Hiking the Columbia Gorge

Columbia River and Freight Train

I had the privilege of hiking two different trails while visiting the Pacific Northwest’s Columbia Gorge recently. The trails were on opposite sides of the Columbia River, in two different states.

 

Bridge of the Gods over the Columbia River

On the north shore of the river is the state of Washington, the south side is Oregon.

 

With the helpful emails and posts of fellow blogger and PNW hiker John Carr, both hikes were awesome, and the book he suggested, Northwest Oregon by William L. Sullivan, was great. His website, johncarroutdoors.com, is dedicated primarily to PNW hikes.

 

The first day, Athena and I hiked the Falls Creek Falls trail in Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington, named after the first Chief of the United States Forest  Service. This trail was enchanting due to dynamic Falls Creek that was present every step of the way. Sometimes the waters expressed a calm chattering, other times, passionately raging.

 

Two exquisite footbridges aided us as we traversed the trail.

 

Suspension Footbridge, Falls Creek Falls Trail

After marveling at the footbridge engineering and enjoying  many unfamiliar plants along the way, we hiked further and discovered the old-growth trees.

 

We were awed by towering moss-covered rock walls and magnificent old-growth Douglas fir trees.

Rock Wall, Falls Creek Falls Trail

 

Athena demonstrating the size of the old-growth Douglas Fir tree

I always enjoy hiking on familiar trails, observing each new season with appreciation, and warmly greeting the trees, plants, and wildlife as the old friends they are.

 

But it’s also really fun to be in a completely new forest, especially when it is a winner. Each turn of the path yields a new surprise…mystery and adventure.

 

As we continued along the trail, the sound of the water gradually increased until it was so loud we could no longer hear each other speak…and then, through the trees, we were astounded to see the crashing waters high above us.

Falls Creek Falls, Washington

The guidebook’s author described the waterfall perfectly: “The 3-tiered cascade starts with a hidden 50-foot falls, spreads across a 70-foot fan, and finally thunders 80 feet into a rock punchbowl.”

Falls Creek Falls

We had lunch at the waterfall, and headed back, completely satisfied and happy for the magic we had experienced.

 

The other hike occurred a day later in Mount Hood National Forest in Oregon. The High Prairie Trail on Lookout Mountain.

 

As we ascended, we came upon a few meadows, like this one. Although is was late August, there were still wildflowers.

Meadow, Mount Hood National Forest

 

As we continued, we were rewarded with breathtaking views of the Cascade Mountains and the Columbia River Plateau.

Mount Hood and Columbia River Plateau

That day it was 90 degrees F. (32 C.), so we stopped a few times in the ascent, finding rocks to sit on and marveling at the quiet magnificence.

 

More surprises prevailed as the close-up views of Mount Hood just kept getting better and better.

 

Mount Hood, Oregon

There is no place in the world like the Pacific Northwest with its endless waterfalls, gorgeous trails, and sweeping mountain vistas.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

 

Columbia River Gorge

Post Card from Space

NASA space suit, Kennedy Space Center

I’m not really in space, but after a day immersed in a NASA facility, I can say it won’t be long before humans will be sending digital post cards to their Earthling loved ones from space.

 

This week I visited the Kennedy Space Center on the Atlantic coast of Florida near Cape Canaveral. I am looking forward to sharing with you the marvels of the center, as well as the man-made miracles of space travel.

 

For now, I’m visiting with family, enjoying boat rides, beach walks and bird walks, laughter and good times.

 

I had forgotten the Atlantic coast’s long, distinctive flat stretches of white sand beaches and warm water. I’m more accustomed to the lovely Pacific beaches with craggy coastlines and water so cold it numbs your feet.

 

We have seen alligators and a manatee, plenty of marsh wading birds. The sharp call of a blue  jay, a familiar sound I grew up with but never hear in California, greets me every morning.

 

Sending best wishes for sweet moments this weekend….

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photo by Athena Alexander.

 

Winged Creatures of Trinidad

 

Purple Honeycreeper (male), Trinidad

Trinidad is not the most popular island in the Caribbean. Many people have never even heard of it. But for those of us who embrace the glory of the natural rainforest and all the creatures who live in it, it is a paradise.

