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Winter Storm and Bird Count

Usually I have to keep my blinds closed while I work because so much sun and blue sky come streaming in that I can’t see the computer screen. But these past couple days, I’ve been able to keep the blinds open. Scattered snow showers, snow flurries and misty gray clouds have filled the sky and covered the hills. Cold? Yes. Windy? Yes. But calming. Centering. Sometimes a good storm is just what the doctor ordered.

For the first time I was able to participate in the Christmas bird count in Tehachapi, and I will paste the results here. I don’t consider myself a birder. I don’t even have a life list. But I’ve always enjoyed watching birds and what they do. It’s the beauty of a Western Bluebird on the top branch of a cone-laden pine that takes my breath away, not the check mark on a species list. It’s the Northern Shoveler Ducks swimming in circles like kids playing Ring around the Rosie, the majestic White-tailed Kite gazing at us from its perch in a tree while we gawk. It’s the sun hitting the standing hollow log of a once massive oak, the brisk winter air, and oh yes! the Wilson’s Snipe. I saw real live Snipe (of snipe hunt fame) in a shallow waste water pond by the cemetery. It’s amazing what hangs out in reclaimed waste water.

Shortly after the bird count, my husband, my dog and I drove up to Auburn for Christmas with a quick stop in the Sacramento Valley near Lodi. There at the Woodbridge Ecological Preserve one can see Sandhill Cranes, very cool birds with red heads. We actually never got as far as the Preserve. We just stopped along the road and watched a crane dance and songfest in a farm field. Well worth getting off the freeway for.

Speaking of birds, the movie The Big Year with Owen Wilson, Steve Martin, and Jack Black is funny and wonderful and all about birding. If you like birds, you should watch it.

Here is the bird count and a couple of pictures of the cranes.

Dancing Sandhill Cranes

Dancing Sandhill Cranes

Cranes flying away

Cranes flying away

Tehachapi CBC

December 19, 2012

Total species and numbers
Pied-billed Grebe-9
Eared Grebe-2
Western Grebe-7
Clark’s Grebe-3
Great Blue Heron-5
Black-crowned night Heron-2
Canada Goose-2
Gr. White-front goose-1
Gadwall-5

Am Wigeon-6
Mallard-165
Mallard Hybrid-1
Green-winged Teal-45

N. Shoveler-52
Canvasback-2
Ring-necked Duck-170
Lesser Scaup-8
Bufflehead-23
Common Merganzer-2
Ruddy Duck-222
Turkey Vulture-1
White Tailed Kite-1
Golden Eagle-4
N. Harrier-2
Red-shouldered Hawk-2
Red-tailed Hawk-30
Ferruginous Hawk-1
Am Kestrel-5
California Quail-163
Am Coot-301
Killdeer-8
Greater Yellowlegs-1
Western Sandpiper-2
Wilson’s Snipe-7
Ring-billed gull-150
California Gull-1
Rock Pigeon-35
Band-tailed Pigeon-1
Eurasian Collared Dove-21
Mourning Dove-28
Western Screech-Owl-2
Anna’s Hummingbird-1
Lewis’ Woodpecker-5
Acorn Woodpecker-64
Ladderback Woodpecker-1
Nuttal’s Woodpecker-8
White-headed Woodpecker-1
Northern(red-sh) Flicker-12
Black Phoebe-6
Say’s Phoebe-1
Loggerhead Shrike-3
Stellar’s Jay-22
W. Scrub-Jay-64
Am Crow-7
Com. Raven-408
Horned Lark-150
Mountain Chickadee-25
Oak titmouse-12
Bushtit-40
White-br Nuthatch-19
Red-br Nuthatch-3
Pygmy Nuthatch-8
Brown Creeper-2
Rock Wren-1
March Wren-4
Ruby-cr Kinglet-10
Western Bluebird-33
Townsend’s Solitaire-1
Am Robin-24
Varied Thrush-1
N. Mockingbird-7
California Thrasher-2
European Starling-6110
Western Meadowlark-34
Am Pipit-1
Phainopepla-1
Spotted Towhee-26
California Towhee-16
Song Sparrow-1
White-cr Sparrow-454
Gold-cr Sparrow-24
Dark-eyed Junco-211  Slate-colored Junco-1(subspecies)
Brewer’s Blackbird-90
Great-tailed Grackle-5
House finch-53
Lesser Goldfinch-21
Am Goldfinch-75
House Sparrow-65

