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Sunday, May 29, 2011

Kittitas County Ramble

Using Professor Mass' blog and YouTube pod cast I knew the only open weather for Saturday was going to be Kittitas. How lucky I am that the center of our state is one of my favorite places to explore.

I decided to go where I would. I knew that I was not going to be able to get back for some time and I knew I have missed some of the best of the far dry side. I got up super early to get on the road.

My first stop is one of my favorite places, Elk Heights. This spot along the freeway is where the pine forests and hills give way to the basalt flows and grasslands of the dry side. As always the wind was ripping here and its temperature reminded me that they are still skiing some places in the mountains. Brrr. But who can resist Balsamroot and lupins in the fields.

I took the surface road along the Thorp Prairie and got a close up look at some of the farms and houses that have clearly been here over 100 years. Behind this barn complex the land gives way to a deep cut in the basalt. This Hwy 10 road used to be the main east west highway through the state. The Thorp area and the land to the east through Ellensberg supports some of the best hay agriculture in the country. The hay here is rich and plentiful. It is also huge business. Much of the product gets placed directly into shipping containers and winds up in the best barns in the far Pacific Rim. The hay for the Sydney Olympics came from this valley.

By the time I got to Ellensberg I could see the wind turbines and noted that they were barely turning. I know they can choose to run them or not, but could I be in luck and have a calm day? If so I knew there is not time like now to get up to the Colockum Management Area along Hwy 10 and sleuth out some of the fun plants of the dry side.

There were several trucks and trailers with off-road vehicles. Over the way a lone woman appeared to be weeding or picking something. As I walked near I saw the cross I had noted before. She was cleaning bits from around it. Hand made, sprayed in Camo with name and date of one far too young. The woman could be his mother. I was reminded that this Memorial Day means there are outings missing some of the loved ones. I have to imagine this young man once roamed these hills on his motorcycle. She did not look up and I did not disturb her in her loving task.

The area was nicely quiet and with no wind I felt that my foot falls were making far too much sound. My binocular straps are on swivel clips that squeak and chirp. Sometimes they make me stop and wonder who is behind me.

But I could hear music. My Pavarotti! A Sage Thrasher sang his run-on song; on and on like an aria. Lovely warbling all over the scale, it always sounds ever so slightly rusty, as if he needs a drink.

I also heard a Western Meadowlark. The lone bird up on the slope acted like all Meadowlark when I am on foot. Flighty mistrusting and never willing to hold still. I don't know how I got so lucky to capture this one photo. I really had my lens zoomed up.

Birds never seem to be in the right position relative to sun light sky or background. That is what I thought would happen with this Loggerhead Shrike photo, but I am pleased to present him to you. This bird is also known as the " butcher bird". They capture bugs and impale them upon thorns and barbed wire spikes for safekeeping. His song is small , private chortles and chips.

Clearly all these birds have hopes for a happy nesting season.

I enjoyed being in a gully and looking up slope to see lovely big sky like this.

I hiked further north than usual and turned back to enjoy the ridge and how it changes as you go up slope and gain the top. This soil, in places is bare basalt rock and here I find Hedgehog Cactus.

Most of them are past bloom, others barely started ( like the above) , but I got lucky with this one. Bonus bugs too!

Dominating the ground here are the woolly-pod vetches / locoweeds (Astragalus) and Buckwheats (Eriogonum). These are an annoying array of plants that take tons of study to get to know. I am usually content to recognize them for what clan they belong to. The Buckwheats are favorite flowers of many of our butterflies. While the wind was not blowing I was not seeing much in the way of butterflies. I know they like to fly at certain times of day. Around here seeking out wet areas and mud pans is a great way to capture pictures. I kept hoping the clouds would break and warm the area enough, perhaps drawing the bugs out of hiding. Nothing ever happened.

I was content to wander up over the ridge looking for the prize I knew should be here. I was not disappointed. The Bitterroot are just coming into bloom and I found many. This will likely be my only chance for the year and once again, I know my love of this flower is justified.

Rediviva, reborn

The roots spring back to life when soaked in Spring rains and the succulent stems support the tough buds as they break out of the dry , crusty lithosoils.

I walked further east than usual and enjoyed the down slope of the ridge. Where the slop develops a pitch the soil gains moisture and the grasses start again. Here, looking east I can just make out the other side of the Columbia River and where the agriculture area starts again. To the South I can hear occasional sounds of artillery on the Yakima Firing Range. It echos and bounces over these hills.

