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What Birds Can Tell You

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Seeing animals along the trail is challenging.  We hike rapidly, with eyes on the ground most of the time, the heels of our boots pounding loudly.  This behavior would scare every wild animal away if it weren’t for one thing:  they are often used to us, accustomed to our incongruous way of moving through the wilderness.

Detail of “Explorer of Air” from the Gaian Tarot by Joanna Colbert depicting the author in willow tree with birds..

So we have two choices if we want to experience wildlife along the trail.  Either we change the way we hike, or we take advantage of the animals’ complacency.  I used to do the former, walking in various ways that would quiet my footfalls, plus broadening my area of sight by using “wide-angle vision” so I could look upward while also paying attention to the trail underfoot.

Needless to say, my hiking partners began to leave me in the dust, but I started seeing other people out there, people I hadn’t noticed before.  They would move slowly in the wilderness, with focused interest in tracking animals, or in the edible and medicinal gifts of plants.  Meeting them was life changing for me, and in this article, I will share with you the most exciting skill I learned in order to experience a plethora of wildlife along the trail:  how bird vocalizations can indicate, among other surprises, where animals are hidden.

“Two of Air” from the Gaian Tarot by Joanna Colbert with Cedar Waxwings in blooming Hawthorn Tree.

Nature’s Internet

Of all animals, birds in particular are in constant communication with one another.  We can take advantage of their vocalizations to find not only them, but also to find the animals they call out.  This activity is not an exact science, since one kind of bird call can sometimes have multiple meanings, but it doesn’t matter.  So what if half of the times you follow a bird call, you can’t find what their fuss was about?  Maybe half of the time you will!

To be clear, birds don’t sing randomly.  Like all wild animals, they do everything with purpose, because wasting energy can bring death.  So each bird has a range of voices and calls, specific to particular circumstances.  If we can understand their vocalizations, we will know their secrets, and get advance notice of events taking place all around us.  Who wouldn’t want to know if someone is ahead on the trail, or whether a bear is foraging in the salmonberries just out of sight?

Bird Alarms

Imagine a bobcat stalking a robin, which in turn is hunting worms on the edge of a field.  If the robin sees that bobcat, the robin will fly to safety and give sharp alarm calls, which will be repeated by surrounding song birds, and then echoed less stridently by birds further in the distance.

Similarly, if you plop a pebble in a pond, it will send out concentric waves.  Same goes for anything that happens in nature.  A silently stalking cougar will try to send less pronounced waves, but if a stellar’s jay sees it, the resulting call be like a boulder splashing into the metaphorical pond.

Animals will also try to take advantage of an “already wavy pond” by moving during a gust of wind, or moving near loud, rushing water.  They’ll even move at the same time you walk loudly down the trail!  This phenomenon becomes even more pronounced in the city, where I’ve found that birds will only bother passing messages within their surrounding block, because so much is happening within a small vicinity.

Putting up bird feeders, like this suet which attracted a flock of bushtits to my yard this winter, is a great way to learn “companion calls.”


Other Vocalizations

In the wilderness, I’ve noticed birds communicating about events taking place a mile away, and it’s always been fun to confirm whether my interpretations were correct.  The stories are many, but I instead of sharing them now, I want to give credit to the popularization of this “concentric rings of communication” concept to Tom Brown, Jr.’s as one of his positive contributions to naturalist study, and to his first student, Jon Young, who helped to quantify the concept further as “bird language.”

Young places bird language into 5 categories: Songs; Companion Calls; Intra-Species Conflict Calls; Begging Calls; and Alarm Calls.  After years of experimenting with these categories of bird vocalizations, I have taken the liberty to add the following sub-categories, which I call the “3×5” system.  The order is important, as the last sub-category in each section flows into the first sub-category of the next, starting at the top with the beginning of a bird’s life, and ending with its death:

Five of Air” from the Gaian Tarot by Joanna Colbert depicting “intra-species aggression” between Bald Eagles.






























Companion Calls:




Alarm Calls:



death cry

Fortunately, you only have to learn some of these vocalizations, as some are more important than others.  Further, you only need to learn them for a small number of birds.  In fact, just start with the robin since it can be found in city and wilderness during most seasons of the year.  Or, if you only care about what’s happening in the Pacific Northwest wilderness, then learn the vocalizations of the winter wren, as it lives year-round in the understory.

You will hear the “panic” and “death cry” calls from songbirds when small raptors come around, like this sharp-shin hawk did in my yard this winter.


Why Birds Sing

If you’ve hiked through a northwest forest, then you’ve probably passed dozens of winter wrens.  They’re the ones that sing like crazy on the ground, but are so small that they are an extreme challenge to see.  If you hear them singing, then there’s probably no predation or other disturbance going on around you.

