Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Occoquan National Wildlife Refuge

Occoquan National Wildlife Refuge, not far from Fairfax, is a beautiful place to walk and watch birds. Len took a number of bird photos there last Sunday, which you can see by linking from the one above.

Late spring flowers were beautiful.
Evelyn, Alice, Tom, Miriam on the path by Occoquan Bay
Miriam took many photos with my camera: here's her wildlife photo.
Miriam's photo of the bay

Monday, May 19, 2014

Magee Marsh

A few of yesterday's Magee Marsh warblers from Len's Flickr page. Most recent photos from Len here.
From all over the world, committed birdwatchers come to Magee Marsh near Toledo to see the migrating warblers and other birds. As they come up the flyway, the birds are stopped by the necessity to fly across Lake Erie, so they land in the woods where it's very easy to see them. Elsewhere warblers are much more spread out and difficult to see. We spent several hours, starting early in the morning.

In the green space next to the parking lot, a woodcock is sitting on a nest.
An eagle also has a nest in the parking lot, but we didn't take a photo.
Birdwatchers and their equipment as we walked along the boardwalk where the warblers hang out:

Far right: Len and his rental lens that he
was trying out.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Back Home

We have been back from our long trip for one week, and I would say we are acclimating to life in a rainy climate instead of the terrible drought in California. We were lucky to miss the dangerous brush fires now raging in California and a very late snowstorm in the Rockies just a few days after we drove through.

Here in Ann Arbor, we are back to a life without a nearby beach, without a vista of mountains, but with many good things including our own home and garden.

On the drive east, our car was packed very full. Two bicycles, several suitcases...
this was the trunk as it appeared on the last day of the trip.
From the Denver area to Michigan, the road is long and not very interesting.
Wind farms, corn fields, feedlots, construction sites, semi trucks,
and a few splatted bugs on the windshield -- that's it. Glad to stop. 
Our magnolia bloomed to welcome us home. Almost all the blooms have now fallen. 
Migratory birds are everywhere, fun to watch. Chicks are hatching.
I think this is a goose egg. Baby Canada geese are not really welcome in the parks,
as the geese are so numerous, dirty, and aggressive.
But these Sandhill crane chicks are very welcome!
Len has seen and photographed quite a few birds since our return. More to  come this weekend.
See Len's Flickr page for constant additions of bird photos.
An 80-year-old century plant is sending up its stalk at the Botanical Garden.
Once it produces a crop of "pups," that is little clones, and a flower,
the plant will die as all agaves always do. At 15 inches per day of
growth, it will soon reach the roof, as shown in the photo.
They will open a panel so it can grow up and up.
Lots of other things to do: last night was a meeting of my book club, written up here: "The Worst Kitchen in Literature."

Saturday, May 10, 2014


Inside a reconstructed kiva at Spruce Tree House,
Mesa Verde National Park
Climbing ladders, long ladders, is the only way to visit the 13th century cliff-side constructions at Mesa Verde. Kivas -- the semi-underground structures built by the mesa-top dwellers from the 6th to 12th centuries -- used ladders to enter the dwellings through a hole in the ceiling; modern Pueblo people, descendants of the Mesa Verde residents, have similar access to their traditional homes.

The trail towards Balcony House
For many visitors, the long ladders are incredibly scary. But the ancient Pueblo people used hand and foot holds on the cliff face to enter and exit from the cliff dwellings. These are like a ladder, but much more challenging. It's hard to imagine all people, young and old, on a climbing wall virtually every day.

A visit to Balcony House begins with a climb up a huge ladder.
Coming up the ladder to exit from Balcony House.
Yes, that's the canyon floor down there.
In addition to climbing ladders, at Balcony House you
have to climb through an 18 inch wide tunnel at the back of the alcove.
Stone stairs exiting from Cliff Palace lead up to another ladder;
at top center, you can see the foot- and hand-holds for the original exit.
Top of Cliff Palace exit ladder
Taos Pueblo (visited 2004). You can see the similarity to the cliff structures
at Mesa Verde, and see some of the ladders. Scholars now think
the Taos Pueblo residents are descended from the people who lived in Mesa Verde.
Roof-access ladder at Taos Pueblo (2004).
Note: many present-day Taos residents also have a modern house
in addition to the original Pueblo house.

