Thursday, June 20, 2019

The Milk and Butter(fly) Run

Its Butterfly Season out on the prairie and I've been searching the grasslands for new and interesting butterflies as well as seeing many of our native species of birds.  Next week should be an even bigger week of bugs as the flights of early summer skippers should begin.  The week before and after July 4th tis the season of prairie flowers and prairie butterflies, but with the late spring, it could be a weird year of say Dakota skippers about without cone flowers up yet
       In the middle of this, I see a post about a bonanza out west of me, Baird's Sparrows in the Grand River National Grassland and in numbers....I've looked for them out there before, almost every year, and some years I see one, but other's I've struck out.  Dan Svingen posted last that he'd seen many, and had some great photographs, so I was smitten, It was time to go....It was time for the MILK RUN!
       I name this annual tradition the Milk Run because it is an early morning point to point focused trek of birding.  The true Milk Run, I leave my cabin at 0130, head west, sometimes stop at Grand River Bridge on the river if low water but I need to get to Lemmon, SD 250 miles west of me about first good light.
      In my experience with Baird's, they start signing way before dawn, not as early as Nelson's but early, and if the sun is too high, they stop and become hard to get.  My usual trip is to turn on Reidy Road, drive it south to County 2, drive through pasture 7, go south to a couple of pastures areas that hold long enough grass for Baird's, scour the prairie dog town for Sprague's pipit, hit the state highway, go south, two miles to the campground, use the facilities, then drive across the dam on Hugh Glass Road.  Back in 1823, almost exactly where I always get Spotted towhee on a hillside, Hugh Glass was attacked by a grizzly bear protecting two cubs, Glass abandoned for dead by his party, came to, and stumbled and limped back over 200 miles to Fort Kiowa, near what is Chamberlain SD now.  
      On My normal milk run, after the towhee stop I drive hard back up near Lemmon, hit Hwy 12 head west and drive to Bowman County ND.  I scour the Rhame prairie for McCown's Longspurs, sometimes driving almost in Montana near some sage crouse leks I know of, then turn for another historical site at Riva Gap area, where our starving Calvary massacred women and children native Americans, I get some birds and drive like a maniac back home crawling in sometime after midnight, tired, car weary, but happy after seeing a lot of birds.
     This year, I had hoped to look for some butterflies and as such planned on turning back around after cursing Hugh Glass and thanking the grizzly bear's spirit, although it should have killed him, leaving the Arikara tribe the honor of doing so in 1833.  The only good thing that came from Glass is a free camping site near his monument near a Bureau of Reclamation Dam on the Shadehill Reservoir, I ponder if we ever needed, that ruined some good birding habitat.
     The rain continued, so I didn't go out to get butterflies, but Baird's sparrows were everywhere.  It was such a surprise.  Baird's along with their cousins, Nelson, Henslow, and Le Conte are notoriously skittish birds, heard but never seen, or seen as LBB flushing and never sitting up, but this year, I kept hearing the sparrow in the green lush prairie grass (some years, it only grows a few inches, but today, it was almost knee high, and so I'd walk into the grass, flush the bird and try to get a photo, it was so dark so long in the morning due to the weather, the birds never turned off, and so it continued.  I got soaked being out in the wet and instead of quitting, just peeled off the wet clothing and continued.  You know I'm not a shy birder in terms of what I wear and I hate such wet duds.  They were drying nicely on the passenger seat with the heat turned up and car running. I didn't want to wear my bathrobe I had with outside and no one was anywhere near me, so it didn't matter.  It was just me and a prairie full of sparrows.
Baird's Sparrow one of about 50

Grasshopper sparrow, actually less numerous than Baird's if can believe that

Chestnut collared longspurs, numerous especially on "Longspur Hill" where I always get their tick for the year, lately I go see them near my cabin but a bird historically I list from the same spot over and over again

The willet pair is still at Willet Valley a name I give for a valley with a pond.  They always get territorial just by driving by and stand in the road

It was so dark out then, I also heard my first Baird there and this is the typical photo I can get of this elusive bird, if I can even get this
That is about as good as I ever get.  Some points on Baird's ID, first, they are very light, almost looking white, much much lighter than a Savannah, and is their face from other small sparrows on face, they also got more tail than grasshopper, or Nelson's, the second....when you flush them, they fly low and dive right in never sitting up.  If they post, they are something else.....except....this year, on the road, on fences, anywhere but in the grass.  Maybe it was because the grass was wet, maybe it was because there were so many, maybe it was just luck, IDK, but it was some good butter from the milk run.

