Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Vegas Boondoggle Part 2: Washes & Swifts

About 100 or so miles later, I followed a rolling dirt road through the desert night until I came to a long steep downhill. I couldn’t see ahead in the dark, but the drop indicated the descent into Beaver Dam Wash. I dropped into the wash, crossed a (surprisingly) fast-running stream, pulled over by some cottonwoods and stopped for the night. I slept under the brightest stars I remembered seeing in years, listening to the rushing water 20 feet away, and watching shooting stars until I couldn’t keep my eyes open. In the morning I woke* a little while before sunrise, and felt- for the first time in a while- like myself.

*In my lazy middle age I’ve taken to camping in the open with stove, lighter, coffee & pot o’ water 3 feet from my head. No middle-aged camper should have to extricate him/herself from a sleeping bag before the first sip of coffee.

Side Note: 2 years ago, during Monocot Week, following my failed attempt on Mormon Peak, I drove backroads for about 2 hours to reconnect with pavement in Utah on the West slope of the Beaver Dam Mtns. IMG_4803 It was a long drive, I was tired, and in a let’s-get-this-done mood. But about 10 miles from pavement, the land before me fell away into a deep draw, lined by lush, leafed-out cottonwoods- the first bright green I’d seen in a full day. The road wound down to the bottom, into the trees, and across the running stream in the bottom. As I drove across I leaned my head out the open window and saw dozens of tadpoles scattering away from my rolling tires. I thought about stopping and exploring, but I had a long drive back to Salt Lake and kept going, arriving home late that evening.

The next morning I awoke, thought of the cottonwoods and the tadpoles, and immediately regretted not stopping. I’d been thinking about going back to Beaver Dam Wash ever since.

IMG_4797 I spent about an hour exploring and poking around, walking through the little forest of cottonwoods and willows alongside the stream. I’m always struck by 2 things in desert cottonwood groves. The first is how leafy green trees that seem so ordinary and ubiquitous in parks or suburbs or Eastern forests seem so absolutely wonderful and garden-of-eden-like in the desert- each grove a little oasis of coolness and color. The second is how dramatic the division is between the forested riparian zone and the adjacent desert. It’s as if you can walk back and forth between worlds. One moment you’re picking your way through cottonwoods and willows, 20 steps later you’re walking past Joshua trees and creosote.

IMG_4793 Side Note: About a year and a half ago I blogged about the 3 levels of the St. George area- Floor, Bench and Mesa. Beaver Dam Wash, and other nearby low areas such as the Virgin River Gorge, are a 4th level, a weird underworld. And there are really at least 2 more levels going up, either in the Pine Valley Mountains, or onto the Markagunt Plateau behind Zion.

Eventually I loaded back up, drove back across the wash…

and worked my way into St. George, where I caught up on calls and email*, before continuing East and up, through Hurricane, Apple Valley and onto Little Creek Mountain.

*Because yes, I was working. This wasn’t a vacation day. It was a travel day. Remember, it isn’t a boondoggle if you’re taking the day off.

I’ve blogged a couple of times about Little Creek, and I always love riding and exploring there. This time I had the helmet cam with me, so you can get a little feel for the place. This clip is some of the windy singletrack out onto the North rim.

And this clip, while not great biking footage, takes you through the “big trees”- an area where relic ponderosas grow out of cracks and crevices across a weird, wide pink sandstone draw. I’ve never come across any other place quite like this

When I first rode Little Creek I was guided by the trail-builders, who told me only about 20 people had ridden the mesa. Today that’s not the case. Though much less visited than nearby Gooseberry Mesa, Little Creek gets ridden regularly, and this last year actual signs have been placed at a couple of key trail junctions. But there’s about a mile of trail that almost never gets ridden, and which I always ride when I visit.

Originally the Harris brothers intended the trail to go clear to the South Rim* of the mesa. But about a mile from the rim they reached a sandy area that never packed in well. Around this time another local trail-builder** put in a trailhead-rim connector that turned the Harris bros. trail into a loop, and this loop became the main trail. But the loop left off about a mile-long stub of excellent trail that was soon forgotten, and now hardly gets ridden. When I rode it 2 weeks ago, there wasn’t a tire-track on it. When I rode it again this past weekend, there was one, very faint set in spots- mine.

*Years ago I had some time to kill and poked around old 4WD tracks till I found a way to the South Rim. Beautiful views South into Arizona, and a pleasant rim to walk, or possibly bike, in spots.

**The former proprietor of Bike Zion, Dean Whatshisbucket…

The Stub was never well-marked to begin with, and now, with nearly a decade of no traffic, it’s even harder to follow. When I ride it, I do so with my mind fully engaged, looking for present-day clues, and yet drawing connections out of memory at the same time, remembering a particular ramp, or tree, or crevice. You can’t just look for the trail, and you can’t just remember it- you have to look and remember, at the same time.

