WENAS AUDUBON CAMPOUT: Chasing Birds and Grasshoppers

This male Mountain Bluebird took a big beetle into the nest box and left it for the nestlings; apparently he realized that he had made a mistake, because next time he came back to the box, he grabbed the beetle back and left the box with it

When I was a boy, my friend across the street loved butterflies, and he ran around the neighborhood with a butterfly net in hand, with one of those intense passions that young boys often develop. I didn’t share his butterfly passion, but I also loved being outdoors. The boys in the neighborhood all had bikes, and we would bike into town or to a park several miles away or to a baseball diamond for a pickup game. The freedom of summer was a wonderful, unstructured time that allowed for childhood exploration and creativity, without today’s parental concerns about evil lurking down the street.

The bright purples and yellows of spring wildflowers attract older people with their beauty–and they attract butterflies and bugs and thus kids who take a natural interest in insects

So it was wonderful to see a mother and her seven year old son–I’ll call him “Tim”–having a wonderful time outdoors at the recent Wenas State Audubon Campout that Karen and I attended. Tim watched Red-Naped Sapsuckers drilling into a tree; found the first Grass Widow flower on a botany hike; and spent a lot of time chasing and catching grasshoppers in the mountain meadows. He and his mother were car-pooling with us for two hikes; at the end of one hike he walked up to me and said that he hoped I didn’t die, because I was the driver to get him back to camp. Kids say the darndest things!

Tim wasn’t the only child on the trip. Among the 120+ Audubon campers, there were roughly a dozen children, all of whom seemed to be having a great time. I wish there had been more. In Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods, he stated his mission of “saving our children from nature-deficit disorder.” His thesis is that unstructured time in nature is important for children, for their intellectual and creative development, and that they are not getting this vital childhood experience. He believes that this lack of nature experiences fuels the obesity, attention deficit disorders, and depression that have become much more common in recent years.

A young ground squirrel ready to duck into its burrow for safety from the big, mean humans

Let’s face it: we all spend too much time in front of colorful electronic screens. Children are not exempt, and the addictive [I use that word intentionally and from personal experience] nature of activities on computers, game consoles, and smart phones may be especially dangerous for young minds that need broad experiences, not the simple stimulus/reward experiences of gaming, Facebook, instant messaging, and online shopping.

End of rant. Just get you and your kids out there enjoying nature close to home or far away!

The Wenas State Audubon Campout is a great place to spend Memorial Day Weekend. The Wenas Campground, once a Boise Cascade public campground now owned by the State of Washington, is a big, flat Ponderosa Pine forest along Wenas Creek on the drier east side of the Cascade Mountains. People are

Camping at Wenas Campground under Ponderosa Pines and among lupines

Our campsite during a rainy evening in 2010

free to camp anywhere, except within 50′ of the creek, and the place can absorb probably thousands of campers. In the past few years, there have been groups of ATV riders and horse riders, in addition to the Audubon campers. Everyone needs to bring their own food, cooking supplies, and water. This year Karen and I set up a cook tent, in addition to our sleeping tent, because last year it rained while we were cooking.

Who can go?  Anyone.  Arrive any time and leave any time. There is no formal structure, except for meeting at assigned times for particular hikes. And that informal flexibility is part of the beauty of the weekend. There are no fees, except the voluntary donations for portable toilets and for the group camping permit. The weekend is filled with free group hikes to see birds and wildflowers in mountain and sagebrush habitats, plus campfire programs and owl prowls.

Owl Prowl leader Neil Zimmerman called in a tiny Pygmy Owl at the campground’s edge using his voice and recorded sounds; here it is illuminated by flashlight

It is so enjoyable that I’m surprised that many more people don’t take advantage of the experience.

It was wonderful to spend the weekend with people of all levels of knowledge and who are willing to share that knowledge. We saw our second Pygmy Owl and Northern Saw-Whet Owl on this trip, and last year we saw our first Long-Eared Owls. Don Knoke led some memorable botany hikes, and we had a chance to see an unusual native Brown Peony for the first time. Knoke also sets up plant identification boards around the Larrimer Tree, a big Ponderosa Pine

Plants of the sagebrush-steppe community, identified for we rain forest mossbacks of the Puget Sound area

along the stream, with a wide selection of native plants kept alive in little tube vases and on display so that people can learn about the different wildflowers of the sagebrush-steppe community.

