Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Field Notes 22 June 2015: Musings on Buzzards in the Badlands

Shadows cruising across the Wind River foothills.

As I was ascending a steep ridge, a turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) soared overhead in it's teeter-totter fashion and turned it's bald red head to look down at me quizzically. Turkey vultures seem curious to me, I suppose because of the way that they fly low and slow to sniff out the dead stuff. As a scavenger, the "TV" (a.k.a. turkey buzzard) feeds almost exclusively on carrion and unlike other birds, has a keen sense of smell.  It is reported that they can smell a dead mouse under a layer of leaves from a height of 200 feet. (Raptor Rehab of Kentucky).

Vultures in general get a bad rap but not every one sees them as the as the creepy bad guy.  Many cultures regard vultures (as well as condors) as a conduit to heaven or as the precious animal that releases the soul from the body. Tibetan Buddhists practice “sky burials,” where animals, usually vultures, consume their dead. Similarly, Zoroastrians offer their dead to be consumed by vultures on a raised platform, called a dakhma.  (Cornell Lab of Ornithology).  They also serve an important role in preventing the spread of deadly diseases - they can consume the meat of animals that died of disease and not get sick themselves, because of special enzymes in their stomachs.

I like turkey vultures - they endeared themselves to me years ago when I volunteered at a raptor rehabiliation center.   They were generally shy and usually retreated to the corner of the flight cage when we fed them. But if they feel threatened they will puke up a blob of nasty-smelling half-digested meat. (Ralphing-on-demand also comes in handy when they are too heavy to fly.) If the smell doesn’t drive predators away, the vomit will sting if it comes in contact with the animals' face or eyes.  The ultimate predator defense: projectile vomit aimed right between the eyes.

My vulture was joined by four others that were soaring next to the ridge below me.  It was a treat to watch them with the beautiful Wind River Valley far below and the  badlands stretching out in the distance.

I had just climbed 2,770 vertical feet to a grassy and boulder-strewn plateau. There are no roads or paths leading to this section of land. There's a series of false benches to get the top, which are always so demoralizing and which I conveniently forget about every year.  From here I can see three mountains ranges: Absarokas to the north, Wind Rivers to the west and the Owl Creeks to the east.
This ranch is in the Dubois Valley (in Wyoming we pronounce it Do-Boys).  The Dubois Valley is also called the "Valley of the Warm Winds" and it stays snow-free all winter, which is a huge benefit to the elk, mule deer, pronghorn and bighorn sheep that use this area as winter range.  There are a number of conservation easements in the valley, held by The Nature Conservancy and other organizations that form a critical network of protected properties for wildlife that migrates from the Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park area.
The haze on the right is from California wildfires.

View towards the Wind River Mountains and the Whiskey Peak area.  Not a bad place to spend your lunch break (ice-cold watermelon, grilled asparagus and a peanut butter/honey sandwich).

If Vulture has flown across your path:

You are being asked to be patient with yourself and think things through. Take your time before making decisions and choose paths that support your higher consciousness and your heart. Use all of your resources combined with your past experience to approach the problem from a different angle. Know that you are always free to choose your own path but be flexible while moving forward. Allow yourself to use all of your senses to navigate through this situation for your highest benefit. Call on all your resources to get the job done. Alternatively Vulture recognizes that you are fiercely protective of those you feel responsible for but you are reminded that knowing when to allow others to sink or swim is important too. Recognize the need for higher awareness in all those around you. http://www.spirit-animals.com/vulture/

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Field Notes 19 June 2015: Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill cranes sound so ancient and primeval to me. And no wonder - the oldest fossil record for sandhill cranes is from 2.5 million years ago (found in Florida).   I was able to watch this pair up close for quite awhile until the mosquitoes got the better of me. You'll get the sound in the video but the I couldn't zoom in.  No doubt they had a passel of chicks nearby.


This was a great day for bird watching - I also saw pelicans, a prairie falcon, nighthawks, etc...

I love these rivers out on the plains.  You feel like you have the whole world to yourself.  And at night, the stars feel close enough to touch. 

This day couldn't be more different than my last visit to the Sweetwater area (see Blood, Sweat and Cowshit).  It was sunny and the road had dried out enough so that I didn't have to worry about getting stuck.

Years ago this ranch used to be part of the Ellis Ranch.  Lots of history here as it's on the Mormon and Oregon Trails and where St. Mary's Station was located. The Pony Express operated here from 1861-1862.

