Archive for March, 2017

Robins – Bringers of Spring

Written by Jim Huckabay on March 31, 2017. Posted in Uncategorized

An old friend hopped into my yard on Wednesday last week. I was headed out to pick up some items for last Saturday night’s Chukar Run, but paused for a moment to consider the substantial amount of fruit tree, shrub and cane pruning staring back at me. Suddenly, literally feet from my shoes, was my long-anticipated friend, American Robin Turdus migratorius – bringer of spring.

No doubt, you’ve noticed robins, also. It was seeming a bit late, but that could be a result of the winter-that-nearly-refused-to-die with which we were blessed. Of course, a few of the birds (males generally) stayed through winter, but the folks at Annenburg Media’s “Journey North” site report the first migratory robins in the reach from the Lower Yakima Valley to Paradise just in the last few weeks. Those birds were returning from wintering grounds in Guatemala and Central America.

The male’s job is to choose a territory, then defend it as others arrive. Thus, he must be here early. If nasty weather eliminates his food supply for a few days, he can easily survive until the weather reopens. The female, on the other hand, need not hurry as there is nothing much for her to do until there is a dependable food supply and sufficient mud for creating the nest which may be weakened by a hard frost. Then too, if she suffers much hunger, it can limit her body’s ability to make strong viable eggs. So, she will stay on wintering grounds until conditions are most likely to be favorable in summer breeding territories.

At any rate, I was delighted to say hello to the robin boy staking out turf in my yard last week, and wished him well. I anticipate hearing his three or four note song, once his turf is claimed. A twenty- or thirty-minute rendition of his “cheery-up, cheery-me, cheery-up, cheery-me” song of daylight and spring warmth will make me want to dig worms and hand them over.

A California colleague once told me he was sure he’d heard a “robin’s song” in Great Britain. That bird, he was told, was a European blackbird (as in “baked into a pie…”).  Turns out that blackbird is also a thrush and of the genus Turdus, like our robin. Our American robin got its name, apparently, because it reminded homesick migrants of England’s “Robin redbreast.” (That little European red-breasted robin (Erithacus rubecula) is a small, roughly sparrow-sized, bird. It was once classified as a member of the family Turdidae, but is now considered to be an old world flycatcher.).

American robins are generalists, like us. They eat a variety of stuff and occupy breeding territories in most any habitat in the West below timberline (except marshes). On our lawns after insects and worms (found by sight, by the way) and in our trees after other edibles, robins seem pretty tame, but in more remote alpine and wilderness areas they can be extremely wary.

You probably know that only a few generations ago, robins were widely hunted for food in the US. More recently, populations were in trouble because of DDT spraying. Earthworms digested sprayed leaves and the poisons ended up in the robins. Many thousands died outright, and reproduction failed for others because DDT concentrated in bird ovaries, causing shell thinning of eggs. Once DDT was no longer used, the birds quickly recovered.

Robin courtship often reminds me of what I see on campus; groups of males pursue a desirable female until she takes a shine to one of them. Once chosen, the male will strut around her with his tail spread, throat inflated and wings shaking.

When vows are properly sealed, the female will begin building a soft‑lined nest of mud and grass in the lucky male’s territory. This we will watch over the next few weeks, as such nests are constructed (generally fairly low) in crotches of deciduous trees or on buildings. Both adults will belligerently defend the nest.

The female may lay half a dozen inch‑long turquoise blue eggs. She will do most of the incubating, but chicks will be fed by both parents and will grow quickly. They will leave the nest looking much like adults, with thickly spotted breasts of orange, white and brown.

Once the first brood fledges, the pair may build another nest, with the hen laying more eggs. If the fledged young are not independent enough, the male will care for them while the female incubates the second clutch of eggs. Rearing baby robins is a big job; a brood of three young may eat 95 or 100 meals a day. Sometimes, robins have help. Several observations have been made of house finches helping adult robins bring food to young. The finches have also been seen sitting nearby and singing while the insatiable youngsters were being fed.

In keeping with the wishes of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association’s Science Education Committee, I include the following. The American robin’s scientific name is Turdus migratorius. It may reach ten inches in length, and makes its living off grubs, insects (and their larvae), earthworms and fruit.

