Friday, October 26, 2012

Into an Ice Cave

I’m in an ice cave, one of Lava Bed National Monument’s many lava tubes (caves), but one of the few that sometimes has ice or water in its depths.  It is blessedly cool in here.  Quite dark.  A little damp.  Almost quiet.  One big fly buzzes about in this monstrous acoustical chamber, every few minutes one drip of water splats, and after sitting quietly in the darkness I finally hear the flutter of wings.  

Dale and I have come to this cave in the hopes of watching birds come to drink.  There is no surface water on the Monument, except for brief puddles after a rain.  When this cave has water, it is a magnet for thirsty birds.  

End of summer is always dry here, but this summer has been unusually dry.  I’m surprised there is any water here this year.  Many years there isn’t.  When I first asked at the visitor’s center if this cave has water they said they didn’t think so.  But luck, in the form of an unlucky bobcat, was with me.  When I stopped to ask a different question yesterday, the ranger remembered me.  She said a bobcat had died in the cave and when a ranger went to remove it, he saw water.  The bobcat probably explains the fly buzzing about.  

By the time we reach the entrance to the collapsed lava tube I can’t help but wonder if I dragged Dale off on a wild goose chase.  Hot, dusty and birdless getting here.  We did see a couple of very small lizards along the trail.  

A lava tube is an empty tube where once a river of lava flowed inside a thickening lava flow.  The roof of this lava tube has two collapsed sections of roof.  When we pass the first opening several birds fly out.  There was even a flock of quail down there!  Suddenly the trek feels worth the effort.  The second opening has a trail built down into the cave. 
We need to be half billy goat and eventually we need to use our flashlights. Soon we are tucked in the darkness sitting on very uncomfortable basalt.  The chamber is about fifty feet tall.  I see indirect light ahead coming from the first opening and a little light comes from behind me, just enough light for me to sketch.  The rest of the tube stretches off into utter blackness.
Once we get used to the darkness we can see about a hot tub full of clean water surrounded by a tumble of broken boulders.  The birds arrive via the first entrance.  They have to adjust to the darkness too.  A Townsend’s solitaire approaches cautiously.  This one clings to the side wall first high in the cave, then perches lower down on a tiny ledge where it is darker.  

Finally he is on a boulder near the water.  Another has been coming down, flying from one boulder to another.  Each leg of the journey is a short flight and then a little wait.  We hear the flutter of their wings on the way down.  Soon we have six solitaires drinking.  There isn’t room for more unless one is especially acrobatic.  

One sip after another.  I’ve counted up to twenty sips.  The birds are vey wary and quiet.  If one spooks, all fly out.  Soon a juncoe comes for water and a robin.  Mostly solitaires.  Only one is brave enough to take a quick bath.  When we came several years ago a Cooper’s hawk came into the cave.  The little birds have good reason to be wary.  

I honestly think I could sit in this cave from dawn until dusk.  I find each minute fascinating.   After an hour we both feel as though our butts have been reformatted into angular depressions .  Must remember to bring a good cushion if I ever think I’m going to spend that long day here.  

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Drip ... Drip

Lava Beds National Monument:  September 2012

This morning I’m chumming for birds.  I’ve got something even more irresistible than chopped fish or scattering seed.  Water.

We’re at least ten miles from any surface water.  The species that live here cope with doing with less.  Kangaroo rats and mice can make do with the moisture in their food.  Many of the insect eating birds get much of their moisture requirement from their prey.  When there is dew, many birds sip one dew drop after another.  I’ve seen a dozen robins after dew drops on a roof top in the early morning.  

My chumming is simple.  I hang a sandwich bag full of water on a low branch and prick it with one pinhole.  Drip...... Drip....... Drip.  Beneath the drip I place a pint container full of water and weighted down with a rock.  Then I snuggle bigger rocks all around my pint bowl. 

Our first visitor can’t wait for me to get set up.  I spilled a little water next to the van.  Already a Townsends’s solitaire sips eagerly. 
Our second visitor is a surprise.  I hadn’t noticed any California ground squirrels in the area, but here comes one.  He, too, drinks eagerly.

Our third is a robin.  Nine long sips before he flies off.  