I left for home photographing old grain elevators from near ghost towns before getting harassed by a drunk Native getting gas in McIntosh SD.  "Indian Killer" was his accusation against me.  I'm not sure if it was my "Wapiti" plate on my car that attracted him thinking I was kin only to be a white man in a Shoshoni named car.  Then he asked me for a few bucks.....He wondered off, and I drove away
There are a lot of things dying on on the prairie the last 200 years, Natives, Grizzly Bears, the frontier spirit, small towns, butterflies, and thankfully Hugh Glass 

Views of the prairies from my hopefully ranch Monday and Tuesday

Upland sandpiper

Common ringlet

tawny-edged skipper

Melissa Blue

Pearl crescent

American Lady

Peck's skipper

Silvery Blue

The craziest thing I saw this week was this moth, a snowberry clearwing also called the hummingbird moth

just a taste of butterflies yet to come
I'm around in July.....make NE South Dakota your butterfly stop, or better yet, go see those Baird's next week!  It will never be like that again

Saturday, June 15, 2019

A River Runs Through it

All adventures have a flavor to them.  Some are spicy and some are more like vanilla.  My last adventure, reported here,  is difficult to pin down as to exactly what that flavor is.  This trip is like the spice "grains of paradise" or also called alligator pepper, you taste it and have no clue what the pungent peppery flavor mixed in with citrus is from, you just know it is good, maybe great, definitely exotic, and all you know is that you want more, but you also know, it will be difficult to find it again.  So that is as best as I can get in giving you an impression of what I did the last 10 days.
          They say what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, or at least it should and unfortunately, a lot of what happened on this trip I cannot share, and yes, we also went to Vegas.  Even with releases signed, and on this blog, my blog, I have standards.  It isn't like I or we broke any laws, violated any religious standards...well just setting foot in Vegas might violate that, nor did we even risk the ire of the police but I guess you are just going to have to read the book and I think, now, there will be one.   I've done a lot this year, and have a lot left to do.  No one will read it but that is okay, my kids need a diary of the year that is 2019.  On my newspaper column, I can say even less, I'm not even sure what i can say.  Maybe "we rafted the Grand Canyon as a river runs through it."
          In 2013, my year-long adventure culminated on Attu Island.  This year, it is hard to identify the exact pinnacle of the year that will be 2019.  Was it Africa?  Was it South America?  Was it Tristan?  Was it the big cruise I took in January?  Maybe it will be France, or Galapagos, or possibly Costa Rica?  What I just did this was not even on my bucket-list, it was on my wife’s as it was she that had planned this trip, but that was okay, it was still a great trip.  Yet even this float trip down the Grand Canyon was not her first, yet this one was better, much better, and I think for both of us, the best trip of 2019 will be this one.
            I posted on Facebook this picture, saying:

A view that would overwhelm a painter.  Stephen Greenfield replied, “Photography can't do it justice either. More than any place I've seen, the Grand Canyon requires 3D, to appreciate the immensity of the space.”
            After a few years of waiting on a list to even get the opportunity to go on this special once in a lifetime, trip, we were able to get on with this very special expedition of the Colorado River  organized by Beverly Price of Phoenix.  It would be her 11th organized trip and her probably last such adventure, she is retiring and so, unless someone takes up the mantle of organizing this, this near annual event may end.  It was a trip those other rafter also down on the river last week on other trips that ran into us will be talking about for years maybe more so than their own trip and it wasn't to see Olaf.  
              It should also be noted that 2019 is the 100th Anniversary of the formation of the Grand Canyon National Park, a park the US government has tried repeatedly to destroy by placing dams as recently as a few decades ago and as recently as last year, someone tried to convince the Navajo Nation to allow a cable car and restaurant to be built at the mouth of the Little Colorado River which would be almost as toxic as the building of the Glen Canyon Dam.  This trip was to both celebrate the 100 years of the park and Bev’s ideals of what you should wear or not wear on a rafting adventure,  and it was this that made the trip extra special.  For my efforts, I earned a cute t-shirt, made new friends, and and fell in love with a place I had only seen from the top.  We also tested sunscreen, and it was really good sunscreen.  Later, we made a pilot laugh flying in, and got cheers from passing rafts all in a sense of wonderment, and some from Australia, I think were envious, but then again those from "down under" are more open minded.
            The trip started in Vegas and it ended in Vegas.  It was a gamble of a different type.  I have never been to Las Vegas before one of just three major US cities I've never been to, New York, Jacksonville FL, and Vegas.  I can't say that any more, I'm down to 2.  We met the group and got organized.  Silja and I took in two shows of Cirque du Soleil.  One featured very skimpy clothing while they spun around, and the other, well, the other, they had even less on, what is less than "skimpy"?  This would set the tone for the trip.
            I took Leroy the penguin to see Hoover Dam, I can't show you the picture later from Arizona.

