Nerding Out on Nature:

Because Earth is cooler than screens

Awestruck Over Birds of Prey at California Raptor Center

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“Mom!  There’s an owl in the bookstore!”

From where I stood, I could see the little boy round the corner of a shelf and skid to a halt with his mouth open.  I felt his awe.  In front of 50 or so people on folding chairs at the Avid Reader in Davis, California perched three raptors–a burrowing owl, a  Western screech owl, and a great horned owl.  Staff and volunteers from the California Raptor Center spoke about the birds and their work as raptor rehabilitators in conjunction with a reading from my new memoir, Wild Within: How Rescuing Owls Inspired a Familya book about how I learned to train owls for educational presentations such as this one while waiting 2 1/2 years to adopt my daughter.


Volunteers from California Raptor Center wax poetic about birds of prey. (Photo from California Raptor Center.)

A week later, she and my husband and I visited the California Raptor Center.  On a sunny September morning, we parked under oak trees and met another volunteer who led us around the wood-and-wire mews.  (Raptor folks call their big bird cages mews.)  Such centers exist around the world; often, they’re open to the public on specific days of the week or during annual open house celebrations.  Staff and volunteers perform a multitude of duties–they treat injured birds of prey who may have collided with a car or ingested rat poison or tangled with a cat; they hand-feed orphaned baby birds with the goal of releasing them into the wild; they feed resident birds and clean their mews daily; they do educational presentations for the public on the natural history of the birds and on the importance of raptor conservation.

Mews at the California Raptor Center

Mews at the California Raptor Center

Resident raptors live at such centers because they have permanent injuries.  A bird of prey with one eye or a bum wing or an unhealthy preoccupation with humans (usually because it’s been illegally raised from an egg) can’t hunt in the wild.  These birds can live over 20 years in captivity, thanks to staff and volunteers who dedicate their life to serving them. Mikey, a red shouldered hawk at the California Raptor Center, arrived in 1996 as a chick.  Staff discovered a lesion in one eye; the eye eventually disappeared.  He’s an education bird, which means he’s calm around people when sitting on a glove or perch for an educational program.


Mikey, the red shouldered hawk

I take my University of Oregon journalism students to Eugene’s Cascades Raptor Center whenever possible.  It’s especially gratifying to watch people who’ve confessed to a fear of birds as they learn–over an hour of wandering the grounds–how very cool raptors can be.  Peregrine falcons, for instance, fly straight down in pursuit of prey and achieve 200 mph speeds.  Owls can rotate their head 270 degrees either way; lopsided ear placement gives them a powerful range of hearing, and silent flight allows them to sail down on smaller birds and rodents and scoop up a midnight snack in the dark.  And there’s this:


After we looked at the birds on display at the raptor center, we stepped into a wonderful little museum.  Here, adults and children alike can spend hours learning about raptors.  We looked at the taxidermy birds (much easier to examine than their live counterparts behind wire) and dissected owl pellets.  Owls swallow their prey whole, but can’t digest bones and beaks and other sharp parts.  They cough up a pellet which volunteers dry and then set out for visitors to pull apart in search of rodent skulls and other fascinating tidbits.

Interested in visiting a raptor center in your area?  Partial List of Raptor Centers in the U.S. If you can’t find one close to you, do a search online and prepare to be awestruck!

Owl Pellets

Visitors can explore the California Raptor Center Monday through Friday from 9 AM to 4 PM, and Saturdays from 9 AM to noon.  Admission is free; donations are gratefully appreciated.  CRC is located at 1340 Equine Lane, Davis,California. 530-752-9994 


Shakespeare and the Seven-Year Old

My piece about going to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival with my daughter originally appeared in The Register Guard.  There’s still time to get to Ashland, Oregon to see a play before the season ends on November 2nd!

ASHLAND — The words “Shakespeare” and “7-year-old” seem at first mutually exclusive. But the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, with its current line-up that includes a musical fairy tale and a world premiere adaption of Madeleine L’Engle’s novel “A Wrinkle in Time” inspired me to take my daughter, Maia, on a weekend theatrical extravaganza.

“We’ll call it your graduation present,” I told her, just a little worried that Ashland might not offer enough entertainment to occupy my soon-to-be second-­grader for two days.

How wrong I was; Fodor’s just named it one of America’s best small towns for good reason.

The festival runs between February and November with productions this season that range from “The Tempest” and “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” to Irving Berlin’s comedy “The Cocoanuts” and “Water by the Spoonful,” a drama about recovering addicts in an online chat­room.

Elizabethan Theater

Three theaters house the shows; the most exciting for kids is the outdoor, three-level Allen Elizabethan Theater. With its colorful banners and ivy-draped walls, it’s easy to picture it as home to Sleeping Beauty or those sisters from “Frozen.”

