All about the Jitterbugging Swallows of Paradise

Written by Jim Huckabay on July 19, 2013. Posted in Uncategorized

I love watching swallows do the things they were hatched to do.  As much as we enjoyed our regular hooking and landing of big Chinook with Shane on the Columbia a couple weeks back, we found pleasure in the quiet moments between.  It was then that our eyes might drift off watching rod tips for salmon strikes, to the swallows darting over the big river—this way and that—snatching hundreds of mosquitoes and other insects from the warm still morning air.

Indeed, we could have used a swallow or two in the County Commissioners’ hearing room Wednesday evening.  They’d have made short work of the dozen mosquitoes at which we all took turns clapping.  …But I digress.

Swallows fascinate me.  Birds darting just off the water, dipping to grab insects or bathe or drink can stop me in my tracks.  I have, on occasion, been completely swept away at a four-way stop, or a stoplight, watching barn, violet-green and cliff swallows sweeping and turning and bouncing (“jitterbugging,” The Old Man called it) through and around cars sucking down injured insects rising off warm hoods or grills.  Other, less observant, drivers have, from time to time, rudely reminded me to get my rig in gear.

You’ve noticed those delightful stoplight jitterbugging moments, too, no doubt.  In addition to those barn (Hirundo rustica), violet-green (Tachycineta thalassina) and cliff swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota), our valley also hosts tree (Tachycineta bicolor), bank (Riparia riparia) and a fair number of the less noticed northern rough-winged (Stelgidopteryx serripennis) swallows, too.

Actually, with our renewed concerns over West Nile and other mosquito-carried diseases, the swallows of Paradise are ever more important.  They keep flying insects off horses, foals and humans.  Horse owners often tell me, enthusiastically and with a touch of awe, about the mud nests on the walls of their boarding barns.  This is good; individually and collectively swallows will eat many tons of flying insects this summer.

All of the six swallows in Washington are elegant flyers with long, pointed wings, and (except for the cliff swallow) notched tails.  They are all migratory birds.

Tree swallows arrive first in spring and head south last in fall, perhaps because they are the only swallows to largely winter within the U.S.  (Most of ours winter along the Gulf of Mexico or southern California.)  On the other hand,  barn and cliff swallows have among the longest migration flights of any land birds–some wintering as far south as Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America.

Tree swallows nest in tree cavities or nest boxes (especially near water), competing—often poorly—with mountain bluebirds, flickers, starlings and others for cavities.  Where nest boxes have been provided, their populations have increased.

In addition to cliffs (check out the Selah Cliffs Natural Area at the northbound I-82 rest area by the Training Center), cliff swallows use bridges, culverts, and buildings near water for nesting.  Mud nests are bulbous affairs, stacked one on top of the other, with entrances on the sides, facing a bit downward.  These colonial creatures assemble the most densely populated communities of any breeding birds on the continent; as many as 1,000 or more pairs—each pair with its own gourd-shaped nest somewhere in the jumble.

Barn swallows are our most common urban-area swallows, living wherever civilization goes.  Cup-shaped nests are made of mud plastered to the timbers of barns or other outbuildings.

Barn and cliff swallows have often been observed carrying mouthful after mouthful of mud, and shaping it with feet and mouth and body.  It’s hard work; one study found that a pair of barn swallows made 1,359 trips, covering a total of 137 miles in six days to collect mud and material for one nest.  In a lesson for us all, they still took time to play or celebrate.  They and others were seen carrying feathers high into the sky, dropping them, and swooping down to catch them in mid-air before putting finishing touches to the nest.

Overall, swallow populations are healthy and increasing.  It is always cool to see these five- to seven-inch long flashes of orange, purple, green or brown in rapid, skillful flight around the bridges, overpasses and buildings near water and ag ground in Paradise.

Learn more about swallows and any other birds of Washington from http://www.birdweb.org/, or any good field guide.

Swallows are true signs of summer.

Of Family and Fish

Written by Jim Huckabay on July 12, 2013. Posted in Uncategorized

It was a remarkable and much-needed break.  Since our return from across Russia and China by train, we’ve been hitting the repair work on Evolutionary Abode pretty hard.  Two weeks ago, grandkids and their parents provided just the opening.