 

Here are some of my favorite winged creatures, found while spending a week on this small island eight miles (12 km) off the Venezuela coast. Trinidad Wikipedia.

 

A visit to the Caroni Swamp yielded many thousands of scarlet ibis. They flock to this protected swamp at night to roost. We sat in a boat and waited for them as the sun set.

Scarlet Ibis, Caroni Swamp, Trinidad

Red mangroves

Caroni Swamp, Trinidad

 

In the rainforest, nectar-drinking birds like hummingbirds and honeycreepers were plentiful.

Asa Wright Nature Centre

Tufted Coquette hummingbird, male, Trinidad

 

Green Honeycreeper, male, Trinidad

 

We were fortunate to see the rare oilbirds. There are only a few places left in the world where these nocturnal birds can still be found. They use echolocation, or sound reverberation, for navigating — a system that bats use, but not usually birds.

 

We hiked to a specific protected cave, escorted by a guide, and because they are so skittish, we were allowed only a few minutes to peer into the darkness for them.

 

They squeal like pigs and are large, hawk-size birds.

Oilbirds, Dunston Cave, Trinidad

 

Bats were also abundant in the Trinidad rainforest. One day in the middle of the day when the sun was brightest, a white bat came fluttering down the trail, pretty close to our heads. Athena and I had gotten lost in the forest, I think we had surprised the bat…as much as a white bat in the daytime surprised us.  It’s whiteness lent the essence of a ghost.

 

But it was every evening when we saw bats in abundance. We stayed at the Asa Wright Nature Centre, where wildlife are protected and celebrated. We found a crevice under the lodge where 100+ long-tongued bats came flocking out every night.

Pallas’ long-tongued bat, Trinidad

 

Long-tongued bats, Asa Wright Centre, Trinidad

 

Typical of the tropics, many species of flycatchers, trogons, and tanagers greeted us daily.

Silver-beaked Tanager, Trinidad

 

The bearded bellbird was difficult to spot in the rainforest, despite the loud croaking sound it made all day long.

Bearded Bellbird, singing; Trinidad

 

Numerous species of hawks were present. This white hawk was hunting beside the trail.

White Hawk, Trinidad

 

The jacamar was a thrill to find, a small and colorful bird about the size of a hummingbird.

Rufous-tailed Jacamar

 

There are over 400 species of birds on this one little island; and approximately 100 indigenous mammal species, with bats accounting for over half of the mammals.

 

I’m glad you could join me in this glimpse of their tropical world.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Scarlet ibis roosting, Caroni Swamp, Trinidad

Islands in the Caribbean Sea. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

 

 

Wine Country Autumn

Wine grapes

In Northern California it is early autumn and it is unfolding beautifully. We are experiencing cool nights in the 40s F. (4 C.), occasionally in the 30s (-1 C.). Days are warm when the sun shines…and it almost always does. About 75 F. (23 C.).

 

One of the biggest events right now is the grape harvest. Wine grapes are harvested at different times, depending on many things; but many are picked in the early fall before the rainy season arrives.

 

Large trucks labor up and down the small highways bearing big open boxes of grapes. Most of us have spent our share of time patiently sitting behind these slow-moving trucks on impassable roads. I use that time to look at the sun glistening on each purple jewel.

Bewick’s Wren on grape vine, California

The wine harvest attracts many visitors to the area, lured by the slick marketing of vineyards with their festive “stomps”, release parties, and energized tours. I drove through Napa County yesterday and counted six hot air balloons languidly suspended overhead, another popular tourist draw in autumn.

 

Every weekend there are animated harvest celebrations going on with gourmet food, live music, and free-flowing wine.

 

Other harvesting that goes on here, to a far lesser extent, are apples and pumpkins. I also see persimmons and figs on trees.

 

Persimmons on tree, California

Local Farmer’s markets have tables piled high with colorful peppers of all kinds, table grapes, heirloom tomatoes, and plums. The waning summer harvests are still yielding green beans, zucchini, cherry tomatoes, eggplants. Squash are coming out now, too.

 

Squash

 

We have had two short rains recently, so the autumn dry grass is not quite as intimidating as in past years. The anniversary of the raging 2017 wildfires is next week, and we are frequently reminded that we’ve now entered “Fire Season.” We hope for rain and work on ways to protect our families and homes.

