WENAS AUDUBON CAMPOUT: Chasing Birds and Grasshoppers

An account of the yearly informal large gathering of nature-lovers during the Memorial Day weekend Wenas Audubon Campout, where people can enjoy birds, wildflowers, and the company of other naturalists.

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

Exploring Black Canyon in Central Washington State

Photographs and stories from three hikes into Black Canyon, located near Naches, Washington State, USA. Wildlife seen included Northern Saw-Whet Owl, Long-Eared Owls, and a Western Rattlesnake.

A fledgling Northern Saw-Whet Owl tries to sleep while I’m watching

In a willow thicket, a squat shape with a rusty color surprised my eyes. We were hoping to see owls, but this looked so SMALL compared with the Long-Eared Owls we had hoped to see. After photographing it for a time, which took a lot of pretzel contortions on the part of me and my tripod to get a graceful view through the willow branches, I worked with Karen and other hikers to identify the bird, which turned out to be a fledgling Northern Saw-Whet Owl–a fierce predator of mice and bugs, at least after Mommy and Daddy teach it to hunt.

After photographing the owl, I looked around for other fledglings in the Trembling Aspen grove surrounding an old settler’s cabin, and stumbled over (literally!) a fallen cottonwood log containing Oyster Mushrooms, which are a favorite with us (soaked in salt water to remove the white worms and black beetles–which should put off most people–then rinsed and fried in pure butter until the gills are browned and crispy. It is basically mushroom-flavored crunchy butter!). Karen gathered the mushrooms while I continued photographing the owl, which paid absolutely no attention to me.

After we finished these activities, we seached the aspen grove for more owls, to no avail. There was a group of backpackers camped at the cabin, which may have influenced where Momma and Papa Long-Ear told their babies to stay.

An old log cabin in an aspen grove

This was our third hiking trip into Black Canyon in the span of four years; we enjoy going back for the birding and wildflowers, which are so different from what we find at our rain forest home. The trail follows a steep old jeep road (now closed to vehicles) up into the canyon, which is a steep-sided gouge into Umtanum Ridge. Carved by a stream, the canyon consists of dramatic basalt formations poking out of slopes covered with wildflowers, Giant Sagebrush, Bitterbrush, and scattered Ponderosa Pines. The canyon bottom is lush with shrubs and trees where the stream and groundwater bathe the roots. The settler’s cabin, located a long mile above the trailhead, must have been a pleasant place to live, with abundant water and enough trees to build the cabin.

Hiking down the Black Canyon trail back to the trailhead

Wildlife is a key part of the experience here. A Golden Eagle soared above the canyon rim as we started the recent hike; a Loggerhead Shrike hunted from a branch as we ended our second hike. Karen surprised a rattlesnake hiding in the grass on our first hike. The aspens have vertical inscriptions left by Elk feeding on the inner bark. Vivid red-and-green Lewis’s Woodpeckers feed on the slopes. Coyotes travel the trail, leaving their sign. There are undoubtedly Cougars hunting among the rocks, probably watching us as we poke along.

The photographs here represent our three hikes into the canyon. If you go, be prepared for ticks and rattlesnakes. The land is owned by the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife; a parking pass is required for parking at the trailhead.

Three of the four fledgling Long-Eared Owls we observed on a prior trip into Black Canyon

Basalt formations protrude from the slope, which is blanketed with sagebrush-steppe vegetation

Loggerhead Shrike hunting in the rain. Years ago, during an Ontario winter, we observed where a shrike had stored mice for later use by impaling them on the namesake 1.5″ thorns of hawthorns. 

Fledgling Long-Eared Owl. This species often hides well in the trees by standing tall and thin–like a branch. They can be surprisingly hard to see when they do this.

Western Rattlesnake along the Black Canyon Trail, coiled and ready

Ponderosa Pines along the trail

For more information about the trail and how to drive to the trailhead, as well as recent trail reports, go to Washington Trails Association/Black Canyon

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

MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRD: A Slice of Western Sky

Mountain Bluebird males are a perfect cerulean blue, vivid against the sagebrush-steppe landscape where they often nest. These were photographed at Whiskey Dick Mountain in central Washington State.


