FIVE BEAR STORIES

Karen and I have encountered Black and Grizzly Bears occasionally, and these sometimes make for memorable stories. Here are five adventures that we can’t possibly forget, along with assorted bear photographs I’ve taken in recent years.

American Black Bear feeding on Gray’s Lovage in July, Mount Rainier National Park in Washington State

WATCHING BEARS AT THE DUMP

Copper Harbor on Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula, circa 1959

My family used to take camping vacations to state parks back in the 1950s and 1960s. Of those, Fort Wilkins State Park at the tip of Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula, which sticks up like a long curved finger into Lake Superior, was a favorite. This was an early army outpost established in 1844 to keep order during a copper boom in the region, and there were cannons and a fort that excited the small boy in me.

But the coolest thing we did as a family there was to drive the ’57 Chevrolet station wagon to the dump and wait until dark, lined up with all the other classic Detroit cars. At deep dusk the bears arrived one by one, until there were five. They poked their snouts into the fresh garbage and turned over cardboard boxes with their powerful legs and claws, each working independently of the others. I remember one was a big cinnamon-colored bear, while the others had black hair. I’m sure the dump smell and flies were awful, but it was thrilling to see bears up close for the first time in my life.

Dumps used to be a special way for families to experience bears outside each small town in the Upper Peninsula. Those days are long gone, but those of us who experienced bears at the night dumps will never forget the adventure. Here is a sampling of memories of that time by many people: https://www.pasty.com/discuss/messages/313/617.html

American Black Bear traversing in an alpine meadow on Sahale Arm, North Cascades National Park
American Black Bear foraging in a Ponderosa Pine forest near the ghost town of Garnet, Montana, USA

SLEEPING WITH A BEAR

1982 in the High Peaks of the Adirondacks 

We were camped in a dense stand of Red Spruce high in the mountains. We knew that there were bears in the mountains, so we hung our food, but we didn’t have the mental acuity or experience to hang the food correctly in a tight grove of toothpick trees.

An hour later, in the tent, we heard a dreaded sound outside. I opened the zipper, and of course it was a big American Black Bear of the bad boy kind. I startled it by poking my head out the opening, and the bear responded by immediately climbing a tall spruce within five feet of our tent. So, it was a standoff, with me looking nervously up at the bear and it looking nervously down at me, occasionally clacking its teeth to warn me how fierce he was.

The standoff lasted all night. I had finally fallen asleep and didn’t wake up until we heard the sound of claws descending on bark. We quickly got dressed and I assumed the bear had skedaddled away, but instead it went directed to our hanging food bag. I think the bear had gotten into the food before coming close to the tent the night before, and the torn bag waving in the breeze and a pile of plastic bags below told the story. We finally chased the bear away, but we were short on food the rest of the weekend trip. My morning ration of instant coffee had bear saliva on its torn plastic container, and we never did find the peanut butter.

In the years since then we have learned to engineer a relatively bear-proof hanging bag under most circumstances, but it is often a challenge that most hikers don’t master, based upon most of the hanging food bags we see. Bear spray is also a good idea, though I don’t normally carry it in Black Bear country.

Grizzly Bear searching for food, accompanied by a scavenging Coyote, in Yellowstone National Park

FENDING OFF A BLACK BEAR WITH STONES

1989 in the Mount Baker Wilderness, Washington State

We left our rental car in the parking lot at the trail leading to Hannegan Pass to begin a backpacking adventure in North Cascades National Park. At the trailhead we had an unusual siting of a Black Bear wandering around, and in the trail register comments someone wrote “pesky bear!” We set out on our ten day backpack into lowering clouds.

We set up camp among blueberry bushes and conifers, cooked dinner and hung our food in two heavy bags from a tree branch, then retired to our tiny tent. The next morning, we got up and immediately found a Black Bear under our food hang, trying to get at it. I yelled at it and threw some stones to try and chase it away, and it left, But I had a feeling that it wasn’t done with harassing us, so I went to where I anticipated it might approach the bag next, and lo and behold, there it was! So I threw more stones, hoping to discourage it. After a couple more parries, the bear finally left us alone. 

Later in the day however, as we were hiking, a bear descended a mountainside at an angle that would intersect with us, causing us to be really apprehensive about its intent. It came within 20 yards of us, and I suspect it was the same pesky bear, but we hiked beyond without incident. The rest of the trip was bear-free, but those first two days were more than a bit unnerving.

Tracks of Grizzly Bear 399, who was accompanied by her two cubs of that year in snow in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. She had been seen here five minutes before we came on the scene.

BEING BLUFF-CHARGED BY A BLACK BEAR

1991 in Enchanted Valley, Olympic National Park

We hiked the 13+ mile trail to Enchanted Valley on a spring day, early in the season when Red Alder leaves were emerging. It is a long hike but the setting in the valley was worth it, with waterfalls cascading off the gray cliffs. We set up camp and talked to a national park ranger about a murder mystery we were reading called The Dark Place, by Aaron Elkins, which was set in that very part of Olympic National Park. We hung our food from a tree, then soothed our hike-weary bodies in our warm sleeping bags.

The next morning we awoke to see a bear foraging in the hummocky gravel of the Quinault River’s flood plain. I went out with my camera on a tripod and got too close to the bear; I knew that when it bluff-charged me and I hurriedly backed up, even with my long telephoto lens.

Then the ranger came out of the old hotel building, converted to a ranger station, and also saw the bear. He thought it was an opportunity for a photo, just like I had. He was wearing a wife beater undershirt instead of his uniform at that early hour, and he also had a camera. Only his was a point-and-shoot camera without a telephoto, so he had to get much closer to the bear than I did. It then bluff-charged him! It was really funny to watch a ranger–who knew better–get so close to a bear!

Evidence of an American Black Bear feeding on the cambium of a Subalpine Fir using claws and teeth, in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington State

SURPRISING GRIZZLIES ON THE TRAIL

2010 Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, British Columbia

We were high in the Canadian Rockies, staying in log huts with hobbit-height doors during a snowy September. This park is known for its Grizzly Bears, and we had to be careful about walking to the outhouse from the cabin. One morning we awoke to Grizzly tracks near the cabin, heading up a nearby trail we were going to walk later in the day. When we did the hike in a group, we came upon big rocks that the bear had turned over and dug around using the enormous strength in its front legs and claws (these huge muscles terminate in the hump on the back that is characteristic of this species). It had been searching for hibernating ground squirrels or marmots and could quickly dig them out of their winter chambers.