 

Wildlife is shifting at this time of year, with the bird migration underway. A few species are coming in to settle here for the winter, and more will arrive as the temperatures up north cool.

 

I await the arrival of the sandhill cranes, due in about a month, if we get rain.

 

Sandhill cranes with red-winged blackbirds

 

Other birds like hawks and warblers are passing through from the northern parts of the continent as they travel to their summer homes in Mexico, Central and South America.

 

I’ve seen numerous flocks of swifts and waxwings in the past few days.

Healdsburg chimney and Vaux’s swifts

 

Cedar Waxwing

 

Due to the hot days, the reptiles can still be seen during the day when it’s warm. I saw a snake track on my morning walk yesterday, and was reminded of the thick rattlesnake I almost stepped on recently on the same path.

 

Lizards skitter as always in the heat, but now there are many little ones, smaller than my pinkie.

 

Chipmunks, squirrels, and jays are busy burying acorns, and woodpeckers are boisterous and frequent in the oaks. Several acorns fell out of the blue oaks above me this morning, acorn woodpeckers are on the move.

 

Tall grass is blonde and beautiful. The soil is so dry it is powder. Deciduous trees are starting to lose their leaves.

 

Other than the scent of dry vegetation, the distinct and common smell of vinegar is in the air. As the grapes are being picked and processed, the smell of freshly crushed grapes and fermentation are pungent. You can smell it everywhere in the valleys.

 

Both the big wineries and the small boutique wineries are bustling. Residents who grow and make their own wine have purple-stained fingers. This is a small grape press of a neighbor’s.

 

Grape Press with sides removed

 

I breathe in the smell of “the crush” with great reverence, and fervently hope we will be spared the wildfires this year.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Blue-colored Friends

Ulysses Butterflies on Lantana, Australia. Photo: A. Alexander

If any of my friends in the Northern Hemisphere are feeling a little blue about the waning of summer, here is a panoply of blue wildlife to uplift your spirits.

 

Blue-gray Tanager, Peru

 

Blue-footed Booby, Galapagos. Photo: A. Alexander

 

Violet-crowned Woodnymph, Costa Rica. Photo: A. Alexander

 

Though there are many birds with blue, there are also insects and reptiles, and even a monkey.

 

Bluet Damselfly, Nevada. Photo: A. Alexander

 

Butterfly, Ecuador. Photo: A. Alexander

 

Western fence lizards have a bright blue belly.

Western Fence Lizard, California. Photo: A. Alexander

 

This skink we see in California has a dazzling tail.

 

Skink, California

 

The blue monkey. Not as blue as some of its fellow blue-named creatures, but a beauty nonetheless.

Blue Monkey, Lake Manyara, Tanzania, Africa

 

Birds this blue sometimes blend into the greenery; but I have spotted them from far across an opposite ridge…gasping from behind my binoculars, such stunning beauty.

 

Blue Dacnis, Peru. Photo by B. Page

 

We found these blue-headed parrots at a river bank in the Amazon. They were busy extracting minerals from the clay soil.

 

Blue-headed Parrots, Peru. Photo: A. Alexander

 

The color blue is a bit complicated when it comes to nature. Peacock feathers, for example, are actually pigmented brown, but their microscopic structure, through light reflection, expresses blues and greens.

 

Indian Peacock, Texas. Photo: A. Alexander

 

Birdnote.org explains it well:

“Unlike many other bird colors, blue is not a pigment but a color produced by the structure of the feathers. Tiny air pockets and melanin pigment crystals in each feather scatter blue light and absorb the other wavelengths. The even finer structure of the feather gathers the bouncing blue wavelengths together and directs them outward.”

 

I think the blue feathers on this Glossy Starling take scattering and bouncing blue wavelengths to a new high.

Greater Blue-eared Glossy Starling, Africa

 

I’ve noticed some birds sporting blue always seem to be bright, like these two tanager species…

 

Blue-necked Tanager, Peru

 

Blue-winged Mountain Tanager, Ecuador. Photo: A. Alexander

 

… whereas other blue-pigmented birds can sometimes look gray or black, depending on the light.

