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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

South End Birding

Back on San Juan Island, the weather has been mostly gray, breezy, and drizzly. I've taken advantage of the breaks in the weather to get out for a couple of walks at the south end of the island.

Since I have a new-found appreciation for clouds, that makes this time of year a little bit more bearable; there are a lot of varied and changing cloud types to observe, which you don't see much of during the blue sky, fair weather days of summer. My prize "find" has been this Kelvin Helmholtz cloud. Some Kelvin Helmholtz clouds can be far more beautiful than this one, but they're a rare and fleeting cloud formation formed by a wind shear. They're the breaking waves of the cloud world, formed in the same way water waves are at the shoreline. The upper part of the cloud moves with a faster velocity than the lower part, creating the appearance of waves. It's fairly subtle in this photo, but you can see the cloud waves seem to be breaking from right to left:

The birding near Cattle Point has been fantastic. During one 1-hour excursion, I saw over 30 bird species. The raptors were probably the highlight, including two immature bald eagles (one seen sitting on the Cattle Point Lighthouse in the photo below), two northern harriers, a red-tailed hawk, a peregrine falcon (year bird 217), and a sharp-shinned hawk (218) harassing some starlings. Other notable sightings were a gull trying to eat a flounder, a Steller sea lion successfully eating a salmon while gulls swarmed above him, a snake, and the antics of a group of about five flickers as they flew about cackling at each other.

Another walk at third lagoon turned up a dozen surfbirds, and lots of woodland birds. I saw my first big winter flocks of golden-crowned kinglets, and there were also lots of red-breasted nuthatches, Pacific wrens, and dark-eyed juncos nearby. We also heard a couple of red crossbills.

I returned to Cattle Point, still hoping to see my first northern shrike of the year after missing them in the early 2012 winter months. I wasn't disappointed this time (219), as one flew up in front of me shortly after getting out of the car. That was all I would see of it, though down on the rocks below the lighthouse I was amused by seeing a harlequin duck hanging out right next to an immature black oystercatcher:

Also on this trip I saw three black turnstones, a flock of about 15 horned grebes, and three Pacific loons. A little bit inland from the coast were some mourning doves, an Anna's hummingbird, and a pair of cedar waxwings.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Little Cottonwood Canyon

Last Friday it was time to start our journey back to the Pacific Northwest. During the night, a thunderstorm rocked the area, providing the first rain since July. In the morning, the rain showers continued. The weather made it a little bit easier to leave. We drove from Moab to Salt Lake City, and while passing through Provo we saw 4 or 5 American white pelicans (216) in a lake right next to the highway.

When we got to Salt Lake City, we still had a few hours before we had to head to the airport so we went up Little Cottonwood Canyon towards Snowbird, a ski resort where my mom worked for a year in the early 70s shortly after my parents were married. The geology here was totally different than in southern Utah:

Since no snow has fallen yet (we did see a dusting in the higher hills on our drive after all the rain), the ski resort was still pretty quiet. A few people were around to enjoy the montane hiking trails and the remnants of the fall colors, which were already a little past their peak here. My dad saw a Clark's nutcracker, which unfortunately I missed. I walked around a bit here, at an altitude of about 8500 feet, but I only found a few Steller's jays and black-capped chickadees.

The rain held off while we were there, but the low cloud levels made for some pretty dramatic scenery. At lower elevations on our way down, we had to stop to take some pictures where the fall colors were still a little brigther:

That evening we caught our flight back to the northwest. It was raining, but at least there weren't any more thunderstorms that night!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Canyonlands National Park

The stars at night near Moab were spectacular. Even when there were some clouds during the day, the skies seemed to mostly clear every night. The Milky Way Galaxy was clearly visible, as shown here in this 25 second exposure I took one night:

Early Thursday morning my dad and I went back to Arches for a sunrise, and we decided to watch from the Delicate Arch view point. It actually took quite a while from when the sun came up until it hit the arch, but it was still pleasant to sit quietly and watch the landscape change colors during the 90 minutes before and after sunrise. I even heard a canyon wren during that time! Here's the view from the upper viewpoint after the sun illuminated the arch:

Delicate Arch, as seen from the upper viewpoint

After breakfast we drove to Canyonlands National Park. We only had time to visit the Island in the Sky region on this trip, but we had time to do several short hikes there and see all the major viewpoints. You enter the park on the top of a mesa, named the Island in the Sky because it is only connected to the surrounding land by a narrow strip known as "The Neck", and on all other sides drop the canyons into the Colorado and Green River valleys. 

It's hard to imagine this land was once a flat plain; it is now divided into three different levels, each separated by about 1000 feet in elevation. We stood on the Island in the Sky, the next step down was the White Rim, and then below that the river gorges. The top level is the most moderate in climate, the middle level the driest and most desert-like, and the bottom level the most lush in terms of flora and fauna:

View from the Green River Overlook

One of the highlights of Island in the Sky is Upheaval Dome, which actually looks like a big crater with a mound (the dome) in the center. Both the rock structure and the erosion here are different than elsewhere in the Park, leading to several different theories as to its formation. Under one theory, the crater was formed by a salt dome, wherein salt buried from a former marine environment pushes its way to the surface. The second theory, which has been further bolstered by the most recent studies done in the area, is that it's actually an impact crater formed by a meteorite collision.