Looking and remembering- particularly when alone- gives you a weird out-of-time feeling. Am I thinking about now or 10 years ago? Usually we think about one or the other. We’re thinking about say, work, or what we need to pick up for dinner, and then for whatever reason we shift gears and think about last summer’s vacation, or the girl we took to the prom for a bit, before jumping back to the present. We don’t usually think- and think hard- about present and past at the same time, much less ride a semi-technical trail at the same time. That’s why I like the Stub. It breaks the mold of my thinking.

IMG_4812 The Stub’s an out-and-back, and when it rejoins the main loop, the trail drops down to, joins, and then follows the rim for a ways. There are a series of open terraces here, where I like to stop for a snack and a view West into the Virgin River Gorge, and the Virgin and Mormon Mountains beyond, my mind cleared from the Stub. I sat down on the warm rock, no one else around… except for- whoosh!- the sudden slicing of wind a dozen feet from my head. If you’ve spent time hiking or climbing in the West, you know what I’m talking about- those crazy, swooping, super-fast “swallows” that always show up out of nowhere when you’re on some exposed peak. Only they’re not swallows; they’re Swifts.

Swift PV Mtns Swifts are a worldwide family (Apodidae) of some 90+ species of birds that look more or less like swallows, but aren’t at all closely-related, and in fact aren’t even Passerines, or perching birds, but are more closely-related to hummingbirds. Their resemblance to swallows is an example of convergent evolution; both make a living by catching and consuming insects in mid-air. The Swifts I watched on Little Creek, and which you’ve almost certainly seen*, were White-Throated Swifts, Aeronautes saxatalis, the most common swift in Western North America.

*Assuming that is that you’ve spent some time on high peaks and exposed ridges in the Western US. And if you haven’t, well really, what are you waiting for?

Side Note: Passerines, order Passeriformes are the “perching birds”, so named for their common foot architecture- 3 toes forward, 1 backward, which allows them to easily perch on branches. They’re sometimes called the “songbirds”, but since they also include things like the corvids- which definitely do not sing- that’s not really accurate. Pigeons, buntings, cardinals, icterids, sparrows, finches, wrens, robins, thrushes and the majority of birds you’re probably familiar with are all passerines, descended from a common ancestor some 55-60 million years ago*. Today they comprise some 6,000 of the world’s >10,000 species of birds.

*Guess where it might have lived? That’s right – Gondwanaland!

WTSwift2 Swifts (pic left, not mine) are beautiful flyers, breathtakingly fast and maneuverable. Their boomerang-shaped wings provide strong, quick lift, and their short forked (usually closed) tails enable rapid changes of direction. They can remain aloft not just for hours- but even days (while migrating) and even, apparently, months, in the case of the European Common Swift, Apus apus. Swifts dine on the wing; migrating swifts pick up the food they need while in flight. European Common Swifts migrate annually to North Africa, and it’s believed that they sleep in flight, and possibly never land for as long as 9 months!

Swift Propulsion Extra detail: Their inner wing feathers produce most of the lift from the wing-stroke, while the outer feathers generate the forward propulsion.

White-throated Swifts (pic rleft, not mine) do land to sleep, but never voluntarily on the ground. Their short weak legs and specialized feet* aren’t suitable White-throated_Swift_USFSfor either walking or branch-perching, but rather for hanging/clinging to walls, cliff faces and wires. Because their nesting sites- which are large and communal- are typically in inaccessible cliff-sites, not as much is known about their family lives as is known about many other common birds. Their actual nests are half-cups constructed of twigs and plant matter cemented together and to the cliff-wall by the bird’s saliva, which hardens, epoxy-like, when dry. They’re thought to be the fastest-flying birds in North America, regularly cruising at 30-40 MPH, and hitting top speeds estimated at anywhere from 130-200 MPH.

*4 toes, all facing forward.

Swift LC Extra Detail: The nests of some Asian species (specifically Swiftlets) are the main ingredient in Bird’s Nest Soup. There are a number of other Swiftlet species- again in Asia- that use echolocation- sonar- to help navigate in the dark, cave-like recesses of their communal nesting sites. And recently it’s been discovered that at least two species hunt insects at dusk using echolocation to hunt insects at night, just like a bats.

Tangent: This brings up something that has always bugged me- why aren’t there more echo-locating, night-flying, insect-hunting birds? There are about 1,100 different species of bats- something like ¼ of all mammal species- the majority (3/4) of which use echolocation to hunt insects. But among birds sonar appears rare and/or limited in use and function. Why? Or let me turn it around another way: Why are there bats at all, anyway?

You may well have heard the standard “reason” why bats don’t fly in the day: Because hawks- and other birds- prey upon them*. This in turn raises the question of why we have birds preying on bats instead of the other way around (on the ground, mammals routinely prey upon birds), to which the answer may be in part that birds just fly a lot better, due maybe to their feathers, superior lungs, different musculature** and/or vision.

