Monday, June 29, 2009

What did they do?

We had our monthly canyon walk at Lunada Canyon on Saturday and were shocked to find the canyon in a devastated condition. At first it looked like someone had come in with a weed-whacker and just indiscriminately hacked away at the plants along the path, but on one side of the path only. Last time I saw the canyon, I had remarked that they were having problems with the weeds overtaking the path to the point that the path was obliterated and people were making their own paths up and down the cliff side.

But even a weed whacker doesn't strip a plant of its greenery, leaving only the stems behind as happened with this Lemonadeberry (Rhus integrifolia). Other natives that had been planted on the right side of the path in the top photo included California Sagebrush (Artemisia californica) and California Fuchsia (Epilobium canum) which would normally bloom in August with bright red trumpet-shaped flowers. The Lemonadeberry will probably survive, it is a very tough plant, but the others will not.

This used to be a stand of Giant Rye Grass (Leymus condensatus). You'll have to take my word for it. It should be seeding now. Gone. But they left the trash.

Saddest of all was the condition of this large Coyote Bush (Baccharis pilularis) which had been turned from the lush green in the photo above (taken in June of 2007) to this:

The Coyote Bush is green all year and also starts blooming in August. It is a favorite of beetles and bees. Other wildlife will be affected. Lizards were running around more than usual. They had no place to hide. It reminded me of when I get my trees trimmed and the birds get all upset.

On the right side of the lower path, plants were in better condition including this Ashyleaf Buckwheat (Eriogonum cinereum) and the California Buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum), both of which were blooming profusely. But the Bladderpod, Sticky Monkeyflower, and my favorite, the Bush Lupine were either gone or almost dead.

We found little brown pellets everywhere and even noted that the pellets started and stopped where the devastation had occurred. In fact, one of us slipped and fell on the pellets laying all over the drive at the entrance to the canyon. We were at a loss to explain all of this.

When I got home, I got a call from my sister and I told her about the walk and the condition of the plants. She lives in Connecticut and said that back there, deer will eat all the leaves of a plant and leave the stems. Then I remembered two things. A couple of years ago, at the cemetery where my DDH is buried, I saw a herd of goats that had been set free on the undeveloped land that was soon going to be put to use. I also remembered a remark one of the nearby residents had made to us as we started our walk at the canyon Saturday morning, "Well, at least it's better than goats in the canyon." I hadn't a clue to what she was referring at the time. But as I scanned my photos at home yesterday, suddenly the light when on and I knew what had happened in the canyon. The
PV Land Conservancy must have hired a herd of goats to come in and clear the weeds from the hillsides. They could have used portable fences to keep the goats on one side of the path, leaving the other untouched. I haven't received confirmation yet, but it's the one explanation that fits.

Aargh! Whose idea was that? Goats wreak havoc and make things worse than before. For one thing they leave the roots of all the plants and weeds, so the opportunistic non-natives can come back with a vengeance. And for another, their droppings spread the weeds and add new ones to the mix. Goat feed normally consists of corn, oats, wheat, molasses, and who knows what.

I'll be waiting to hear the official explanation of what happened and why. I'll also be waiting to see what they do next to restore the canyon. Is this the way they started? Hired goats, whacked the weeds to the ground but left the roots? And then planted natives in the hopes they would take over? If I were one of the many volunteers who planted the native plants four or five years ago, I'd be very reluctant to do so again. This whole process may just recycle over and over.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Forest Fire Control

We did a lot of other things while at the Grand Canyon besides staring into the great abyss and wondering how it could possibly have gotten there. One day we decided to get off the beaten track and drove up a dirt road stopping to take pictures of wildflowers along the way. Soon we noticed that controlled burns were taking place along this road.

There were small fires everywhere but no sign of the workmen who started them and we wondered how they could keep the flames from getting out of hand. Then we noticed that they were burning neat little circles under every tree, essentially eliminating the brush under the trees that might cause the whole tree to burn if there were a large fire.