One morning our group rose well before the crack of dawn to walk a trail past Lake Magog and the Mount Assiniboine Lodge and into the trail system beyond. We had headlamps on because it was a dark, cloudy morning. The man ahead of me suddenly stopped and said “There is a big mammal in the trail just ahead.” We waited, and a Grizzly cub, hefty after a summer of ground squirrels and berries, crossed the trail. Then there was another, soon followed by mama. We had our bear spray unholstered and at the ready, and Karen began whistling three loud blasts with her whistle to alert another part of our group that had been late in getting started.

Fortunately nothing bad happened, even though we were in extremely close proximity to the mother and cubs. They left the trail area and moved off about two hundred yards, where the mama began furiously digging for ground squirrels, with the two cubs imitating her. She even stood up on her hind legs repeatedly to sniff the air; we think there was probably a big male–dangerous to her cubs–in the area, based upon a guy we met who was camping with his dog in the nearby campground. His bear encounters were scary enough that he rented a cabin for the next night.

Nothing like Grizzly encounters to set the heart racing!

Grizzly Bear mother standing on hind legs after scenting or hearing a possible threat to her cubs at Magog Lake, Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, British Columbia, Canada
Karen Rentz showing the depth of a fresh hole dug by a Grizzly Bear into the burrow of a Columbia Ground Squirrel, on the border of Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park and Banff National Park, Canada
Grizzly Bear staring with menace at the photographer near Magog Lake, Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park
Grizzly Bear sow and cubs digging for Columbian Ground Squirrels near Magog Lake in Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park
American Black Bear feeding on Gray’s Lovagein Mount Rainier National Park in Washington State
American Black Bear feeding on Gray’s Lovage in Mount Rainier National Park in Washington State

You can see more of the work of photographer Lee Rentz at his website: leerentz.com

October at Staircase in Olympic National Park

The pleasant white noise of water running over rocks in the North Fork Skokomish River blends with the occasional warning clicks of a concerned Pacific Wren and the wind rushing through the needles and leaves of conifers and maples. Low angle sunlight occasionally shines through the brilliant orange leaves of Bigleaf Maples along the river’s edge. A family of American Dippers walks underwater through the rapids, searching for insect larvae. A cousin of the robin, the Varied Thrush, has migrated in for the winter and individuals are foraging through the mossy forest.

Each time I come to Staircase, named for an actual wooden staircase that a military expedition built to climb over rugged nearby cliffs, I am enchanted by the exotic lifeforms that populate this rainforest. There are the Icicle Mosses that drape the limbs of maples and dead conifers so thickly that I wonder how the branches can support the weight of this wet mass of moss.

There are Dog Vomit Slime Molds that we encounter in the woods. These are neither plant nor animal and normally live their lives as single cells, but when something triggers them, these cells come together to act as a larger organism that actually oozes through the forest in a search for food.

There is the Methuselah’s Beard, the longest lichen in the world, hanging like Spanish Moss from the limbs of riverside maples and firs. It is the Methuselah’s Beard that attracts me to frequently return to Staircase. There is one special Bigleaf Maple that the lichen has enjoyed living on for years, to the point that much of the tree looks decorated in fake spider webs for Halloween. I thought I was the only photographer attracted to this tree, but it turns out there are many others; on one recent trip two photographers came by while I was photographing and said that they make pilgrimages to photograph this tree every autumn. This lichen species is extremely sensitive to air pollution and is used by scientists as an indicator of poor quality air; it has been declining across much of its range around the world for this very reason. But at this location on the Olympic Peninsula, bathed in moisture coming off the Pacific Ocean, the air is clean and wonderful. The lichen thinks so as well, and looks to be content living here.

Click on each of the photographs below to see them larger. Much more of my work is at leerentz.com. Reach out to me at lee@leerentz.com if you have any questions.

SHI SHI BEACH AND POINT OF ARCHES ON A SUMMER WEEKEND

We hiked to Shi Shi Beach and Point of Arches in Olympic National Park during the lowest tides of the year so we could explore the most distant tide pools. This experience never ceases to amaze us, and we see life forms that look like they evolved on another planet. This weblog primarily shows the hike through photographs, with a few words about our observations during our three-day backpacking trip in June 2018.

Sunset at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Point of Arches rocks at sunset

Shi Shi Beach was not as crowded as we expected, though by Saturday night it was pretty much filled up with people at the end near Point of Arches.

Almost all the people on the beach were millennials in their 20s, with few baby boomers until we saw some coming in on Sunday. Nice to see young people visiting. Everyone had smiles on their faces: exploring tidepools, photographing the sunset with smart phones, doing paired yoga poses, playing frisbee, and talking around campfires.

Perfect sunny weather; not too hot or cold.

Birdsong: lovely sounds of Swainson’s Thrush, Wilson’s Warbler, American Robin, Pacific Slope Flycatcher, and Pacific Wren floating above our tents. Pigeon Guillemot, Black Oystercatchers, gulls, ravens, eagles, and crows added their less musical but still atmospheric calls to the beach.

We waded through tide pools and climbed over barnacle- and mussel-covered rocks to get out to the outermost sea stacks. Getting near, we spotted a family (mother and two pups) of River Otters climbing the steep vegetated wall of a sea stack. A seabird was loudly calling out in alarm. Then, a pup fell 15′ down the cliff. The mother quickly descended with the other pup, dragging it along by the neck. When it got to the bottom, the mother rejoined the apparently uninjured pup, and then grabbed one of the pups by the neck and kept it from heading toward the sea. They quickly headed through one of the arches and we didn’t see them again. We could see their tracks where they explored the sea caves and arches. It’s good that the youngster had a resilient body; I would have been a heap of broken bones.

We spotted at least two Pigeon Guillemots high on the cliff above one of the arches, where we think they were establishing nests on ledges deep in rock overhangs. Hard to photograph with the sea spray and deep shade.

Most of the campers at our end of the beach went out in the tide pools, though few were as passionate about the natural history as we. Exceptions included a couple from Olympia who were on their 8th trip to Point of Arches in two years; and they went out of their way to show us an unusual tide pool animal. Another was a young woman who was incredibly interested in everything in the tide pools; we saw her over two days carefully inspecting small tide pools. Most everyone else was content to explore the convoluted arches and caves.

Counted 15 Black Oystercatchers at Willoughby Creek, joining the gulls in drinking and bathing (while photographing them laying on my belly a wave caught me and I was soaked).

