Connecting with Nature

Nature of North Central Washington

Add birding to your life list

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January 2011, Connecting With Nature, NCW Greenways
by Mark Oswood

Birds are perhaps the most watchable wildlife — present everywhere, identifying characteristics visible at a distance and an achievable challenge.

There are an estimated 60 million-plus birders in the United States, ranging from beginning backyard birdwatchers to experts who pursue hard-to-find birds in hard-to-get-to places. Some of these folks are solitary while others are more gregarious, looking for birds and sharing the joy in what they find.

Beginner to expert, solitary to social, most birders share a common bond: curiosity, a love of the outdoors and an interest in learning.

Birding is a lifelong sport in which all can participate.

What kind of birder are you? Do you travel? The trees at a dreary freeway rest area might hold a never-before-seen bird or provide an uncommonly close look at a common bird. The balcony of your hotel room might provide a perch to see an osprey gliding by, fish in talons. Maybe you are, like Thoreau, someone who travels far by staying close to home.

Do you know that the American robin has at least five distinct songs and calls? The possibilities of what you can see in your own backyard or neighborhood are enough to last a lifetime.

Your travels, at home or far away, will make thousands of memories, but what will you use to contain the memories? The brain is leaky; you need paper.
A “unit of memory” in your journal might include the birds that you saw or heard, the context of place, date, weather and maybe any notions that arise.

You might write: “At Hydro Park, cold evening near dusk, 13 December, 2010. I walked along the short grass near the river.

A great blue heron rose up from the river’s edge with the usual irritated-sounding call and looking ancient, like a pterodactyl.”
Sketches and quick paintings are natural adjuncts to the words in your journal.

For those of us unburdened by artistic talent, even diagrammatic sketches of markings and flight patterns can help with later bird identifications, when reference books and the Web are at hand.

There are excellent books on nature journaling, all full of hopeful evidence that art skills sufficient for nature journaling can be learned.

You might search for books by Clare Walker Leslie, Hannah Hinchman or Susan Leigh Tomlinson. Better yet, visit Heather Wallis Murphy, a local master of nature journaling, at her website,

Your journals will, over the years, become repositories, not only of memories but also of valuable scientific data.

Your records of birds seen year-to-year can reveal changes in habitat, weather patterns and shifts in predators or diseases. Stacking the years on top of one another reveals the choreography of the seasons: arrivals of birds from wintering areas, first blossoms of flowers, eggs in nests, berries ripening, departures for the south.

Your journal entries become more powerful when joined with those from others who record their sightings.

We invite you to share your observations of birds and help us all learn more about their numbers, distribution and habits.

You can participate in a nationwide event, the Great Backyard Bird Count. You can also add your bird observations to the online nature journal for our region at

Mark Oswood is a retired biology professor but a beginning birder (old dogs can be lifelong learners). He is president of the NCW Audubon Society (, a local chapter of the National Audubon Society dedicated to conserving and restoring natural ecosystems for the benefit of birds and people.

This piece is also published in the Wenatchee World at

Low-velocity birding

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The Christmas Bird Count is the longest running citizen science program in the world, with over a century of records.
This year’s CBC is just finished but you can make plans for next year. Your timing, however, is perfect for the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), which runs four consecutive days beginning Feb. 18.

The GBBC is a more do-it-yourself, low-velocity version of the CBC. You pick your own location to count birds (for at least 15 minutes). If you are counting at different locations, you can do more than one count in a day; you can do counts on any or all of the four days of the GBBC. There are simple rules for counting birds, and you need to have some easy-to-get information for each of your counts.

If your birding experience is limited, chances are that you’ll see birds that you can’t identify. That’s OK! One of the questions you’ll answer for each of your counts is whether you identified all the birds you saw.

The GBBC is especially suited for stay-at-home bird watchers. Your seen-from-your-window count of birds at your backyard feeders is just as needed as a count done by a bungee-corded birder, dangling from a blimp over a remote mountaintop.

The GBBC website,, has instructions, downloadable checklists of birds for your location and help for bird identifications. After you’ve done your counts, you enter your data at the GBBC website.

If you are completely nondigital but would like to do the GBBC, contact me at 662-9087 for a paper version.
— Mark Oswood, Connecting with Nature

This piece is also published in the Wenatchee World at

Keeping an Eye on Nature in NCW

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October 2010, Nature of Place, NCW Greenways
by Nancy Warner

“It takes a thousand voices to tell a single story,” as one Native American saying goes. This also describes the approach we take in the Initiative for Rural Innovation & Stewardship (IRIS) as we gather many stories to help us better understand the nature of North Central Washington.