Track migrations of robins and many other birds on the Annenburg Media site. You can also find pictures, hear songs and learn cool new things at

Robin gives me hope for spring, for summer and for a good gardening year. I love that song.

Spring Hikes, Wildflowers and That Horn/Antler Stuff

Written by Jim Huckabay on March 24, 2017. Posted in Uncategorized

I’ve been waiting. After a winter like this one (It IS gone, right?), it seemed inevitable.

“So,” young I-Wanna-Take-My-Girlfriend-On-A-Hike Homey asked, “where would be a nice hike without snakes and bugs and with things that are fun to see and good scenery? And maybe there might be deer or elk horns there?”

“Well, it is not that simple,” I cautioned him. “Spring is underway down along the Columbia and out into the Basin. Hike up that anticlinal limb of basalt layers north of Gingko State Park headquarters – up over the west side of the river. Hanford Reach National Monument has great early spring trekking, with dry trails and no snow, even in the dunes above White Bluffs. Snakes and bugs are not out much yet, so that will work out, but you need to take some information with you, so that you can point out the flowers and unique plants you’ll be wandering through; so you can have an intelligent conversation with her out there all alone in the shrub-steppe. You may find some deer or elk ANTLERS, but we’ll get to that in a moment.”

I sat young Homey down and explained that, to make the most of his time afield with his distaff companion, he needed to understand the country and its plants. After all, here we are nearing flowering time in our semi-arid shrub-steppe Paradise, and our wet winter and spring could create a blooming explosion all around us. After they’ve grown and stored up food and water from winter, after blooming and making seeds for future generations, they’ll still have to survive another hot and dry Northwest summer.

The unique plants of our shrub-steppe have adaptations to make sure their life force continues.

Look closely at sage, with its small, gray leaves and shaggy, furrowed bark. Notice other plants with shaggy, loose-hanging bark, providing dead air spaces for insulation. See how some little shrubs and perennials have tiny white or silvery “hairs” which reflect sunlight, and also hold a dead air space for insulation. How many “bulbs” will he see flowering? Check out the wild onions, garlic, and wild iris. Then consider all the flowering “root” plants; camas, bitterroot, balsamroot and lomatium, in several varieties, storing enough calories in their fleshy roots to carry themselves through years of drought. Ours are so plentiful they have sustained Native civilizations for millennia. Take a book, maybe the Audubon Field Guide to the Pacific Northwest.

It may be a bit early, but start looking for lupines and arrow leaf balsamroot, wild onion, yarrow, sagebrush buttercup, fern-leaved desert parsley, narrow-leaved desert parsley, camas, big-head clover and several of the low phloxes, penstemons, salvia sage, sagebrush violet phlox and the beautiful desert yellow daisy.

Now, then… Horns? (Well, he did ask.) Horns grow every year and are never shed. They are made of keratin, much like hooves and fingernails. Sheep grow horns. Antlers are bone, grown by the Cervidae – the deer family. They grow, mature and shed on an annual cycle apparently related to length of daylight and testosterone levels.

Antlers grow as blood‑engorged tissue, protected by velvet – a hairy skin. They may grow three or four inches daily (if we grew bone like that, a broken leg would heal completely in days). In late summer, the velvet is rubbed off for the mating season.

When testosterone levels hit a minimum, the antlers are dropped, or cast. Here in our country, cast off will continue over the next few weeks. Those bulls or bucks which did most of the breeding – and therefore used up the most testosterone – will drop their antlers first. Cells at the antler bases will granulate and antlers will drop away at the pedicel. It is probably pretty painless, but likely a bit disorienting.

In Washington, any naturally cast antler you find is yours to keep. Joe Watt and Robinson Canyon feeding areas will be closed until May First, but much other public ground is open to walking and looking.

“Now, go,” I said to young Homey. “Stumble across an antler and kneel among the flowers of our shrub-steppe countryside. Photograph them, and sit with the amazing plants that produced them. Examine the leaves and the bark, and the site. Think about the adaptations that made the flowers possible. Let yourself be amazed. Together, perhaps, you and your fair maiden might rediscover the joy of your first flower.”