Total species-88

Total birds seen -9613

Dark Night Rises – Winter 2012

It’s  going to be a long dark winter after losing those 20 beautiful children and 6 courageous women to gunfire in Newtown. So instead of my usual nature blog, I decided to post a personal essay that I wrote in September about the psychological effects of the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado.

Dark Night Rises

I had just left Bakersfield, heading east on the 58 past orange groves, grape vines, and oil rigs bobbing up and down like giant praying mantises. The Tehachapi mountains and home loomed before me. But something strange was ahead, just ahead, on a flatbed trailer hauled by a pickup. Several metal objects were strapped to the flatbed, and they looked like bombs.

I’d driven this freeway thousands of times. It was the road I took to work, doctor appointments, shopping, meetings, and anything else I might not be able to do in the small community on the top of the mountain where I live. And I’d seen all kinds of strange objects on the freeway, among them a flatbed loaded with crates labeled Cosmic Debris, a squat old tanker containing liquid sulfur, and all manner of unidentified hardware snaking up the highway among the truckloads of baby carrots and bales of hay. But this struck me as the strangest and most suspicious looking thing I’d seen to date.

I passed the truck slowly, taking a good long look at the cargo. I counted four gray metal objects, each pointed at one end with fins at the other. One fin was much larger than the rest.  Red circles surrounded little doors on the sides. Definitely military hardware.

I pulled off at the next exit and hit the emergency button on my phone. I felt more than a little foolish as I tried to explain what I’d seen. “They are gray,” I said, “with fins. They look like bombs or torpedoes or maybe even missiles.”

“What model is the pickup?” the female officer asked.

I hadn’t mentioned the pickup. Apparently I wasn’t the first to call. “Big,” I said, “and white.” I have about as much knowledge of makes and models of trucks as I have of makes and models of weapons. “It’s probably nothing,” I said, “But I really think you should send somebody to check it out.” She assured me that she would.

Back on the highway I turned on the radio to try to pry my mind off the sinister looking hardware and the embarrassment of reporting something that probably had an innocent explanation. A terrorist wouldn’t haul weapons out in the open, would he? But then again, why not?  There certainly weren’t any police cars screaming to the scene.

As I passed Weedpatch Highway in the country John Steinbeck had written about in Grapes of Wrath, I caught up to the flatbed again. Heading up the mountain, I tried to put some distance between that white pickup and me. But I got trapped behind a slow moving semi and the pickup with its bullet-shaped cargo passed me. What if it really was missiles? Where would somebody get something like that?

It had been only a week since a crazed kid with orange hair who called himself The Joker had opened fire in a midnight showing of Dark Knight Rises. He’d had no trouble buying tactical gear, a high-capacity drum magazine, and thousands of rounds of ammunition off the internet. He had purchased the assault rifle, the pistol, and the shotgun from local stores, proving that weapons capable of killing or injuring a movie theater full of people in minutes were easy to procure. Why not missiles?

I turned up the radio. PRX was playing a piece about 9-11 mixed in with an original newscast about the atomic bomb. This was all I needed. A soundtrack.

Boom! When I was five, my father worked at Hanford where they manufactured plutonium for the bomb. Hanford was a cold war target. So was the Grand Coulee Dam.

Damn! The pickup was from Arizona. Could it be carrying dirty bombs? Were they going to be used to blow up Hoover Dam?

