Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Bird Bath

In the early days of the pandemic, when nearly everything was shut down, I made a lot of visits to the local parks.  I sought out birds to hone my newly-acquired wildlife photography skills.  One of my favorites was Fernhill Wetlands, a lovely nature preserve located next to the regional water treatment facility. 

Splish-splash, time for a bath!

One day in May I spotted a robin splashing in a mud puddle.  The little guy was so focused on getting himself clean he didn't notice me and my big lens.

Throwing the water around

So I set the camera on action mode and fired off several frames, capturing the robin's splashy antics.


Later at home, after downloading the photos, I discovered several that I liked.

Those water droplets are flying!

 These sequences tell a story - and some of the freeze action is hugely entertaining!

Let's get the face

If you're in need of a smile (and who isn't these days?) take a visual stroll through these series of images.  I dare you not to grin.

And underneath the wings

Fluffy red breast

Flap the wings dry

"Here goes my belly flop!"

Every now and then, the robin would hoist himself high, and then flop back into the puddle.


I especially love this capture, with all the water droplets suspended in mid-air.

All poofy and clean!

In the end, Mr. Robin finally emerged from the puddle, his feathers fluffed and clean.  Now, time to go find the ladies!

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Social Distancing at Mt. St. Helens

May 18th was Mt. St. Helens' 40th "eruptiversary" (aka the 40th anniversary of its famous 1980 eruption).  In honor of such an event, I decided it was only fitting to give the old girl a proper visit.

Keeping my social distance from MSH

So the following weekend, I grabbed hiking boots and backpack and made the 2-hour drive north to pay my respects.  It didn't cross my mind that maybe Memorial Day weekend wasn't a good time for such a visit.  But when I pulled into the Hummocks Trailhead parking area and there were already a dozen vehicles at 8 am, I knew I'd have some company.

Alder forest on the Hummocks Trail

Johnston Ridge Observatory, the closest visitor center to the mountain, usually opens their doors Mother's Day weekend.  But due to COVID it still remained closed in late May.  As a matter of fact, you couldn't even drive up there.  The road to the Observatory was barricaded at the Hummocks Trailhead.

One of many picturesque ponds

But I'd already hatched a plan.  From reading online hiking reports, and pouring over a few maps, I knew that the Boundary Trail would take me from the Hummocks parking area to the Observatory.  A portion of the trail I'd never hiked before (because driving up the steep hill to Johnston Ridge was much easier!)

Creek crossings

Because climbing up to Johnston Ridge straight from the Boundary Trail wasn't enough I decided to first begin with the Hummocks loop.  This trail wandered 2.5 miles through an area dotted with small hills and ponds.  Low-angle morning sun, just beginning to peek over the mountains, lit up the adjacent Alder woods beautifully.

The hummock mounds are being covered in trees

Formed by the landslide created by Mt. St. Helens eruption, this area was initially a badlands of barren rockpiles covered in gray ash.  A gravelly plain next to the Toutle River, it consisted of small hills, or mounds, of rock debris with tiny ponds wedged in between.  Although bleak and barren in the years immediately following the eruption, 40 years of  healing had filled it in nicely with tall trees and lush green plants.

Morning light through the trees

And luckily so far I had the trail all to myself (I assumed all the other hikers were hiking the loop in the opposite direction).  I passed by a cute little pond, surrounded by thick alder groves.  At the far end, I crossed the outlet creek via a couple of well placed wooden bridges.

Green now covers the devastation

The light was so fantastic for photography, it took me much longer than usual to cover the first mile. After twisting and turning through the alder woods, the trail finally popped out into an open area.  It was here I got my first full view of MSH herself.  She was glorious as always, surrounded by a halo of pebbly clouds.

First view of MSH

About then I encountered my first hiker, an older man.  I was wearing a buff, so I quickly pulled it over my nose and mouth.  The man did the same, and keeping an appropriate distance apart we briefly chatted about the local trails.

