Sunday, July 10, 2016

Mount. St. Helens from the West

In keeping with this year's plan to strive to see new places, I decided that quality time spent around Mount. St. Helens was long overdue. I had come across a small booklet in the Pacific Northwest hiking books at Powell's bookstore a few years back and purchased it just because it looked cool. It was clearly dated, having been published in 1993, but I wanted it nonetheless. It has sat nestled in my small pile of more frequently utilized outdoor books, namely my first bird guide by Ken Kaufmann, and my copy of Curious Gorge by Scott Cook, which are both becoming alarmingly dog-eared. Then this last winter, 'Road Guide to Mount St. Helens' migrated to the coffee table to join the piles of Audubon Warblers and my AAA travel magazines that I flip through when I have a moment. That's when I realized I needed to make a definitive plan and head north to hang out with the most active volcano in our part of the world.

So, after looking at some video clips, and realizing you needed to probably get climbing permits a year in advance, I realized that I wasn't particularly hellbent on summiting the mountain. It might be something I aspire to in a couple years, but that wasn't my goal for this year.  I wanted to get my feet wet by doing a series of one day hikes, loops or out and backs, just to get a feel for the area. So I came up with a list of hikes that I found on the Washington trails association site, that even a novice such as myself should be able to handle. I'll let you in on a little secret:  as much as I love to be outside, I am not a veteran hiker, mountain climber or even that interested in either pastime. Although one of the guide books in my short pile is 'The Pacific Crest Trail', this is more in the way of hopeful inspiration. I have a not so great back that won't put up with carrying 30-40 pounds and hiking up and down mountains for 15 miles a day. So I compromise and have become a veteran truck camper, and I planned to do so on these trips as well. Hike for the day, find a place to camp with the truck for the night, then head to a different nearby hike the next day before driving home. 

I decided to start with the west side, which is approachable from only one road, Highway 504. This two lane road runs 52 miles from Castle Rock off of I-5 and ends at the Johnston Ridge Observatory. You pass a few small hamlets and will notice quite a few tree farm crop signs with planting years noted. What I didn't see were any campgrounds closer than thirty miles back from the park in a little blip of a town called Kid Valley. But I had noted on my atlas and in Google maps that sections just north of the road were intermittently Gifford Pinchot National Forest, and where there's G.P. land, there's dispersed camping on any forest service road you can get yourself on. Almost always, except when all that land has apparently been leased to Weyerhauser for Noble fir farms. And the log trucks were making regular hauls out, heading past me back towards the mills in Kalama and Kelso/Longview, so trying to sleep up a logging road would be a foolhardy risk. Those guys show up to work early in the morning and in a clear cut, there's nowhere to hide my truck. Well, I'd figure that out later, for now I just wanted to get up close to the mountain and stretch my legs and eat the lunch I'd packed.

I did a quick stop at Coldwater Lake, which is pristine and beautiful, walked the boardwalk and watched the diving swallows over the water. Then drove across the Coldwater Creek Bridge and found the parking lot for Hummock's trail just ahead on the right. This trail takes you through land that is completely transformed in recent years, with small ponds and meadows appearing in valleys amidst the drier hillsides of pumice. But everything is covered with growth, be it wildflowers, tall trees with lush grasses under their canopy. Bees, hummingbirds, songbirds, chipmunks and squirrels are omnipresent. It's amazing what can return in 36 years. Under the sweet smell of blooming wildflowers, I detected an almost acidic odor that I attributed to the pumice and ash. It was an unusual and beautiful landscape, and I shuffled through the 4.5 mile loop in a couple hours, stopping often to look and listen, and snap photos.

Coldwater Lake 


 Hummock's trail

 scarlet indian paintbrush

Hummock's trail 

White-crowned sparrow

Song-sparrow fledgling- dark Pacific form

Debated: and the winner is? Juvenile yellow-rumped warbler! Thanks for your patient help, Bob..

 American goldfinch

common monkey-flower 

 red elderberry

Afterwards, I drove up the the road to Loowit viewpoint and met a nice couple from Kelso who apparently come up and check out the mountain several times during the summer. They had both been in junior high together during the 1980 eruption and remember it well. The husband had his telescope set up and was showing another couple of tourists a herd of mountain goats crossing one of the remaining snow fields to the south of the dome. I got a look too and was amazed, they didn't exist through my bins at all! He also pointed out the huge grazing herd of elk with their new foals down on the grassy plains below the mountain and above the Toutle River. Very cool. They empathized with my camping plight and wished me luck. I headed back down the road, driving slowly and looking for any small dirt roads leading off. And I found one, just a few miles down on the left. I let the truck sit by the road while I ran down the overgrown rutted road to explore. It turned to the left after 50 yards and there was a closed gate with an old fire ring in front of it. There were no keep out signs, but I was still feeling paranoid, so ran back and quickly drove the truck down and hid it around the bend under the trees. Perfection, home for the night. I set up my bed, ate some dinner and listened to the birds and animals as twilight fell. There was a bracing round of song from the local coyotes but nothing more from them for the rest of the night. I did hear the first log truck of the morning pull into the farm just up the road at 3:30am. Jeez.