But if you hear a winter wren giving a slowly repeating “tsk” call, then they are upset about something.  Might be you.  Might be a bear walking too close to their nest.  If you hear it giving a rapid-fire “tsk, tsk” call, then a short-tailed weasel might be threatening its nest.

Something you can do right now is go outside, find a robin, and follow it around.  It’s amazing how incredibly few outdoorspersons can recognize a robin’s song, one of the most beautiful in nature.  But within a half hour outside, you will be whistling along with it.

Robins (and most male songbirds during nesting season) will go around singing to mark the edges of their territories which are often much less than 1 acre in size.  What a wonderful way to spend a few minutes!  If you get too close, or if a cat walks by, then you’ll also learn its “caution” and “danger” calls.  Then, the next time you’re in the wilderness, listen for those calls, find the robin, and maybe you’ll see where a barred owl is roosting for the day, something I’ve experienced many times!

Ready to start learning the secrets of bird language?  Check out the various excellent internet sites to look up and listen to bird songs and calls.  Employ any birding field guide to identify which bird, or small set of birds, you see most and whose voices you want to learn.  If you don’t have one yet, the best for beginners and intermediate-level birders is the Golden Guide to Birds of North America since it has everything you need while being the cheapest and easiest to use.

Track of a Great Blue Heron compared to image found in Wildlife of the Pacific Northwest by David Moskowitz.

You can also try out some field exercises I designed to teach students about birds and their vocalizations in Chapter 8 of my Wolf Journey Earth Skills Training Course


The Rebirth of Mt. St. Helens Part 1

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This is part 1 of a 2 part series.  Notes for the trails mentioned in this article are below.

mt. st. helens


Mt. St. Helens has been synonymous with devastation and destruction ever since the May 1980 volcanic eruption that blasted out from the collapsed north face of the mountain at 8:32 am.  Trip reports, photographs, books and documentaries have focused on the devastating effects the eruption had on the surrounding landscape, often with a follow up section mentioning the rebirth and healing of the landscape over the past 30 years.  On a recent trip out to the volcano during the summer, it became clear to me that more and more the evidence of this devastation has begun to vanish under the onslaught of rebirth.  It also became clear that there will be a time, not very far in the future and certainly within my lifetime, where it will be possible that almost no effects will be visible from the majority of the volcanic landscape.  This is a staggering thought when you realize that shortly after the eruption it was incomprehensible to most that the slopes of the volcano would ever harbor life again, let alone a diverse ecosystem that may have actually benefited from the “clean slate” that was provided by the lateral blast.

The first thing to understand when looking at a reborn Mt. St. Helens, is that the recovery has been a patchwork.  Different environments and locations within the mountain have benefited in different ways depending not only on the intensity of the blast at a given location, but also dependent on topography and what the conditions were like before the eruption, as well as what new conditions have evolved as time has progressed.  In describing this new found land that is Mt. St. Helens, it is more apt to think of things in terms of transition and what stage a particular area has reached than to think of it in terms of distance from the crater.  Areas where replanting has occurred outside of the monument, as well as the south side of the mountain where the primary devastation was caused by mudflows,  have already healed significantly.  Inside the devastated northern reaches of the mountain, where the lateral blast rolled and blasted across the ridges and lakes in a 13 mile swath, the recovery has been more like a puzzle.

mt. st. helens_2


The most recovered area in terms of returning to a state more in line with the old growth forests that existed prior to the eruption of the mountain, is by far the north facing slopes of the ridges to the northeast and west, between 4 and 13 miles from the crater.  These ridges were sheltered from the direct blasting effect, unlike the south facing slopes where the blast literally stripped the trees and then the soil right down to bedrock.  On these north facing slopes, large stands of alder have filled in the ridge so densely that in late spring and summer they are a carpet of solid green.  Hiking the Harmony Trail along the edge of Spirit Lake shows this effect most aptly.  Fallen trees and stumps left over from the blast are completely grown over and hidden from view.  The only inklings of the blast take the form of a few last remaining standing dead trees that so far have remained ghostly as the sun and rain bleach their bark to white.

mt. st. helens_3

Following in stages of recovery, the alder forest has taken over parts of the area in the Toutle River valley known as the Hummocks as well.  Accessible via the Hummocks and Boundary trails, the alder in this area has grown to heights of 10-20 feet tall, and in certain places has begun to obscure former views of the volcano from the trail.  This area was the final resting place of a great volume of the avalanche material from the landslide of the north face of Mt. St. Helens.  Water, wind, snow and rain have carved deep chasms and canyons through the debris, creating a surreal landscape of massive blocks of hard rock surrounded by clear tranquil ponds and forests of alder where soil has built up.  Great herds of elk and the largest concentration of wildlife are to be found in this area, as food is most plentiful and snow melts off earlier than other parts of the monument.

