Field Notes #2

April 13, 2009

Why do I still do this?   Why, at my age, do I follow as if I were nine years old unmarked, unpaved trails away from what I know into the wilds of what I don’t know?     That’s how this striving creation—part light, part water, part air, part earth, and all aspiring flesh—shows itself to me, in the mutual bodying forth between us. It seems an involvement composed of equal slices revelation and formation, since in discovery, everything changes, the New erupts into being, not just in me, the older wide-eyed child, but in this juvenile Creation.

Today, I begin at the Crossfire Canyon’s cliffs, taking inventory of the birds.   A few days earlier I saw cliff swallows flash between the rims, returning or passing through.   Had they stayed or gone?   To find out, I take to the air myself, or at least to the boundary between earth and air, the rimrocks.    

No swallows present themselves, nor white-throated swifts, whom are said to arrive in May but actually begin slicing the wind in Crossfire  in April.   Down in the canyon, the southwestern version of the spotted towhee calls.   Chee-chee-chee-vrrrrrrrr, chee-chee.   In the Sibley Guide to Birds, Sibley remarks that geographic differences in plumage and voice among the towhees  are €œpoorly understood. €

I chuckle.   What understanding doesn’t feel poorly?  

Up-canyon, a raven croaks.  

In the crease below, Crossfire Creek (not its real name) steps down-canyon in a series of beaver dams, built over the last three years.   Evidence of prior beaver occupation exists around the creek—a few weathered tree spikes where beavers harvested the tree’s woody height, trunk damage more fortunate trees recovered from, forming scabs of  new wood and bark  on their wounds.   I’ve heard rumor that a former neighbor trapped out that previous beaver population.  

When I first moved to this area four summers ago, arriving just before the new wave of beavers, the creek was a wiry marathon runner making a tense dash of snow  melt from the Abajo Mountains before summer played it out.   By July, its flow foreshortened to spring-fed stretches and pools formed around the roots of gigantic boulders that had sheared from cliffs and tumbled to the canyon’s lowest points.    When I first arrived here, the creek stopped flowing within view of where I now sit.   Or it pumped flash floods down to the river running twenty-plus miles from here. Under the beaver’s lavish attention, ephemeral Crossfire Creek has grown more stable and Rubenesque.   Now, instead of tenuous and occasional depths, sinuous silver riffles, tight channels and leaf-littered shallows, deepening green pools plump between a growing number of beaver dam belts. Many of these ponds outlast the summer, a little water made much of.

Approximately two miles upstream from here stands one of the county’s twenty-eight human-built dams, 265-acre Crossfire Reservoir, completed in 1984.   At spillway crest, it stores 9,319 acre-feet of water and 16,000 acre-feet at dam crest.   In the summer of 1983, I remember riding with BYU archaeology field school students on the old highway that dipped down into Crossfire’s then narrow canyon and rose again before falling once more through the pine and juniper forest to the cleared outskirts of the town were I now live.   Some of the archaeologists I worked with the summers of ’83- €˜86 conducted the archaeological assessment of Crossfire’s banks in preparation for the dam’s construction.        

The old highway now serves as access to the north and south shores of the lake, its crossing lying below water with a mean depth of 35.2 feet.   A fine new highway of safer design runs  over the reservoir’s south-westernmost end,  across the dam.

I have upon occasion used the beaver dams below to cross the creek.  

No swallow, no swifts.   The ones I saw earlier in the month must have been migrating through.   Except for butterflies flowing down from the mesa behind me, launching themselves over the cliffs and diving for landforms below, and other winged insects recently hatched, the air is unoccupied.

The desert has begun dabbing on perfumes.   In the wind, a dry, clean, sweet odor, light on turpenes from the sun-warmed pinion pines and sage, and maybe something that rises from the dust of ages when spring temperatures loosen the soil.   General notes of reviving vegetation in the fragrance.   The ephedra stands robust, erect bristles losing their wintertime palor, flushing pine green.   Prickly pear cactuses, whose paddles flush purple during winter dormancy, likewise greening up.   Cliffroses fill out their stalks, erupting miniatures of the leaves that will cover their black twigs and brances.   Soon intoxicating  incense  will drop from clouds of pale yellow flowers, forming pools around each plant that will flow out in redolent call to local pollinating insects.   The princess plumes are awakening, green blades rising along tall stems toward the flowerhead, a large, ornate structure of yellow-blond bloom.  

Scrub jay.
Canyon wren: tew-tew-tew-tew-tew-tew-tew, in falling scale.

Raven: Aw-aw-aw-aw.