We played a recording of a Wilson’s Warbler to attract one close enough that our companion, Joan, could see it. It came close indeed–zooming withing three feet of our heads in what seemed like a frontal charge.

The Olympia couple backpacked in with an REI Kingdom 8-person tent with garage and extra pole, which would have been 28 lbs. to hike with. The woman carried that, while her husband carried everything else.

Here are photographs from the weekend.

Blood Star at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Blood Star, Henricia leviuscula, at Point of Arches

Cadlina luteomarginata at Point of Arches in Olympic National Pa
Yellow Margin Dorid, Cadlina luteomarginata, aka Yellow-edged Cadlina, at Point of Arches

Three-lined Nudibranch at Point of Arches in Olympic National Pa
Three-lined Nudibranch, Flabellina trilineata, in a tide pool at low tide at Point of Arches

Woody Chitin, Mopalia lignosa, at Point of Arches in Olympic Nat
Woody Chitin, Mopalia lignosa, on a rock exposed during low tide at Point of Arches

Leaf Barnacles at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Leaf Barnacles, Pollicipes polymerus, at low tide in a surge channel at Point of Arches

White Giant Green Anemone, Lacking Green Algae because of Dark L
Giant Green Anemone, Anthopleura xanthogrammica, lacking algae in a dark microhabitat so it appears white, at Point of Arches

Orange Cup Coral at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Orange Cup Coral, Balanophyllia elegans, in a tidepool at extreme low tide at Point of Arches

Feather-duster Worm at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
A feather-duster worm, aka fan-head worm: a plankton filter-feeder in the family Sabellidae, on rocky substrate at low tide at Point of Arches

Giant Green Anemone at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Underwater view of Giant Green Anemone, Anthopleura xanthogrammica, at Point of Arches

Driftwood Logs on Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park
Driftwood logs deposited during fierce winter storms on Shi Shi Beach

in Olympic National Park
My bare feet on Shi Shi Beach

Dwarf Purple Olive Shell at Point of Arches in Olympic National
Dwarf Purple Olive, Olivella biplicata, shell probably occupied by a hermit crab, among Coralline Algae, at low tide at Point of Arches

Ochre Sea Star at Point of Aches in Olympic National Park
Ochre Sea Star, Pisaster ochraceus, aka Purple Sea Star or Common Sea Star, at Point of Arches near mussel beds at low tide

Opalescent Nudibranch at Point of Arches in Olympic National Par
Opalescent Nudibranch, Hermissenda crassicornis, in a tide pool at low tide at Point of Arches

Emarginate Dogwinkles at Point of Arches in Olympic National Par
Emarginate Dogwinkle, Nucella emarginata, aka Northern Striped Dogwinkle, Nucella ostrina, on the rocks deep inside the arches of Point of Arches

Shell of Crab Consumed by a Predator in Olympic National Park
Shell and other body parts of a crab recently eaten by a Raccoon or River Otter (otters viewed, raccoon tracks seen nearby) at Point of Arches

Giant Green Anemone in Dark Microhabitat, Lacking Green Algae, a
Giant Green Anemone, Anthopleura xanthogrammica, at Point of Arches

Giant Green Anemone in Dark Microhabitat, Lacking Green Algae, a
Giant Green Anemone, Anthopleura xanthogrammica, lacking algae in a dark microhabitat so it appears whitish, at Point of Arches

Mossy Chiton and Hind's Mopalia at Point of Arches in Olympic Na
Mossy Chiton, Mopalia muscosa (L), and Hind’s Mopalia, Mopalia hindsii (R), at Point of Arches

Giant Green Anemone and Encrusting Coral at Point of Arches in O
Giant Green Anemone, Anthopleura xanthogrammica, with Pink Rock Crust, Lithothamnium pacificum (or related species), aka Encrusting Coral, at Point of Arches

Ochre Sea Star at Point of Aches in Olympic National Park
Ochre Sea Star, Pisaster ochraceus, aka Purple Sea Star or Common Sea Star, with arms around an anemone, at Point of Arches near mussel beds at low tide

Ochre Sea Star at Point of Aches in Olympic National Park
Ochre Sea Star, Pisaster ochraceus, aka Purple Sea Star or Common Sea Star, and Six-rayed Sea Star, Leptasterias hexactis, at Point of Arches near mussel beds at low tide

Man Walking on Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park
Man walking in the morning sea spray mist on Shi Shi Beach

Sunset at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Hikers and Point of Arches rocks at sunset

Egregia menziesii Kelp in Olympic National Park
Feather Boa Kelp, Egregia menziesii, stranded and casting shadows on the sand of Shi Shi Beach

Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
The rocks of Point of Arches nearing sunset

Patterns of Pacific Ocean Wave Receding in Olympic National Park
Pattern formed by water rushing back to the ocean as a wave recedes

Hiking on Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park
Karen Rentz hiking on Shi Shi Beach

Black-tailed Deer Doe and Fawn in Olympic National Park
Columbian Black-tailed Deer, Odocoileus hemionus columbianus, near backpacking tent on Shi Shi Beach

Leg Lift of a Young Woman in Olympic National Park
An athletic young backpacking couple having fun on Shi Shi Beach

Black Oystercatcher in Olympic National Park
Black Oystercatcher, Haematopus bachmani, gathering at Willoughby Creek, a source of freshwater on Shi Shi Beach

Black Oystercatcher in Olympic National Park
Black Oystercatcher, Haematopus bachmani, at Willoughby Creek

Common Raven on Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park
Common Raven, Corvus corax, strutting on Shi Shi Beach

Northern Kelp Crabs at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Northern Kelp Crabs, Pugettia producta, aka Spider Crab, in a tide pool with a lot of hermit crabs at Point of Arches

in Olympic National Park
Frosted Nudibranch, Dirona albolineata, in a tide pool at Point of Arches

Smooth Bay Shrimp at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Smooth Bay Shrimp, Lissocrangon stylirostris, aka Sand Shrimp and Crangon stylirostris, found in tide pools at Point of Arches

Leather Star in Olympic National Park
Leather Star, Dermasterias imbricata, out of the water at low tide at Point of Arches

Red Crab at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Red Crab, Cancer productus, in a tide pool at Point of Arches

Giant Green Anemone at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Giant Green Anemone, Anthopleura xanthogrammica, with marks in sand where tentacles withdrew as tide went down