Daughter Tena and son-in-law Chris—children in tow—met daughter Anna and me at one of our favorite campsites in Twin Harbors State Park, just down the road from Westport.  Over the years of their growing up, the kids and I spent a number of happy weeks playing here.  After the two-day journey from Denver, grandson James and sister Delilah were more than ready to leave the car for salt water, sand castles and beachcombing.

The Old Man and Mom always said that there was a certain look that might randomly pass through me when I was a boy.  They insisted it first showed up when I was about two years old, and they learned quickly to pay attention; it was, apparently, a look that said “Get me outta here!  Now!”  I can still remember how it felt when I just needed to be somewhere on the ground and in fresh air.  Mostly, however, I remember how one or the other of them would get up, walk to the door, hold it open and motion me out.

I often saw that look on my kids.  How could I miss it on five-year-old James and two-year-old Delilah?  I held the door open.

We put out crab rings and brought in dozens of mostly-too-small, but very entertaining crabs.  We made perfect campfires and roasted hot dogs and marshmallows.  We played and laughed and built sand castles and found perfect stones and shells.  We slept on the ground and became intimate, again, with the earth.  Each moment, I got to see and feel—anew—that treasured physical earth connection through the fresh eyes and laughter of my grandchildren.

We returned to Paradise with a couple days to kill before the 4th and the big fireworks show.

Wednesday morning, at 3:30, Chris, Tena and I, with James in tow, hooked up with magician Shane Magnusson (Upper Columbia Guide Service) near Cashmere and headed to the Columbia.  By 4:40, we were actively seeking Chinook.

This was a much–anticipated day.  Tena and Chris and I had fished for lake trout and salmon with Shane FROM time to time over the years they were in Seattle.  Since their move to Colorado, that fishing has been simply a fond conversation.  This day would be the real deal, however, and it promised to be a good one.

We were soon into fish.  Shane might grin at James, turn to the water with his patented “Here fishy, fishy…” and Tena or Chris’ rod tip would dive toward the water.  We started with a shiny eight-pounder.  Each strike brought a bigger fish and another look of awe and excitement to James’ face—maybe even a comparison to the eight-inch trout he had caught.

Scattered through those early hours, we spent moments lost in the perfection of the Columbia and the beautiful country it cut through.  The craggy edges of the valley, the intense early morning sun, the perfect light breeze and the quiet swooshing and gurgling of the river winding its way past Wenatchee to the ocean were broken only by tales Shane and I told of growing up along the river.  It was just the morning we had anticipated.

At some point in there, I brought in a beautiful 21-pounder.  Chris and Tena each caught another, making their limits and ending their fishing for the day.  After a hiatus of some sort, I tied into my second very nice fish, but it was not to be—it spit the lure after several minutes.

Over another couple hours or so, we fished and talked and laughed, and finally called it a day.

We’ve done a lot of salmon fishing together, and prayed over the salmon of several rivers and the ocean.  Chris and Tena have heard tales of limits of Chinook and Coho when I fished with the Old Man in the Northwest of decades ago, but never had they actually caught their limits.  We had five keepers, and 70 pounds of beautiful fresh Columbia River kings.  Sharing the experience with Shane made it all the richer.  It was a great morning.

(Meet Shane, and see some of our pictures, at his website www.uppercolumbiaguide.com  or check out his Facebook page.)

We pointed my rig back toward Paradise.  James was talkative and still excited as we pulled into the Aplets and Cotlets shop in Cashmere for one last tourist activity before heading home to holiday barbeques.

After Thursday night’s fireworks, that part of my family headed back to jobs and life in Denver.

We returned to work on Evolutionary Abode.  I want to say that life for us got back to normal, again, too…

But when you have seen the outdoors, and your lifelong connections to it, through the shiny new eyes of your own descendants, can you get back to “normal?”