Anyone know what is this?  It was literally out in the middle of nowhere.  There were stones nearby that looked like the remnant of an old homestead.  And a spring that fed a good-sized stream, a suprise in the middle of the prairie.  There were a few pairs of nesting killdeer and it was rich with other birds.  Something I wouldn't have found if I'd been in my truck - it pays to be on foot or on two wheels.

Our horses Griz and Arizona.  This photo is from last year when I had the bright idea of covering the ranch by horseback.  But there's no "express" with our ponies.  I had a tiny glimpse into what life was like for those tough pioneers so long ago.  The scenery inched by and it started snowing halfway into the ride - tiny hard pellets that stung our faces and hands.  But there's lots of time for contemplation on the back of a horse. 
"The song of the river ends not at her banks, but in the hearts of those who have loved her."
Buffalo Joe

Friday, June 19, 2015

Field Notes 18 June 2015: Blood, Sweat and Cowshit on the Sweetwater River

Disclaimer: I am in no way bashing cattle ranching or cows in this post.  Like anyone else in the West, I like a thick juicy steak.  Also, apologies for the cuss words.  There is no other word for cow....pies.  Trust me.

I parked my truck at the junction of the county road and the nasty two-track that leads to the easement.  My plan was to ride my bike the five miles to the easement since there was no way that I could get there by truck, even in 4 wheel drive. We'd been doused with heavy rain for days and I didn't want to take any chances getting stuck.

                                   My route followed the Pony Express and Oregon Trails.

The sky hadn't cleared much from last night so I loaded only the essentials in my camelback for light and fast travel.  The road was beyond terrible - groups of cattle were congregated in the road and had turned the muddy sections into cowshit swamp-puddles.

The thing about fresh green cowshit is that when it dries it sticks to everything like cement - it's nearly impossible to spray off a bike frame.  And you can't get the smell out of your nose.

I went off-road through the sagebrush prairie to avoid the worst of it. But sometimes there was just no avoiding it because the prairie was just as wet as the road.

It didn't take long for me to get to my destination on the Sweetwater River - it's all downhill.  Much of the Sweetwater River in this area is part of a BLM Wilderness Study Area and it feels very remote and wild.   I've never seen another human out here in all my 12 years of visiting the place.

I did see herds of antelope and deer plus three cow elk.  The easement is at the mouth of the Sweetwater Canyon which provides severe winter relief range for elk.

I took took the requisite photos for the easement visit and started the long slog uphill back to the truck.  As I rode the sky grew darker and more menacing.  I couldn't push myself to ride fast up the steep hills because of a chest cold.  I was about to cough up a lung.  I did the best I could - I have a healthy fear of lightening. Plus I needed to get the truck back on pavement while I still could. Even the county road would be impassable in heavy rain.
I had to cross a few miles of high exposed plains, which made me nervous. It's mostly flat so I rode as fast as I could, not bothering to dodge the muck anymore - just avoiding anything that would hopelessly suck my tires down.

As I crested the last hill I could see a herd of cows (plus one bull) standing in the road. Crap! (The word of the day.) There was a bull pawing at the ground and snorting at my approach.  I weighed my options.  I could make a long detour through a boggy meadow, or I could take a chance that he would move off the road.  He moved off so I crossed my fingers and rode past as fast as I could.

By now I was splattered from head to toe.  I could even feel globs of it in my hair - it somehow got through the vents in my bike helmet.  I was also chilled, dripping in sweat, and had cut my leg on something.  I should get hazard pay.

There's a moment in field work when you spot your truck and know that you're going to make it - despite the fact that you pushed the envelope and/or did something stupid.  And you thank the gods that you will see another day to do it all again.

Clouds + No Wind  = mosquito and black fly bonanza

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Field Notes 15 June 2015: Eagle shadow - First Day in the Field


The shadow of a golden eagle passed directly over me and momentarily blotted out the bright morning sun, reminding me to look up.  The eagle's shadow felt like a more auspicious start to my field season than last year.  Last year on my first easement visit I stepped on and was struck by a rattlesnake. No harm done, it was a dry strike that hit my shoe when I jumped.

I can drive to most of my easements but this one requires hiking in. The easement borders the Nature Conservancy's Red Canyon Ranch but the two track has long since grown over so I followed an antelope trail which leads to an oasis of cottonwood trees - one of my favorite places in Wyoming.
We've had an unusually wet spring and the wildflowers covering the sagebrush grasslands were stunning.  I was especially intrigued by the many colors of Indian paintbrush - from deep reds and oranges to pink to yellow and every hue in between.

Larkspur just starting to bloom.

Sego lily - in all her tidy perfection.


“One is wise to cultivate the tree that bears fruit in our soul.”

