Posted tagged ‘wildlife’

TAKING OVER MALHEUR

January 18, 2017

We “took over” Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for one beautiful late October morning when we were the only visitors. The photographs here were taken during those enchanted hours.

Coyote on Road in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

Coyote trotting along the Central Patrol Road in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

The spicy scent of sagebrush fills the morning air. Mist rises from wetlands teeming with waterfowl. A Coyote trots across a meadow with a purposeful gait. In a burst of energy a cloud of thousands of dazzling white Ross’s Geese take to the air in a frenzy, only to settle back down a minute later. The quiet returns.

These are among my fond memories of Malheur, based on numerous trips to the remote wildlife refuge over the last 25 years. Malheur and its setting is a slice of the old West, quiet and sparsely populated and much loved by residents and visitors alike.

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was created in 1908 by Republican President Theodore Roosevelt “as a preserve and breeding ground for native birds.” This immediately followed an era in which plume hunters killed all the Great Egrets in the Malheur area in order to obtain feathers for a women’s hat craze of the era. Which, of course, illustrates why regulation of natural resource harvests came to be: if everyone has unlimited access to harvest what they want, the resource inevitably disappears. This has been true of virgin forests, Passenger Pigeons, whales, Beaver, and every other form of nature that has an economic value.

Foggy Autum Morning along Central Patrol Road in Malheur Nationa

Central Patrol Road on a foggy autumn morning

Prior to the refuge, Indians inhabited the Malheur region for 15,000+ years, leaving evidence of their camps and graves in what became the refuge headquarters area. Eventually, Malheur became a case study in mistreatment of Indians: a Malheur Reservation was created by the federal government in the 19th Century, but that was followed by a chipping away of the reservation to give land to settlers. Treaty hunting and fishing rights were abrogated. Eventually, the whole tribe was forced to march in snowy weather, without enough food, over two mountain ranges all the way to the Yakama Reservation in Washington. Many died along the march and in their years of exile. A sad and typical tale of mistreatment of our first peoples.

The Great Depression hit America with an iron fist. In 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt responded with the Civilian Conservation Corps, a program to put young people to work on conservation projects all around America. Shortly after that, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge received three CCC camps, and over 1,000 young men worked on the refuge over seven years. They built dikes and dams and roads and fences. They constructed four fire towers, quarried the stone and built the beautiful headquarters buildings, and started Page Springs Campground. Every visitor today can see the dramatic results.

Mule Deer in Car Headlights in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

Mule Deer crossing road, illuminated by my car headlights

For all its conservation accomplishments, the CCC also had a major economic impact upon Burns and other surrounding communities by spending $15,000 per month in those towns on supplies, rentals, and payroll. It was a win/win for everyone involved. Perhaps the biggest accomplishment was in giving young men jobs at a time of near-hopelessness; this instilled a work ethic in these young men, who later became the heroes who won World War II.

In sum, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is one of the preeminent conservation success stories in America, with two of my favorite presidents–Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt–contributing to its success. Over the decades, Malheur became a legendary location for birders and other outdoor recreationists, including hunters and fishermen. I consider it one of my favorite landscapes in North America, blessed by its remoteness, beauty, silence, and wildlife. People of the region came to love it, and there was a good agreement on a management plan that was hammered out between ranchers, naturalists, hunters, and other stakeholders that was considered a model for refuges across America.

Female Ring-necked Pheasant at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

Female Ring-necked Pheasant at Malheur NWR

Then came the Bundy occupation of the refuge in the first days of 2016. A group of armed state’s-rights zealots took over the refuge headquarters, and occupied the beautiful CCC buildings for over a month before finally leaving. Their occupation disrupted the good work of the refuge, created division across America, made a mess of the place, and included thefts of equipment. One occupier died while reaching for a gun at a roadblock. For all this, a runaway and misguided jury refused to convict the perpetrators on a single count–a travesty of justice that still makes me incredibly bitter.

There is a movement in rural parts of the West to give away our national forests, national parks, national wildlife refuges, and other federal lands to the states. Why? Because many people want local control of the land so that they can clear cut more timber, strip mine more coal, loosen environmental regulations, and hunt, graze, fish, and trap to their heart’s delight. I vehemently disagree.

Cattle Grazing on a Ranch near Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

Cattle grazing on ranch lands adjacent to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

If states were given the land, they would sell off much of it to private companies, and access by hunters, hikers, fishermen, and other recreationists would be either denied or made expensive. For example, on Weyerhaeuser land in Washington State, access that was once free or low-cost has now become expensive, with a family camping permit for a year costing $300: Weyerhaeuser Fees 2016. If land was sold off by the states, we would end up with a patchwork of permit systems that would be costly for families to access the land. I can understand the position of Weyerhaeuser: before the permit system, they had a lot of cases of illegal dumping and vandalism on their land–just as we would have in the national forests if there were no rangers on patrol.

Mule Deer at Deep Dusk Lit by a Headlamp

Mule Deer doe at deep dusk lit by my headlamp

I also have concerns about potential subdivisions in the forest. If land was sold off to developers, many of our beautiful forests and lake shores would become housing developments–nice for those who live there but a blight on the landscape for those of us used to the expanses of natural beauty we now enjoy–and that we now own. Who would pay for fire suppression for all these new developments? The federal government? I can’t see the states doing it and I certainly don’t think that the owners of these forest homes would want to pay the thousands of dollars per year for each home to have special fire insurance to fund large scale firefighting efforts. So I suspect that the Forest Service would end up providing free firefighting services to save homes all across the West.

These lands represent our national heritage, and belong to all of us. We paid for them and have cared for them for over 100 years. When people say that local people could manage the land better than professional rangers, foresters, wildlife managers, and other biologists, what they are really saying is that they want to make money by taking timber, minerals, and grazing at little or no cost to themselves.

Foggy Autum Morning along Central Patrol Road in Malheur Nationa

Central Patrol Road near P Ranch on an October morning

For example, Cliven Bundy has grazed his cows on federal land for years and refuses to pay the over $1 million in fees that have accrued since the 1990s. He thinks that he should be able to graze his cattle on public land for free. Anyone who has been paying attention to the conservation battles of the last century knows that where there are limited resources–in Bundy’s case, grass for his cattle–unlimited and unregulated use will inevitably ruin the resource. That’s why we have grazing allotments that ranchers pay for, and why we have professional grazing managers to determine how much grazing the land itself can allow.

This is a sad new chapter in our history; anyone who wants to read more about it can refer to the links at the bottom of the weblog. I, for one, intend to stand with our finest conservation presidents, Republican Theodore Roosevelt and Democrat Franklin Roosevelt, to preserve our shared national heritage.

Mule Deer Doe in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

Mule Deer doe wet with heavy morning dew

But enough about armed thugs and their bad ideas. Malheur is still there, with its vibrant beauty ready to overwhelm visitors. We were heading home from an extended southwestern trip in November of 2016, long after the occupation had ended but before the headquarters reopened to visitors. Unarmed, except with cameras, we took over the refuge for a morning, as we were virtually the only people enjoying its silent vastness. The photographs here are all from that brief time in a Shangri La of the old west, during our enchanted takeover.

To view more work by photographer Lee Rentz, go to Lee Rentz Photography. Photographs are available for licensing.

