Words4Wildlife

Notes from the field

At Picture Canyon

The waning moon sets beyond the branches of a ponderosa. Nothing else to see here, honest!

The waning moon sets beyond the branches of a ponderosa. Nothing else to see here, honest!

In writing about my recent photo hike at Picture Canyon, I run the risk of getting a questionable reputation: I’m that unusual woman who likes to hang out at wastewater treatment plants.

My previous post, “A Second Opportunity,” extolled the delights of the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch, which uses reclaimed water from the city of Gilbert. And now I’m writing about this reclaimed wetland downstream from Flagstaff’s Wildcat Hill Wastewater Treatment Plant.

What can I say? In arid Arizona, any free-flowing water is bound to attract wildlife. And where there is wildlife, there are people like me, who love looking for it. We stroll slowly down the paths or stand stock still, necks at odd angles as we stare into silent trees, bearing our burdens bravely: binoculars on elastic harnesses, spotting scopes on tripods, cameras in backpacks.

Picture Canyon has many devotees in Flagstaff who are stewarding it back to health. Once called “Sewer Canyon,” it’s now been cleaned up and the streambed restored to a more natural meander. Native plants and wildlife have returned to the area. I’d already explored the trails twice, taking scenic photographs and getting used to the area; on this trip, I hoped to bring back photographic evidence of wildlife.

Scenic Picture Canyon in autumn.

Scenic Picture Canyon in autumn.

Autumn in Flagstaff sometimes means still breezes and sunny skies at 60 degrees, but not this time. Intermittent blasts of wind at 20 mph meant I couldn’t hear birds. Wind also meant cold, not just for me, but for the wildlife I’d come to find.

It was tempting to turn and flee to the warm car, but I am nothing if not stubborn, and since the light was fine, I set out in search of my goals. I wanted a Lewis’s woodpecker, that strange bird with the glossy green-black coat and scarlet breast. I wanted mule deer silhouetted amid golden autumnal grasses. I wanted migrating pintails, their chocolate-colored feathers gleaming.

One thing about wildlife watching is, what you want is often not what you get. The reason I keep coming back to wild places has less to do with meeting predetermined goals than with enjoying the satisfactions of any given day. It’s important to simply show up, open your eyes and pay attention.

On this day, my attention was rewarded by time spent watching a flock of mallards paddling on a pond, and a raucous crowd of American robins and Steller’s jays chasing bugs and one another through bare-limbed oaks.

I went home happy, thinking at least I’d seen everything there was to see … and then had one more surprise. I was processing images of the waning moon alongside an old ponderosa when I spotted the acorn woodpecker perched on a branch. I hadn’t seen the bird when the moment happened. Isn’t that just like an acorn woodpecker? They’re such tricksters.

It’s not a publishable photo, as far as I’m concerned. For one thing, I stitched together two images to get both the tree and the moon in focus; for another, the tree’s shape is too busy, making the bird hard to find. (Click on the photo at the top, and see if you spot him.) But I like it simply as a record of a day when I showed up to see what was happening, and was surprised once again by what I found.

A Second Opportunity

A flash of wings in the woodland, interrupting a pattern of light and shadow. Your eyes follow the movement instinctively. Sometimes, you’re rewarded with the sight of a bird, and if you’re very lucky, that bird might be a hawk. It happened to me in September, when a Cooper’s hawk caught my attention at Mount Elden Springs. And it happened again a week ago, this time at a constructed wetland east of Phoenix.

The Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch uses reclaimed water from the city of Gilbert. Seven ponds are filled on a rotating basis with treated wastewater, which percolates down into the aquifer and is stored there for future use.

That all may sound quite clinical or, if you don’t like the word “wastewater,” even a bit yucky. The Riparian Preserve is anything but. The ponds are surrounded by lovely trails lined with vegetation that typifies various desert habitats. Informative signs along the walkways tell you about desert flora and fauna. A visit to the preserve can be quite educational.

It doesn’t feel like school, though. The place is entrancing. It’s a magnet for birdlife, and where there are birds, there are birders and wildlife photographers. Many of the best bird images taken in Arizona are captured here.

As I walked the trails, I could see what attracted them. One pond held scores of American avocets and black-necked stilts, tall and graceful wading birds whose reflections danced across the rippling waters. Another pond belonged to herons and egrets, and a third to half a dozen duck species. In all, I counted 37 species I recognized and another three I couldn’t despite the help of my friend David Allen Sibley (I’m sure he knows the warbler, swallow, and sparrow species I saw, but I still don’t).