Henry David Thoreau

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Field Notes Intro: Dirt Road Challenge - My Work

The Challenge:

172 conservation easements
300,000 acres in 3 months
1,000 miles of dirt road

And there I was, wedged under the truck in a pile of antelope poop with a hacksaw…

I was on my way to visit one of the most remote conservation easements held by The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming when the muffler partially sheared off the truck and was dragging down the bumpy dirt road.  Since there’s no such thing as cell phone coverage in most places I work and little chance of another vehicle driving by, I couldn’t just sit there -- waiting to be rescued.

In Wyoming, there are more antelope than people, at five humans per square mile.

I pulled over and secured the muffler and exhaust pipe back on the truck with old fence wire I found in the borrow ditch.  A few miles down the road I found an oil patch worker that let me borrow their hacksaw.  And after sawing off the muffler I was on my very noisy way up to the top of the Rattlesnake Mountains to a visit the Marshall conservation easement.

The Wyoming Chapter has acquired over 170 easements in its 25 year history. I'm responsible for visiting 31 of them each summer.  Conservation easements have protected a variety of lands in our state - from high desert sagebrush country for the iconic sage grouse to grizzly bear and wolf habitat in the Greater Yellowstone.  We have conservation easements that protect miles of blue-ribbon trout streams and land within historic mule deer and pronghorn migration routes.

Conservation easements are a voluntary agreement between a land owner and an organization, such as the Conservancy, that protect land in perpetuity for future generations while allowing the owner to retain private property rights. Easements have made a significant contribution to conservation with approximately 3.2 million acres protected by Conservancy easements in the U.S.   This is also a tool that is gaining momentum worldwide.  The Wyoming Chapter is currently working with Argentina to introduce conservation easements to their country. 

It is a significant investment to hold an easement in perpetuity.  Staff monitors each easement on an annual basis to ensure that the easement is in compliance.   Most of the properties are working ranches and we have built great relationships with many ranchers and ranch managers over the years.  We visit the properties by truck, on foot, mountain bike, horseback, and on our largest easements we sometimes using  fixed-wing aircraft.  For me, each field visit is different - unexpected things happen.

This particular easement, smack dab in the middle of the state, was conserved to protect the area from subdivision. Years ago, it was part of a larger ranch called the Matador Ranch.

The Rattlesnake Range is intriguing and unexpected - it rises straight out of the sagebrush prairie into red-rock faults, canyons, spring-fed creeks and wide open valleys. Garfield Peak, at 8,244 feet, is the highest point (which is not very high for our state!).   The area is mostly limber pine, aspen and sagebrush.  Pronghorn, mule deer, elk and any number of raptors call it home.  Because of its remoteness it feels wild and intimidating but it's also beautiful.  
This is the best part of my job: criss-crossing this beautiful state of ours, visiting our easement properties and talking with conscientious landowners and managers who are the real stewards of the land.   Stay with me for a series of short blog posts that follows my fast and furious season of easement monitoring.

Monday, June 15, 2015

You Are Here

If we are lucky, our lives are spiral, not linear.  We return to special places and revisit special friends time after time.  Sometimes it's intentional and sometimes it's a random twist of fate.

This past year I went back to San Angelo, Texas, where I spent my formative years.  It was a special trip to visit my best friend's family.   This spring, I hiked in a wilderness area in Arizona where I studied nesting bald eagles when I was in my early 20's.  A few weeks ago we visited the east coast as a family and I revisited places where I lived and worked when I was 19 (in Connecticut and New York).

Without realizing it, I think that I've been led to these places to close certain chapters in my life -- in order to start a new one.  In the course of these wanderings, I feel like I've expanded from the inside.  My spirals are outward and upward, reaching toward something new and different.  The spiraling feels wild and unmoored.  It's in the revisiting that I am learning what my new direction will be.  I think that you have to know where you've come from to know where you need to go next.

Central Park, NYC
You are here: Our GPS did not work on the east coast and so we spent a lot of time looking at maps, and especially maps on kiosks with a big dot and arrow that said "You are here."  I took this to heart and made it my motto.  I tend to get anxious when I'm in big cities, and especially on the crowded east coast.  Whenever I got homesick,  I would say to myself, "you are here" and could feel myself step back into the moment with my family and enjoy..."

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Love flows down

“You have been walking the ocean's edge,
holding up your robes to keep them dry.

You must dive naked under and deeper under,
a thousand times deeper. Love flows down.

The ground submits to the sky and suffers what comes.
Tell me, is the earth worse for giving in like that?

Do not put blankets over the drum.
Open completely.”

― RumiThe Big Red Book