June Bug

It’s officially June! I found this ten-lined June bug, or June beetle, right next to my front door! That was really strange, because just minutes before I was singing a line from a Lucinda Williams song that goes “June bug versus the hurricane…”

I had only seen one of these beetles in my yard once before.

This large beetle is a member of the scarab family. The grubs live underground and feed on plant roots. the adults feed on plant foliage. There are several varieties of beetles called June bugs and they all look different. Another common one is a large green one.

I’m glad this attractive one came to visit. I discovered that they hiss!

A Pigeon by Any Other Name

We call them pigeons. Birders have called them rock doves. Apparently now, the powers that be in the bird world have declared them to be rock pigeons.

One of the most familiar birds worldwide, these chunky, multicolored birds have adapted so well that we can find them in cities and farm fields, in parks and on rocky cliffs. They are members of the Columbidae family, along with all other pigeons and doves.

Their natural diet includes seeds and fruits, but they’re excellent scavengers, loitering in places where people gather and tend to drop morsels that can be snatched. They are equally creative in using various spaces for their nests.
Pigeon skills in navigation and homing proved valuable during World Wars I and II, when they were used by the U.S. Army Signal Corps to carry messages.

Numbers Declining

Though pigeons seem ubiquitous, the North American Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) estimates that the population has declined by almost 50 percent since 1966. The survey is a long-term, large-scale cooperative effort of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and the Canadian Wildlife Service.

The program began in 1966, led by Chandler Robbins, a researcher at Patuxent and good friend of Rachel Carson, who penned the landmark book Silent Spring. Her book alerted the world to the effects of pesticides on bird populations, but was considered quite controversial when it was published. Robbins died in 2017, just short of his 99th birthday. He was a renowned ornithologist and often birded with Carson. You can read more about them at http://www.rachelcarson.org/mChanRobbins.aspx

The BBS continues to be an important tool in avian research and the formation of conservation programs.

The global population of pigeons is estimated at 120 million and though declining in North America, they are not currently a species of concern.

Watching pigeon behavior can be a fun past time. Recently while waiting at a bus stop in downtown Seattle, I watched a group of them ambling about. It’s fun to make your own narrative of what’s going on.

Forming a strategy
Gone to the dark side
Walking the line
Going their separate ways

On Volcanoes

Since I moved to the Pacific Northwest 11 years ago, volcanoes and earthquakes have become part of my consciousness. Not a very loud part, more of vague background noise, but always there nonetheless.

Mount Rainier

I live two hours from Mount Rainier, and three from Mount St. Helens, but their presence looms as a constant reminder of the earth’s capacity for fiery temper tantrums. We also have major oceanic plates that are subject to slipping, providing constant earthquake potential.

According to scientists, whom you may or may not trust at this point, the earth is made up of plates, which occasionally move around. This causes inconvenient episodes in human life, such as earthquakes and tsunamis. In geology class, I learned about the process of subduction, when one plate rides over and pushes down another. In my region, the Juan de Fuca Plate is subducting under the North American Plate, in the Cascadia subduction zone. Cool! I get to live in a subduction zone.

But, despite all of this, people here go about their lives without much thought to the potential catastrophes ever present, much like the residents of Hawaii, who dare to live on a dry rocky landscape that once flowed unimaginably hot from the center of the earth.

The Hawaiian islands were formed by lava spewing up, building, building, building, until there were blobs of land where there were none before. And the residents there are no different from those of my region. They are aware of the dangers, but decide that they can live with them. Nature’s beauty and all the other reasons we choose to live where we do outweigh the seemingly distant dangers.

In light of the current eruptions of Kilauea, I wanted to revisit my experiences on Hawaii, Maui and at Mount St. Helens.

Kilauea

When I visited the Big Island in 2011, half of Volcanoes National Park was closed to visitors because of toxic fumes. Though there were no swaths of red-orange glowing lava flowing at that time, sulfur dioxide is constantly being released from fissures in the earth and can be become concentrated at dangerous levels. I got a mild whiff of it and it’s not pleasant.

Today, it seems that Pele is reasserting her authority. Pele is the revered goddess, the creator of the island. People leave tributes of leaves and flowers to her at the volcano and other places.

All over half the island, you can see vast fields of blackish boulders and debris from old lava flows. Near the water, the cooled lava shows intriguing swirls and shapes.

Old lava flows seen in the ocean

 

Volcanoes National Park

Tree hole, where lava surrounded and incinerated a tree

Haleakala

On Maui, the House of the Sun, aka Haleakala, is a major attraction. At 10,000 feet, the volcano dominates the island, providing a cool, arid counter to the warm, moist palm tree-laden lowlands. I visited in February this year.

As you drive into the Upcountry region, you climb slowly and steadily, until you enter a completely different landscape. Vegetation becomes sparse and close to the earth. A rocky crust of lava covers the area. Black boulders and reddish dirt begin to appear. Finally, at the summit, there is a spectrum of red, brown and gray. Known as a shield volcano, Haleakala is thought to have last erupted in the 17th century.

Haleakala is actually a caldera, a large depression left by an erupting volcano. It is a collection of mounds and craters. The unique and beautiful Maui subspecies of silversword grows there, and there is an observatory at the top. All the white stuff in my photos are clouds, not steam.