mt. st. helens_5

Mt St Helens Trails Info:

Harmony Trail – This 3 mile round trip trail is considered easy, and by far has one of the best payoffs for such short distance.  The trail is accessed from a viewpoint pullout 13.5 miles along Forest Road 99, the main access route to the Windy Ridge viewpoint of St. Helens.  Access to FR 25 and FR 99 is limited to the summer months, mostly late June and into early October dependent on snowfall and accumulations.  It is not accessible in winter as the road is gated off at the junction of FR 99 and FR 25.  The trail descends 600 feet down the side of an alder covered ridge and out into a windswept basin, ultimately leading to the very shore of Spirit Lake with a distant view across the lake of the volcano.

Hummocks Trail – This easy meandering trail is a loop through the debris avalanche hummocks of the Toutle River valley.  At  2.3 miles with a virtually steady elevation of 2,500 feet, this trail traverses the edges of the many ash canyons and hummocks, with up close views of the looming volcano and the recovering ponds and alder forests of the valley floor.  This trail also has dual benefits, as it is located along State Route 509 the trailhead is the end of the plowed road, and accessible year-round and so makes for excellent snowshoeing in winter.  It also serves as a connection to the western portion of the Boundary 1 trail, which climbs steeply up to the top of Johnston Ridge.

Boundary Trail – This trail is actually one long multi day trail that crosses the entire monument, passing through the Mt. Margaret Backcountry at its mid point through the monument.  It is accessible from Forest Road 99 on the east side of the volcano, as well as from the Johnston Ridge observatory at the end of State Route 509.  The section of trail discussed herein is informally known as the Boundary west trail, and the segment beginning at the Hummocks trail junction and ending at the Johnston Ridge Observatory is  9.6 miles round trip (not including the Hummocks trail) with an elevation difference of 1,700 feet, most of which is gained ascending to the first crest of the ridge.  Accessible year round via the Hummocks trail, and during the summer via the Visitor Center, its steep slopes are prone to cornices and avalanche danger during the winter months, so snowshoeing is not encouraged by casual hikers.

(Part 2 will be available with the April Issue of our magazine.)

A Geologic Perspective on Granite Mountain – A Peak at Bedrock

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Glaciers are the environment’s equivalent of an eraser, their massive size and steamroller capabilities can carve bedrock with micro-movement ease and their fluvial behaviors can transport/deposit sediment far and wide (even boulders the size of a VW bus).

After moving to the Seattle Area from my home town of Portland nearly three years ago the geologist in me was excited and equally concerned to learn that Puget Sound, ~12,500 years ago, was once buried beneath thousands of feet of the Cordilleran Ice Sheet. Contrary to other environmental scientists, my mind is less interested in the possibility of global warming and is instead fascinated with where nature’s next glacial period will take the earth and all of its new found inhabitants.

So knowing I was in ex-glacier territory, I decided to seize the chance to take a hike to help me work through these environmental ponderings. Given the awareness I gained from my undergraduate studies in climate change I knew interglacial periods like the one we are currently experiencing (which began well over 13,000 yrs ago) tend to last ~10,000 yrs, it took little effort for this scientific mind to begin to question ‘are temperatures increasing such a BAD thing?’ Obviously we as humans know we can’t undo what’s already been done by our activity upon the earth, but when it comes to the upcoming glacial period the jury in my mind is still out on whether or not we had an overall negative impact. Are global warming and the next glacial period temperature decreases in sync and ultimately, if they are, what does THAT mean?

©Michael Cline

Don’t think for a second I am condoning additional pollution of the earth, but my tectonic courses enlightened me to the fact that volcanic eruptions have been decreasing as the core of the planet cools, therefore ironically the earth itself has decreased its own emissions. Granted I’ve yet to see an adequate mass balance study done on how many years of factory and/or vehicle emissions just one volcanic eruption contains or any reports conclusively showing what part those particles play in whether or not the next glacial period will arrive sooner vs. later because of their presence in the atmosphere (regardless of how/when they got there). Maybe we have expelled more than what nature has ever done historically or added chemicals that were never present in the past. Does that mean today’s potential state of global warming could successfully delay/impact the next glacial advance? This geologist seriously doubts it. So naturally I can’t help but ask… since past periods of heavy volcanic activity didn’t break the glacial cycle of ~10,000 years, how can we as humans do it with our modernization?  And am additionally left wondering… if the next glacial period IS coming, will it be in my lifetime and what would it be like?  Should you share the curiosity, here are some of my favorite representations of how glacial cover historically appeared locally and may look like again in the future.

