particularly choice. As soon as I’m done eating I toss one feather, and then another into the rather stiff breeze. Swallows are in the air, but the feathers just drift off and sink into the cattails. Poo. Two more feathers into the breeze. Nothing. In all honesty the swallows are probably way beyond nest building at this point. A steady flow barn swallows flow in and out beneath my feet. They are probably feeding nestlings. The pavilion is built on long pilings and the barn swallows love to tuck their nests on the girders underneath. I crawled down there once for a look, but I upset the whole colony in the process. I’ll leave them in peace.

Above me are about 20 cliff swallow nests tucked at the tops of the tall posts that hold the pavilion roof. It a handsome viewing platform: a circle of eight center posts and eight more forming a larger circle. Two posts have 4 cliff swallow nests each and another 12 nests are scattered amongst the remaining posts. Lots of activity. Cliff swallows are very talkative. Close your eyes and imagine a roomful of squeaky plastic shoes. Busy, busy chatter. Some birds seem to be incubating, a few nests have hatched, two are still under construction, and one holds a pair of house sparrows!

Oh what a mess! This nest is half finished. They began the nest by sticking a large circle of mud onto the back surface … and gradually add one gob of mud after another. This nest is about half finished. Some of the mud is dry. That work was probably done yesterday or earlier. Today’s mud is still dark. The nest is big enough for both to get into at once and still has a large opening so I can see what is going on.

One swoops in carrying a big mouthful of mud. His bill disappears into a goobery mud ball and his chest is muddy. He hops inside, turns around, and tests the edge in a couple of spots before deciding on where to spit out his mud. The gobs of mud on the floor beneath the nest tell me this isn’t always a successful process. This time he spits out the mud onto the lower right edge. The mud is pretty juicy and malleable. He pushes and pokes until it is situated to his satisfaction. Off he goes.

The second swallow swoops in with another load. This gob gets tucked high, part of their roof. Lots of careful tucking to make sure it is in place. And off flies the swallow. Now both are in the cavity at one, both depositing their mud in different places.

We watch the cliff swallows for about an hour. The sun will sink soon and we still have an hour and a half of driving before we get home. I have just two feathers left. Without much hope I toss them into the breeze. Wait! Here comes a barn swallow and catches it before it hits the ground. He carries it high and releases it into the wind. …. Swoops down and catches it again. This time the swallow flies underneath the pavilion with my feather. I do believe my duck feather now lines a barn swallow nest.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Cranes in Love: Part 2

Such a vixon! Two cranes are on the knoll between our parking spot and Blacktail Ponds. One chases the other off the knoll. The interloper flies to the far side of the pond while the chaser swings around and returns to the knoll. That is when we realize the crane doing the chasing is a female and there is a third crane in the area. Lots of ‘churring’ (a deep vocalization) as this crane comes out of the bushes.

The female (who did the chasing) drops her wings in front of the male.

She bows forward as he climbs onto her back, neatly steadying himself by wrapping his long toes around the forward edge of her wings. One tail twists to the left while the other twists to the right. The two copulate.

Afterwards she rouses....

.... and he bows.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Cranes in Love: Part I

It is our understanding most pairing between sandhill cranes takes place before the pairs reach their nesting grounds. Cranes gather in huge groups during migration and are well known for their early morning dance. Once paired, the cranes usually remain bonded until the death of one.

During our many springs in Yellowstone we’ve only see glimpses of dancing; that is until today. I think the cranes we usually see have already established their pair bond. Today we were royally treated. The few sketches I drew at the time are clumsy … but Dale got a wonderful series of far off photos for me to draw from.

These drawings show what we saw better than words can tell. At the time the deep portions of Blacktail Ponds were still frozen, but the shallow areas had thawed.

First the smaller, probably the female, struts off across the ice, head held high. The Male doesn’t follow, so she comes back and fetches him.

Both cranes walk over to a patch of long bulrushes and beginning tossing broken stems. The nest site isn’t established yet. It all seems rather experimental at this point.

After tossing stems for awhile the pair walk to the far side of the pond where the shallow water has thawed. Busy foraging in the damp earth. I got busy watching ducks and forgot about them. Suddenly we realize one crane is bowing and jumping in front of the other.

It took a little doing, but soon both cranes are kicking up their heels. Wings flap, water splashes. Their wild bugling fills the valley of Blacktail Ponds.

…. And the finale’.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Canyon Wolves

April 14, 2010: Yellowstone National Park

We’re told wolf sightings will be few and far between this spring. The northern range population is down to only 17 plus 3 Canyon Pack wolves at Mammoth. That is virtually the same number of wolves that were in the northern range during the first year of the wolf reintroduction, only then there were lots of elk in the Lamar Valley and wolves were seen on a regular basis. Now elk are fewer and smarter. They spend much less time down on the valley floor. The Canyon Pack will presumably soon return to the center of the park to den as they did last year.

