Archive for the ‘science’ category

HAWAII VOLCANIC ADVENTURE: When Lava Explosively Collides with the Sea

May 26, 2013

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of HawaiiLava flowed into the sea at two points when we visited Hawaii in May 2013: steam pours up when searing 2,000°F lava meets 75°F saltwater; the steam cloud is illuminated by the incandescence of the glowing lava.

The captain of the small vessel very nearly sneered at his 15 or so prospective passengers as he listed all the hardships of our ocean trip to view lava. He pointedly disparaged the idea of taking a big camera (like the one I was holding) out on the tumultuous seas, because, well, stuff happens. He emphasized that just last week, a young woman lost her iPhone to the sea and cried that “my whole life was on that phone!” He commented that perhaps she needed more of a life.

I wasn’t about to be deterred by his comments, so I wrapped my camera in a plastic bag and secured it under a cheap yellow poncho, then climbed the tall step ladder to board the small vessel. Karen and I found a seat toward the rear, where the pounding journey was said to be a tad less rough. Then the captain hauled his boat by pickup truck to the ocean, and backed us all into the rough surf.

The captain gunned the twin engines, and we roared out of the harbor and into the open ocean at high speed. The surf was high–so high that the day’s early morning journey had been cancelled. We were on a late trip, so that I could photograph the flowing lava at twilight rather than during daylight. I had tried to exchange this scheduled trip for one in the pre-dawn light, but the captain never called me back, despite my repeated calls. In the end, it worked out better this way, because the early trip didn’t go.

It was 18 miles along the coast to reach the two places where lava was flowing into the Pacific Ocean. This was a pounding ride through the waves, and we were splashed repeatedly with warm saltwater. Both of us are prone to seasickness, so Karen wore a Scopolamine patch and I took two tablets of Bonine, which was not supposed to make me sleepy. We both also used wrist bands with a little plastic ball that stimulates an acupressure point in the wrist–said to relieve nausea–and we both ate ginger candy that is also used to combat seasickness. All these precautions worked for us!

We hung on tight to the steel rails of the craft as we surged over the ocean. Huge towers of sea spray rose all along the lava cliffs as the waves crashed into the island. This was an elemental experience!

Ahead, we could see a column of steam rising above the rocky shore; that was where the lava was entering the sea. Before long, Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” blared from the boat’s sound system and we were there. The captain cut the engines to a purr instead of a roar, and we floated back and forth in front of the two lava flows, experiencing the billowing steam and the explosions and the heat of the ocean warmed by the 2,000°F lava. The hiss of the steam and the pounding of the waves made an elemental soundscape, while the bright lava and backlit clouds contrasted beautifully with the deep blue twilight at this time of day. I couldn’t have asked for more … except for more time at this place of wonder. There is never enough time for a photographer on a schedule … so I’ve learned to work fast!

The elemental sight and sound of lava pouring into the sea at twilight

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of HawaiiA portfolio of photographs I took from the bobbing boat at twilight

Alas, time was up, and the captain surged back into the waves for our journey back.

But sometimes things don’t go according to plan. About halfway back, the engines suddenly went quiet. Our momentum came to a halt and we began bobbing in the sea, with no power, not too far from the sharp lava cliffs. The captain and his two crew began struggling the with engines, and discovered that there had been a fuel leak and the fuel tank had been sucked dry of the 100 gallons that had been loaded earlier that day. That was a problem. Meanwhile, the ocean here was too deep for an anchor, so we drifted toward shore. Eventually, it would have become shallow enough to drop anchor, but that would have been close to the shore.

Fortunately, the captain had friends, and he called in a favor from another boat from the harbor to bring out 20 gallons of gas. Meanwhile, we bobbed, and not gently. One person became seasick over the side. Karen called on her Midwestern roots of helpfulness, and walked around the boat offering ginger to the other passengers, and holding her headlamp to help the crew while they fiddled with the engine parts.

The other boat eventually arrived, and the crews transferred the five gallon containers of gas from one bouncing boat to the other. Then the other boat backed off and began slowly circling us as our crew poured the gas into the fuel tank. Eventually, the engines started and we were underway again.

When we returned to port, it was two hours later than we expected. We changed out of our saltwater-soaked clothes and started driving. Fortunately, we had the foresight early in the day to reserve a campsite at the national park in case we didn’t feel like driving back across the island to our vacation rental near Kona that night. As it turned out, we couldn’t drive that far. It was late and the non-drowsy seasickness medication was probably making me drowsy. So we slept in the rental car in our campsite overnight.

The next morning, camp was voggy. Yes, voggy, which is a word coined to describe the Hawaiian toxic soup of fog and volcanic sulfur oxides emitted from the volcanoes. It burned our throats and made us tired and uncomfortable, but I’ll leave the rest of that day for another story.

As you can see from my pictures, the experience of seeing the lava greet the sea was elemental, and another high point of our lives. We feel like we were present for the dawn of creation–as new land was added to the Big Island of Hawaii.

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask me to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date). 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.

WINTER PREDATORS OF THE SAMISH FLATS

February 22, 2013

Short-eared Owl Perched in a Shrub in the Samish FlatsShort-eared Owl taking a close look at the photographer

The deltas and estuaries of Puget Sound are not a good place to be a mouse in winter. On a recent trip to the Samish Flats, located on the northern shores of Puget Sound, we observed hundreds of avian predators, including Bald Eagles, Northern Harriers, Red-tailed Hawks, Rough-legged Hawks, Short-eared Owls, and a single Northern Shrike.

We drove through the Skagit Flats and Samish Flats for an entire winter afternoon, enjoying the sight of over a thousand Snow Geese and hundreds of Trumpeter Swans: both cheery white against the muddy farm fields. There were also a lot of ducks, including Northern Pintails and both American Wigeons and fifteen Eurasian Wigeons.

Red-tailed Hawk in Samish Flats of Washington StateRed-tailed Hawk up close and personal

What we really wanted to see were Short-eared Owls, and we had heard that a great spot to see them was on Department of Fish & Wildlife land known to birders as the West 90. We arrived at about 3:00 p.m., and hiked out to a location where people had recently seen the owls.

We quickly spotted some owls, then spent the next two hours observing and photographing the owls as they hunted the fields, sometimes encountering and skirmishing with the Northern Harriers who hunt in much the same way. It was thrilling!