This old thing again..

and once again for the cheap seats..

home for the night

I slept pretty well and packed up and headed back up to the big parking lot up top at Johnston Ridge. Because I had a NW forest pass I could get a free pass to park and hike for one person, otherwise it's $8 a piece. Ouch. I headed to hike out at 10am, which is when the visitor center with it's accommodating bathrooms opens, and had a few people in front of me on the trail. I built a bigger gap by dawdling to take pictures. In my opinion, there's nothing worse than having someone right behind you while you're trying to enjoy your hike, so I try to not do that to anyone else either. It was gorgeous, each turn and new hillside revealing an even more amazing view of the mountain, or wildflowers, and eventually Spirit Lake. I did an 8.5 mile out and back again hike along Truman trail, stopping at Harry's Ridge to climb up and look out over the lake. Truman's trail continues on for a full seven miles one way, but I was feeling pretty accomplished with my trek, and even as I turned back for my descent down Harry's Ridge, larger parties of hikers were coming up the trail. I knew my magic grace period of having the trail to myself was over, but I had really enjoyed it while I had it. 

 Hammond's flycatcher

 non-stop wildflower extravaganza

 golden-mantled ground squirrel

 Anna's hummingbird sampling some indian paintbrush nectar

 the dome of doom covered in sooty snow

 a Rufous hummingbird surveying his kingdom

 the only slightly sketchy part of the trail-if you're not good with heights, this could be a problem..

 donner lake lupine, low and sprawling with small almost succulent like leaves

 arctic lupine, thin leaves on taller stalks with blue to purple cup flowers in ascending cluster

orange mountain dandelion- agoseris aurantiaca keeping the bees happy

 no idea what these two are, if you do, please leave me a comment

 Spirit Lake

 Truman's trail as it continues along the ridge line

 Spirit Lake with Mt. Rainier off to the north

 northwestern garter snake pretending to be invisible while catching some sun

 edith's checkerspot (if I'm wrong, please correct me, my butterfly ID skills are hit or miss)

crazy log jam still remains in Spirit Lake from trees blown down in the 1980 eruption 

 another little dictator of nectar-Rufous hummingbird

 wildflowers and that volcano mountain thing I keep looking at

 onward or back..

 glaucous beardtongue

a stream running down through the hills behind Truman's trail, notice the change in the the volcanic soil as it reacts with the water; reminds me of the red clay all over the islands of Hawai'i.

the trilling song of a Dark-eyed junco 

Not a lot of bird variety along the trails, it was mostly a non-stop comic show between hummingbirds, both Rufous and Anna's. The amount of wildflower nectar available up there is probably obscene right now, but hummers are all about territory and I swear they expend more than half the energy they drink putting on a front and chasing each other around. There were some fledglings in the wooded areas and Oregon junco's, White-crowned sparrows and what I think was a Hammond's flycatcher. It was a beautiful and rewarding two days and I can't wait for my next Mount St. Helen's adventure. I'll keep you posted, and in the meantime, I'm headed up to Washington for eight days of new spots, truck camping and exploring. I only assume it will be amazing. Until we meet again, enjoy your summer and happy trails!

Friday, July 8, 2016

Hart Mountain to Sisters - Four days of Oregon nature nuttin'

Well, it's been an embarrassing amount of time since my last post, three and a half months to be exact. This is what happens when you're on the go outdoors three days a week and work forty hours over the other four. In fact, I'm suddenly unclear as to how I had the time to write the posts I did last year. This spring has also been a little more intense, as I committed to some Audubon Birdathon fundraising groups in May, as well as a cool half day Audubon trip to Scappoose and St. Helens to check out some new spots.