Today, the canyon is a music box of birdsong.

Lacking swallow- and swift-flight to wonder at, I feel the itch to move.   I pick up book, pen, canteen, and walk south, following the cliffs.   There’s something about keeping to the cliffs, treading the edge of my physical possibilities.   The perspective, for one thing—as close to a bird’s eye view as I get.   But by this deer trail and that flow of gravity, I find myself fifty feet below the canyon rim, then one hundred.   I realize I want to go down into the canyon and begin looking for a way compatible with the truth of my flightless condition.

Threading my way along slopes whose soils hang loose from weeks of freeze-thaw, dancing gingerly across fields of clattering, shifting rocks flowing in stone creeks however slowly toward the canyon floor, I slip, slide, and stumble my way down.   Indian paintbrush  flashes up  in scarlet flames from inside other plants, including a pigmy sage with tiny leaves and delicate stems.   Don’t know its real name.   I pick a couple leaves and breathe in their scent, sweeter and lighter than the much larger sage species growing along leveler ground.    It’s a rock creature, this little sage, up here on the canyon’s steep slopes with other species able to flourish the uneven terrain.   The paintbrushes foretell the arrival of hummingbirds, who follow red flower flames back and forth across hemispheres.

My knee, injured over a year ago, isn’t happy at all with how I’ve gone about this day, so I try to make short work of the descent without doing myself further harm.   I’m now about  a hundred  feet above the canyon bottom, in a bench zone where another spring flows toward the creek.   I have unanswered questions about this area but have already pushed past my time limit and have a couple miles to cross to get from home.  

After resting, I continue flowing down to the streambed and strike a cattle trail, a promising one.   Animals, like deer but especially cattle, prefer following paths of least resistance, so I can depend on the navigability of this trail.   I backtrack it, following the up-going hoof prints down, till I hear—then see—the creek.   As I pause to consider options for passage down the steeply eroded bank, I spot a well-used cattle trail running off in an intriguing direction.   Not the way home, but what’s around that bend?

Standing in quiet consideration, I become conscious of a thick humming noise.   The sound pulls me around abruptly and I look for the source.   Below I see a tree—no, a small thicket of trees—covered in a yellow haze of tiny blossoms.   Hundreds, maybe a thousand or more honeybees and smaller bees and flies work the split buds.   The honeybees’ thighs are bulging with yellow pollen.   Ants carrying objects flow out from the foot of this thicket, whose highest branches reach maybe twenty feet into the air.   Haven’t seen anything like this anywhere else in the canyon.   The trees—whatever they are—might be producing blossoms, but the whole thicket appears to be spreading from subsurface roots.

Worth seeing, this Thicket of Life.

Whatever is going on here, for the local bees this tree grouping is among spring’s earliest and most abundant providers.

I could stay here for a long time, considering this thicket, but I’m out of time. As I walk along the creek here looking once more like that thin marathon runner trying to beat time, thin skin  rippling over sand and pebbles, I think, €œThe beavers have not come this far down the creek. €   Moments later, I discover the most remarkable beaver dam I’ve ever seen, the archetypal beaver dam, the Platonic Ideal.  

Its curved berm, a good fifty feet long, has been stacked up three-to-four feet above the streambed.   Layer upon layer of rough but efficient latticing, woven of cottonwood and willow branches and bits from other trees, maintain its staying power.   Along the dam’s outer edge lie dozens of gnawed-off tree trunks and branches, ranging from three to almost five feet in length and up to fourteen inches in diameter.   None of the upstream dams  have this feature and at first I think this jumble of wood sloppy work or unfinished business.   But then I see that the ends of these branches and logs have been planted in the stream bed and bank at various bracing angles against the dam’s convex surface or laid such that an end presses down  on the dam’s crest, clearly a deliberate engineering choice, though I’ve never seen this kind of fortified damwork.  

A smooth pond of deep, green water—deep for desert—backs up behind the reservoir and curves out of sight, I’m guessing about two hundred feet.   Wow.   Wow.   None of the upstream beaver dams amount to anything like this, having between them walls modest by comparison, no more than twenty feet wide, woven from reeds and much smaller tree parts.    Such water impoundments pale next to the one stretching back from this structure.   Water runs over this dam’s spillway at what I imagine is the stream’s normal flow rate. From the dam the creek slithers south-southeast, running once more flat against its bed.

Talk about intelligent design.   I am in awe of how much beavers can do with so little water, of how much change they have brought to the canyon in the three years they’ve been here.   Depending on what happens during the summer months, I expect to see dry-boned, wry little Crossfire Creek become something of an Eden for the local tight-lipped flora and fauna.  

