Nerding Out on Nature:

Because Earth is cooler than screens


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Bart King, Author and Bird Lover

You probably know Portland author Bart King from his books, The Big Book of Boy Stuff and the Big Book of Girl Stuff. He’s also written numerous other nonfiction books, and now, he’s got a novel!

Titled The Drake Equation, it’s the story of birdwatcher Noah Grow, a boy who starts out on a quest to find a wood duck and ends up on an intergalactic adventure.

drake equation

On Wednesday May 4th at 7 PM, Bart King and I will host a family-friendly literary event at Powell’s Books at Cedar Hills Crossing . We’ll talk about his book, and about my new novel Avenging the Owl, then debate which bird is cooler–black swifts or great horned owls.

Learn about birds with our slide show presentation and Avian Trivia game, and stay for our reading and book signing. This event is ideal for anyone who loves wildlife and wit.

bartseal

Author Bart King

I caught up with Bart King earlier this week to ask him about his new novel. Here’s what he had to say:

Melissa Hart: What is it about black swifts that intrigues you, and why did you want to include this particular bird in The Drake Equation? Have you seen these birds in person, and if so, where? 

Bart King: First off, I’ve never seen a black swift personally. Almost nobody has! They’re very rare, canny, and private.

About two years ago, I read a short book about black swifts, and was amazed to discover this mysterious, rare little bird that nests behind waterfalls. So I imagined a young birdwatcher named Noah who thinks he *might* have seen a black swift.

But if Noah was secretly watching the black swifts, was it possible that someone (or something) else was watching Noah? (The story took off from there!)

Melissa Hart: Tell me about your relationship to wood ducks.

Aix sponsa (Wood Duck - Brautente)

Aix sponsa (Wood Duck – Brautente)

Bart King: In 1971, I was living in a small town in California called Sebastopol. It has wetlands on its east border (now known as the Laguna Wetlands Preserve), and wood ducks lived there. As a community project, I helped build and install nesting boxes for the birds. (Wood ducks are unusual in that they perch and nest in trees). Anyone who’s ever seen a wood duck knows how absolutely beautiful they are—and I’ve remained impressed ever since!

Melissa Hart: Let’s say you have a whole weekend free to travel to your favorite spot in the Pacific Northwest. Where will we find you?

Bart King: You’re going to think I’m a freak—but I might just stay home and work. (To explain that a bit, I’ll just add that given what we know about climate change, the idea of driving a car somewhere for fun has become completely “alien” to me.)

Melissa Hart: Are you working on another book now, and if so, can you tell us a bit about it?

Bart King: The Drake Equation was conceived with a large story arc with a natural halfway point. That point is where the novel ends. If the story attracts enough readers, then I’ll get a chance to finish the tale I envisioned. (Oh please oh please)

I’ve also just finished a funny novel called Three Weeks to Live (Give or Take). Among other things, it’s a “SickLit” satire about a teen girl named Jackie who nearly gets hit by a meteorite in her PE class. (Her tennis partner is not so lucky.) Jackie finds herself becoming a reluctant celebrity—but she may not be around long enough to enjoy her new status.

For more about author Bart King, visit his website at http://www.bartking.net/. And see him in person with me at Powell’s Books, Cedar Crossing, 7 PM Wednesday May 4th.

BartMelissaBooks

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Raptor Rehabbers Celebrate Birds Every Day

Happy National Audubon Day! The National Audubon Society sets aside April 26 each year to celebrate the life of ornithologist and painter John James Audubon, author and illustrator of this gorgeous book, The Birds of America.

Audubon_Birds_of_America

You can find a chapter of the Audubon Society in or near your hometown and meet up with other bird lovers for hikes and educational meetings and the annual Christmas Bird Count.

Want to take your love for all things avian one step further? Why not visit and support your local bird rehabilitation center? These centers, which serve songbirds and waterfowl and raptors, exist all over the country. You can often go there to learn about how staff and volunteers work to help injured and orphaned bird. Sometimes, you can even become a volunteer yourself! Here’s a list of resources from the appendix of my new middle-grade novel, Avenging the Owl (Sky Pony, 2016), to get you started:  9781634501477_p0_v2_s192x300

Hawkwatch International, a non-profit dedicated to preserving raptors and their habitat: http://www.hawkwatch.org/

International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council, a great site for education and resources for wildlife conservation: http://theiwrc.org/

National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association, provides links to finding a wildlife/raptor rehabilitator near you: http://www.nwrawildlife.org/content/finding-rehabilitator

The Peregrine Fund, a nonprofit working to conserve birds of prey: http://www.peregrinefund.org

One of my favorite raptor rehabilitation centers is Wild Wings, in upstate New York. Here’s an article I wrote about it for The Boston Globe a while back. Enjoy!