Finally we came upon this structure called Grandview Lookout. It's a fire tower. We were invited to "come on up" as long as there were only four people in our party. Well, my DIL has a fear of heights and so she declined and I wasn't too sure myself that I wanted to climb up this thing. It had been very windy during our entire stay at the canyon and this day was no exception. But at my son's urging, I decided to go ahead and do it, telling myself to look up, not down. Nick joined us.

We climbed very slowly and carefully. At the top, we went through a trap door into a small square room where every inch of space had been used to store maps and equipment, even the ceiling. Here we met the volunteer who mans the tower eight to ten hours a day for six months of the year, being spelled only once in awhile by his wife. His job is to keep an eye out for forest fires and to let the workmen on the ground know if any of their controlled burns are getting "hot." The small fires that had been started on purpose were burning with a white smoke. Black smoke would indicate that the fire had too much fuel and was burning too fast.

The fire in the photo below, which we could easily see from the tower, had been started by a lightning strike, but was now under control. The black smoke prompted the volunteer to call the ground crew with his radio telephone and warn them. He said that most of the time they reply back that they know all about it and everything is alright.

He then showed us this Osborne Fire Finder which he uses to pinpoint the location of a fire for the ground crew. It occupied the center of the room and took up most of the space.

After admiring the view in all directions (the top of the tower is at 7611 ft.), we thanked the volunteer for the "tour" and climbed back down just as slowly as we went up. The volunteer says he has gotten used to the climb but when there is a lightning storm nearby, he flies down!

Friday, June 19, 2009

More on Condors

Once upon a time, there were three condors sitting on a ledge. The lower condor is No. 280, a female hatched on May 3, 2002 and released at the Vermilion Cliffs on November 29, 2003. The bird on the upper left is a young bird, perhaps about one year old and is not tagged. You can tell it is young by its black head. To the right of the baby is No. 123, a male and an old and venerable member of the Arizona flock, hatched on May 20, 1995 and released on May 26 1997. They don't know for sure yet, but they suspect condors may live to be 70 years old.

Is this a family gathering? At one point the adults did seem to be showing the young bird how to spread his wings to warm them in the setting sun. Condors also spread their wings like this to straighten out the feathers which may have gotten bent out of shape from the air pressure during the day's flying.

The ledge they are sunning themselves on at the end of the day is down below a very busy viewing spot called Lookout Studio near Bright Angel Lodge at the Grand Canyon. At first, the humans are totally unaware of the gathering below them.

Along came A6, a juvenile perhaps about four or five years old. You can tell this is a juvenile because although the head has some pinkish color to it, it is mottled and not as bright as the adults. (I couldn't find the statistics on A6.)

When A6 lands on the same ledge as the trio, 280 decides to investigate the newcomer and to put him in his place. Condors have a keen sense of hierarchy, adults are dominant over juveniles, and generally, adult males are dominant over adult females. In this photo, you can see 280's bright red crop below her neck which bulges with the food she has eaten. You can also easily see the antennae of her transmitters attached over the number tags on her wings. Someday, it is hoped, the birds will not have to wear these tags and be so closely watched and will all be able to fly free and unencumbered. (They only show the last two digits of her number on the tags to keep them from being too large.)

She lets her wing brush up against A6 as a warning, not as an attack.

They sit and stare at each other for a long time. 280 averts her head to prevent A6 from being able to peck at her.

Finally, A6 gets the message, "This is my ledge. Go find another spot to roost tonight," and takes off for a nearby treetop. Later 123 and the baby join A6 in the trees and 280 is left with the ledge all to herself.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


I'm a cruel mother. I actually woke my son up at 5:00 am so we could go out into the 35 degree weather to watch this condor sleep at the edge of a cliff at the Grand Canyon with the hopes that eventually we would see it take off. A man had alerted us to the condor the night before and I wanted to see if it was still there the next morning and watch it fly. We knew it was a condor mainly because of the number tag on its wing. All the adult condors that have been re-introduced to the wild wear these tags along with a radio transmitter.

