Posted by: atowhee | November 20, 2007

Keeping watch by day

songsparrow.jpgThis singing Song Sparrow was captured by Len Blumin in California.  The ones local to Ashland, Oregon are browner with much less gray.

“Hawks are sensitive to the eye and do not like to be regarded.  It is their prerogative to regard.”      —The Goshawk, by T. H. White.

Bridget and I took our early morning walk at the upper Granite Street rock quarry.  Now used to dump occasional truckloads of broken stone or unwanted tree clippings by the whomever the owner is. It’s a gaping gouge from the western slope of the Lithia Creek Canyon, about one hundred feet above the creek and a couple thousand feet below the ridge that tops the views to south and west…on a clear day.  This isn’t a clear day as a rain storm brought wet and cold temps overnight.

Along the quarry’s rim, two hundred feet higher than the entrance, it’s overlooked by cedar, madrone, oak and Ponderosa.  Weeds, manzanita and other bursh have begun to reclaim some of the gravel slope.  In one wet spot at the base of western slope willows form a thicket fifteen feet high.  Open ground makes for good sniffing for Bridget, and the open skies afford me fine birding views for all 360-degrees of horizon.

South of the quarry Lithia Creek Canyon narrows and rises at once.  The quarry base is about 2200-feet in elevation.  The creek flows down from Mount Ashland which is more than five thousand feet higher at its peak. Yet it’s only a few miles south.  Today Mount Ashland’s covered in snow though it’s invisible.  I can be sure because my view north across the valley to Grizzly Peak shows white well below its 5747-foot ridgeline summit. 

The dawn is cold and gray.  No wind as is usual in this canyon.  Well overhead I see gray being blown north.  Down here near the base of the Siskiyous low puffs of cloud rise from the forest, like vapors from abraiding dry ice.  It’s cold smoke, fumes of water in an atmosphere already saturated.  The water vapor seems to be seeking some place to settle.  These thin clouds have no shape, but many shapes–first they are cumulous tufts, then trailing streamers in parallel rows, then columnar as from an unseen chimney in the woods, then thinning to a gauzy mist.  Sometimes you would swear there are scattered smoking campfires in the forest, each letting off its odd-shaped plumes of pale gray smoke.  But it’s only the various forms of airborne moisture.  ‘Twould be a mighty challenge to build or keep a fire in these soaked woods this day.  Unheard and unfelt air currents along the treetops move the airy clouds about: merging them, them tearing them to shreds, even driving them into the trees where they seems to flow around the pines.  Uniting and destroying at once, Nature invented M & A activity long before there was a Wall Street.

When Birdget and I first enter the quarry there’s no hint of birdlife.  Soon a Steller’s Jay cries a warning from his hideout in a pine far up slope.  To our north another jay answers, or rebutts, the first.  After the jays have sized up the slow-moving dog, the dawdling human, they begin visible activity.  One carries a jay off to cache it against an evcen colder morning.  There’s a chase, much feather ruffling, more cries and scolding.  Then there’s the first Flicker cry.  I am used to describing it as a “kleer” call.  But today it certainly sounds more like a sharp and mousey “Skweeek.”

I look to the southeast where the rising sun has found a transom amidst the morning’s gray curtains.  Concentrated in that slender opening the sunlight is starkly bright by comparison to the rest of the subdued sky, the dark bare oak trunks and evergreen foliage. Even the pale manzanita simply looks like it is part of the slinging gray air.  The tansom-wide beam of sunlight hits a patch of fotrest about three hundred feet up the western slope from my spot on the floor of the quarry.  The radiant heat immediately dissipates the vapor clouds.  Yet onthe perimeter of the sunny patch, the low cloudlets persists and pirouette, inanimately unaware of the ageless push-and-pull of sun and cloud.  Then the first transom is clouded by heavy curtains, but another soon opens.  This time the sunlight hits and warms the manzanita and scrub that cover the south-facing slope of the quarry. Over the northern rim of quary comes a flurry of fliers, Robins all going toward the south, toward the sunny hole in the clouds.  Here comes the sun, here come the Robins.  I know it was madrone berries they were seeking, but it sure felt like they were going toward the warmth.