Little Blue Heron, Belize

 

Mountain Bluebird, Wyoming

 

Great Blue Heron, Ding Darling, Florida

 

These blue-footed boobies are performing a mating dance. The blue pigmentation in their feet comes from carotenoids in their fresh fish diet. The bluer the feet, the more healthy the bird.

 

Blue-footed Boobies, Galapagos Islands. Photo: A. Alexander

 

A few more of my blue favorites.

Belted Kingfisher, California

 

Green Honeycreeper, male, Trinidad (called a Green Honeycreeper, but more like turquoise)

 

Azure Kingfisher, Australia

 

Turquoise Jay, Ecuador. Photo: A. Alexander

 

Southern Cassowary, Queensland, Australia. Photo: A. Alexander

 

How wonderful to have all these blues in the world–so much pigmentation or light or wavelengths or whatever…to celebrate.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted.

 

Western Bluebird, California

 

Point Reyes

Point Reyes, Tomales Point, Pacific Ocean side

 

Tule elks (male), Point Reyes

 

Pt. Reyes from Tomales Point Trail. McClure’s Beach.

 

About a two-hour drive north of San Francisco is an expansive park called Point Reyes. Geologically it is a large cape that extends off the Pacific coast. Technically it is Point Reyes National Seashore…locals call it Point Reyes.

 

It is an entire peninsula with ocean coastline, beaches, and dunes; rolling hills; forests; dairy ranches; hiking trails and more. The land area is 70,000 acres (283 sq. km). It is my favorite of all places to hike in Northern California.

 

Point Reyes Wikipedia

 

Point Reyes is home to 490 bird species, 40 species of land animals, and a dozen species of marine mammals. Pods of California gray whale migrate through here. Two resident mammal species nearly went extinct: tule elk and elephant seals.

 

A breeding colony of elephant seals can be seen from December through March.

 

Elephant Seals on the beach, Point Reyes near Chimney Rock

 

The coast is rocky and often foggy, typical of Northern California, and this peninsula juts ten miles into the ocean…so far that it is notorious for hundreds of shipwrecks.  See map below.

 

Sir Francis Drake’s ship is said to have hit damaging rocks here in 1579. The crew hauled The Golden Hinde up to the beach for repairs.

 

Centuries later, but in the same general vicinity, we came upon this tiny cemetery in a grove of eucalyptus trees. Experienced life-savers succumbed to treacherous waves while helping passengers of shipwrecked boats.

 

Life-saver Cemetery, Pt. Reyes, California

 

Today the Coast Guard cruises overhead, maintaining public safety.

 

Coast Guard helicopter at Point Reyes

 

On the craggy mountain ridges overlooking the Pacific Ocean, tule elk herds graze on protected land.

Tule elk male, Pt. Reyes, California

 

Hikers share the trails with elk herds. Sometimes when the fog is very thick you can hear their impressive bugling without actually seeing an animal. The first time this happened I was nervous, didn’t like not knowing where they were. But now when I’m there I hope for it, I like the mystery.

 

Point Reyes Tule Elk

 

At this time of year, late summer, the grass has turned brittle and brown. Wild amaryllis flowers, common name “naked ladies,” can be seen clumped in the grass. They have a heady fragrance–sweet, like bubble gum.

 

Wild Amaryllis, aka Naked Ladies

 

While hiking along the grassy trails to Abbotts Lagoon, we came upon California quail, brush rabbits, and many sparrows.

Abbotts Lagoon, Point Reyes

 

California Quail (male) in lupine

 

Last summer’s visit yielded a coyote.

 

Coyote, Point Reyes, California

 

Every spring we find nesting swallows.

 

Barn Swallow nestlings, Point Reyes

 

One summer a few years ago, Athena and I decided to go out after dark in search of a rare owl known to live here, the spotted owl.

 

We knew the trail well enough that we walked without light. Our reasoning for walking in the pitch black dark–which in retrospect doesn’t seem quite so wise–was that we would come upon the owl and hear it, without it being frightened by us. Once we located its hoot, we could use the light to see it.

 

But as we tripped along the trail, we heard the unmistakable breathing of a big mammal…very near. When we switched on the light, we came face-to-face with a really big buck.

 

We were all three very startled.