Emarginate Dogwinkle at Point of Arches n Olympic National Park
Striped Dogwinkle, Nucella emarginata, aka Emarginate Dogwinkle, with barnacles on rocky substrate at low tide at Point of Arches

Channeled Dogwinkle Laying Eggs at Point of Arches n Olympic Nat
Channeled Dogwinkle, Nucella canaliculata, laying eggs on rocky substrate at low tide at Point of Arches

Six-rayed Sea Star at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Six-rayed Sea Star, Leptasterias hexactis, during an extreme low tide at Point of Arches

Black Turban at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Black Turban, Tegula funebralis, aka Black Tegula, snails in a surge channel at Point of Arches

Giant Green Anemone and Pink Rock Crust at Point of Arches in Ol
Giant Green Anemone, Anthopleura xanthogrammica, with Pink Rock Crust, Lithothamnium pacificum (or related species), aka Encrusting Coral, at Point of Arches

Sea Cave at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Karen Rentz inside a sea cave of Point of Arches at low tide

A Large Arch at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Rock formations with a large arch at Point of Arches at low tide

A Large Arch at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Rock formations with a large arch and photographer’s shadow at Point of Arches at low tide

Couple on Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park
Couple holding hands while walking on Shi Shi Beach

Point of Arches and Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park
Rock formations of Point of Arches

California Beach Flea on Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park
California Beach Flea, Megalorchestia californiana, males fighting over a burrow near the high tide line on Shi Shi Beach

Sunset at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Point of Arches rocks at sunset

Sunset at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Point of Arches rocks at sunset

Sunset at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Point of Arches rocks at sunset

Point of Arches and Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park
Rock formations of Point of Arches with a tide pool along Shi Shi Beach at low tide

Ripples in Sand on Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park
Sandy shore ripples of Shi Shi Beach at low tide

Point of Arches and Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park
Rock formations of Point of Arches with the sandy surface of Shi Shi Beach at low tide

Point of Arches and Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park
Rock formations of Point of Arches with the rippled surface of Shi Shi Beach at low tide

Bull Kelp and Shadows on Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park
Bull Kelp, Nereocystis luetkeana, stipe stranded and dried and casting curving shadows on Shi Shi Beach

Wooden Pallet Washed up on Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Par
Wooden pallet that has been at sea for a while, as evidenced by its load of large barnacles

in Olympic National Park
By-the-wind Sailor, Velvella velvella, aka Sail Jellyfish, stranded on Shi Shi Beach

Wet Sand at Low Tide on Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park
Wet sand on Shi Shi Beach after a wave subsided

Bull Kelp and Shadows on Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park
Bull Kelp, Nereocystis luetkeana

Boardwalk along Trail to Shi Shi Beach through the Makah Reserva
Boardwalk along the trail through the Makah Reservation forest on the way to Shi Shi Beach

Western Redcedar Bark Stripped from Tree on Makah Reservation
Traditional technique of removing strip of Western Redcedar, Thuja plicata, bark (for use in basketry and other crafts) from trees along the trail through the Makah Reservation on the way to Shi Shi Beach

 

If you want to visit Shi Shi Beach and Point of Arches, you need three permits:

Olympic National Park’s Wilderness Camping Permit. You can get this permit and a mandatory bear canister at Olympic National Park’s Wilderness Information Center at Port Angeles. The cost is $8 per person for overnight wilderness camping as of 2018.

Makah Nation’s Recreation Permit. As of 2018 this was a $10 per year hangtag for your car.

Parking Permit  Bring cash of $10 per day as of June 2018; this link also has great detailed information about the hike.

In addition, you really need to know how to read tide tables, both for safety and to get the most out of a coastal hike. Go to tides.net as a place to start, using the nearby Tatoosh Island and Cape Flattery tide charts. We prefer to explore tide pools when the tides are minus tides, such as -2.3 ft. or thereabouts. Read up on tides.

This is one of the premier nature hikes in North America: GO!

PHANTOM: The Colima Warbler

Among birders, the legend lives on of the Colima Warbler, found among oak trees in a remote canyon high in the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park. The species is mostly found in Mexico, but this region of south Texas has a couple of places where birders can fairly reliably stalk it, and we decided to be warbler stalkers for a day.

Early that May morning, we laced up our hiking boots and smeared on SPF 55, anticipating a long day in the bright sun. The route would take us from the Chisos Basin, where we were camped, to Boot Canyon, about 3.5 miles distant, with a 2,000 foot elevation gain.

As usual, my intention of finding the Colima Warbler got sidetracked almost immediately, when we walked past a dead Havard Century Plant that was cheeping at me. Huh? I looked on the other side of the brown flowering stalk and discovered a perfectly round hole that was clearly a nest with hungry baby birds in it. So, I hunkered down in the dust and waited for a parent to come. It didn’t take long until a wary mother Ladder-backed Woodpecker showed up and ducked quickly into the hole, where it fed the nestlings.

Ladder-backed Woodpecker Nest Hole in Century Plant, in Big Bend
Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Picoides scalaris, adult female servicing its young in a nest hole in a dead Havard Century Plant, Agave havardiana, flowering stalk, in the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park, Texas

I was there a long time, and Karen had the opportunity to see a pair of Crissal Thrashers trying to thrash each other while waiting interminably for me to finish photographing. So she got a new species and I missed the opportunity entirely. Oh well, at least I got a few pictures of the woodpecker.

Next I got distracted by bugs, specifically some Giant Agave Bugs crawling around the tip of a rapidly growing Havard Century Plant stalk. Creepy? Yes. But I was amazed at the size of these creatures, which are in the scientific category known as “True Bugs.” Yes, that really is a category, though most real scientists would prefer to use the scientific name, Hemiptera, so that they don’t sound like 8-year-old boys with bug nets. These big bugs sip the sap of the century plant, though probably not enough to hurt it.

Giant Agave Bugs on Havard Century Plant in Big Bend National Pa
Giant Agave Bugs, Acanthocephala thomasi, on the expanding flower stalk of a Havard Century Plant, Agave havardiana, aka Havard Agave, in the Chisos Mountains. This stalk is probably over 3″ in diameter at the bottom

Onward and upward, we came upon our first Mexican Jays, which are loud and travel in gangs and aren’t very afraid of people. If Donald Trump was a birdwatcher, he would probably want to set up a wall, or at least a mist net, to stop these birds from entering the country. Though he might like their gaudy blue color and brash attitude. Seeing these jays was a first for us, as we climbed toward seeing 530 birds on our North American Life Lists.

