I am once again overwhelmed with the success of our camp. Democrats and Republicans come together every year and organize this thing. Our participants come in all political stripes and I want to say we can all get along. The people still have the power to do good things. Ignore the BS and relate to everyone as an individual.
I am so grateful for this camp and its continued success. Mitch and Loni, owners of the Portal Peak Lodge and Cafe, and their fantastic staff worked diligently and perkily to provide us with meals and a welcoming space to learn. The teachers at the camp continue to nurture and prod their students to be the best they can be. Marla Fibish, Brian Conway, Matt Heaton, Colin Lindsay, Pete Strickler, Isaac Alderson, and Brian Lanni were accessible and involved. They continue to push my dream of music for all, especially those picking it up later in life. And Burt was the friendly morning bird guide and afternoon hike attendant. We aim to provide a well rounded experience and Burt’s walks are a big part of the picture.
Thanks also to the people of Portal that help the show go on. Kathleen Talbot at the Library where we host public singing sessions. The Portal Rescue classroom that allows us to offer more classes. Barbara Roth’s whole house for instructors. Numerous friends that feed and print and errand run for us. We appreciate you all.
Our truck is out of the repair shop. There’s still a hope that the transmission is fine and a change of lubrication will fix the problem. Time will tell. In between trips to Animas to drop off and pick up the truck we’ve been hiking, birding, tennis playing, spider watching, and visiting friends. Portal Irish Music Week starts in three days. Ack. I think I’ve got everybody situated and carpooled here. Every year I wonder if there will be some big over sight. Somebody stranded at an airport. A missed plane. Sickness. Family emergency. I should stop thinking about what could go wrong. I’m going to give myself an anxiety attack. So far so good. Here’s hoping this year is just as smooth.
Our good friend Peg Abbott of Naturalist Journeys invited me to tag along on a guided birding trip as record keeper this week. I got to go out for two half days and we covered a lot of terrain and microclimates. The first day was rainy and gray. The second was a bluebird day, crisp and shining. The team, mostly Peg, spotted or heard 80 species. Burt came out the second day and we snagged a trogon. We were walking about 20 yards apart and we both saw the same bird. They are hard to spot this time of year and it was nice we could verify for each other. Sadly the clients did not see it. Bill and Susan were from North Carolina. Susan is career EPA and we became fast friends. She even encouraged me to return to public service. Who knows? Maybe I will someday.
Our hiking club trip took us up to the spine of the Chiricahuas. The main group went out for over 12 miles. I declined that opportunity but we walked around Fly Peak with blog follower and regular commentator Pat. I’ve posted an anonymous photo of Pat below.
This visit to Portal hatched a plan to join our friends on a tour of the Galapagos Islands. I’ve always wanted to go but the price is daunting. Burt was less interested but I swayed him with a photo of a blue-footed booby. This trip is guided by our buddies Carol and Howard and filled with other Portal friends. It was too hard too resist. And we spent so little money this past year that I realized after 7 years of working part-time and living very modestly we can actually afford to splurge on something amazing. Burt and I have traveled many places and done many once-in-a-lifetime type trips that I find the phrase once-in-a-lifetime a hackneyed expression but I think this Galapagos opportunity with our very knowledgeable friends really is a special chance. Life is short and we must grab it by the short hairs. None of us is getting younger. Besides, I have to feed the blog. So look out for a very special blog post about the Galapagos in November of 2017.
Last night, after I discovered I was parked in a bog, I advertised my predicament on this blog and Facebook and was overwhelmed with offers of help. The help I chose came from neither place. In addition to the broadcast mayday, I emailed my neighbor Keith and asked if he’d pull me out with his tractor. Keith was eager to put big blue to the test. People with tools like to use them. I wound up in this situation due to a lot of rain falling while my truck was parked. We had been parking on this bit of grass so we could stay out of the way of the regular residents and it afforded quick access to our gNash trailer. For three weeks all was well. Burt leaves town and look what happens. Some might say Burt wouldn’t have gotten stuck. It is possible that my half headed attempt to vacate the parking spot made matters worse. I wasn’t paying attention to the fact that the tires weren’t quite grabbing as they should and pushed in the clutch and lost momentum just when things got slippery. But maybe not. The slipperiness might have been insurmountable for any driver.