Short-eared Owl in Flight while Hunting in Samish Flats

Samish_Flats-69-2

Short-eared Owl in Flight while Hunting in Samish FlatsShort-eared Owls in flight while hunting, reminding us of butterflies with their erratic flight patterns over the fields

Short-eared Owls fly erratically, quickly changing course to drop on a vole; the flight reminds me somehow of a huge butterfly. Like many owls, they are certainly wary of humans, but we were able to get reasonably close to them without causing a panic attack. I think they view us as less of a threat than Bald Eagles and Great Horned Owls.

It was a cloudy day for photography, but I often find that the pale winter sky on a cloudy day makes a wonderful background for my bird photographs.

As the afternoon wore on, twilight approached and it became too dark for exposures of moving birds. We left the owls to their hunting, and came away thrilled with the experience.

Short-eared Owl Perched in a Shrub in the Samish Flats

Short-eared Owl Perched in a Shrub in the Samish FlatsShort-eared Owls will perch on shrubs between flights

Northern Shrike in Samish Flats Area of Puget Sound

Northern Shrike in Samish Flats Area of Puget SoundA young Northern Shrike was a surprise visitor to the West 90; shrikes are known as “butcher birds” for their habit of impaling mice on thorns–storing them for later use. We have observed that behavior along the northern shore of Lake Ontario, where the shrikes used hawthorn trees as their gruesome storage facility.

Short-eared Owl and Northern Harrier Skirmishing in Samish FlatsSometimes the Short-eared Owls and Northern Harriers–who appear to occupy a similar ecological niche in winter–don’t play nice

Red-tailed Hawk in Samish Flats of Washington StateRed-tailed Hawk

Murmuration of a Flock of Small Birds in the Samish FlatsAt twilight, a flock of small birds rose in an ever-changing three-dimensional natural sculpture known as a murmuration

The Seattle Audubon Society has a web site that tells more about the Samish Flats, as well as bird species found around Washington. Go to: BirdWeb.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask me to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date) 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.

LOST

January 30, 2013

Perhaps there was a violent storm raging in the northern Pacific. Perhaps the storm came up suddenly, while the little bird was in flight, starting its migration from Kamchatka to Cambodia. Perhaps the creature became separated from a flock and flew down the Alaska and British Columbia coast instead of the northern Asian coast. Perhaps it was exhausted and a bit desperate. We’ll never know.

All we know is that one Red-flanked Bluetail, entering its own personal Twilight Zone, ended up alone in the winter drizzle of a Vancouver, British Columbia, park. An observant person sketched the bird’s coloration and showed the sketch to an expert, and the unusual visitation was confirmed. This tiny bird of the Russian taiga decided to make the best of its wintering grounds, and began daily circling a little territory under the cedars, which included a childen’s playground, two picnic shelters, and scattered logs and brushy islands where it could perch.

Red-Flanked_Bluetail-30-2Showing its identifying colors, this Red-flanked Bluetail is a hemisphere away from its kind

Meanwhile, its arrival spurred a sensation, spread at Facebook and Twitter speed, with birders flocking from all over North America, arriving by plane and car and SkyTrain and on foot, to experience the wonder of this little creature. Some days, there were 60 people at once. The Bluetail was pretty much unperturbed by its newfound celebrity, and went about its rounds regularly, the people following it like disciples following a mystic.

We drove the 220 miles to Vancouver to see the Red-flanked Bluetail on a recent Sunday. At the Canadian border,  the guard asked me the name of the bird when I told him we were going to see a specific bird, and I answered correctly (I think he was trying to trip me up). He let us through, mentioning that they had experienced a lot of people coming north to see it. We drove through busy neighborhoods and ended up in the community of New Westminster, where we entered Queen’s Park. We parked our car, then a local dog walker pointed the way to a small cluster of birders, and we joined them and almost immediately saw the target bird. During the two hours of our visit, there were friendly local Canadians, as well as a man from Georgia and another man from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. One young teen was perhaps the best birder there, with acute hearing and vision and a passion for birds that can lead to a life-long obsession.

Red-Flanked_Bluetail-20The Bluetail constantly twitched its tail, like some of the closely related flycatchers

Later, we ventured to a neighborhood of old homes in Vancouver, where we wandered down a back alley and trained our binoculars on a thicket in a small yard, where there was another rarity: a Brambling. This one had been reported by a kindly homeowner who fed the birds and noticed a strange one among the regular Golden-crowned Sparrows and House Finches. The Brambling is also from Eurasia, and is a bit more common than the Bluetail (which had last been seen on one of the Channel Islands off Los Angeles).

Still another wanderer, a Citrine Wagtail, was observed for a couple of months on Vancouver Island, beginning in November and ending with its disappearance in January. I didn’t get to see that one, but it was as rare as the Red-flanked Bluetail and also attracted human observers from all over North America.

We can all feel sorry for these lost little souls, so far from their kind and their familiar surroundings. Yet we can also imagine them as castaways, trying to keep life going when the going has gotten rough. Sometimes people have been stranded on remote islands by a storm, and they try to make the best of it. Birds can end up the same way, and sometimes evolution can lead to a whole new line of colorful creatures in an unexpected place.

Carry on, brave little Bluetail. I hope you make it home.

I don’t have the ears or eyes or passion to be a great birder, but I admire those who are. One of my favorite movies of all time is the gentle comedy/drama The Big Year, which follows several birders traveling all over the country trying to see as many different kinds of birds as they can in one year. It stars Steve Martin and Jack Black. Both are great in the film, and play the roles with an uncharacteristic laid back charm.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask me to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date) 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

TWITCHING AND GRUNGE: A Day of Birding on the Washington Coast

November 5, 2012

Like water off a duck’s back: Common Eider 1st year male in winter plumage bathing in the saltwater of Westport Marina; the last time I saw this species was in Oswego Harbor in Upstate New York some 30 years ago

Once in a while I get an itch to twitch. Which means I have to convince Karen that there are some rare birds to be seen somewhere within a 200 mile drive that we really should add to our life lists.

Twitching is the now widely-accepted term for going long distances on a moment’s notice to see rare birds–an activity that began in the land of trainspotters and other great eccentrics: Great Britain. The British Isles are small enough that twitchers can go anywhere in pursuit of rare birds. The passion quickly spread to other European countries and to the USA and Canada. I know people who will hop on a plane to go and see a rare species on the opposite coast.

