Posted tagged ‘sagebrush’

Exploring Black Canyon in Central Washington State

June 2, 2011

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

GREATER SAGE GROUSE: Dawn on the Sagebrush Plain

May 15, 2009

 

 

Greater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse dancing on lek near Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

 

 

They gather in darkness, males on a mission.  Elaborately costumed, they begin to dance to an ancient inner song in a place that has remained a tradition for countless generations.  Spread out among the sagebrush, the males strut and puff out their chests in a show of virility and athletic prowess.  Their tail feathers fan out like those of a wild turkey.  These native Americans are the Greater Sage-Grouse, and this is their lek.

 

Karen and I shimmied out of our sleeping bags at 4:30 a.m., leaving our tent while stars still glowed in the endless high desert sky.  It was 22°F on this clear morning and there was no time to make coffee, so I substituted a Diet Coke to get my caffeine fix, hoping that adrenaline would also kick in upon seeing the Sage-Grouse.  We drove the 20 or so miles up to the lek, arriving at 5:30 a.m. as the sky was brightening.  We turned off the car engine, and began watching.

 

The Sage-Grouse wait for no human, so the display was well underway.  We counted 13 males, many strutting at once.  After an intense session of dancing, the tail feathers would fold and a male would take a break.  Then, if a nearby male started strutting, others in its vicinity would resume.

 

We have been to this lek perhaps seven times through the years, beginning about 15 years ago.  The numbers of birds and birders vary from time to time, but it is always unforgettable.  On our first morning this year we were the only humans at

 

Sagebrush-steppe habitat near Malheur National Wildlife Refuge,

Directly across the road from the lek

 

the lek.  We decided to go a second morning, and we were one of five cars.  Every birder was on their good behavior; nobody got out of their cars to try to get a closer look (unlike one year, when a loud trip leader gathered the birders around him outside the vehicles).  Grouse on a lek are sensitive to human disturbance, so it is important to minimize the threat to the birds.  Sometimes other creatures will show up; this year a lone Pronghorn walked nearby.  We have also seen Mule Deer and a Badger.

 

Some mornings we have seen a lot of chasing and jousting of aggressive males (you have to love that testosterone!).  One time we saw a female go from male to male, observing its display with a critical eye, then go on to the next, and so on–as if she was on a shopping trip.  Which, in a sense, she was.  From our readings, we understand that there are one or two males in a lek who occupy the most important location, and they are the ones who will most likely attract the female (it’s kind of like high school, with the football star and the prom queen likely to match up).  After the mating is done, the male is abandoned by the female; she goes to make a nest and he just keeps dancing.

 

The Sage-Grouse display is a blend of visual and auditory cues for the female; if you listen carefully you can hear strange pumping and flapping sounds that are part of the ritual.  Since the experience is so sensory, I will stop trying to describe it here and let the photographs speak for those wonderful mornings we spent in the sage.

 

Greater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lek

A sequence, facilitated by the camera’s motor drive, of the Greater Sage-Grouse mating dance

 

On our first morning this year, at about 8:30 a.m., the males collectively decided that the dawn dance was done.  One flew a beeline over the road toward a low ridge; one after another all the others quickly followed, leaving the lek quiet and lonely.  The next morning, we left before the grouse did.  On our way down, we saw a pair of Wild Horses.

 

Sagebrush-steppe habitat near Malheur National Wildlife Refuge,High desert sky above the sagebrush on the road to the Greater Sage-Grouse lek

 

If you go, stop at Malheur National Wildlife Headquarters for directions to the lek, which is on BLM land about ten miles up a sometimes rough gravel road to the west of the refuge.  The grouse are on the lek each morning from sometime in March until sometime in May.

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



Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,785 other followers