The upside is Bonnie, Rolf, Shane, Zane, Pat, Willis, Eskild, Susan, Dodi, Bob, Keith, and Sarah were all on board to helping me figure out how to get moving again. All of them chimed in with offers of assistance. At a few minutes after 8:00 this morning Keith came over and chained me up to his tractor. Dodi came by with her camera to watch the fun. Then Sarah, Eskild, abd Bonnie showed up. Bonnie missed the action but she brought me a banana muffin to help assuage my anxiety. She had a muffin for the hero Keith, too. Another positive was I had to get up early to be ready. This was going to be my day to sleep in and I was miffed to have to deal with this situation. After days of rain and hard work I just wanted to stay under my covers. Portal awoke to a glorious morning of dazzling sun on fresh snow. after the extraction several of us walked up canyon and took in the sights. You can see the beauty in the photos below.
After all was done I headed to a friends to help with a closet and dresser purge. Every article of clothing was addressed. Stay or throw. I’m good at purging stuff. In the midst of extracting 4 hefty bags of garments I found three of my lost socks and a t-shirt of Burt’s. An Ann Taylor sweater went by that rang a bell but I couldn’t be certain it was mine. Toss. The socks mates have long been tossed. It makes me sad because one sock was a Rudolf Christmas sock my mother gave me. It took a long time for me to give up finding its match. I’d look at Rudoph’s glowing nose and think, “Mom gave me these socks… the other one can’t be far.” I finally gave up and threw it away and now the other sock has some back to haunt me. My New Year’s resolution should be to check the dryer more thoroughly.
The Portal Rodeo Hiking Club headed out for its regular Thursday hike this morning despite the dire weather predictions. Eight people and three dogs showed up to head out towards Hummingbird Springs and beyond. The pace was a bit rapid for me. This was a group of fast movers. I’m feeling fit but we headed uphill too fast and my heart rate maxed out. About and hour and a half into the trek I had a heart palpitation. The rule I’ve come up with for trying to hike with this condition is: If I have a palpitation I do not go further. So I told my companions I was heading back. Rolf did not want me to head back alone and I did not want to shorten Rolf’s hike. We reached a compromise. I agreed to wait. I put on all my clothes and sat down with the Olvis and ate my lunch. I was wearing a windbreaker, two pile jackets, an alpaca knit hat, gloves, and a rain coat. It was pretty much every piece of outdoor gear I own. Most of my clothing is second hand. Rosemary, Darcy, and Betsy all contributed to the ensemble.
My companions made me promise I would not wander away while they hiked further. It was a little hard to sit there by myself. I felt fine. It was chilly. When might they come back? I had hiked alone in the area many times. The weather was on my side and I did not have to wait long. The dreaded winter rains popped over Portal Peak and my companions decided to turn back before they were caught in the winter mountain storm. I was sitting probably 30 minutes. Olive and Elvis kept me company the whole time. I was really pleased they waited with me instead of seeking further adventure with the pack.
The group had not eaten so we found a snug sunny spot and everybody had lunch. I ate my grapefruit. Jonathon had a snazzy alcohol fueled stove. That was a treat to watch. He fired up a tiny burner and boiled some water for his meal. Hot cocoa and lentil soup. It made my cheese sammy and grapefruit look ill conceived for such a blustery day.
I am corresponding from my snug trailer post-hike. The weather has arrived and the rain and snow are happening as predicted. I am post-arrhythmia exhausted but glad I made the effort to get some exercise. I have secured dinner invitations for tonight and Saturday night. That makes 4 out of 5 evenings that Burt is away where other people are cooking for me. I am very grateful. I still have Friday free if anyone wants to feed me. If not, I found some soup in the freezer. Soup I made.
