Wednesday, November 26, 2008


On the way to work this morning I saw a lovely rainbow bridge, that turned into a double, then turned back to a single as I watched. The sky was soot- gray and the rainbow's colors stood out brilliantly against it. Trees, their bark stained dark from the rain and leaves golden from the change of season, also stood out brightly against the dark backdrop.

It wasn't raining when I got to campus, so I decided to walk a back way, through a eucalyptus grove and down along the art building that leads into the sculpture garden. When I came to the edge of the garden, a soft rain was falling as if in slow motion, backlit by the sun that had peeked through. I had to just stood and watched it for a while, it was so mesmerizingly beautiful.

It is times like these that I am amazed at the subtle power of choice. The lovely sky this morning made me think about taking my camera with me to work, but I decided against it because I didn’t want to bother. I missed opportunities for photos, but once I got to work, my choice to walk a different way provided me the opportunity to enjoy the surprise moment of the rain lit by sunlight, and the memory of it will be with me always.

We make choices constantly, some conscious and some unconscious. But some are ‘gut feelings’ that we should pay more attention to. These, I believe, are remnants of old instincts or senses that we have developed over our evolution as a species, such as being wary of the danger lying in a dense thicket or the ‘feeling’ that one direction would lead to something we needed. These senses or feelings have languished and often grown dormant the further we distance ourselves from the natural world.

The more I immerse myself in the outdoors, the more I pay attention to these ‘instincts’ and find that I am rewarded in so many ways. My choices to walk at a particular time, to walk on a certain path, or in some specific direction have led me to some very pleasurable experiences. I follow my hunches and feelings, letting them guide me where they will.

I remember many times I decided to walk in a particular area of the campus, not so much on a whim as on a ‘feeling’ that it was the right place to go, and have had many wonderful bird sightings or some natural phenomenon that would have otherwise been missed. I try to pay close attention to this ‘inner voice’ and to be more attuned to feelings that may be so subtle as to be easily ignored. Keeping one’s awareness honed and sharpened allows us to live more fully and more deeply.

In concert with paying attention, I have allowed myself to drift into reverie while listening to sound of wind as it stirs through the branches of trees, or while watching clouds drift across the face of the full moon, veiling and unveiling its brilliance. To do so is to feel the power of nature, its rhythms and cycles, its smell and feel and touch. These are gifts we all have access to. All that is required is a wanting, a longing to reconnect with forces that have too long been lost to us. It is a close as your immediate surroundings, as near as your heart and mind.

Open them.

Monday, November 24, 2008


All that remains of the trailhead sign.

The debris basin. This was filled with vegetation.

Trees that didn't make it.

Looking up-canyon from debris basin near trailhead.

Looking towards the trail that leads down into the oak forest.

The devastation was complete, right down to the ground.

Red-tailed Hawk sits dreaming above hills once covered with brush and filled with rabbits and mice.

It’s quite a bittersweet moment to realize that although gas prices are way down, giving me greater freedom to roam again, some of my favorite hiking and birding spots have been erased by the recent wildfires. I am still in shock that two of my spots are toast: O’Melveny Park in Granada Hills, and Wilson Canyon in Sylmar.

Wilson Canyon is a particularly great loss. This area had survived being burned before, had escaped the developer’s greedy maw when it was designated as a park in 1999, only to succumb to the ravages of a wind-driven fire that was most likely an arson.

The lovely and magical oak forests that lay in the upper reaches of the canyon are now gone; along with the memory of a flock of Oak Titmice that flitted down from the canopy around me one day like feathered snowfall. I also saw my first Phainopepla and Swainson’s Thrush here. And I was recently planning another trip there to take photos with my new camera. Now all I have is what memories and images are ingrained in my mind. The photos I took yesterday are the reality.

I have wept for this loss and I have grieved as though for a loved-one. And none of my tears brings me peace or solace. The loss is too recent and the wound too fresh and I cannot move beyond it. And I know that this grief will not go quickly either. Things like this affect me deeply. I still tear up when I remember the grove of eucalyptus trees on the property across the street from my house that was cut down—every last tree of more than 30. The bare space in the view from my kitchen breakfast nook is a painful reminder. And so it was when I saw the burned hills; the charred remains of a thriving habitat of scrub, chaparral, and oak--and home to birds, deer, rabbit, and coyote.

There will be no quail calling from these hills, no smell of sage lifting on the breeze, no coyote howls ringing down the canyon in the late evening when the moon peaks over the shoulders of the hills. No rabbits will run here, no hawks will hunt, or deer drowse on grasses. This land will not recover for decades and the creatures that called it home, the ones that managed by some miracle to survive, will find nothing here to sustain them. And winter, always a difficult time for wildlife, will be hardest on those that survived the fire. They will have to move to other unburned areas, and those will be crowded and overburdened with their additional numbers. It will not be a good time for wildlife.