I follow the trail running along the western edge of the pond to discover I’m wrong about the length of the pool.   The backup runs at least two hundred feet beyond what I guessed, submerging what used to be the trail’s stream crossing beneath water approximately two feet deep for a twenty-foot stretch.  

As I stop to consider my options, I hear a hawk’s scree.  

A mourning dove’s coo-ah, hoo, hoo.  

Can’t cross without getting powerful wet, and I don’t want to get that wet this far from home.   Have to find another way.




Woodpecker’s duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh as it drums.

Taking de tour, I come across a wood rat’s nest (?), a mound of twisted sagebrush parts standing about eighteen inches high.   Also the odor of cat urine, bobcat probably, though puma is not out of the question.

I follow a cattle trail on an up-and-down byway till I meet up again with the main trail, stitched here with turkey tracks.   Now I’m tired and running out of water.   The rest of the path is familiar, but the next point where it crosses the stream contains the seed of another dam.   Soon this crossing, too,  will lie underwater.

Worn out and sore-kneed, the water in my canteen reduced to a rattling slosh, I work my way home.   As I pass the smaller upstream beaver dams, I think how fortunate I am to have moved to this canyon before the beavers arrived so that I could witness what unfolds from their prowess in hydraulic engineering.   A multiplying of fishes and plants, an arousal  of uncanny green.   A reduction of walkable ground.   The ATV trail, which remains outlawed, submerged and rendered impassable.   Shifts in animal populations as new creatures utilize the abundance of water and old residents undergo population surges.   Almost certainly, a lot more biting gnats and mosquitoes.

Yep, look at me here, in the right place at the right time.     I’m one lucky 53-year-old kid.


23 thoughts on “Field Notes #2”

  1. Patrricia,

    If the area was trapped out, could you not put in a request to the DWR to relocate a mating pair of beavers into Crossfire to repopulate? Seems academic to me. Beavers are a nuisance in lots of locations– better to have them in natural places than flooding someones pasture or blocking of Utah Highway 40 with a new pond.


  2. A few initial thoughts– first, I like especially the first paragraph, which seems an unexpected twist on the invocation of a muse. With questions, rather than appositives, its very uncertainty speaks.

    Naturalist in me wants to know this: how on earth will beaver dams survive spring run off and flash floods?

    …and this: I hadn’t realized that purple was the dormant color of prickly pears– I thought that it was simply a genetic difference. Now I need to go find some prickly pears to see what color they are.

    …and this: are you free from (or did you restrain) the impulse I always feel to poke into rats’ nests to see what they might have gathered up? It’s a bit like digging through your brother’s sock drawer to see what he’s stashed away. But then, you’re probably too mature for that.

    …were the tree’s flowers leguminous?

    …is the Platonic pond deep enough for a swim?


  3. Jim,

    Last year, I discovered the stretch of creek where the beavers hung out in the evening. I force-marched my kids down just before dusk hoping to show them living, breathing beavers. It was taking a chance. What if the beavers weren’t there?

    I led my son and daughter along the creek bank, sneaking up on the channel where I hoped to find the beavers again. Imagine my absolute delight when we discovered not only the mating pair grooming each other, working those water-proofing oils through each other’s fur, but three butterball kits, cuteness factor off the scale.

    A lovely scene of beaver domestic bliss.

    Since then, the dams have multiplied and replenished along the creek. Can’t get over how many have sprung up so fast. I suppose I ought to go down and do a dam survey.


  4. greenfrog,

    Naturalist in me wants to know this: how on earth will beaver dams survive spring run off and flash floods?

    They don’t, not completely. What I’ve witnessed is that flash floods snap through some dams, then the beavers make repair. Some dams, due to location or flood dynamics, seem to fare worse than others. But I wonder how the dynamics of flash floods change when the number of dams increases. A good question to take to the beavers. I’ll jot it down.

    €¦and this: I hadn’t realized that purple was the dormant color of prickly pears €” I thought that it was simply a genetic difference. Now I need to go find some prickly pears to see what color they are.

    I moved here in the winter, and seeing those purple prickley pears I wondered if they were dying. But four springs now have shown that the cactuses green up rather quickly once the temps rise.

    €¦and this: are you free from (or did you restrain) the impulse I always feel to poke into rats’ nests to see what they might have gathered up? It’s a bit like digging through your brother’s sock drawer to see what he’s stashed away. But then, you’re probably too mature for that.

    I have become enlightened enough to have been freed from inclinations to such coarse nosiness.

