Brian's Journal - Winter 2018

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1/01/2018   A Dream for the New Year  
Another dream about God last night:
Darchelle and I are driving on a beach; the setting reminds me of Hobuck Beach near Neah Bay. I am in the drivers seat. We drive up to a red sandstone cliff so that the sandstone face is right in front of the windshield. Examining the stone I note the different sized grains and comment to Darchelle "No doubt about it, that's sandstone." We enter a tunnel into the cliff. The road is wide enough only for a single lane and I am concerned that we are going the wrong way but we immediately come to a junction where our lane continues as the right lane of a two-way road, still in the tunnel. Darchelle is driving now, I think. The left lane forks back to our left and we turn sharply to the left to follow it back out to the beach. I was concerned that this branch of the tunnel was for transit only but when we reach the beach I realize that it was for cars too.
I meet John M on the beach and we walk over to a spot at the base of the cliff around the corner from the tunnel from which Darchelle and I had just emerged. A large overhanging slab of sandstone looms above us and I asked John if he thinks we are safe under it. Together we conclude that it won't fall unless there is an earthquake, and that an earthquake is unlikely.
The tunnel from which Darchelle and I had come is now much smaller, like the entrance to a doghouse. On my hands and knees I squeeze into it pushing sand ahead of me with my knees in order to make more room for John to come in behind me. Once back at the junction I notice three piles of poop in the right-hand branch of the tunnel, and a woman is walking a dog in the mainstem of the tunnel ahead of me. I am irritated that dogs are allowed in the tunnel and have fouled it with poop, and I cover the poop with sand. John is sitting behind me on the left-hand side of the tunnel and rainwater is dripping from the ceiling onto him. Looking out the tunnel by which we had entered the tunnel I see that it is raining outside and we will have to wait a while before it stops, so I encouraged John to join me on the other side of the tunnel, where I covered up the poop, because it is not raining over there.
Now there are two dogs at the junction in the tunnel, one like a spaniel and the other a large dark brown short-haired Dachshund with a long cylindrical body, rather like a large poop with legs. The dogs had perhaps come down the tunnel from the house above the mainstem, but I am somewhat annoyed that they are in the the tunnel and I tried to shoo them away. Intending to hit the Dachshund in the head with my hand, I swing my arm at it several times but each time my hand stops just an inch or two from the dog. I swing my arm harder but my hands still stops before hitting the dog's head. The dog has changed from a Dachshund into a gray and white breed with a long-haired face like a Yorkshire Terrier but it retains the elongated body of the Dachshund. Unwilling to leave, it lies down across the tunnel with its face in a puddle of water, as if taking a drink. I consider kicking it or perhaps pressing its head into the puddle to drown it but decide that I'm willing to tolerate it being there because it is not doing me any harm.
Unlike in my previous dreams of dogs, in this dream the dogs present no threat to me. On the other hand I can't make them away, but their presence is tolerable and I no longer need to destroy them. The mess they make is manageable. The presence of the dogs in combination with John M indicates that this dream is about God. God spelled backwards is dog, and there are three dogs, and three piles of poop, (the Trinity) originating apparently from a house above (heaven). Moreover, dogs have represented God in a series of my dreams recently. John is a pastor and friend who likewise has represented God in previous dreams and who more than anyone else has demonstrated to me a workable belief in God and enabled me to claim the authority to believe as I see fit even when that belief contradicts the doctrines endorsed by the church.
As my confidence in my own perspective of God has grown, my fear of God and anger at him have diminished. For many years God was effectively a virtual parent for me with unquestioned authority over my life, or at least over my ultimate fate. I was bad, God was good. I needed to be good, and if I cooperated with him, God would make that happen. If I did not cooperate with him, he would ultimately punish me with torture and destruction. Paradoxically, God was also kind and gracious and forgiving, accepting me almost unconditionally and affirming my value as someone worthy of his love. It was as if I projected both my self-hate and my self-love onto an external object which I identified as God, and having externalized those elements of my relationship with myself, I no longer had any power to change them. Over the past few years, I have reappropriated into myself both the self-hate and the self-love, and concurrently claimed the authority to redefine my view of God.