My most exciting sighting, though, was the juvenile sharp-shinned hawk. Like the Cooper’s, these are woodland hawks, adept at maneuvering between trees. This one was hunting along a stream between ponds; at least, I thought he was hunting. Then I realized he was trying to take a bath, thank you very much. He’d been interrupted several times by people walking along the nearby trail, but his desire to be wet and cool and get his feathers in order eventually overpowered his shyness.

As I watched from behind a tree, he leaped down into the water and looked around in dignified fashion. Then he began to splash water up onto his back with his wings and duck his head down into the stream.

An older gentleman came up just then and asked if I’d seen any interesting birds. I was happy to be able to point him in the direction of the sharp-shinned, still splashing like a two-year-old in a bubble bath. We both enjoyed long looks through binoculars before he thanked me and moved on.

Once the bird was satisfyingly wet, he flew up into a nearby tree to shake himself out and preen. No longer was I watching an elegant hunter. His head feathers were dark and spiky and the down on his chest was in need of a blow-dry and comb-out. I left him to his work and walked on, happy to have shared a second moment this fall with one of our handsome woodland hawks.

The Opportunity

I was birding at the base of Flagstaff’s Mount Elden recently, poking into likely nooks and crannies, trying to find as many different species as possible. The weather has warmed as the monsoon trails off, so I checked out various water sources. My guide was the old Arizona adage, “Where there’s water, there’s life.”

I was standing still near Mount Elden Spring, listening to the trickle of water, when dark wings flashed through the forest nearby. The bird maneuvered rapidly through the close-growing oaks. It followed the watercourse uphill toward me, then veered off to perch on a branch.

I got binoculars on it and was rewarded with a nice view of a Cooper’s hawk. These are woodland hawks. With short, rounded wings and a relatively long tail, they are well-adapted to flight in tight quarters.

Cooper’s hawks prey mostly on small birds. That may explain why I’d been hearing no bird sounds along the stream bed. Alert juncos, jays, and woodpeckers had cleared out of the area ahead of their airborne predator.

The hawk soon launched from its perch and continued up the watercourse, landing within sight again, this time with its red-and-white breast facing me. I brought my binoculars to my eyes again and took another long look.

The bird was aware of me, but uninterested. I was not a small songbird, not a potential meal. Nor was I a threat, standing still in the woodland, almost as quiet as the trees themselves. It had no reason to be concerned with me, and it wasn’t. Absorbed as I was in the sight of it, it gave me barely a glance.

This is one of the many things birding means to me: the chance to be part of the landscape for a moment. To a Cooper’s hawk on the hunt at least, I am insignificant. I don’t know why it felt so good to know that.

I’m No Muir

As we hiked toward the peak, clouds softened the eastward view.

As we hiked toward the peak, clouds softened the eastward view.

Last weekend, I stood atop Arizona’s highest peak. Summiting Humphreys required a nine-mile hike, during which I gained (and, even tougher on the knees, lost) about 3,300 feet elevation.

I’ve aspired to reach that peak since moving to Flagstaff in 2010. Humphreys is the tallest of the San Francisco Peaks, the distinctive mountains that give our town its flavor. I didn’t just hike Humphreys to bag the peak, though. I joined a group hike to represent my employer, the Arizona Game and Fish Department. The hike was sponsored by Arizona Highways magazine and led by its editor, Robert Stieve, and managing editor, Kelly Kramer. They wanted a wildlife expert to come along. Instead, they got me.

Thanks to working on Arizona Wildlife Views magazine, I know a little bit about a lot of wildlife subjects, but that doesn’t make me an expert. Undaunted, for days before the hike I brushed up on local field guides. I planned to enrich everyone’s experience with bird and mammal sightings and general information about the habitats we hiked through; a latter-day John Muir, Arizona-style. But Humphreys is a popular hike on a Saturday in August, and the trail was lively with human voices. That meant the wildlife sightings were few.

We did see mountain chickadees and dark-eyed juncos in busy flocks, gray-and-white Clark’s nutcrackers swooping from tree to tree, common ravens soaring along the ridgeline, and red squirrels feeding on pine cones. No elk, no deer, certainly no bears or mountain lions — animals one sees by chance and by sitting silently for a long period of time, not by hiking with a big goal in mind.

On the way to achieving that goal, we talked about the hike’s central theme: wilderness. Arizona Highways organized this and a few other hikes to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, which is September 3. It may not sound like it, given the crowded trail, but we were in a wilderness area much of the time (Kachina Peaks Wilderness).

Wildlife sightings or no, it was a treat to hike that area in such good company. I was proud to wear the quail logo and represent Game and Fish. And, four days later, my legs have (almost) recovered!

A high-level editorial meeting between me, Robert Stieve and Kelly Kramer (with the cute hat). No, we didn't get any work done!

A high-level editorial meeting between Robert Stieve, me, and Kelly Kramer (wearing the cute hat). No, we didn’t get any work done!