To learn more about Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, go to Malheur NWR, Malheur Occupation Aftermath, Conservation Setbacks, Bundy Grazing Controversy, and Portland Audubon: Malheur.

Coyote on Road in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

Coyote crossing Central Patrol Road

Buena Vista Ponds in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

View from Buena Vista Ponds toward an escarpment and mesa

Autumn Textures in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

Textures and colors of grasses and willows

View from Buena Vista Overlook in Malheur National Wildlife Refu

View from Buena Vista Overlook across the expanse of Malheur

Road through Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

Road near Buena Vista Ponds

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Oregon, USA

Vast seasonal wetlands in Malheur NWR

Coyote Hunting in Meadow in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

Coyote in a wet meadow, alert to the intruder

Foggy Autum Morning along Central Patrol Road in Malheur Nationa

Storm clouds in the distance, with sunlit meadows in the foreground

Coyote on Road in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

Coyote pausing to look back along the road

 

 

PHANTOM: The Colima Warbler

June 7, 2016

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.

NEST BOX CHRONICLES: Hatching Hooded Merganser Ducks

May 6, 2014

2009_WA_8890A male Hooded Merganser during courtship season

For 17 years, my wife Karen and I have been providing nest boxes for wild ducks at our Fawn Lake home, which is located on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula. Originally, we set up a box to attract Wood Ducks, but we found that Hooded Mergansers (another kind of duck) also used the box. We started with one box, and eventually built and installed three boxes on Bigleaf Maple tree trunks at the water’s edge.

After 15 successful years, 2013 was a debacle. A Raccoon heard the peeping chicks on the night before they were to leave the box; it skillfully bypassed our predator guards and managed to tear apart the nest box, killing and eating the mother duck and her 15 or so babies. Then it raided a second box and destroyed that one as well. We were heartsick.

Later that year, we beefed up our security on the boxes by adding still more metal sheathing on the tree trunks and cutting away as many branches as we could reach. It was with some trepidation that we repaired and cleaned out the nest boxes and prepared for the 2014 nesting season.

In this blog we show the successful results of our efforts in three videos showing the young ducklings as they hatch out of their eggs and successfully fledge from the first nest box. Watching the duck behavior for all these days makes us emotionally attached to these ducks, which is why it was so devastating for us when the Raccoon got into the boxes last year. This year I felt like handing out cigars after the 11 chicks successfully fledged, and we felt a pang of postpartum depression when it was all over.

Below the videos, we have provided an extensive selection of our written 2014 field notes describing the behavior of the ducks during incubation, for anyone who is interested in the background leading up to the successful fledging.

In this video, we see the first hole appear in an egg, and watch the mother merganser’s behavior as more and more eggs hatch. Hatching began after 34 days of incubation, and the family stays in the nest box overnight before fledging the next morning.

This video from a camera inside the box shows the mother leaving, followed soon by all 11 chicks when she signals that it is okay to leave.

This view from outside the nest box shows the mother looking outside to make sure the drop zone is safe; then she calls to the chicks and they follow one by one, leaping to the lake surface. Be sure to turn up the volume on your device so that you can hear the mother’s chuckling call, the babies’ excited cheeping, and the splashing when each bird hits the water.

The following notes are from a journal I kept during the time from the day we installed the camera to the morning of fledging. If you are a birder or enjoy detailed natural history observations, as we do, then these notes may be of interest. These are the highlights; my other notes in the series are more routine.

SATURDAY, MARCH 15

Today we hauled out the ladder to clean out the nest boxes, which I will designate as Duckbox L (for left), Duckbox C (center), and Duckbox R (right).

When I climbed the ladder to clean out Duckbox C, I opened the maintenance door and saw the wide eyes of a very startled Hooded Merganser looking back at me. She gazed at me for a second or two, then scrambled up to the entrance and out, protesting noisily as she flew out to her mate in the middle of the lake. Presumably, she told him the scary story of a big fat human face looking at her from two feet away!

She left two eggs sitting atop the sodden wood chips left from last year. I carefully removed the two eggs and the old wood chips, carrying them down the steep extension ladder in a plastic bucket. Then I ascended the ladder and sprayed the box with Lysol (to discourage wasps from making it home), then put in fresh aspen chips that I bought in the pet section of Walmart. Lastly, I set the two eggs in the middle of the box, and covered them with a thin layer of aspen chips.

I proceeded to also clean out Duckbox R, which is attached to the same Bigleaf Maple tree as Duckbox C and is two feet higher on the other side of the tree. This box was empty of eggs and ducks, but had been used as a night roost during much of the winter by a Northern Flicker, who I saw entering the box at twilight on quite a few nights.

Then I moved the ladder to Duckbox L, which was filled to the rafters with bright green moss. This was one of the nests of a Douglas Squirrel. I had observed the squirrel taking whole peanuts from my feeder into that box several times this winter, so I wasn’t surprised to see the mossy nest and a cache of perhaps 100 peanuts, some of which were getting moldy from having been stored so long.

I evicted the squirrel’s possessions, figuring that it could find another nest location, justifying my action on the fact that I had originally set up this box for ducks, not rodents.

Later that day, after I had installed infrared nest box cameras in Duckboxes L and C, we observed a pair of Hooded Mergansers below the nest boxes on Fawn Lake. Suddenly both took off together and did a wide circle of the lake, eventually boomeranging back to the nest box upon reaching the proper altitude. The female abruptly put on the brakes and came to rest in the opening of Duckbox C, where she inspected the box before entering.

After she came into the box, she clearly realized that changes had been made. She spent a couple of minutes standing with her legs awkwardly sprawled wide, looking warily up at the camera, which had not been there before Eventually she seemed to grow more comfortable with her renovated apartment, and proceeded to lay an egg with rhythmic contractions of her body. This was the third egg in the box, and she carefully covered all three with wood chips.

TUESDAY, MARCH 18

After several days away, I returned home and switched on the television that we use to monitor the next boxes. Almost immediately, a female Hooded Merganser entered Duckbox C and proceeded to uncover the eggs. There were now four eggs, so presumably one additional egg had been laid on Monday. This appeared to be a juvenile female who did not have a mate (there was no male waiting for her below the box, which is the usual practice), and she seemed to be practicing motherhood by moving around the eggs with her bill and feet, and sitting on them for brief stretches. Eventually she left the box, but left all four eggs uncovered. Bad babysitter! She still has some techniques to learn. Hooded Merganser pairA breeding pair of Hooded Mergansers on Fawn Lake

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 19

At 7:45 a.m., a female Hoodie entered Duckbox C and proceeded to lay a fifth egg (I didn’t see them all afterward, so I am making a presumption here). She departed and joined her mate down on the lake.

A bit later, another pair appeared and I think the female entered the cameraless Duckbox R, presumably to lay an egg.

Duckbox L is still empty.

With Hooded Mergansers and Wood Ducks, it is normal to lay eggs over a period of many days, but not to begin incubating until all the eggs have been laid. That way, all are incubated for the same amount of time and are ready to hatch together.

FRIDAY, MARCH 21

When I wandered out to view the nest boxes on the television at 6:45 a.m., there was already a Hooded Merganser in Duckbox C, with a male on the lake below. We watched her until she laid what we think is the 6th egg in the box, then carefully covered them up and departed.