Logically I know that habitat recovers after a fire and wildlife survives somehow, yet my kinship with the land and its creatures pains me just the same. The more time I have spent outdoors in the past two years, the more attached I have become to nature. Every trip into the wood immerses me deeper and strengthens my bonds with the natural world. I respect it, cherish it, and protect it. Any attack on nature is a personal attack, a personal injury. What wounds the earth and its creatures wounds me as well. It is hard for folks who do not spend enough time outdoors to get this and I feel sorry for them.

But I have learned this as well: to love the land is to risk loving it too much; there is real possibility of loss bound up with it. To become too attached to a tree or place is to engage in the folly of permanence. All things change, and things that live must die. But when humans interfere with the order of things death comes on swift wings; without conscience, without pity, without remorse. Only those that love the land and embrace nature as their true home will weep in remembrance of it, for what has been lost.

So now when I go into my favorite woodland places, when I hear the call of quail from the hills and the breeze rustling the leaves into a sea-song, and when the sweet, pungent smell of sage and wild grasses blend with the dusty smell of earth I will not take it for granted. I will embrace these moments and all these sensations even more fully. I will hold them close and make them a part of me. I will weave their memories, sensations, and smells into the tapestry of my being to keep with me always, so that all that I have experienced will not pass away, but live within me.

[Written while listening to Cappercaillie; all of their songs sung in Gaelic]

Monday, November 17, 2008


For the second time in as many months wildfires are again consuming wildlife habitat and urban homes. I had hoped we would be spared from this for the rest of the season, but nature failed to cooperate and sent 70+ mph winds through the canyons late Friday night.

The photo above was taken Saturday morning at about 9:30 AM from Jefferson Blvd. at the north end of the Ballona Fresh Water Marsh. The huge plume of smoke is from the Sayre fire in Sylmar, which started at about 10:30 PM the night before. At this point it was all we here on the westside of LA had to deal with.

It was very warm this morning, and not pleasant for walking on the path around the marsh. Birds were fairly plentiful, however. I counted 6 Great Egrets, including this one hunting on the margins of some cattails.

This Great Blue Heron snagged himself a huge crayfish. I watched for several minutes as it worked to subdue and swallow it. It finally succeeded, and took several long draughts of water afterwards to wash it down.

Cinnamon Teal

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Audubon's Warbler stretches for insects in the vegetation below a small tree.

Audubon's (Yellow-rumped) Warbler, with characteristic yellow patch on rump.

Other birds seen at the marsh:
  • American Kestrel
  • Ruddy Duck
  • American Coot
  • Green-winged Teal
  • Northern Shoveler
  • Pied-billed Grebe
  • Double-crested Cormorant
  • White-crowned Sparrow
  • Thick-billed Fox Sparrow
  • Common Yellowthroat

Later in the afternoon we got the smoke from the Orange County fires in our area. The sky was a sickly yellow-gray and the smell of smoke was strong. These crows, which gather in the huge sycamore behind our house every evening, made a striking image against the sky. This was around 4:30 PM and it already looked like early evening.

Smoke or no smoke, the crows hold their late afternoon conference every day in that tree.

The sky is an ugly reminder that habitat is burning somewhere and that birds and wildlife are losing thier lives and their homes. I hate fires and wish there was more that could be done to prevent them.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


Franklin Canyon, located in the hills between the San Fernando Valley and Hollywood, is a local treasure. This was my first visit and I am hooked! My birding pal Paula and I showed up for an LA Audubon bird walk on Sunday led by Eleanor Osgood and it proved to be an absolutely gorgeous day for it.

A brilliantly clear, cool day. A light wind and lots of fair weather cumulus clouds.

Birders looking for, well, BIRDS! This trail winds around the man-made lake. Here we found Audubon's Warbler, Hermit Thrush, Bewick's Wren, California Quail, and White-crowned Sparrow.

A corner of the lake. It was surprisingly void of waterfowl and shorebirds such as herons and egrets. The lone floaters were a pair of Ruddy Ducks, a few Mallards, a white 'barnyard' duck, and two pairs of Wood Duck. This is also where they filmed the opening credits of the old Andy Griffith Show.

Another lake view. The sun was playing hide-n-seek behind the clouds.

Male Ruddy Duck. During breeding season their bill is bright blue!

Turtle 'periscoping' in the small duck pond to the north of the lake.

Male Wood Duck. There were numerous pairs of these migratory ducks present. They will likely stay the winter here.