Rock outcrops break the south slope of this ridge and I looked for Horned Toads and other surprises but found none. Just more flowers,

Brodiaea , Tritelia

Rock Penstemon


and the every challenging daisy clan. I believe these are Townsendia

I headed back along Hwy 10 to Ellensberg and noted not very far from the ridge the pavement was soaking wet. It had poured rain not a mile from where I was. I wandered the roads back to Ellensberg stopping to admire this old barn.

Some of the fields flood up at this time of year when tiny creeks burst in the flats and the flooded fields support Wild Iris.

So it was a lovely slow type day. I needed something relaxing and not too challenging. It has been an intense, fast, busy couple of weeks. Even though it is a three day weekend, busy stuff and work calls on Sunday. Monday weather promises to be not that great but we will have to deal with that when it arrives.

Today I said good-by )( or rather "thanks" ) to a traveling companion of the last few years. I never met her, but she was always with me on Sunday morning. Liane Hansen of NPR retired after 22 years of sharing Sunday Morning with us. I knew I could count on her to tell me something new and share The Puzzle with me. Her voice carried me along over many miles.

Have a lovely "retirement" Liane, you will be missed. I hope your new road is filled with many adventures and wonderful discoveries.

To you all, I say goodbye for a few weeks. I too am off on an adventure.

Someplace like here...only different.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Kubota Garden in the Spring

I took advantage of a relatively mild day and visited Kubota Garden. I have not seen this lovely place in the early Spring. I also had "garden" as a topic for my monthly scavenger hunt. This seemed the best place to be. It was a tough choice but the view of Mr Kubotas Heart Bridge was my favorite shot.

I arrived quite early and there were already many cars in the parking lot. I noted that there had been a sale the previous day. I am sorry to have missed that as there is certainly someone I could have bought a pretty plant for. The Kubota Foundation raises money to help support the park and they also need to gather volunteers to take care of the hours upon hours of weeding and maintenance that this park deserves. Next weekend is a Japanese Maple Festival with lectures and tours.

I was dazzled by the variety of maples and astonished at how many of them come into their leaves without green color. This lovely maple near the Heart Bridge was stunning in the weak sun glow.

Takes my breath away.

Last October, when I visited it was green.

Some maples have variegated leaves, others have dramatic bark colors.

There was a lot of blooms both small flowers and big trees. As expected many Azaleas and Rhodies. Some were already past bloom, but some are quite tightly budded and will be wonderful in a week. I had a bit of fun capturing rain drops on different subjects.

Hosta is coming up everywhere.

There were a lot of forget-me-not and a large purple flower that is in the same family as our native Self-heal. I rounded a corner and was greeted by this.

A Purple Tide. It made me think of waves.

This Song Sparrow could not stop singing.

I could not possibly grow tired of this place. It is ever changing.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Checking Out The Burn

Last July there was a big fire over in the Yakima Valley. This is not too unusual, as wildfire often starts in the dry side. Earlier that year I had observed the workers at the Hanford reservation cutting and burning back the edges along the road to protect the reservation from fires due to careless drivers and the wildfires that swept down the hills onto the reservation.

When I heard on the news that the fire was on the Snow Mountain Ranch, my heart sank.

This beautiful property is held by the Cowechee Canyon Conservancy and I had paid (and told you about) a visit in March of 2010. Saturday I wanted to escape, yet again, the dreary weather of Puget Sound. Yakima is usually a good bet for fair skies. Usually.

Not today.

As soon as I gained the properly I saw evidence of the fire, a burned corral fence.

I selected a trail that would take me all the way up to the top of the mountain. The environment struck me as fairly quiet and I certainly expected more advanced seasonal bloom. Look at that Sky!!! Try to ignore the dark bits to the right, I did.

Then, it started raining. Not horrid drenching rain, rather the polite pitter splatter type rain. Then it stopped. Then it started, then stopped. And the sun came out.

and it was good.

As I gained some elevation, I noted that there was distinct plant groups and populations. The lupin is starting...

and the larkspur really loves the places where rocks over-ride the soil

As I cut up-slope into the more open area I was astounded at the abundance of Big-head Clover. I have never seen it so bountiful. Oregon Sunshine makes a pretty addition to the carpets.

The Gold Star is going strong.

But overall the flowers feel sparse. During my last visit it was impossible to make progress along the trail as there was such an abundance of flowers in such a variety that it was like a feast.

And bugs, tons of bugs.