    €¦were the tree’s flowers leguminous?

    I don’t know. Is there a way to tell? These were tiny blossoms, maybe I can get back down there and get pictures. I don’t associate such small, tight flowers with legumes, though. Don’t look like bean blooms.

    €¦is the Platonic pond deep enough for a swim?

    Ideally, I suppose it ought to be deeper.

    And if you’re trying to get me to admit I can’t swim, I’m not gonna. 😉


  5. I forgot to mention—as is becoming, I hope, traditional on these Field Notes posts, anyone having field notes of their own is on very sight of these posts invited to add their own observations/experiences/memories of adventures past in the comments section.

    That’s what really makes these posts fun.


  6. Leguminous flowers all look alike, structurally, though depending on the species they range from teeny tiny to pretty big. So if they weren’t shaped like bean or pea blossoms, the tree must be something else. I wondered though, because I have a wisp of a memory of finding a yellow-blossomed tree in canyonlands that was clearly leguminous, but I didn’t i.d. it at the time, and I’ve regretted not figuring it out at a time when I had enough details in my head to do so.


  7. Then no, not leguminous.

    Not really like anything I’ve ever seen. I look forward to going back once the leaves have erupted and learning what I can.


  8. Hardly field notes, but perhaps a step or two toward becoming such:

    The weather in Denver this year has been just a shade or two more extreme than normal, and it’s been interesting to see the results of it.

    Despite the impression one gains from watching Monday Night Football games played in Denver, winters here are very much milder than those I became accustomed to in Chicago. Yes we do get cold and snow, but even the deep January cold is usually interspersed with 50 and 60 degree days that melt the snow and makes it all seem easier than the hunker-down approach Chicago required.

    This February though, it got more than warm-for-winter warm. We had several days in a row in the low 70s. I had to do a fair bit of travel in March, and I noticed that daffodils and snowdrops seemed clocked together, no matter where I went– Denver, DC, or Amsterdam. The trees, though, seemed linked more ot temperature than to orbital positioning. With the February warmth in Denver, the crabapples decided to get started. In early March, the buds all cracked, tiny new leaves emerged around a spray of flower buds. A few buds began to open. Then winter returned for us. Temperatures dropped to the low 20s. A series of light snow storms.

    The crabapple leaves and blossoms, having shed their winter wear, froze dead. The ashes and aspens and peaches (like my teenagers) seem to be slower to awaken, and having stayed in bed during the March freezes, don’t seem any worse for the wear. Most of them are still waiting for the snooze button on their alarm clocks to ring again before they get going. But the crabs look stricken. By now, the once-charteuse greenery has faded to olive and brown. If prior patterns hold, the trees will shed their too-early efforts as spring brings up more sap from their roots, new and smaller buds reform, and leaves emerge sometime in June. There won’t be flowers, nor fruit. But if patterns hold and weather doesn’t repeat this year next year, the year off from fruit-building may be good for the trees in the long run.

    Still, as I walk by them, they look as I imagine the fig tree might have, the day after Jesus and the disciples walked past it.


  9. greenfrog,

    If I were still living further north in Utah, I think I’d be seeing spring more like you’re seeing it in CO. Down here in SE Utah, we’ve been spared half or two thirds of the storms and tricky temperatures, though the winds have been horrendous. Happily, I think the thicker weather’s clearing off, at least for a while.

    Today’s field notes:

    The turkey vultures have been back for about a week and a half now. I saw them two weeks ago in western Colorado, so it appears they arrive in Colorado before they take up residence in their summer air space here.

    I watch them fly, thinking I’m being unnecessarily critical, maybe because I find something distasteful about their tastes. But maybe not.

    I cross paths with vultures several times this a.m. They’re kiting low, their flight lazy and wholly unkempt. There’s not a drop of beauty or art in how they conduct themselves in flight. They lack the obvious grace and power that sizzles in eagles’ flight which to my eye is aesthetically fit. These creatures flap their wings as little as possible, riding winds in a rocking glide, correcting to improve stability only when absolutely necessary. I can admire them for their careful conservation of energy, but that’s about all. Thus they float for miles, hardly stirring a wing, on the lookout for road- or winterkill.

    As I approach the gravel pit, four big black birds swirl past, causing me to wonder if anything has found and made use yet of the dead coyote. I go out of my way to look. Only flies—no evidence at all of the work of scavengers.

    The morning is dark, clouding over. I thought the sky would clear, but now it appears the cover is thickening as cloudbanks roll in out of the northeast from northern Utah and northwest Colorado. Miles out, due east, I see rain in the sky.

