Last summer I wrote a post about hiking at Blue Basin, an incredible rock formation in nearby John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. When I was there before, I took the loop trail that circles the whole thing, but recently I went back to check out the shorter trail that takes you into the blue-green canyon itself.
If first guess for what causes the amazing color of the rock is copper, well, you’re not alone; that’s what I would have thought, too. However, it actually comes from the weathering of obscure minerals called celadonite and clinoptilolite, both part of the volcanic ash deposits laid down in this area by ancient volcanoes. (Like I said in my last post: my understanding of the geological history of this region boils down to “volcanoes, woot!”)
If, for some strange reason, you ever find yourself driving Highway 26 through eastern Oregon, the Sheep Rock unit of the John Day Fossil Beds is definitely worth a stop. In addition to Blue Basin, there’s a great visitor center with a lot of interesting fossils on display.
Photos in this post by Evan Heisman.
Photo by Zinneke, via Wikimedia Commons
I have a confession to make: I’m not really a geology person. I understand objectively why some people would consider it fascinating, and I sometimes wish I was one of those people, but whenever I actually try to read a book or watch a presentation about rocks and geologic history my mind starts to wander almost immediately.
Still, occasionally a particular geology concept will lodge itself in my brain anyway, and when that happens I feel very proud of myself for being able to point out some odd rock feature and give it a name. Case in point: columnar basalt. Whenever I’m driving around here and see these odd hexagonal columns of stone, I always think to myself “hey, columnar basalt!” and feel happy.
Basically, these structures form when lava cools relatively rapidly and contracts as a result. From Wikipedia: “While a flow can shrink in the vertical dimension without fracturing, it can’t easily accommodate shrinking in the horizontal direction unless cracks form; the extensive fracture network that develops results in the formation of columns… The size of the columns depends loosely on the rate of cooling; very rapid cooling may result in very small (<1 cm diameter) columns, while slow cooling is more likely to produce large columns.” The fact that these formations are so common around here attests to the area’s volcanic past.
So, to sum up, my entire understanding of the geologic history of eastern Oregon boils down to “volcanoes, woot!” and I’m pretty okay with that. But I really like columnar basalt. Because I know what it is.
Gasp! A blog post! Okay, yeah, this has been the longest dry stretch since I started this blog four (!!!) years ago, but I’m resurfacing long enough to share with you a piece of writing that’s been sitting on my hard drive for a while now. This is a story from the three months I spent in Australia back in 2009, which I’ve posted about previously (specifically regarding echidnas and a giant dust storm). I fiddled around a bit with the idea of submitting this piece to a literary magazine or several, but ultimately decided to just post it here. It’s around 1200 words; let me know what you think. Continue reading
On the blog, I mean.
In grad school, I was very busy but I had a flexible schedule that meant I often worked in the evenings and had plenty of free time during the day to wander around outside and go on adventures and take pictures. I also had easy access to beautiful natural surroundings, with miles and miles of hiking trails through the woods literally right outside my door. I was spoiled rotten.
Now I have a grown up job and I’m working a regular grown-up person’s 8-to-5 schedule. And counterintuitively, despite the fact that I live in the middle of nowhere, it’s about an hour’s drive each way to get from where I live to get to any good hiking. (The land close by is mostly private ranches, and even in the National Forest there aren’t a whole lot of developed trails outside a few popular areas.) There have also been some changes in my personal life that mean that, if I only have time and energy for one expedition with a long drive over the weekend, going hiking by myself probably isn’t going to be it.
All of this isn’t to say I’m unhappy, just that there’s a reason why I haven’t been writing blog posts three times a week (or even once a week) lately. I still care about this stuff, and I’m still going to continue blogging as I have time and material, but it’s probably going to continue to be slow for a while. In the meantime, you can always follow me on Twitter, where I post photos, links, and short updates pretty regularly.
Anyway, it’s December now, so just like I’ve done for the past couple years I’m going to go ahead and write up a recap of my year in nature for you (because that’s not narcissistic of me at all, amiright?).
- In January I got to hobnob with a famous porcupine. It was a big moment for me, okay.
- In February I traveled to the winter birding mecca Sax-Zim Bog and added not one, not two, but three owl species to my life list.
- In March I spotted my first naked-eye comet since I was a kid. (Rest in peace, ISON.)
- In April I checked another item off my birding bucket list when I observed a Greater Prairie Chicken lek. Woo-hoo! This spring maybe Sage Grouse?
- In May I got some great up-close looks at a Killdeer nest.
- Then came June. I drove across the country from Land O’ Lakes, Wisconsin to Long Creek, Oregon with all of my earthly possessions crammed into my Honda Civic. Through the looking glass, indeed.
- In July I joined the twenty-first century and bought my first smart phone, allowing me to post my nature pics right from the field.
- In August I discovered that some species of butterfly are considered pest insects. Who knew?
- In September I got to see a real, wild salmon run through the viewing windows in the Bonneville Dam’s fish ladder, and it was AMAZING. Also: lampreys!
- In October I rebelled against the federal government shutdown by hiking on National Forest land at a time when it may technically have been illegal. I’m still not sure.
- In November I… only wrote four blog posts, and one of them was just a linkspam. Still not sure what’s going on with this deer’s face.
- And now it’s December. If you had told me a year ago what my life was going to be like now – professionally, personally, everything – I would have been dumbfounded. Here’s to more adventures in 2014!
Here, once again, is my monthly-ish collection of wildlife and conservation links and articles that have caught my eye – plenty of fun facts and interesting eye candy for your Sunday afternoon reading.