Higher still, Karen spotted a Painted Redstart, in the oak and maple forest–another first for us and a stunningly beautiful bird. There were also Texas Madrone trees, similar to the Madrone trees of the west coast, but with minor differences that I apparently couldn’t see.

Over the pass with long views into Mexico. There were birdwatchers on their own journeys to see the famous Colima. There were also lots of backpackers heading up to campsites hidden all along the trails. It would be a beautiful place to backpack, except for the lack of water along the way, which means carrying the recommended one gallon of water (8+ lbs!) per person per day. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for camera equipment, but we all have our priorities. Would I rather photograph little birds or die of thirst in the desert? I’ll have to think about that one.

Mexican Jays in Big Bend National Park
Mexican Jays, Aphelocoma ultramarina, foraging on the ground in the Chisos Mountains

Meanwhile, we finally reached Boot Canyon, where the Colima Warbler had been spotted earlier in the week. We stood around. We listened. We walked a few feet. We scanned the canyon with our binoculars. And … nothing. I’m pretty sure I heard the warbler, but not sure enough to count it on my all-important life list. After an hour or so, we gave up on this location, hoping beyond hope that it had simply wandered down the trail we were taking. It didn’t.

We decided that since we had come this far, we might as well complete the 10+ mile loop, rather than going back the way we came. I busied myself with photographing century plants and cactus, since they can’t fly away and hide, although I am paranoid about poking myself in the eye with a sharp spine, which makes me cringe at the thought even as I write this.

Boot Canyon Trail View in Big Bend National Park
View down into desert from Boot Canyon Trail in the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park

By the time we arrived back at the campground, our feet were aching and hot, and we were ready to rest. But that moment brought the best light of the day, with alpenglow or its desert equivalent lighting up Casa Grande with brilliant orange light. So I scurried around the campground trying to get the best angle on the iconic peak until I was bone tired.

We had “dipped” on the warbler: birdwatcher speak for not seeing a desirable bird that we had traveled miles to see, but it was still a great day.

Postscript: We arrived in El Paso late the next day, after passing through a fierce dust storm that sandblasted us with 60 mph winds and near zero visibility. With the temperature at 95 degrees F and the dust storm continuing, we wimped out and stayed in a motel rather than camping for the night. In the cool and quiet lobby of the motel, there was a birding tour group getting their final debriefing for their Texas trip by the trip leaders. It turned out that all these old birders (as in, anyone older than me!) had done the same hike we did, but with expert leadership, they had seen the Colima Warbler. I’ll be back and the punk warbler will make my day.

Gallery of hike photographs:

To see what the Colima Warbler is supposed to look like, go to Colima Warbler

For general information about visiting this stupendous national park, go to Big Bend National Park

Remember that Big Bend National Park is is the Chihuahuan Desert. If you go, make sure you plan your schedule to maximize  your chance to see the warbler and other birds, and make sure to know the hazards of the desert ahead of time.

To see more of my work, read more of my blog entries here or go to my website Lee Rentz Photography.

OLYMPIC NATIONAL FOREST: Marmot Pass in the Olympic Mountains

Marmot_Pass-87Our tent on a ridge, with Warrior Peak and Mount Constance and the incredible starry sky in the distance

3,800′ of vertical gain. Yes, 3,800′. With a full backpack, in about 5.8 miles. It was an exhausting climb–especially the last 300 vertical feet, which had the steepest pitch. But we did it!

Yes, we knew Marmot Pass was a difficult hike, since we had done it once–23 years ago. We had vowed not to do it again, because we remembered the difficult hike, and the rainy night at Camp Misery, about 4.5 miles in. Oh, did I say Camp Misery? I meant Camp Mystery, as in: it’s mysterious why anyone would want to camp there, in a tangle of dark trees that still sport the stink of decades-ago campfires.

Marmot_Pass-254Picking Wild Strawberries at the trailhead

We arrived at the trailhead at about 10:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning, thankful for the spider web of logging roads that gets hikers closer to the pass than would have been the case decades ago. We pulled on our hiking boots, adjusted our packs, hung the trailhead pass from the rear-view mirror, then walked over to the bulletin board to sign in, where we read the standard warnings about fire and cougars and bears. Oh my.

Marmot_Pass-259The Big Quilcene River cascades quickly from the Olympic Mountains

There were four of us on the trip, with three of us training for the steep ascent into The Enchantments in about three weeks. We started up the trail, light in heart if not in load. My pack and camera gear weighed 45 lbs., which is about 12 lbs. lighter than I will carry in The Enchantments. (Note to myself: remember to pack the Ibuprofen for that trip.)

For the first several miles, the trail parallels the raging and beautiful Big Quilcene River as it tumbles down toward Puget Sound from the steep eastern slope of the Olympics. This area is a real tangle of fallen trees, but the WTA (Washington Trails Association) volunteers recently did a great job on this section of the trail, cutting huge trees that had fallen across the trail and improving drainage with some innovative techniques.

We steadily hiked upward, accompanied by the incredibly complex song of the Pacific Wren, the incredibly off-key song of the Varied Thrush, and the incredibly haunting song of the Hermit Thrush–which may be the most beautiful birdsong I have ever heard. I stopped at a few points to photograph lichens and mosses, which are the intricate little wonders of the lush Olympic Peninsula forest that grow around the bases of immense Western Hemlocks and Douglas Firs.

Marmot_Pass-270Lungwort lichen, one part of the lungs of this moist forest

We stopped for lunch near Shelter Rock, about 2.5 miles in, where there were perhaps a dozen tents set up by a boy scout troop. Karen and I ate Dubliner Cheese, brown rice Triscuits, fresh sugar snap peas, and a handful of mixed nuts and dried Michigan cherries. All good energy foods.

We needed the energy for an even steeper and unrelenting grade that people have called Poop Out Drag. The effort was balanced by the mountain meadows here, which sweep steeply up to the crags of Buckhorn and Iron Mountains. These meadows were filled with thousands upon thousands of blossoms of brilliant reddish-orange Indian paintbrushes and bright indigo larkspurs, as well as scores of other species. Spectacular!

Marmot_Pass-283Larkspur and Indian Paintbrush wildflowers fill the lovely meadows

We reached Camp Misery, pausing only to pump water, since water availability above this point is iffy and depends upon snowmelt. Camp Mystery wasn’t as bad as I remembered, but this was a sunny day and I’ve been taking my meds. Several small groups were setting up camp along the trail, and others passed by on the way to higher campsites. This proved to be a busy weekend on the trail: we estimated that we saw several hundred people making the climb to Marmot Pass. With the Dosewallips trails access limited because of a landslide about a decade ago, hiking is concentrated here more than ever.