At about 8:30, a pair of Wood Ducks appeared in the Bigleaf Maple tree where two nest boxes are located. We think this was a reconnaissance trip, since we had not seen them before. Female Wood DuckA Wood Duck female; notice how she has a similar head shape with a crown as that of the Hooded Merganser.

At about 9:15 a.m., the female Woodie entered Duckbox L, which had had no activity until now. She sat on the wood chips and worked them around a bit, as if testing for suitability.

A couple of minutes later, fireworks began when a female Hooded Merganser entered the same box. There was a brief battle, then it quieted down, with the Wood Duck firmly gripping some of the Hoodie’s tail feathers in her bill. Eventually the Hoodie jumped up to the opening, where she sat for a couple of seconds. Then she twice went back down into the box for another go-round with the Woodie. Eventually the Wood Duck won and remained in charge of the box.

The Wood Duck left the box at about 9:30 a.m. and we don’t think she laid an egg.

At about 6:00 p.m. I saw a Northern Flicker quickly dash into Duckbox R, where it has spent many nights roosting. We can’t see it, because there is no camera in that box.

At 9:45 p.m. I turned on Duckbox C Channel, and found all six eggs uncovered. I believe that an immature female Hoodie came into the box and was badly practicing being a mom, and left after uncovering and sitting on the eggs briefly. Of course, teenagers of many species aren’t known for their sense of responsibility.

SUNDAY, MARCH 23

At 6:40 a.m. the Hooded Merganser mother entered the box right on her schedule, in which she has been laying an egg every other day. Today she laid egg seven. One thing we noticed after she went through the contractions of her body necessary for laying an egg was that she began shivering. She shivered for several minutes while sitting on the eggs, then used her bill to cover up all the eggs before leaving the nest box.

In the afternoon, I took the ladder down to the tree and attempted to ratchet in a lag bolt that is exposed in the Duckbox C camera view, but gave up when it was apparent that I was about to break the bolt. I checked Duckbox R, and there were two duck eggs in the box. I carefully covered them with wood chips before departing.

TUESDAY, MARCH 25

All quiet today until about 4:00 p.m., when the juvenile Hooded Merganser entered Duckbox C and uncovered all the eggs. She moved them around a bit and tried sitting on them, but apparently got bored and left the box with all the eggs uncovered. When I looked out at the box, there was a female Wood Duck sitting on top of it, looking down and into the box, while her mate clung to the trunk of the tree nearby, apparently waiting patiently while she tried to make a decision to enter the box.

Eventually the female Wood Duck entered Duckbox C, where she immediately saw all the uncovered eggs. She sat down on them and rearranged them, trying it out for several minutes. Then she leaped up to the box opening and left with her mate.

Meanwhile, a female Hooded Merganser went into Duckbox R while her mate waited on the water below. I suspect she was laying another egg, but I’m not sure since we have no camera in that box. It was an exciting 20 minutes!

THURSDAY, MARCH 27

Incubation begins in Duckbox C!

This morning very early a duck came into the Duckbox C and uncovered quite a few eggs, then left. I assume this is the juvenile female with a bad habit.

Later, in mid-day, a female Wood Duck came into the box after staring down into it from the roof for several minutes. She proceeded to inspect the box carefully and to sit on the eggs in several positions. After about two minutes, she covered up all the Hooded Merganser eggs like a good mother and then left.

Several times during the day, a European Starling came to the entrance of Duckbox C, but I never saw it actually enter.

At about 6:30 p.m., a female Hooded Merganser entered the box with her mate on the water below. I presumed that she was going to lay another egg, and I’m not sure that she did. But she did remain in the box until darkness fell … and was still there when I came to check on the box at 5:15 a.m. on Friday. So, incubation has officially begun. There is a minimum of eight eggs, which is much lower than in past years, but there could be a couple more.

FRIDAY, MARCH 28

The Hoodie that stayed in Duckbox C stayed all night, but left at dawn. As of noon, she has not returned.

Meanwhile, at noon there is a Hoodie in Duckbox L, with her mate on the lake below. Hopefully she will start laying eggs. She certainly looks comfortable, and now she’s pulling chips toward the center as if she is covering eggs. So my guess is that she did. She is leaving as of 12:02 p.m.

SUNDAY, MARCH 30

At 10:25 a.m., the female entered Duckbox C, with her male resting on the water below. She may have laid an egg. There are now many eggs–at least ten. The wood chips now have down feathers woven into them, creating a kind of blanket that can be pulled over the eggs. She left at 2:20 p.m. after covering up all the eggs.

As of 6:30 p.m. the female was back in the box with no male below. 

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 2

The female in Duckbox C has settled into a routine of incubating the eggs all night, then leaving in the early morning for a break of an hour or so, then returning. I observed her leaving again in early afternoon, then returning, then doing the same in the early evening.

TUESDAY, APRIL  8

First thing this morning, I saw the bird in Duckbox C pecking at a black object in one corner of the box. I believe that I could see the head of a swallow that had come into the box and was killed by the Hooded Merganser female, though I’ll have to double check that when I eventually clean out the box.

Other than that, the normal routine of incubation with a couple of breaks during the day continues.

FRIDAY, APRIL 18

The last week has been routine in the extreme, with no new news.

Until this morning, when two Wood Duck pairs showed up at the nest boxes. I noticed it first when the female Hooded Merganser in Duckbox C vigorously opened her bill and seemingly hissed at an intruder; I looked out at the nest box and noticed a female Wood Duck on top of it, so it had apparently looked inside.

At one point, the two Wood Duck pairs were sitting atop Duckbox L and Duckbox R at the same time (we’re still not sure if R is occupied by a merganser). One or the other pair also perched atop Duckbox C several times, but did not dare to venture inside. Finally, a Wood Duck female entered Duckbox L and within seconds, laid an egg and left. A little while later, a second female entered Duckbox L and also laid an egg. We think this has the potential to be a “dump box,” where eggs are laid by a female with no intent to incubate, but with hopes that another female might do the incubation duties. Neither egg was covered up with wood chips in the box. It seemed that the females just tried to dump the eggs as quickly as possible. [Note: the box did not end up being a dump box but we will have to watch for the two species of ducks if the brood hatches.]

About 12:30 p.m., a Hooded Merganser female entered Duckbox L, and stayed in there quite a while as her mate waited on the lake below. When she left, there was a third egg sitting next to the other two laid just this morning.

So, in the space of half a day, we went from no activity and no eggs to three females of two species entering the box and leaving three eggs. Life in Duckbox L is finally getting interesting.

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 30

When I returned home at about 8:00 a.m. this morning, the female Hoodie in Duckbox C was perched in the opening looking out, with all her eggs covered up. Meanwhile, there was also a Hoodie in Duckbox L, where she now remains 45 minutes later. She now has quite a few eggs, and I expect that incubation will begin soon.

I thought that the Hoodie had returned to Duckbox C at about 8:35 a.m., but I now believe that she was a third female. She entered the box, nestled on a few eggs–but never uncovered them all–then covered up the few she had exposed and left the box. There was a male Hoodie on the lake below, and I think she was paired with him. Kind of late to be looking for a nest box.

As of 9:30 a.m., with the regular mother back in Duckbox C, I believe I am seeing the first small black hole where a young bird starts to chip away at the egg from the inside, using its egg tooth.

YES! This is the day for Duckbox C!