Happy summer…

 

West Nile Virus and You

Written by Jim Huckabay on July 10, 2013. Posted in Uncategorized

We’ve been lulled into a sense of quiet about West Nile Virus (WNV) for several years.  That’s probably because we haven’t had a case of it for a while; we’ve been very careful with WNV.  On the other hand, this may also be because West Nile Virus monitoring for infected dead birds and mosquitoes has been severely limited as a result of trimmed resources. West Nile activity may not be found in a particular county, but the virus is likely widespread in Washington.  Over the past couple three weeks, it is back in our news.

Mosquitoes in two samples collected in Yakima County tested positive for West Nile Virus; weeks earlier than over the last decade or so.  This is the first sign that the virus is active in Washington this year, and statewide testing of mosquito samples and dead birds began a bit over a week ago.

WNV is much more serious for horses than for people, but being bitten by a mosquito carrying the virus is like a roll of the dice.  The trick for horses and humans alike is avoiding bites.  The Department of Health is asking people to take a number of steps to keep mosquitoes at bay.  Use insect repellents with DEET, picaridin, or IR 3535, although some oil of lemon eucalyptus and para-menthane-diol products will also provide long-lasting protection against mosquito bites.  Wear long pants and long sleeve shirts outdoors at dawn and dusk when mosquitoes are most active.  Get rid of standing or stagnant water from cans, flower pots, buckets, and other containers to reduce mosquito habitat around homes and places where mosquitoes can breed. Change the water in birdbaths, wading pools, and pet dishes at least twice a week, and make sure window and door screens are as tight as necessary.

Most people bitten by a mosquito carrying WNV won’t even become ill, while others may have a mild headache and/or fever that fade away without treatment.  For some, an infection will be very serious or fatal.  Severe cases can include meningitis or encephalitis, and some neurological effects can be permanent.  People over 50 and those with weak immune systems are at higher risk for serious problems.

WNV is found in all 48 states, half a dozen provinces and several Central American countries.  Since 1999, more than 15,000 people have tested positive for WNV and more than 500 died, along with perhaps thousands of horses and hundreds of thousands of birds.  Your individual odds of being infected are low and less than one percent of people infected develop serious illness, but if you are in the one percent it will mess up your whole day.

The Washington Department of Health has guidelines and information for you, should you find an ill or dead bird (or unusual numbers of dead birds) or a new mosquito pond.

1) Report the information to the Kittitas county health department or the Washington Department of Health at 360-236-3060;

2) Do not handle the bird if it is sick and still alive;

3) Pass along information about the bird (specific location, the distance to town, road, crossroad/street or landmark and your name and phone number);

4) County health staff will advise if the bird should be tested and will ship it;

5) Birds dead less than 48 hours are the best for testing;

6) If the bird cannot be reported or picked up right away, use a shovel or gloves to place it in TWO plastic bags (there is no evidence of spreading from dead birds to humans, but…);

7) Store with ice under a bucket or in an ice chest not used for food; and

8) The results of testing will be reported back to you at no charge.

Further information is available at several web sites.  The state Department of Health is at  www.doh.wa.gov, with current maps and info at http://www.doh.wa.gov/DataandStatisticalReports/DiseasesandChronicConditions/WestNileVirus.  A list of infected species is at http://www.nwhc.usgs.gov/research/west_nile/wnvaffected.html and Washington wildlife impacts will be found at DFW’s http://www.wa.gov/wdfw/.

In Colorado, daughter Nicole continues to board horses on her acreage.  Over lunch a while back, she told me that more than one of their boarded horses had died of WNV—even though she requires proof of inoculation.  “Horse owners have to be on their toes all the time,” she said, “and follow up on vaccinations.”

There are vaccines available for horses.  Check with your vet for vaccine availability and type, as well as its potential use or need for other animals.

And pick up a fresh supply of mosquito repellant.

 

Steve Shaw–Another Loss to our Community

Written by Jim Huckabay on June 27, 2013. Posted in Uncategorized

Just about the time we were boarding our plane for St. Petersburg, Russia, in late May, Steve Shaw passed away.  Three weeks later, I returned home to another of those empty places some people leave behind.

Not long after I returned to Paradise from decades in Colorado, late in the last century, I stumbled across the Kittitas County Field and Stream Club.