    Earlier, the half-moon showed itself, looking translucent in the blue breaks, having made its journey halfway across the sky’s dome. It’s covered now.

    At one of my higher cliff stations, I find the air empty even of butterflies. The last two nights have been deeply cold (for spring), and the days have brought flash floods of wind, dervishes and engines and blasts of it. Life slowed down. The wind was intimidating enough to keep me penned in, and that’s saying something.

    The light in the canyon changes moment to moment as clouds of varying thickness slide between the ground and sun. Everytime I look up, the canyon appears as a different place.

    Watching the clouds move, I’m thinking I’m on the outer edge of a pinwheel of weather. It seems the clouds are spinning out of CO, the outer edges of the wheel extending 60-100 mi. into Utah. Then the wheel turns south, bending south-southeast into AZ and NM, both of which seem more cloud-bound.

    A hawk or falcon cuts across canyon high above, emitting a chipping call. The canyon walls catch the call, gather it, and amplify it, so the sharp sounds seem to come from low down in the canyon and close by rather than so far up I can barely see the bird making them.

    When I walk home later and get a clearer, wider view of what’s happening in the clouds, I see evidence that suggests that the canyon has indeed lain in the crook of a bending arm of storminess. More blue sleeve appears north and west.

    Hopefully, clearer, warmer days ahead.


  10. Want to add, that when I get home to see what Sibley has to say about turkey vultures, I find I’m not the only one who finds their flight aesthetically unappealing.

    “wingbeats clumsy, slow; body moves up and down; flight unsteady, rocking” (p. 107)


  11. I stand corrected.

    If you’d like to import that comment over here, g.f., feel free. It would make a nice counterpoint.


  12. Vultures have often visited me when I’ve been landscape painting in the mountains (I hope that doesn’t say something about my art!) Since I’m focused on painting, I usually don’t know they’re there until one of the vultures hits me with it’s shadow. That’s when I look up, startled, to see them swooping and gliding, obviously enjoying their ride. Sometimes one or another of them will fly close enough that I can see them cock their red head to observe me. They’ll do this for a little while, then slowly move off, regaining altitude. I have to admit, I enjoy watching them. They seem to take such pleasure in their gliding flight, especially on windy days. I’ll also admit I hope the vultures never get TOO close!

    I’m sometimes surprised to find beauty in otherwise unpleasant creatures.

    During the height of summer, huge swarms of pale midges appear near Utah Lake. Their masses form clouds and wispy columns that look like smoke from small, scattered campfires. These insects are about the size of mosquitoes, maybe a little bigger. They don’t bite, however, and cause no problems, unless you happen to blunder into one of their low swarms. Then you run the risk of accidently inhaling one or two of them. *cough*yuck*

    One evening in June I was walking along the bank of the Provo River near the lake. Earlier in the day the weather had been unsettled, but now the clouds were clearing out. The air was quite pleasant, though the breezes were still gusty. The sun had set, and the orange glow on the western horizon offset the deepening blue of the coming night. I stopped to watch one of these swarms of midges as it hovered above the trees by the river. The gusty breezes forced the swarm into fascinating shapes and patterns. The swarm would stretch and collapse, divide and rejoin, swirl and form graceful arabesques. Rarely do I think of insects as graceful, but this swarm of midges seemed to be. After watching for several minutes, three ospreys came wheeling overhead, circling and calling a few times before heading off northward. The midges had been upstaged! A few stars began to appear in the eastern sky, and I headed home.


  13. O-o-o-o-kaaaay, now that I’ve been gently but thoroughly reprimanded for my animadversion of the turkey vultures, I’ve been forced to re-examine my thinking about them. Looking through field notes from years past, I find my language about vultures much more wonder-filled. So what has changed?

    Pulling my thinking/feeling apart, I realize I’m feeling some anxiety that the turkey vultures set off. It might have something to do with my discovery of the dead coyote along one of my favorite trails. But considering closely, I find most of the angst’s energy concentrated in an absence I’m feeling— the stark absence of lighter wings in the air.

    Where are the cliff swallows, the white-throated swifts, the hummingbirds? Their much-anticipated return is long overdue. In my sense for spring, the blooming of their wings on the air is as much a sign that the season is proceeding in order as the wild phlox blossoming or the eruption of flowers (that will almost certainly freeze) on my two peach trees.

    By this time last year, the cliff swallows had been back nearly two weeks. The white-throated swifts had arrived as well. The first male, black-chinned hummingbird showed up at the feeders April 14.