With the Granite Mountain hike less than a one-hour drive from downtown Seattle making promises of 360 degree views on a clear day, I found my perfect opportunity to visually bring these ponderings to life. I wasn’t the least bit deterred by terms like ‘butt buster’ and ‘avalanche gully’. Instead the word ‘granite’ piqued my curiosity with the question “isn’t granite bedrock?” soon to follow. Bedrock is known to be beneath the ground and when perched atop a summit it’s always a geologist’s treat, so I attacked online mapping applications which had me visually flying along the I-90 corridor at a gliding eagle’s pace taking in a birds-eye view of Granite Mountain and the surrounding topography. The image search for the Cordilleran Ice Sheet revealed the fact that a glacial lobe once extended down the very valley before my eyes and I was hooked! That’s the hike for me! The lobe ~12,500 yrs ago (the geological timescale equivalent of ‘yesterday’) would’ve been similar to those portrayed in the image of the Purcell Lobe of the Cordilleran Ice Sheet that artist Rick Lovel rendered. His image has the viewer looking south-southeast from over present day Lake Pend Oreille and Sandpoint, Idaho. Additionally, the past glacial lobe that glided over present day North Bend would in some ways resembled this photo of the Lillooet Glacier in Canada.  The lobe may or may not have reached as far east as Granite Mountain, but the erosional ability of the melt-water alone could have easily chiseled Granite Mountain out of the bedrock.

©Michael Cline

Granite Mountain

On the date of my exploration, at about 3000 feet elevation, the trail broke free of the tree line and the geologist in me easily found many opportunities to visualize the terrain as it would’ve appeared when glaciers filled the valleys. All it took was one glance down to my car, parked off of I-90 to gain a new respect for how much sediment/bedrock needed to be removed to create the valley I just climbed out of. Luckily for the remainder of the hike, views of surrounding peaks fed thoughts about how they were potentially part of what millions of years ago may have been ground surface and  kept me distracted me from the intensity of climbing miles of granite boulder steps (or more precisely give me justifiable reasons to pause and take a breather).

Since I was in no hurry I decided to take advantage of the beautifully exposed south-southwest facing rockscape and selected the perfect granite boulder recliner for a picnic lunch and megabytes of my memory card to be consumed. The up-close views of the a crescent shaped peak to the south-southeast that has Annette and Mirror Lakes tucked behind it and Mount Rainier effortlessly dwarfing those bedrock peaks only a geological stone’s throw away to the  south-southwest peacefully kept me company. Then after being re-energized by the food and the views, a gentle jaunt across the granite-walled gully (summer route) revealed views of Tuscohatchie Lake, Wright Mountain, and Kaleetan Peak dramatically filling the sky to the north-northeast. At the top, unfortunately the fire lookout was unstaffed, so after a final scramble up the cleaving white and black speckled granite ridge a panoramic view of it all was unveiled and it was suddenly worth the effort to get there.

Then what should happen? Within moments of taking in the glaciers that cover the sides of that ever-growing nearby Mount Rainier I became all the more impressed by its size, especially considering the counteractive forces those glaciers provide. Well you probably already guessed it, shortly thereafter the wonderings of where climate change will lead that mountain’s development began. And that will have to be wait for another article.

©Jen Baptist

Getting to Trails Without a Car

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I recently decided to give up on my aging automobile. When I bought it nearly 13 years ago, it was among the most efficient in its class. Now that it has nearly 175,000 miles on it, it’s starting to show its age; it needs new tires, brakes, and even the transmission is starting to get flaky.

Since the economy is urging us all gently to tighten our belts, I decided to see what I could to lower my cost of living. Fixing up
my car no longer fit into the equation.

The first step was to dust off my bicycle. The secong step was to get an Orca pass so that I wouldn’t have to worry about collecting change in order to get around by bus. The final step was to sign up for ZipCar. The bicycle is great for getting around the city; in most cases it takes between five and ten minutes longer to get around Seattle by bicycle than it does by car. To carry things with me, I am using a Windrider backpack by Hyperlite Mountain Gear. The backpack was designed for through hikers rather than bicyclists, but it works well as a bicycle backpack. The fact that it’s waterproof makes it a good choice for Seattle’s winter weather. Being designed for hikers, it carries weight well, also. Carrying a full load of backpacking gear on your back while bicycling doesn’t work so well, though — especially if you’re like me, and exceed reasonable weight limits. For my first hiking outing since I gave up on my car, I joined up with a Meetup group and carpooled. I took two busses to get to where I met my carpool, and although I had to leave a bit early in order to reach the park and ride in time, I made up for it with the time I had to read a book on the bus.

