Saturday, September 20, 2014

Swift Watch

September wouldn't be complete without  Swift Watch, when thousands of Portlanders come to watch thousands of Vaux's swifts come to roost for the evening in a chimney at the Chapman Elementary School.  There were about 4,500 swifts on the night we watched them, and they were amazing.  As sunset approaches, they begin to swoop and circle, and eventually form tornadoes of birds that spiral into the chimney in waves.  The noise from the birds and the noise from the crowd is intense.  They make their way from as far away as Alaska and Yukon to Central Mexico and Costa Rica, where the flying insects that they eat are plentiful in the winter. The week before we went to Swift Watch, we saw a talk at the Audubon Society given by Larry Schwitters, who has been studying swifts in Washington and throughout the Pacific Northwest.  He spent four years surveying waterfalls, looking for black swifts which actually nest behind them.  Now he is studying Vaux's swifts and learning some surprising things about them.  

One of the things he is doing is looking for likely spots where they may roost. He ferrets out old, brick chimneys, and if they are a proper diameter (neither too small for them to fit inside comfortably, nor too wide so that owls can get in at night and feast) he tries to determine if they can be observed entering at dusk or leaving at dawn during fall or spring migration.  Swifts also have been known to roost on the exterior of brick structures and on the bark of trees, but hollow snags and chimneys have many advantages.  He has taken temperature measurements and determined that the bricks themselves do more than just provide something for their feet to grip, they actually retain heat and help the birds to stay warm at night.  There are so many suitable brick chimneys along the east coast that swifts have apparently stopped nesting in snags altogether, but along the west coast chimneys are more scarce. This scarcity can lead to huge numbers of swifts using the same chimney, a truly spectacular sight.  The one big disadvantage of these artificial structures is that they often have wide ledges at the top, where enterprising predators can perch.  Predators will go there in the mornings, with all the swifts trapped inside, and simply wait for them to come out to pick them off one by one.  To protect them, thin, vertical metal barriers can be placed around the chimney opening.

In addition to the Chapman school in Portland, he mentioned that there are perhaps 900 Vaux's swifts roosting in the chimney of the St. Johns Cinema, which can also be seen entering around sunset and leaving around sunrise.  The Chapman School apparently is not at all thrilled that thousands of people descend on their school grounds every September evening, and definitely refuse to welcome them at dawn and in the springtime when the swifts are roosting there once again during spring migration. But looking at the huge crowds this phenomena attracts, I can't help but think that if Chapman School hasn't been able to take advantage of this to help fund all sorts of programs at their school,  something is definitely wrong. And the fact that thousands of people gather each evening to watch birds together means something is surely right about Portland!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

CRESA Community Expo

The Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency's Community Expo turns out to be surprisingly awesome!  Jasper was excited to check it out, and I was amazed what a great learning opportunity this annual event is.  Families had a chance to see emergency equipment of all kinds and talk to emergency service providers to ask as many questions as they wanted.  The Clark County Sheriff's Department was there to do an amazing K9 demonstration. The dogs showed off their drug sniffing skills, then attacked a "bad guy".  He was dressed in a thick, padded suit to prevent injury.  Search and rescue techs talked about their work in both urban and wilderness areas.   The Army Corps of Engineers showed off their emergency communications vehicle and talked about their capabilities in disaster relief.  The Metropolitan Explosive Disposal Unit was there with one of their vehicles and a small robot.  They have a larger robot which is able to pick things up, but the small one they brought has video cameras and can climb stairs!  Clark Public Utilities had a crazy diorama which showed people doing hazardous things that could cause electrocution.  They would explain what the hazards were and then push a button that would create a small arc in the diorama to illustrate the hazard. Jasper thought this was really hilarious! We got to see the 911 dispatch hard at work. There were also tons of giveaways and info on just about every possible way to keep your family safe on a daily basis and in disasters.  We both learned a lot.  I was surprised to learn that in Washington State, children under age 13 are not allowed to ride in the front seat of cars.  Jasper was surprised that there are so many agencies beyond police, fire and emergency medical technicians devoted to public safety.

Ouch!  Someone in this diorama is shocked to learn about electrical hazards!
Run!  A police dog gives chase!
The bomb squad truck.
A beautiful antique fire truck.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Sleeping Beauty

The hike to the top of Sleeping Beauty is all about the view.  It's a short but quite steep ascent, but well worth it for the dramatic vistas in a complete circle around the top.  When we were almost there, Jasper spotted a track which seems to have been left by one of the mountain's elusive inhabitants, a mountain goat.  
An artifact left from the fire lookout that once was at the peak.
Mt. Adams.
Mt. Adams.
Mountain goat track.
Scouler's harebell.
Jasper was excited to see mushroom season beginning! Photo by Jasper.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Silver Star

We've found a new favorite hike!  Silver Star is a loop hike with 5.6 miles of sweeping vistas and field after field of wildflowers.  Even in late summer when wildflower season is well over, there were still many to be spotted.  The trail is called "Ed's Trail" for Ed Robinson, a wildflower admirer who especially loved this area and was a founder of the Chinook Trail Association.  On a clear day, you can see Mt. Hood, Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams and Mt. Rainier.  There weren't many clouds on the day of our hike, but the horizon was pretty hazy, so we could only just make them out.  There is a cool rock arch to walk through, and two spots that require actual hand-over-hand climbing (although they aren't difficult).  A high clearance vehicle is a good choice for reaching the trailhead.  

When we returned to our car, the sun was setting.  On the way home, our headlights caught a strange critter waddling slowly across the logging road on stumpy legs.  Hardly any of its shape could be discerned- it looked rather like a very large, stiff rag mop.  As we gaped in astonishment, we realized we were facing its posterior, and it was pausing unconcernedly to poop before moving off noisily into the tall grass.  A porcupine!  They do not move quickly and have terrible eyesight, so it wasn't much bothered by us.  Jasper was astonished!  He simply had no idea there were porcupines around us.  I explained that there are, in fact, all sorts of mammals that live in our part of Oregon that we never see for the simple reason that they are nocturnal and we are not.  I know you'll be so sorry to learn that we didn't have a camera handy so that we could share the sight of a porcupine pooping.

Common harebell.
Ed's Trail dedication plaque.
Desert parsley.
Mountain dogbane.
A pika disappears headfirst under a rockpile.  It's carrying a plant to add to its winter food store.
This climb is part of the trail.
Western rattlesnake root.
Explorer's gentian.
Shining angelica.
Colorful lichen.