    This year, nothing, not even at the feeders. A week or so ago, I spotted a small colony of cliff swallows wheeling in the canyon, but they didn’t stay. Believe me, if the swallows have returned to residency, you know. You don’t have to sit for long before you hear or see them, spinning through the wind.

    So I’ve been longing to see the whole mix of flight, the fecundity of many flying styles and energies of which the vultures are an enjoyable part. But what I’ve gotten is mostly vultures, which, as harbingers of spring go, pose some ironies.

    Recognizing my anxiety over the absence of birds with whom I feel closer bonds, I went out to the cliffs yesterday, carrying to Crossfire’s airspace my questions about the birds. I had decided to sit tight at one of my favorite perches and keep watch. It only takes a couple hours before the bird population reveals itself. If swallows or swifts had returned, I’d see them.

    April 19, 2009.
    Despite a tipping wind, making the cliffs a little less certain of an environment than usual, I plant myself on rock and wait to see what comes. At 9 a.m., the morning is more than halfway through, and still, as a common fact, I see no swallows, swifts, or hummingbirds.

    So where is everyone?

    Out on the mesa top where I live, mountain bluebirds arrived on schedule. Also, the vultures, not only on time but en masse. Mourning doves, though there seem less of them this year than last. Maybe too early for the whole population to return? Maybe they don’t really leave, since sometimes I see mourning doves in the winter. Perhaps they remain tucked away somewhere, like the meadowlarks, whom I see year round. In the winter, the larks gather in mute gangs in the fields. It isn’t unusual to find a group scratching around the road’s edge in cold weather. When spring comes, the males color up, disperse, and stake out the world with song.

    At this hour of the morning, the airspace around, over, and within the canyon ought to be bristling with wings. Except for hawks and probably falcons— very populous in this area, with species spread across a wide range of the raptor spectrum— and a few golden eagles, Crossfire has stood unnaturally vacant for nearly two weeks.

    As I wrote the above paragraph, I heard a movement in the air, the flight equivalent of a footstep on the ground. Looking around, I caught sight of a single swift winging past at breakneck speed. I could hardly follow it with my eyes, and its speed vanished it before I could tell what kind of swift it was. Probably it’s a white-throated swift.

    Where there’s one swift, there are usually more to follow.

    This is why I’m standing ground on the canyon’s rim today, watching. I’ll keep watch one or two hours, which in the past has been sufficient for the revelation on this matter to come.

    A twitter in the air. I look, hopefully. Not swallows, only a small family of what Ed Abbey called collectively lgb’s— little grey birds. Only, if I remember, actually, he called them lgs’s— little grey sh***. Why call them that? Ah well, his writing was really about himself anyway, much less about the landscape and its life. He imposed a cranky image upon the desert.

    I hear a pair of Canadian geese and find them rising into the morning’s bluster. I only rarely saw them in this desert canyon before the beavers’ ponds set up. Now they overnight here frequently as they migrate through.

    Another very brief glimpse of a swift, which I see only after hearing it shred the wind, sheering past.

    Then two swifts, or maybe only one swift times two. Hard to follow them, separate them out visually, anticipate the movement of a swift in motion.

    As I lean back against the wind to prevent its destabalizing me, I realize I have become very weary with the wind this spring. I’ve mentioned the dust storms— not only have they been physically threatening, they’ve persistently peeled shingles off our roof. We get some of that every year, but this spring, these driving winds, especially in their long-windedness, have roamed longer in the region, causing seemingly endless trouble. Some people assert these wild winds carry negative energy that affects life adversely, like malicious spirits.

    Maybe the disorganizing winds have delayed the migration of some birds.

    I hear swifts up high. Squinting into the glare, I see white undersides— yes, they’re white-throated swifts, the only swifts that have white underbellies. It’s difficult to follow them through the eye-watering light, but I can match up their song with their movement and catch flashes of sun off their saber wings.

    Ugh. Had enough of bracing against battering-ran winds. I’m sacrificing some of my view to move down a bit where I can press my back against a rock, lean upon it for support. It’s safer, less draining.

    Yes, seeing swifts with greater frequency now. Swallows? There ought to be even more of them banking through this wind than the swifts. The usual concoction of flight filling this canyon’s canyon’s upper reaches: swifts, golden eagles, cliff swallows— usually in abundance— hummingbirds (capable of hurling their small beings to really startling heights), ravens, finches, jays (scrub and pinyon), ducks, birds I don’t yet know.

    Not a cloud in the sky, except airliner vapor trails. The wind ransacks my body for moisture. Eyes are dry, mouth goes dry frequently. Nasal passages feel downright brittle. Even with my back braced against stone, the wind manages to rock me as it careens out of the north into my left side. If the winds weren’t so driving, the day would be drowsy warm. The wind strips off the warmth before it can settle on me.