Sublime beauty in a small bird

The color is startling: a pure cerulean blue that mirrors the vast dome of sky stretching over the sagebrush.  A color so achingly intense, when the light illuminates it just right, that it renews my appreciation for the wild palette every time. That is the powerful attraction of the male Mountain Bluebird.

I photographed these bluebirds near a pair of nest boxes along a fence bordering Washington State wildlife lands on Whiskey Dick Mountain. This is hot, dry country in the sagebrush-steppe lands near the Columbia River,

Sagebrush, barbed wire, and windmills in the land of the Mountain Bluebird

where Big Sagebrush and Bitterbrush dominate the landscape. In spring, the earth between the shrubs is filled with wildflowers, and the cooler temperatures of the early season make hiking bearable. During my visit, the Mountain Bluebirds had paired off and were defending their nest box, but no eggs had yet hatched so the adults were not incubating or carrying food.

An interesting fact: the Mountain Bluebird has NO blue pigment in its feathers; the intense blue is created by the structure of the feathers themselves, which scatter light in the same way that the deep blue western sky scatters light. I find that the bluebird blue is most intense when the sun is at a low angle, directly behind my back. But these birds are breathtakingly beautiful anywhere, anytime.

Female Mountain Bluebird on Bitterbrush

Defending its nest box against swallows and other invaders

Male on Big Sagebrush, the dominant plant of the shrub-steppe ecosystem

Female staring intently at the intruder

Alert male on Bitterbrush

Master of his domain

The cerulean blue is a perfect match for the vast western sky

An impressionistic view of the Mountain Bluebird near its nest box

Female Mountain Bluebird on Bitterbrush

Mountain Bluebirds are relatives of robins and thrushes

For more information about Mountain Bluebirds, the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology is a good place to start.  Go to All About Birds.

To see my web site, which includes thousands of photographs please go to LeeRentz.com.

 

THE BLACK ANGELS: Ravens Practicing Aerial Maneuvers

Perfect synchronization of Common Ravens in flight

Six of them blazed by, wingtip to wingtip, making constant loud noise as they practiced intricate aerial acrobatics. Climbing rapidly, then hurtling into steep dives, coming within feet of the ground, only to pull up into the heavens again. This air show went on for about five minutes, at which point the fliers were running low on fuel and sped off to replenish themselves.

We were hiking on Whiskey Dick Mountain in central Washington State, when we came upon this spectacle. Given the time of year (mid-May), it seemed too late for Common Raven pair bonding and too early for this year’s young with their parents. So the reason for the spectacular flight will remain a mystery, unless a knowledgeable reader can help.

Flying wingtip to wingtip in an aerial ballet

We have seen Common Ravens in the mountains and the deserts over much of North America, and it is always amazing to see them–even when they are scavenging in a national park parking lot. But this is the first time I have been so thrilled to observe these incredible birds in flight. I saw a stick being dropped by one of the birds, but it happened so fast and so close to the ground that I can’t provide an accurate description. Other naturalists have observed these incredible flights, and one person described a raven flying upside-down for half a mile! These bulky black birds are truly masters of flight.

Unexpectedly graceful in flight together

Masters of precision flight

For more information about Common Ravens, go to the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology’s excellent website: All About Birds.

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.

GLOWING WITH EXERTION: Hiking in Hanford Reach National Monument

A visit to Hanford Reach National Monument in eastern Washington, across the river from the historic nuclear weapons production reactors of the Hanford Site.

Columbia River and White Bluffs of Hanford Reach National Monument

We came away glowing from our weekend hike in the sunshine of eastern Washington. Or perhaps the glow came from radioactive wastes generated by the nine decommissioned nuclear weapons reactors on the adjacent Hanford Site. Hanford is well known in Washington State, but for those unfamiliar with the name, I’ll give you a brief history.