We resumed our trek, soon entering more beautiful meadows on the way to Marmot Pass, and passed a pudgy blonde Olympic Marmot–a species found only in The Olympics. Up and up, we finally got to Marmot Pass, and were disappointed to see that we really needed to go higher on the ridgeline. Three of us were almost devoid of energy at that point, but we shifted into what my dear wife calls “creeper gear” to make it to the top. There we were rewarded by one of the most spectacular views in this spectacular state, with rugged mountains all around, except for the look back at the valley we had just come up, with Puget Sound sprawling in front of distant Glacier Peak.

Marmot_Pass-232Trail crawling steeply to a high ridge above Marmot Pass

We set up camp with our three tents in a mountain meadow, with perhaps another ten tents around us in what one hiker passing by disdainfully called “Tent City.” We set up our tents in a pattern that I thought would make a good illuminated tent photograph after dark (I was, of course, playing the part of the always-irritating photo director!). Then we heated dinner on our camp stoves, rationing the hot drinks a bit because we didn’t have unlimited water at this location.

Marmot_Pass-58Snowfields lingering on the slopes of Warrior Peak

Marmot_Pass-291Tree shadows crossing the snowfields below Warrior Peak

Marmot_Pass-64Mount Constance catching the last rays of the day

Marmot_Pass-1One of our group contemplating the dramatic view across the valley of the Upper Dungeness River

Marmot_Pass-49Unidentified distant mountains in the rugged Olympics

Marmot_Pass-66Alpenglow illuminates the sky after sunset

Then we settled into an evening of watching the sun sink below the mountains on the western horizon and feeling the air grow chillier. We got into the tents and found it was harder to get warm than we thought it might be, probably because we had used so much of our energy on the long climb. Shortly after 10:00 p.m., I unzippered the sleeping bag and tent and proceeded to take a long series of tent photographs, directing the occupants on how to better create even illumination on the tent walls. Finally, content, I let everybody drift off to sleep and went to bed myself.

Marmot_Pass-70Our three tents, with Mount Constance to the right in the distance

Karen woke me up at 1:00 a.m. and said she was cold–especially her feet. We cuddled for a long time, and finally I had the idea of giving her my down jacket, which I had been using as a pillow. We slipped her legs into the armholes and finally she got toasty warm. One side effect of the really lightweight new tents, like ours, is that they are largely made of mesh and easily let the breezes in. My estimate is that for every pound of weight that you save in using a lightweight tent, you need two additional pounds of sleeping bag and clothing. There are no free lunches in backpacking equipment.

Nature called later in the night, so I walked outside to talk to her. The Milky Way sprawled across the entire sky in a glorious show that our ancestors observed on every clear night. What a sight!

When my alarm went off at 5:30 a.m. on this slightly frosty morning, I went outside to check on photo conditions. The night wind had ceased, and I was immediately comfortable. I was the first one up in all the camps (so give me a gold star!), and I enjoyed the quiet sunrise. Two Mountain Goats walked through a camp farther along the ridge, then departed to the lower meadows. Perhaps the three dogs in that camp growled at them.

Marmot_Pass-140Our tent in morning light

Marmot_Pass-126Two Mountain Goats feeding in a high meadow

Marmot_Pass-129Looking across the morning mists of Puget Sound to Glacier Peak

Actually, this was a doggy kind of hike. I would guess that we saw about 25 dogs, mostly very well-behaved, including several in close proximity to our camp. Since this hike is completely within Olympic National Forest, dogs are allowed along the trail. Had it been across the valley in Olympic National Park, there would have been a stern ranger giving a warning or writing a ticket to each of these dog owners, and instructing each to vacate the park immediately.

I didn’t hear any barking during the night; perhaps the dogs were as tired from the hike as the humans. One adjacent camp had two little children; I would guess their ages as four and seven. These kids had hiked up a very long ways and were having a great time in the dramatic campsite with their extended family.

The next morning we enjoyed identifying wildflowers and building a snowman. Yes, Karen, you can blame yours truly for the basic construction that led to a catastrophic snowman collapse. At least my engineering didn’t result in a bridge falling, which is reason number 27 as to why I am a photographer instead of an engineer.

Marmot_Pass-141Indian Paintbrush near our tent

Marmot_Pass-179Mountain Wallflower on a high ridge

Marmot_Pass-182Davidson’s Penstemon

Marmot_Pass-240The beautiful magenta Olympic Mountain Paintbrush

Marmot_Pass-187Silky Phacelia

Marmot_Pass-215Alpine Lewisia: this was the first time I had seen this flower, which was named for Meriwether Lewis

Marmot_Pass-209Our snowman named Zeus

This was a nearly clear day, with just a very few scattered shreds of clouds. I said we should place bets on when a cloud shadow would briefly darken us, and it didn’t occur until mid-afternoon.

At noon, we shouldered our packs, now slightly lighter with less food and water, and slowly descended to the pass, stopping at several places to identify and photograph wildflowers. Then we went lower and dined with the blond Olympic Marmot we had seen the the same place the day before (though she did not appear to like our company and got up from the table and left–I’ve got to stop telling blond jokes around the PC crowd).

Marmot_Pass-234Pretty blond Olympic Marmot below its namesake pass

Marmot_Pass-280Weathered wood on an ancient tree at timberline

Marmot_Pass-221The beautiful meadows below Marmot Pass, with one tent among the krummholz

The rest of the hike out was fast and uneventful, and we reached the trailhead at 4:45 p.m. The destination had proven to live up to its reputation as one of the premier hikes in The Olympics, and made me glad that we live in the one place that hosts The Olympics every year.

Marmot_Pass-250Definitely not rolling stones; photographed in the Big Quilcene River near Camp Mystery

For someone thinking about hiking to Marmot Pass, the Olympic National Forest website is a good place to start. Go to Marmot Pass Trail.

Go to LeeRentz.com to view the range of work by Lee Rentz. Work is available as metal or archival paper prints, and most are available for licensing for websites, magazines, and books.

June 1, 2008 On Edge on the East Side


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Spring in the Seattle area alternates between dark, rainy days and bright, sunny ones.  When a spell of bad weather descends, we enjoy hiking and camping on the east side of the Cascade Range, where the skies are usually sunny.  On this trip we headed east, leaving behind a wall of ominous skies at Snoqualmie Pass.  There were three of us: my wife Karen, our friend Sue, and me.