God is first and foremost a construct of the human mind. We imagine God and we interact with God based on what we imagine. I can't rule out the possibility there is an objective reality behind what we imagine, and to which our imaginary construct conforms to a greater or lesser degree, but my experience of God in all its aspects has always been in my mind. My own emotional needs and the influences of people around me helped to define what I imagined and what I chose to believe. Looking back on my experience, I see little evidence that a supernatural being was involved in the process.
A nonexistent enemy poses little threat. A nonexistent friend offers little comfort. The latter I miss, the former not so much. The dream addresses both. From a dream years ago, I associate the cliff with the presence of God, far larger and greater than I and potentially dangerous but in fact not likely to do me any harm. Likewise the dogs were in previous dreams threatening but in this one only messy. The Dachshund is a reference to my ex-wife and by extension my past experience with God in which I fell short of the standard of love which God demanded of me. The Yorkshire Terrier recalls our recent visit with Darchelle's sister Alicia and her family, who demonstrated the Adventist lifestyle to which I long aspired but never achieved. The family was gracious and devout, their Yorkie affectionate and playful, but I did not feel intimidated by either their devotion or by the dog's pestering.
In the dream I am in charge but I unable to drive away the dog, which is drinking from a puddle of water. Water in the previous dream represented love; maybe I miss the love of the old virtual parent. There is sadness too, symbolized by the rain. I returned from our visit with Alicia's family feeling inspired to pray to Jesus now and then. It's a bit messy, praying to a Jesus whom I don't believe exists, but perhaps I will be keeping him around while I wait for the rain to pass.
1/11/2018   Happy  
ALS clinic today. It was my first visit to the Swedish hospital ALS clinic, headed up by my original neurologist Michael Elliott. Darchelle accompanied me. We hung out in an exam room where perhaps half a dozen groups of providers came in to meet with us over the course of the morning. The appointment I was most concerned about was with the respiratory therapist. She reported my FVC at 60% of predicted, a small decline from my 63% of predicted back in September. A half-hour later when I was tested again to see if I qualified for a clinical trial of eye-gaze wheelchair navigation, I managed to come up with 64% of predicted FVC. Unfortunately I did not record the actual capacity number in either case. Nonetheless the results were encouraging, and it appears that I may have another 12 to 18 months before I reach the 50% threshold where breathing assistance is needed. Beyond that, Dr. Elliott said, BiPAP could give me another 12 to 18 months. I will probably need to have a PEG tube installed in order to realize those extra months given that I am already developing some difficulty swallowing. The medical folks seem to favor getting a PEG tube sooner rather than later but of course they're not the ones getting it. I'm in no hurry.
One of the differences between the Swedish ALS clinic and the Virginia Mason clinic that I previously attended was that Virginia Mason gave me a questionnaire to fill out before my appointment, whereas the Swedish clinic called me for an interview. The nurse asked about my symptoms in detail and unlike most other medical providers that I can recall, actually seemed interested in my responses. One of the questions she asked me was "Are you happy?" I thought about it for a moment and replied "Yes, probably happier than I have ever been before in my life". She seemed to have heard that response before, but asked me why I was happy. Thinking about it, I did not immediately come up with the main reason, which is that I no longer feel alone. In loving and being loved by Darchelle, I am not alone. It helps that I am no longer in a unhappy marriage, and that I am no longer subject to a critical and demanding God, and that I no longer think of myself as bad. It helps too that I have recently been pretty much in denial about my situation with ALS, sometimes even forgetting that I am disabled. I think it helps that I am no longer trying to do things that I can no longer do, like photography and functioning independently in public, and that I have seem to have caught up on grieving the loss of those things that I have lost.
