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Sunday, March 16, 2014

Welcome Back Gray Ghost

My lifer Gray Hawk in 2013
For the record, I visited Southern Arizona, and south Texas over several years and could not find a Gray Hawk there. Then, oddly enough, early last year a juvenile Gray Hawk showed up where no one ever expected to find one, by a beach in Santa Barbara county, in the little town of Carpenteria, California. Birders came from all over the west coast to see that beauty.

Trekking there with my friend Don and we located the young bird on power line. The bird was breath taking. I was particularly taken with its large, gleaming amber eyes.

So, imagine the joy when the same bird returned this year, in it all its adult plumaged beauty. Yesterday when I left Death Valley, I bee-lined west in hopes of seeing my lifer Gray Hawk a second time. 

 Arriving at Carpenteria, I drove right up to another birder - recognizable because who else would be staring intently at a shrub with binoculars? He told me he saw the hawk the previous day and was currently looking for a Prairie Warbler. The warbler showed up last year - totally unseen by me *sigh* - reappearing this year. Encouraged, I searched for the hawk a couple of hours. Finally, disappointed, I gave up, got a room for the night, returning early this morning.

After an hour's search I was none the wiser where the hawk might be and was bummed to think I might just not get to see the bird again. Then, while debating whether to fish or cut bait, I was driving past the exact spot I saw the bird last year. I glanced up and TADA!  There on the same power line stood the gray ghost - in all of it's new Sunday-go-to-meeting feathered best.

Same Gray Hawk, all grown up in 2014!
This has to be the prettiest hawk I ever laid eyes on
I mean, a hawk in a gray tweed suit! What's not to love?
When I tore my eyes off the bird to try another camera setting I looked up and the gray ghost had vanished. But I was on cloud nine and took off to tell other birders I'd spotted the bird but when you have such great news, there is never anyone - save ebird on line - to share the news with. 

When I returned ten minutes later I found the hawk again and another birder at the same exact spot, only the on the opposite side of the street. This time the bird perched in a palm tree and I chatted with the other birder for several minutes before the hawk decided it was time to stretch its wings. I wonder if the bird will return again next year? If it does, dare I hope it turns up, with a mate in tow? Probably not, but it's nice to think on. Of course it's also nice to think on what the heck it is surviving off of in the first place - crickets? lizards? mice? And what twist of internal birdie GPS makes it turn up in Santa Barbara of all places? Well whatever it survives on and whatever brings it to California, I loved getting a second look at my 'lifer' Gray Hawk.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Ash Meadows NWR

Didn't take long for me to have my fill of Death Valley and before you could say 'Jumping Cholla' I was over the border in Nevada, exploring Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. At first the refuge looks like someone forgot to install... you know, the refuge. But as you move through it, you find this is no 'bit of scrub, there's a frog' refuge. As I neared the end of the long cutoff to 'Point of Rocks' I was knocked over by the v. new interpretive displays. There was were some major bucks splurged on this dessert oasis. I took my time admiring it all.

At the start of the Point of Rocks boardwalk, this colorful
interpretive wall had tons of information in 2 languages

Placards were mounted on bases with wonderful carvings in relief
 Of course, I lazily leaned on the first information station I came to, causing it to flip up and show an identical picture, but in Spanish on the reverse side - clever!

I could hear birds singing and calling all over the place, but couldn't see a one of them - devious little skulkers.
I reckon there was a chance of stepping over the tiny creek without noticing it
but there was no way you would not notice it for the incredible ironwork just above it

If you looked below, into the creek, tiny fish darted about.
Their image is on grill decoration - so pretty.

Here, for really no good reason - though it does explain why Scorsese is in no danger from me for Best Director accolades - is a v. brief peek at the water running by the Point of Rocks boardwalk. Oh, and note the birdsong and calls that permeates the last few seconds of the video.

I told you it was short. A little beyond the bridge was a small pond the color of tropical waters, and in that pond were Pupfish! You may remember that pupfish were the species that made non-conservationists nutty over the idea of protecting fish no bigger than one's pinky. Well I'm glad they protected the Ash Meadow Pupfish.