This year we enjoyed a special new experience–visiting and birding 400+ acre Green Ranch in the Wenas Valley, now owned by a woman who had been a part of the Audubon Campout for years. She is dedicated to good stewardship of the land, which consists of riverbank forest, open pastures, and a beautiful old

Classic old barn interior on a Wenas Valley ranch

barn and outbuildings–as well as a collection (inherited from the previous owner) of several dozen old and decaying Volvos lined up near the barns; you may have heard of Cadillac Ranch; some people have called this Volvo Ranch! Note that this ranch is private land, and the visit during the Wenas Campout was by private invitation.

Over 40 of us went birding on Green Ranch, by special invitation of the owner, where we saw a good variety of birds, including Bullock’s Oriole, Western Tanager, lots of warblers, and a Wild Turkey egg

The Wenas Audubon Campout just completed its 48th year, so it is a well-established tradition that I hope will continue for decades to come. Legendary nature-lover Hazel Wolf was instrumental in getting the weekend started all those years ago, and she attended for decades until she passed away in the year 2000, at over 100 years old.

Big-Head Clover, with a flower nearly two inches across, is a lovely part of some sagebrush-steppe meadows

A beautiful meadow bordered by Trembling Aspens along the rutted and Beaver-flooded road to the campground (still, accessible to most cars)

Graceful shapes of slowly decaying sagebrush branches; especially artistic in black & white

In the photographs here you can get a sense of the natural environment and the creatures we saw during the long weekends (we have now attended for two years in a row). Don’t miss this experience next year!

Go to Wenas Audubon Campout for more information about these special weekends.

Western Bluebird male perched in Bitterbrush

Lazuli Bunting testing his lung power in a desert aria

Common Camas, a beautiful blue lily of wet meadows, was a staple food of Indians of the far west, who used the bulbs as a potato-like vegetable

With their elegant red bark contrasting with the green vegetation, the Ponderosa Pines of the Wenas Valley are the dominant large conifer

When the lighting is just right, the intensity of a male Mountain Bluebird’s feathers is extraordinary

An impressionistic view of balsamroot and buckwheat in a high meadow

Bitterbrush displays delicate yellow flowers in the spring

Townsend’s Solitaire in Bitterbrush

A graceful tapestry of Ponderosa Pine needles and branches photographed during our owl prowl

Eastern Kingbird perched on Bitterbrush

A brown cup fungus under the campground’s Ponderosa Pines

Black Canyon Trail through sagebrush-clad slopes

Female Mountain Bluebird examining the birders examining it

A Least Chipmunk feeding atop a fencepost

Pygmy Nuthatch emerging from its nest hole with a fecal sac (diaper) from one of its nestlings

In this dry country, wood weathers slowly and gracefully, as in this old fencepost end

Thompson’s Paintbrush is a creamy paintbrush common to the sagebrush-steppe

Chipping Sparrow singing his head off from atop a Bitterbrush branch

And now for something completely different: an abandoned truck among the Ponderosa Pines that has been on state land for at least two years along the road to a university sky observatory

Bullet holes and rust form a fanciful creature on the side of the blue truck

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

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

68 Comments on “WENAS AUDUBON CAMPOUT: Chasing Birds and Grasshoppers

  1. Great photos. They really show what a special place the Wenas area is. Next time I will try to get the owl closer.

    Neil Zimmerman

    • And next time I’ll use a longer lens. I didn’t realize that I could get a pretty good photo by the light from a flashlight.

  2. Thanks for sharing these great sites–and encouragements to get out there in Nature! Important reminder for all of us.

    • I don’t know the story behind the pickup. It is down a steep slope and crashed into the trees; hopefully nobody was inside when it went down. I wish the state would clean it out of there, but removal in this remote area would be expensive.

      Thank you for your comment. I love your blog!

  3. I couldn’t agree with your ‘rant’ more!! Children should have every opportunity to explore outside. I love sending my kids out in the garden to search for bugs, chase butterflies and make mud cakes. The dirtier they get, the better 😉
    Your post is so lovely, fantastic photos. This is a great place. Well done on getting freshly pressed.

