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Magpie Talk

          The robin flies low, just barley missing Nikki’s head. Then lands making a sharp“Chit Chit Chit” sound. A few more tail pumps and Nikki is bombed again. In our study of bird language this is fantastic. I feel a little bad causing such stress to the mother who feels that she needs to defend her nest with such aggression. But it is sure interesting to watch.

Nikki is really not that much of a threat. In fact most of the time Nikki can walk right by this robin with out her rustling a feather, so why the agitation today? It is not really Nikki that is causing this. It is the magpie sitting on her shoulder.

Nikki and I have had the opportunity to help rehabilitate this captive magpie destine for release. Magpies are curious and smart birds. They also have been known to raid the nest of smaller birds. The robin is so intent on defending he nest from the magpie that it thinks nothing of flying close to Nikki’s head. The magpie on the other hand would rather be somewhere else than sitting on Nikki’s shoulder. He squats trying to avoid being hit by this frantic mother.

This magpie has been a great teacher for learning bird language. Not only does he cause alarms in nesting song bird like in the video of the dark-eyed junco and robin. But he has keen eye sight. On one of our walks the magpie took on a very squat and defensive posture. It was as if he wanted to become invisible. In a moment we saw the cause.

A prairie falcon came gliding over the ridge.

Leaning bird language has been a fun. It has also helped tune my awareness of different relationships in the world. Once I started paying attention. I began to see the different alliances and conflicts. How the cotton tail rabbit and the Richardson’s ground squirrel will share the same wood pile, both will duck for cover when the robin gives the alarm of a weasel in the neighborhood.

The more tuned Nikki and I become to the language of the bird and other small mammals the more interactions of wildlife we notice. We hear when the goshawk hunts in the forest by the silence that follows her. We can tell when the harrier hunts on the edge of Pine Butte by the wing-shaped alarm of the ground squirrels the sweeps along in front of him.

If Nikki and I are really listening, we may hear the birds scolding the deer or coyote sneaking away from our approach…

As I continue to learn bird language I keep reminding my self that none of the noise the birds make is random. Each one has significance. I won’t always be able to know the meaning of each sound. But if I continue to be curious and ask my self what could that song or call mean. I continue to learn, and the window into the world of bird language may widen to be a door I can walk through.

Bird alarm video links:

http://youtu.be/mAzkHkLdY1s

http://youtu.be/og_Bs8tBacE

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Pictures of summer

Well, this is Montana, so remember that pictures of summer may include the following:

Sun

Rain

Snow

Wind

More Wind

Large Hail

Another glimpse of Sun

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Bellview School (established 1906) as the storm rolls in…

But in all seriousness, the weather only adds to the drama of the Mountains. Without further ado…

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Pine Butte background

 

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Everyone needs an onlooker when looking at birds through a scope

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Western meadowlark looking handsome

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Mariposa lily with extra fuzz for entrapping insects

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Jeff does a little early morning horse training after wrangling the horses

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The Yellow-bellied marmots say that it’s summer!

 

More birds, more bears, and a pony or two

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Baby killdeer…awwwww…aren’t they ridiculous =)

Another fine week in Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front, which means we had sun, snow, sleet, rain, hail, gropple, and wind.

Never be unprepared (or expect to be bored) in mountain country =)

Ornithologist and artists David Allen Sibley and Keith Hansen kept spotting amazing birds, improving our drawings skills, telling ridiculously entertaining stories (and in Keith’s case, puns) and filling our brains with bird knowledge.

Among the many amazing things we learned this past week, the following are some of the tidbits that stuck out:

Cool nugget 1: Look at sandhill cranes—they are reddish in the spring from preening with highly oxidized mud picked up on their beaks when feeding.

How do you know this?

The only spots that are still their natural grey plumage are just under their chin, because they can’t reach that spot with such a long bill.

Cool nugget 2: Curlews (and many other long-billed shorebirds) have a very flexible end on their upper bill. They have little accessory muscles (also possibly tendons or ligaments) that they can use to flex just the very tip of their bill. This solves the problem of trying to open a gigantic beak in thick mud to suck up tasty invertebrates.