Like individual pieces of a larger puzzle, each of the stories that people share about their connections with nature contribute to the collective picture of how this place works. And the more we know about the plants, animals and natural systems that support us, the more apt we are to thrive.

Some of this knowledge of place is passed on in journal entries about events such as the first sagebrush buttercup to bloom each spring or the first freeze in the fall. These notes help keep us in touch with the seasonal joys of living in this place and inform our plans for farming and gardening each year.

When we combine our collective notes with the memories and photos of longtime residents, we’re better able to understand how longer-term processes have shaped our forests, farmlands, rivers and shrub-steppe and to see future possibilities. It becomes a richer story -— a story of wonder and change that bridges generations and invites others to participate in its telling.

George Honey of Entiat is one of the many people whose memories are helping us learn about how the landscapes and communities of this region have changed. Born in the Methow Valley in 1933, George worked in farming and logging before starting his career with the Forest Service.

He recalls how in the 1940s the Forest Service would gather a crew and then walk all night to go fight a fire. “I remember one time I was taking a crew way up War Creek. We had a fire going between Lake Chelan and the Twisp River. And we hiked about 15 miles to get in there.” Every other guy carried a flashlight,” he explained. “You’d see all these eyes shining along the trail — I’m sure cougar, deer and I don’t know what all. You had to be careful and you had to have somebody lead the way who knew the country.”

It was water, rather than fire, that got some of the wildlife moving up in the country where Homer Wolfe was born in 1916 — a fruit ranch between Wilbur and the Columbia River. He remembers how the water backed up after Grand Coulee Dam was built and the deer were able to swim across the river from the north. “We had deer coming across and establishing themselves in the canyon areas and up on the edge of the wheat fields,” he recalls. “And my brother would shoot a deer every year.”

George and Homer both grew up in times when the success of the family’s farm and garden depended, in large part, on their knowledge of the place. “Your parents would teach you things, and that knowledge was passed on to your siblings,” George explained. One example of such knowledge was how to avoid planting the garden too early, before the ground was warm enough. In the Methow, he learned to wait until “the snow got off of Mount McClure” to plant any seeds.

Homer’s family raised about 50 chickens a year — enough for a roast each Sunday.
He describes the interaction between two native species of birds that enabled more of his family’s chickens to survive. “In that country there was a bird called a kingbird, and they would build a nest up on the edge of the windmill. And they had a particular yearn to chase (Cooper’s) hawks if they ever showed up. And whenever they started their squawking the chickens knew what they were talking about because the mother hen would call all the chicks together and the kingbird would dive down on the hawk until that hawk was crazy.”

What observation about nature have you made that can help others be successful?

Join others across North Central Washington as we create a naturalist’s journal of our region. Post your observations about the weather, including temperature, moisture levels and significant storm events, along with those about specific plants and animals you see near your home or area.

Start a journal and track: date/time, location, observer, weather notes, and your observations. Share your observations with the community by posting them here as comments. Submit entries on your own or team up with a friend or family member. Together our observations will chronicle trends and changes and provide a legacy for future generations to build on.

Post your observations by adding to the comments in the link below.

Keeping an Eye on Nature — George Honey


George Honey talks about hiking into fires.
George Honey – Hiking Into Fires (MP3)

George Honey talks about learning.
George Honey – Learning (MP3)

George Honey talks about seasonal cues.
George Honey – Seasonal Cues (MP3)

Keeping an Eye on Nature — Homer Wolfe

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Homer Wolfe talks about hunting.

Homer Wolfe Hunting (MP3)

Homer Wolfe talks about chickens and Kingbird hawks.
Homer Wolfe – Chickens and Kingbirds (MP3)

Mudpies, Forts and Frogs: Discovering the Possibilities of Life

July 2010, Nature of Place, NCW Greenways
by Nancy Warner

“He undertook what small children do when stripped of mechanical toys and playmates and placed in a natural environment. They explore. They become hunter-gatherers. If they are fearless … they discover a multitude of creatures of kinds they have never seen in a zoo or picture book or on television, and for which there is no name. Each kind of plant and animal, because of the immediacy and its novelty and strangeness, is for a small child an entity of boundless possibility.” — “Anthill: A Novel,” by E. O. Wilson

Such is the world biologist and writer E.O. Wilson describes for Raff, the main character in his new novel placed in the longleaf-pine forests of Alabama’s Gulf Coast. Wilson grants his character the same gifts many of us enjoyed as kids — unstructured time and freedom to explore the outdoors, get dirty and imagine possibilities.

While these might sound like good outcomes for a fun and relaxing adult vacation, access to outdoor adventures in nature is increasingly recognized as critical for healthy childhood development. We need to be able to connect with nature at an early age to develop our full potential, Richard Louv argues in his book, “Last Child in the Woods.”