Pupfish watching

There are approximately 10 species of desert pupfish and each is pretty much found in one spot, with one special habitat they are able to survive in.

To the right is a male Ash Meadow Pupfish. While I stood staring at the fish, the tiny males, each about the size of a penny, fought to keep each other out of their private territories. They reminded me of hummingbirds fighting over a nectar feeder. 

And dead center to the left - um... and out of focus - is a tiny, green, female Ash Meadow Pupfish. Frankly, this little gal seemed to not care what the heck the male pupfish were up to. She had places to swim and algae to eat.

I stared at all the little pupfish for a long time. Then I headed off to search for the reasons I visited the refuge for in the first place - desert birds. Shortly thereafter, I found a spot the signage bragged was a hot spot for loads of bird species.

Loved the curvy beaked, Crissal's Thrasher of this post
The info station touted Brown-crested & Vermillion Flycatchers, Lucy's Warblers and other desert habitat birds I don't get to see often due to my tendency to melt and cry when exposed to extreme heat. I knew some of the species would not be present as yet, but as loads were singing their tiny feathered arses off, I thought I'd see a few anyway.

I decided I would hang out as long as necessary to see some birds. And I waited. I can't really fuss; a Rock Wren flew in to keep me company.

Rock Wren that kept me company
I did spot 3 tiny, feathery balls, ricocheting through the trees. Got enough of a look to ID them as  Verdin - yellow-headed tits, that bullet-ed through  folliage as if playing hide and seek with my camera. Other than those two species, and the male Phainopepla that flew over my head as I drove in to Point of Rocks - no other birdies for Claire.  If you weep in the desert and the hot air evaporates your tears as they exit your tear ducts, is that a birding moment? Thought not. Ok, and it wasn't really all that warm out, but my disappointment was real. Decided MUST make a point to see desert birds again, hopefully this year.

 Eventually I dragged myself away from the boardwalks of Point of Rocks for the Visitor's Center. At the visitor's center I learned in addition to the endangered pupfish species at Ash Meadow, there are also endangered flowers, beetles, snails, and others. Many of the endangered/threatened species are unique to the refuge, making the area highly worthy of protection. 

I got a long distance look at the Devil's Hole, where the rare & endemic Devil's Hole Pupfish dwell. I also visited the Crystal Reservoir where Coots, Ruddy Ducks and such took refuge from the desert.
Then I actually - wait for it... wait for it... got out of the car yet again! Where I walked along the boardwalk, to see a little cabin that belonged to a strange desert dweller, the one-eared gun slinger, Jack Stone

Boardwalk out to the cabin
Jack Stone's middle-of-nowhere cabin
Loved the clever little shelves built into the wall
The entire cabin was reconstructed, with the use
of photos, stone by stone, after a mudslide destroyed it
I love cabins. I always imagine what it would be like to live in one. Then I think about the lack of wifi and cell phone service and feel grateful for my little California home. Of course, Stone's cabin had something I would have enjoyed. If you step through the front door seen above, you face a little paradise.

A short, short walk from the door of the cabin
A fresh water pool, complete with desert Pupfish
Honestly - don't you want to leap into that turquoise water? I can imagine the occasional visitor in the summer, ignoring postings and climbing into that beautiful oasis. I could see little pupfish swimming around in the rocks by the pool's edges. Imagine having that just outside the door of your cabin; what a lucky s.o.b. Jack stone was.

One of many iron effigies of bat, dace fish, coyote, birds
and such that ornamented the Point of Rocks boardwalk

Desert Bonus!  On my drive to the wildlife refuge, I had passed a strange white adobe structure, 'The Armargosa Opera House' and I couldn't quite drop it from mind. It wasn't until I was driving out of Nevada & into the near ghost town, Death Valley Junction it came to me. I'd heard the name of the opera house on who knows how many ghost hunting TV shows.

Armagosa... Armagosa... NOW I REMEMBER!
The Opera House's front entrance

I later looked up the Opera House and found out a little about its history which is quite beyond the norm, not only for the haunts that are supposed to reside there, but for the wildly imaginative art work throughout the Opera house and its neighboring hotel.  Won't be staying there ever, but I would like to someday get a look at the troupe d'oeil artwork that fills the opera house.