 

We backed off, gave him some room, and he continued to graze. We never did hear or see the owl.

 

I could fill a book with the outdoor adventures we have had in our 30 years exploring Point Reyes. You may know that feeling: when you realize you have spent most of your life in a place…and loved every minute.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander.

Header photo, also Point Reyes: Tomales Bay. You would never guess that below Tomales Bay lies the San Andreas Fault.

 

Point Reyes, California. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

North American Prairies

Prairie meadow with black-eyed Susan wildflowers, Wisconsin

Pronghorn, California

Bison, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming

The prairies of North America, unique to the continent’s central region, have intrigued and enlightened residents for centuries. Born and raised in America’s prairies, I continue to take great pleasure in our grassland expanses.

 

The history of the continent’s grasslands has been interesting, you can read about it below in the two links. Today we are in the fortunate period of a resurgence of prairie restoration.

 

Carrizo Plains, California

 

Red-winged blackbird, Horicon Marsh, WI

 

With the experience of previous generations, we have discovered that natural ecosystems, like grasslands, provide profound balance and abundant sustainable activity.

 

Prairie Ecology and History

 

Prairie Wikipedia

 

The deep roots of the grasses absorb rain and nutrients, preventing erosion and run-off. The grassland absorption of nutrients and minerals creates rich soil and productive farming. The grasses and forbs also capture carbon, an important process with the current threat of global warming.

 

Pawnee Grasslands, Colorado

 

Not all prairies are the same; some are wet, some are dry. The grasses are not all the same, either: tall, short, or a mixture of the two, depending on precipitation.

 

Colorado

 

In addition to the Great Plains of North America in the center of the continent, there are also prairie habitats in several parts of the U.S. and southern Canada. See map below.

 

Savannah habitats can include shallow waterways like marshes or vernal pools; some have occasional buttes. Trees are typically rare, except for what might grow alongside rivers.

 

With the absence of trees and mountain formations, unobstructed gale-force winds are common.

 

If you’ve ever been in grassland regions, you know about the storms. Sometimes they are glorious. Purple-black clouds roil for hours until at last the skies ominously open, bringing rain that actually smells sweet. Dramatic lightning and booming thunder.

 

Sometimes, admittedly, it’s not so glorious…it’s terrifying. This is where tornadoes occur.

 

Impending Storm on the Pawnee Grasslands

 

Wildlife in the prairies are dependent on open expanses, grasses and forbs. Grazers like bison, pronghorn antelope, deer, and elk live here.

Pronghorn, male, California

Tule elk male, Pt. Reyes, California

 

Insects here are grasshoppers, moths, beetles, and butterflies. Small mammals like rodents, reptiles, and prairie dogs occupy this habitat. Jackrabbits and coyote too.

 

Prairie Dog, Colorado

 

The vast open plains are also home to many bird species: raptors and burrowing owls, seed-eating birds, field birds like bobwhites and quail.

 

California Quail

In addition, large migrating bird populations pass through the continent’s grassland habitats.

 

Sandhill Cranes near Cosumnes River Preserve, CA

 

One spring we went to a prairie preserve in Texas in search of the rare prairie chickens native to these grasslands. We were unable to find the prairie chickens, they are now extremely rare, but we were treated to many prairie sights.

Texas

Several male dickcissels, seed-eating songbirds who occupy the prairie grasses, made their way to the top of the grass to vie for female partners.

Prairie Dickcissel, Attwater Preserve, Texas

Many plains and prairies show a vibrant display of wildflowers every spring. With the huge expanse of wildflowers brings the pollinating bees.

Texas prairie wildflowers

Western Meadowlark, Carrizo Plains, California

 

We tend to visit oceans, coasts, mountains, or cities when we travel, and the Plains (the word means ordinary) are not attractive to many folks.

 

But I love the flat grasslands redolent with sweet-smelling grasses and fresh air. Skies are open, grass is golden. Bison and elk graze without concern, meadow birds rest on fence posts or disappear in the tall grass.

 

Thanks for joining me.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

For early American prairie experiences, read Willa Cather. 

 

Bison Bull, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming

 

Image result for north american prairie map

North American Prairie Map. Courtesy rediscovertheprairie.org.