Friday, May 09, 2014

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde

We started our day-long car tour of Mesa Verde by circling the Mesa Top Loop. I've written about the 6th-12th century pithouses on top of the mesa that we visited there. In addition, we stopped at several viewpoints to enjoy the scenery, especially the beautiful canyons and occasional glimpses of distant snow-capped mountains. In the afternoon, we toured the three ancient cliff dwellings that were open to the public this week: Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Spruce Tree House. There's another scenic loop in the park, but it hasn't yet opened for the summer season.

Several overlooks at the Mesa Top Loop enable one to look across the canyons to the cliff dwellings that the Pueblo people built during the thirteenth century. We particularly enjoyed the view towards the Cliff Palace, one of the largest structures built into the natural alcoves in the canyon walls. Many of the smaller ones are visible on the same cliff face.

Looking towards Cliff Palace we enjoyed watching the swallows swoop and dive below us and on our eye level, speeding down into the canyon as they gobbled up the insects. They move much too fast to get a picture in flight (at least that's true of our telephoto lens); we did catch one sitting in a tree just below the viewpoint:

A violet-green swallow seen from the overlook towards Cliff Palace
Cliff Palace
Our tour of Cliff Palace began at 1:00 -- we ate a picnic lunch while awaiting the tour, which leaves from the second driving loop. Visiting these structures that hang on the edge of the cliff with spectacular entrances and exists is an intense experience, especially walking down the fairly steep paths towards the alcoves where the Pueblo people built and climbing up quite long wooden ladders. In some cases we also crawled or climbed through narrow passageways. The Pueblo people had handholds and footholds in the rock face, and essentially they climbed right up the sheer face of the cliffs every day to go to their fields, to hunt and gather plants, and whatever else they did -- in other words, the park service has made it easier for the tourists!
Cliff Palace as we were entering the alcove
Looking around
Like the older dwellings on the mesa, the cliff-top structures all include kivas, or round shelters that were once covered by a sturdy roof and entered by a ladder in the middle of the room. Similar arrangements are still used by the descendants of these people, such as the residents of Taos Pueblo.

Cliff Palace has a seep-spring that provided water to the people in the structure, and had rooms that were probably used for storing grain and other foods. As the biggest structure, Cliff Palace may have been used not only as a dwelling, but also for meetings and dancing. Details of life in the many cliff dwellings are subject to speculation, as much of the archaeological materials were looted soon after the ranchers and other explorers became aware of the many incredible cliff ruins.

Kiva at Cliff Palace
To leave Cliff House, you climb through a narrow
slit in the rock face... 
After the stone stairs through the slit, you climb a rather long ladder
to exit. Above: Len coming up the ladder.
Cliff structures, we were told, were built only during the last century when the Pueblos lived in Mesa Verde. Throughout that time, the inhabitants made the entrances more and more narrow and challenging, probably in order to repel invaders or strangers. At the end of that era, when there was a very long drought, they abandoned the area entirely and moved south, where their descendants still inhabit somewhat similar pueblo dwellings. The existence of the structures at Mesa Verde seems to have been entirely forgotten some time after the abandonment of the area around 1300.

I'll be posting more photos of the other cliff structures that we visited, including more about the kivas, about the people who lived in these structures, and about their rediscovery.