At about 11:00 a.m., the first duckling cracked its way out of the egg. As the day went by more and more holes began appearing in the eggs and more and more babies hatched out.  They are so wet and bedraggled at first and they look like it could be days before they dry out, but it actually happens very quickly.  When an egg shell is empty, the mother will pick it up and thrash it, apparently getting some nutrients from the liquid and the shell itself.

By evening we were counting 8 babies pretty consistently, but the mother is still incubating and it will be interesting to see if any more appear.  The young periodically emerge and scurry around the mother, looking cute as they pop their heads out from under her wing. At other times all will be quiet with the youngsters invisible to us, gathered under the mother, where she is keeping them warm.

When the young are active they learn to use their bills as a tool, pecking each other and at their mother’s head, bill and sometimes her eye, which she tolerates patiently.

When we went to bed we knew that tomorrow morning the fledging would occur.

THURSDAY, MAY 1

During the night when I got up to go to the bathroom I would also check the TV to see inside the nest box and illuminate the outside of the box itself with a powerful headlamp to make sure that no raccoons were trying to approach the box (after last year’s debacle). 

In the morning the mother left once for a bathroom break and came back.  While she was gone the chicks all huddled together, quietly as if she had told them to stay put and remain quiet.  They were huddled so tightly that we couldn’t count the number of chicks.

We had set up our cameras at 6:00 a.m. in preparation for the fledging, but it took longer than expected.  Lee ended up having to change batteries two more times. While trying to be as quiet as we could, it is possible that we delayed the fledging with the noise of our activity below the box. Karen was video taping the outside of the box and had to change tapes three times, as each tape was only 60 minutes long.

At about 9:25 a.m. the mother ascended to the nest box opening, where she waited for several minutes looking around to make sure that it was safe for the babies. She started making a chuckling sound, then dropped down to the lake below, all the while continuing the sound that would draw the babies to follow her.  Then one by one the babies appeared at the nest box opening, hesitated briefly, then made a leap of faith to the lake below, landing with a small splash and scurrying to join the mother.  This event was disrupted a bit by the presence of a male Hooded Merganser, who was accompanying a different female that was in Duck Box L.  He and the new mother squabbled a bit, splashing around.  Within about two minutes all of the babies had leaped and gathered around the mother and she led them off along the lake shore.  We knew that we would never see them as a family again, and are feeling a bit of postpartum depression.

There were three eggs left unhatched in the box after the family had left; one of which might have just been laid the day before by a different female.

SATURDAY, MAY 3

Last night was the first full night that the Hooded Merganser spent in Duckbox L, so we officially proclaim that incubation has begun. That puts hatching at around June 1, if all goes well. Wood Duck maleA Wood Duck male, showing his bling To see more of my photography, go to Lee Rentz Photography

PHOTOGRAPHING A BELTED KINGFISHER: A New Technology in Bird Photography

March 12, 2014

FINAL BELTED KINGFISHER

With a flurry of dry rattling calls, two Belted Kingfishers appeared to be battling over the shore of our little lake on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula, flying back and forth, back and forth, chasing one another. This goes on late every autumn; I assumed it was a territorial battle, but perhaps it is a mating ritual. Ever since I observed this behavior, I’ve wanted to photograph these fascinating birds. Actually, I’ve enjoyed seeing them since first watching kingfishers from my family’s cabin along the Muskegon River in Michigan.

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, Male

Belted Kingfishers mostly eat fish, as the name implies. An individual can sit on a high perch, glaring at the water surface below, looking for a fish. If it sees a small fish below, if will instantly leave the perch, fold its wings, and dive head-first into the water with just a small splash. This is often a successful fishing technique. Alternatively, the kingfisher can hover above the water, then dive from the hovering spot. I think they can do their rattling call while diving, so I can only assume the fish can’t hear it or that it petrifies the prey like rebel yells or bagpipes were purported to scare enemy soldiers.

Kingfishers nest in burrows dug into high banks along rivers, lakes, or the ocean. I have seen a couple of nest holes that I believe were made by kingfishers here in the Puget Sound region, but I’ve never photographed a kingfisher near its nesting hole. After exiting the nest, the parents stay with the kids and teach them to fish. A parent can teach a youngster to fish by dropping dead fish onto the water surface; apparently kingfishers know a birdy variant of the old proverb give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, Male

Every autumn and winter the kingfishers come to Fawn Lake; they are here occasionally year-round, but I’ve learned to expect them especially during the November through January period. Their appearance has been reliable enough that several years ago I set up a curving branch attached to our dock so that the kingfishers would have a place to perch. More to the point: I would have a place to potentially photograph them.

Time went by, and a couple of times each year I would notice that a kingfisher was indeed using my branch, but it happened so rarely that I could not commit the time to working in a blind down on the lakeshore. It might have been weeks and weeks of waiting; I’m a patient man, but not THAT patient.

Other birds also used the perch. I’ve had Wood Ducks, Violet-green Swallows, a Great Blue Heron, and a Bald Eagle perched there, but again not long enough or frequently enough that I could justify the time of sitting in a blind.

In the last few months, things changed. Starting in December, a male kingfisher came and sat on the perch almost every morning. It became a ritual for me each morning, as soon as it got light enough to see down to the lake, to check if the kingfisher was sitting there, and it often was.

The first couple of weeks of perching were rainy, then we had a long, dry stretch that gave me a chance to check out some new technology in the form of a CamRanger. This little electronic device attaches to the camera’s USB port and sets up a wifi network. When I set my Canon camera on “Live View,” I can view what the camera sees right on the screen of my Mac laptop.

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, MaleThe Belted Kingfisher has a thin head from the front view, shaped almost like a hatchet to enable it to cleanly cleave the water surface. From the front, the head looks disproportionately small for the body.

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, MaleFrom the side view, the head appears unusually large in proportion to the body

The CamRanger is not just a dumb box transmitting an image; the CamRanger software also allows me to control several important aspects of the camera. I can focus remotely, as well as change the exposure and ISO, so it is almost as good as being in a blind–though not quite, since I don’t have a motorized tripod head that would enable me to remotely change the composition. The best quality motorized tripod head would cost about $9,000, so I think I’ll hold off on that purchase.

Early one morning, after I had tested the technology, I set up a tripod and carefully composed the view through a long telephoto lens. I tested the CamRanger and found that it was working, then waited. Within a few minutes, the kingfisher showed up and I was able to photograph it remotely using my computer mouse as a shutter release. The first images were stunning!

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, MaleOne of the first photographs I took using the CamRanger

Each day, for the next couple of weeks, I dutifully set up the camera and CamRanger, but with less success than I had the first day. I found that the camera battery only lasted about two hours when working in the Live View mode. Worse, the CamRanger would shut off frequently, especially when the weather was foggy (if it was crystal clear, the unit was more likely to stay on). When this happened, I could reboot the software remotely, so it wasn’t a big problem. I also found that the location of the laptop was important. I tried to use the laptop from the comfort of a leather sofa in the living room, but the signal wasn’t strong enough. I found that I had to go downstairs to my daylight basement, and there it worked far better if I had the laptop elevated, sitting right in the doorway, with the glass door open. It required frequent attention, and keeping the door open. I was prepared that as soon as I saw a kingfisher from inside the house, I would run downstairs to try and take a photograph.