What Does the Hog-nosed Skunk Say?

Transferred from en.wikipedia and licensed under public domain via Wikimedia Commons (original uploader was Caspian).

Color illustration of a hog-nosed skunk by Louis Agassiz Fuertes, published by the National Geographic Society in “Wild Animals of North America,” copyright 1918.

Here’s a word challenge for people who write about wildlife:

Let’s say you’re describing the coloration of hog-nosed skunks. Which is correct: “They have a white back,” or, “They have white backs”?

Depending on how you like to solve puzzles, you might suggest rewording this as, “It has a white back,” avoiding the question altogether. Reframing the sentence with a singular subject is a fine solution, but let’s say you can’t do it for some reason. Suppose, for example, that the piece you’re working on otherwise describes hog-nosed skunks in the plural. It would sound odd, now, to switch to a singular subject.

This brings us back to the original question: Do hog-nosed skunks have white backs, or a white back?

Our style at Arizona Wildlife Views is to say, “Hog-nosed skunks have a white back.” We made the choice because when we describe the coloration of an animal, we envision that animal as a single creature. This is true even if we are using “hog-nosed skunks” as the subject. It looks plural, but we treat it as singular and use words that describe a single example of the species. An animal has one back, and the back of a hog-nosed skunk is white.

However, the same animal has two ears and four paws, so to continue the description we might say, “They have black ears and black paws” (with “ears” and “paws” in the plural). Again, we’re describing the coloration of a single animal, but now we’re using plural terms to describe it accurately.

A full description might sound like this: “Hog-nosed skunks have a black body with a white stripe down the back, a white tail, a white stripe down the nose, black ears and black paws.” I think that sounds natural to the reader, whereas “Hog-nosed skunks have black bodies with white stripes down their backs …” sounds odd.

You may also notice a potential miscue: If hog-nosed skunks have white stripes down their backs, does each skunk have one stripe, or more than one? Avoiding potential confusion is another reason why our style choice is to describe a single animal, even when the subject sounds plural.

Oddballs or Innovators?

j.hammonds:

I attended a conference last week in Nebraska and was thrilled to meet Chris Helzer, of “The Prairie Ecologist.” I’ve followed this blog for several years, even though I don’t live in a prairie state, just because I admire his skill with words and pictures. Finding “words for wildlife” seems to come easily to Helzer, so I didn’t know what to say when he told me he’s “not a writer, just a biologist with a camera.” This humble guy is definitely a writer. In this post, for example, he conveys technical material in an approachable way. I also like his thought-provoking conclusion. Oh, to be as good at this as Helzer is …

Originally posted on The Prairie Ecologist:

I spotted an upland sandpiper on top of a power pole last week.  In central Nebraska, that’s not really noteworthy – upland sandpipers are pretty common across much of the state.  They tend to nest in large open grasslands with short vegetation structure, and Nebraska has an abundance of that kind of habitat.  This particular sandpiper, however, was perched on a pole surrounded by what looked to be miles of contiguous cropland.  Seeing the sandpiper in that context got me thinking about how conservation scientists deal with patterns in data and, more particularly, the outliers that don’t fit those patterns.

This is not the upland sandpiper I saw surrounded by cornfields, but another one who was living where he was "supposed" to be living - in big open grasslands near Norden, Nebraska.

This is not the upland sandpiper I saw surrounded by cornfields, but another one who was living where he was “supposed” to be living – in big open grasslands near Norden, Nebraska.

My graduate research focused on grassland birds in fragmented prairies.  I categorized bird species by the size of prairie…

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A Style Manual for Outdoor Writers

We use the AP Stylebook to help us maintain consistency in Arizona Wildlife Views. I just received a new version, an update of the reference that’s been on my desk at Arizona Game and Fish since 2004.

Leaping nearly a decade of style changes means re-reading the manual, always a mind-awakening exercise. It’s not a book of rules. There are helpful reminders about the differences between words such as “affect” and “effect.” Reading it stimulates my word-loving brain.

To edit books, we use the Chicago Manual of Style. The AP Stylebook of 2004 had 378 pages; the 2013 edition holds 483. Chicago beats them both: the 16th edition is more than 1,000 pages long. No, I have not read it cover to cover.

I don’t refer to the Chicago Manual often unless I’m editing a book. There’s another style manual I call on much more frequently. The Outdoor Reference Manual is published by the Outdoor Writers Association of America, a professional association I belong to. In this slender volume lives a lexicon for boating, fishing, hunting, and other outdoor sports. From “aback” (a type of sail) to “zooplankton” (aquatic animals that feed on algae), it’s all in the manual.

If you write about outdoor recreation, I highly recommend this book as an essential reference. It’s available in the store at owaa.org.

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