One of its officers was Maxine Shaw—Treasurer, as I recall.  She had a great smile and an easy way of dealing with the grumpy old men who had been the face of the club for many of its first 75 years.  Wilma Dloughy and Maxine were its first women officers.

Early on, at one of the club’s monthly meetings, I found myself sitting next to a young guy who smiled and nodded as Maxine gave her report.  I said something to the effect of “You certainly know how to appreciate a Treasurer’s Report…”  He smiled and said, “My mom just has a way with this.  I like how she does her part.”  I had just met Steve Shaw.

Each time our paths crossed, I had a feeling that I had known Steve forever.  There was an ease about him, coupled with a drive for life and the pleasures it offered.  I once asked him what his passions were.  Without a pause, he said, “My family, anything outdoors and my store!”

A decade ago, I walked into a Steve and Reed Larsen conversation about the 63 year old One-Shot Antelope Hunt in Lander, Wyoming.  I had been part of the Colorado One-Shot through the 1980s, and they chuckled at my angst over never making a Wyoming team for that granddaddy of One-Shots.  That was about the time that Reed and Steve formulated their One-Shot story.

Reed will tell you that Steve was unaware of that oldest organized hunt in the US until they met in 1999, when Reed was a Charter TV rep.  They bonded over their love of hunting.  Each fall, the talk about the unique and rare hunting experience of the One-Shot Antelope Hunt grew a bit.

After years of passing on invitations, in 2004, Steve joined Reed as a guest One-Shot hunter.  They headed to Lander for Steve’s first antelope hunt—each getting one of the licenses Wyoming Game & Fish allocates to the hunt.  They bagged nice bucks, and Steve was hooked.

From that time, their friendship grew into a rich brotherhood.

It surprised no one that Steve fit right into that group of strangers in Lander.  One of the more influential members of the Past Shooters Club was Reed’s father, Austin (Doc) Larsen.  Doc took an immediate liking to Steve—a rare occurrence.  In 2005, it was simply understood that the men were heading to Lander again, in an annual partnership.

To hunt in the One-shot for more than two years, Steve would need a team, since Reed was already a team member.  Thus, in 2006, Steve was working to put a three-hunter team together—hoping to be one of the six teams selected from many applications, when Reed informed him that he had been appointed to the Sportsman Team.  He would be a member of the Past Shooters Club by the end of the hunt, and could bring his own guests.  That fall, under pressure, Steve bagged his antelope with one shot (only 50% of team members accomplish that).

As a member of the Past Shooters Club, Steve quietly helped the club with its 501c3 Water for Wildlife program funding water projects for wildlife across the West.

In 2009, for the first time, brothers Casey and Rusty Shaw were on a team with Clint Larsen.  The Larsen and Shaw families became part of only a handful of multi-generational past shooters.

This year, on the Thursday of the hunt, the Chief of the Shoshone Tribe will eject a cartridge with Steve’s name on it from his rifle.  It will be placed permanently in the One-Shot museum—an honor and tribute to the departed hunter.

My Old Man always said a man’s true character shows up when no one is looking and when he is inconvenienced by family.  Steve’s son Casey passed along some thoughts.  “[It was] just the way he did things…  In 2006 dad had a bull tag in the Observatory.  A couple days into the hunt he had been out hiking for the first few hours of daylight…only cows all morning. He had gotten back to his truck and was winding down taking off his boots.  A group of hunters came by to chit chat.  They had seen a nice bull first thing in the morning not far from where he had been.  Dad decided to take one more hike…to work down a brushy draw that he hiked earlier.  Tempted to just start at his current elevation, but knowing he should just put in the work, he went to the top of the draw.  Sure enough, right at the top of the draw he threw a rock into the brush. A big 360+ bull ended up in the freezer and on the wall.  He was always the kind of guy who would go just a little further and work a little harder than the rest.

“Growing up, all of us sons enjoyed the hills and frequently got ourselves in sticky situations—stuck in mud or snow—often in the middle of the night.  Most teenagers would probably try to find a buddy to help them and avoid owning up to what they had done, but we always knew our first contact was going to be dad.  Amazingly, he was never upset, he would just get out of bed, ask us where the truck or jeep was and what we needed to do to get it out.  He might tease us later but he never got mad.”