My feet are finally warming up. Today was the 116th Annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count. This is the longest running citizen science project in the world. We joined our friend and professional guide, Peg Abbott, for a day of finding and counting birds high up in the Chiricahuas. As you can see from the pictures, the weather was suboptimal. The morning temperature was sub-freezing. I think it never got above 44 degrees F. Most of the day we were shrouded in damp fog. There was no wind. A wind might have made it intolerable and the birding would have been much less successful. It was gorgeous but tough work.
This past spring we went out with Peg on a warm sunny day in the Peloncillo Mountains. We had Pat along as our scribe. Where were you Pat? I had to do the note taking today. Accounting for the types and numbers of species is hard work. The birds all have abbreviated names to make bookkeeping easy. The first two letters of the (usually) two names. AM RO is American Robin, BA EA is bald Eagle. You get the idea. After 6 hours and over 5 miles of hiking in a variety of terrains we managed to see 30 species. There were over 300 individual birds. A few times I was confused by the bird code names. I embarrassed myself when I had to ask Peg what a CO RA was. It was a bird I found. The Common Raven. Oops.
Last Spring the MO DO was our most common bird. Morning Dove. This winter the most common bird was a DE JU. Dark Eyed Junco. Nearly 100. Except that the DE JU is split into the OR JU, the PS JU, SC JU and the RB JU. And I guess, the plain old dark-eyed Junco. That’s the Oregon Junco, the Pink-sided Junco, the Slate-colored Junco and the Red-backed Junco. Then there’s the Yellow-eyed Junco. My notes are quite a mess on this Junco issue. We saw nearly 80 that we could only identify as DE JU but we saw a smattering of all the rest, except the Slate-colored JU. The other very common bird was the NO FL, the Northern Flicker. Some 30 of these were in a flock just outside of Paradise.
Our route took us through several layers of the Chiricahua micro-climes. In each we found multi-species flocks. Peg could hear the birds and woo them in with a swishing sound she makes. Burt and I were auxiliary spotters and counters. The day was a great success but we missed seeing the Turkey and Montezuma Quail both of which we have seen anytime we weren’t actually looking for them.
This census is a big event all across the country. More than 50 people were counting in the Chiricahuas today. My friends Ed and Rosemary were counting in Death Valley. Tomorrow more people will head into the Peloncillos in neighboring New Mexico. We head back to the regular grind. Big thanks to Peg who makes the day so fun and educational.
We were out to Douglas again yesterday. After a morning applying more mud to the office walls we headed to this border town to stock up on vegetables and work stuff. The mud isn’t drying as quickly as it does in summer so Burt can only apply one coat a day. That’s leaving us with some free time. We contemplated crossing into Mexico for fun and food but we forgot our passports and it’s quite cold here. Both of us agree eating at an unheated restaurant in Mexico isn’t a big draw. We deal with that all winter long in Baja. Burt had a bright idea next. We decided to drive out to Whitewater Draw and see the Sandhill Cranes. The only down side was I didn’t have my telephoto lens or real camera. Oh well. We’d just have to enjoy ourselves and live for the moment.
Sandhill Cranes are large gray birds sporting crimson caps. The Sandhill crane has an undulating call that sounds like water spilling over rocks. A babbling brook, if you will. They form enormous flocks in winter. At Whitewater Draw they glide in in flights of hundreds or thousands every late afternoon and evening in winter. The draw is their safe overnight spot. During the day they fly out to feed in fields all around. Some cross over the Chiricahua Mountains each morning to get breakfast in the Animas Valley. The birds as individuals are lovely to see but the heaps of them singing together and flying in formation swell my mind with delight.
Yesterday we watched as group after group circled and landed in the fields around the draw. There are 20,000 or more birds there now. Some winters see more than 30,000 birds. While we wandered the dikes around the draw we saw a number of other beautiful creatures and amazing events. I spotted a new for me species: the marsh wren. Burt found two Merlin at two different times, both dining on some unfortunate songbird. We also spotted a black phoebe, northern harriers, cooper’s hawks, northern shrikes, great blue heron….lots of birds. At one point I said to Burt, “Why aren’t there blackbirds?” Blackbirds love marshes. Five minutes later a fleet of thousands of blackbirds came into view and circled the area. They moved in unison like a school of fish, their yellow heads flashing in the setting sun. What a glorious vision. They took their spots on the rushes and reeds of the marsh. No sonorous songs for them. These birds cackle and caw. Lots of gossip to share among the group. The sun set and we got cold so we headed back home.