Ten months each year, visitors worldwide come to Ashland. They stroll past boutiques on Main Street smiling over ice cream cones and lattes. They browse in Bloomsbury Books. They eat on restaurant patios nestled up against Ashland Creek. Some people pack in as many plays as possible, along with backstage tours and lectures. Others bring their kids.

“Into the Woods”

Children under 6 aren’t permitted at performances. Though Maia is 7, she’s — shall we say — spirited. I worried that she might be unable to sit still for a full-length play. But director Amanda Dehnert knows her audience.

While we waited for other families to sit down, Maia and I watched actors in street clothing warming up and moving props and chatting on stage. Kjerstine Rose Anderson, who plays Little Red Riding Hood, trilled scales as she strode about in a black foot splint. Miles Fletcher as Jack (of beanstalk-fame) carried a cow mask across the stage while orchestra members tuned their instruments.

Maia sat mesmerized.

Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine collaborated on “Into the Woods” in 1986; within the musical, fairy tale characters “collide and intertwine,” as Sondheim once explained, “in a mutual meeting ground.” Though Maia didn’t walk out of the theater singing any one song (Sondheim’s dissonant melodies are tricky for a 7-year-old), she remained riveted on the high-energy first act which involves Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack and his comic cow, Rapunzel and the witch who imprisons her.

There’s much for adults and children to chuckle over during the show. Thanks to ingenious staging, Red Riding Hood disappears into the belly of the Big Bad Wolf and then performs a hilarious — if garish — re-emergence. Cinderella’s stepsisters strut across the stage in fantastical ball gowns that grow increasingly bizarre, and two handsome princes vogue during a heartsick tête-à-tête in a parody of Disney action figures.

It’s a three-hour play with a second act darker and more sophisticated than the first. Maia fell asleep on my shoulder. Still, the next morning after waffles and omelets at Morning Glory Cafe, she chattered about the production as we wandered through Lithia Park.

Maia and Sculpture

Established in 1892, the 93-acre park offers trails under maples and pines, a duck pond, picnic areas, a playground and wide grassy areas perfect for picnics and Frisbee. Musicians play accordions, violins and guitars on the park benches. Squirrels skitter across boulders. It’s an idyllic location in which to discuss “Into the Woods.”

“What if,” I whispered to Maia as we wound our way down a dirt path, “Cinderella burst out of the woods right now and asked us to help her escape from that prince?”

“I’d hide her in a tree.” Maia turned and headed for the duck pond. “Can I feed the ducks?”

Signs say not to feed the pair floating in the tranquil pond. Instead, we walked to the playground full of innovative spinning and climbing structures including a 20-foot web created out of thick cable, which Maia immediately scaled.

“I’m Rapunzel in her tower,” she told me and pointed behind me. “Oh, look — there’s the real one.”

I spun around to see Royer Bockus, who portrays Rapunzel in the play, walking through the park with two men, laughing and singing. Rather than ruin our willing suspension of disbelief, the celebrity sighting added to it — Lithia Park’s woods now seemed truly magical.

“A Wrinkle in Time”

The playground provides a fine intermission between a matinee and evening play. It’s also a good place to get the wiggles out before a single performance. By the time Maia had romped and we’d picnicked on the lawn outside the Elizabethan Theater (more sightings of actors on their way to prepare for matinees), she was ready to sit and watch “A Wrinkle in Time.”

One of the most thrilling things about OSF performances is the innovative staging. Last year’s production of “King Lear” had my mother and me on the edge of our seats thanks to stellar acting and a fresh, contemporary treatment. For the world premiere of the adaptation of “Wrinkle” (the novel won the Newbery Medal for children’s literature in 1963) director and adaptor Tracy Young brainstormed with the cast and creative team.

Once again, as Maia and I waited for the lights to go down in the Angus Bowmer Theater, we watched the actors walking about informally on stage. Joe Wegner as Calvin O’Keefe reclined with an old radio. An actor set up a projector to show footage of Fidel Castro and protestors during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

I read to Maia about how L’Engle wrote the novel during the Cold War, while the U.S. and U.S.S.R. competed in a race to launch spacecraft into orbit. The author integrated political issues of the era into her science fiction novel which plays (in a most unfunny way) with the concepts of time and space travel. As one character observes to another in the book, it’s a dangerous game.

The lights went down and the production began, centered around a misfit adolescent math genius in trouble with the school principal and grieving her physicist father who’s gone astray. “Wrinkle,” the novel, scared me when my fifth-grade teacher read it in class. Creatures shape-shift, shadows cover the Earth, planets prove inhospitable or — if they are welcoming — they’re populated by giant hairy beasts with weird tubes sticking out of their fur.

And then there’s the brain, “IT,” the mastermind that holds the protagonist’s father hostage and assumes mental control over her precocious baby brother. I had aisle seats in case Maia became frightened and we had to make a quick getaway.