Cool nugget 3: How the heck does a shorebird get the little brine shrimp or other invertebrates up its beak without picking up its head and letting the little tasty morsel slide down? 

They use surface tension.

Water surface tension to be exact. The shorebird sucks up the invertebrates with a droplet of water, and uses the surface tension of water (the same thing some insects use to “walk” on water) to pull the little brine shrimp up, swallow it, and then shake out the water droplet and start over. Yummm.

Cool nugget 4: There are no birds with true green pigment in North America (you have to go to Africa for that). North American green birds (see parrots) have yellow pigment in their feathers combined with “structural blue?”

Huh?

Structural blue is a feather configuration that scatters all other light rays except blue; so blue is the only light ray reflected back.

All other green colors (the head on a mallard or the feathers on a hummingbird) are the green created from refraction, like a sheen of oil on water.

There was lots more amazing information,but a few photo’s are in order to show (rather than tell) the rest of the week…

 

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Ear Mountain with the balsam root

 

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Black bear mamma keeping her eye on us

 

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Skadi clearin’ trail!

 

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Long-billed curlew

 

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Allison (staff) exercising horses for us…

 

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Storm rolling in as the birders watch prairie birds

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The Randall family draws a Red-tailed hawk for the dinner board.

 

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Ruffed grouse watching our cabin entrance.

 

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Pine Butte Staff ride.

 

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Bird artist Keith Hansen making sculptures!

 

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Storm rolling in over the prairie

 

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Looking for little black dots in the sky (a.k.a. Sprague’s pipit).

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The Birds and the Bears

Virgina Rail sneaking

Whew.

Finally reappearing on the blog after two very busy weeks of Bear Workshop and Birding Workshop.

After a very dry winter, the Rocky Mountain Front is collecting some moisture. The rain is pelting from the trees onto the tin roof, and even the young bull moose who sauntered across Alice’s Ridge—in full view from the dining room windows—has gone to hunker in the trees.

We saw a tremendous amount of bear sign (tracks, clawed trees, fresh hair clumps on wire, grubbing for ants) however, it wasn’t until the Bird Workshop that we got a fabulous look at a Grizzly bear through the scopes.

This is wild country, with a lot of room. It makes for a great illustration of desirable habitat, but sometimes difficult country to find animals with enormous home ranges.

The birds are a little easier.

On the day we went to tour Freezeout wetlands, then drove back across the prairie past the Pine Butte Swamp preserve and into the mountains we saw a measly 116 bird species.

=)

It was wonderful, but enough birds to make your head swim. Ornithologists and artists David Allen Sibley and Keith Hansen added some new bird species to the Pine Butte Guest Ranch bird list including: red-necked phalarope, stilt sandpiper, and sanderlings.

David Sibley and Keith Hansen really allow you to see the birds as they are, not as you expect to see them based on previous experience or habitat. Sibley and Keith see them as they would draw them, so unusual and rare birds do not escape their attention.

Speaking of drawing, guests and some staff got a drawing lesson from the masters themselves, using Skar-ta (the magpie) as a compliant model.

The kitchen prepared fabulous meals, and the rest of the staff kept everything running smoothly while we romped around chasing birds.

Here are some of our favorite photos from the past two weeks, including a link to some videos taken during the two weeks from the trail cameras.

Click on the following link:

http://youtu.be/ddN1DIzNTLM

http://youtu.be/Cor4wOYE0LQ

The optics! (and more optics)

Sunset over the prairie

Big Horn sheep (not birds, but we watched anyway =)

Cecropia moth on Pine Butte

Northern water thrush

The Amazing Kitchen Masters (AKM’s)

OOoooohhhh Good Morning

Sprague’s Pipit, a rare and threatened bird, looking very dirt like.

David Allen Sibley and Keith Hansen teaching bird illustration techniques

Sibley finger paints and it still looks amazing!

Big Horn Sheep illustrating why wool is good for water

Back to the bush.