1/13/2018   Three Dreams  
I recalled three dreams, all apparently related, last night:
The Giant in the room
I am in a room with a table in the middle, like our dining room. Someone else is with me though I can't see him very well All my attention is focused on a giant man maybe 8 feet tall in front of me. He doesn't look threatening, dressed in pale blue or maybe pinkish clothing with longish hair and a friendly face, but I feel very threatened by him nonetheless and I attack him with a blue rubber ball on a string attached to the end of a stick. Over and over again I rapidly swing the ball in a figure 8 loop in front of him then the strike the ball against his chest. It just bounces off, doing him no harm. Swinging the ball even faster does not help. He is unmoved. Then I swing the ball so as to wrap the string around his arms and torso and yank on it to topple him to the ground. Fearful that he will escape if I loosen the tension on the string, I run around the table dragging him behind me. He needs to use the bathroom though so I release him and he walks out of the room. Fearful that he will harm me when he returns, I wake up, feeling anxious and out of breath.
No Intercourse
Darchelle and I are on the bed in our room in my parents house in New Hampshire. We are trying to have sex but we are both fully clothed and so are not making much progress. I'm not sure I even have an erection. A friend walks in and we take a break to talk with her but I am a little impatient, wanting to get back to having sex.
Now we are on a pink concrete platform at the edge of the ocean, a few feet from the water. Darchelle is lying on her back on the concrete and I am on top of her, again trying to have sex. We are still wearing clothing. The waves are not big but the tide is high and a little water sloshes onto the platform and flows towards us, so we have to get up.
Bird Photography
I am standing behind a seawall with a small crowd of people in front of me. They are looking through a gap in the seawall and photographing birds that are circling around as if in a broad whirlpool out in the bay. I peer over their shoulders as the birds pass close by one or two at a time. I tried to set up my camera to photograph the birds but it is difficult to get a clear view. Perhaps if I use a tripod I might succeed but mine is too clumsy so I borrow a monopod with a suction cup on the base. Before I am done trying to attach the camera to the monopod the owner wanted back again. The other photographers are beginning to leave because the birds are thinning out. Still fiddling with the camera, I accidentally dropped it with the lens falling facedown in the dirt. I have nothing with which to clean off the lens so I walk back to our camp to get a lens cloth. Darchelle and her family are there but they do not have a lens cloth; it is in the car which is parked two miles away. Feeling frustrated, I get very angry and swear "fucking camera", fucking car", fucking two miles away". Darchelle gets angry at me for swearing and I wake up angry.
At first the dreams seemed to share a common theme of frustration; I am unable to accomplish what I want to do and there is no one to help me. Thinking about them further, they seem describe a developing response to an insoluble problem: ALS. Although I can temporarily mitigate its impact, living with it is about to get a lot more difficult, affecting not only my relationship with Darchelle but everything else that I want to achieve, and my sadness and anger about it only makes things worse.
In the first dream the gentle giant represents ALS, me with ALS. I have for the past several months not been feeling particularly threatened by my condition despite the fact that nothing avails against it. My only defense is denial. By distractions such as birding and walking, adaptations such as using drawer knobs to get my pants up and down, and accommodations such as being more willing to ask others for help, I have been able to cope well enough with my decline. But a reckoning is coming. My neck continues to weaken. Swallowing food is becoming difficult in the evenings. Walking upstairs temporarily leaves me short of breath. My weight is down to 124 and continues to drop. The giant is not going away.
The second dream is about connecting with Darchelle. ALS is separating us more and more not only physically - with crippled hands and arms I cannot hold her or caress her - but in other ways as well, even as we remain emotionally close. We are embarked on different paths. I will die; she will grieve, both of us alone.