“New Yorkers shelter and show birds too hurt to go free” from The Boston Globe

The author and her daughter, Maia Hart Smith, observe a snowy owl at Wild Wings.
The author and her daughter, Maia Hart Smith, observe a snowy owl at Wild Wings. (Jonathan B. Smith for The Boston Globe)

HONEOYE FALLS, N.Y. — Wild Wings is a national chain restaurant serving crispy, spicy drumsticks in barbecue sauce. Wild Wings is also a family-friendly raptor rehabilitation center just south of Rochester.

People tend to get their wings mixed up, with humorous results. It’s not unusual for Terry Kozakiewizc, director of the raptor center, to get a call like this:

“I picked up the phone and the caller said he’d like to order three dozen wild wings.’’ Kozakiewizc said, breaking into a wide smile. “I said, ‘We’ve got ’em, hon, but they’re alive.’ ’’

Wild Wings Bird of Prey Facility, at Mendon Ponds Park in Honeoye Falls, houses over 20 raptors including eagles, owls, hawks, falcons, and a vulture. Most of the birds were hit by cars and have permanent injuries ranging from vision loss to damaged wings; they cannot be released back into the wild.

Kozakiewizc makes the raptors available for public viewing five days a week year round, hoping to foster awareness and increased respect for birds of prey. Watching a barred owl soar through the sky is exciting indeed, but getting to see Hunter, Wild Wings’ fluffy resident barred owl, close-up on her perch inspires me to drive more mindfully.

The facility offers educational programs and guided tours. Participants can dissect owl pellets or paint a portrait of a live raptor on its perch. Visitors can stroll along Bird Song trail to feed chickadees, then step into Wild Wings’ colorful Cottage Store with its avian-themed gifts. Just out the back door, a tidy outdoor compound of wood and wire cages houses stately red-tailed hawks, diminutive Eastern screech owls, bald and golden eagles, and an elegant black-spotted snowy owl named Pearl.

Each enclosure gives the raptors numerous perches and room to move about, even to take limited flight. Volunteers have paid close attention to each species’ needs — brightly-colored hanging toys tempt the curious crow, and a pile of low stones provides a perfect seat for the tundra-nesting snowy owl.

My daughter was most enamored of Wild Wings’ resident bobcat, who roused herself from a nap in a bed of straw and dashed up to the fence. Tara, captive-bred and declawed, lives in a spacious cage with ramps and bridges for roaming. But while we stood there, her amber eyes remained fixated on my child.

“She sees her as a toy, hon,’’ Kozakiewizc told me, and so we retreated into the Cottage Store for hot cocoa, coffee, and cookies. Kozakiewizc explained that Wild Wings is a family affair, and that she’s the only paid employee.

“My husband builds enclosures for the birds, and my son Nick does a lot of the educational programs for kids.’’ She pointed to a grinning young man helping to restock a shelf with child-sized footballs in the shape of bald eagles and furry leopard-print purses.

Their affection for each bird is palpable. Kozakiewizc recounted the recent death of Shasta, a 25-year-old red-tailed hawk. “I’m so glad he died before he had to be cooped up for the long winter,’’ she said, and went on to relate the story of how, for the past three years, a wild red-tail had brought freshly-caught squirrels to the aging Shasta, continuing even after his fellow hawk died.

If You Go

27 Pond Road
Honeoye Falls, N.Y.
585-334-7790
www.wildwingsinc.org
Fri-Tue 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Free; donations welcome.


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Backpacking on the Alaska Marine Highway Ferry

BELLINGHAM, Wash. – Travelers of all ages rushed with their stuffed backpacks to the top deck of the M/V Malaspina to secure a camping space in the open air.

For years I had gazed at a Sunset Magazine clipping on my bulletin board describing adventurers pitching tents on the Alaska Marine Highway ferries. Now, my husband and I were on a three-day voyage along the Inside Passage from Bellingham to Juneau, Alaska.