Toutle River

From this first viewpoint, the trail dived in and out of the woods, and up and down a few of the hummock hills.  Great views were had on each little summit.  At one point, I got a great look down into the Toutle River, it's channel surrounded by a wide, gravelly plain.

Tiny lupine

And of course the wildflowers were just getting started.  I saw a few nice patches of tiny lupine flowers, wild strawberry blooms, and a few hardy Indian Paintbrush pushing themselves up to the sky.

Many ponds dot the Hummocks loop

Although I thought I'd hiked the Hummocks Loop many, many years ago, I didn't remember a thing about it.  So today's trek was like discovering a new trail all over again!  And what a fine trail it was.  I made a mental note to definitely return for fall colors.

Boundary Trail junction

After a very slow, copious photo-taking two miles, I finally arrived at the junction with the Boundary Trail.  Situated in the middle of a large clearing, the mountain's white summit filled the horizon.  It was quite the impressive sight.

Fantastic views of MSH from the Boundary Trail

Okay, time to start up to Johnston Ridge!  Sitting 1700 feet higher than the Hummocks I was in for a climb over the next 4-ish miles.

Entire hillsides of decapitated trees from the eruption

After passing by a few straggler hummocks and another nice pond, the forest opened up to a barren ridge.  Although the MSH views were stellar, it was sad to see all the broken-off tree stumps scattered about, still-visible casualties of the eruption.

Crater close-up

As I began the first of several steep climbs, I gazed at the barren landscape and wondered why trees had failed to establish themselves here.  I'm sure the scientists studying this area have an answer.  (I could probably also Google it too).

Time to climb!

But lack of trees made for stunning vistas.  Topping the first ridge I could see far down the Toutle River drainage.  At one point I even spotted the western end of nearby Coldwater Lake.  And of course, the views of MSH just kept getting better and better.

Barren hillside

So far I'd only encountered a dozen other hikers.  When passing each other on the trail, one of us would politely step off, turn away, and pull up their face covering (usually it was me).  The lack of people and the fact that most everyone I'd met so far was keeping their distance and/or donning masks made me feel safe from any virus transmission.

Nearing Johnston Ridge

It seemed to take forever to reach Johnston Ridge.  The muggy weather and the fact that I wasn't yet in top hiking shape didn't help.  But little by little, I covered the distance and elevation until I finally spotted the road and Loowit Viewpoint.  It was weird to see both totally void of people and cars.  I did a quick pass-by of the viewpoint, checking out a few of the information plaques.  But my destination, and lunch spot, weren't far now.  Only another half mile!

Empty Johnston Ridge Observatory

The final ridge between Loowit Viewpoint and the Observatory was extremely picturesque.  Not only were the mountain views impressive, the hillsides were dotted with tiny white blooms of wild strawberries.  I thought it was the prettiest section of the entire hike.

Killer mountain views from the observatory

Finally the trail led me to the road in front of the Observatory's large and completely empty parking lot.  Following the pavement I climbed the last steep walkway to the building itself.  Usually an extremely busy place, it was strange to be the only person there.

I had the place to myself!

Perching myself on one of the low plaza walls I took a well-deserved break, eating my lunch while taking in the fabulous views of MSH.  The mountain looked so close it appeared only a short jaunt would bring you to it's crater (I know better, MSH is much farther away than it looks).  A young couple with large backpacks strolled by, and I learned they were heading towards Mt Margaret for a couple nights of camping.

Wild strawberry flowers

Except for the backpacking couple passing through, I had the Observatory plaza to myself the entire time.  After lunch and a few selfies to commemorate the occasion, I decided it was time to return to my car. 

The hillsides below Johnston Ridge were full of wild strawberry blossoms

Heading back down the first ridge, the light was nice, so I snapped a few more images of the flower-lined trail.  Judging by the abundant amount of blooms, it looked to be a good strawberry season.  I made a mental note to plan a visit later in the summer when the berries were ripe.

I need to come back at berry time!