A couple of pishes and the newly warmed denizens appear.  First a curious male Junco, out of a small flock in the branches. A Song Sparrow.  A Spotted Towhee flits across an opening to see where the noise is comng from.  First a Ruby-crowned Kinglet.  Then another.  Just over my head a Steller’s Jay streak into the brush, using his passing to check out my pishing cred.  I hear soft drumming–a Downy’s working in a young Ponderosa. Several Flicker are about, rarely seen but often heard. 

As we walk down out of the quarry, the transoms have been finally curtained off.  The sun will remian out of sight for most of the morning.  The vapor clouds now rise and fall, merge or disintegrate all along the canyon.   They seems to be cavorting in the heavy air.  Overhead a heavier, dense gray covers the sky.  As I watch these Confederate legions, armies of little clouds troops about the canyon, a dark bird emerges from the forest on the c0ld southern slope.  It heads straight across the cnayon to the western slope weher more warmth has revived the diurnal birdlife.  It is long-tailed, stout-winged, darkly streaked onthe chest–a juvenile Goshawk.  It makes the deliberate, pusposeful flight of its kind.  Not that flap-flap-glide flight so familiar with smaller accipiters.  It’s been said Attila the Hun so admired the determination and ferocity of the Goshawk that he had its image placed on his war helmet.

Later in the afteroon I stopped beneath a small porch in Lithia Park.  A rain squall has come down the canyon.  At first millions of small raindrops fell, colliding with almost as many pine needles, oak leaves, rocks and puddles.  Madrone and manzanit began to glisten in the wet air.  The a brief gust of air came down the canyon.  Perhaps it was driven over the mountains by some hefty force over the Pacific to the west.  Over the steady thrum of the raindrops making their first impact, I hear the gust approach.  It is a soft rustle.  Air meeting water as it meets the earthbound and the earth itself.  The rustle moves past, and I see some pine limbs shake gently.  Then the only sound that continues is the raindrops merging with all that lies below the sky before the drops themselvesmerge and feed into Lithia Creek.

I climb further uphill and reach Glenview.  It is on the east side of the canyon,k about the same elevation as the quarry on the facing side.  Here I look down on the creekside treetops, even the few towering old Ponderosa.  As soon as the rain stops, I spot a Hermit Thrush.  He flaps his elbows to emphasize his possession of a particular madrone.  Further along I see downslope Robins in another madrone.  The slope reveals itself as Robinworld.  They scamper in the duff for pray.  Chase one another into and out of manzanita, or madrone.  Some rest long enough to have a madrone berry or two.  The clusters appear to about half gone already.  A Kinglet is gleaning, a midget among the plump Robins. 

A small  cluster of salmon-colored forms fling themselves into the top of a madrone beneath my roadside.  A half dozen Cedar Waxwings.  Sudenely, as one, they propel themselves reckelessly downslope, slamming into the top of another madrone.  There are numeorus Waxwings already there.  More patrols of Waxwings fly in to join the troop.  Then, again for no visible reason, the entire brigade leave in tight formation.  As they depart there is the soft brushing sound of their flexible wingtips moving against the watery, more flexible air.  A gentle shooshing sound for an instant only.  Rapidly they waxwing up the canyon in a manner that would be the envy of even a flock of Sanderlings.  Then the tight globular flock does a perfect banked turn and reserves itself northward down the canyon.  Theyt are pale yellow forms against the damp, dark green of the evergreen forest on the western slope.  Shrinking in my view the Waxwing flock finally drops down out of sight.

Down the slope the Robins carry on as if the Waswings never were.  They are nervous, busy, watchful.  They are not concerned with me.  Thus many of them will survive this winter even if the morning’s Goshawk should strike true.

[Note: T. H. White’s book THE GOSHAWK is about his sadomasochistic attempt to train a juvenile Goshawk male to falconry.  It is brilliant, disturbing and slightly askew as was White himself and most of his writing.  Not to be read by the tender-hearted.]

Yard notes: first Song Sparrow of the season came into our garden to feed today.  And the White-breasted Nuthatch was back for the first time in weeks.  Perhaps the cold has made him more fully appreciate my suet feeder.

 Mammal note: on a walk yesterday we saw our first six-point buck in town.  He held his proud viasge high and refused to cross the street until we were well past his upslope position.

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