Separated by time and space what continues to stick with me are the images I carry in my mind.
Africa has left its marks deep under my skin where only I know to look. But I suppose this is true for all the significant events of my life: working for Nols, the CDT, training my horses, and Nikki They all have left tail-tell sign as indelible as the blood trail of the first elk I shot. I suppose I am not the only one who can read these signs. They must show up on how in how I walk, in the joy in my face as I watch a kudu cow come to drink, her over sized ears swiveling to catch the sounds of my breath. The twinge of sweet pain as we eat our wild game, and the way my horse comes to me when he could walk away. Sun sets and snow fields make me want to cry. Not because they are sad. But because the beauty is too much for one short life to hold. If I am not carful my skin can feel too raw. Emotions and landscapes rip across it leaving road-rash of the mind. But this too can be sweet.
Sharing always seems to help though. So I will leave my images for you to look at. And hopefully if you open your mind up and try to feel with all the fibers you have, you might get the feeling of the soft Africa sand under your toes.. The heat and tang of the Kalahari wind. The grounded human smell of the Xuma and Guta as they tell the story of the past night.

Here is some of the stories I wake to when I come out of dreams.

Walk with me.
I am traveling.

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Water lily in maun

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Painted dogs sing to each other.

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Serda, the orphan liones.

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The bushmen, feeding .Walking the bridge between the death of the burro and the life of the lion.

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Jon centering, finding north

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Should there be two words for water and life?

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Or is life water?

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We all need to learn a few stories to pass on.

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This bushman could teach grandma to suck eggs.

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Kaden, learning from his elders.

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Guta explaining a bit of the world.

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Healing comes from the trance dance. Don’t ask it just works.
Don’t look for logic ,it may turn something beautiful in to something ugly and unrecognizable. (Ingwe paraphrased )

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Hanama blending with the bush.

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Fritz glows form within as well!

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A link is formed.

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Thank you for traveling with me in the Kalahari.

Aware(or not)ness

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Aware(or not)ness

One of the things Jeff has been working very hard on (and so, by proxy and interest, have I) is awareness.

We all do this every day, and most of us, in defensive of our lives, are very aware when we drive. We use our peripheral vision to watch other drivers, or suicidal deer. We listen to the noises our engines—the rattles and clunks—often without realizing. If you don’t think the average person listens to the car, then pick any episode of Car Talk with Click and Clack.

We listen more than we know.

We feel how our vehicle drive. We know when the accelerator is sticky, or the breaks aren’t sticky enough. We notice when the car smells funny.

We are very aware on the road—most of us, most of the time.

Recently I drove with Jeff to meet John and Nicole Young (of 8 Shields Institute) where they talked about, among other things, natural history and nature awareness.

I took my awareness to a beach near Santa Cruz.  They were busy talking, and there was ocean nearby.

There is nothing quite like the ocean. People say the stars make them feel small, but really, the stars are so vast I have a hard time grappling with the concept.

For me, the ocean is both comprehensibly vast, and incomprehensible in what I am missing. So I sit on the beach and feel small and awed all at the same time.

In Santa Cruz, I had a little over an hour to spend looking at the ocean, so despite local advice on which beach to go to, I drove down the road and stopped at the very first ocean view with a parking lot.

It was a beautiful little cove, with a seaside cave breathing ocean spray like a dragon and pigeon guillemots swimming around looking very formal and serious, until you saw their clown orange feet and heard their squeaking, babbling conversation.

I took my binoculars, because it is the ocean and ocean birds. I love watching their antics with enhanced optics. I wanted to practice my nature awareness, and so I picked a spot on the surprisingly empty beach and glassed out across the ocean.

The guillemots were alternately fishing, then flying to the cliffs to have a lively debate about something—the quality of rocks maybe? The weather? Who had the most orange feet?

I was completely absorbed, when out of my peripheral vision (which I have been working on, as I mentioned) I catch a flash of pink.

Fleshy-colored pink, and a whole lot of it.

Which is how I, working on my great nature awareness, ended up on a naturist beach in Santa Cruz with a set of binoculars.

Awareness. It’s a tricky thing.

The Bear Tree (and eyes in the night)

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The trail camera sees what moves around the fringes when we are asleep.

We hike up through the burn, and while I can go on and on about fire ecology, succession plant species, and amazing birds and animals, we see seeking out fire scars among the verdancy, I am focused on a particular tree today.

The Bear tree.

Or the Mountain Lion tree.