Early starts are always a good thing.  On my way back down, I ran into at least five hiking parties between the Observatory and Loowit Viewpoint.  It seemed the rest of the world had woken up and decided to hike the same trail as me.  If I'd been even a half hour later I wouldn't have had Johnston Ridge Observatory to myself.

Wildlife sighting

Past Loowit Viewpoint the parade of people continued.  Still, most folks were being polite, covering their faces, and stepping aside, so I had no issues.

Lovely red currant bush in bloom

While descending, I passed a few lovely red current bushes in full bloom, which called for a quick photo stop.

Red currant flower close-up

The closer I got to the Boundary Trail/Hummocks junction, the more people I encountered.  And the closer I got the parking lot, the less considerate people became.

Toutle River's barren channel

By the time I returned to the Hummocks Trail it was packed with people.  This short scenic loop brought out the novice hikers in droves.  At the junction, I was dismayed to see several kids clearly off trail, kicking rocks down a hill.  (In this sensitive area that is still recovering, hikers are supposed to stay on the trail)  I was saddened to see several picked wildflowers lying in the middle of the path.  And nearly every group (and most were large) I encountered wouldn't move aside at all and no one was covering their face.  As I covered the final half mile to the parking lot, tired from having hiked nearly 10.5 miles, my patience wore thin as I continually had to step off the trail to let mobs of people pass by.  It was the longest half mile of my life!  (Note to self - never visit Mt St Helens on a holiday weekend)

Goodbye MSH!

Despite the rough ending, it had been great to visit Mt St Helens, hike a new trail, and honor her 40th eruption anniversary.  Wonder what the area will look like in another 40 years?

Monday, June 15, 2020

Rediscovering Oxbow Park

For people who like to hike, the challenge in May was to find trails that were open despite COVID restrictions.  Someone on a local hiking Facebook page posted photos from Oxbow Regional Park.  Not only did I learn that it was indeed open, the user also posted an adorable photo of a mama merganser with 21 babies floating by her side.  Those little ducklings were all the motivation I needed to plan an outing there the following Friday.

Foggy forest over the park

A 1000-acre natural area on the far eastern end of the Portland Metro area, Oxbow Regional Park offers hiking trails, camping, and access to the Sandy River.  I'd visited there once in 2013, but the place must not have impressed me as I'd never returned.  But with limited hiking options, beggars can't be choosers.  It was time to give this park another chance.

Old mossy log

I drove all the way across town through alternating sun and rain.  The park was located at the end of a very long, winding road, past farmland I didn't know existed.  Down a steep hill through lush forest, I finally arrived at Oxbow Park's entrance.  Although the campground and restrooms were closed, the boat launch and hiking trails were very much open.

Cedar bark close-up

Hoping to find the mother merganser and babies, I parked at the boat launch.  Hiking trails departed in both directions from here.  Which way to go first?  On a whim, I chose the eastern path along the river.

Yawning merganser

Although rain was threatening, the place was absolutely gorgeous.  Heavy moss hung from tree branches, green ferns covered forest floors, and foggy clouds hung in the adjacent wooded hills.  Flowers bloomed along the top of high riverbanks.

Standing at attention

My trail of choice led along the top of a high bank before steeply descending into thick forest at river level.  Glimpsing through a break in the foliage, I spotted a rocky spit in the river.  And perched on this precarious island were a flock of mergansers!

Checking out the ladies

I quickly swapped camera lenses, mounting the largest zoom I had with me.  Then cautiously I crept towards the river bank, hoping not to scare the ducks.  But not to worry - most of the flock were sleeping, and the few that remained awake didn't seem to mind this crazy lady sporting a huge lens.

Not sure what this one was doing - but he sure looked funny!

I got some great photos of the mergansers.  It was fun to sit and watch their antics.  A couple jumped in the river for a quick swim and one took a short flight, only to land in the water again.  But most stayed put and kept dozing.  I was hoping to see the mama and babies, but no such luck.  These were all adults.  Still, it was exciting to see and photograph a different species of waterfowl.