He tried to fly off but I caught him for his Nevada picture and then, we later flew to Marble Canyon over the Grand Canyon to stay at Cliff Dwellers.  Silja had a three-bagger flight, three special bags to remember the flight that came close to the Vermilion Cliffs, my wife never saw them as she had her head in a bag, yea ...that bag.  Would it be an Omen?  It would turn out to be the worse thing that happened to us.
            We met the rest of the expedition at the motel in the desert, mostly couples from all over North America.   Expert river runner and paddler Dave Kashinski led this special Hatch trip as head boatman, a man who has been down the Colorado in a small boat more than anyone has or will be. Dave liked one liners calling the Colorado River “a river too thick to drink and too thin to plow.” He was also featured on the reenactment movie of the 1869 John Wesley Powell’s mapping voyage down the river. 
Our other boatman was Erik Deitemeyer, a quiet guy that plays guitar, and also leads the ski patrol in the winter in Wolf Creek Pass, CO.  He was another hand-picked expert to lead our river run of 188 miles down the bottom of the canyon.  Our swamper was Thad Avery a young man from Flagstaff not even 19, who has been running the river since being fifteen.  He was an amazing guy that had lost his father at aged 12, a famous Neurosurgeon to a freak fall on a rock, yet is one of the most well-adjusted Millennials I have met.  He was a gamer , and by half way through was as much a member of the group as anybody and fit in with the crowd.  He gave me hope for the future.  So along with them, the 32 of us left Lee's Ferry and rafted the river for 8 incredible days last week.
Ron, our photojournalist who drove down from Page and took photos of the start of the trip and from Navajo Bridge.  He gave me a t-shirt, "Raft Naked" I stashed it in the bottom of my boat bag because if one wore the t-shirt....

            Now mind you this was not a trip for everyone as you might guess, but for different reasons.  In fact, floating this part of the Colorado is not for the meek.  There are serious rapids, and just following the Park rules makes for quite a hardship for some.  Bodily functions seem to freak people out.  Dave even told stories about it.  You cannot be shy about the body on these trips.  First, urination is only in the river., men and women, if you go on the sand, it smells like a cat box soon enough.  "The solution for pollution is dilution."  A least that is what Dave said.   Special toilets are set up at the edges of camp for other bodily waste that are quite open, only this last one had any cover at all.  

Toilets with a view, and sometimes like this one directly next to or below my cot.  Showers or baths are in the cold river, and it is unbearably hot outside, peaking at 107 the last day.  Luckily we did not have any freak storms which are historically ferocious.  We slept under the stars,  with camp sites separated by rocks, a few ants or less, but at least off the ground on a cot and generally were in the sight of everyone and everything but the 13 women, 16 men, and three guides on this trip were not shy, in fact, we were the opposite of shy.  Honestly, I’m not sure how the other groups do it.   Like I said, we were testing sunscreen and well, it worked well, 8 days in hot sun on a river with nothing between me and the sun but just this sunscreen and I have a nice light tan, and no burns, nothing even red.
            The trip details, we had two rafts built out of surplus army bridging supplies, and we went 187.4 miles. The canyon was literally overwhelming both in scope and terrain.  The group really meshed and was the most together group I've ever been with on an adventure.  In some respects, we had to be, but everyone noticed this and that was the real highlight of the trip.  The couples were all cool, adjusted and calm, there was no fights, no nothing but pure enjoyment of the outdoors and we worked as a team to get the gear moved and made sure no one got left behind.  
            Sadly after it all, the food, the rapids, the hikes, the laughs, the hugs, the "duffel lines" to move gear, we dressed the final morning at dawn and waited for a helicopter to take us to Bar Ten Ranch

We then boarded three planes from the ranch to take us back to Boulder City and then home

Certainly other people took better photos, and not having the releases myself, I am careful of what views of people to include on these but the views are stunning.  Someday I'll get the official trip pictures and I may share some of them, and again, you might have to read the book to get the full story.

It was no panacea but I saw 18 year birds, the best of course were the condors, but seeing Lucy's warblers were fun

California Condors #9 and #54 at Navajo Bridge, we saw a third later on, then none

Black-chinned hummingbird

Clark's Grebe

Least Bittern in Henderson NV

Lucy's warblers dominated the lower canyon

There is nothing like a Yellow-breasted chat

Common Raven

Common Buckeye

Dainty Sulphur
Pipevine swallowtail (a poisonous butterfly)

Marine Blue
Orange skipperling
Reakirt's Blue

Variegated Frittilary  
Checkered skipper, cannot tell species without sending a specimen to a lab to ID
Desert Spiny Lizard

Western whiptail
Desert Bighorn sheep

I also had a mouse in my shoe, that was unphotographed

So that is it, a crazy and fulfilling trip, tiring and exhilarating.  We got some sun, some birds, and we got wet, very wet.  It was something we will always remember.  It was the seeds of paradise, a flavor and a trip for the ages that I hope, hope others get to go on at least do the regular river rafting adventure.

Golden dreams and memories

  Today brings me to the north suburbs of Chicago.  Although not for a bird even though a lifer bird had been flying tantalizingly close to ...