Back in the ancient 1980s, twitchers used phone trees to notify each other about rare birds and where they were being seen. This evolved into recorded phone messages as “birding hotlines.” Then, in the mid-1990s, the internet was hatched and birders started posting messages about birds they had seen. Here in Washington State, the regional resource is Tweeters, a great name for an internet posting group that is hosted by the University of Washington. I have followed Tweeters almost daily for about 15 years, so that I can find out about birding hotspots. Other regions have similar informal groups, where people can get emails of all the postings about birds. When smart phones became widely adopted, birders started posting about birds in real time from the field, and using apps to broadcast bird calls to bring in target birds (to some controversy). It has gotten exciting to be a birder in these technological times!

Anyway, word got out on Tweeters that Grays Harbor was suddenly hosting a variety of rare birds in late October, including a Northern Wheatear, Common Eider, Wilson’s Plover and several others. Of these, the Wheatear and Eider are usually Alaskans, while the Plover normally calls the Mexican and Gulf coasts home. They apparently decided to meet in the middle for a discussion of the changing climate.

Grays Harbor is often a terrific birding destination; last winter, Damon Point State Park, a sand spit that sticks out into Grays Harbor, was where a dozen or more Snowy Owls escaped the Arctic cold and spent a mild winter. The marina at Tokeland is a great place to observe over a hundred big and gangly shorebirds roosting and feeding together; these Marbled Godwits have wintered in this remote location for years.

Still more rarities have been seen around Grays Harbor lately. There was a Northern Mockingbird at the Tokeland Marina–way out of its normal range. A Tropical Kingbird was sighted at the Hoquiam Sewage Treatment Pond. Now, if you are not a passionate birder, the idea of staring intently through binoculars at a sewage treatment pond might seem a bit odd, but those of us who are truly odd don’t find it weird at all. Last Christmas break, Karen and I took Karen’s mother (on her birthday!) and father to see Snowy Owls at the Muskegon Sewage Treatment Facility in Michigan. It made for an “interesting” and aromatic day; but we did see the owls and enjoyed an aromatic picnic lunch at the facility, with a nice view of masses of gulls at the adjacent landfill mountain.

Immature Brown Pelican in flight over Grays Harbor

Back to Grays Harbor: we got to Westhaven State Park in Westport by 10:00 a.m. This is where the Northern Wheatear was being seen. I asked Karen to look for Subarus in the parking lot, as that would be a good indicator that Seattle-area birders were looking for the bird. Actually, the parking lot was almost full. In addition to all the older birders (including us), there were lots of surfers, kayakers, and dog walkers at the state park. We walked up a dune to where people were intently watching a jetty through spotting scopes, and found the bird. It was hyperactively foraging at one end of the jetty, and apparently did that continuously. We rarely saw it pause. To add to the fun, there was a Palm Warbler feeding among driftwood on the sand. The last Palm Warbler I had seen was in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where one was flying up to within a foot of my face and grabbing the black flies that were hovering there and making me miserable. I wasn’t able to photograph the Wheatear, as it vamoosed when we were approaching photographic range. Others were successful in photographing it, as some of the posts on Tweeters show.

We spent the rest of the day searching for other birds. We had great views of the behavior of the Common Eider as it dove and caught Dungeness Crabs in the Westport Marina. We dipped on the Wilson’s Plover: okay, I need to backtrack here and talk about British birding again. “Dipping” is another British birder-originated term for when you don’t manage to see the bird that you just drove 200 miles or flew 2,000 to see. It is discouraging, but it happens. We decided not to go look for the Tropical Kingbird at the Hoquiam Sewage Treatment Pond because it was getting late, it was raining, and we are wimps.

Common Loon in winter plumage doing a friendly leg wave

Near the end of the day, we drove a road through the cranberry farms near Grayland, and enjoyed seeing some the harvest, including huge bins full of fresh cranberries. There is an informative auto tour that you can take, and the guide is available online at Cranberry Bog Tour. There are also opportunities in the Westport Marina to take a chartered boat out for Halibut fishing during certain times of the year, as well as lingcod, salmon, and albacore tuna fishing. Pelagic birding trips are also available occasionally, where birders can see ocean-dwelling species that are otherwise hard to see.

This Eider of the Arctic adapted well to Grays Harbor, where it repeatedly dove and caught Dungeness Crabs in the Westport Marina

The only problem for the Common Eider was that a gull repeatedly hovered over it when it came up from a dive, and in this case successfully snatched the eider’s crab; the enraged eider then attacked the pirate, to no apparent success

Grays Harbor is famous for an entirely different reason. I was reminded of that when driving past the “Welcome to Aberdeen” sign that had a tourist slogan attached that said “Come as You Are.” I did a double-take at the sign and drove back to photograph it when I realized its subtle double meaning. Aberdeen is the small mill town and harbor on Grays Harbor where rock star Kurt Cobain was born and lived much of his life. “Come as You Are” was one of his great

songs, and a fitting memorial to him and his band, Nirvana, in a town that largely ignored his huge cultural contributions for many years. As an older guy, I considered his grunge style to be just noise for many years; lately I’ve started enjoying his music. I’ve always been slow to adapt new styles, though I was right in synch with the grunge era in my appreciation of old flannel shirts. Perhaps I’ll get a tattoo next … maybe of a Northern Wheatear (actually, in Portland recently I saw a young woman whose arms were covered with bird tattoos; I guess she took to heart the Portlandia slogan: “Put a bird on it!”

Harbor Seal and Common Loon

Nonbreeding adult Brown Pelican in flight near the jetty at Westhaven State Park

Yeah, I believe that birds evolved from dinosaurs!

Common Eider motoring to its lunch spot in the Westport Marina

Common Eider bathing after feeding

Loon staredown

Marinas in Washington State are among the best places to closely observe loons; they are accustomed to seeing people and are relatively approachable with a camera from the docks

Common Eider flapping its wings to adjust feathers after preening

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date) 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

GOLD CREEK POND: Autumn into Winter

October 23, 2012

Berries with an elegant, almost iridescent look against a background of fallen snow

After a wonderfully dry summer, Seattle and the Cascade Mountains have entered autumn. When I heard a report that snow was falling at Snoqualmie Pass, I organized a hike to Gold Creek Pond to try and photograph snow and autumn leaves. The forecast kept changing, so we didn’t know if we were going to encounter drizzle or fresh snow at the 3,000′ trailhead.