Now it feels a bit sterile. Fire does sterilize the soil. It can be both good and bad. In many places the ground is burned and exposed.

The Conservancy will study the area well and see what effect the fire has in the short and long term. Some seeds in the July soil might certainly have been lost. The burn residue might add nutrients back to the soil. I found evidence of invading weeds and there was indication that steps were being taken to keep them out.

Upslope looks like a happy hike and I was heading there (still ignoring the sky)

but it started hailing...then raining...and then hailing again.

One thing about the dry side soils. In many places it is not rocky soil. It is sandy clayish soil, and when wet turns into "gumbo mud" as slick as boiled okra. My shoes were quickly enrobed with slippery muck and walking on the level was treacherous. Walking on any kind of slope darn near impossible.

I have to admit I threw in the towel pretty easily. I am sorry for it, a long drive for only a short time on the ground. I love the drive over here. Some day I need to stop and share the vision of the landscape between Ellensburg and Yakima. Many might feel it is a barren wasteland but I love the roll and contour of the shrub steppe hills.

So I cautiously picked my way back down. I encountered happy Fiddlenecks.

Brodiaea was abundant.

This slope certainly demonstrates the effect of the burn. Last year this area was riot with flowers.

The low area of the property is near meadows and marshes. Here I encountered more birds. The lighting didn't favor pictures for the most and the active wary nesting behaviors certainly made getting aim a challenge.

But I could look and I even remembered my binoculars today. I cannot remember what bird got me to look up in this old oak. I am glad I did.

Three Great Horned Owl fledgelings. Look at the downy pantaloons. These young birds will be flying next month. The angle and lighting was a misery so I could only capture one well.

But he has his "cool look" on. I have had owls every weekend for the last three. I am amazed as I almost never spot owls. They have been nemisis birds.

I am not sure when I can get back to this lovely place. I am sure time will heal all the wounds. Perhaps some delightful rarity will spring up having awaited the fire event. Perhaps the birds will find more bugs to eat in the exposed soils and the rotting deadwood.

We will see.

My High Lonesome Place

It really isn't lonesome. Umtanum Road , south out of Ellensburg, is a popular place.

But I love coming up here as the horizon and views are so big.

Usually it is quite windy, but last weekend there was barely a ripple of wind. All over the flowers were coming up and the Bluebirds were courting.

I stopped at the "stage stop" Somewhere I read that these building were a stage coach stop. I love coming here and imagining what it was like to live above the valley, shut off from the world.

On this day, as I pulled up, a truck was pulling away. I got out to take my pictures and I noted that the truck had turned around and was coming back.

The driver pulled up and rolled down his window.

"You taking pictures of the old place?"

"Yes" I said, "this is one of my favorite places"

"I grew up here." the gent said.

Yes indeed. This was his childhood home. He lived with his Grandparents during WWII on this land which was a wheat ranch. No water or electricity, his grandfather worked the land with horses. He pointed out the barn, one of which has fallen down in the last year. He said that he had been sick over the Winter with heart surgery and wanted to see "the old place" before more fell down.

I told him of once seen a blooming rose bush at the house and how I imagined the woman who likely lived here, nursing a bit of pretty.

He told me that back in the day the area had pronghorn and jack rabbits and plenty of rattle snakes. I told him that I had never seen any of these creatures in Washington State.

We chatted for some time and he mentioned some of the other pioneer families of the valley and where they had lived and worked. He told me he remembers working land in the Colockum up above what is now Ginko Petrified State Park. They pulling up petrified wood stumps from the ground. I considered that if they had known the value back then, he would have a pretty retirement today.

His wife said they were active in the community and I mentioned that the historical society would certainly love stories of everyday life in those days. I thought that a history student at the University might certainly take interest.

What a great start to a perfect day. Full of light and flowers and my big place. Across the road from the house is a little pond and today a pair of Red-winged Blackbirds clearly showed that this was THEIR home.

But they allowed my to look for flowers.

Sagebrush Violet

The first Bluebells of the year

Hesperochiron , which looks a lot like a wild strawberry. (bugs)

Spring Beauty

Further along the road I found Mountain and Western Bluebirds. There are 130 nest boxes along the 15 miles of road. I used to monitor them for Yakima Audubon and collected nests for a parasitologist in Tacoma.

Western Bluebirds

Mountain Bluebird

The Balsamroot was just starting to bloom in the places slightly lower in elevation. I could not resist for where you have Balsamroot, you have bugs.

BINGO! Green Sweat Bee in Balsamroot.

I love the dry side.