Friday, May 27, 2011

First Solo at PCC

Kath gave me permission this afternoon to head out to the Plains Center to walk the prairie by myself. I think she knows that I have to push to do some things that are at the outer edges of my capabilities if I'm going to get better, back to at least where I was before the heart attack. And we met with my cardiologist this morning and he was very happy with my progress.

It was wonderful being out in nature by myself for the first time since January. As usual on the prairie, the sun was shining and the wind was blowing out of the southeast at about 10 knots. I had my fanny pack with two canteens of water and my binoculars. The temperature was a comfortable 65 degrees. Recent rains have started turning the grass green. I think the grass needs a couple of days of hot sun to turn a lush green.

For a while I walked past some prairie dog colonies and noticed that some of this year's pups were above ground running for cover as they heard the adults barking warnings. And I found eight pronghorns about a mile away on a ridge to the east. They were far enough away that they paid no attention to me. It soon will be June and the does will start to drop their fawns. The fawns will then spend from three to six weeks hiding in the grass and nursing from mom before they join their moms to graze.

As I got about halfway out to the riparian area, my turn around point, I noticed a large bird sitting in a cottonwood we call Lone Tree because it is out away from the other large trees. The trail I was on doesn't come close to that tree, so I cut across the prairie toward it. I noticed out on the prairie that the sage is greening up and there were some small white flowers. I'm not sure what they are.

I didn't quite get to the trail that cuts close to Lone Tree when the bird flew and I was able to confirm my guess that it was an immature golden eagle that's been hanging around PCC for a few months. What a magnificent bird. It was a nice welcome to me on my first day solo on the prairie.

I finally got to my destination, the group of cottonwoods in the riparian area, where I hoped to find a great-horned owl and maybe a chick or two. I was approaching the trees when I stopped to look around. Suddenly a white-tailed deer jumped up out of some reeds by Tollgate Creek, not 25 yards in front of me. I knew it was a white tail and not a mule deer immediately because it flashed its long white tail, the warning signal of white-tail deer. It ran off 50 yards and stopped to see if I was chasing it. I could see two small bumps on its had where it had started to grow this year's antlers. We almost never see deer in our area, so this was a new sighting for me. It was a beautiful animal.

I didn't find any owls, but the deer made up for the lack of owls. The trees are starting to leaf out, with those leaves of lime green. They were backlit by the afternoon sun, so they were beautiful. And the breeze was singing through the leaves, which made me smile. I sat in the grass for a while, looking for owls and just enjoying myself immensely.

I guess I spent an hour and a half walking and watching wildlife, a wonderful afternoon. I also got some sun. I could tell because when I smiled the skin on my face felt that wonderful tightness of a healthy afternoon in the sun and wind.

When I got home, Kath was out shopping with our niece, Eileen. They came in the door with several shopping bags and smiles on their faces. Obviously they had a good time too. I asked Kath is she worried about me walking out there, and she said she never gave it a thought. A first time for that. She's coming around. I think the good check up with the doctor this morning helped.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

A step back and a step forward

Yesterday morning is one I've looked forward to for quite a while. I went out to the Plains Conservation Center and went on the "walk with a naturalist." For as long as that program has existed, I've been leading those walks, but my heart attack ended that, at least temporarily. The last function I participated in at PCC was a walk with a naturalist. That's the walk in which we found the "stealth owls" sitting camouflaged in a cottonwood tree. That was back in January, January 15th to be exact.

So it was very special for me to head out on the walk with Phil Gerkin, a naturalist whom I had worked with as he started volunteering at PCC. Unfortunately, probably because of all the rain we've had recently, Phil and I were the only ones on the walk. But it gave us time to catch up and for him to let me know what's been happening on the prairie.

With all the rain we've had--we have had five inches of rain just in May, a total normally for the year up to this point--the grasses are greening up. They just need a few days like yesterday, sunny and warm, to really turn green. Didn't see any wildflowers, but I'm sure they're just busting to get into the sun light. The cottonwood trees are starting to leaf out and the rains have East Tollgate Creek flowing and the large pond full. The pond had dried up completely last August and stayed that way through fall and part of winter.

The critters were out, even if the wildflowers weren't. I saw a burrowing owl fly low to the ground and out of sight. Tried to show it to Phil, but he missed it. Burrowing owls migrate into PCC in late March, early April and nest there in abandoned prairie dog burrows. Often you will see lots of prairie dogs standing tall to watch you. Then one of them gets up and flies away. That's normally a burrowing owl, not a prairie dog. The only time you see a prairie dog fly is if there's a large hawk or eagle attached to it.

As we got close to Lone Tree, a large cottonwood to the east of the trail, a golden eagle popped up above the ridge, flapping to get some altitude. It was, I think, the same eagle I've seen our there before. It is immature, having a wide white band on its tail and some white showing under the wings. The magnificent bird caught some lift and soared up almost out of sight.