But then we wait.  This is such a dry area, there aren’t many birds around to take advantage of my offering.  When we go back to camp to I can’t resist trying again.   

Half my job has already been done.  There are more birds here and there is a campground faucet near me.  When birds hear the faucet run they fly in hoping to sip a few drops of spilled water.  My little pint is a bonanza in comparison.  The drip of water catches their attention and in they come.  

A rare moment of peace.  A Townsend's solitaire sits on the left, then a Cassein's finch, white-crowned sparrows and one robin.
A thirsty Townsend’s solitaire is the first to arrive, but he is immediately ousted by first one robin and then another.  Robins turn out the be the bullies of the pond.  Half a dozen could drink at once, but there is so much squabbling amongst them that drinking is done in bits and pieces.  They pay no attention when a white-crowned sparrow sneaks in for a drink, but woe on any solitaire who approaches.  
But there is one bird that sends even the robins scattering.  I hear a call I haven’t hear for two or three years.  Four evening grosbeaks land in the juniper above me.  After a quick check they drop down to the water and chase off the robins.  The grosbeaks quickly drink their fill and then leave the robins in peace.  

Robins rule over the water for about an hour.  A juncoe gets his share by flutter-flying up to the bag of water and sipping drips  A Cassein’s finch finds droplets where they are gathering on a juniper twig beneath the drip.  

I refill the pint bowl three times over the next three hours.  A titmouse and a chickadee waited until the big boys had their fill.  The little chickadee even took a bath in my tiny pond. 

While I watch we have eight species of birds drink our water.  A flock of quail walked around us and two ravens came near. I suspect the’ll drink when we are away from camp.  

Our last visitor is a mule deer doe and her fawn.  She is in beautiful condition.  Smooth, sleek coat; long, slender legs; big ears.  She sips the bowl half empty and then lets her fawn have a share. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

A Little Bit Jinxed

Great Egret

We had such a good trip down to the Klamath Basin in late September.  Home seemed rather dull in comparison and at this time of year we know all too well that the rains are coming.  We decided to take advantage of the Indian summer weather and head back to the Basin.  Both of us looked forward to spending more time at “The Spot To Be” (see last post).

Thursday I had a big pile of potato salad made, pork and chicken cooked, pasta salad, veggies, etc.  We photograph / sketch until the sun goes down and still have an hour of driving back to camp, so it is nice to have a cold supper all ready.  I was ready for a prompt start in the morning.

At 5 PM Dale came home from a short errand with his back in spasm.  Better to nurse a sore back at home rather than try to camp and do all that driving.  By the time we left the following Monday we’d eaten most of what I had prepared and I’d done it all over.  But we were finally on our way. We left early enough to arrive at ‘The Spot to Be’ before 4 PM so we’d have that wonderful end-of-day light to photograph.  

3:30 PM we pull off Highway 161 onto the western end of Lower Klamath Refuge’s tour route, only a quarter of a mile to go.  We park and sit dumbfounded for a moment.  The little island that gathered so many birds is gone.....  and so are most of the birds.  The water is too deep for the shorebirds; no island for the pelicans to rest on. 

More water is a good sign, if not for us.  Water levels in the refuge are controlled by an elaborate system of pumps first put in when the huge marshes of the Klamath Basin were drained years ago for farmlands.  Now the refuge has to virtually get on its knees to get a water allotment for their share of the Klamath Basin. It’s a complicated issue involving farmers, Indian rights, an endangered fish, and the refuge.   Overall the United States has only 15% of its original wetlands.  Wetlands in the Klamath Basin are part of what little is left of the critical habitat for many species.  Seeing this rather large sump filling was reassuring for the coming migration of thousands of ducks, geese, and swans down the Pacific flyway.  
Our van parked at the pumping station
We immediately head to the tour route on Tulelake Refuge, and drive along Sump 1A, another big lake.  Ducks and coot are scattered for acres and acres. We soon find another little hot spot.  One of the big pumps is pumping water from an irrigation canal into the sump.  The incoming water makes for good fishing. Three cormorants are drying off on a tiny island.  In the water we soon see almost every grebe species found in Oregon:  pied-billed, eared, horned, western, and Clark’s.  Gulls swoop overhead trying to steal from the grebes and cormorants.  Great spot.