One day, after I had set up, I went downstairs to check on the computer after the door had been open for a while. While I was looking out and down to the lake, a black-and-white mammal ran between my legs and out the open door. It had come in while I was upstairs. We have no pets, and I hope beyond hope that it was a cat rather than a skunk!

Persistence eventually paid off, and one morning almost immediately after I set up, the kingfisher appeared. I ran down the stairs and saw the image on my computer screen. I proceeded to take over 60 photographs as it modelled for the camera, turning its head this way and that, sometimes looking up, other times looking down into the lake. It was magical.

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, MaleThe end of a yawn with its bill closing

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, MaleTiny water drops spraying out in an arc when the kingfisher instantly turns its head

Those were the last pictures I got this year, as the kingfisher has apparently moved on. Twice, during the period when I was watching, but not photographing, it came to the branch with a small fish. Each time, it perched for perhaps five minutes with the fish in its bill, perhaps waiting for the fish to die before downing it. I didn’t capture that behavior; perhaps next winter I’ll have another chance.

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, Male

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my NEW website at Lee Rentz Photography or go to my Flickr Photostream.

If your are interested in remote photography using the technology described here, go to CamRanger.

I LOST MY NANNY!: The True Story of a Baby Mountain Goat

September 30, 2013

The_Enchantments_Summer-1240Playing with my best friend Zy

I had just laid down on a fluffy bed of soil near Nanny. We had spent a long summer day eating wildflowers and licking salt near the campsites of those two-legged things, and Nanny decided it was time to chew our cud. I thought we were going to spend the night there, though it was really close to one of those colorful caves that the two-legged things crawl into when it gets dark. Their snoring sometimes scares me in the middle of the night, so I wish we could have been farther away.

The_Enchantments_Summer-1171I was ready for bed; but then my friend Zy came along with his mother

The_Enchantments_Summer-1206So I got up and joined Zy

I was quietly chewing, with my eyelids getting heavy, when suddenly my friend Zy came walking down the trail and sees me. He broke into a run toward me with a big goaty grin on his face. He’s about my age, because we were born just a couple of days apart back in April. We have played together lots of times, especially “king of the castle.” We each gallop to the top of a rock and try to shove each other off. Sometimes I win; sometimes he wins; but it is always fun. Nanny said that these games help us to be good Mountain Goats, so she tolerates all the rough play. I think she’s keeping an eye on us most of the time, even though it looks to me like she’s just stuffing her four stomachs.

The_Enchantments_Summer-1208

The_Enchantments_Summer-1209

The_Enchantments_Summer-1212

The_Enchantments_Summer-1215

The_Enchantments_Summer-1214We had the most fun ever–trying to push each other off this rock

My name is Tee, and my mommy’s real name is Nanny, but she’s not a real nanny because she doesn’t work for rich old goats. Zy’s mom is also named Nanny. I don’t know who my daddy is, but it could be some big guy named Billy who sometimes comes around and acts all bossy and mean. I want to be just like him someday.

When Zy ran over to me, we both zoomed around together until we found a big rock that was nearly as high as those two-legged things. Then we spent a long time jumping up on the rock and butting each other off. I’ve never had so much fun.

Then we crossed the river with Zy’s mom and started dashing around in the meadow until we got tired. Then we grazed side by side for a while. After a couple of minutes, we scampered around again and went ’round and ’round the meadow until we got tired again. Then we had fun dashing down a big snow field. I love running downhill on the snow; my legs get all floppy and I jump along for joy.

The_Enchantments_Summer-1221

The_Enchantments_Summer-1230

The_Enchantments_Summer-1234After we crossed the river, we enjoyed some grass together (not THAT kind, we’re too young, even in Washington State!)

The_Enchantments_Summer-1259Running to catch up with Zy and his Nanny

Then I remembered my Nanny. Where could she be? I don’t remember her crossing the stream with me and Zy and his mom. I looked around and she was nowhere to be found. I started bleating like I always do when I’m scared and apart from Nanny, but she didn’t bleat back like she normally does, so I couldn’t find her. Maybe the stream was too loud for me to hear her.

The_Enchantments_Summer-1260

The_Enchantments_Summer-1263

The_Enchantments_Summer-1267When I realized that my Nanny was nowhere to be found, I left Zy and his Nanny and ran over snow fields and cliffs looking for her

The_Enchantments_Summer-1280

The_Enchantments_Summer-1284

The_Enchantments_Summer-1285

The_Enchantments_Summer-1289I crossed the raging river on some precarious logs and rocks and headed up the other side

I ran to the top of a cliff and looked back across the river. She wasn’t there. I bleated. Nothing. I ran down from the cliff and ran back and forth along the river bank, trying to find a way to get across. It was hard, and I finally found a place to cross on the rocks while a couple of those two-legged things watched but didn’t help. I was glad when Billy nearly pushed the one with the camera-thingy off a big rock and into the river.

The_Enchantments_Summer-1294

The_Enchantments_Summer-1295I climbed high atop a granite cliff so that I could look down the whole valley below

When I got to the other side, I looked around but still didn’t see anybody from my band. So I ran uphill and climbed to the top of a ridge, so that I could look down. When I reached the top I bleated as loudly as I could. Still no answer. I nervously paced back and forth. Finally, I spotted one of the band down below. I thought it was my Nanny, and ran down to her as fast as I could. But it wasn’t her. Then I ran farther down the meadow toward another one of my band members that I could see in the distance. This time it WAS my mom and I was so glad to see her.

I wanted to nurse to get some comfort food, but she didn’t want any part of that and kicked me away. Sometimes Nanny is like that. She calls it “tough love,” but I love her anyway. I started grazing alongside her and all was well with the world after my little adventure. I’ll try to remember to stay closer next time I play with Zy.

For more information about hiking in The Enchantments, go to Washington Trails Association and Recreation.gov. To read my other blogs about The Enchantments, go to The Long Ascent,  Mountain GoatsForests of Gold,  Aasgard Pass and the Upper Enchantments, and Lower Enchantment Lakes.  There is also a good web site that is based upon the autumn experiences of the Starks and another couple called 50 Years in the Enchantments.

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

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

THE ENCHANTMENTS IN AUTUMN Part 2: Sharing Camp with Mountain Goats

January 7, 2013

Mountain Goat with Prusik Peak and Alpine Larch in The EnchantmeThe magic of The Enchantments in one photograph: a Mountain Goat, golden Alpine Larches, and Prusik Peak on a flawless October morning

Mountain Goat Nanny atop Granite in The EnchantmentsA big nanny stares down at our camp from atop a granite boulder

Mountain Goat Nanny Resting on a Snowfield in The EnchantmentsMountain Goats shared our campsite with us each day; this nanny is chewing her cud while relaxing on a snow field, with golden Alpine Larches in the distance

When we awoke on the third morning, one of our companions said “Hey, everyone; there are Mountain Goats out here!” We quickly donned warm layers and grabbed camera gear, then scrambled out of the tent. A nanny and her kid were just outside our tents, and appeared to be waiting for something. A playdate, perhaps, just like a meeting in Green Lake Park of the nannies and kids of Seattle’s high tech wealthy? I’ll get to that later; but for now the wonder of the experience of being so close to these wild creatures was awe-inspiring.