The third dream reveals an anger and frustration that I have not been feeling recently. ALS seems to be robbing me of my reason for living, which is represented by bird photography in the dream. I live to make and collect things with my hands and mind, not so much physical things as virtual things like images, checklists, impressions and memories. Relationships are important too, sharing and listening and being with. If I did not have love, if I did not have Darchelle, I would no longer choose to live, but while necessary, for me love is not sufficient without making and doing. At some point, if I can no longer create memories but only consume the creations of others, and no longer do but can only depend on others to do for me, life loses its appeal. ALS interferes with love and robs me of making and doing. No wonder I am angry.
1/20/2018   Anger  
With the federal shutdown looming, Darchelle suggested last Thursday afternoon that we make a quick trip downtown to the passport office to order my replacement passport. I told her that I did not want to go. Somehow our tempers flared over that and we had a brief angry exchange about passports and errands and birding and travel before calming down, but it was as if a switch had been flipped inside me and the happiness and intimacy that I have been feeling recently were instantly displaced by pain and isolation. There was no point in anything anymore. I didn't care about anything because to hope for anything would just bring disappointment and to care would hurt.
1/31/2018   My 150th species  
Inspired by Blair's quest for 200 species in January I decided sometime around mid-month to attempt to find 150 species in Washington during the month. That would exceed my previous record of 143 and give me a short-term goal without requiring the sort of long-term commitment to birding which is precluded by my inability to get out on my own. Armed with that aspiration, I talked Ed and Delia into joining Darchelle and me on a trip to the Peninsula last Sunday in which I surged from 137 to 147 species but even so prospects for 150 were looking dim until Ed and Delia apparently took pity on me and asked if I wanted to join them on a trip up to the Skagit today. That should have done the trick but we missed the Short-eared Owl and the Blue Jay leaving me at 149 when Darchelle got home from work this evening. I was ready to accept my failure but Darchelle was not so we drove over to Magnuson Park and armed with a flashlight, searched the cedars along the low-income housing row for the Barn Owl which will nest there sometime soon. Persisting in the search, Darchelle spotted the owl after I heard it hiss but could not find it. With big dark eyes in its heart-shaped white face, the owl peered down at us from a stout limb 30 feet overhead. When a security guard ambled over to see what we were up to, we pointed the owl out to her and she marveled too. So cute, so small and so alone in a dark world. Alarmed perhaps by our sentimentality, the owl spread its wings, circled once overhead and sailed off into the night.
2/05/2018   Prayer for healing  
Claire and the kids visited us this weekend. On Saturday we drove to Beacon Hill to pick up Darchelle's car at the garage then took the light rail to the airport. It's cheap entertainment if you have boys who like trains and planes. For less than a $20 bill we passed a rainy afternoon riding the train, gliding up and down escalators and elevators at the terminal and watching the planes take off into the fog. On the ride back the kids were each glued to a window watching for oncoming trains on the opposite track while I peered over their shoulders looking for birds. Best bird of the trip was a pair of Band-tailed Pigeons in a Tukwila cedar tree but I noticed them too late to confirm the ID so didn't count them. We ate French fries and pizza at Whole Foods on the way home without losing any kids into the crowd.
After the kids went to bed Claire and Darchelle prayed for me. Claire did most of the praying, asking for me to be healed and seeking guidance on what was blocking that from happening. Recalling an impression of darkness during our previous prayer session last fall, she perceived some sort of desire for death or at least tacit agreement on my part to allow death to prevail. I told her I did not think that was the case though I acknowledged some pessimism regarding my prospects. She received a mental image of a crystal vial suspended in front of me on a string held by the hand of God. When I tried to reach out and grasp it the vial was withdrawn out of reach. She explained that we had been seeking healing as something God would give to me but we were mistaken. While there was no question that God desires me to be healed, that is not how it would come about. God had already given me healing and it was already within me. I, in essence, needed only to act on it. She pictured holy hands raised up, pictured me raising up my holy hands in celebration of my healing. She asked if I felt anything then, and I did notice a tingling between my shoulder blades and told her so. "On a scale of 1 to 10..." she asked. "One" I replied but we felt a tingle of excitement and prayed again. "Any change", hopefully. "Still a one", soberly. I stood up and tried to raise holy hands but they stayed at my side, rotated slightly inward the way they do. "Practice. Every morning, multiple times a day, raise holy hands. Make it real.", or something to that effect. "I have always believed that you will be healed and I still do." I felt the warmth of her care for me and wished with a skeptical smile that she were right.