Female Wood Duck. Not as brilliantly plummaged as the males, but still mighty cute!

Wood Duck pair. These ducks roost and build their nests in holes in trees. When the young fledge (leave the nest), they drop from the next to the water.

Male trying to snooze.

He really wanted me to stop pointing the camera at him, but it was hard not taking so many photos when they are this close.

Male and female for comparison.

The Wood Ducks were really the highlight of the day for me. That and the delicious clean and pine-scented air. This time of year is so wonderful for hiking--when the heat isn't so intense.

We had a nice small group of birders, including a family with two kids. It is always a joy to see them resist the idea at first, but become more engaged when they get the hang of the binoculars and when different birds and animals are pointed out to them. After the walk Eleanor provided them with a bird list and sat with them to fill it out with the birds we say. She also showed them photos in the bird guide to they would remember them and also gave them some bird drawings to color.

This is definitely a place worth checking out. It is so close to home as to be nearly ridiculous. Had I known it was so beautiful I would have come here long ago. I had a misconception that it was merely more oak and chaparral (which is also here though) and plan to return here soon. If you want to participate in future LA Audubon bird walks, their schedule is here:

Here is the bird list for the 3-hour walk:

Oak Titmouse
Common Raven
Audubon's Warbler
Wood Duck
Ruddy Duck
Pied-billed Grebe
Bewick's Wren
Hermit Thrush
California Quail
White-crowned Sparrow
Scrub Jay
Plumbeous Vireo
California Towhee
House Finch

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


Well, granted it's a pet parrot, but I can imagine all the animals dancing at the news of Obama's election win:

Monday, November 3, 2008


On a camping trip to Idylwild, CA 1954. The little sharpshooter in the middle is me. (I have long since given up my fascination for firearms!)

My Pop--'the rockhound'--prospecting in the California desert early 1950s.

Mom at Camp Richardson, Lake Tahoe, CA (about 1959). My brother is on the right.


I took some time to ruminate this weekend on just how I came to be such an outdoor nut. The answer was quite simple: my parents were outdoor nuts! My father grew up in Michigan, my mother in Vermont and New Hampshire. Both my parents have regaled me with stories of their outdoor adventures over the years. And back in their era, kids spent more time outside than most do now. (Heck, even when I was a kid, we spent more time outside than kids do now!)

Consequently, they entertained my brother and I often with activities that involved being outside. My earliest memory of camping was at age 4; though I am told I went camping when my mom was still pregnant with me. One of the photos above is from one such trip, to Idyllwild, with a neighbor family, when I was 4.

We kids were messing around the campsite, kicking up dust, and one of the parents said, “Why don’t you kids get lost?” So we did! We took this as permission to take off, and went rambling about in the forest for hours, and at dusk eventually ending up in town. There we were greeted by the local fire department and our parents who were worried sick. We’ve had many a chuckle over this as adults, but at the time I don’t think anyone thought it was too funny.

Subsequent trips to Idyllwild and Lake Tahoe over the years kept me very happy, as well as the weekend adventures in the Madrona Marsh area of Torrance, which is mostly now covered by the Del Amo Shopping Center (“They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot!”). Both my parents were casual bird watchers and taught us the more common ones, among them Meadowlarks, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Killdeer. I was given my first Peterson’s bird guide at age 12.

Getting outdoors is a healthy and important activity for children and my mom was a great proponent of fresh air. Consequently, we were allowed to roam long and far in search of adventure.

When we moved to the San Fernando Valley in 1964, I was devastated; I loved it in Torrance, where we were close to the beach. But Canoga Park grew on me, especially when I realized all the open space that was there at the northern end of Vanowen Street—nothing but fields and hills as far as I could see. I did a lot of wandering and horseback riding in those hills over the years and I’m glad I got to know them when I did, for they are mostly covered with houses now.

As an adult, I continued to prefer the outdoor life and often went camping with friends who were like-minded. Fortunately, there are many good places to go within reasonable driving distance of Los Angeles: Santa Ynez Valley, Sequoia, Lone Pine, Bishop, Big Bear, Joshua Tree, and Idyllwild to name but a few. It is, however, getting harder to find places that aren’t crawling with people with the same idea. And with people come noise, littering, and alas, sometimes violence.

But little bits of heaven can be found, such as hikes in Topanga Canyon and Whitney Canyon. I’ve been to both these places early in the morning and rarely seen many other people on the trails. Usually arriving early gets you some solitude—and it’s worth getting up early to get it.

And I have my parents to thank for all the great outdoor adventures they took us kids on. I was very lucky that they loved and appreciated all it had to offer. We may not have had a lot back then, but it felt like we owned the whole outdoors.