At the Armagosa, the peppers, scarf and hat on the left are not really there; they are painted on the wall.
The Opera House & Hotel are famous for the paintings throughout. 

Inside the opera house, elizabethan audience views the stage, 24/7
Cool, eh? I stopped at Death Valley Junction's one greasy spoon, but rather than stay for a full meal, I bought a nice blueberry smoothie and headed back to Death Valley. I did some more touring around until I was done in. I did drive out around 10 PM to the Sand Dunes to see the darkest sky with the brightest stars and planets I've seen in a long time, and I hoped to perhaps see a nocturnal desert fox or Kangaroo rat, but had no such luck. Still, I enjoyed my visit to the park and maybe... only maybe... I'll visit again some time. 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Death Valley done right; no heat stroke

Although I am more a fan of desserts, than deserts I though as Death Valley National Park is a California park and therefor more or less in the neighborhood, I ought to check it out.

As I approached the park I noted there is a lot of ear popping necessary to getting there. Loads of lovely & scenic long distance shots beckoned, although as you can see below, the majesty of distant grandeur does not easily translate into good photos.  It's almost like you need a great photographer handling the equipment to capture the 3D quality of far off vistas.

Really, Death Valley could just as well been called Depth Valley.
Frankly, as I approached the desert floor, the gloom that hoovers over me when I'm in a hot climate desended on me, and I batted it off with thoughts of roadrunners and wildflowers. I ought to have mentioned wildflowers at the off; blossoms are the only reason I even considered visiting a *gasp* desert and I wasn't disappointed.

I barreled down a long descending highway and just as I was starting to note tufts of color, I spotted a gaggle of fellow wildflower enthusiasts. There were even a few birders sprinkled amidst the group.

Hurrah!  There was no vast plain filled the horizon with blossoms, but there were loads of bright flowers popped up on the rocky ground.

The prominent Golden Evening Primroses
Also called Desert Suncups
Brilliant Desert Globemallow
Mojave Aster - there was only one of these beauties
Tiny, but bright-eyed Desert Gold

Death Valley Phacelia
Desert Chicory
California Gilia that or very nearly that 
Flower with a Lacewing friend
Ought to mention, no, I am not a walking repository of desert wildflower identification. I cheat - photograph now, look up later. I took along my Audubon Deserts nature guide  and Audubon Wildflower book (Thanks Joann!).

Wildflowers weren't the only things around that begged a name placement. This little fellow landed in front of me and posed - yes, that tiny bright spot of the desert, posed for me.

Desert Checkerspot
And not to be overlooked, this little Rock Wren bounced around in my vicinity also.

a true Lord of the Desert
The wildflower volley was a nice quick intro to Death Valley. Just down the hill from wildflower alley was Stovepile Wells, where I had a room booked for two nights.  I was starving, so checked out my room, had lunch at the little Stovepipe wells restaurant, then lit out for some touring.

My first stop was the Furnace Creek Visitor's Center for my obligatory National Park stamp and cloisonne pin.

Then it was off to the Artist's Drive, a one way drive that winds through some hills that seemed to escalated in color as I drove along. Eons ago, the hills were splattered with mineral laden volcanic ash, which then weathered, creating an artist's palette of colors.

The colors start to show early on; here reds, greens and creams get a start
Bright malachite green outcroppings dot the road
Rouge in the Hills
At the Artist's Palette Vista
Next, I headed downhill, to the lowest point in the United States, the notorious Bad Water bottoms. The first thing I noticed was lots of people photographing the mountain behind us on the walkway.
Had to stare a bit before I noticed a little sign, labeled "Sea Level".  

The Sea Level sign is on the left, just below the center.

Bad Water Spreading in the lowest spot in north America
More ambitious visitors hiked miles out on Bad Water's  alkaline plain 
After sinking - below sea level - I drove up & eastward, to drive the 20 mule team scenic drive. It all looked like an Egyptian landscape to me. 

Sort of like a Sphinx, right?
Whew! It was a long, l-o-n-g day when I headed back to my snug little room in Stovepipe wells. Where I had a good night's sleep while visions of roadrunners danced in my head.