When we arrived, there was indeed fresh snow; not enough to need snowshoes, by any means, but just the perfect amount for a day of leisurely photography. There were still yellow leaves of Douglas Maple, blazingly scarlet leaves of Vine Maple, and multi-hued leaves of Red-osier Dogwood.

Gold Creek Pond is an artificial creation, despite its stunning and seemingly natural location surrounded by snowy peaks. In the 1970s and early 1980s, the stretch of I-90 over Snoqualmie Pass was under construction, and this was the location of a borrow pit for obtaining gravel for the road construction. Since the bulldozers and front-end loaders departed the scene, the pit has filled with water and is now a wonderful place for families to come and walk, fish, and picnic. The U.S. Forest Service has guided the process of revegetating the shores of the little lake, and it has become an excellent destination for Seattleites wanting a taste of nature.

On our visit, dramatic clouds briefly revealed the surrounding peaks. We also enjoyed seeing and photographing Kokanee Salmon, which are landlocked salmon that spend much of their lives in a lake, then migrate up the inlet stream to spawn. These are the same species as the Sockeye Salmon I had photographed in the Adams River of Canada, but those ocean-going fish are much larger. These fish look to be about 10-12″ long, but still sport the red-and-green color combination typical of the species when it swims upstream to spawn.

A paved one-mile trail leads around the lake, allowing easy access

Red-osier Dogwood leaves varied dramatically in coloration

Autumn Vine Maple leaves turn a vivid scarlet, looking as elegant as the Japanese Maples that so many people plant in their yards; here I photographed the leaves against a cloudy sky

Peaks surrounding Gold Creek Pond occasionally revealed themselves from behind their cloud masks

Migrating Kokanee Salmon clustered in quiet pools along Gold Creek

This salmon group was resting just above a Beaver dam; the bottom of the pond is lined with sticks the Beavers are saving as a winter food supply

Kokanee Salmon are silver for most of their lives, but when the time comes for their death swim upstream, the pigment in their flesh migrates to the skin and the fish become an elegant shade of red

Small gray birds known as Dippers would sometimes swim over the salmon, causing the fish to scatter in a panic

We don’t know why the salmon stay in such tight clusters at this point in their upstream quest; they are undoubtedly resting in a well-oxygenated pool, and perhaps the tight cluster gives some protection against predators or serves a role in mating. At some point the fish will scatter and establish breeding territories along the stream or around the shallows of the lake

Viewed from above, with the distortions of ripples and current, the salmon look as if captured in an abstract painting

Karen, my wife, has a tradition of creating wonderful snowmen on our hikes, and her creation “Autumn” uses seasonal styling cues to bring on a smile

Snow atop dogwood leaves

Douglas Maple’s yellow autumn leaves bearing a snow load

Bunchberry, also known as Canada Dogwood, with overnight snow

The pond itself sits in a dramatic location not far from I-90

The evergreen forest with its first major snow of the autumn

Vine Maple leaves against a light gray cloudy sky

When I visited in late October, the conditions were great for a late autumn hike. Be aware that conditions change constantly at Snoqualmie Pass, and be prepared for winter weather. Soon enough it will be snowshoe season at Gold Creek Pond.

For more information about the Gold Creek Pond area, go to Forest Service Gold Creek Trail; or go to trip reports and a trail description at Washington Trails Association.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date) 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK: Raw and Magnificent Royal Basin

September 15, 2012

Corona of the setting moon behind the ridge separating Royal Basin and Deception Basin

As evening clouds started leaking, we crawled into our tents early and listened to the staccato pelting of hard rain on taut nylon. I drifted off to sleep within minutes, as usual after a hard day of high country hiking. Later, I awoke to use the facilities (a euphamism if there ever was one), and quickly realized that the lighting was dramatic. The moon had just descended over a ridge and it was dramatically backlighting the clouds that were streaming over the ridge separating Royal Basin and Deception Basin. As a bonus, there was a corona of all the colors of the rainbow in those clouds. The contrast of the starkly black and jagged ridge with the ethereal light of moon on clouds was a reminder of what a special and elemental place this is.

Fast-moving clouds and stars above the ridge

I hadn’t hiked to Royal Basin in 22 years. Last time I was there, hiking with Karen, we had shaggy, shedding Mountain Goats come into our campsite uninvited, like party crashers, hoping to score a lick of urine-soaked soil near our tent. Yeah, it was gross, but that’s what Mountain Goats do when there are lots of humans around. They follow hikers hoping to lick the sweat off their thighs or trail after them into the woods, knowing that that’s where humans go to urinate. And why do the goats like our bodily wastes? Because they crave salt. It is apparently an addictive need for them, and these mountains don’t provide enough salt in the soil to satisfy them. The goats can get pesky, and even aggressive, when around humans. In fact, during the fall of 2010, a 370 lb. adult male in breeding craziness gored a hiker about four miles from the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center. The hiker died after the goat’s sharp horn penetrated an artery in his thigh. Mountain Goats are not native to the Olympic Mountains, and sometimes it seems that they just don’t belong here.

On that same earlier trip we also observed a marmot murder. Marmots are territorial and can be aggressive toward each other. In this case, one marmot chased another across a subalpine meadow; the one being chased decided that its only option was to go down a steep snowfield, which ended abruptly at a tarn. The marmot hurtled down the mountain, slipped down the snowfield, and splashed into the tarn. It swam for a while, but it was unable to climb back up the steep, icy sides of the tarn. Eventually, it succumbed to the icy water and drowned. In the court of Olympic Marmot behavior, the marmicide was deemed manslaughter, and we suspect that the suspect was unrepentant. A heroic young woman fished the corpse out of the tarn so that future hikers could safely get their water here.

Warm light of sunrise bathing the cirque

Those were my most salient memories of our earlier trip to Royal Basin, but I remembered being impressed by the rugged cirque of the upper basin. What I didn’t recall was how hard the hike was, but even at 22 years older, we were able to hike the 7+ miles and 3,100′ gain with no problems, other than being dead tired by the end of the long march.

The lower trail winds through a mossy forest

The hike starts, like most hikes in the Pacific Northwest, in the deep Douglas Fir and Western Hemlock and Western Redcedar woods. Following Royal Creek, the trail eventually breaks into subalpine forest with small meadows, and after six miles arrives at Royal Lake. We briefly pondered staying at Royal Lake, but there were lots of backpackers there, wearing headnets to protect themselves against an onslaught of mosquitoes, which had hatched in hordes following the melting snow.

