Updated: May 3, 2020
"I come into the peace of wild things..."
We, the lucky ones, have been “staying home, staying safe” for about 6 weeks now. Our front line workers have made it possible for us to do the easy work of self-isolating. At the same time, we have been saddened by tragic losses, both in the general population, and (especially) in our-long term care facilities. In the last week, we have ached for Nova Scotians as they have dealt with a rampage that left 22 innocent people dead.
As we navigate our way through these troubling, confusing days of isolation, confinement, and uncertainty as to what lies ahead; as we bear witness to the grief of losing loved ones to a virus, or to meaningless violence; as we continue to wonder about our planet and all of its ills ... may we be comforted in some small way by the words of Wendell Berry.*
When despair grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
4. “The Peace of Wild Things"
It always amazes me that some of the best treasures are discovered when we aren’t even looking for them. Driving out of Grand Canyon Park, on our way to find something else entirely, we pulled over to spend a few moments with these gentle creatures that had appeared at the edge of the forest along the highway.
While we usually refer to these animals as “Elk",
they don’t really like that name...."Blaaah!"
They were originally called “Wapiti”, meaning "white rump”, by the Native people.
They must be shedding fur at this time of year, because some of them were using small trees to “scratch the itch”.
One of the Wapiti seemed content to lie quietly in a patch of snow while the rest of the herd was feeding.
It was touching to see the others stopping by to check in with her,
rubbing noses as if to reassure.
(When we drove by later in the day, she was nowhere to be seen, so hopefully she was feeling better!)
Not sure what was being said, but there was definitely communication going on between these animals.
I had never seen Wapiti before, and was thrilled to have a close-up view of them. They were relaxed, and not in a hurry to move on, giving us time to observe and take a few photos as they went about their business.
I had high hopes of catching a glimpse of a California Condor while we were in Grand Canyon Park, but although one had been sighted cruising over the canyon near our lodge, we hadn’t been lucky enough to see it. I had heard that they were sometimes seen roosting on Navajo Bridge,** about 2-1/2 hours out of the park, but that this might not be a good time of year to see them. With excellent directions from a guide at the Visitor’s Centre, we set off through miles of desert toward Marble Canyon to take our chances.
In 1987, the last 27 remaining wild California Condors were captured, and over the next years, were able to successfully breed in captivity. In 1991, a few captive-bred birds were released into the wild, and since that time many more have been re-introduced into suitable habitats (like the Grand Canyon). While still management-dependent, the California Condors now number 231, and have the distinction of being the first bird species to be brought back from extinction in the wild.
I was so hopeful that I could just ... see one flying over. My eyes were on the sky
(I wasn’t driving!) as we crossed Navajo Bridge, and I nearly jumped out of the car when a large shape appeared over the river. Out the open window went the camera, and our first sighting of a California Condor was recorded.
We parked the car, walked out onto a walking bridge that is parallel to the car bridge, and waited. It wasn’t long before another Condor landed on the structure about 100 ft. in front of us. Unfortunately the sun was right behind these birds, making photos tricky, but --- aren’t they the most gloriously ugly creatures you have ever seen?? Look at those shaggy fur collars. And the faces...
The Condors are fitted with wing tags and radio transmitters to keep track of their progress. At the Visitor’s Centre in Grand Canyon, a guide had told me to take a picture of the tracking sheet in a book that is kept there, and to see if I could find some of the birds on the list. There is also a history of each bird, which was quite fascinating.
54, for example, is a male, hatched in captivity in Boise, Idaho, in 2004 (making him almost 16 years old!), and was released into the wild in 2006.
While we were standing watching 54, another bird flew in a short distance away. This Condor is a female, and it turns out that she and 54 are a mated pair. H9 is a younger woman, hatched in Portland, Oregon, in captivity in 2008, and was released into the wild in 2011. She will be 12 this summer.
The Condors just kept arriving: H9 was joined by a younger bird , with a blank tag.
Turns out that this is the chick of H9 and 54, hatched in the wild in 2018. Mom was still feeding this almost-2-year-old youngster.
After feeding time, there was a family meeting of sorts...
The adults seemed to be discussing some mysterious Condor plans, after which all 3 birds sat on the edge of the bridge overlooking the Colorado River. One by one, the adults flew out and away, and were gone for 20 minutes or so.
While they were out hunting, other birds soared in the air or perched on the bridge; we were pleased to see 8 in total.
V5 is a male, hatched in captivity in 44 is a female, hatched in captivity in
Boise, Idaho, in 2017, and released Boise, Idaho, in 2016, and released
into the wild in 2019. into the wild in 2018.
09 is a female, hatched in captivity in
San Diego, California, in 2016, and released
into the wild in 2017.
And away down on a rocky ledge, little VC sat for several hours while we were there. Apparently she had been in this spot for 2 days, and was not expected to survive. Condors are carrion eaters, and often succumb to lead poisoning when they eat carcasses left behind by hunters. Hope she made it, but.....
On a nearby cliff, the “twins" (both tagged 17), sat, then took to the air. There is only 1 bird tagged 17 on my chart, and it was recorded as a male, hatched in captivity in Portland, Oregon, in 2016, and released in 2017.
We marvelled at the good fortune of seeing so many California Condors in one spot, but were totally unprepared for the last surprise of the afternoon. 54 returned to the bridge, and sought out his mate, H9, who had landed a few minutes earlier. And they proceeded to mate right there on the bridge, completely unfazed by their avian and human audience!
After this display, 54 pondered for a few moments, then proclaimed to the world that there would be a new California Condor on the cliffs this summer...
And H9, the mother-to-be, celebrated with a little happy dance.
This human did a happy dance of her own as she reflected on what a privilege it was to be allowed into the world of an endangered species for a few hours!!
We headed back to Grand Canyon, where we spent one more night before driving to Las Vegas, to spend a day in Red Rock Canyon before catching our flight home. After one evening in Vegas, it was great to get out of the city and hike some really stunning trails. This park is only about an hour from the city, and completely worth the drive.
Along the pathways, lizards zipped by and disappeared before we could even tell what they were! This Common Side-blotched Lizard stayed put for a few seconds.
There were hieroglyphs on a rock face on one of the trails.
Lichen decorates the red rocks in places where the sun does not shine too brightly.
In a small stream in one of the valleys, a Chorus Frog, with its small padded feet, peeked out of the reeds.
At the Visitors’ Centre, Desert Tortoises were waking from hibernation, and wandering around their large outdoor exclosure looking for food.
And an American Kestrel kept watch as we left the park for the day.
It was with reluctance that we headed back to crazy Las Vegas late in the afternoon. Red Rock Canyon was a wonderful spot to finish off our tour of Arizona.
We feel fortunate to have flown home on March 7, just ahead of "Covid-mania”. Within days, all of us were in self-isolation, as Covid-19 was declared a Pandemic. I am very glad to have had a collection of photos to sort and share during this time; I have re-lived many special moments in the creation of these 4 “Reflections” Blogs. It is my hope that they have brightened your days, and reminded you of the tremendous privilege it is to be free to "rest in the grace of the world”.
*Thank you to my friend Anita for sharing Wendell Berry’s poetry with me!
** Thanks, too, to Tim Weber, who was so generous with his time and expertise -- your phone call made me aware of many wonderful creatures that I never would have found without your tips.