Right out of Mammoth we see a small cluster of elk on a knoll. Others nearby are grazing but these appear to be on alert – typical behavior when a bear or wolf is nearby. We turn around for another pass by. Luck is with us. First a large collared black wolf come up to the road from the river side and trots down the road away from us. He heads higher and is soon joined by a beautifully marked grey who has also come up from the river valley. This would be the alpha male and the beta male of the three member Canyon Pack.

April 15, 2010

Hard frost last night. Still and almost cloudless this morning. Frost sparkles on dried grasses when we head east from Mammoth.

The two males of the Canyon Pack sleep on a sunny, rocky knoll south of the road. A handful of magpies keep them company. A meadowlark’s sweet tune carries far in the still morning air. Fresh snow is shiny bright on Bunsen Butte. The resting wolves give me an opportunity to draw through my spotting scope.

These are two very laid back wolves. The grey hardly budges. The black alpha stays more aware of his surroundings. For the first hour his head is usually up and he changes positions a couple of times. When the grey finally stands to stretch and pee I can see he has a full belly. It is a lightly marked grey. The black is very grizzled around his muzzle. A little after 10 AM the two stand up and stroll over the rise and out of sight.

It is a little after four PM and we are heading back to Gardiner. As we near Mammoth I comment I should check every knoll to look for a wolf. Sure enough. I spot the black alpha male and have Dale turn around. He is awfully far away, but we park anyway. The wolf stands, and starts down-slope towards us. I think he is heading towards the river where the pack probably has a kill. We park and watch.

The wolf is out of sight for a couple of minutes, but then all three Canyon members cross the road in front of us. The Black alpha male is first, and farthest away. Then comes the beautifully marked Beta male and finally the almost white alpha female– a lovely wolf. Her big belly tells us she is very pregnant. The last two cross the road just a few feet ahead of us. So close!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

High and Wild

Yellowstone National Park, April 14, 2010

Introduction: Barronette Peak is in the far NE corner of Yellowstone. According to my topo map the road where I stood is at an altitude of a little over 7000 feet, and Barronette’s Peak rises to over 10,000 feet. This face of the mountain is very steep, one of the wildest places I can think of. We go there to ‘spot’ for Mountain Goats (search for them with a telescope) and once we even saw a wolverine up there.

Midday: High above me Barronette Peak’s snow cornices shine brilliant white against a deep blue sky. Snow blows off the ridge line and up into the sky. It’s a wild, inaccessible spot. I’m trying to photograph a spiral of wind blown snow rising above the ridgeline when I spot two specks – two golden eagles soar along the edge of the updraft. They soar even higher, one to the left and one to the right. I can only track one. Up, up it flies and then tucks its wings and drops like a stone in front of the steep face of Barronette. Open wings carry it back up into the blue sky. Another tuck and swoop. This time the uplift carries the eagle around to the backside of the mountain’s highest point. The eagles are so tiny I would never have spotted them with my naked eye. I found them in my telephoto lens and then switched to binoculars, giving me a peek into their private lives from very far away.

I’ve actually drawn the eagle far larger than I saw it in real life … It would take up about one pixel if I drew it as I saw it from over half a mile away.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Spatzie Follow-up

Debbie Dreshler’s comment on my calling my Spatzie an English Sparrow sent me diving into my books. … and rather dates me. I’m vindicated in that the book, Audubon Bird Guide to Eastern Land Birds by Richard Pough, signed by Pough and inscribed to me by my ornithologist parents, Frederick and Frances Hamerstrom, in 1953 only refers to my Spatzies as English Sparrows. After all, that is where they probably came from! According to Wickipedia 50 pairs were released in New York’s Central Park around 1852.

Even my 1947 Peterson guide calls them by both names. I probably didn’t ask him about it when I went on a bird hike with him to see Kirkland warblers a year or two after my edition of his book was published. I was about six years old at the time.
In all honesty I must admit it has been over 50 years since English Sparrow has been the preferred name (in my books), so I should switch to House Sparrow. What a ho hum name for such a ball of energy!

As for ‘Spatzie,’ I probably got that term from my parents too, since they seldom acknowledged any bird smaller than a robin, but were experts on grouse and raptors. I did find ‘Spatzie’ used as a collquial name in the literature.