Beautiful Royal Lake is the destination for many of the hikers, though it doesn’t have the sublime wild terrain of the upper basin

More impressive here were the clouds of Chironomids, also known as “non-biting midges,” which danced in shafts of sunlight in swarms of thousands. Up close, these creatures look quite a lot like mosquitoes, but they don’t lust after our blood. Hiking through a swarm tickles a bit, and breathing bugs into an open mouth is a coughing and spitting experience, but otherwise these little bugs are benign and bordering on wondrous. When they are backlit by a low, late-summer sun, the effect is spectacular, like a galaxy of dancing stars. I had first seen these columns of dancing chironomids in Grand Valley in the Olympics many years ago, and had photographed them then, but this time I had the advantage of digital photography, so I could check my photographs immediately and adjust exposures accordingly. It was an unforeseen highlight of the hike.

Chironomids dancing in a shaft of sunlight

These non-biting midges are about the size and shape of mosquitoes (with whom they share the shores of Royal Lake), but these little creatures don’t have vampire tendencies

I have never before seen such a concentration of tiny, dancing insects!

I used a time exposure to capture the chaotic flight of these thousands of chironomids

Detail of a time exposure, this one capturing the rhythmic wingbeats of the insects

All good things come to an end, and here thousands of Chironomids have returned in death to fertilize the lake in which they lived as larvae

Wildflowers were late again this year, because of a heavy snowpack in the Olympics. In some years, the flowers would be shriveled and brown by the week before Labor Day, but not in this late summer. There were sky blue lupines and extensive meadows of scarlet paintbrush. Tall Cow Parsnip and Angelica were in the last stage of fowering. Arnicas and Senecios (two yellow flowers in the sunflower family) were at their peak.

Mountain Bog Gentian heralds the end of summer with its bloom

Edible Thistle is a memorable plant of Olympic subalpine meadows

Kneeling Angelica flowering in a mountain meadow

Fireweed blooming along Imperial Tarn in upper Royal Basin

Arnica blooming near our campsite

We climbed still higher beyond Royal Lake, into upper Royal Basin, which is a huge cirque of rugged mountains. We quickly set up camp on the first flat place we could fine, which was a bed of gravel sorted by a stream coming right out of a snowfield. Cold, wonderful water right next to our tents! There were five of us in the group, and we set up three tents. Two climbers had set up their tent before us, but the gravel bed easily accomodated all of us. Peaks glowed red in the setting sun, and the cirque was wild with a sense of unleashed natural forces.

The rocks tell stories of deposition in quiet seas, followed by the incredible power of volcanism as the Pacific plate slid under the North American plate. The rocks tell tales of the earth’s violence over millions of years; pillow lava along the trail was once formed by magma vents on the bottom of the ocean, now these rocks are found a mile high in the mountains in sheer cliffs. Breccia, a combination of jagged stones embedded in a lava matrix, looks like petrified geological pudding.

Breccia and snowfield along Imperial Tarn

Breccia up close, showing rough rocks embedded in a matrix that was once molten

Though the glaciers are gone, Imperial Tarn is still colored a vivid aquamarine by glacial flour that was formed by the scraping of glaciers against rock

Around us that evening, the setting sun caught spires of rock known at The Needles. High ridges surrounded us, separating us from Desolation Basin and other wild Olympic valleys. Not long ago, this was a place of glaciers, and named glaciers are still found on some topographic maps of the area. These tongues of ice shaped this high basin over thousands and thousands of years, leaving massive jumbles of rocks all over the basin. Alas, the days of glaciation are at an end; when we asked the climbers if they had crossed any glaciers, they insisted that there were no longer any glaciers here. I’m inclined to agree. We tried to make cracks across the long snowfields into crevasses, but I think we were just dreaming. There was no breaking end of the snowfield that would indicate glacial movement. So, I’m afraid we can chalk up the loss of still more glaciers to global warming. On the other hand, if we were in an era of growing glaciers, Royal Basin would be a lot less accessible.

The snowfield previously known as a glacier

An unnamed tarn in Royal Basin, with Mt. Clark and The Needles towering above

I explored the stream below this waterfall, where an American Dipper was feeding in the rapids and along the waterfall itself

The next morning, our little stream had largely dried up. During the warm day, snow melts and feeds the streams, while the chill air of night largely stops the melting. One of our group later watched the stream suddenly come to life later in the morning, and followed its progress as it trickled down the mountain.

After our gourmet breakfast of bean soup, instant coffee, and hot chocolate, we set off for a day of exploring upper Royal Basin. We climbed moraines, located hidden tarns filled with aquamarine water, photographed wildflowers, explored a tall waterfall, and enjoyed the company of perhaps 20 Olympic Marmots.

Our BPA-free water bottles colorfully catch the sunrise

The marmots were my favorite part of the day. The young of the year were adolescents at this point, and were out exploring and feeding on their own. One young marmot insisted upon eating False Hellibore–a lily that is poisonous to humans and sheep. I wanted to yell “Don’t eat that!” at the top of my lungs, but like many rebellious teens he probably would have told me to go stick my head in a burrow.

Young Olympic Marmot bending down a False Hellibore for its lunch

The marmots remind me of Teddy Bears; notice the hands built for digging burrows

Olympic Marmots are found nowhere else on earth. They were isolated from Hoary Marmots–the species found in the Cascades–by the ice age. Now these beautiful tawny-haired creatures thrive in the subalpine meadows between Royal Lake and upper Royal Basin. Their piercing cries warn each other of hikers and coyotes and bears and other nasty creatures. They spend much of the year hibernating deep underground, snug in a sedge-lined nest, and the rest of the year mating and eating. Sleep, sex, and food … not such a bad life!

Marmot at its burrow entrance above Royal Creek

These two young marmots are a bit uncertain about the photographic intruder into their lives

After hours of watching the marmots, we returned to camp and enjoyed talking about the adventures of the day during dinner. That was the night that rain came early, where I started this tale.

Shelter Rock near Royal Lake is made of pillow lava that was once extruded from volcanic vents beneath the ocean; the collision of plates shoved immense deposits of pillow lava up onto the continent

In contrast to the giant forces forming mountains; here a tiny stream sprayed water droplets onto a bed of moss

The next morning, we packed up and began the long hike out, stopping for a while at Royal Lake. There was a breeze at the lake, and we wondered where all the midges had gone. One of us, walking into the woods to use the facilities, discovered that the little bugs were all hunkered down on branches, waiting out the wind and hoping for steady sun so they could resume their wild mating dance.