As always, feel free to share your own finds in the comments!
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Black-billed Magpie.
Is that not a beautiful bird? I grew up in the magpie-free eastern third of the continent, and the first time I laid eyes on one was the summer I spent on the Saskatchewan prairie. The locals didn’t understand my fascination, but I mean, look at it. That long, streaming tail! (The only non-magpie bird regularly found in the U.S. with a tail so long relative to its body length is the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, which I’ve never seen.) The handsome black-and-white plumage, with iridescent blue-green highlights!
Now, of course, I’ve moved to a corvid-rich part of the country where Black-billed Magpies are just one of the cool members of the jay family flying around (I also see Common Ravens, Stellar’s Jays, Gray Jays, and Clark’s Nutcrackers all pretty regularly). No matter how many magpies I see, I never get tired of them. They’re so handsome. A fellow immigrant to the area told me he used to think they were cool until he found out they’re “just scavengers.” Just scavengers?! Yes, like most corvids they’re not above eating roadkill, but the best looks I’ve gotten at eagles (both Bald and Golden) have also been at roadkill! There’s no such thing as “just” a scavenger. Hmph.
I wonder if people who grow up out here and move to the eastern part of the country are as fascinated by Blue Jays as I am by all their beautiful western cousins. Magnificent marvelous magpies with their streaming tails.
These photos have been sitting on my little point-and-shoot camera for a couple weeks now, waiting for me to finally bother to download and post them. I was pulling into the office after a day of field work when, as I parked the truck, I noticed that there was something very, very weird about one of the deer hanging out in the yard.
They aren’t great photos, but I wasn’t trying to be artistic, I was just trying to document this truly messed-up looking deer face.
He literally looks like he has an old bird’s nest stuck to his forehead. I went in and showed the photos to my boss, who at first thought it was some sort of deformation that had been caused by an old injury like getting hit by a car, but then she went outside for a better look and decided he’d somehow gotten caught on a chunk of old carpeting or something, although it must have been there a long time to cause his antler to grow in a funny direction.
Thoughts? Theories? He hasn’t come back, that I’ve seen.
Hark, a blog post! (Man, remember when I used to post three times a week? Crazy.) Last spring I sat down and wrote an essay about a wildlife encounter I had on the Saskatchewan prairie the summer after I graduated from college. It was my first real dabble into “literary” writing in years, and after submitting it around and racking up a pile of rejection emails, I’ve admitted to myself that it’s not likely to get published for real. However, I hate to just leave it wasting away on my hard drive, so here it is. If you like owls and have time for a 1500-word essay of questionable literary merit… keep reading. Continue reading
Juncos! Who doesn’t love juncos? These fluffy little gray birds were one of the first species I learned to identify, always a winter fixture at our backyard birdfeeder when I was growing up in Ohio. But when I first cracked open a field guide, I was in for a bit of a surprise: juncos in other parts of the country looked very different from mine. In fact, what I know as the Dark-eyed Junco used to be considered about five different species before the “lumpers” got their hands on it. Back in the day, my plain-gray Ohio juncos would have been called Slate-colored (not Dark-eyed) Juncos to distinguish them from their various cousins around the country.
Which brings me to the birds that were in my backyard over the weekend.
Just like in Ohio, the arrival of juncos here is a sign that winter is approaching, but these aren’t “Slate-colored” Juncos, they’re (appropriately enough) “Oregon” Juncos. A common yard bird here, but a novelty to an easterner like me, and even though the lighting was bad I couldn’t resist taking a few terrible photos.
See? I warned you, terrible. But at least you can see that they have a dark gray head that contrasts with the reddish-brown back, unlike “Slate-colored” Dark-eyed Juncos, which are just solid gray on top.
Despite all the junco lumping, there is still a second official junco species in the U.S., but you have to travel to the mountains of southeastern Arizona to see it: the Yellow-eyed Junco (exactly what it sounds like, and on my 2013 year list, thanks to my spring break Arizona trip). It’s entirely possible that the Oregon subspecies of Dark-eyed Junco could be split off again in the future, giving me one more tick for my list. In the meantime, I’ll just keep enjoying my yard birds!
Time once again for one of my erratic collections of interesting nature and wildlife links – articles, photos, and more! Enjoy, and please share any interesting links of your own in the comments.
- In addition to being a writer, Vladimir Nabokov was a major butterfly enthusiast. Check out his beautiful drawings of made-up butterfly species for his wife and this lovely poem about describing a new butterfly species. “Dark pictures, thrones, the stones that pilgrims kiss, poems that take a thousand years to die, but ape the immortality of this red label on a little butterfly.”
- This comic about jumping spider mating dances is pretty much the best thing ever.
- Bad news for already-endangered Siberian Tigers – they’re experiencing a serious outbreak of canine distemper virus.
- Look closely at this infographic about the Monarch butterfly from the website of Orkin, the pest-control company. Something is wrong. Something is very, very wrong.
- Different species of pitcher plants have different strategies for capturing insects, and it depends on whether they live in wet or dry habitats.
- Apparently it’s a thing to photoshop arms onto birds. Because internet.
- Darwin’s kid drew adorable doodles on his manuscript of On The Origin of Species. Aww.
- I learned this week that snapping turtles are becoming established in Oregon (probably through people making unwise pet choices and then releasing them). An alligator snapper was recently found in a reservoir in a town a couple hours west of here.
- And finally, the morning that EPA employees got to back to work after the government shutdown, Joe Biden brought them muffins. Oh Joe Biden. Good ol’ crazy uncle Joe.
Next stop… the weekend!