Mossy tree limbs look like arms

Leaving the mergansers to their naps, I continued along the riverside path.  Although diving back into the thick, mossy woods it did offer a few peek-a-boo glimpses of the mighty Sandy River.

Oxeye daisy

And the wildflowers - oh were they thick!  First I passed through a nice clump of Oxeye daisies (which after posting this photo on the Oregon wildflowers Facebook page I later found out were invasive - oops!)


There was one bush with lovely orange honeysuckle blossoms.

Creepy looking moss-covered limbs

Then I came to a clearing full of purple lupine flowers.  Absolutely stunning!

Lupine field

My hike may have been delayed due to this floral distraction.

Lupine close-up

Oxbow Park has a long history.  Hundreds of years ago, eruptions from Mt Hood created lahars, huge flows of melted snow and gravel, that buried the area.  The Sandy River carved a path through this debris, creating U-shaped bends where it encountered hard bedrock.  Resembling the oxbow shape of collars used on oxen, the bends are known as oxbows.


The human history of this region dates back to the Native American tribes who lived, fished and gathered in the area long before white settlers arrived.  The land this park operates on has been ceded from several local Native groups.  In 1988, the Sandy River was designated a National Wild and Scenic river.

Not sure what this was - but loved the intricate little flowers

The best thing about Oxbow Park is its lovely groves of old growth forest that has been preserved.  According to the park's brochure, some of these trees are over 700 years old.  The forest supports a diverse amount of wildlife, including Roosevelt elk, bald eagles, osprey and numerous songbirds and small mammals.  Salmon and steelhead trout make yearly runs up the Sandy River.


In addition to fishing, Oxbow Park is popular on hot summer days.  Many people flock to the Sandy River to swim and float in it's chilly waters.  But - the river's currents are fast and strong and every year I hear of people who require rescue after they misjudge the river and their abilities.

Ferns lined the forest floor

After my lupine photo session,  I followed the path through a very muddy section, sliding down a steep slope to another riverside gravel bank.  Two people were fishing here and, not wanting to disturb them, I turned around and headed back through the forest.  Time to return to the boat ramp and check out another trail.

The woodpeckers have been busy

By now it was late morning, and there were quite a few more vehicles parked at the boat ramp as I walked back through.  Taking the trail westward, I encountered a few family groups right away, causing me to cover my face and step off the trail.  Luckily the other groups were polite and didn't linger.

Mossy tree line up

This path passed by a lovely cedar grove with huge old trees.  One large clearing offered nice views of the Sandy River as it wound around a bend. 


I'd been fortunate with the weather thus far and had only encountered a few quick sprinkles.  But the weather gods decided it was time to pay up, and not far from the viewpoint the skies finally opened up.  I ducked under a large fir tree and waited out the heaviest rain.

Sandy River

Once the showers finally slowed, I emerged from under the thick fir boughs and continued my riverside trek.  I still held out hope of seeing the mama merganser.  But, there weren't many places that provided river access.  One side trail was bisected by a small creek.  Crossing would've required an ankle-deep wade, and I wasn't keen on getting my boots that wet.

Cedar tree

I continued my trek another 1.5 miles to the Happy Creek picnic area (what a great name for a creek!)  Then, with clouds gathering once again, I decided I'd traveled far enough for one day.  Time to race the rain back to my car.

Makin' friends with a tree

I'd packed a macro lens and passing by a patch of tiny wildflowers, decided since I'd been carrying it around all day why not put it to use?  I focused my camera on some wee starflowers.  I loved the pretty pink-tinged petals and six-sided star.  When I downloaded my photos later that day, I was surprised to see this slender insect posed right next to the flower.  So intent on capturing the bloom, I didn't even notice the bug!

Starflower and friend

Luckily I won the weather race back to my car.  As I was leaving the park, fat raindrops began to splatter on the windshield.  Just in time! 

My kinda sign!

Even though I never did find the mama merganser, I spent a very enjoyable morning rediscovering a beautiful natural area on the outskirts of the Portland metropolitan area.  Hopefully it won't take another pandemic to get me back here again.