The obvious disadvantage to this is that it requires finding a group with at least one car to share a ride. There are a lot of social communities that involve backpacking, so that is an excellent resource for finding people with similar interests to share rides with. The bus system in the Puget Sound area isn’t terribly efficient, but it is extensive. There are busses all the way out even to Gold Bar and Whidbey Island, which are close to some good camping destinations. Some backpackers hitchhike to in order to increase their range, which is also an option — though there is obvious risk in hitchhiking. For day hikes, ZipCar is a viable option. It costs $60 per day, and that includes gas and ZipCar covers maintenance. The limit is the 180 mile range, after which you get charged per mile. Accounting for maintenance, insurance, and gas a ZipCar is quite a bit less expensive than owning a car, unless you drive all the time. You have to plan ahead a bit and reserve a car, so keep that in mind when using this option. Find a partner or two and you can share the cost for a day’s use. For longer trips, it may be more cost-effective to rent a car from Enterprise or Budget for a few days. For an overnight within a 180-mile drive, the ZipcCar works out, especially if you’re sharing the costs with another person or two. ZipCar also offers SUV’s and other more backcountry-friendly vehicles, though they might not be as readily available and they carry a premium.

Ferry and Rainier © Erika Klimecky

It is possible to be a backpacker without a car. Using bus and bicycle saves money and improves fitness. You save money on car insurance and maintenance, and burn fewer fossil fuels. The tradeoff is that getting into the back country requires a bit of extra planning.
I think the cardiovascular training, savings, and reduced carbon footprint are worth the extra effort.

Bear Attacks

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All of the new backpackers I meet ask about bears. “Are there bears? Where are the bears? Have you ever been attacked by a bear? What do I do if I run into a bear?”

Honestly, despite the recent news stories, run ins with bears on the trails are pretty darn scarce. Yes, they live here. There are an estimated 25,000 black bears in Washington State, which is enough to have a hunting season on them. The state hands out several hundred tags to the thousands of applicants each year who want to hunt them. There are rumored to be a handful of Grizzly Bears (less than 10) in the North Cascades.  But in general, run ins with bears are usually associated with large populations and national parks where hoards of people provide a potential food source for them. (No, not the people themselves, the food people bring with them.)

Grizzly © Erika Klimecky

All Bear attacks in Washington State since 1920

According to Craig Bartlett of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife the following are the only bear attacks on record since 1920.

1)      1974.  Glenwood, WA 4 year old killed by a bear

2)      1995.  Sultan.  14 year old boy injured by bear

3)      2007.   Kitsap County.  A female hunter that was injured by a bear that she shot

4)      2008.  Port Orchard.  A male biker that was injured when he and his unleashed dogs encountered a bear on a corner

5)      2010.  Lake Wenatchee

6)      2010. Gig Harbor (added after info was obtained from WDFW)

Still, if 6 attacks in 90 years is too many for you, this link will provide the Dept of Fish and Wildlife’s tips for staying safe if you find yourself in the company of bears.

The National Park Service is releasing an official report on nuisance and hazardous animals in National Parks this spring, including the anomalous goat attack in the Olympic National Park.

Take Only Photographs- The Importance of Conservation

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Most backpackers are already familiar with leave no trace ethics, and there isn’t room in this article to explain them in any depth. See the link at the bottom of this article if you aren’t familiar with Leave No Trace. There are also other things that we can do.

One is to remember that the national forest and national park rangers can’t possibly scout every trail in their district, so unless you let them know about adverse trail conditions like washouts, snow, or blow-downs, they may not find out about them. This is particularly true if you have been on a lesser traveled trail recently. Let them know, and they can update the trail conditions reports.  Another is to introduce your friends to the wilderness. Show them what they’re missing, and teach them how to care for it.  And finally, join an organization like the Sierra Club or Environment Washington, and help out. These organizations work to keep that wilderness wild, and rather than take their efforts for granted, we should lend them support.  Sharing your pictures from your trips can help, since pictures strengthen their campaigns, but you can also help by signing their electronic petitions and lending your voice to their efforts.

There is a lot of national forest land that isn’t protected yet, and these same organizations are working to get more of them protected so that we and our descendants will be able to continue trekking in the untrammeled wilderness.

Related Links:

Sierra Club, Seattle Chapter

Leave No Trace Ethics

Report Damage to National Forest Service or National Parks Service

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