So lets see, late April and May were the busiest. I got my first kayak runs in of the year, with a day paddling the Smith and Bybee lakes, and water was actually high enough this year to make it over to Bybee. It helped that last year's beaver dam was dismantled in the channel too. Lots of immature eagles, Red-winged blackbirds, an egret roost, and a huge number of already full grown carp swimming in groups around me. The water was only a few feet deep in places, so this was a bit surreal. The Gilbert River out on Sauvie Island was higher than I've seen it in years, and subsequently, so was Sturgeon Lake. There are so many nooks off of the lake that I want to explore in the future, and fingers crossed, the colony of America White pelicans will return again this summer. I never get tired of watching them.

I hit up the coast, finally getting some decent pics of Tufted puffins at Cannon Beach and then managed to almost get scalped by a Caspian tern at Fort Stevens. Unfortunately, I missed the huge influx of shorebirds at Fort Stevens and Astoria in general because I had decided to head up to Gray's Harbor in Washington. It's really the luck of the draw; migrating shorebirds are always on the move looking for food, here one day, and gone the next. I had a decent haul of shorebirds on the surf side, but the usually bountiful Oyehut was barren of any shorebirds, and my only good bird there was a Peregrine falcon. Go figure.

I also got out to the desert for two days at Cottonwood Canyon. Not much going on, the usual suspects. I just always want to get out to the coast and the desert in rapid succession in the spring. It's like I'm touching base with the magical places, you know? And then I did a kayak/canoe Birdathon outing with the Audubon along the Columbia slough out towards Gresham. I've walked that path before but never put in there, so it was nice to know the area from the water. It was steadily drizzling, but we still managed to pull in 45 species in a few hours. My next trip was out to upper central Oregon with a van full of Birdathon crew for a full day of adventuring around the Deschutes River, Tygh Valley, Maupin, and the vicinity. Saw some lifebirds and got some new areas to add to my places to go back to. And had the added bonus of having birding buddy Jill at my side. I don't get to see enough of her as it is, so this was great! I've posted pictures from all of these trips on Flickr, so you can go click on that link and check them out, I think they start on the 2nd or third page after the most recent pictures. You can go "back to photostream" at top left of page, then scroll down to bottom of first page, and it gives you options to go to the next page, or any page.  

So that brings us up to date, and here it is, a week into July.  A cool mellow NW summer for the first time in five years. I couldn't be happier! The rain and flooded rivers of the spring of 2011 were becoming a hazy memory, and I had visions of Oregon slowly turning into Arizona.. Don't get me wrong, I love Arizona, but you know what I'm saying.. So my friend Jill had turned me on to the woodpecker madness that takes place in Sisters, and she had signed up for the ECAS annual trip which covered parts of Ochoco Forest, if I'm remembering correctly, Summer Lake and Sisters. There was also a Birdathon group with friends of mine headed to Sisters over Memorial Day weekend too, so I had Sisters on the brain. And after the September trip of last fall to Hart Mountain Antelope Refuge, I had a bee in my bonnet about getting down to that area in late spring when there was still water around for the birds, water in the Warner Wetlands, water in Summer Lake, water anywhere. 

So I invited Chris Strickland to head back out on a bird lurkin' trip, starting at Hart Mountain and working our way back up to Sisters. We got the days figured out and headed out Saturday June 11th. I hoped that not that many folks would be camped out at Hart Mountain, even though it was a weekend. It's a long, out of the way drive to get there. We turned down the same road at the hotsprings campground we had last time and found the last spot on the end free. That night we were treated to Mars burning brightly in the sky, and the crazy starscape that you see in the desert. Woke up and went over to hop in the second hot spring out in the field which we had somehow missed last time. Very nice and I prefer it to the built up one. A family of mule deer bounded past, and we watched some Northern harriers hunt. No pronghorn or bighorn sheep to be seen from the roads on the refuge, no coyotes or owls. I assume the animals we saw last fall were probably down lower because that was where the remaining watering holes were. They must still be up higher munching on green shoots and enjoying a wetter spring. You learn quickly that every place you visit also has four seasons which affect what you're seeing; this might seem obvious, but sometimes you forget it until you travel somewhere a couple times.

So, I'm going to try to be brief in regards to the rest of this post. As I said, first night was at Hart Mountain Hot Springs CG, and then we headed down to Warner Wetlands, which had some good flyover birds, but the actual wetlands were too far for my binocs, would have needed a good scope. 

 hot springs-Hart Mountain

 Mule deer-Hart Mountain

Yellow warbler and grub-Hart Mountain

 Chris scanning for hawks-Hart Mountain

 no idea what these are, but I love them

 different variation of same species

Loggerhead shrike-Warner wetlands 

 White-faced ibis-Warner wetlands

Forster's tern-Warner wetlands

We headed about two hours up to Summer Lake and camped out on the lake, to the delight of the swarms of mosquitos there. That place is freaking amazing for birds! I will absolutely be going back there next spring. 

walking path out to the lake 

Eared grebes

 Black-necked stilts

Tree swallow

 Long-billed curlew

Yellow-headed blackbird

 cliff and tree swallow madness

Great horned owl parent and fledgling

Great horned owl family

 Nighthawk feeding on the mosquito swarms

 Base camp at Summer Lake-home of the mosquito

 American white pelicans in breeding plumage with black head plumes and bill horns, va va voom!