Photo by Jonathan B. Smith

Photo by Jonathan B. Smith

Since 1951, eleven ferries – the largest of which accommodates 499 passengers – have traveled 3,500 miles of routes along the marine highway. These comfortable ships venture as far south as Bellingham and as far north as Skagway, Alaska, with port stops in between. For many Alaskans, the ferries are a primary source of transportation between small, hard-to-reach coastal towns.

In Bellingham, we filed on board past a pickup truck overflowing with boxes, furniture, and potted plants. I overheard the driver saying that his family couldn’t make a go of it in the lower 48 so they were heading home. They joined us on the marine vessel’s top deck, where passengers were spreading sleeping bags across lawn chairs in the solarium and pitching pup tents outside. (If that doesn’t appeal, travelers can get an inside cabin – small, but warm.)

“You’ll need this,’’ the pickup driver said as he tossed me a giant roll of duct tape, explaining that once the ferry got going, the wind would kick up, threatening to blow tents overboard.

I watched as passengers affixed tent lines to the rough cement with layers of tape and heard horror stories like the one about the guy who had gone below to use the bathroom at midnight and returned in his boxer shorts to find his tent and gear in the sea.

We secured our backpacking tent and went to return the tape. The man shook his head. “Pass it on,’’ he said.

jonferry

My man, Jonathan, roughing it on the ferry.

Generosity was infectious as we cruised along British Columbia’s forested shore. Passengers in the solarium shared pretzels, hummus, and cider (alcohol was forbidden on outer decks). Yoga mats appeared; guitars inspired a jam session.

Initially, I worried about seasickness, but the Malaspina sailed smoothly into the sunset. We walked downstairs to check the cafeteria with its tempting smells of salmon and steak, and explored a bustling bar, small movie theater, and glass-walled observation lounge.

Naturalist Brett Calhoun, 20, delivered four talks a day on topics ranging from the mating habits of humpback whales to survival strategies for bear attack. Between lectures, he showed nature films and handed out maps. Periodically, he or the captain announced photo ops over the intercom. “There’s a school of dolphins off starboard,’’ one would say, or “Breaching orca portside.’’

On our first night we worried that noise might keep us awake. But the ferry’s motor rumbled steadily, lulling us to sleep in our down bags on inflatable pads.

We got up at dawn to commune with a scattering of early-risers toting Canons and Nikons. I walked down to the cafeteria, hatted and mittened against the stiff breeze, for a quarter’s worth of hot water to add to my mug of instant coffee. In a protected outdoor alcove, I watched the sun rise over a bucolic coastal town whose residents waved from their balconies.

A passenger from Alabama said this was his first vacation in 30 years. Cradling his camera lens, he gazed at the view, saying, “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful.’’

The pickup driver joined us, jerking his chin at bald eagles perched in a tree. “Dumpster ducks,’’ he sneered at the raptors, so common in his part of the world.

Marine-highway-mapFerry travel inspires an instant camaraderie born of wind and water and periodic port stops. In Petersburg, the captain announced a three-hour layover and passengers headed toward the town’s main drag to share pitchers of Northwest microbrew.

We returned to the Malaspina and stretched out on lawn chairs under a star-studded sky. A teenager who had boarded at Petersburg put up a giant purple dome tent that we nicknamed “the eggplant.’’

“Want to tape it down?’’ I said. He grunted and ducked inside. We crawled into our tent and fell asleep to the ferry’s purr.

At 3 a.m., gusting winds buffeted the tents. Those sleeping outside moved their bags into the solarium or onto the cushioned seats in the observation lounge. I slumbered on.

In the morning my husband recounted the night’s events. He had peered out of our tent to find the eggplant collapsed on top of the teen and had helped to tape it down. “Took us a good hour,’’ he said. “Good thing we had duct tape.’’

This piece originally appeared in The Boston Globe.

From May to September the Alaska Marine Highway ferry leaves from Bellingham, Wash., every Friday at 6 p.m. and arrives in Juneau, Alaska, on Monday morning with several port stops along the way. Top deck $326, cabins $308-$533. Bicycles/inflatable kayaks/cars for additional cost. For reservations and maps, visit www.dot.state.ak.us/amhs/index.html.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Interested Interested in taking a writing class with me or coming to a reading of my memoir, Wild Within: How Rescuing Owls Inspired a Family? See my July schedWild within coverule, below!

July 17th, 2015Reading/Discussion of Wild Within, Paulina Springs Books, Sisters, OR, 6:30 PM. 