The kids woke up this morning at seven. I was awake and heard them go downstairs but decided not to follow them. They probably wouldn't do any harm and if they did, well, I would be dead in a year or so, so it didn't matter much anyhow. Claire was up and the kids were finishing breakfast by the time I got downstairs. Darchelle was still in bed so Claire made me coffee. She said it was her first time. While she packed up the kids were at loose ends, as my mother used to say. They had taken the dice and letters and cards from the games in the hutch and scattered them in front of the sofa in the family room. I slid the boxes under the sofa so the kids wouldn't step on them and break them. Jake tried to take a handful of dice out into the living room and I told him no then blocked his way so he couldn't leave the family room until he dropped the dice. Ten minutes later Luke tried to do the same thing and I just let him do it. Maybe it was lack of sleep, but I didn't have energy to manage to kids anymore. Darchelle asked if I wanted anything to eat but I didn't want to eat either. Food is life and sometimes I just don't want it.
On the way down to Tacoma Darchelle asked me what I thought of the prayer session last night. "I'm angry about it." I said. I wasn't willing to admit to anger at Claire. She is only trying to help, but maybe she is also trying to work it so that her God doesn't fail, or that she doesn't fail. She had explained that it was reasonable to be angry at God for offering healing then withholding it, but that a loving God would not do that. I agreed. To me a loving God would not make such a bad faith offer. Claire has been pretty clear though that God does offer healing, so she can't withdraw the offer. The explanation can only be that God has provided healing already, but if so why have my arms not been restored to their former vigor? I don't know how Claire would put it, but how I came to see it overnight is that God is demanding that I do something more, something I have never done before despite years of attempting to follow and serve God, something apparently so difficult that few if any people with ALS achieve it. To paraphrase Scripture, many are prayed for but few are healed.
That story resonates with me - the story in which God requires me to do something which I apparently cannot do in order to receive blessing, acceptance, love. Or healing. It is a hurtful and destructive story which tells me that I am not adequate, not sufficient, not good enough. It has been my story for most of my life, but no longer. But in a way, Claire is right, though perhaps not in the way that she intended. God, and the religion which represents Him, does offer a magic vial of healing and, for me and many others like me, withdraws it when we are suckered into reaching out for it. Healing, as she observed, comes instead from within, as we do the often painful work of acknowledging and then becoming who we are. But we are mortal and our power to heal, our abilities to assuage pain and extend life - the attainments of love and faith - are mortally limited. At some point we can only deny and rage, or accept and mourn.
2/08/2018   Happy again  
Something changed in me after I wrote that last entry. The depression, the pervasive awareness of loss and death, the feeling that I am not worth the effort of living, all unexpectedly dissipated. Nothing has outwardly changed. I still smear snot over my crippled fingers when I try to blow my nose. My forehead still drops into my mashed potatoes when my neck fails in the evening as I lean over my plate to lap up my dinner. I still need help pulling up the covers in bed, putting on a shirt in the morning, pouring a beer in the evening. But death has moved back into the closet and life is again worth the trouble.
2/12/2018   About that book  
Darchelle and I drove over to Walla Walla this past weekend to visit her family. We did a little birding on the way over Friday afternoon, failing to find Chukars in the Yakima River Canyon and the Snowy Owl along Britton Road southeast of Pasco. Friday evening I was still somewhat depressed and bitter so more negative than usual about my situation when Darchelle and I visited with Ben and Sally. I shared my vision of my future sitting helpless in a wheelchair filling diapers. On Saturday morning we walked to church and back in the sunshine. On the way there I heard a Lesser Goldfinch, year bird #155. In church we sat with Richard and Donna and listened to music and a short sermon.