Our goal on this trip was to explore Black Canyon and Bear Canyon in the general area of the Tieton River Canyon, which features dark basalt formations in hexagonal columns, and open Ponderosa Pine and Big Sagebrush landscapes.  Most of this area lies within Wenatchee National Forest and the Oak Creek Wildlife Management Area, though there is also some private land.  The Nature Conservancy has played a key role in buying and preserving this extraordinary landscape.  And it is beautiful in spring to the eyes of a sun-starved Washington mossback.

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This region is known for ticks, so we took the dorky-looking precaution of tucking our light-colored long pants inside our white socks.  Then some of us also sprayed with a DEET-based repellent.  It seemed to work, since we didn’t pick up any ticks all weekend.  Plus we applied sunscreen and wore hats so that our fishbelly-white Western Washington bodies wouldn’t be damaged by the glaring sun.  But there were other hazards …

After the long drive, when we first emerged from the car to look at some Bitterroot flowers (genus Lewisia, named for the discoverer, Meriwether Lewis), Sue spotted a snake looking limp and dead on the basalt.  But it wasn’t dead, only cold.  We prodded it awake with a stick and saw the rattles as it slithered into a hole between the rocks: it was a Western Rattlesnake!  This discovery reminded us to remain vigilant.

Our first hike was into Black Canyon.  The trail lead steadily upward, leading past Trembling Aspen groves and an old settler’s cabin. The cabin was in a pretty setting near a stream, and we could 2008_wa_3844wpimagine the sounds of horses and cows and chickens and children in the clearing a hundred years ago.  The aspens wore evidence of more recent visits.  The bark on every tree was covered with marks from the ground to roughly head high.  But this graffitti wasn’t made by vandals or lonely shephards:  2008_wa_3836wpit was made by Elk using their teeth to scrape deep into the bark to get nutients and sugar from the bark’s inner layers.  The marks then last for as long as the tree.  On the trail itself we saw a scent post used by a Coyote.  This is a spot along the trail where a Coyote or Coyotes had deposited scat over time, one layer after another.  Interesting stuff, that poop.  

The trail led higher, through scattered Ponderosa Pines and hillsides covered with sagebrush and scattered late wildflowers.  While walking along the edge of the trail, Karen was startled by a dry rattle within a few feet of her boots.  It was another rattlesnake, this one coiled and ready for battle with the towering intruders.  At first it rattled almost continuously, but by the time I got there it had quieted down, deciding that Karen wasn’t such a big threat, after all.  I photographed the rattlesnake, the thought briefly crossing my mind that I would like to reach down and remove a blade of grass in front of its face.  I thought better of it, and decided that Photoshop would be a safer way to cut away the grass.  It struck us how well the rattlesnake’s skin blended in with the natural brown and subtle green tones of the landscape.  If the snake hadn’t rattled, we would have never known it was there until …

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Higher still, we came into open hills, where we examined wildflowers and covered up, because the sky had darkened and big drops of rain sputtered down.  At that point we decided to head back down, and drive back to our campsite at the Wenas Campground near Naches.  By the way, this is a terrific campground that is also known variously as the Boise-Cascade Campground and the Audubon Campground (there is a yearly spring gathering for birdwatchers here).  BYOW (bring your own water) and be prepared to share the campground with ORV users, but the Ponderosa Pine grove here is gorgeous.

The next morning, we packed up our gear and drove to the Bear Canyon trailhead.  The trailhead showed promise, with towering Ponderosa Pines framing basalt cliffs.  This was a beautiful place, and we learned from another hiker that the Nature Conservancy had preserved this canyon.  That hiker 2008_wa_3780wplater asked if we had seen the scratches at about eye level on a tree along the trail.  I had seen the marks, but the source didn’t register until he mentioned that the scratches had been made by a cat–specifically the big cat known variously as Cougar and Mountain Lion.  And the scratches were fresh, as if the Cougar had come through just before us.  This was a reminder, if another was needed, to be wary and alert in this back country.  Unfortunately, we never saw the Cougar, but just knowing it was in that canyon added a whole new dimension to the hike.

 

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To see a variety of my photographic work, including photos for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

Click on the photographs below for versions with captions.

October 19, 2008 The Owl and the Subaru


We heard through the birding grapevine–on a Pacific Northwest internet message board named “Tweeters”–that on 27 September skilled birders Khanh Tran and Tom Mansfield had spotted an unusual owl in Washington’s Cascade Mountains.  The Northern Hawk Owl is normally found farther north, in the boreal forests–think scraggly spruces in endless bogs–across Canada, Alaska, and Russia.  Karen and I had seen one of these owls some half-a-decade previously in Washington, but our views had been fleeting and distant.  This one had been seen in the Okanogan National Forest, specifically in the Meadows Campground near Hart’s Pass, which is located above the stunning Methow Valley of Eastern Washington–in my opinion the most beautiful inhabited mountain valley in the entire state.  It reminds me of the best of Montana, and that’s saying a great deal.

We had camped among the wildflowers and dark spruces of the Meadows Campground twice previously, but several years ago the entire campground was incinerated by the huge Needle Creek Fire, which left over 99% of the spruces and firs as standing skeletons.  The U.S. Forest Service removed many of the dead trees, so now the campground has safe, open areas dotted with short stumps where visitors can camp, and the entire campground is surrounded by tens of thousands of standing dead trees.  It is eerie in the moonlight–just the place to hear the haunting call of an owl or a pack of wolves.

To get to Hart’s Pass and the Methow Valley, it is a 5 1/2 hour journey from our Bremerton apartment.  We started at 4:30 a.m., taking the ferry to Seattle, then driving north on I-5, then east on WA Highway 20, which is a stunning, but seasonal route through the Cascades.  The first heavy snow of the season will close the road until springtime.  But not to worry this weekend, which was forecast to have two days of late autumn sunshine, to be followed by snow after we left on Sunday night.  The Methow Valley was beautiful with brilliant yellow Black Cottonwoods contrasting with hazy blue peaks in the distance.  From there, we climbed the Hart’s Pass Road into the mountains.  This road is accessible to cars, but there is a half-mile stretch where the road is one lane wide, winding around blind curves with a 2,000 foot cliff on the outside of the curve and cliffs rising high on the inside of the curves.  Actually, the road had been originally blasted from solid cliffs with dynamite.  If you don’t like heights, this is not the place to be, especially if you meet a car coming around a blind curve and have to back up your vehicle around a curve to a safe place–which tends to be a wide place in the road a foot away from the cliff on what looks like soft soil.  Did I mention that there are no guard rails whatsoever?  