Or the Alice Gleason tree.

Or, by it’s scientific name, the pseudotsuga menziesii tree.

Many names for one tree; one enormous Douglas fir tree, somewhere close to ten feet in diameter, but no taller than its small offspring, crowding in around it. All the names for this tree tell us something about it: if you look closely at the thick bark, you can see the long, curly, blonde hairs of a grizzly bear that scratched his back on this tree in early spring, the shorter, brown hairs of a black bear, and the needle thin claw marks of a mountain lion that climbed up the branches in the dark of night.

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Another wildlife camera picture

The couple that started this guest ranch in the 1930’s, Kenny and Alice Gleason, marveled at this venerable giant of the forest, and so to honor their dedication in preserving this incredible chunk of the Rocky Mountain Front—we call this the Alice tree.

It is, tagged by science, pseudotsuga menziesii— a Douglas fir tree. It’s only good enough to be a pseudo tree—a pseudo fir (tsuga)…not a real fir tree. You can see the difference between the Douglas fir and other true fir trees in the cones.

Pick up a cone, and look for the mouse sticking its head in to steal the seeds.

A mouse? In a mousetrap?

You have to use a little imagination, but not a lot. The three-pronged bracts protruding from the cone are shaped like the hind ends of mice, as though the mouse stuck it’s head into the cone, got stuck, and now the tail and two back legs are all that is visible.

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These three-pronged bracts are diagnostic for a Douglas fir tree, so if the mousetrap sticks in your head, you can identify these trees from the California coast to the Rocky Mountains.

Below this tree shedding cones full of mice, are tracks. An expert tracker could tell you a lot about what has been here. I can tell you a little, but most of the story is hidden from me. Jeff can tell you more, because he has been working hard on his tracking skills.

A motion-activated camera fills in some of the story.

A long, furry trail in the night.

A nose, smearing the lens and readjusting the camera.

I can show just a glimpse of how much I miss. These tracks are all here, undoubtedly, but I don’t see them.  And we move loudly through the forest when we walk or ride, pushing wildlife out in front of us.

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I’d hide that beautiful rack in the cover of darkness too (Elk)

That’s not always a bad thing. I certainly don’t enjoy surprising a black bear with cubs. I worry about them, incredible climbers though the cubs are, but surely that must be too high!

Since the wildlife usually moves around us—invisible, out of sight, or during the darkness—I want to show you a little of what the camera’s saw in 2010. Jeff set these up in places we walk or ride, but places that take a while to get to.

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ImageMule deer

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New fawn

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The illusive, unsuspecting current (and former) Pine Butte Staff

Deep Nature Connection

 

wildebeeste bull

         Each morning I would rise early and listen to the bush sounds change from the loud “Brrrruuum” calls of wildebeest bull, to the soft “cheeets” of the shaft-tailed wydas and scolding of grey babblers. The sacred ibis would come off of his night roost on the dead snag and start hunting the shore for any creature that might fit in his long beak.

Robin I and might go tracking while the sun was still low and catch some signs left by the night-animals. We might see that the black-backed jackal was using the same hidden spot behind the buffalo thorn to drink, or see the massive cloven hooves of the giraffe.

       We would meet the Bushmen for a morning session. For this we would walk through the bush, one direction or another. They would show us the stories in the sand: the tracks of a puff adder, the slow walk of the tortoise.  When the time was right, they would show us some sort of Naro traditional technique. If we passed the tracks of a steenbok, Xiago might show us how they would make a snare for this small antelope. Then to make the picture complete, the Naro would act out the scene. One would play the part of the steenbok while the others played the hunters.

            The acting was not just for our enjoyment, although we did like it. The acting puts the hunter in the place of the steenbok, letting him move down the trail—placing his feet like the antelope might. The more the hunter does this, the better he will know what he hunts. So by the time the hunter sets his snare, he already knows the steenbok is caught.

            They teach and lean tracking in the same way. This is not unique to the Bushmen; many great trackers learned to feel how an animal moves by putting themselves in the mind of the game. 

             The Bushmen acted out many of the most important lessons, not only reinforcing the importance in their own bodies, but also making a lasting memory in our minds. I know I will never approach a warthog burrow from the front, now I have seen Guta pretend to be run over by an angry boar.