Step back in time to 1938, when Nazi Germany was ascending and German scientists demonstrated that the uranium atom could be split. Albert Einstein and other scientists put two and two together and realized that if Germany alone possessed an atomic bomb, the world would never again be safe, and Sauron of Mordor would possess the One Ring. Einstein lobbied President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to enter the nuclear race; research and production facilities were quickly built at Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, and Hanford to create an atomic weapon to deter Germany.

Hanford’s role was to make plutonium, and three reactors were built before the end of the war to help split uranium and create plutonium, which was then sent to Los Alamos for incorporation into weapons. Hanford plutonium was in the “Fat Man” bomb dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.

F Reactor, now decommissioned, was used in manufacturing plutonium

After World War II ended, the Cold War intensified the atomic age, and nine weapons production reactors were operating at Hanford by 1963. It was a hot time econonomically in the nearby tri-cities communities of Richland, Pasco, and Kennewick, and a hot time radioactively for those living downwind and downriver of the Hanford Site. But that was presumed to be a small price to pay in order to provide some 57 tons of plutonium for about 60,000 nuclear bombs.

Fast forward to the winding down of the Cold War and the morning-after headache of nuclear waste. The reactors have all been shut down, and there is a massive cleanup under way. The Department of Energy hopes to block a million gallon waste plume of radioactive groundwater from reaching the Columbia River. They are also building a massive facility to combine radioactive waste with glass to make the waste stable for long-term storage. The threat? Plutonium has a half-life of 24,100 years, with nearly a half-million years of time before the element is safe for humans. Most of the waste is not plutonium, so it is not quite so dangerous, but remind me not to drink it.

Our seven mile hike did not take place on the Hanford Site, which is still off limits to virtually everyone but clean-up workers, scientists, and nuclear terrorists. Oh, sorry, I made that last one up. Presumably terrorists would be targeted by motion sensors and other security measures that made me a little apprehensive about even pointing a camera at the facilities. Perhaps security was pointing a camera back at me with a predator drone. Instead of trying to sneak across the river, we hiked along the White Bluffs, across the Columbia River from the Hanford Site.

The White Bluffs are now part of Hanford Reach National Monument, a wild area set aside by President Clinton and administered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Our hike led past American White Pelicans and Common Egrets resting on the Columbia, two bands of Mule Deer wading in the great river, and tracks of a wily Coyote in the sand. About 20 kinds of desert wildflowers were blooming on the sand dunes and stony expanses atop the cliffs. A rare stretch of free-flowing Columbia River runs by below the cliffs, free of the dams that impound most of the river.

The White Bluffs are sliding away because of irrigation water seepage

The photographs will give you a sense of this barren and beautiful landscape, which is called a sagebrush-steppe community–a type of desert dominated by sagebrush, rabbitbrush, and grasses. To those passing through the desert at 80 mph on a freeway, it is interminably boring; but for hikers, the intimate


landscape of dunes, wildflowers, songbirds, and stones make it a fascinating place. Keep in mind that there are rattlesnakes, black widows, and ticks, just to keep life interesting (we didn’t see any of these, by the way, but we did take precautions against ticks).

For information about the Hanford Reach area, go to: Hanford Reach National Monument and Hanford Site.

For information about hiking along the White Bluffs, go to:  Washington Trails Association.

Beautiful shifting dunes atop the White Bluffs

Lunch break with not much shade

Dunes with the Saddle Mountains in the distance

Mother Nature at the White Bluffs

An impressionist view of Cusick’s Sunflower

Coyote tracks crossing a dune

Sand Dune Penstemon, with the bluest true blue ever seen

Strange concretions were eroding from the White Bluffs

These are all concretions, geological in origin (and not what they look like!)

Yin Yang of dunes and the bluest sky imaginable

Longleaf Phlox flowers by the hundreds were blooming during our hike

Sand dunes and Saddle Mountains

A view of the historic F Reactor, now decommissioned

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to leerentz.com.  For a large selection of my work, go to Photoshelter.