At May’s NRA Banquet, I sat with Steve and Reed and Casey.  They were family, and as I joined them I became family, too.  I was in that easy place Steve Shaw carried with him—and passed along.  Thanks, Steve…

[Copyright James L. Huckabay, 2013]

Nature’s Fireworks over Beijing at Night

Written by Jim Huckabay on June 22, 2013. Posted in Uncategorized

We returned to Paradise, from our journey by rail through Russia, Mongolia and China, just in time for some lively showers and evening thunderstorms.  It felt a bit like a “Welcome home!” after our travels, and a reminder of how much I have loved the excitement of lightning.

Many times over the years, I have noted that my love of thunderstorms and lightning probably led to my meteorology studies.  Somewhere in there is my long-term fascination with the connection between human comfort and behavior, and lightning—nature’s “Alka-Seltzer of the air.”  Near the end of our trip, I was loudly reminded of all that.

Our second night in Beijing, we watched a wave of thunderstorms light up the sky, and the huge city beneath it.  Lightning filled the sky to the west of our little Double Happiness Courtyard Hotel.  Minute by minute, dancing between the negative and positive charges of ground and cloud, the lightning drew closer and closer.  It finally swept over and around us a bit after 11:00, neutralizing the electrical ion imbalances of a muggy, heavy evening.  Literal sheets of rain washed pollutants from the air and scrubbed the streets and alleys of our historic Dongcheng District, northeast of Beijing’s center.  We caught our breath as the excitement moved to the east.

The last time I saw a fireworks show like that was just a couple months over four decades ago, in Lawrence, Kansas.

As a grad student, the first meteorology class I taught at the University of Kansas was full of young people who saw no sense in studying weather.  They argued that, since they drove air‑conditioned cars and lived and studied in climate‑controlled rooms, there was no need.  They were totally insulated from Nature.

But this was lightning country, and in those nighttime storms, lightning would dash and sizzle and hang from cloud top to cloud top.  I might lay in bed watching it for an hour or more.  I loved it.

I explained to my modern, climate-controlled youngsters that the discomfort they felt with “dry” or “moist” air often had to do with electrical ions.  In very dry air, especially with a warm wind, an excess of negative ions may build up, commonly causing irritability and short tempers.  Water vapor molecules, on the other hand, may carry an excess of positive ions.  Especially in warm air, high levels of water vapor—humidity—might make them fussy and uncomfortable, with a “leave me alone” attitude.

As luck would have it, that spring we had a week of very warm, windy, dry weather.  Students squabbled over almost anything in our study rooms (“Do you HAVE to turn those *!^# pages so loud?”).  It was great.  Then, the night before an early‑morning lab with my “insulated” ones, a line of thunderstorms moved through.  It was, perhaps, the best storm line ever; two and a half hours of fireworks.  As it approached, drawing warm moist air in ahead of it, positive ions built up in our house.  None of us could sleep.  One by one, the kids drowsily wandered into our room.  “What’s Wrong?” I’d ask.  “I don’t feel good,” they’d say.  “Well, what’s wrong, honey?”  “NUTHIN’! I just don’t feel good…  I can’t sleep.”  As they huddled around the bed, each groaning in his or her own world, I turned my attention back to the show in the sky.

When the storm finally passed over us, at least a dozen lightning bolts crashed and exploded within a hundred yards of our house.  As it moved off to the east, having sorted out all of those imbalanced ions, my tribe was asleep.  Michelle conked out on the carpet near her mom, Nicole on the floor by her bed and Tim was sprawled across his bed with one foot on the floor.

My students were all yawning the next morning.  “Just couldn’t sleep ‘til after the storm,” they said.  “Not insulated enough, maybe,” I ventured.

Those Beijing fireworks were the perfect way to wrap up our amazing weeks abroad.  At some level, it probably cleared our heads to weigh what we learned about the people, cultures, history and landscapes of the countries we traveled.  And it is good to be back in Paradise.

[Copyright James L. Huckabay, 2013]