On Sunday morning we talked a little about my book. Darchelle explained that I was planning to write a book this year. Planning might be overstating the situation, but we discussed reasons to write and not to write. Darchelle, and maybe a few friends, might enjoy reading it at some point. My boys, and someday their children, might want to know more about my life after I'm gone. A book would be autobiographical, perhaps simply a hard copy of some of my journal writings and photos. I expect that my online journals, written in classic ASP and hosted on Go Daddy, will go off-line at some point. A hard copy would probably be more durable. Easier to read and a more succinct than my handwritten journals as well. If reasons like those are compelling, then everyone should write a book before they die. But most of them don't. I probably won't either.
On the way home today we found the Snowy Owl after initially mistaking it for a piece of white trash. There is a fair amount of white trash out in that area. I think it went for Trump in the last election. Darchelle put the scope on the white trash anyhow, and closer inspection paid off. The owl seemed nervous so we didn't try to approach close enough for photos.
Returning through the Yakima River Canyon this afternoon we stopped at the same pullout where on Friday we had discovered a trail up the hill towards Selah Butte. Darchelle elected to take a nap in the car while I chased the setting sunlight up the hill. As I started up another SUV pulled up behind our car so I paused to make sure they were up to no mischief. When two women got out of the car and Darchelle began talking with them I assumed everything was okay and continued up the hill. It turned out that they were the same two women who had been parked at that pullout when we stopped there on Friday. They were birders and had joined Mike and Marylynn on the Owls by Day field trip out of Walla Walla on Saturday. They had seen 24 owls altogether, although not the Western Screech Owl which Darchelle and I had gone looking for on Saturday night. We had played calls in the dark at Fort Walla Walla Historical Park where the habitat looks appropriate and the air temperature was well below freezing, but without hearing any response. Afterwards we had succeeded in hearing a pair of Great Horned Owls at Mount Hope Cemetery, hooting back and forth. Anyhow, the two women were looking for the Golden Eagles which have previously nested across the river from that spot. They did not see them, nor did I though I did flush a covey of Gray Partridge about a thousand feet up the side of the canyon in grass with scattered sagebrush bushes. I had been expecting Chukars but these were smaller, grayish brown above with short orange tails, subdued barring on the flanks and no black and white pattern on the face. They made high-pitched calls when they flew and though I tried to recall exactly what they sounded like later, I could not.
The sun, which I caught about 400 feet above the highway, was golden on the grass and warm brown on the rough basalt above. Shortly after catching it I spooked a Mule Deer and curious, it stepped carefully closer to me until I was almost alarmed before it caught my scent and snorted off across the hillside. Its coat was long and roughly-trimmed, the dark brown hair erupting in tufts here and there to reveal a creamy undercoat. In the old days I would've had a picture and wouldn't have needed to try and come up with a colorful and engaging description. Leaving the trail in pursuit of the first two grouse I flushed, I too stepped carefully across the rocky hillside, fearing the consequences of a misstep and fall. With my hands trapped in my pockets and my head wobbling over my shoulders, I dimly imagined temples striking rocks and scantily padded bones cracking on impacts and refrained from devoting too much attention to the scenery as long as I was moving through it. Darchelle was glad that I returned without mishap though she was sorry to miss the partridge.
A few miles up the canyon we stopped again, this time at the spot where two years ago with Alicia we had heard Western Screech Owls calling. We played screech owl calls again but it wasn't dark yet and we didn't get any response, though we did flush a Ruffed Grouse at dusk from the dense and prickly bushes which grow under the cottonwoods there. Neither of us saw much more than a blur as it flew but from its location and manner of flight, it couldn't be anything else. Darchelle's third grouse for the year, my sixth.