 Black-crowned night heron

 Avocet telling us something important

 Avocet party!

 Franklin's gulls with spring hoods on

party of American White pelicans and Ring-billed gulls

Next morning, we headed north to Fort Rock to check out the cliffs and then drive on to the Cabin Lake bird blinds. Chris had been to the blinds before, but they had been improved since he was there, and were very cool. I will also be returning there, fricking amazing photos with birds ten feet away.

 three Sage thrashers welcoming us to Fort Rock

 Prairie Falcons soaring

 White-throated swift in awful lighting

hot pink desert succulent

 the Sphinx at Fort Rock

inside Fort Rock

 blurry Prairie falcon

 immature bald eagle

 loggerhead shrike on the road to the blinds

 chipping sparrow

 Western tanager

Purple finch

 Western tanager

Chipping sparrow

Clark's nutcracker 

 female Purple finch

 Least chipmunk

Green-tailed towhee-life bird!

 Purple finch

 Golden-mantled ground squirrel

 Western bluebird

Audubon's warbler 

 Clark's nutcracker vs. White-headed woodpecker for suet property rights

 calm after the storm

 Northern flicker

female Western tanager

Then we headed up to Sisters, to set up camp in the rain, and had a not very birdy walk in the woods at Calliope Crossing. Maybe we weren't in the right spot, this is always the risk you run when following online directions, but it also might have been the weather. Windy and cool with rain coming, so the birds might have just hunkered down. The next morning we prowled the campground to no avail, and then the roadside. Some luck with nuthatches and then we serendipitously ran into two ladies coming back from looking at the Three-toed woodpecker. This is the rarest of the Oregon 12 to see, so was cool to have the opportunity. They gave us their directions, which we proceeded to muck up, and eventually stood staring into what we thought was the right spot for almost an hour. And then it started snowing. Finally, I went off a ways to pee in the woods and noticed more pink ribbons farther off to the right. I grabbed Chris, and we followed them for about 50 yds before hearing the tell tale knock of a woodpecker. We came across a local birder and his insane lens who took us right to the Three-toed woodpecker nesting cavity. He told us where we had been looking was the site of a Hairy woodpecker's nesting site from last season. Wha wha.. It was very cool to see this life bird feeding it's young at it's nesting cavity. After that excitement, we drove into the woods looking for the fabled Bridge 99 burn, which we eventually found (I think), but no woodpeckers, only cavity holes. 

 Cold Creek campground

Cold Creek campground


 blurry Red-breasted nuthatch fledgling

blurry White-breasted nuthatch fledglings; was very confusing at the time as they were all traveling in a big swarm from pine to pine, I think I saw some Pygmy nuthatch fledglings too, but my pics are not the most helpful for definitive ID's.

 White-breasted nuthatch

 ECAS markers for a Hairy woodpecker nest site from last year; I won't lie, we got a little lost..

 Hairy woodpecker

blurry Three-toed woodpecker, note yellow forehead

 Three-toed woodpecker exiting the nest cavity

Red-breasted sapsucker; I tried to make this a hybrid with Red-naped but my pictures don't back me up, so you know..

 Bridge 99 burn, gorgeous view, but no woodpeckers at home

view from Bridge 99 burn

 juvenile Spotted towhee; thanks for helpful ID Laura W.!


Bridge 99 burn

Bridge 99 burn

Luck of the draw; we saw six woodpeckers total:  Hairy, Downy, Northern Flicker, White-Headed, Red-Breasted Sapsucker, and the Three-toed. I'll have to save the Black-backed for another time. I was also lucky enough to see my first Lewis' woodpecker on the full-day Birdathon trip thanks to Eric Scheuering, so this has been a great year so far! (not to mention a Tri-colored blackbird-another lifebird!)

Anyway, good trip all around, we only saw 86 confirmed species, but it's quality, not quantity, right? And going to check out new places, that's kind of my jam for this year. I have some pics I want to post from a recent trip to Mt. St. Helens, plan to get that going this weekend. Hope you all are having a fun and adventurous summer and getting out to smell the flowers. Much love, and happy trails.