Upheaval Dome

We also took the short loop hike to see Mesa Arch, which was probably my favorite vista in the Park. There's a 500 foot drop off right below the arch, providing stunning panoramic views under the arch down into the surrounding canyons:

Under Mesa Arch
We got another look at the three tiers of Canyonlands from Grand View Point. I got a great book on the geology of Southern Utah at the Park visitor's center, so I'll probably do a couple of follow-up posts after reading that describing more how some of the amazing geological features we saw were formed. For now, do what I did, and just enjoy the view:

Looking down from Grand View Point

On our way out of the National Park we stopped at nearby Deadhorse Point State Park. The point here is also connected to the "mainland" only by a narrow neck, this one only 30 yards wide. This was actually our favorite canyon overlook of the day, looking down onto the winding Colorado River. We didn't get too lucky with the light at Canyonlands in terms of photography, and dark clouds continued to build while we were at Deadhorse Point. One ray of sunlight shone down onto the river, however:

Deadhorse Point
And a wildlife update! The coolest sighting at Canyonlands National Park was neither mammal nor bird, but insectoid. It was a *blue* larva, a surprising find in what's mostly a brown, orange, red, and tan environment. I've done some searching online and cannot turn up anything that matches to tell me what it might be, other than a comment on a photo on one site saying its probably not a caterpillar but the larva of some other insect. Does anyone have any ideas?

The bird sightings continued to be sparse, but I did add a couple of year birds, too! I realized I never mentioned seeing some red-necked phalaropes (213) in the San Juans in late August, so the loggerhead shrike I saw at Arches National Park was year bird #214. Then, at the end of the Little Wild Horse Canyon hike, we saw a rock wren (215) in the wash, making that the species to bring me to my year goal of 215!

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Little Wild Horse Canyon and Goblin Valley

Consensus among the family is that the highlight hike of the trip was Little Wild Horse Canyon, a slot canyon hike in the San Rafael Swell area. According to one site, the region is considered one of the "undiscovered" natural wonders of the American west, and it was easy to see why. Here's the empty road on the approach the canyon trailhead:

The hike starts out by taking you a half-mile up a wash, where a few trees were showing some pretty fall colors:

You then climb up a dryfall, and shortly thereafter reach a fork leading to the entrances to Little Wild Horse and Bell Canyons. You can make an eight-mile loop out of the two canyons, but we chose to go part way up Little Wild Horse through the narrowest sections and then turn around and come back out the same way. You didn't have to walk too far until you were in between towering walls about a hundred feet high:

In some places the trail was about 10 feet wide, and in others in was less than shoulder width between the two canyon walls. Here's my mom to provide sense of scale - most of the trail was about like this:

In several areas some pieces of the wall had eroded creating an obstacle course to continue up the trail. There were lots of passable regions that took some creativity to navigate, like this one pictured below. It's amazing to me that the trail hasn't become impassable at some point by a huge rock falling down into it!

The walls contained lots of interesting geologic formations, like this:

It was a warm day, but the after entering the narrows the canyon was pleasantly cool. Still, there was very little wildlife or plant growth (at one point a raven soared by overhead), so I couldn't believe my eyes when a little bit of movement caught my eye and it turned out to be a red spotted toad (Anaxyrus punctatus):

This one must have been an immature because it was smaller than my ID pamphlet for the region listed it, meaning there must have been water somewhere nearby for these toads to breed this summer despite reports from the locals that they haven't had a drop of rain since July. These guys pass their days in rock crevices before becoming active at dusk, and can tolerate an amazing 40% loss of body water and still be active. They're also great climbers, which you had better be if you live in a rocky canyon and need to search for water!

The photos really hardly do the slot canyon justice, as it's something you have to experience to fully appreciate. But here's another one that tries, showing a more open section of the trail:

At one point I let everyone else walk ahead, taking a moment to run my hands over the cool, grainy sandstone and try to understand the time and natural forces that it takes to shape such an amazing place. It's hard to fathom.

Nearby Little Wild Horse was Goblin Valley State Park, and though we were tired we had to drive through to take a look. Am I ever glad we did!

It was initially named Mushroom Valley by Arthur Chaffin, the first European to find the valley in the late 1920s. I think this was a better name for it, since the formations look much more like mushrooms than goblins, but it was later re-named by the state of Utah. The bizarre formations are formed in a geological layer known as Entrada sandstone, the same rock level that forms the upper part of the arches in Arches National Park (the arches stand on a lower layer of rock known as the Carmel Formation, and fractures between the two layers lead to the beginning of arch formation). Here in Goblin Valley, fractures still create weaknesses within the Entrada sandstone. Where the fractures intersect, corners are created where erosion starts to occur. The edges continue to weather away faster than the remaining flat plains, eventually leading to the spherical mushroom shapes seen in the valley.