The flatbed was directly in front of me now and the point of one of its weapons of mass destruction stared me straight in the face. I could not look away. Voices from 9-11 called out to me from the radio, along with the victims of all the shootings that seemed to occur so frequently these days. The Joker’s frightening eyes stared into mine, Pow! Pow! Pow! and an A-bomb burst in my brain.

I got off at my exit, shaken. I watched the flatbed head east until it disappeared down the rise. I had driven 40 miles up a mountain, never able to escape the pickup and its deadly cargo.  At the end of the off-ramp, I dialed 911. “I called when I was in Bakersfield, and no one came,” I said. “I don’t think anyone should be allowed to drive along the road with weapons like that even if they’re disarmed.”

“How do you know they weren’t windmill parts?” the officer asked.

“They were gray. They had fins. They had little doors on them marked with red circles. Windmill parts? I live here. I see windmill parts every day. They weren’t windmill parts.”

“We’ll send someone to check it out,” she said.

The next day, my husband and I were driving the same highway headed east. The ridge along the 58 is a veritable museum of wind turbines. I began to look closely at some of the older ones. And then I saw it. A windmill that had a missile-shaped gray nacelle, with a big fin that acted as a rudder. What I had seen on the flatbed.

As I watched its rotating blades cut through the bright desert sky, I knew. I knew that there were many more victims of the Dark Knight Rises massacre than the media had reported. James Holmes had shot me too. On that darkest of nights, The Joker shot us all.

Fall 2012 Pinyones

For me, fall is a time of beginnings. As the leaves on the trees begin to change,  and the canyon abounds in blooming rabbit brush, I like to start new projects. For one thing, I’m posting on my blog again.  Summer was a bust for the blog. I was in Colorado, Northern California, and on Whidbey Island where I participated in the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts summer residency once again and decided to take a post-grad class in creative non-fiction. Usually I’d be back in the classroom teaching, but I decided to move on from there. I’m still adjusting to this new way of life. It’s not as easy as it looks!

I am doing research for my new novel featuring the same characters that are in The Butterfly Basket. Its current title is Turning Gold. This book deals with the subject of racial prejudice and takes place in the fall.

As part of my research some friends came over with long sticks and we used them to knock pinyon pine cones out of a tree. The Kawaiisu did this when the cones were still green and closed so the pine nuts would still be inside. Luther Girado, a Kawaiisu elder,  fondly remembers the camping trips up into the mountains where his family would spend several days gathering cones and roasting them in a fire. When the entire cone is roasted it opens and the nuts can be removed. The people were able to eat these nuts and/or sell them. It’s a lot of work to gather them as I found out, but a lot of fun too. They are very nutritious and are still gathered and eaten today.

We decided to try roasting them in a barbecue grill. The conditions are too dry for an open fire, and I definitely did not want to be the cause of yet another wildfire (we’ve had two here this summer). So we put the green cones in an old aluminum turkey pan and set it on the coals. It worked. The cones opened and we ate some of the nuts.

A Miwok woman, Lori, was with us and she said her family waited until the cones were mature and open and then knocked them out of the tree. This would be easier, but many nuts would probably already have been consumed by animals such as ground squirrels. In Sand Canyon these cute little rodents are everywhere. One of many who live in burrows in my yard stole a couple cones from me and enjoyed her treat on our patio.

Single leaf pinyon pines do not bear cones until they are 35 years old. It takes 150 years for one to reach a height of 28 feet. So when a pinyon forest is burned it will take more than a century to regenerate. Unfortunately we had a big wildfire to the east of the canyon last summer that burned the pinyon forest along the Pacific Crest Trail. We also had a fire at the mouth of the canyon that burned the historic house that once belonged to Cameron Dairy and was the fictional home of one of my characters.

Knocking pine cones out of tree

Roasting the green cones to get them to open

Sticky sap on cones

CERT in Sand Canyon

Some of us got together to do part one of the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training on Saturday. Posted is a photo of two of our fearless participants putting out a blaze.  We were taught how to triage disaster victims, how to extinguish small fires, and how to turn off utilities. We also learned what emergency supplies we need to have if we are cut off from the world and/or utilities for an extended period of time. It’s a wonderful training, but I must admit I felt a bit nervous about what I might be called upon to do in a disaster, especially if there are lots of injured.