            The Bushman live in family groups with grandparents, uncles, and aunts.

The children are taught primarily by the grandparents. The grandmothers teach the young-ones how to be safe in the bush—to listen, not just to their elders, but to the whole world. They are taught what the bird sounds mean, to be still and quiet.

When the boys are about 7, the grandfathers start teaching then to hunt.  The aunts and uncles are there to help too, especially if the child needs correcting.  Discipline often fall to the aunt or uncle, and the parents role is to love the child and fill their heads with stories. Stories to inspire the children to be the best person they can be. The Bushmen are too practical to keep something around if it does not work. They have refined these teaching practices over 20,000 years. They still seem very relevant today.

 

Jon learning from the Naro women

 

            These teaching techniques are a large part of what has brought Jon to the Kalahari. Jon has spent his life trying to connect people to nature in a meaningful ways. Jon has started outdoor schools, and teaches and lectures all over the world.

            Jon was taught nature connection from the man who may be the closest thing left to an Apache scout, Tom Brown Jr. He was also mentored by Ingwe, a man who was raised in a hunter-gatherer lifestyle with the Akomba people of Kenya, and by Gilbert Walking Bull, a Sioux elder who was taught the old ways by his grandparents.

             Jon is very connected and aware of what is happing in the world around him, but he has not let that sever his ability to interact with the modern world and people. When you talk to Jon, he is as easy to intact with as anyone else you might meet, perhaps even easier because he is very aware of body language and can alter his style accordingly.

            When not in Africa, Jon spends the rest of the year living in the hills outside of Santa Cruz teaching what he calls Deep Nature Connection.  Deep Nature Connection is what the Naro have. It is knowing bird language; it is knowing how to read tracks; it is knowing what plants are in your area and how they can help you. There is really no closer connection then between you and your food, clothing, and shelter.

            Jon had developed a distance mentoring model that allows him to reach around the world to teach others. So sometimes Jon has to go around the world himself to find those who can help teach him. He has found those teachers in the Naro Bushmen of the Kalahari.

            So, I watched the Bushmen and I watched Jon. I walked in the tracks left by Hanama’s wise feet, felling the shape of his toes with mine. With Guta, I dug out the root-balls of the velvet raisin bush to make walking sticks. Fritz, a younger Bushman, helped me carve a digging stick.

 

Fritz carves on a throwing stick

Every time we stopped for any length of time, the Naro would build a fire. The fire helped straiten and harden the pieces of wood used to make many tools.  The fire also  added a center to the group. Stories and songs flow better when there is a fire to sit near. The fire helped slow time down, and let us be entirely in the moment.

We pass the week in this rhythm, sharing time and space.

The Bushmen have many challenges ahead of them as they try to mix modern and traditional life. There are fewer places where the Naro are allowed to hunt. Without a subsistence life style, the traditional skills seem less important. If no one is paying attention, in a few short years much of this wisdom could be lost.

            The Naro around Grasslands Lodge have been lucky in some ways.They have found that there are people all over the world who are starving for traditional knowledge. The Naro have been able to turn this into a way to make a living in this changing world, and a way to keep the traditional values alive. They have become guides, helping modern people through challenging times by teaching the primitive skills that build a strong bond with the earth. I hope that more people can make the trip to visit the Bushmen and learn from them. I hope that the Bushmen can learn to balance the benefits of the modern world with their traditional values.  I know I will think of them often: Guta, grinning pointing out a gemsbok trail, Xigao playing the part of an antelope, Hannama’s wise face as he squats, while setting spring-hare trap, and the sound of the women’s voices as they sing in the firelight. Now when I close my eyes I can still smell the dry straw of the savannah, feel the heat of the mid-day sun hanging in the north, and hear the red-eyed bulbul scolding a mongoose. Even though I have traveled thousands of miles since leaving Africa, I know the Kalahari will never be too far away.

 

Camel thorn

The Aspen Stand

A black bear catches our scent, but because we are a long way away with a very large camera lens, can't spot us.

(Continued from last week’s post)

Why take you on this walk of words, you ask, if I’m not even at Pine Butte yet?

