The Cranes’ Journey

DSC_0880 - CopyI traveled to Othello, Washington, to witness the spring spectacle of thousands of Sandhill Cranes that gather in the area during migration. Their favorite spots are well known to their followers and I had a good birding book to guide me as well. So, I was lucky enough to find some cranes when I went looking for them.

I saw the first group as the sun was setting. On two sides of the road, cranes were munching in some stubbly fields. Their gray bodies almost disappeared against the gray-beige landscape.

The next morning I headed to the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge, where I hoped to see more cranes, but really went there to see the geological wonders of the region. The refuge is an incredible landscape of high desert, or shrub-steppe as it’s called, with numerous picturesque rocky cliffs. Basalt columns lord over the hills, with sagebrush dotting the parched land.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service maintains habitat for the cranes, keeping water levels low so that the birds have a safe place to roost. They prefer rather shallow ponds and lakes. A FWS staffer, who was set up at a refuge overlook with a scope on the birds, told me that cranes’ biggest predator is the coyote, and the birds will spend the night in the water, away from any access of predators. The cranes like to have an open view, and the surrounding area should be free of hiding places for predators, such as woods and shrubs. I appreciated the view from the scope, though it was hard to keep a focus with the high wind gusts. What a windy day!

The refuge also provides access to an overlook of the Drumheller Channels, part of the channeled scablands of eastern Washington. It’s hard to appreciate the amazing aspects of the area from the ground. I suspect the best views are from the air. But I was happy to see part of the area I had read about.

I left the refuge and drove on to find another area further south that my guidebook said was favored by cranes. The roads are laid out pretty much in grids and I was able to find the road easily. I began to see some cranes, so pulled over and parked. I saw only one other car further down. I watched as small groups of cranes circled around. There were a few others on the ground at a distance. I decided to hang out for a while, and eat my lunch there. The sun was out, though it was windy.

As I was finishing my sandwich, I looked to my right and happened to see a cloud of cranes. I leapt up, grabbed my camera and was out of the car. Birds were swirling around, with groups passing under others. They made abstract patterns against the sky. They flew left and they flew right. Some landed. Others kept coming in from the east. The trumpeting calls announced their arrivals. They sounded so joyous, like they were all coming to a great family reunion. “We’re here,” they seemed to shout. “We’re coming.” I watched the spectacle for about a half hour. There were only a couple other cars by then, and I considered myself lucky to be there at the right time. I don’t know how many cranes were gathering there, thousands I’m sure. I watched until the strings of birds finally seemed to end.

What a great sendoff for me. I was ready to head home now. After I returned, I did a little research and was saddened to learn that many states allow hunting of Sandhill Cranes. I thought it was illegal to hunt cranes. I know Whoopers are protected, but I assumed so were Sandhills. These magnificent birds should be appreciated alive, in the air, not as stuffed trophies. What kind of thrill can it be to shoot one of these graceful birds out of the sky and then admire the dead creature in hand? At least there are refuges and communities in which to see these magnificent birds.

At Columbia NWR. Can you find the cranes?
Cranes near Othello


Western Painted Turtle
Western Painted Turtle


Can you find the cranes?
Can you find the cranes?


Drumheller Channels
Drumheller Channels

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Here’s a good site to hear the crane’s calls:

The Picking of the Kale

March should be called “hump month.” It straddles winter and spring. It has a little of everything. Winter’s cold hand is still on our shoulders, but spring’s warm breath is in our nostrils.

But more than that, my kale lets me know that the season is changing over. It’s time to give last season’s crop the heave-ho and get ready for this season’s vegetable garden. All winter my kale provided me with enough leaves for dinner, whenever I wanted it.

Today I noticed that all my plants were starting to go to seed, so, time to pick it all! There was more than I thought. I started to pick the small, tender leaves and quickly realized I would have to make several trips to the kitchen to deposit my haul. I’ll leave the plants standing until I’m ready to till the garden. Perhaps the flowers will please some passing bees.

Kale flower


A Beautiful Puzzle

monkey8Monkey puzzle trees live here. The first one I saw after I moved here took me by surprise. I say that because the first monkey puzzle I ever saw was in Florida, decades ago. We were at my late uncle’s house and he pointed out the strange tree with deadly sharp needles and strange seed pods that stood on the side of his house. We didn’t know what it was, but me being an amateur naturalist, I was determined to find out.

I took a sample home to DC and brought it to the National Arboretum to be identified. Soon after, I received a packet in the mail, naming the specimen Araucaria araucana, commonly known as the monkey puzzle tree. I learned that It’s an evergreen native to Chile.

But my uncle’s tree was not nearly as large and grand as the monkey puzzles I’ve seen here in Seattle. What are so many doing here in sight of Puget Sound? As I drive around the city, my eye easily spots them, standing very tall and lovely in front yards. The arrangement of the lance-like needles around the branches gives it a distinct profile, similar to the way a gingko has a unique look. It must have been trendy at one time, to plant these exotic trees in such a place far from their native land.