One of the instructors is also going to present a large animals evacuation training. We have plenty of big animals in the canyon that might need to be rescued in an emergency. One of our CERT trainees has sixteen llamas!

I am also including a photo of Wogosinaazi, the Kawaiisu word for a western fence lizard, otherwise known as a blue-belly. This one, lacking the blue, must be a female. She lives in the rock pile outside my living room window, so I see her frequently. I like the way she posed for the camera. Sara, my heroine, has an interesting encounter with a blue-belly in my book The Butterfly Basket.

Lizard looking at me

The Thing About Spring

Last week I polished my toenails pink in preparation for sandal weather. Last night it snowed. So the sandals remained in the closet, and the fuzzy socks came out of the drawer. The thing about spring is this: you never know what it’s going to do.

This morning the plants, somewhat confused, wore a wet blanket, and snowflakes fell on the poor starlings that sat stoically on the wire. The orioles were happy enough because the hummingbird feeder had not frozen solid, so they still had a source of food. My lab was a happy camper too. Black as night, she ran outside in the early light and dug her nose in the fresh white snow.

Oriole on Lilac in Snow

Spring

For me, the first sign of spring is the arrival of the robin. I know they are a common sight in most places, but in Sand Canyon I only see them when they are passing through. Since we’ve been having regular spring rain and snow showers it makes for good worm hunting, and we have had more than the usual number of spring visitors.  I have taken great pleasure in seeing the flash of their reddish-orange breasts as they fly through golden fields or perch on a stump or fence rail. Robins are a brave bird. One can get very close before they will fly away.

Although I adore the Sand Canyon winter in all its varied glory, I can’t help feeling excited when I see my first robin. This year it happened in mid-February, and I managed to snap a picture of one in the dry winter stubble. Since then I have seen at least a hundred.  I recently watched a group of six foraging near a tree in the field I call my yard. The snow had just melted and I was astounded at the number of worms they were finding. After all, this is the high desert, and I rarely see a worm. But there they were, six fat robins, cocking their heads and pulling up one juicy worm after the other.

I couldn’t help but wonder how the robins were finding all these worms, so I consulted my oracle the internet. It informed me than an ornithologist named Dr. Heppner conducted an extensive experiment to determine the answer. He had concluded that robins primarily use their eyesight to find wormholes with worms inside. If there is no worm, they ignore the hole. If only I could see that well!

BTW: One of my favorite children’s books is The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Mary the heroine is led into the secret garden by a friendly robin and her life is changed forever. This was an English Robin, a much different bird than an American Robin but with a similar color on its breast. The English robin is actually a flycatcher, while the American robin is a thrush. Our red-breasted thrush owes its name to its European distant cousin, because it reminded the early American settlers of their own special bird back home.

First robin

Winter

For me, winter starts with the first snowfall. Here are some pics of the snow that fell last weekend. Not much, but beautiful nonetheless.

Snow on Tomo-Kahni

Snow on Sugarloaf

Snow on juniper berries

Snow on our lawn ornament

Peaceful Donkeys at Peaceful Valley

Everyday I pass Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue, but have never stopped. The children’s author Susan Patron has a wonderful burro named Chesterfield in her Lucky novels. I was talking with her about the Donkey Rescue at an SCBWI Writer’s Day and realized that I needed to visit this wonderful place.

The opportunity afforded itself yesterday, when the local facility had an open house in honor of the hundred plus Hawaiian Donkeys that had just been airlifted to California, then trucked to Sand Canyon. They were descendents of donkeys who had worked in the coffee plantations.

The donkeys had a calming effect on me. Maybe it was their soft white noses, the long furry ears, or their gentle demeanor. I immediately wanted to adopt one. My husband was dead set against it, and got a friend of his to try to talk me out of it.