  4. Oh, this is really fantastic. Makes me want to abandon this computer and get outside right now!!
    And I’m in love with the image of that adorable chipmunk!

    • I find it hard to abandon the computer, but nature provides such a wonderful contrast to the digital world that I strive to create that balance in my life.

  5. There is nothing better than getting out and becoming one with nature. Beautiful pics and thanks for sharing. Congrats on being FP!

  6. Wow, your photos are incredible!

    I LOVE the first shot — it didn’t even look real when I first glanced at it. Crazy…


  7. Great photos! I agree, children need to get outside more, myself included.

    Btw, what kind of camera did you use to take these photos?

    • I use a 500mm Canon lens with a 1.4x extender for my bird shots, on a Canon 5D Mk II. It is a good combination, but I still have to be very close to the subject.

      Thank you for your comment.

  8. You have a great eye. I loved the bullet holes in the truck pic most, but they were all fabulous! Thanks for sharing them with us.

  9. This sounds so interesting, I’m packing my bags….What a fabulous opportunity for you and the children involved. I have to say I agree with you and your rant, children need the great outdoors to grow up correctly rounded and I don’t think they are getting that part of the growth process in their psyches. What a shame! Some of my best memories are from being in nature and running wild in the country! Great post & beautiful pictures, Thanks for sharing & Congrats on being FP’d!

  10. Pingback: male mountain bluebird « ಹಳೇ ಸೇತುವೆ

  11. The pictures are beautiful, and I totally agree. Kids nowadays need to head out, get outside, and enjoy the outdoors. I was a strange girl and absolutely loved all forms of insects. I’d be picking up rocks and playing with whatever bugs were hiding underneath.

  12. great post! beautiful photos! i agree that we don’t get out enough to enjoy nature! i certainly never did when i was young. now, i enjoy hiking almost very weekend and even camping. 🙂

  13. Pingback: WENAS AUDUBON CAMPOUT: Chasing Birds and Grasshoppers (via Lee Rentz Photography Weblog) | Alternative News Report

    • The blue does look unreal. Birds don’t have a blue pigment in their feathers; the color comes entirely from refraction created by the feather structure. When you see a blue bird from just the right angle, the blue is incredibly intense.

  14. I love the soft, furry chipmunk! The Lazuli Bunting “testing his lung power” and the Chipping Sparrow “singing his head off” are so expressive and wonderful. Capturing them as they communicate is the essence of action photography. I’m just a beginning photographer, so I’m in awe of your work. Thank you so much for sharing. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed.

    • Thank you! I love seeing and photographing wildlife–and especially catching them in a moment of interesting behavior.

  15. nice pictures, I like the pictures of nature, flowers, birds, trees, etc. Great childhood memory!! Miss that time full with happiness.

  16. Pingback: WENAS AUDUBON CAMPOUT: Chasing Birds and Grasshoppers (via Lee Rentz Photography Weblog) « with a hint of nonsense

  17. Lovely pictures, thank you. I can rest easy now in my easy chair knowing I have had a bird’s eye view of the beauty out there with nary a lick of heat stroke or poison ivy . Lovely! Bless you!

  18. Incredible Shots!! Its hard to pick one cuz they are all just SO amazing!
    Congratulations on FP! 😀

  19. Really great photos Sir! There are lots of things which nature can give to humans. You captured them nicely! Thanks for sharing your works. 😀

  20. I agree totally with your rant about getting kids out to experience nature first hand. The book you mentioned, Last Child in the Woods, is one of my favorites. Our kids know more about the rain forests in South America than they do about the harmless green snake in their backyard. I manage an Outdoor Classroom at my elementary school, and one of my favorite things to do is watch kids excitedly catch grasshoppers during recess. Little do they know that they are learning!

    • I’m glad to hear that you have an outdoor classroom at your school. When I was a little boy in elementary school, I had one teacher who would take us into the woods behind the school to experience birds and wildflowers and frogs. I wish that it could have been a regular program, but it depended upon the personal interests of the teacher. My later elementary school had no wild land nearby, so we had few opportunities to see nature, except for a once-yearly trip to a nature center.