Beautiful light on upper Royal Basin

The National Park Service closely controls the number of backpackers in Royal Basin, following an era of overuse that resulted in trampling of beautiful wildflower meadows. Our permit allowed us to stay in the upper basin, where a total of 12 people in a maximum of four groups could camp. Royal Lake could accommodate more people, and there is a ranger station there (but no ranger during our stay; we wondered if the backcountry ranger had left for college or to fight a forest fire).

The lower trail passes thimbleberries and big firs and hemlocks

Fast hikers can explore Royal Basin as a day hike of 14+ miles, which is more than I would care to do in a day. We watched two guys descending a steep snowfield near the rim of the cirque; they had come from largely snowclad Deception Basin, over the ridge, and down the snowfield. They used crampons on their boots to allow safer passage on the hard snow of morning, and used treking poles to help stabilize themselves on the steep slope. These guys were really tired after a tough hike, and still had a good seven miles to go.

Footbridge crossing the lower reaches of Royal Creek

We enjoyed chatting briefly with a group of young people who had backpacked in. They had come to Royal Basin as part of their freshman college orientation, and were uniformly enthusiastic about the experience. The Puget Sound region is so beautiful that outdoor activities like this are part of the pulse of living here.

Hemlock forest along the trail

An impressionistic view of the hemlock forest

Fireweed against a sky of delicate cirrus clouds

For more information about Royal Basin hiking go to:

Washington Trails Association Hike of the Week

Royal Basin, National Park Service

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date) 

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CHANNEL ISLANDS RESTORATION: We are as Gods

June 3, 2012

We almost lost the Island Fox, whose numbers plummeted from over 2,000 to under 100 in a few short years on Santa Cruz Island, due to a complex chain of events set in motion decades ago. This blog describes the ways that people affected the wildlife and plants of Channel Islands National Park, and how the National Park Service and its allies in conservation have attempted to rescue some of the iconic native creatures and restore the fragile ecosystems of these islands located so close to the millions of people living along the southern California coast.

The rat’s dark eyes reflected the full moon as it twitched its whiskers, sniffing the air. Nearby, a newly-hatched seabird, fluffy and vulnerable, scrambled around its mother as she waited patiently for others to hatch. The rat, sensing the vulnerability of a baby, dashed in for a quick take, grabbing the tiny chick and then rushing up through the rock crevice, its naked rat tail trailing like a snake. 

The next morning, two fox kits played by their den, tugging on a fallen eucalyptus branch and wrestling together in the dusty earth. High above, a predator watched with eagle eyes as it floated on currents of warm air. An ache of hunger stirred in its cells, an ache that two days ago was satisfied by zooming down on a squealing piglet. Adjusting its wings, the Golden Eagle plunged at dizzying speed, opened its talons, and snatched the tiny fox. The kit never saw it coming, but his sister did, and she learned a lesson in horror that arrives unexpectedly from the sky.

When I visited Channel Islands National Park in April 2012, it struck me that the Channel Islands are a virtual laboratory for many of the great conservation disasters and subsequent restoration stories of the last 50 years. These rocky outcrops and their creatures have endured DDT poisoning, a major oil spill, overgrazing, overharvesting, invasions of alien animals and plants, endangered species, and now the threat of ocean acidification.

The National Park Service is steward of land on five of the Channel Islands, and has made a heroic effort to restore the islands to something closer to their historic natural state. This effort has come at the cost of controversy and lawsuits, but the National Park Service has stayed the course; the islands and their native plants and animals are better for the effort.

Santa Cruz Island has a long history of ranching and farming, but it has also supported endemic animals and plants in wild ecosystems–creatures found nowhere else on earth. 

Santa Cruz Island

Some 10,000 years ago, Earth was emerging from an ice age and the Channel Islands were experiencing monumental changes. At that time, so much of the earth’s water was locked up in glacial ice that the vast oceans were lower, exposing more of the coastline. Four of today’s islands–Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel–were combined into one large island known as Santarosae. With the sea level 300 feet below today’s level, the island was much larger than the four remnant islands of today.

The prime herbivore of the islands, the Channel Islands Pygmy Mammoth (the mother of all oxymorons–but the pygmy mammoth indeed weighed only 10% as much as its mainland ancestors), which had grazed these windswept landscapes for eons, suddenly disappeared. Forever. Did it have something to do with the arrival of people at roughly the same time? Perhaps. From the admittedly spotty, pieced-together timeline that scientists have constructed based upon remains of mammoths and people, it appears that the mammoths disappeared shortly after the arrival of the first humans. Did these Chumash people ram spearpoints into the last 2,000 lb. beast of its kind? We may never know, but I’m placing my bet on a simple “yes.”

But enough of ancient history; the Chumash people came to a rough balance with the other island inhabitants for the next 10,000 years, so we’ll cut them some slack for the vanishing mammoths. Especially since they themselves disappeared from the islands in historical time, coinciding with the invasion of the Europeans, and all the cultural changes and diseases and opportunities that made for huge societal changes in native peoples across the continents.

People have been a part of Santa Cruz Island for some 10,000 years

The Chumash did manage to live in harmony with the little Island Foxes and the strikingly blue Island Scrub Jays. As well as the Sea Otters that fur traders eliminated from the Channel Islands, and the abalones that have become so scarce due to overharvesting and poaching that they have largely disappeared from California dinner tables.

Next on the scene were ranchers. Santa Cruz still has historic ranch buildings, roads, orchards, stone piles, and other artifacts that represent some 150 years of agricultural operations. Generations of ranchers carved a living out of this island. With the island’s Mediterranean climate, olive groves and vineyards prospered; the latter until Prohibition. Sheep grazed the hillsides. Pigs and other farm animals became a common sight and smell on the island. Eventually, pigs escaped and sheep ventured into inaccessible places, so the island had some new creatures enjoying their newfound freedom.

An old fence in Scorpion Canyon speaks of the ranching that occurred here for over 100 years

As agriculture thrived on Santa Cruz, the California mainland was becoming a bleeding edge of industrial America. By the 1950s, Bald Eagle nests had completely disappeared from the Channel Islands, where there were previously two dozen. The culprit? DDT. The industrial strength pesticide, sprayed nearly everywhere in the world where mosquitoes were a problem, had side effects. Yes, a DDT scientist claimed that the chemical was perfectly safe, each year shocking the students in his classroom by eating a spoonful of the stuff. And, yes, like many baby boomers who camped in the late 1950s in state parks, I inhaled big gulps of the chokingly thick DDT fog that park staff sprayed through the campgrounds, and I’m still alive. So far.

