Blue Basin Revisited

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.

I Learned a Thing About Geology

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.

“Storm in the Outback”: An Essay

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

It’s Been Awfully Quiet Around Here

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!

Your Sunday Wildlife & Conservation Reading

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!

Magnificent Magpies

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Black-billed Magpie.

Photo by Alan D. Wilson, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Photo by ZeWrestler, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

What Is Wrong With Your Faaaaace

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.

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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.