It's amazing how subtle differences in geology lead to such dramatically different formations. Specific conditions resulted to make so many arches in one location in the national park, and so many goblins here in one series of valleys in the state park. Here's a row of goblins that really shows their mushroom shape well:

It was another spectacular day in Southern Utah! But there was even more to come....

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Arches National Park ~ Day 4

There's a prairie dog town making their home near the house where we are staying, and it took me a surprisingly long time to get some good photos of them considering they have dens right next to the driveway and in the backyard. But, they're pretty skittish little guys. I believe they're Gunnison's prairie dogs:

I've also seen a second type of lizard, but I can't figure out what type it is. It doesn't seem to match any of the species listed in the reptiles and amphibians checklist for the park....anyone have any ideas?

In the morning we went to Matheson Wetlands to do some birding in a rare high desert marshy habitat. Birds have been pretty few and far between since we arrived in Utah. Other than the ravens and occasional junco or house finch, there hasn't been much to report. At the wetlands, we saw a wider variety of species (15) and number of birds than on the rest of the trip combined. The highlight was a large mixed flock (well over a hundred birds) of sparrows and finches feeding on the seed pods of a bloomed-out wildflower. In the mix were house finches, American goldfinches, pine siskins, song sparrows, white-crowned sparrows, and the best find of the day, a single Lincoln's sparrow.

In the late afternoon and evening we made another excursion into Arches National Park, and our first stop was at Sand Dune Arch. We were surprised when we started on the trail to learn it wasn't the arch visible from the road; instead, we got hike through a couple of tall fins to the arch:

The arch itself was completely dwarfed by the surrounding fins, but was still a pretty cool sight:

After the Sand Dune Arch we went to the Skyline Arch, where we decided to hang out for the hour or so until sunset. That led to taking way too many pictures of the same thing, because after a few minutes of sitting it was inevitable you would get up and snap a few more photos. I'll only post two of those 80+ photos here. The arch doubled in size in 1940 when a huge boulder fell out of the left side:

I did find a few other things to photograph while waiting for the sunset, like this landscape look through a hole in a pile of huge boulders:

It was too cloudy for too much of a sunset, but what we did see was still pretty:

It was amusing to see how many cars were all leaving Arches in a long line just after sunset. We briefly separated ourselves from the pack a bit when we pulled over so I could take this dusk photo of Balanced Rock:

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Arches National Park ~ Day 3

Monday morning started with a beautiful sunrise:

After breakfast, we decided to hike Park Avenue in Arches National Park. Plein Air Moab is happening right now, where local and national artists are spending a week painting amazing scenery outside. We saw one painter at the entrance to the Park Avenue trail:

Some more scenes from Park Avenue:

The red rocks are worth seeing in color, but I enjoy experimenting with black and white landscape photography, too. With some clouds, Monday morning was a perfect opportunity to try some shots:

A view of Courthouse Towers from the bottom of Park Avenue (the names could be a little better, I think):

Then we headed over to the section of the park we hadn't seen yet near Windows, another of the iconic park attractions along with Delicate Arch. On the approach to windows you pass the Cove of Arches:

While this area is considered desert, there aren't that many cacti. The one exception is prickly pear:

I also found one yucca plant:

Another interest growth is cryptobiotic crust. These tiny colonies are actually some combination of cyanobacteria, lichen, algae, fungi, and moss. It can take years for a crust to grow as big as in the photo below, and a single footstep can completely disrupt all this growth. Signs around the park warn hikers to stay on trails and avoid walking across this fragile, but critical, element of the environment. Crytobiotic crust stabilizes the sand, retains moisture, and fixes nitrogen for the desert ecosystem.

Along the one-mile loop we hiked near Windows, I soon had to stop looking down and start looking up to appreciate the views of the arches:

North and South Windows

South Window

Nearby was also Turret Arch:

While leaving the Windows area, we stopped at an overlook to a part of the park called the Garden of Eden:

After lunch, we did some exploring outside of the National Park. We drove Highway 128 along the Colorado River, for the red cliffs walled the canyon on either side of the river:

The scenery was breath-taking:

Our destination was Fisher Towers. They're made up of two different sandstone formations and are the remnants of a 225 million year-old flood plain deposit. While we didn't see any climbers on the rocks, we passed a few hiking out. Word is there's one really scary part near the top where you have to walk across a ledge that's 18 inches wide and 20 feet long, with sheer drop offs on either side.

Here's another look at the scenery along Highway 128. My dad said it reminded him of Monument Valley, which is also part of the Colorado Plateau:

The Colorado Plateau is a region of high desert that spans parts of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. It's known for its amazing geological formations, and as a result is home to the densest concentration of national parks in the country. In addition to Arches, some of the other parks within "Red Rock Country" include Zion, Bryce Canyon, and the Grand Canyon.