The story of the California Condor's brush with extinction (down to 22 birds in the wild in 1982) and the truly heroic efforts by biologists and conservationists to capture these birds, and then not only return them to the wild but to encourage them to breed in the wild again is amazing. Sophie Osborn, a former Field Manager for the Arizona Restoration Project, has written a wonderfully inspiring book on the subject, Condors in Canyon Country, which focuses on the birds in Arizona. I hadn't known that the Grand Canyon was a release sight (actually it's the Vermilion Cliffs to the north of the Canyon) and was excited to hear that the condors were flying free over the Canyon again. I had never expected to see one of these rare birds in my lifetime but by the end of our trip, we had observed five of them, including two young birds.

Condors live a slow, relaxed life. They take 6 months to fledge and 5 to 6 years to become adults. Like ravens, they are very intelligent birds and have a lively curiosity. They can see 6 to 8 times better than humans and can magnify things in the center of their vision. But unlike most other birds and because of their slow maturation, the young birds must learn condor ways from their parents. Foraging, etc. is not totally instinctive. This was the problem facing the scientists who wanted to return the birds to the wild. If there were no more birds in the wild who remembered, who would teach the young birds bred in captivity?

This bird, No. 241 (only the 41 is shown on the tag), is a good example. She was hatched on April 13, 2001 at the World Center for Birds of Prey sponsored by the Peregrine Fund, and she was released at the Vermilion Cliffs on May 9, 2002. When she was first released, she was prone to roosting in unsafe locations, not high on a cliff as she is here but down on the talus slope where she was exposed to coyotes during the night. Ms. Osborn and her crew tried to coax the bird to a better location, but she wouldn't move, so volunteers spent the night with her (at a safe distance) to protect her from potential predators. Others were up at the top of the cliffs to keep in radio contact with the volunteers. After a few days, 241 learned to sleep in a safer spot.

While my son and I watched her, we caught the sunrise and saw several other species of birds including Western Bluebirds, a Three-Toed Woodpecker, and a nest of Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers that was very close to the wall at the edge of the cliff. At one point, 241 opened her eyes, looked around and stretched out her enormous wings (wing span is about 9 feet!), and then tucked her head back under a wing and went back to sleep. Later, she again woke up, stretched and decided to catch the sun's rays on her wings to warm them. We thought for sure she would fly now. But no, she sunned the front and then the back of her wings and moved up to a higher perch for more sunning, but did not take off. Still too cold? Condors like other raptors fly on warm thermals coming from the canyon bottom. Condors are known for being able to soar for long periods of time without flapping their wings.

As we danced around trying to keep warm, my son took this photo through my spotting scope. Soon I was so cold, I couldn't hold my binoculars steady and we decided to give up and go in for a hot shower and breakfast. When we came back, she was gone.

Monday, June 15, 2009

A Grand Canyon Walk

I tried to escape the annual June Gloom here in LA by going to my son's place in Arizona for a couple of weeks but I'm afraid that I took the overcast skies and cool weather with me. But that didn't spoil our trip to the Granddaddy of all canyons—Grand Canyon National Park. The Canyon is so-o-o beautiful and awesome and lots of other adjectives that one picture cannot do it justice and I found myself snapping one photo after another trying to capture some of its splendor. I just sort of randomly picked this photo out of the hundreds of photos that I took while we were there. If you have ever been there, you may recognize this as Bright Angel Trail which starts at Bright Angel Lodge on the South Rim. In the distance is Bright Angel Canyon which is perpendicular to the canyon carved out by the Colorado River.

I had been to the Canyon once before but that was a long time ago when my husband and I were driving cross country to start our new life here in California. We stayed one night only in one of the Bright Angel cabins. It was in March and to our surprise it snowed during the night. The Canyon was breathtaking the next morning. I always wanted to go back and see it again and spend more time soaking it all in. So my DIL and I planned this trip last April when we all got together after Baby M. was born.

We were a little late making reservations and everything was totally booked, but I managed to find two rooms for us at the El Tovar which is where we stayed the first three nights. Then we headed for Williams just to have the pleasure of taking the train back up to the Canyon. As it turns out, the weather was gorgeous that day and I got some of my best photos of the Canyon in the short three hours we had before boarding the train again for the return trip.

It will take several posts to talk about all the things that we did, so I'll just post one more photo for now and leave the rest for later. This photo was taken at sunset on the third day of our stay.

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