On Volcanoes, Part 2 continues with Mount St. Helens

 

A Forest Gem

Doesn’t it always happen this way? You never find something when you’re looking for it, and then, when you’re not looking for it at all, you stumble across it!

That’s what happened today as I was walking through a park, searching for raptor nests. I spied a possible nest cavity in a snag and made my way along a muddy path to the bottom of the tree. Suddenly, I saw two trillium plants.

What a happy sight! Native western trillium in bloom! This spot was remote enough, though seemingly used by transients, that it might survive as a trillium refuge. I had searched another area unsuccessfully, where I had seen the flowers several years ago. I’m happy that there are still some in the heavily used park.

May they persist!

Brother Sun Sister Moon

Scenes like this always bring to mind the phrase Brother Sun Sister Moon, which happens to be the title of a 70s film about Saint Francis of Assisi by Franco Zeffirelli.

This morning’s sunrise blazes in the east, while the full moon bids farewell in the western sky.

Otherworldly Trona Pinnacles

If Trona Pinnacles looks like something out of a sci-fi flick, that’s because it has indeed served as a backdrop for several movies. You might have heard of some of these: Star Wars, Star Trek V, Battlestar Galactica, Planet of the Apes.

First Impressions

I first drove to the Pinnacles in 2005, during a visit to Death Valley National Park. I had set aside part of one day to make the drive to the somewhat remote area managed by the Bureau of Land Management. But it took more than an hour to get there, and I had made arrangements for an afternoon horseback ride at Furnace Creek, back in Death Valley. By the time I got to the Pinnacles, I had about a half hour to spend there if I wanted to make my ride. I peered at the Pinnacles from a plateau that overlooked what I thought was a rather limited formation. There was a steep-looking road down to the Pinnacles, but I “there’s no way I’m driving down there,” I decided. I quickly snapped some photos from the parking area and sped back to Furnace Creek.

First visit

There would be a return trip in my future.

A Closer Look

It wasn’t until January 2017 that I made it back to Trona. I had planned to spend unlimited time there, doing lots of photography and some hiking. I lucked out with a dry day. This time I had rented an SUV, so I had high clearance, though a car could make it.

I drove south through Trona, and spotted the Pinnacles, rising like the Emerald City out of the desert. I arrived at the turnoff for the Pinnacles about 10 miles later. At the corner there are some interpretive signs about the human and geological history of the area.

I lingered there, reading and then taking some photos of the landscape and trains resting on the tracks. There were some cool cloud formations that also caught my eye.

Lenticular

Spaceships landing?

 

Rain pond

The five-mile dirt road to the landmark had received recent rains, so it wasn’t as sandy as I remembered. When I arrived at the plateau that overlooks the monument, I realized the drive down the hill to the Pinnacles didn’t look so bad, and saw other vehicles, including a huge RV, down below. How the heck did that RV make it down the steep drive, I wondered. You have to realize that the Pinnacles lie in a basin. To really experience them, you need to get down there. The drive down the gravelly slope was so easy, I felt silly.

And then, I had my real surprise! Trona Pinnacles is expansive! You can’t even see all of it from the plateau. Narrow dirt paths snake around more than 500 formations. I had no idea how much I missed on my previous visit.

Towers and Dumpy Cones

Like their cousins at Mono Lake, the pinnacles are tufa formations, which are primarily calcium carbonate.

Close up of tufa

At Trona, they’re distinguished by age, elevation and shape. The northern, middle and southern groups were formed by different ice ages.

The shapes range from towers and tombstones, to ridges and cones. Towers are the tallest, rising 30-40 feet, while tombstones are “stubby and squat,” rising 20-30 feet.

Ridges are “massive, toothy runs” that can be seen in the northern and middle groups.

Finally, cones are the smallest, reaching only about 10 feet high, and they are “dumpy and mounded.”

On my visit, I concentrated on the tallest and most interesting formations, which turned out to be among the northern and middle groups.

The sun was out; there were some spectacular clouds to add depth to the scenes. The only problem was the WIND. This was my fourth trip to Death Valley and never before had I experienced such winds. I was not going to abandon my photography plans, so I soldiered on.

Each time I got out of the car, I had to fight hurricane-like gusts. I was afraid the wind would snap off the car door! I had to use all my strength to close the door. It goes without saying that any hiking was out of the question.

During my visit, I saw only a couple other cars, and I suspect it’s not heavily visited.

A Wealth of Minerals

You can spend as much time as you like at Trona Pinnacles. It’s fairly easy to access, unfenced and free of fees.

Don’t expect much from the town of Trona, beyond a convenience store and gas, if you need it. With a population of about 1,900, it’s a sad little “blink and you miss it” hamlet that is centered on the mining activity in dry Lake Searles. The name of the town comes from the abundant mineral trona, one of many extracted by Searles Valley Minerals. Lake Searles once held water, eons ago, but as it slowly evaporated, the water left behind many minerals. In the 1800s, the dry lake became the scene of many mining operations. First, there was borax, famously being carted out by 20-mule teams. Later there was an Epsom salt operation, and now, a multitude of minerals is produced, including salt, borax, boric acid, and halite.

The natural landmark lies in Searles Valley, just south of Panamint Valley, and isn’t far from Naval Air Warfare Center China Lake. It’s also within the California Desert National Conservation Area.

It’s a strangely captivating place.