Early in my now on hiatus career as a Forest Service volunteer I had an unusual call. Some visitors that had sought hiking advice earlier in the day were now calling me from the flanks of Silver Peak. They had wandered off trail and they wanted to know if I knew where they were. Consternation was held at bay as I listened to the man describe a cross and some green rocks. I had to tell him I had no idea where he was. He was surprised. The pair followed my advice and backtracked. Later that day the man came in and described to me in detail where they had stepped off the trail. There’s a u-shaped metal fence stake and a pile of rocks. My curiosity was piqued.
A few weeks ago when I hiked up Silver Peak with the Portal Rodeo hiking club I found the side trail. Just as the man described there was a metal fence stake and a pile of rocks. This spot commonly fouled up hikers unfamiliar with the area and the US Forest Service had installed a sign with an arrow pointing the way. The sign was gone. On that day a few weeks ago I wandered a bit down the path of my lost hikers. I was hoping to find the cross. I got a few hundred feet away and realized I was a long way from the top of our 3,000′ climb and that I might get passed by my companions. They would not know where I was. I decided to abandon the search and return to the main route. I thought I would try and get Burt to help me on a later date.
Yesterday, in the snow, we headed out on the Silver Peak trail. I had forgotten the cross and the curious tale. It was just a wonderful winter day and the snow covered trails called. The dogs were especially thrilling to watch as they ran and ran and ran. Snow, just a little, can be invigorating. Burt followed as I broke trail. This is our usual pattern. I set the pace I can maintain and Burt hangs back. If you ever want to spend time with quiet Burt. Go hiking. He is very quiet in the woods. We had no goal. Dinner with friends was hours away. At the second gate I remembered the lost hikers and their report of a cross in the woods. I remembered where they got lost. I decided it was time to try and find the cross.
Initially I presumed that the site might be a marker where a migrant lost their life crossing these mountains but conversations with people familiar with migratory routes say Silver Peak is not frequently traveled. That makes sense. There is little evidence of litter or debris frequently found when migrants near civilization and the north side of silver peak is not on the way to anywhere. So what was this cross? I walked and slipped about a 1/4 mile past the main trail and arrived at a very steep gully. I saw nothing on my way out. Any green rocks there might have been were covered by the deeper snow. The cross was not obvious. Perhaps it was on the ground and covered, too? At the gully I had to face the reality of a slick non-trail with an exposed 100′ hillside. If the cross was on the other side I was not going to find it on this day. I turned around and met with Burt making his way out to me. I stood there with soaking feet and wet pants and said: “I really want to find this cross. I wish I knew where it was.” Burt looked at me. He was bewildered. Burt had forgotten the tale of the lost hikers calling me for advice. I spun around in frustration and gazed up. Right over my head was the cross. Talk about ask and you shall receive. A small rusty cross was planted in the hillside in a spot far from the normal route. Burt and I clawed our way up the steep slope and wiped away the snow. Three hearts were welded in place and the following was inscribed:
Gerald Gene Wester 5/29/1931 – 12/26/2007
Joy Pearl Wester 8/20/1931 – 4/6/2009
I felt like the winner of a treasure hunt and it was nice to see we’d made the pilgrimage they day after Gerald’s death anniversary. I have no idea who these people were. They must have liked the area. From the spot of their memorial you can see Cochise’s head in the Chircahua National Monument and off into the mountains of New Mexico. But the spot is not a typical vista point. It’s steep and off trail. Maybe the person that placed the marker wanted to be unobtrusive. My internet searches haven’t revealed an obvious connection to the area. The pair died while living in Tucson. Their on line obituaries have no details other than next of kin. Maybe someday a relative will read this post and contact me. I’d love to know the rest of the story.