Because I want you to get excited to come visit the Rocky Mountain Front with me (and Jeff, several horses and two dogs).  And because I want to show you pictures, to jog your memory, or to show you something new you haven’t seen.

I want you to remember what you thought when you ate breakfast in the Lodge— your eggs to-order and that scone that smelled too good to resist—then we worked it off by hiking all morning.

If you never watched a black bear though my spotting scope, then I want the smudge of your eyebrow pressed against the glass as you see her dig up root bulbs, probably yellow bells and glacier lilies.

If you have, then I want you to disappear from the humming whir of your computer fan and the honk and rumble of traffic outside, and come visit where you can do ear Yoga—yes I said ear Yoga—stretching your hearing out to the soft sounds of nature.

This is me being sentimental, because I am getting excited to head back to Montana. I am listening to the bird songs, and pawing through my flower books and wondering where all that information went. It was in my head, and somewhere— somehow—it dribbled out and I left a trail of natural history knowledge on the ground behind me.

Except the natural history knowledge I that didn’t come from books; the experiences that are more than just a name and a fact. Those stories I tell you have a smell, a taste, a touch…they live in too many spots in my head for me to forget them.

It might take me writing these flimsy words to remember the real reason Soapberry (Shepherida canadensis) is called Soapberry, and the slippery taste on my tongue when I eat one to prove it to you. I’ll make the same pinched face when I try and eat a chokecherry before it’s ripe.

Chokecherry (Prunus virginianus)...the berry that taste great when it's ripe, and makes my toes curl when it's not.

But now I’m distracted, and we haven’t even gone anywhere.

Let’s hike right out behind the Ranch, because going up to North Yeager takes us into a lot of different habitats, and Jeff and I hike it for work and for fun.

And we get to start out in an Aspen stand, and understand that these are the signature trees of the Rocky Mountains for good reason.

They are stunning, and insanely cool.

Here at Pine Butte, we have decided that these hundred or so trees can be divided into two clones. The East Clone reminds me of Mr. Smith from The Matrix movie, making nearly exact copies of himself right down to that ugly wart. Except these are Aspens, so they all have the same genetic information that gives them a strange, somewhat undignified twist in their trunks, but they are still gorgeous.

I rub my hand on the white bark, and it comes away looking Geisha-white. This is how the Aspen keep their photosynthetic bark from sunburn.

You can really see the photosynthetic bark (green chlorophyll) when the aspen are wet.

I know, even the trees have to worry about too much sun damage. So slather on your sunscreen because you just realized you forgot to put it on, or rub some Aspen powder on your face. Either will work, but it’s hard to keep the Aspen powder from blowing off your face as we walk past the other Aspen clone.

This is how we have decided these are two separate clones, by watching them bud-out in spring and change colors in the fall.

The trees, roughly divided by a stretch of grassy field, dress up for spring and dress down for fall in two big blocks. The East block is usually a little quicker than the West block.

But don’t worry; they both get along. They may even be a male clone and a female clone (though I haven’t gotten the nerve to climb up the 40-foot trunks to check their sex in the spring).

A good fall in Rocky Mountain aspen country

But it wouldn’t really matter with Aspen, not in this century, because these clones spread rhizominously.

Yup. That’s a mouthful, and possibly not even a true word. Regardless, Aspens spread with rhizomes, which is a real word derived from the Greek noun rhizoun (to fix firmly) and a derivative of rhiza (root). Aspens spread via their roots, sending them out like giant underground fingers. Every so often, a stem pops out of the soil and an aspen trunk appears.

If you ever have the pleasure, or terror, of witnessing a tremendous windstorm or microburst (more common in Colorado) as it rips through an Aspen stand, you may get to see just how interconnected an entire clone is when the gigantic, shallow root system fails and the trees begin to fall like dominoes.

I’ve seen the aftermath, never the process (thank goodness) of an aspen rhizome clone being ripped from the earth.

Even a dead aspen is a great home. The soft bark is malleable enough for the weak-beak of a red-breasted nuthatch.

More on the amazing aspen next week, and if I stop talking and start walking, we’ll make it to the bear tree.