But wait!  All the birds are leaving!  We parked without disturbing them.  Now what?   Four otter have come from the south and dive into the sump near our spot.  They must be attracted to the good fishing too.  They don’t like our presence so they head off.  Meanwhile a bald eagle has landed on a nearby telephone pole and is keeping the area clear.  We decide to move on.

Farther on down the bumpy gravel dike we start running into geese.  Thousands of geese have arrived in the Basin and more to come.  We see flocks of ‘white geese’ (from a distance I can’t tell if they are snow geese or Ross’s), white-fronted geese and a few Canada geese.  
But we also run into onion harvesters.  The dust they kick up is awful.  I’m soon stuffed up and coughing.  It is time to head to camp anyway. When we are miles away we can see the harvesters have turned their lights on and are still working.  I’m sure they want to get those onions in storage before the rains come .... and hopefully by this weekend there will be rain.
Over the four days we were in the Basin we spent several hours at our new ‘Spot to Be’ next to the pumping station.  We decided having a family of otter come along and spook our birds isn’t such a bad thing.  Less than a month ago I was telling an elderly man about one of my otter sightings.  He looked wistful and said he’d never seen an otter in the wild.  I shouldn’t complain when they come along and spook my birds.  Otter are always a treat.  

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Spot to Be

 Klamath Basin, California, USA:  Sept 24-28
Black-necked Stilts at rest
 I’m sitting on the sunny side of our van. Hot.  Sticky.  But I don’t mind.  For the third day in a row we’ve parked in the same spot on the same dusty gravel road in the Klamath Basin.  I’m happy as a clam ... a hot, sticky clam, but a happy clam.  While Dale photographs I get to draw to my heart’s content.  ... all art in this post were created on location.

We arrived in the Klamath Basin the evening of September 24 and pulled into a campsite at Lava Beds National Monument.  Usually we come to the Basin in spring or a little later in the fall.  

The next day we headed to the Klamath Basin Refuges and bumped around on one road and another: very few deer (I suspect they are still up in the high country), very few geese (they are still up North), many of the ducks are molting and look a little ratty, most of the summer birds have left.  Hummmm.  Maybe we came too early.  

A sandhill crane looks dainty next to a white pelican

And then we found “The Spot To Be.”  We bounced our way on wash-board gravel for miles when suddenly we came upon an island about the size of our house and just a nice distance from the road for Dale to photograph.  A gathering of white pelicans first caught our eye.  

Each day has been roughly the same.  We arrive late afternoon.  Most of the pelicans have already arrived but stragglers continue to arrive in small groups.  They splash down like big bombers and swim about before coming ashore.  Lots of preening is in order before they settle down for the night. 

White-faced ibis

Meanwhile I’ve tallied 25 other species of birds from the same spot:  three kinds of grebes, 5 kinds of ducks, two kinds of geese, three kinds of blackbirds, shorebirds, hawks, a gull, a sparrow, a sandhill crane ...  

When we first arrive the sky is relatively quiet.  Not a duck in the air.  The water is shallow so many of the birds are wading, or resting.  If the harrier or a red-tailed hawk swings by, most of the shorebirds flush, swing around, and return to the area.  Yellowlegs are the nosiest when they flush.  Their three-note call tells me they are greater yellowlegs.  Somewhere off in flooded willows I hear hen mallards.  They are a talkative bunch too.  A great egret stalks its prey with careful deliberation and the snowy egret scurries about in jerky spurts. Eventually a rowdy flock of mixed blackbirds joins the group on the island.  First they bath and chase.  As dusk approaches they cluster into three small willows -- lots of chatter.  Towards the end of the day flock after flock of ducks fly low over us.  A couple of small flocks of Canada geese fly over too and one handful of white-fronted geese land on our little island.  
Late afternoon sun shines on the pelican.

As soon as the sun slips beneath the horizon we move just a little farther off.  I don’t want to disturb the birds when I get out of the van and get into the cooler for our cold supper.  The pelicans now looks like a cluster of over stuffed pillows thrown together.  A red-tailed hawk comes to roost in a tall willow.  Ducks are still streaming past.

It is finally cool and I’m content.  Dale takes me out to eat in some of the nicest places!