As we approached 6,200 foot Hart’s Pass, we kept our eyes open for a Spruce Grouse or the Northern Hawk Owl, but found neither.  Most of the vehicles we passed were pickups or SUVs with orange-clad men inside; it is, after all, hunting season up here in God’s country and the hunters are also out enjoying what may be the last great autumn weekend of the year.  At Hart’s Pass we turned toward Meadows Campground, a mile up the mountain at this point.  We soon found ourselves behind two creeping Subaru SUVs, and knew that we had found the birders hoping to see the owl.  We joined the chain as vehicle number three, and began inspecting every bird-shaped lump high in the dead spruces.  Then we pulled into Meadows Campground and almost immediately spotted the owl.  It was about noon at this point, and for the next hour-and-a-half or so we watched the owl flying around the area, zooming down to terrify a small flock of Gray Jays, then flying up to rest atop a dead spruce, bright yellow eyes alert and head turning around to view its domain.  It didn’t seem bothered by the watchers, and had been the star attraction here for several weekends in a row.  We watched the owl flying around, then it flew down to the ground and may have snagged a mouse, because it flew in a beeline away from the campground.  This was at about 2:00 p.m.

 

Meanwhile, more Subarus arrived, with birders eagerly anticipating seeing the owl.  We told them we had seen it just a few minutes ago, but it had flown off.  The patient birders hung around for several hours, their Subarus scattered along the campground road.  But the owl did not appear as the minutes stretched into hours.  Subarus crawled down the road to Hart’s Pass to see what else could be found.  Some birders were thrilled to see a flock of about 100 Gray-crowned Rosy Finches, a bird of high and wild expanses, near Slate Peak.  Someone heard a Northern Pygmy Owl along the road, but didn’t see it.  Karen and I drove to Slate Peak, about four miles away, to see what we could find.  Slate Peak has a fire lookout tower, and the peak itself has an unusual look because it was scalped back in the 1950s to create a Distant Early Warning radar installation for detecting incoming Soviet bombers.  Fortunately the nuclear bombers never came, and the fire lookout is now a lonely sentinel that has lost its original mission.  But the Alpine Larches were brilliant gold against the blue shadows of the mountainsides and it was a gorgeous afternoon.  We chatted with a determined woman who used a walker to trudge up part of the way to the lookout tower. 

When we returned to the campground at 5:30 p.m., two Subarus remained, keeping lonely vigil along the darkening roads.  Then we were the only ones left.  We had set up camp in the Meadows Campground earlier, and were prepared for a long night.  But then at 6:00 p.m. in the twilight, the Northern Hawk Owl flew back into the campground!  It stayed for several minutes atop one tree, then another, then flew off toward a ridge in the distance.  When an owl appears in the forest, and no Subarus are there to see it, does it really exist?

The night was cold and breezy.  We retired into our winter sleeping bags at 7:00 p.m., read for fifteen minutes, then fell asleep, wearing long underwear, an extra layer of fleece, heavy socks, and wool hats.  With all that, we stayed toasty for thirteen hours in the tent, awakening from dreams at 8:00 a.m. and stepping outside to heavy frost on the tent and on the car (it had gotten down to about 25 degrees F overnight).  Shortly thereafter, the first Subaru of the day arrived even before I had made my coffee.  The Subaru birders had stayed down in the Methow Valley at the Mazama Inn and were eager to see the owl this morning.  Alas, it was not to be.  We stood around chatting in small groups and watching the surrounding trees for hours, but no bird came.  Actually, there were birds that came begging, but they were Gray Jays and a Raven hoping for a handout.  Several of us obliged, despite the entreaties on Tweeters recently about how human food is not good for the birds.  But there is an undeniable delight in having a Gray Jay fly in and alight for an instant on your fingers to grab a piece of bread.  

As the day went on, the number of Subarus diminished and one Toyota SUV arrived.  Meanwhile, we decided to go for a hike on the Pacific Crest Trail as it heads south toward Grasshopper Pass.  It was cold and the trail was icy in places, but the early afternoon was beautiful for our two mile hike.  We saw several Pikas gathering food and sitting atop their lookout rocks, loudly squeaking claim to their territories.  The Pika is a small rabbit-relative of timberline talus slopes that gathers a haystack of drying wildflowers for the winter.  We also saw a Clark’s Nutcracker probing a Whitebark Pine in hopes of getting a tasty pine nut.  Several Mountain Chickadees foraged in the conifers along the trail.  Many of the Alpine Larches were at their peak of color, but enough golden needles had fallen that we knew this would be the last fine weekend of the fall.  This parking lot was filled with pickups, SUVs, and a minivan, with not a Subaru in sight.  There were hikers and hunters and trail-runners, and even a foursome of miners with hand tools and headlamps who headed upslope to do some probing in the old Brown Bear Mine.

We drove back down to the campground at 3:00 p.m., and all the Subarus were gone, apparently with no Sunday sightings of the great bird.  Oh well, it was fun while it lasted.  Now, I’ve mentioned Subarus a number of times, and I didn’t make any of it up.  On Saturday, six carloads of birders arrived, other than us, and all six cars were Subarus.  It should be named the official car brand of birders.  Or at least birders from the Seattle area.  We downscale birders from the hinterlands drive an all-wheel-drive Aztek (which, by the way, has been a terrific birding and backpacking vehicle; but alas, it is no longer made).

We then headed down the mountain; little did we know there were going to be two more birdy incidents for us.  I saw a small bird fly rapidly across the road that looked different from the other birds this weekend.  When I raised my binoculars, it looked back with a flat face and yellow eyes.  It was a Northern Pygmy Owl.  The first we had ever seen!  We watched it fly between several perches before it disappeared into the distance.  Unfortunately, it was too far away for a photograph, but I did record it briefly on video.  Then a flock of two dozen Gray-crowned Rosy Finches flew in.  I grabbed my camera and long lens, then headed up the steep hillside to spend a bit of quality time with the birds.  It turned out to be indeed a great experience, with some resulting really good close-up photographs.  A fitting end to a fine weekend.  And a seasonal goodbye to autumn in the mountains. 

To see a variety of my photographic work, including photos for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

Click on the photographs below for versions with captions.