July 18th, 2015Reading/Discussion of Wild Within, Paulina Springs Books, Redmond, OR, 6:30 PM.
July 25th and 26th, 2015–“Heal Yourself Through Environmental Memoir,” Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, Otis, Oregon, 10 AM-4 PM both days. Three spots left–still time to register!


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Kayaking on the Oregon Coast with a Terrier in a PFD

I’m not a Mother’s Day brunch kind of gal. Give me a river, a kayak and a beach full of tidepools–I’m good to go. A carving station? Not so much.

My husband, knowing better than to sit me down in front of an all-you-can eat seafood bar, researched the Siuslaw Estuary Water Trail near Florence, Oregon. “It’s an adventure!” he told me and our 8-year old daughter (aka The Spud). We presented our new dog, April, with a terrier-sized life vest and headed west.

April, the intrepid terrier.

April, the intrepid terrier.

You’ve got two choices when you park at Bender Landing at low tide; you can either slog with your kayak through knee-high mud and drop it in the water, or you can rig a line 10 feet up on a retaining wall and lower your boat and climb down a metal ladder to the river. Either way, you’re guaranteed awkward hilarity.

We opted for the ladder, lowered our paddles and peanut butter sandwiches and the terrier, and started off laughing and unmuddied upstream. Paddlers on the Siuslaw can kayak 30 river-miles between Mapleton and the Pacific Ocean. It’s pretty country, I decided, but nothing beats kayaking the Siltcoos River 14 miles south. That’s my true love river, with its old growth and sand dunes that give way to Snowy plover territory and the ocean. We turned our boats around after a while, observed by a preternaturally calm egret, and paddled with the tide.

Egret

Heading south on the North Fork of the Siuslaw, you’ll see farms in the distance, and tractors and horses. We spotted more egrets sailing overhead, and vultures, and what looked to be a Northern harrier skimming the fields. Nutria emerged at the shoreline and scuttled off into tall weeds. Below us, fallen trees stretched out in the water with delicate plants all around them. On this sunny Mother’s Day weekend, the water felt warm enough for a swim. The Spud jumped in to the delight of our new terrier and splashed around a while.

MaiaKayak

It’s possible to kayak to Old Town Florence and tie up in pursuit of a scoop of BJs Oregon Trail ice cream. But we had some serious tidepooling to do, and so we paddled back to our put in and circled around the ladder and the muddy shoreline, weighing our options. Not willing to drag my kayak one-handed up the ladder, I got out on the shore and sunk immediately up to my knees. A pristine kayaker, preparing for a paddle, gaped at me from a picnic table on the grass. “That the only way in?” he asked.

I nodded at the narrow metal ladder and broke into laughter at the sight of my husband mired in the mud.

Our giddy giggling continued later when we walked down to the beach outside the Adobe Resort and discovered two people in the distance gathering up something in bags. A budding journalist, The Spud ran over to investigate.

“Maggots,” she reported back as I bent over a tidepool full of hermit crabs and turquoise anenomes. “They’re collecting maggots.”

I’d spotted five-inch long translucent jelly-like tubes on the beach. Confused, I decided these were maggots of some sort, and the couple had found use for them. I wanted to know just what that use was.

Not maggots–squid eggs.

Not maggots . . . squid eggs.

Not maggots . . . squid eggs.

“What are you collecting?” I asked with a bemused smile.

The man who replied gave me a sober look.

“Agates,” he said.

Turns out this beach, like Bob Creek Wayside a few miles south, offers agates the size of fingernails and fists. The latter, he said, can be worth hundreds of dollars which accounts for the beachcombers who show up hours before low tide to start searching. Those five-inch long jelly-like things? Apparently, they’re squid eggs flung by ocean waves to land among the velella velella (By-the-Wind Sailors).  Here, read this!

Velella vellela (By-the-Wind Sailors)

Velella velella (By-the-Wind-Sailors)

Velella velella (By-the-Wind-Sailors)

By day’s end, I had mud between my toes and tiny amber agates in my pockets. I had the memory of a terrier in a life vest, a child in the river, and a lunch to look forward to the next day at our favorite Mexican food restaurant, Los Compadres in Florence.

A very fine Mother’s Day, indeed.

I’m teaching a two-day workshop 7/25-7/26 titled “Heal Yourself through Environmental Memoir” at the lovely Sitka Center for Art and Ecology near Lincoln City, OR. There’s still time to register; I’d love to work with you!

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.

AvidReader-a

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.

Hawk

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:

Rodents!

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 http://www.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/calraptor