Mountain Goat Seen from Tent Opening in The EnchantmentsLooking out the door of my tent, with a Mountain Goat in the meadow

Mountain Goat Kid Standing atop Rock in The EnchantmentsA young Mountain Goat, just sprouting its horns, standing on a granite boulder with Perfection Lake behind

Mountain Goat Kid Standing atop Rock in The EnchantmentsA Mountain Goat kid often stands on boulders, testing its climbing ability and keeping an eye on Mom

Mountain Goat Kid Grazing among Mountain Bog GentiansThe kid also enjoyed grazing on sedges in the subalpine meadow, but he spared the beautiful gentians (something about them tasting like broccoli!)

The kid was adept at climbing boulders and clinging to steep rock faces where I wouldn’t venture. This early practice gave the little guy–and he was a guy, according to one of the human female members of our merry band of hikers–good preparation for the long winter ahead, when all the humans are long gone from the high country, snow is twenty feet deep atop the frozen lakes, and the winds begin to howl. During that time, the nanny and kid will be high on the cliffs of The Enchantments, using their best tool–their flexible hooves–to cling to sheer faces and dig for dried sedges and other bits of nourishment. It must be a hard life. But these high cliffs are blown almost free of snow by the wind and by their very steepness, which means there are ledges nearly bare of snow where the goats can scratch out a living.

At least the goats stay warm all winter. Their long hair makes a great insulator, and if they can eat enough food, the bacteria in the gut actually keep the animal warm–much as a compost pile’s bacteria heat the whole heap.

Mountain Goat Kid on a Large Granite Boulder in The Enchantments

Mountain Goat Kid Descending Boulder in The Enchantments

Mountain Goat Kid Descending Boulder in The EnchantmentsIn the above sequence of three photographs, the kid walks atop a boulder, then descends a steep face of it  with confidence in its maturing abilities

Mountain Goat Kid Browsing Alpine Larch in The EnchantmentsThe kid is a natural-born rock climber, able to cling to the nearly vertical side of a boulder while browsing the tasty needles of an Alpine Larch

Mother and child like to keep in eye contact with each other, much as humans do. When a pair lost contact with each other, both made soft bleeting sounds that helped them find each other. Frequently, the kid would wander just a bit too far from the mother, and would suddenly break into a run to get closer to her.

Mountain Goat Kid and Nanny Grazing in The EnchantmentsMother and child grazing just below our camp along the shores of Inspiration Lake

Mountain Goat Nanny in Subalpine Meadow in The EnchantmentsNanny Goat photographed while chewing or talking, or both

Mountain Goat Kid Grazing in The EnchantmentsKid grazing a meadow near an Alpine Larch shadow; note the stiff hairs that stand erect along the youngster’s back

Nanny goat wasn’t entirely motherly by human standards. If the little kid got too close while she was feeding, she would give it an aggressive thrust of her head and wickedly sharp horns, and the little kid would back off, seemingly with an expression of “What did I do wrong?” This behavior would serve the little guy well in the future, as there is a hierarchy of dominence among all the bands of goats, and everyone is more content if they know where they belong in the workplace pecking order.

Mountain Goats and Alpine Larch in The EnchantmentsNanny and kid alert to our activities

One morning a band of five female nannies and kids wandered down the mountain into our campsite, where they joined our regular two residents. I’m sure that the regulars and newcomers already knew each other quite well, but just to remind each other just who was the queen and who were the commoners, there was plenty of staring and glaring and thrusts of those deadly horns. Eventually the newcomers moved on, and our regular nanny retained the title of Queen of our Campsite.

Mountain Goat Nanny and Kid Resting on Snowfield in The EnchantmNanny and kid contentedly chewing their cud while resting on a snow field above our camp

Backlit Mountain Goat Grazing in Subalpine Meadow in The EnchantWhite hair beautifully backlit by the morning sun

Mountain Goat Nanny among Granite Boulders in The EnchantmentsBrown eyes and pink tongue

Mountain Goat Nanny Casting Shadow While Grazing in The EnchantmShadows

Mountain Goat Nanny and Kid along Perfection LakeMom and son at the edge of Perfection Lake

Mountain Goat Nanny Portrait in The EnchantmentsClose up and personal

By the way, I said at the beginning of this weblog that I would explain why the Mountain Goats camped with us for four days. I would love to say that it was because they enjoyed our companionship, or that they perceived that they were safer from Mountain Lions when they stayed near us. The truth is much more prosaic and much, much grosser.

You see, Mountain Goats love salt. They are addicted to salt. They dream of lapping the great salt lick in the sky. To them, humans are simply a mobile source of salt. I remember talking to a young female employee in Glacier National Park years ago when I worked for the National Park Service, and she described how Mountain Goats would walk up to her, when she was hiking in summer shorts, and lick the sweat off her bare thighs.

But wait, it gets worse. Mountain Goats have also come to associate people with another source of salt: human urine. Truth is, we all gotta pee, and the goats seek out the places we peed in order to lick the salty fluid from the granite or eat the soft soil saturated with golden liquid. That, and that alone, is the reason they hung around camp.

Each time one of us would quietly leave camp in order to relieve ourselves, the nanny would take notice and follow him or her to a secluded place. Then the rest of us would hear a shout as the horny creatures ventured too close. Karen taught the nanny the meaning of the word “NO!” by pointing her finger at the goat and loudly saying the word. Did you realize that Mountain Goats can learn English?

And on that note, I’ll just say that, whatever the reason we had the company of Mountain Goats, we sure enjoyed them. We enjoyed them even more when they were grazing sedges in the meadows, browsing larch needles, or chewing their cud while resting on a snow field–behaviors that seem seem more natural than following hikers to a private spot.

Mountain Goat and Alpine Larch in The Enchantments

Backlit Mountain Goat Grazing in Subalpine Meadow in The Enchant

The most readable account I’ve read about Mountain Goat behavior is A Beast the Color of Winter: The Mountain Goat Observed, by Douglas H. Chadwick

For more information about hiking in The Enchantments, go to Washington Trails Association and Recreation.gov. To read my first blog about The Enchantments, go to The Long Ascent.

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

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

THE ENCHANTMENTS IN AUTUMN Part 1: The Long Ascent

November 25, 2012

Alpine Larches reflecting in Leprechaun Lake, with McClellan Peak distant

Reflections of larches on tranquil Leprechaun Lake

Karen and I set up camp by the light of our car headlights, as choking smoke shrouded Eight Mile Campground along Icicle Creek. Lightning had ignited forest fires in Washington State’s western Cascade Range near Wenatchee and Leavenworth; with the year’s dry summer and early fall, conditions were perfect for the fires to run with the wind–which they did. This would have been a good place for a face mask; instead, we coughed the night away.

Our purpose in coming to Icicle Creek was not to car camp–if we had come for that, we would have fled the next morning to fresh horizons with clear air. No, we were here for a seven day backpacking trip into a promised land called The Enchantments. We had won a permit in the yearly lottery for access to The Enchantments, and we were not about to give it up, smoke or no smoke. We planned to meet three other hikers the next morning.