Ah, spring.

All about Outdoor Schools

Written by Jim Huckabay on March 17, 2017. Posted in Uncategorized

Washington State Senate bill 5357 passed the Senate and is in the State House of Representatives at the moment. If it gets passed and signed it will create opportunities which may reach here into Paradise. (I know you’ve heard that the two things you don’t want to watch being created are sausage and legislation, but I thoroughly enjoy making my own sausage and have never had a problem watching the legislative process.)

Be that as it may, might I encourage you to keep a good thought for Senate Bill 5357 – “An act relating to a pilot project to license outdoor early learning and child care programs.” The bill is scheduled for a hearing in the House Early Learning & Human Services Committee during its meeting next Tuesday (March 21) at 8 a.m.

If passed by the Legislature and signed by the Governor, this bill will (subject to an appropriation of funds, of course) establish a four-year pilot program to license outdoor, nature-based, early learning and child care programs. Within the pilot project, the Department of Early Learning would be allowed to waive or adapt licensing requirements to allow for operation of outdoor classrooms.

If approved, the pilot program would begin at the end of August this year. Up to ten pilot locations would participate the first year, with additional programs invited to apply in late summer of 2018. An advisory group of outdoor, nature-based, early learning teachers and practitioners would be created to support the pilot programs. This advisory group would likely be involved in assisting with annual reports on pilot programs.

The act addresses some of the rules which have held back the development of outdoor schools. Much of the testimony in favor of SB 5357 noted the wide recognition that access to the outdoors increases kids’ focus, critical thinking, performance and ability to manage stress. Without licensing, full-day programs are very rare – yet they are highly sought-after by working families wanting such an educational experience for their children. Such programs become much more accessible with licensing, and provide a creative solution to the shortage of preschools in many Washington communities. In addition, licensing requirements currently assume that schools are in buildings – and are thus not applicable to outdoor classrooms.

Cost of education is another important factor. Since outdoor schools spend far less than traditional schools on facilities and maintenance, more funding can go toward high quality teachers and financial support for families needing it. One example cited in testimony in favor of SB 5357 was the work of Tiny Trees Outdoor School. Tiny Trees built six outdoor sites at a cost of $320,000. The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction noted that one typical indoor preschool classroom costs $350,000. In these times of educators scratching for funding, such savings can be highly significant.

The Washington Outdoor School operating here in Paradise is helping many youngsters get a good start on their educations. We now have the Washington Outdoor School Fridays at Helen McCabe, and three mornings a week in Roslyn, with other outdoor classroom activities on late start days and other opportune moments. With enough support and the right outdoor-savvy teacher(s), our local outdoor school could become a daily school and even add a kindergarten.

Sibyl Maer-Fillo has been making it happen here. Through two decades of teaching and working at all levels of education, Sibyl dreamed of getting young students immersed in the natural world – outside. Her belief that a child’s interaction with nature helps develop a sense of place, awakens curiosity, and creates healthy minds and bodies reflects the important work now spreading across the planet. This work of connecting kids with Earth helps build stronger communities and a life-long commitment to the proper functioning of our natural world.

Take a look at some happy youngsters and find out more – or register your kids for the program that is perfect for them – at For a peek into the Upper County program, take a look at KEEN and the Yakima Canyon Interpretive Center working group are strong supporters of the outdoor school, summer day camps, and a surprising number of other outdoor learning options for kids of all ages. Find out more about the Yakima Canyon Bird Fest, Get Intimate with the Shrub-Steppe, bird illustration and photography classes at

This is critically important business. To paraphrase Jodi Larsen, Upper County Rotary: Children are the emissaries we send into a time we will never see – what do we want them to take along?

Winter? What Winter?

Written by Jim Huckabay on March 10, 2017. Posted in Uncategorized

It was an impromptu meeting of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association. We were standing just outside Dean Hall in yet another snow flurry. The lone agenda item was winter; our winter – with whining.