But this director, too, knows her audience and downplays elements of the novel that might give the under-10 crowd nightmares. “IT” is two people undulating under a cloth with an image of a brain projected upon it. Charles Wallace, the baby brother portrayed by Sara Bruner, disappears into a trunk after IT gains control; he’s replaced by a ventriloquist’s dummy. It’s elegantly rendered, and no one runs out crying.

As we left the theater after a standing ovation, I overheard conversations from the people who’d been sitting around us: “I read it over and over as a kid.” … “My favorite book.” … “That was remarkable.”

My own daughter wore an inscrutable expression. “What did you think?” I asked.

“Good.” She nodded. “Can we get some ice cream?”

An annual tradition

We procured a cone from Zoey’s Cafe and stopped to pet the orange cat, “Athos,” who lives in the shoe store near the theaters. Back in Lithia Park, I asked Maia what she’d learned from “Wrinkle.”

She licked at her ice cream. “I learned,” she said, “that even if you go to the principal’s office, you can save your baby brother with love. May I please have a cup for tadpoles?”

Satisfied, I gave her my empty coffee cup. That afternoon, I saw that Ashland’s main charm for a 7-year-old lies in wading through the creek in pursuit of minnows. Kids ranging from toddler to pre-teen communed in the water, splashing and comparing their finds while parents and grandparents relaxed at picnic tables or chatted on the creek bank.

Maia in Ashland Creek

Despite the long drive back to Eugene ahead, I let Maia wade, happy to sit under a pine and reflect on all we’d experienced. At last, I rounded her up and we walked past the display of last year’s opulent costumes at the visitor’s center, past the bronze sculpture portraying kings and cowboys and children and Shakespeare’s Nick Bottom with his donkey’s head. We stopped once more to admire the orange cat and bemoaned the lack of time to delve into the toy store.

“We’ll come back,” I promised. “Let’s make this an annual tradition — what do you think of that?”

She grinned up at me, dress sodden and face smeared with chocolate ice cream. “Good,” she said.

Melissa Hart is the author of Wild Within: How Rescuing Owls Inspired a Family. She teaches travel writing at the UO’s School of Journalism and Communication.

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Kayaking Coyote Creek with Bryozoan Buddies

“What’s that balloon-thingy?”

Surprise robbed me of eloquence, and I backpaddled hard to investigate the yellowish bladder-like object clinging to low-hanging branches over Coyote Creek.  “Is it alive?”

My husband squinted as I lifted up a skinny branch to investigate.  “I think it’s just stuff that’s built up over time.”

The thing fell off then, splashed into the water, and resurfaced.  Our daughter, Maia, scooped it up with her ever-present bug net.  “I got it!” she hollered.  “I just can’t lift it.”

Bryozoan and Jonathan

Coyote Creek’s endlessly surprising, just 20 minutes west of Eugene.  We’ve been taking our kayaks there for years, and each time, the journey along tree-lined banks over to Fern Ridge Reservoir yields revelation.  Once, white pelicans sailed overhead.  Another time, we spotted bald eagles.  Great blue herons are forever squawking at the splash of our paddles in the murky water and gliding off right in front of us. It’s a wonderful place to go for a wilderness experience among red-winged blackbirds and tree frogs and osprey and . . . bryozoan colonies?

For that’s what the bladder-like, balloon-thingy was–a colony of moss animals, aquatic invertebrates gathered together and attached to low-hanging branches.  Pectinatella magnifica, the colony we accidentally disturbed on a sunny Sunday in early October, is a round mass of heavy matter resembling white jelly.

Bryozoan Kayak

I know this because I committed a cardinal sin of kayaking–I pulled out my smartphone and posted a picture of the colony on Facebook and tagged my naturalist friends, desperate to know what the thing was before we left the creek.  My artist friend Barbara Gleason swiftly obliged, letting me know that her husband had heard tell of bryozoans on Coyote Creek a while back, and my biologist buddy Jayne Selwa confirmed the species.

“Why do they look like stars?”

My daughter leaned close to the mass she’d wrangled up to the front of the kayak and pointed out the tiny black arms radiating out from each zooid.  (I had to look that one up.)  The “arms” are tentacles lined with cilia that pick up food particles out of the water.

Jon and Maia Kayaking

The only food particles we had were two halves of a banana, one of which had fallen into the bottom of my kayak (but hey, it still tasted fine), and so we packed up and headed for Pizza Research Institute in Eugene’s charismatic Whiteaker Neighborhood.  Over slices and cider, we researched bryozoans and planned to return to Coyote Creek the next weekend to see what surprise the waterway would offer next.

To get to Coyote Creek, head west of Eugene on 126 and turn left on Central Road (across from Perkins Peninsula Park).  Turn left on Cantrell Road and look for a sign on your left and a vehicle pullout at Coyote Creek.  Click here for a map!