Poking around in our backyards, parks and neighboring natural areas cultivates our sense of wonder and curiosity. Exploring open spaces on foot or bicycle strengthens both our muscles and our critical thinking skills. Those connections, in turn, shape our minds, bodies and spirits us as we grow and move down our respective paths in life.

One of eight children, personal banker Eddie Velazquez began his solitary explorations of the Lake Chelan area when he was only 8 years old. “My parents seemed to always be working just to provide and toys were limited, so I did a lot of hiking,” he said. “I’d usually take my two dogs with me and so I always felt safe.”

Eddie stayed close to home at first, keeping his house in sight, and then pushing his limits as the summers passed. “I remember going out on hikes and it would start getting dark. I remember the feel of the forest, being by myself and getting a little bit braver every time. And then I found a place where somebody had already built a treehouse. So that became my treehouse — that was the place I went to hang out,” he said.

Judy De La Vergne
Wenatchee-based wildlife biologist Judy De La Vergne grew up in Western Washington, where she was often charged with keeping track of her younger brother. She recalls building forts in the woods together, collecting frogs and slugs, and walking down to Lake Washington where they hung over the docks to fish for sculpins and rainbow trout. They’d also walk to school and baseball games exploring along the way.“We’d turn logs over and look for salamanders and centipedes, spiders and bugs,” she said. “I always thought it was cool if I found something new. But you didn’t quite know what it was going to do. So if they looked really scary, you didn’t mess around with them. You might mess around with other things a little if you thought it was interesting. I think we developed a range of tolerance there.”

Skip Johnson
It was the Columbia River that captured the imagination of tree fruit broker Skip Johnson as he grew up on his family’s orchard in East Wenatchee. “I walked the riverbank and the mile or so of orchard that we farmed on a fairly regular basis thinking about the steamers that used to come up and what the river might have been like thousands of years ago,” he said.

Skip saw all kinds of wildlife, including ducks and geese. He also tried, more than once, to catch one of the 15-foot sturgeon that live in the deepest parts of the river. “Sturgeon are out there,” he notes, “and those were always things that we were trying to catch. We formulated many different methods of trying to attract a sturgeon to a hook. Many times my mom would come to the freezer looking for a hamhock and there wouldn’t be one because I used it to try to catch a sturgeon earlier in the week.”

Susan Ballinger
While Skip was trying to land a sturgeon with steel cable and a hamhock, biologist and Wenatchee educator Susan Ballinger was catching frogs with her grandmother’s tea strainer at the family’s cabin on Lindbergh Lake in Montana. “Every weekend, we would go up there,” she says, remembering many happy days playing in the lake and woods.

“There was a lot of work to be done too,” she added, noting that she and her siblings helped gather flat rocks for the pathways around the cabin as well as huckleberries for the freezer.

They also spent time making up their own games. “We would go down to the wetland,” she recalls, “and scrape up clay and make mudpie plates and dishes out of it in our playhouse.” As with any good fort or treehouse, Susan’s grandfather built the playhouse with materials at hand — scrap wood and cardboard. “We had endless hours of play in that house … I look back and know that it was a very formative time,” she said.

Nancy Warner is coordinator for the Initiative for Rural Innovation & Stewardship (IRIS) based in Wenatchee. She thanks her parents often for all of the opportunities they gave her to connect with nature while she was growing up.

This website is dedicated to stories of people in North Central Washington (people like you) connecting with nature. Do you have an early experience connecting with nature you can share on this website? Submit your story online.

Early Connections with Nature – Tracy Walsh

Tracy Walsh talks about childhood freedom.
Tracy Walsh Childhood Freedom (MP3)

Early Connections with Nature – Eddie Velazquez

Eddie Velazquez talks about hiking.
Eddie Velazquez Hiking (MP3)

Eddie Velazquez talks about finding a treehouse.
Eddie Velazquez Treehouse (MP3)

Eddie Velazquez talks about the influence of spending time outdoors.
Eddie Velazquez Outdoor Influence (MP3)

Early Connections with Nature – Judy De La Vergne

Judy De La Vergne talks about being an outdoor kid.
Judy De La Vergne Close to Home (MP3)

Judy De La Vergne talks about frogs.
Judy De La Vergne Frogs (MP3)

Judy De La Vergne talks about fishing.
Judy De La Vergne Going Fishing (MP3)

Early Connections with Nature – Skip Johnson

Skip Johnson talks about walking along the river as a kid.
Skip Johnson River Kid (MP3)

Skip Johnson talks about sturgeon.
Skip Johnson Sturgeon Bait (MP3)

Skip Johnson talks about sharing the river experience.
Skip Johnson River Share (MP3)