*I’m not sure this is the case, BTW Maybe bats haven’t evolved into bat-raptors is because birds filled those niches first. I don’t think there were many (any?) large mammalian carnivores until the dinosaurs disappeared, creating opportunities for entelodonts and such… Maybe, just maybe, if all the birds in the world suddenly dropped dead tomorrow of Killer Bird Flu, in a couple million years the skies would be patrolled by soaring Bat-Eagles. Or maybe not. Just thinking aloud here…

**Bats “flap” like we do; pectoral muscles pull the arm down, and deltoids pull it back up. Birds have 2 different sets of pecs, one for the downstroke, one for the upstroke, and the 2 muscles overlay each other and are both firmly anchored to the keel of the bird’s breastbone. The up-pulling pecs are connected to the back/shoulder of the wind by a tendon routed through a special groove.

Whatever the case, let’s assume birds fly better than mammals/bats. So why aren’t there hundreds of different species, worldwide, of echo-locating, night-flying, insect-eating birds? Birds have evolved into almost every other niche imaginable: waterfowl, raptors, penguins, vultures, loons, hummingbirds- you name it. Why no (or rather so few) bat-lifestyle-birds? And if birds are such better flyers than bats, you’d think they’d totally out-compete them by night as well as day, and there’d be, well, no bats, right?

The obvious explanation would seem to be that, for whatever reason, birds don’t or can’t evolve sonar as readily as mammals. Why not? Can they not make the sounds? That’s hard to imagine. As we’ve already seen, syrinx-equipped birds are far more vocally capable than the vast grunting majority of mammals. Maybe they can’t hear the sounds? At first thought, this idea seems to have a bit more legs. Mammals and bird ears are both evolved in part from “spare” (re-purposed) bones in the reptilian jaw, but they evolved independently and along different architectures. Maybe ours is better? But that doesn’t hold up either; think of owls, and their amazing, directionally-sensitive hearing, capable of detecting a mouse scuffling through the grass…

Bat Face1 I even thought of faces. Bats have crazy-ugly faces (pic left, not mine), with all kinds of weird bumps and ridges, that serve to funnel/directionalize ultrasonic peeps. Maybe the face of a bird I less morphologically “plastic” and can’t easily develop the features and contours to optimize sonar performance. But then, when you think about ducks, auks and turkeys, birds do seem to have a fair amount of facial variation. The whole bird-bat/day-night thing just bugs me.

Swift Zoom Anyway, here’s another thing about Swifts: they are almost impossible to photograph. They’re always flying, and flying fast; they never sit or perch or hang or pose anyplace you’re likely to see them. Here’s my best shot- lame, I know:

And here’s the only helmet-cam video I managed to catch- watch the top of the screen at 0:05.

I love watching Swifts, and when I do there are always 2 head-scratchers I always wonder about*. The first is- how far ahead do they see the insect they’re trying to catch? Think about it. We know birds have awesome vision, but they’re flying along at maybe 30 – 50 MPH, and the bugs they’re catching are tiny. How far ahead do they see them? 10 feet? 50? 100? And how do they react in time to alter their flight course and catch them?

*Besides the whole tangential bird-bat-sonar thing, I mean.

Which in turn brings me to the second thing: how fast do Swifts think? They move so fast, and react, and change course, speed and direction so quickly, faster than we can practically register that they’re even around. I’m not suggesting they’re thinking about art or literature or anything, but what must it be like to think, decide, react and perceive reality that fast? Usually I feel a bit smug when comparing my mental faculties to those of another animal. But when I think of Swifts I feel slow, dense and heavy, both physically and mentally.

IMG_4832 I packed up and rolled on along the rim, through the woodlands, across the slickrock and eventually back to the trailhead for the long drive home. As I loaded up and headed out I found myself thinking wistfully, as I always do when leaving Little Creek, that I’d like to get back down sooner rather than later.

Which, as it turns out, is exactly what I did.

Next up: Oodles of singletrack, slickrock, exposure and helmet-cam video filler!


KanyonKris said...

Swifts sleep in flight?! I'm boggled. Do they have an autopilot? You know, autonomic systems like how our hearts keep beating and lungs keep breathing when we're asleep. And they don't fly into things? Wild.

Jube said...

I was just going to ask the same think as KK did. How crazy that they can sleep while flying! And I thought horses were smart because they can sleep while standing.

So on video #2 through the "big trees", were those the big trees you were talking about in your older post? Somehow I thought they would be, um, bigger.

Watcher said...

KKris, Jube- The Common Swift is reputed to sleep on the wing, but not the White-throated (the one we see,)

Jube- The vid wasn’t great. The bigger trees are another couple hundred yards East of the main route. Here’s a better photo (with amateur botanist for scale). In any case, they’re big for down there.