Pithouses at Mesa Verde

Originally published on my food blog here, this is the first post of a few that I plan to do about our recent visit to Mesa Verde National Park:
Grindstone from 6th or 7th century, Mesa Verde pithouse

Pithouse at Mesa Top Loop, Mesa Verde National Park
Now that we're back home from our long trip west, I have time to think about the beauty of the ruins we saw in Mesa Verde. I can wonder and learn more about the history of these ancient people who lived in this difficult country from around the 6th to the 13th century and then moved on. Above all, I can remember my experiences of visiting their early pithouses on the tops of the mesas and their amazing cliff dwellings in the alcoves under the cliffs. I tried to learn what the early people ate, as well as many other things about their lives and their material culture.

On the morning of the day we spent in Mesa Verde, we followed the Mesa Top Loop, stopping at every opportunity to see the dramatic overlooks down into the canyons and to see the archaeological sites of very early pithouses, the dwellings of the first Pueblo people to arrive in the area.

Wild turkey at Mesa Verde
Around the dwellings, we learned, were the fields where the Indians raised corn, beans, and squash. They gathered foods such as calorie-rich pine-nuts from the pinyon pine, and hunted game. They domesticated the local turkeys, and also raised dogs. (I assume that like the peoples of Central America, they ate dog meat).

Archaeologists have discovered numerous channels that the ancient people used to control the many streams of water around their fields; the exact purpose of these water projects is not fully understood.

In their below-ground buildings, which originally had wood-timbered roofs, people slept, ate, stored their grain supplies and other foods in baskets and skin bags, ground grain on grindstones, cooked over a central fire pit, and generally led their lives. Clay drinking vessels, seed pots, and other pottery have been found in the digs. Some interior spaces appear to have been used as meeting places as well as for living.

The many excavations we saw are protected by metal buildings and railings to keep out rain, wind, snow, and tourists. We read many explanatory placards like the one illustrated above, and found the documentation very helpful in learning the history of the people who lived in these pithouses until the late 12th century. At that time, for reasons that are not well-understood, they began to build new dwellings -- cliff houses -- in shallow caves, or alcoves, in the sides of the cliffs. The amazing alcove dwellings, many visible from the Mesa Top Loop overlooks, are of course the most famous aspect of the park.
Mesa Verde pottery from the ancient peoples -- in park museum.
I'll be writing more blog posts about the cliff dwellings and how they were discovered in the late 19th century.
Cliff dwelling from Mesa Top Loop viewpoint.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Monument Valley

We drove from Flagstaff towards Mesa Verde National Park via the scenic route: Monument Valley, partly in Utah, partly in Arizona. This is some of the most spectacular scenery in the world, comparable to the other national parks in Utah & Arizona that we've seen -- Bryce, Zion, Arches, Grand Canyon, Canyonlands. It's very dry and the atmosphere is quite dusty, but nevertheless magnificent.

Thinking of Tony Hillerman's wonderful detective stories all the way across the Navaho Nation's lands, when we got to the visitor center I couldn't resist saying I was looking for Jim Chee (meaning Hillerman's policeman, only symbolically). The information desk staff woman said with a puzzled look, "He's in a meeting." My mistake -- that's a normal Navaho name, and Hillerman's work is NOT the first thing on anyone else's mind. She had vaguely heard of Hillerman, actually.

Viewpoint on the way to Far View Lodge, Mesa Verde
The lodge in Mesa Verde is a vast improvement over last night's tacky motel -- instead of freight trains we have a stunning view across the valley, with lots of birds in the trees and low bushes outside.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Driving Home: Santa Barbara to Flagstaff

7:20 AM -- Early morning light. Our last look at the beautiful orchid garden
belonging to Delores, owner of our apartment.
Loading the car -- the garage belongs to Delores.
Our apartment was around the back and downstairs.
We got such an early start that we drove across LA instead of taking back roads to avoid the traffic, as we had planned. Our hunch about traffic paid off: we sailed through, and then on into the Mojave Desert, where our car thermometer measured a high of 102 degrees. We enjoyed the variety of desert scenery including mountains, some very dry landscapes, and areas with slightly greener desert plants.

4:00: Flagstaff, temperature down into the 70s.
Across the street (a little too close) -- freight trains go by rather often