    The swifts are completely unconcerned with the wind’s velocity. Probably, the relish it. Their wings are complete know-it-alls.

    Still no swallows, eagles, hummingbirds, ravens, etc.

    Suddenly, the swifts swarm around the cliff. They exchange places so rapidly counting them is impossible. Best estimate— six, seven.

    By now, the wind has taken just about everthing I’m willing to give up. I’m heading home, though on a roundabout route, keeping close to the canyon rim, seeing what’s to be seen.

    Following a good game trail (good trail made by “game,” a trail made by good “game,” a trail that is a good game), I come across a stunning community of wild phlox. In spite of the wind, or maybe because of it, their vicinity is highly perfumed. They grow in bristly green mounds ranging in size, standing out gloriously against to the otherwise bare dirt, stones, and mostly dormant plants surrounding them. A bee or two work blossoms ranging from white to pink to pale lilac. Despite the color differences, I imagine these plants to be genetic riffs off each other, and though they grow in patches apart from each other, I sense community in the cloud of fragrance they hold in common and in how close they grow in their neighborhood, the spaces between outgrowths only a matter of group economy of resources.

    Worth seeing. But still no more birds.

    On the road home I hear the trill of a single black-chinned hummingbird. One hummingbird where there ought to be many. The tide has to turn soon— doesn’t it?


  14. Jim,

    Thanks for commenting, and welcome!

    Reading your comment reminded me I have a theory that turkey vultures use their shadows in a very deliberate way. The frequency with which their shadows strike me when I’m out on the cliffs (and sometimes elsewhere) suggests that it isn’t random, but a device on their part. Whether they do it as part of their investigation of a strange figure on the ground— who doesn’t look up when that shadow falls upon them?— or as a way of checking for signs of life (or death), I think that shadow-striking thing might be interactive on the vultures’ parts. It’s part of the fun of being among vultures (yes, deep down, I do like vultures).

    Your notes on the aesthetics of midge clouds are fun. I’m acquainted with the Utah Lake midges. Don’t know how many times I’ve heard people mistake them for mosquitoes.

    And somehow, for all the time I spent out at Utah Lake when I lived in Utah Valley, I managed to miss the ospreys. My loss.

    Did see the June suckers, though!


  15. One more comment about vultures. Despite my having to admit to their value to the ecosystem they inhabit and the (normally) high pleasure factor of watching them, I feel more bonded to the golden eagles, who are also scavengers, and the coyotes, who are generalists in their diet but who find ripe carcasses very appealing.

    Understanding that when I’m out in the desert, frequently on my lonesome, anything could happen, and suffering no delusions about the fact that I might very well meet my untimely demise in a remote area or strange crease of fate in a familiar one, I’m wondering if there’s a way to express my preference for dinner guests at my table.

    Maybe I could wear a toe-tag that says, “Eagles and coyotes only.” greenfrog and Jim, thoughtfully, because of your obvious affection for the creatures which exceeds my own, I leave the vultures to you two.


  16. Can I make a vulture field note? Years ago Paul & I were walking along the Allegheny river and saw a couple big birds far up river of us. We’d been walking a long ways and lay down to rest. The bank was cool and shady but not swampy or hard, very refreshing. We watched the birds get closer and to this day I can only guess if they were buzzards or turkey vultures. Nowadays I can tell a turkey vulture, but my memory of this pair is fuzzy on the details, twenty five years old as it is. Anyway, the birds seemed to notice us because their lazy swirling suddenly shifted somehow- it became purposeful and directed. They stopped moving away upstream and held their position for a moment as they considered.
    Paul and I decided to lie very still. We were going to play dead! The birds turned and started coming down river. They crossed over from the other side, as well. They swirled above us, but something about us still looked alive, because suddenly they turned and abandoned us. I think it was us watching them with keen interest- maybe something too much like a predator would do. They left us to find some other way of entertaining ourselves.
    These days I see few turkey vultures, but when we travel into Ohio, they have a lot of them! Our specialty is hawks.


  17. Lora,

    Could be. Maybe some little known principle at work— perhaps Newton’s secret and unrecorded Fourth Law of Motion(lessness): for every non-action there is an equal but opposite non-reaction.

    But I think the blog concensus on vulture flight is leaning away from “lazy”— acclaimed bird enthusiast David Sibley notwithstanding— and toward “elegant” and “fun.”