Then as we got closer to the riparian area with all the big cottonwoods, another large bird came flapping up into sight. Turned out to be a bald eagle with white head and tail, a mature bird. It appeared to be carrying a snake or something in its talons. It was just a bit too far away to tell what it was. Phil thought it was a snake.

I had hoped to see an owl and owlets in the riparian area because there's a pair of nesting great-horned owls there. A owlet had been spotted a few weeks ago, and I hoped to find one. I lucked out and spotted one of the adults sitting almost invisibly on a branch, pressed up against the tree trunk. I saw what I thought was a bulge that was out of place and looked hard at it. It took some concentration to finally make out an owl, but then it became obvious that it was an owl. It was looking at us. Then I used my binoculars to peer into the foliage and spotted an owlet sitting five or six feet above the adult, in the same tree. That made my day.

There were several coots swimming on the pond. Coots have been nesting there for the past three summers, so I expect we'll be seeing some red-headed chicks swimming around soon. The cattails and reeds are swarming with noisy red-winged blackbirds. Must be lots of insects hatching also because the air over the pond was full of flitting cliff swallows. And a few western kingbirds were looking for nesting places in the trees and catching insects over the pond. 

Actually, just getting out on the prairie, walking in the peaceful morning sunshine, and being out in nature was enough to make it a great day. Had we not seen any wildlife, I would still have been happy. I'm already signed up to lead the walk next month. And I'm looking forward to it. In June, the antelope/pronghorn does will start to drop their fawns, so we can look for them on the walk. And the prairie dog pups will be above ground, huddled in groups of four or five on the burrows. With any luck, the eagles will hang around and we'll see them too. And the burrowing owls should have their chicks above ground then. It will be baby time on the prairie.

So I stepped back to a previous activity I loved but stepped forward showing myself that I'm capable of walking that distance in hilly terrain and of spotting wildlife. That is a great feeling. And I'm nine weeks through the 12-week rehab program. Life is looking up. It is very good.

Monday, May 2, 2011

My first trip back out to PCC

Last Thursday, Kath loosened the chain on the rear bumper of the Forester and let me go out to PCC. I wanted to go out by myself to see my friends out there and just be able to relax and see the place again. I've had many great times out there, and having a heart attack was just incidental to being there. Actually it was one of the best places I could have been because the staff took such good care of me.

I pulled up and got out of the car only to be caught up in a big hug from Sara. She is the volunteer coordinator out there, so we get to work together lots. We walked into the office to see Tudi, the director, and then people came out of the woodwork. It was really nice to see my friends out there. They were all so welcoming and glad to see me. I guess the last time they saw me, I didn't look so well.

Tudi, Susan Smith, the director of education, and I drove me out to the riparian area to see if we could find the great-horned owls. The last time I was at PCC, except for the time I had the heart attack, I lead a walk with a naturalist, and we saw the male and female owls sitting together. Susan found one of the owls, and it was really great seeing it. They are so danged hard to see because of their coloring.

I got a note today saying that Devon, the farm manager and also a falconer, saw a fluffy little owlet on a branch with one of the adults perched near it during the Saturday afternoon public wagon ride. So, as we suspected, the owls have nested again in one of the large cottonwoods, probably in a cavity on the west side, away from the trail.

We also saw a pair of cinnamon teal and several coots. The past two years or so, the coots have nested in the reeds at the edge of the pond. I suspect we'll soon be seeing the cute chicks, with their red heads and necks, swimming along behind mom. We also flushed a great blue heron from the pond. It flew up to the side of the ridge to the west of the pond and settled in for the time we were there.

Susan told me that they've seen a couple of red-tailed hawks building a nest in Lone Tree, a cottonwood standing by itself next to the creek, and we saw both the nest and a raptor in the branches near the top of the tree. It was, in all likelihood, one of the red tails guarding the nest site. I hope we soon have red tail chicks.

My rehab continues as it should. This weekend I extended my walking distance at home to three miles. It felt good to get back to that distance, one I was walking regularly before the heart attack. I'm also half way through my 12-week rehab stint. Have a visit with the nurse practitioner this Friday. She'll check to make sure things are going as they should. I'm hoping for a clean bill of health--well, as clean as it can be at this point.

Yesterday morning, Kath and I both awoke at 6:00 AM to the sound of a chickadee yodeling just outside the open bedroom window. A loud critter. Here's the haiku I wrote a bit later in the morning:

   a chickadee’s notes
   awakens us from sound sleep
   and lifts up the sun

Every morning should start so pleasantly. Although Kath doesn't think so. She thinks the chickadees are a bit too noisy, particularly in the AM. But don't tell her I wrote that. ;-)))))