I mentioned that I was getting really tired of hearing nearly-constant whining about our never-say-die winter. Homey Thomas observed that I had just been spending too much time listening to myself. Be that as it may, I have not been alone. Somewhere in there I may have reminded my fellow members of the RCRGWD&OTTBA that one of my old Siberian acquaintances maintained that there was no such thing as a bad winter – there was only poor planning, poor clothing and poor housing.

As the meeting fell to chaos, someone reminded me that, sometime in the last century, I had read a treatise on “real winter” from Brad Johnson, renowned outdoorsman and Director of the Watertown, South Dakota, Chapter of the RCRGWD&OTTBA. Brad was editor of the Colorado daily for which I wrote the first couple years of this “Inside the Outdoors” column in the late 1980s. Once our meeting adjourned, I went digging for his letter.

That late-January 1997 correspondence was composed by candlelight. “Enough already! Winter, bah humbug…The power’s out…let me tell you about the winter of 1996-1997. In my tender 37 years, I have never experienced anything like this. The Great Plains can be a difficult place…but this has been a challenge to all of us. Old Man Winter has been brutal and relentless… Grandpa Howard always said that mid-November was the end of hunting season – the geese and ducks would give way to the weather and head south. This year, they never looked back. Veteran’s Day on Monday was the beginning of the winter that wouldn’t quit. It started to snow that morning, and the geese were flying low off the lake. Perfect weather for those of us who love the thrill of the hunt and being one with the elements. The snow continued for the next day and put down a layer for the ice to come. The geese huddled together on the ice for about four more days, thinking, ‘this too, shall pass…’ But winter wasn’t joking, and they split. If only we all had wings…

“This was just a taste… An ice storm soon followed, coating roads, trees and everything. Then snow – then wind – more snow… The weekend after Thanksgiving was particularly brutal, with the ice storm in the Dakotas and Minnesota. But the big Arctic winds kept marching in. Since the week before Christmas, it’s been almost the weekly blizzard. The only question is whether the weekly event will last one, two or three days and take one or two days to clear off the roads before the next one hits. My heart goes out to those driving snowplows this winter. Every business in town has been hurt – except those who have heavy equipment for snow removal. We presently have an average of about two feet of snow on the ground and drifts around buildings and tree belts are 10 to 12 feet high. Drifts along some roads also remind me of my days in the Colorado mountains. These are 12 feet high and will need rotary plows the rest of the winter to keep them open. The wind has been brutal, whipping temperatures to 80 below.

“Oops, the power just went back on. Now, thirty minutes later, it’s off. In the meantime, I had to call Grandma Lila to see how she’s doing in Sinai, about 50 miles south of here. At 78, she’s still on her own…says she’s never seen a South Dakota winter ‘as dangerous as this.’ The freezing rain – the snow – the cold – the freezing rain…

“Growing up in the computer age and cellular phone age has caused a change in the way people my age view life. Everything is faster, faster, faster… How much can you get done in a shorter period of time? Computers, fax, voice mail – instant communication…

“But winters like this cause one to stop and listen. There is no e-mail. There is no voice mail. There is no microwave (Three minutes? Who’s got time to cook this?) …You hear many things.

“The Wind is everywhere. High pitches – low pitches. Blustery! Ever present. Relentless. Dangerous and deadly if you don’t respect it. It is the essence of Mother Nature. It brings serenity in a light gentle breeze. It brings death… …It teaches respect.

“I also hear a mouse – one of nine that have survived the winter. The other eight have moved on via my trap. This one too shall pass.

“I hear one clock. The only one in our house that operates on a C battery. The pendulum swings back and forth. Someone once said that the most perfectly balanced instrument is the pendulum. It goes from extreme to extreme. This winter is extreme. This past summer was near perfect. We must not forget that. Moderate temperatures. Moderate winds. Very enjoyable. So we must endure.

“That damn mouse is starting to bother me…sounds like a pig.

“The power just came back on. I was just beginning to really enjoy this. Until later, Brad.”  (Margin note: “The mouse died Jan. 20”)

Winter? What winter? I have confidence that we will see spring – certainly by early June.