We woke up to 3″ of snow and temps in the low twenties. It’s a little after 9 AM and the sun just cleared the ridge tops. I’m planning a snowy hike after lunch with Burt. Burt’s off applying another coat of mud to the newly sheetrocked walls of the addition. We’ve arrived at the stage of work where I have nothing to do. My computer hasn’t been backed up to the external hard drive for a very long time so I decided I better take the trapped-in-the-trailer feeling and make the best of it.
Being north of the border in winter has only reinforced the idea that it is too cold in the US to spend the winter. While there are warm spots there is no consistently warm place. We’d be chasing weather maps all over the country. This Christmas would have been most comfortably spent in New York City. The cold itself isn’t so hard. The trailer is comfortably warm. We have abundant clothing. The trouble comes from the contraction of usable space. We can’t play music outside. Burt can’t get out of the trailer when he wakes up 2 hours before I do. The dogs want to lie about under foot. Mimi demands to be snuggled at all times. There are piles of warm work clothes everywhere. Clothing we haven’t seen in years but were smart enough to keep deep in storage has been dug out. Finding anything requires moving heaps of flannel shirts and socks and scarves and hats and mittens. Meanwhile, summer clothing is still taking up space. Despite this we are enjoying a change in seasons. Snow! It’s pretty and quickly melts around here. The end of work is in sight.
So I’m backing up my blog writing and thousands of photographs. I also email the blog to myself and the contents of the laptop are somewhere on the ‘cloud’. If disaster strikes and my laptop fails I am optimistic I can recover my intellectual property. I hope there is enough redundancy. My trusty iPhone 4s is failing. The battery can’t hold a charge and screen swiping has become erratic. I’m getting a new phone for Christmas. That idea of new hardware also prompted the backup. Adding a new technological device can be as unpredictable as adding a new pet to the family. I’m hoping for a smooth convergence of software and hardware but it might be like Olive and Mimi. Neither of them wants to admit the other one lives here. They are in a perpetual state of mutual deniability. And that works okay.
The piggish javelina are making multiple trips through the yard each day. One of their nicknames is stink hog. They have been rubbing their scent glands all over our trailer undercarriage and our coolers. The pungent aroma is driving the dogs mad but, luckily, we can’t smell it.
Our new trailer spot is withing a 400 meter radius where we’ve been all season but here we are sharing the yard with a gang of Javelinas. I use the word gang intentionally. One of these guys bit a woman last year and they are notorious dog maulers. Usually they are mild mannered and easily frightened but like all wild animals (and humans) they are unpredictable and can get their dander up. I think there are more javelinas here because the area isn’t as well fenced as the property next door. Our cat Mimi enjoys watching them through the trailer windows. So far we’ve avoided any dog and javelina meetings. Mostly through good luck and leashes.
Yesterday I watched as a set of twins followed mom around nursing. The twins were nearly as big as mom and to reach her teats they had to get down on their knees. They were actually crawling around on their knees to keep up with mom as she foraged. Mom easily eluded them. If you’re eating solid food and still crawling around begging mom for a handout it’s time to wean. Get a job. Since we had a prodigious monsoon season there are acorns and other fruits of the forest everywhere. It is easy pickings for wild gleaners.
Javelina (also called the collared peccary) can breed all year round. Packs of the beasts have animals of all sizes. There’s another group wandering around with a newborn about the size of a kitten. Now that newborn fits under mom very easily. This allows for convenient lactation and protection from predators. Yesterday mom was spotted having post-partum sexual relations while her new baby attempted to find the nipple or at least some protection. Our neighbor Bonnie saw it and caught it on camera, coitus en flegrante. In wildlife biology this is called post-partum estrus, meaning a female can get pregnant while nursing a newborn. It brings to mind the old wives’ tale that a woman can’t get pregnant while nursing. Do you think the javelina heard the same thing? I’m wondering if all the easily available food is making the herd more fecund.