  21. Pingback: WENAS AUDUBON CAMPOUT: Chasing Birds and Grasshoppers | slopestreetcats.com

  22. Amazing photos!!!

    I enjoyed reading your post. Nature has this unparalleled ability to revive us, doesn’t it?! I used to think that only a walk in a forest or a trek up a mountain or a visit to the beach could do that, but have now discovered that even a rock pool with fish in an office, a garden with trees growing wild in a crowded city, or watching the sun rise or set in the backdrop of an artificial lake can have that effect. If I let them.

    I am particularly interested in Richard Louv and his book. This is the first time I’m hearing of it, but even just reading your impression of it’s basic premise, I feel glad at the rightness of it. You know the kind of gladness where you know something to be true, but have never spoken about it yourself or heard someone saying it. Then, someday you see it in a book, or hear it being said, and know that someone else sees it the way you do. If the book is popular and read by many, then it makes you even happier, because you know now that there are many, in addition to you, who want to see the idea taking shape, becoming something that is of real value.

    In India, where I live, over the years, there has been a small but continually growing movement towards creating spaces of learning that are far from a city, in the midst of naturally beautiful places, in structures built along principles of green design, or eco-friendly architecture…Since, learning in these places is so much about self-inquiry, and so little about competition and scores, they tend to be very different from conventional schools. In general lingo, they are all clubbed together and referred to as alternative education schools.

    Many of these schools actually allow and encourage children and teachers to learn from unstructured time in natural surroundings. I worked for over two years in one of these schools. We had a farm adjacent to the school that the children enjoyed visiting. And, we were in a village where in almost every direction, there were either small pockets of natural forests, or plantations, or fields. One of our longest walks led us to a granite quarry. Most of our lessons were out in the open, and based on what we could see or experience in these different landscapes…

    A biology class, for example, could just be about observing the locations of honey bee hives in the locality and correlating this with the kind of trees they were built on, their distance from possible flowers that the bees were pollinating, identifying the trees on which the hives were built and the flowers in the immediate vicinity. An art class could be about charcoal sketching the granite quarry. A literature class about keeping a Nature Diary for a term.

    The children, of course, also spent many happy hours here with no agenda. For example, one summer, we had three tree-houses, made by three different groups of children. Another time, the kids used empty jars to bring back frog spawn from a nearby rain-fed pond. Many hours of a rainy day were spent by the children in watching a stray dog that they had adopted trying to eat up as many male ants as it could, even as the ants burst out from cracks in the wet earth and took flight, to live out their brief role of providing a mate to the female. Often, the youngsters would curl up with a book on the branch of a tree, or huddle up with friends by the pond to exchange confidences.

    Themes for lessons would just appear suddenly. Finding a cobra in our kitchen garden would lead to a discussion of poisonous versus non-poisonous snakes, territorial behaviour, the differences in our empathy towards other vertebrates and reptiles and possible evolutionary reasons for it, or the importance of fear…

    It really was a magical experience….

    So, I completely relate to everything you’ve written about the importance of getting children, teenagers, and even adults into open spaces where they can re-connect to the experience of being a part of this complex living world that we understand so little about…

    Apologize for the length of my comment. Your post was such a delight to read that it provoked a flood of thoughts in response. I couldn’t find a briefer way of expressing myself.

    • I agree that nature revives and refreshes us, and contact with nature provides balance to our lives. Thank you for your kind comments.

    • Your wonderful response from India is much appreciated, and helps provide a multi-cultural justification for contact with nature. I find that nature is inspiring in so many ways, and that it helps foster human creativity and problem-solving. Thank you for taking the time to write these wonderful words, and I’m glad that you had such a wonderful experience with a school that encouraged contact with nature.

  23. You’re definitely a talented photographer! Everyone has something to offer on this earth… that’s what Discover the Gift taught me and your blog post is a perfect example of that! Such skillfully composed shots! Heard about it? It’s a good one! http://on.fb.me/pQzaaR

  24. Discovering your blog took me aback. I was at Shi Shi when park department personnel dismantled Robert Sund’s cabin on Gold creek. I photographed the event. Gary Green, a great sculptor, and owner of the Wenas ranch before his death, was my close friend. My mother died recently and my brother who’s a photographer, took a cross country train trip . Your accounting about parking arrangements at Shi Shi, and camping regulations on Wenas creek are saddening compared to my rich memories of those places when I naively took for granted access I believed an inalienable right.

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