2/15/2018   Massage  
I've been experiencing some dull pain in my shoulders and upper back recently. Although I can't pinpoint the exact source, the discomfort seems to be exacerbated by walking which is unfortunate since that's all I can do anymore. At my last ALS clinic visit one of the physicians prescribed a course of therapeutic massage. As with my last massage prescription, I wasn't planning to do anything about it but Darchelle looked online and found a practitioner specializing in neuromuscular massage. Her office is less than a mile from our house so we walked over there this afternoon for my first appointment.
3/03/2018   Grouscapades in the Okanogan  
When we go birding with Ed and Delia, Ed always seeks to come up with a catchy name for the trip which he will then use as the title for his blog entry. Talking with Ed the day before we left, he and I concluded that a suitable title for the trip would be "Grouscapades" since Darchelle and I were hoping to add five grouse to her list for the year. We missed only one species but saw large numbers of all the others so the title proved to be apt. Deterred by the prospect are driving over the past, Ed and Delia decided not to join us. They could only stay out through Sunday and we planned not to return until Monday afternoon.
So midday Friday we set out on a romantic birding trip together, just the two of us. The first stop, at Soap Lake, had nothing to do with grouse. I was looking for Eared Grebes and that spot has always proven reliable for them. Not this time though. No grebes at Lake Lenore either but we did pick up our first two grouse. We flushed Gray Partridge along the trail up to the caves and heard Chukars calling at dusk after we got back to the car. We spent the night at the Apple Avenue Motel in Brewster where the desk clerk recommended the taco truck in town for dinner. Very Mexican, very good.
Saturday - Waterville Plateau
Moon over the Lek
Birds on Basalt Stacks
Dark-phase Rough-legged Hawk
Horned Lark
Horned Lark on Mullein stalk
18 Rd NE approaching K Rd NE
We spent much of the second day puttering around the Waterville Plateau in search of Greater Sage Grouse. Anticipating that they might be on the lek along Leahy Cutoff Road, we got there before sunrise, an earlier than usual arrival for us due in part to our expectation of a two-mile walk on the snow-covered road. We drove instead, #ThankYouSubaru. Beautiful sunrise, no Sage Grouse. Maybe they don't lek there anymore. From the lek spot we crunched another 4 miles along the almost untracked road before reaching civilization again, picking up 10 species on the way, including a singing Northern shrike and a dark phase Rough-legged Hawk.
Snow and sagebrush, Sharp-tailed Grouse country
Exploring the valley
Sharp-tailed Grouse in the water birch
Giving up for a time on the Sage Grouse, we drove over to Bridgeport Hill Road to try for Sharp-tailed. None were visible down in the valley when we parked at the top of the access road so Darchelle decided to nap in the car while I walked around a bit. I made it less than 100 yards down the paved road before flushing 14 grouse from the sagebrush below the road. I was able to point out to Darchelle several of the grouse which had perched in the water birch down near the stream. She returned to her nap while I explored the valley before the sun grew warm enough to thaw the crusty snow. Up on the far hillside, a Northern Harrier spotted a couple of the grouse and harassed them until they flushed again, this time into thicker sagebrush where the Harrier could not find them. I flushed a Great Horned Owl out of the water birch and a passing American Crow scolded it, then scolded me too. I was surprised to see a crow there. Near the junipers a few hundred yards up the valley I found a couple of Townsend's Solitaires, new for the year.
Northern Shrike and Great Horned Owl at Heritage Road
Northern Shrike
Common Redpoll
Scattered around the Waterville plateau are old homesteads marked by patches of dense shrubs and perhaps a couple of weatherbeaten trees. Often only a cellar hole marks where the building stood. We stopped at several of these spots. Each one seemed to host a Northern Shrike and an owl, usually a Great Horned but in one case a Long-eared. The shrike was usually singing. I was hoping to find American Tree Sparrows but did not, though we did find Common Redpolls in a couple of our stops.