Eventually, I decided it was a bad idea for me. I had no time to take care of a donkey, and I’d have to adopt two because donkeys have special friends from whom they cannot be separated.  That would mean twice the hay, twice the vet bills, and eight hooves to groom.  Apparently, the cost of hay has skyrocketed, like the cost of everything else. And donkeys hate canines. They kill coyotes. I was sure that my dog would be more jealous of the donkeys than she is of the cat. There would probably be a fight to the death and the dog would lose.  On top of that, a donkey’s bray can be loud as a bullhorn, not a pleasant sound in the wee hours of the morning. I know because my neighbors had donkeys.

Still…. I’d really like a donkey! I mean two donkeys. Two soft, cuddly sentient beings, the color of the sand and dust in the canyon, and as calming as ocean waves. Creatures that have helped man with his labors throughout the centuries. Animals that need a home.

The Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue here in Sand Canyon does a wonderful job with their animals. They even have the equivalent of a nursing home for elderly donkeys. When we rode by their pen on our hayride tour, the old ones were flehming at us, i.e. they lifted their upper lips to get a better whiff, exposing their old chipped teeth. According to our guide, equine teeth grow longer as they age and that’s the origin of the idiom “long in the tooth.” I imagine these donkeys long in the tooth and happy, braying about their life adventures, and enjoying a well-deserved retirement at Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue.

If you want to learn more about these wonderful animals, adopt two, or donate toward the cost of their care, please go to donkeyrescue.org.

Titmouse and Juniper

This morning I saw a titmouse. I knew it was a titmouse because of the small crest on its head like a pointed cowl, and the fact that it was small and grey like a mouse. Astute reasoning told me that it was probably a Juniper Titmouse since it was pecking at the bark of a juniper tree.

It was a cold morning and the sun was not yet up, a time when birds are very active (in case you never get up that early). I was out on the patio all bundled up in my fuzzy green robe drinking my morning mug of coffee, when I heard a tapping in the bush beside me. The titmouse pecked on the juniper, jumped to the ground, bounced back up and then repeated the sequence several times, while giving its throaty call. I haven’t seen a titmouse in quite some time, so I followed it when it flew over to another juniper where I scared a covey of quail that had been hiding in the thick branches. They flew off, their wings making a whirring noise like egg beaters.  Then the titmouse flew into a cypress tree where I lost sight of him.

I examined the branch of the old juniper (Juniperus californica) where the birds had been hiding. Last winter a heavy snow bent it to the breaking point. Though one of its main branches split in two, the foliage is still green and the branch is covered with hundreds of the light blue berries that bears love. I skimmed the thin flesh off a few berries with my teeth, but they tasted the way pine pitch smells, an astringent taste that made my tongue go dry. Maybe in a few weeks, when the berries turn purple – maybe then they will be sweeter. Why would a bear eat them, if they taste like sap? And bears do eat them. It’s common to see bear scat full of juniper berries.

I hope the bears are not trying to get a buzz, because juniper berries are used to make gin.  The Kawaiisu made bows from the branches, and used the soft bark for baby diapers. The women ground the berries, and molded them into sweet cakes. Early settlers used the branches for barbed wire fence posts. They were apparently very sturdy, for a few of these posts can still be seen along Sand Canyon Road.

I like junipers because they provide shade, shelter, and forage for a wide variety of wildlife. Sometimes used for bonsai, the junipers make the canyon look like a Japanese garden gone wild. And they can live for hundreds of years.

Juniper fence

Juniper berries

Juniper and lawn ornament

Mares’ Tails

Here is a picture of a cirrus cloud called a Mare’s Tail. These clouds indicate a coming change in the weather. Last week this Mare’s Tail appeared in the sky, followed by a cold front out of Alaska and rain. In my book The Butterfly Basket, a sky full of Mares’ Tails is a sign of coming trouble for the young heroines.