Song of the Morning

 

 

Day 2:

 I wake in the predawn blackness, light a candle so I can see to dress, and slip out into the still morning. I stand for few moments listening to the morning sounds, then I walk forward quietly—ten steps—stop—listen—look back over both shoulders—then another ten steps.

         

Maybe I am paranoid, but I am trying to immerse my senses in this African morning. I want to know every sound and the meaning of each noise as it changes. I also do not want to give a leopard the idea that I might be an easy meal.

 

As I near the main lodge building, the lions over in the Predator Project cage begin roaring. This is a sound that comes like the crash of a wave. I feel that if I am at all off-balance, I might be swept away. It makes me feel very small and pitifully blind in the dim morning light. The lions rattle the fences and I wonder how well the fences work to hold a 400-pound cat. I slip into a darker shadow of the porch and wait for the dawn. My heart rate rises, I feel very alive and aware of the wonderful fragility of that.

         

With the coming sun, the lions cease shaking the ground and it becomes easy to believe that the lions are all safe within their enclosure.  I pull out a camp chair and sit to watch the water hole.

         

I hear the sparrow hawk coming before see it. Or more specifically, I hear the silence that surrounds it. The small birds have stopped all their morning noises and hidden in thickets. Then the hawk comes in low and fast over the pond looking for any small bird still unaware and in the open.  There is a scuffle in a shrub on the far side of the water and a few feathers drift down. Soon all the other birds are back at their normal activities knowing the sparrow hawk will not need to eat again soon.  I think of the lions and my own silence in the shadows.

 

Our group assembles. Robin has already been out tracking the sand roads. He tells us of the Jackal tracks he found, Jon tells of the insects that passed his cabin in the night: millipede, dung beetle, and small antelope the size of medium dog—the Duiker.

 

The sand here tells stories to anyone who takes the time to listen.

 

Tapping Beatle Tracks

 

We meet the Naro and head in to the bush. Today, Xigio shows us basic survival skill for the desert dwellers, or what every bushman child by the age of 3 knows. Here, even with our group’s depth of outdoor experience, we may as well be helpless babes for what we do not know. But we learn fast. Xigio show a small plant with opposite leaves, and starts to dig. The soil moves fast, like digging on the beach. Soon he has a large root in his hands the size of cantaloupe. He uses the clean end of his digging stick to chop in to the base making a pulp of the root, then he holds the pulp in his hand and using his thumb as a spout, squeezing out water. I have heard that in some parts of the Kalahari, plants like this might be a bushman’s only water source for months.

 

Xigao and The Bi palnt

 

          Xigio shows us several large, edible roots also dripping with water. Some of these plants tops were so small and sparse looking, it was such a surprise to dig up such a large tuber.

          The Bushmen think of these things as basic skills—things that everyone knows—for us, like tying a shoe. The Naro are surprised that we are so interested. This knowledge that the Bushmen hold is a sign of something greater; it is part of their overall awareness of the surroundings. They truly know every plant, not as a name, but as a friend. They know the strengths and limitations, and how and when to use each.

         

The Bushmen have a skill-set foreign to many of us. The Naro are truly connected the land. You might not notice some of the subtleties just by watching them. As an example: we were talking to Xguta (Gu-ta) about the tracks of a Wildebeest. He was pointing out the age of the tracks, the sex, and may other details. Later, Jon asks Xguta about a specific bird-call he had heard in the distance just as Xguta had started talking. Xguta says—as if it were the most obvious thing in the world—“Oh that? That means there is a mongoose way over there.” He had taken this all in, mid-conversation, and had already made a mental map of the wildlife around us.

    

Xigao Show us how the bushmen track

 

    

This awareness is one of the things I am hoping to learn from the Naro while I am here. I cannot think of any time in my life that increased awareness will not be a helpful.

I tend to think I know my home ground pretty well…but do I really?

 

Are there bird calls I don’t know the meaning of? Are there plants I do not know or only by name? Are there animals whose habits I do not understand?

 

The answer is yes to all of those. It is now time for me to open my ears, eye and nose.

Time to feel everything I can from my than just my hands—use my entire skin. My senses are here, now I just need to use them. Hopefully then, I might know when the leopard stalks near.