Bird experts switching names have long been an unnecessary complication in my life! I’ll always think of them as Spatzies in my heart, but maybe I’ll grow up and start calling them House Sparrows when I want someone to know what I’m talking about. Some recent books don’t even mention English Sparrows. It is a good thing that when I'm part of the Audubon Christmas count I only have to write in numbers, not the names of the birds.

Thursday, June 3, 2010


Hatton Coulee, Western Washington—April 12, 2010:

We’ve been driving through the open, rolling plains of western Washington on our way to Yellowstone National Park. Miles and miles of sparse grass, sage, and huge fields, wheat fields I think. The furrows are sculpted against the grain of downward slopes. Hatton Coulee Rest Area is an oasis of planted trees. The English sparrows love this spot. Each year I look forward to a quick visit with them, the Spatzies.

The air is full of cheerful chitter. Spatzies are everywhere; in the shrubbery, on the parking lot and lawns, flying back from a brief foray to a nearby field, and most of all, setting up housekeeping in the straight row of 14 Lombardy poplars. It is the only place I’ve found where English Sparrows build nests in trees. English sparrows are famous for usurping all available nest boxes put out for bluebirds, swallows, etc. Reams have been written to help humans build birdhouses that foil the attempts of the English Sparrows. They also are adapt and squeezing into nooks and crannies of our buildings. It is hard to believe these bundles of exuberance are a pest in most places -- aggressive, unwanted little beasties. I, too, am unhappy when they throw out bluebird eggs and take over my chickadee nest box.

I’m happy to see them here. They build their own dwellings and clean up on scraps left by travelers. Their houses are quite the surprise. They look like prickly soccer balls, made out of small twigs and stiff stems and have a tidy little entrance hole. The trees host at least a dozen soccer balls and more on the way. It is a busy time of year for the Spatzies. I’d be disappointed if they went missing from here.

5:10 PM: We’re somewhere east of Missoula. Dale is singing a medley of Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. I’m finally looking forward rather than worrying about what we forgot. The last week at home got really hectic. Three unexpected inhalers of time popped up; then we realized we were planning to take more stuff than the RAV is supposed to carry. We spent a lot of time weighing, and figuring out what not to take. I think I packed my lists of what to take and what to do … and by then I was so tired I didn’t care. Life is a bit of a mystery at the moment.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Yellowstone Introduction

I’m back! I haven’t lost interest in posting, but I have been away from the internet. For the past seven weeks I have mostly been in Yellowstone and chose to disconnect and totally focus on actually being there. This is a quick introduction for a whole series of postings which will probably take as long to get posted as it took to gather the material.

For several springs Dale and I spend half of April and most of May in Yellowstone. Initially we went in May and camped, but then we found a little place to rent during the off season and are able to go even earlier. When we arrive, winter is just letting go and only one half of one campground is open. When we leave, the wild flowers are starting to bloom, the aspen are just leafing out, and visitors are beginning to arrive in earnest.

Some might think we are in a rut. Year after year we look forward to getting back to Yellowstone, and day after day we get up early and eat peanut butter on toast and hard boiled eggs as we drive into the park. The goal is to get up at 5, but dreary skies may keep us in bed a little longer. A day of snow or rain is usually welcome. There is never enough time for editing photos, painting, laundry, etc. This year we had two really warm days the first week. We were in a funk. Warm already! Silly me bought a pair of sandals and never needed them after that. In fact it took until the very last day before I was comfortable without at least two shirts and I about wore out my jacket. My face and hands are wonderfully tanned, and everything else is lily white.

While in the park we watch, we photograph, we wander and we watch some more. I also paint/sketch and write. Most people drive a lot of miles every day, but we tend to stay put more than anyone I know.

Most of the art in the following postings was at least started in the car (too cold to work outside for virtually all of the trip). On bad weather days I use my laptop to work from the photos we just took, or finish up pieces I started in the car.

I found way more time for art than I have in years past … and the more I painted, the more I wanted to do. Part of the joy of the art is finding a new technique that fits me. Shortly before we left for Yellowstone I bought a fountain pen to sketch with. The fountain pen has a little thicker nib than my dip pens and pigma pens and so forces me sketch more loosely. It also has a wonderful characteristic in that with just a little water added after the pen lines are drawn, I can get soft grey values …. Or I can add color instead of water. Most, but not all of the sketches will be done with this pen. Both sketches in this post are done with the pen.

Living with a fountain pen and changing altitude every day poses a problem. Pens love to bleed when one goes higher. The Yellowstone firetower observer even told me he has to open his toothpaste tube before going to his tower on Mt. Washburn. I solved my pen problem by making a little medicine bag to hang around my neck. With the nib always in an upright position when we were driving, I didn’t have any pen problems …. Only with my bottle of ink which I forgot to store in an upright position! Yuck!