There are two major access routes into The Enchantments: from Aasgard Pass and from Snow Lakes. Unfortunately, the Aasgard Pass route was closed by the U.S. Forest Service, because the Cashmere Mountain Fire had scorched through the forest above the access trail, leaving steep slopes bare and subject to tumbling boulders and falling trees. Our original plan had been to hike in via the Aasgard Pass route and out via the Snow Lakes route, leaving a car at the Snow Lakes trailhead to shuttle us back to the second car. But with the closed trail, our only choice was to go in and out by the Snow Lakes route. That worked for us, and leaves us in anticipation of the even steeper Aasgard route on a future hike.

The next morning, much of the smoke had dissipated, and we went into Leavenworth for breakfast, then back along Icicle Creek road to the trailhead. There we met our hiking companions, and did the last-minute packing for the hike. We are all photographers, so our gear added up to quite a bit of weight, with cameras, lenses, and tripods. Adding the weight of a week’s worth of food, and we all felt like Grand Canyon pack mules. My gear weighted 57 lbs.–enough to make me wish I had been doing weight training.

This is not a trail for wimps. It goes up and up and up, relentlessly for 6,000 vertical feet of gain over about ten miles. There may have been a time in my distant past when I could easily do 6,000 feet in a day, but not any more, and we planned to do the ten miles over two days.

That said, there is a hardy breed of northwestern hikers who do The Enchantments as a day hike, starting at say 3:00 a.m. and going in by headlamp, hiking the beautiful high country in the middle of the day, and then heading down to the second trailhead in the dark. This is unofficially known as the Death March, though it is also called the Enchantments Traverse. Its popularity is partly because it is a really macho hike to brag about, with over 20 miles of steep trails and the huge elevation gain and loss, and partly because a lottery overnight permit is not needed by someone day hiking the whole route. The Death March would kill me in two ways: the physical way, as well as the awful realization that my photography would necessarily be limited to a few snapshops along the way. Though I guess I could strap a GoPro camera to my head and take pictures automatically every half-second of the hike and of everything I turned my head to look at.

Our group included Karen, my partner (to use the preferred PC Seattle term for “wife” or other similarly close or ambiguous relationships), as well as the youngsters with us known as Heidi, Jeremy, and Ed. At the trailhead we discussed the hike and the fires with the wilderness ranger, who arrived as we did our final packing. He also wrote a parking ticket for a car without a proper permit, and later we would see him exiting the wilderness, sick as a dog, then several days later reentering the high country to do his patrol work.

At the trailhead, we also talked with a couple whose car looked like it had been hit by a meteorite, with a smashed front end, hood, and windshield, asking them about what happened to it. They said that while crossing part of Wyoming, they had hit a Moose that suddenly wandered onto the road in the dark. The car hit the Moose dead on, and the Moose went up on the hood and off to one side. It apparently gathered itself up, shook itself off, then walked on, dignity intact. Karen said they should put a sign on the car saying “The Moose Won!”  The car’s front end was being temporarily held together with rope, and the radiator looked like some vital organ that was stuffed back in the body after a knife attack. I shouldda snapped a picture …

Finally done chatting and packing, we shouldered our dead weight and ambled down the trail. We crossed Icicle Creek, then quickly started ascending switchbacks through a conifer forest. Up we hiked, entering the Alpine Lakes Wilderness–the huge wilderness area that includes The Enchantments. We stopped to photograph a Douglas Squirrel munching a Douglas Fir cone near trailside Douglas Maples (sometimes not much imagination is used in naming stuff!).

Douglas Squirrel feeding on Douglas Fir cone

Autumn colors along the trail, with the rock climbers’ destination known as Snow Creek Wall towering above

We passed a huge cliff face known as the Snow Creek Wall. We hadn’t heard of it, but apparently it is on some bucket list of 50 best climbs in the world, so there are often climbers dangling off the granite wall. In fact, collison-with-Moose-man was on his way to climb this wall, and not much deters a climber from his targeted climb. We could see climbers on the wall, tiny against the vertical granite, and we could see the tracery of their ropes.

The trail passed through an old burn, with snags of Western White Pines and other conifers standing starkly against the slightly smoky sky. There were open boulder fields, where thousands of years’ worth of tumbling boulders had met their angle of repose. This is steep country, and there were places where a tall pine would be growing up through a boulder field. Such pines inevitably had bark and wood that was smashed to splinters on the uphill side of the tree, where a boulder or two had tumbled down slope and collided with the tree trunk, leaving the tree looking much the worse for wear, but still alive. At least trees have the strength to resist most boulders–not so, flesh and blood. It was a warning to keep our senses alive in the wilderness.

This forest burns frequently, leaving a patchwork of healthy green trees and fire-scorched snags

After a morning of hiking, we stopped for lunch along raging Snow Creek. With the several month absense of rain in these mountains, we couldn’t understand how a creek could be flooding its banks and scouring the roots of trees along its path. There wasn’t even supposed to be much snow left in the mountains, and the glaciers have almost disappeared. We wouldn’t know the answer until the next day.

Snow Creek raging through the forest at the place we chose to have our first trail lunch

For Karen and I, lunch consisted of our regular trail food: crackers and cheese, almonds, dried Michigan cherries, and Canadian maple creme cookies. Two of our group had hot lunches; using their Jetboil equipment, they were able to quickly cook a hot meal. Jetboils use Isobutane-propane canisters and can boil a full container of water in a couple of minutes. There are days in this high country when a hot lunch would help keep a hiker warm, but it was unseasonably warm on this autumn day so we weren’t cold.

After lunch and a short rest, we struggled into our pack straps and again started the long grunt up the trail. We met several groups coming down, and they said it had been really smoky from the forest fires. They said we would probably have The Enchantments much to ourselves, since most of the hikers were leaving. That proved to be true. When we picked up our permit, it seemed that few other hikers had claimed the permits for which they had successfully won the lottery and paid a fee. The Seattle television horror stories about the fires and the limited access to The Enchantments had scared away most of the backpackers. All the better for us!

Bridge spanning Snow Creek in the forest of our ascent

The rest of the day was tiring, but eventually we reached our destination, Nada Lake. Which of course brought up an impromptu Abbott and Costello-style routine.

“Where are we camping tonight?”

“Nada Lake.”

“Not a lake? I thought we were staying at a lake?”

“We are: Nada Lake”

“We’re not at a lake?”

“No. Nada Lake.”

“What?”

And so on, until I collapsed in giggles as if I was eleven years old all over again.

We set up camp on both sides of the trail, with four tents for five people (my partner and I shared a tent, but nobody else wanted to be partners). It was just a few steps to the lake shore of Nada Lake, and we filtered water while sitting on a granite slab sloping into the lake. Tall peaks reflected on the still surface of Nada. Our dinner consisted of a Backpacker’s Pantry meal, in which we simply poured boiling water into a bag of freeze-dried Pad Thai, stirred, then waited about 20 minutes for the meal to rehydrate. These meals are amazingly good–far better than our standard Lipton fake beef stroganoff (made with lumps of gas-giving TVP) back in the 1970s, when we started backpacking. Now, we buy Mountain House and Backpacker’s Pantry meals when they’re on sale at REI or elsewhere.