No squirrel, bird or monkey, for that matter, could possibly perch on a monkey puzzle branch. Not without getting a sharp poke in the butt. And surely no monkey puzzle owner dares go barefoot where the tree grows. It’s not native, provides no shelter or food for wildlife, and is one big prickly hazard. Its only value can be decorative, which is completely acceptable. Seattleites are fierce native plant advocates, but we are also passionate gardeners, susceptible to the sirens of purely decorative specimens.

The monkey puzzles have claimed their place in the land of evergreens. I wonder whether, in turn, Chileans are enjoying exotic Douglas, Grand or Noble firs in their yards?

Monkey puzzle in Seattle


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Full Worm Moon

Mar2015It is said that the Algonquin tribes gave the March full moon this name. This is the time that the earth warms and softens and worms become active again.

Here in Seattle, this has been the case for some time now! I have seen many worms as I work in my garden. Birds are not the only ones who prize these slithering, wiggly treats. Our moles also live on worms. It’s hard to imagine that they gain much sustenance from creatures that are barely there.

These earthworms are actually non-native and invasive. But like the Eastern Gray Squirrel, they have become part of our landscape.

Eastern Washington has the Giant Palouse Earthworm, a pinkish-white, translucent worm that can grow up to a foot long. It’s rare and lives in the even rarer Palouse bunchgrass prairie ecosystem.

This full moon, let’s celebrate our native worm!

March springs forth

DSC_0600It’s hard to decide what to do on such a splendid day. Take a walk? Garden? Or just sit, bask, and breathe in deeply the warming air.

I decided to first take a walk in the ‘hood. Under a brilliant blue sky, gardens were blooming with purple and white crocuses, golden daffodils and forsythia, purple azaleas, pink cherry trees and an assortment of other early delights.

Then I let one of my cats out and tackled some light yard work. A bumble bee buzzed around and around like it was out of control and then landed on my abelia bush, where it soaked in the sun’s warmth.

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A Journey West, Part 2


I said goodbye to Zanesville and headed to Iowa, where I would visit my stepmom’s son David and his wife Ellen, who live on a small farm in Burlington. The weather was still spring-like when I arrived in the Hawkeye state. My mother was born in Davenport, just up the Mississippi River from Burlington, and I had visited several times when I was very young, but I had never been anywhere else in Iowa. My stepmom grew up in Burlington.

Life is so different in small midwestern cities. The whole economy is a world away from places like DC and Seattle. I saw some grand old homes, probably the most expensive in Burlington, and asked David how much one might cost. He replied about $150,000. What a bargain! I could buy two for what I would likely pay in Seattle.

My step-kin showed me the highlights of Burlington, which included Snake Alley, a narrow brick-paved, winding road that rivals Lombard Street in San Francisco. Snake Alley was designed by German immigrants and built in 1894. Iowa was settled by many Germans. My maternal ancestors came from Germany. I stood, with David and Ellen, on a hill overlooking the mighty Mississippi and the Great River Bridge, which links Burlington to Gulf Port, Illinois. It’s always impressive to see this river that is so intertwined with American culture.

I did something else I’d never done before: forage for morels. Ellen and David have a “secret” patch next to their house, and I was able to find a few of the delectable fungi to add to the bag. Then they showed me the tiny old cemetery across the road, which they voluntarily care for, cutting the grass and keeping it up. After a pleasant visit in Burlington, it was time to move on.

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Amana Colonies

Heading toward Colorado, I had a goal of picking up some states I had never been to. I planned to drive through Nebraska and pick up a corner of Kansas on the way. But first, I couldn’t resist stopping at the Amana Colonies, so detoured there for an hour or so. I had heard of this place but didn’t know too much about it. The area is a National Historic Landmark. The seven villages began with a familiar story of a religious people suffering persecution. This group fled Germany and came to the United States, settling first near Buffalo, NY. When they sought more farmland, they looked to Iowa. I’ll quote from

“In 1855 they arrived in Iowa … The leaders chose the name Amana from the Song of Solomon 4:8. Amana means to “remain true.” Six villages were established, a mile or two apart, across a river valley tract of some 26,000 acres – Amana, East Amana, West Amana, South Amana, High Amana and Middle Amana. The village of Homestead was added in 1861, giving the Colony access to the railroad … Residents received a home, medical care, meals, all household necessities, and schooling for their children. Property and resources were shared. Men and women were assigned jobs by their village council of brethren. No one received a wage. No one needed one …. Farming and the production of wool and calico supported the community, but village enterprises, everything from clock making to brewing, were vital; and well-crafted products became a hallmark of the Amanas … In 1932, amidst America’s Great Depression, Amana set aside its communal way of life. A ruinous farm market and changes in the rural economy contributed, but what finally propelled the change was a strong desire on the part of residents to maintain their community. By 1932, the communal way of life was seen as a barrier to achieving individual goals, so rather than leave or watch their children leave, they changed. They established the Amana Society, Inc. a profit-sharing corporation to manage the farmland, the mills and the larger enterprises. Private enterprise was encouraged. The Amana Church was maintained.”

I visited several buildings and found a hearty lunch before resuming my trip. I drove on to Nebraska and learned that it’s not all flat! There is some hilly country there. I passed by Omaha, the largest city in the state, settling in Lincoln for the night. The next morning I headed for Colorado, driving through Kansas first.

Amana Colonies
Amana Colonies