Birds weren’t so lucky. DDT thinned their eggshells, especially the eggshells of birds higher on the food chain; when a Bald Eagle or a Peregrine Falcon or a Brown Pelican would sit on the eggs, the thin shells would crush under her weight. This was a problem across North America, but the Channel Islands had a special problem: they lay just offshore from a major DDT manufacturer. The Montrose Chemical Corporation had its DDT plant in the Los Angeles area, which EPA estimates dumped 1,700 tons of DDT into the sewer system and subsequently into the Pacific Ocean before the plant closed in 1983. Over the decades, that DDT, residing on the bottom sediments of the Continental Shelf, made it into the food chain, contaminating fish and the creatures that eat the fish–including the Bald Eagles, Brown Pelicans, and Peregrine Falcons that nested in the Channel Islands.

By sometime in the 1950s to 1960s, all the Bald Eagles were gone from the islands. Fish and small ducks breathed a sigh of relief and perhaps the sharks ate better than they used to, but those of us who loved our national bird were in shock. The Endangered Species Act, created during the Nixon administration, was a response to seeing such a rapid decline in some of America’s most charismatic creatures.

The late 1960s were a time of budding consciousness for the environmental movement. I was taking Introduction to Ecology 301 at the University of Michigan in 1969, and I remember coming into the classroom and hearing about the Santa Barbara oil spill that had just happened. An offshore oil well had blown out, allowing millions of gallons of oil to float atop the Santa Barbara Channel, killing thousands of seabirds and marine mammals. This sad event spurred the movement tremendously with the clear and present danger of careless drilling. When the spill occurred, oil-soaked birds and marine mammals were shown nightly on national news as they washed up on once-pristine California beaches, feathers saturated with black oil. It was a sight that many never forgot, and thousands of Channel Islands birds and marine mammals were affected. Volunteers worked tirelessly to clean feathers of birds coated with petrogoo–an effort that unified environmentalists and animal lovers in an emotional and physical struggle to reverse the damage. Tragic oil spills have occurred since then in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico, and the terrible results have been similar. At least we now have protocols for attempting to clean up the mess, for which we can thank the Santa Barbara spill.

Meanwhile, island pigs were multiplying like rabbits (though the island had no rabbits). When conniving pigs escaped their fences, they took off squealing with the glee of freedom, heading into the mountains of Santa Cruz. In their happiness, they enjoyed sex in the wilderness, and made lots of little piglets to root around among rare plants, dig holes in old Indian camps, and generally make a mess of the island. This might sound cute enough, but the spectre of a 400 lb. boar surprising a hiker on a trail is enough to send a mental warning of what a big pig can do.

The little pigs rooting everywhere on Santa Cruz then attracted a predator, the magestic Golden Eagle, that had only occasionally visited the island in the past. When the Bald Eagles nested on Santa Cruz, they ruled the skies with shows of aerial strength, and kept away the Golden Eagles. But when the Bald Eagles disappeared, the Golden Eagles sensed a vacuum and moved in for the kill … of piglets. There was so much pork that the Golden Eagles decided to nest on Santa Cruz.

All would have been wonderful had the Golden Eagles eaten a strict diet of pork, but in eagle fashion they decided that the tiny Island Fox also made a delightful meal. As a result, the Island Fox population on Santa Cruz plummeted from about two thousand in 1994 to under a hundred some seven years later, and the very survival of the species was at stake. The National Park Service had a choice: they could let nature take its course, in which case an entire charismatic species would disappear; or they could take action to save the Island Fox.

Two Island Foxes greet each other affectionately

It was not only the survival of the Island Fox that was at stake: there were also Chumash archeological sites and a wealth of endemic plants–plants found nowhere else on earth–that were being absolutely hammered by the pigs and sheep. The National Park Service has a mandate to preserve the landscape and its wild creatures, so they had to come up with a comprehensive plan. This was to be done in coordination with The Nature Conservancy, which owns and manages well over half of Santa Cruz Island.

Nothing is ever easy these days, when so many interest groups and individuals believe that they truly represent nature, or wildlife, or common sense, or industry, or …

One of the first steps the National Park Service took was to remove 16 wild horses, or more properly, “horses gone wild,” from the island. Had the horses remained, they would have gone forth and multiplied, and added even more pressure on the island’s natural inhabitants. But, for every bureaucratic action, there is a reaction. The National Park Service was sued by the Foundation for Horses and Other Animals Inc., a group that wanted the horses to remain. After the group lost its initial court battle and subsequent appeal, the way was clear for the NPS to remove the horses. They did it in the face of last minute pressure from the local congresswoman, but all 16 horses were removed, alive and kicking, and placed in a mainland sanctuary.

Next, the 2,000 sheep on the island were removed and transported to the mainland. Sheep are not as charismatic as horses, so there was much less controversy about this removal.

Skull of a sheep that died on Santa Cruz Island; at one time there were 2,000 sheep grazing on the island

Pigs were another matter. The National Park Service and The Nature Conservancy decided that the pigs had to be killed rather than live-trapped. The now-wild pigs had diseases such as cholera and pseudorabies that meant they could not be safely transplanted to the mainland.

Dramatic clouds over the hills of Santa Cruz Island

The plan was to construct electric fences to contain the pigs, then shoot them from helicopters and use a defoliant to kill a favorite pig food, the invasive Fennel. A group sprang up to oppose pig removal, the Channel Islands Animal Protection Association (CHIAPA), and held several raucously emotional public meetings to discuss the proposal. A journalist for the student newspaper of the University of California, Santa Barbara, reported on the first meeting, quoting a spokesman of CHIAPA as saying “The pigs have been demonized and accused of imaginary crimes.” A colleague opined that “The Island Fox population was robust until The Nature Conservancy took over the island … the finger goes right to The Nature Conservancy for causing the near extinction of the Island Fox (this person claimed that the Golden Eagles were drawn to the island by rotting sheep carcasses when the sheep were removed). The latter spokeswoman also said that “This is literal warfare. They are defoliating the land so they can gun down the enemy.”