We were beat from the hike, so we went to bed soon after dark, our headlamps slicing the darkness as we went about our preparations for bed. I brought my hiking book, “The Snow Leopard” by Peter Matthiessen. I usually read for only a few minutes before sleep during a backpacking trip, so the first time I read the book it took me 20 years. Really. Now I’m starting it again and hoping that I can backpack long enough to finish it a second time. This book is about a journey of Matthiessen and biologist George Schaller to try and observe the Snow Leopard (and the more common Blue Sheep) in the Himalayas. It reads like a book of zen discovery of the moment, and although Matthiessen never sees a Snow Leopard throughout the course of the book, it doesn’t matter either to the author or the reader. This is one of the truly great nature and zen books, and I especially enjoy it when I am on my own search for photographs and meaning and perhaps a Cougar along a wilderness trail (I have yet to see one, but it is the search that counts).

The next morning, we awoke early and started breakfast. A couple coming down the trail had gotten an early start, and they said there were two Mountain Goats just around the bend in the trail from camp. And so there were. A nanny and kid, sauntered into camp as if they owned the place. The nanny investigated the edges of our campsite, while the kid promptly ascended big boulders just behind camp.

A Mountain Goat entered camp while we were taking down our tents, leading to an hour-long photographic distraction

The Mountain Goats were not afraid of us–they’ve seen thousands of backpackers coming up this trail and they undoubtedly prefer us to Cougars

Truth be told, the big reason that Mountain Goats like to hang around human campsites is to consume urine-soaked soil that backpackers leave behind–more on this in part 2 of this blog

When you get a pair of Mountain Goats coming into a camp full of photographers, the cameras come out and the photographers start clicking off hundreds of exposures. We got caught up in the moment, which stretched into at least an hour as we photographed. The highlight was seeing mother and child goat come down to drink from Nada Lake in beautiful light.

Mountain Goat drinking from tranquil Nada Lake in morning light

We did our final morning packing, then started up the trail. As we approached Snow Lakes, we heard a thunderous roar from Snow Creek. Drawing closer, we saw a huge jet of water coming hard and fast from the area of the lakes. Then it dawned on us that this was the source of torrential Snow Creek that we had experienced yesterday. Each autumn, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removes enormous quantities of water from Upper Snow Lake in order to provide sufficient water to the Leavenworth Fish Hatchery in the valley below. The fish hatchery’s mission is raising Chinook Salmon, which are important to the region’s Indians and sport fisherman. The loss of water from Snow Lakes is necessary and required in order to accomplish the mission of the hatchery. It is an unfortunate tradeoff in terms of the wilderness experience, but I can understand the reasoning.

Torrent of water removed from Snow Lakes to supply the Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery in autumn

Our route led across a dam between Lower and Upper Snow Lake. Near the dam, we encountered a group of five Mountain Goats, including two kids whose white coats looked like they had been playing down and dirty in the mud along the lakeshore. What’s the matter with kids today?!

Upper Snow Lake looked like it had lost 90% of its water to the fish hatchery, and consisted of steep, bare, terraced banks of raw soil sloping down to the bit of water that was left. It was SO UGLY that I’m glad we decided not to camp there. We hiked the mile to the upper end of the lake as quickly as possible.

Upper Snow Lake is among the ugliest lakes I’ve ever seen, at least in autumn when much of the water is removed for use in a fish hatchery

Then we started the ascent into the real high country. The forest started opening up a bit more, and eventually the first Alpine Larches appeared in all their golden glory. Oh, did I mention that the reason we and every other hiker in Washington want to go to The Enchantments in autumn is simply to see the Alpine Larches at their peak of color? No? Well, it is. We timed our lottery dates to coincide with the peak color, or so we hoped.

As we climbed higher, we hiked over broad expanses of bare granite, sometimes giving each other an assist over a ledge or boulder. It often turned into more of a scramble than a trail, but fortunately it wasn’t icy–sometimes autumn trips into The Enchantments can be icy and snowy. Although these elements can add interest for photographers, they can be treacherous.

Karen crossing an expanse of smooth granite, where trail builders used dynamite to blast small steps in the stone

My left foot hurt! While jogging several weeks previously, I tripped over a sisal door mat (don’t ask!) during a four mile route and fell hard, sprawled on the ground. That night, I got up from my Lazy Boy and almost fell over from the sudden intense pain. It turned out to be Plantar faciitis, an inflammation of the back bottom of the foot. Hiking with the pain was a necessary side effect of getting into The Enchantments, but I did stretching exercises each day–some of them suggested by a woman we talked to at the trailhead who had dealt with Plantar several years before. When we stopped for lunch, I immersed my bandaged foot (protected by a plastic bag) in the icy waters of Snow Creek, and it immediately felt better.

Snow Creek rushing down the granite toward Snow Lakes; this is the spot where we enjoyed lunch on our second day out

After a long lunch break, we began the final ascent to the high country. Eventually, we came over a lip of the granite and were at Lake Viviane, the first of the storied Enchantment Lakes. We photographed the lake and its larches and the towering mountain known as The Temple, with sharp Prusik Peak at one end. It was all so stunning, especially after the two days of grunting and trudging up ten miles of steep trail through dense forest.

From Lake Viviane, we got our first great view of Prusik Peak and The Tower–some of the iconic mountains surrounding the Enchantment Lakes

We could hardly tear ourselves away from Lake Viviane, but we realized that the day was getting a little long in the tooth and we had a mile to go before we could sleep. We hiked over a granite ridge between Lake Viviane and Leprechaun Lake, and were surprised to see a granite slope so treacherous in bad weather that trail makers had put a series of rebar “staples” in the granite so that people could walk without slipping away. Our day was dry, so it was no problem.

Fallen Alpine Larch needles forming a pattern at the edge of Lake Viviane

When we reached Leprechaun Lake, the lighting was so stunning that we all immediately dropped our packs and began photographing with complete focus. The Alpine Larches glowed bright yellow-gold against the smoky blue of the mountains behind. It was some of the most beautiful light I’ve seen in Washington’s mountains.

Our first view of the granite and golden larches surrounding Leprechaun Lake

Late afternoon light on Alpine Larches, reflecting in Leprechaun Lake

Ripples on Leprechaun Lake, colored by reflected deep blue tree shadows, orange reflections of Alpine Larches, and an aquamarine slice of sunlit lake

Eventually the light faded, and we followed the trail toward the place where we wished to camp, Perfection Lake. By that point, I was really tired and ready to be there. Other members of the group went on ahead and found the Perfect Campsite by Perfection Lake, and we set up camp in the fading light. It was getting chilly, but a hot meal revived us. After that, I had half a chocolate bar and felt energetic enough that I was able to prance around in the darkness for nearly an hour taking night pictures of the lake, the stars, and the larches under a full moon. It was a magical time.

Last light on Prusik Peak, the iconic mountain in The Enchantments

Behind our campsite, larches and a boulder field lit by a rising moon, with stars studding the sky overhead

The rising moon reflecting on the wind-rippled surface of Perfection Lake

I used a headlamp to illuminate the Alpine Larches in the foreground, and moonlight lit the granite of Little Annapurna and other peaks in the distance; if the photo here was shown larger, you would see a lot of stars in the sky

Wispy clouds and stars above our campsite

Looking down the length of Perfection Lake toward Little Annapurna on a moonlit night

After that, I read a page or two of The Snow Leopard and drifted off to sleep, shrouded in a cloud of warm down.

You’ll have to wait for the second installment to see what greeted us when we crawled out of bed on the third morning of the hike.

For more information about hiking in The Enchantments, go to Washington Trails Association and Recreation.gov.

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

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


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