  18. I’m happy to comprise vulture chick down at some point in my storied continuation.

    Probably too late to advance the discussion, but here’s the cross-posted material I assembled from field notes:

    A great bird climbs into the segment of the sky far above me where the day has already dawned, the straight spread of charcoal grey wings, backlit by sunshine, the crescent moon still hanging in the morning sky. He tilts his wings forward and down, sliding, descending down the slope of air. He nears me and I can see his grey leather head, the palm-leaf veins of each primary flight feather illuminated by the sun. Dark edges where the feathers overlap. I hear the wind over his wings, a soft rushing.

    The unbroken continuity of his wings’ shape provides lift. The surface of the top curve of the wing is longer than the flat undersides. When the wing splits the air, the air rushing over the curved top side has farther to go than the air passing the flat surface beneath. Since the speed is the same, the greater distance above than beneath creates a low pressure area, a vacuum. The higher pressure beneath the wing pushes the bird higher. There are no gaps in this bird’s flight feathers to allow the pressure gradient to equalize. So he soars, apparently unworried by the physics of his flight. On wing, he turns his head and inspects [my wife], then spirals up hundreds of feet more into the cool morning sky. At the tips, the wing tops lose their foil shape, but catch the wind like dandelion seeds, bending upward with the flow of the river of air.

    He turns and wheels. The prayer of his morning flight mirrors my own, a shadow of the flying cross that sails, contorting over each contour of each talus stone. The morning’s climb to the ridge of Bowknot Bend has taxed my stiff legs and sore back. I wonder if the vulture, too, needs the slow morning flight to stretch the lactic acid from its wings and breast. Another joins the first, and together they stretch their sail wings and drift in the upwelling rivers of air that cross the low point in the canyon walls.

    [my wife] returns from her solitary explorations, I ask, and she tells me these are turkey vultures, Cathartes aura, that they have grey heads that redden as they mature. So they’re juveniles. Huge, seven feet from tip to tip.

    Civilization loathes vultures. The desert treasures them. We package our dead, shrink wrap our meats, embalm our loved ones. Better deading through chemistry. We try to freeze them in Lucite, preserve Sleeping Beauty beneath a glass bell jar, as though we could stop a river in its course. In the desert, economy reigns. Desert vultures take the dead and dying, their sunlight, their water, their proteins, their fats, and turn them into grey feathers, yellow claws, eggshells and chicks.

    I find a flat rock just beneath the ridge line and lie down. [my wife] leaves to explore more. The vultures turn, turn again, and drift out of sight, beyond the gooseneck canyon rims. I watch in silence as the earth turns slowly toward the sun, my head against the stone holding still, to see the exact moment of sunrise at this spot. The earth keeps to its slow spin, the sun at the canyon rim glints, then gleams, then blazes. I squint and close my eyes, feeling the warmth on my face, sunshine, photons from nuclear fires a short few million miles away.

    Warmed, I rise, recross the ridge, and explore the top of the talus slope at the base of the knife-edge cliffs that rise toward the river bend. The sun has yet to dawn here, but in days past has baked the grasses into buckskin-colored fountains that rustle softly in the morning breeze. Tufts of desert plants on the slope grab life out of the rotted sandstone soil. A precarious perch, a bad place for perennials, but a few seasons growth is enough to spread their seed. Their reproduction imperative satisfied, the plant line continues. Something, it looks like leafless green branched sticks, maybe an ephedra, grows out of the dust.

    Alone and haunted, I look for silver sage to crush and smell and remember. Though it’s everywhere in Colorado and Utah, here I can find none. Seeing the dry grass again, I grab a bunch. Its toughness surprises me, instead of a handful of dry leaves of grass, I get roots, too. The plants are stronger than the stones that hold them. At the edge of a steep drop, I strike match to stone, ignite the grass and watch its smoky flash-burn on the flat of a boulder. The smoke smell sharpens my focus on the stone. The grass burns quickly to the damp roots, then smolders. When it has released its brightness and smoke, I rub out the glowing embers with a finger. The carbon that the grass pulled from the air last month now stains black a patch of stone already stained red by oxygen. The last wisp of smoke rises above the knife-edged ridge into the sunshine and disappears. Remembrance paid, I pick my way back to the saddle, find [my wife] and descend.


  19. Thanks for sharing that, greenfrog.
    Sorry I missed the blog concensus, I feel so Napoleon Dynamite right now, lol. At any rate, maybe I can backpedal and say that when I said lazy, why of course I was using the term to mean economizing. I also wanted to say that vulture flight sometimes reminds me of crow flight, again with the lazy. They get to look laid back, anyway.


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