Despite the controversy, a company from New Zealand indeed executed the pigs–all 5,000+ of them–in 2005. That action meant that the island’s native plants and foxes had a better chance of surviving.

The next step was to relocate the Golden Eagles, in order to preserve the Island Foxes, whose numbers were now far less than 10% of what they were just a decade before. An elaborate plan was devised to live trap the eagles, then move them back to a distant place on the mainland. This effort went well, and over 40 Goldens were trapped and transplanted. They have not returned.

Ravens are part of the native fauna of the Channel Islands

At about the same time, ten pairs of the increasingly scarce Island Foxes were rounded up and moved to a captive breeding center, in order to try and give the fox population a jump start. Fortunately, it worked wonderfully, and in a few short years the fox population is back to its natural levels.

Island Foxes are tiny; only about a quarter of the size of their mainland ancestors, and about the size of a typical house cat

Meanwhile, Bald Eagles have been reintroduced to the islands and have started nesting again, as have the Peregrine Falcons that went through a captive breeding and reintroduction program starting in the late 1970s.

So, Santa Cruz has gone from an island with a dozen species in danger, to an island that is recovering nicely. On my trip to the island, I saw about two dozen Island Foxes in three days, as well as a Peregrine Falcon and some of the endangered plants that are returning from the brink of extinction. The slopes no longer have the denuded look that the sheep brought, and the diggings of pigs no longer threaten archaeological sites and native plants. Island Foxes no longer have to worry about death diving from the sky. All is well …

Greene’s Liveforever and several of its island relatives were negatively affected by the 5,000+ pigs running wild on the island

Anacapa Island

Anacapa Island is far smaller than Santa Cruz Island, and the challenges have been different. There are no foxes on Anacapa, as it is too small to support a fox population. It does have major populations of nesting seabirds that have faced tremendous challenges.

Anacapa supports one of the two American breeding colonies of California Brown Pelicans, but DDT poisoning had the same effect on their eggshells as it had on Bald Eagles. In 1970, only ONE pelican chick hatched and survived in the entire colony. Recovery began soon after DDT was banned, and there are now about 4,600 pelican nests on West Anacapa–a remarkable recovery from the brink of extinction. There are still challenges: nighttime squid fishing disturbed the birds and led to some nest abandonment a decade or so ago, but now there is a buffer zone. Hikers are not allowed close to the colony.

View west from Inspiration Point along Anacapa Island and toward Santa Cruz Island

Another major challenge came to the islands earlier. About 150 years ago, a ship named after Mexican-American War hero Winfield Scott ran aground on the rocks just off Anacapa Island. Everyone aboard was eventually rescued, but the Black Rats on board decided to rescue themselves, and many swam successfully to shore, where they colonized the island and found a rich food source in the seabirds that called Anacapa home. They devoured eggs and chicks of such rare and threatened species as the Xantus’s Murrelet. They bred like rats, of course, and soon thousands of them were swarming over the tablelands and cliffs of this small island. A few years ago, the National Park Service mounted an all-out assault on the rats, completely eliminating the creepy creatures using poison, some of it spread on the cliff faces by helicopter. Of course, groups of animal rights advocates spoke up for the rights of rats, but the National Park Service did the right thing and eliminated the rats, thus saving untold native birds and a native island mouse from elimination.

Giant Coreopsis, one of the fascinating and unusual plants on Anacapa Island, was threatened by the encroachment of introduced, invasive plants

In the 1950s, the US Coast Guard staff on Anacapa decided to introduce Ice Plant to the island. This attractive plant is good for erosion control, and had already established a foothold along the central and southern California coasts. Unfortunately, the Ice Plant spread quickly over much of the island, displacing native plants in its march to utter domination. The National Park Service inherited the Ice Plant when it took over the island, and decided that the invader had to go. Volunteers and staff have tried various methods of eradication, including pulling it up and applying herbicides, and are finally winning the battle.

About a year ago, the National Park Service set up a greenhouse on Anacapa, and is growing native plants from seeds collected on the island. The goal is to jump start the revegetation of Anacapa with native plants. Based on what I saw, the newly growing natives are doing really well.

We are as Gods

Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalogues of the 1960s and beyond were the Google of their day, but with a sustainable living emphasis. The eminently browsable pages skipped from resources for raising chickens to building a windmill to understanding deep ecology to printing on a small press. It lent itself to dreams, and to a feeling of responsibility toward Planet Earth.

I recall a statement by Stewart Brand–it may have been on the cover of one of the catalogues along with a photo of Earth from space taken by one of the Apollo missions–in which he said “We are as gods, we might as well get good at it.” Meaning, that we have such an overwhelming presence on Earth, that we had better learn how to responsibly guide the impact of people upon the natural systems we depend on. It is an obvious statement, yet extremely profound in its implication that we cannot continue soiling the nest, or we will all get sick.

Recently, Stewart Brand revisited and revised his classic statement to “We are as gods, and HAVE to get good at it.” Again, an obvious statement, but one that flies in the face of those who think we can drill our way to sustainability in an era when over seven billion of us demand and deserve better lifestyles and lifespans. How do we get to the point of sustaining all those souls without ruining the planet so it no longer can support us?

That brings me to back to Channel Islands National Park, where the National Park Service and The Nature Conservancy are playing the role of being the good Gods of ecological restoration and sustainability–not an easy task and often a controversial one.

Arch Rock at the eastern point of Anacapa Island

As a naturalist, I have always loved wild creatures of every kind, with the certain exceptions of ticks and mosquitoes and some kinds of spiders. But, just as there are the good gods of restoration, there are the bad gods of invasion and elimination. Is it right that an accidental introduction of pigs threatened the very survival of the Island Fox? I think the clear answer is “NO!”  The National Park Service did what it had to do to protect the wild and natural inhabitants of these islands, rather than reserving them for rats and pigs.

I have witnessed the result of these restoration efforts, and it is good. We are indeed as Gods.

The National Park Service and its allies in conservation saved the Island Fox from extinction.

Further Reading and References:

Restoring Santa Cruz Island

Restoring Anacapa Island’s Seabird Habitat

Restoring Anacapa’s Native Vegetation

Pig Eradication Completed

Animal People News (point of view of animal rights advocates)

Yet More Killings

When the Killing’s Done (T.C. Boyle’s novel about the Channel Islands killing controversies)

National Geographic News reports on pig killing controversy

The Daily Nexus article about pig killing

Blog about Anacapa Island Restoration


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