Fish Stories with Grit

Written by Jim Huckabay on March 3, 2017. Posted in Uncategorized

No doubt you’ve many times heard that ancient summary of grit and fight and courage; “It ain’t the size of the fish in the fight – it’s the size of the fight in the fish.”

Today’s stories may have something to do with that. The first couple have to do with Anna – last of the girl Hucklings, and the best, most skillful, legendary, or luckiest, fisher among my brood (depending upon the story teller). The finale is Beverly Loeffers’ winning entry from this year’s outdoor adventure writing contest. Some fish never give up.

Late in the last century, on one of those hotter-than-blue-blazes late June afternoons in Paradise, I hauled the Hucklings to McCabe Pond for a little evening fishing. On earlier trips, they’d managed a few small trout and spiny-rays, but McCabe always provided priceless moments. On this particular evening, eight-year-old Edward was cheering Anna and Tena on, stirring bigger and better McCabe fish dreams (maybe even something bigger than ten inches).

When Anna’s rod starting twitching, she grabbed it and set the hook. Whatever was on the other end almost took the rod from her hands. Over the next twenty-plus minutes, whatever it was triggered several startled squeals of delight as it yanked away. Edward cheered her on. At long last, the two-foot fish thrashed its way through the murky water and into the mud and weeds at our feet. It was a five-pound-plus channel catfish. Turned out that it didn’t like being released any better than it had liked being caught. All that mud, mess, and fun became family legend.

Two years before the catfish event, the Hucklings and I were on a long summer weekend camping and fishing trip to Jefferson Lake in South Park, a nice drive into the mountains southwest of Denver, Colorado. Over the weekend, we managed a nice mess of rainbows (Anna demonstrating her normal ability to catch the most), some good hiking, and many great s’mores. Saturday morning, the brood voted to fish one of the shallow inlets. With nothing biting, we decided to move around the lake. I was already on the move when Anna snagged up – one of those snags that seemed to move a bit. After fifteen or twenty minutes of “Snag… NO! Fish!” the crystal clear waters of that mountain lake revealed a very large lake trout. Despite offers of help, my sixty-five pound ten-year-old was determined to bring the fish to shore by herself. She also insisted on carrying that six-plus-pound laker – all 28 inches of it – to the rig on her own.

The next morning, we found several other fishermen at “our” inlet. They regaled us with tales of the “tiny five-year-old girl who caught a twenty-pound laker right here yesterday” – and carried it to her family’s Jeep all by herself. We just smiled at each other. That tale, I’m told, hangs over Jefferson Lake to this day. Anna is legendary.

And here, below, is Beverly Loeffers’ legendary tale of a large fisherman and a northern pike with grit.

“One evening in Minnesota many years ago, Dad, Mom and I were ‘Shore Fishing’ on Lake Washington north of Mankato. We were wearing canvas waders, standing armpit deep in the water, and casting toward a weed bed. Four of Dad’s friends were lined up about 50 feet apart further on down the shore.

“Suddenly, one of his buddies, Heine, started screaming in pain and tipping over, as he thrashed the water into foam. It was very loud, given the way sound carries on water.

“‘My God,’ Dad yelled, ‘Heine’s having a heart attack!’ Another fellow helped get Heine to shore as he flailed around and shrieked. All five men sort of wrestled on the ground in the darkening night.

“‘Get those waders off! Help him breathe! Who’s got a knife?’ Mom and I were urged to stay way back, so we sat some distance back, on a log, wondering what was going. Then Dad yelled, ‘What’s that? It’s blood – lots and lots of blood!’ They were cutting his waders off and there was a long, terrifying, silence before all the guys began to laugh.

“Dad roared on the trip home. ‘That damned fool. Any man who doesn’t know enough to knot his stringer through both jaws of a twelve or fifteen-pound northern pike deserves to be bitten. He could have given us all heart attacks screaming like that!’

“I still marvel at the spirit of that fish. Outweighed by at least 220 pounds, it still bit through the heavy canvas and hung on through the fight. The long loose stringer let the fish get Heine in the rump and hang tight. It sounds funny now, but we were really scared at the time.” Beverly Loeffers

It’s a perfect time of year to be thinking about warm summer and fish with grit, don’t you think?