We gave up our Sage Grouse search around 2PM, but not until we had walked 12th Rd NW where we found them two years ago with Andy and Ellen. Returning to Bridgeport, we drove the back way to Brewster hoping to spot Bohemian Waxwings then continued north on Highway 97 to Cameron Lakes Rd. We found more snow there than on the plateau and only made it part way up to the highlands before turning back due to a combination of deep snow and mud on the road. We drove on up to Omak to eat at the Breadline Café (as usual, not as good as I remembered) and stay at the Omak Inn (as usual, as good as I remembered).
Sunday - Conconully
Looking for American Tree Sparrows
Hess Lake Valley
White-tailed Deer on the valley rim
Chukar and Gray Partridge
Chukar flock in flight
White-tailed Deer
Nervous about the amount of snow we might encounter in the Okanogan Highlands around Havilla, I decided to head up to Conconully instead, hoping for a goshawk in addition to the more likely first-of-year Golden Eagle and Clark's Nutcracker. A year ago with Andy and Ellen we found Golden Eagles along the road to Hess Lake so that was our first stop this morning. The road initially appeared more challenging than I had hoped, just two tire tracks through about 6 inches of frozen snow. It proved doable once we pushed a fallen willow tree off the road but not until we were on the way back down did we discover that we didn't even have to steer; Darchelle could let go of the wheel and the car dutifully followed the frozen tracks ahead, #ThankYouSubaru (again).
Once we got past the first lake, mostly frozen but with some duck soup at the upper end, we found the valley full of grouse, more Gray Partridge then I have seen in Washington state in the past five years put together, and ditto for Chukars. Both species were scattered over the north slope of the canyon in large loose flocks. Both were calling too, giving me a chance to finally confirm the common call of the Partridge, a strained "kshreeeeik". Given by birds in flight as well as on the ground, it has a forced quality, as if being squeezed out of the bird.
Juvenile Golden Eagle (note full crop)
Bald Eagle
We found eagles, but no goshawk, where the vally opens up. They were probably gathered around a deer carcass because there were a bunch of ravens there too, though I didn't see the physical evidence.
Scotch Creek water birch
19 Sharp-tailed Grouse and 2 Great Horned Owls
Great Horned Owls
Sharp-tailed Grouse and Great Horned Owls
Sharp-tailed Grouse
Sharp-tailed Grouse
Driving up along Scotch Creek we spotted two Great Horned Owls perched near the base of a water birch but not much else. Up over Happy Hill Road we looked again for goshawks and tree sparrows, found Rough-legged Hawks and lots of snow covering all the grass, so no sparrows. I tried walking over to the patch of bushes where David and I found tree sparrows three years ago. The snow was a couple feet deep with a dense crust, perfect footing but very difficult walking due to incredibly flat light. Only by staring at my toes could I discern any relief on the surface. I shuffled over to the snowbound bushes and flushed yet another singing shrike then with some difficulty followed my tracks back to the road. I might as well have been walking blindfolded as far as finding my footing was concerned.
Back down at the foot of Happy Hill Road we paused so I could finish entering the checklist on my phone using my toes to tap out the keys. As we parked at the stop sign, a big flock of grouse flew past the poplars on the other side of the road. They were paler brown then Gray Partridge and one of them perched near the top of one of the poplars. Gray Partridge don't perch in trees like that. We got on the bird and confirmed it was a Sharp-tailed Grouse. We found the rest of the flock in and around the water birch not far downstream, the same water birch in which the owls were perched. Darchelle took pictures, graciously ignoring my frantic instructions regarding how to focus on the bird rather than the bushes. The initial flock was joined by another for a total of around 40 birds, more than twice as many as I've ever seen at once before.
Northern Pygmy Owl plucking Junco
Northern Pygmy Owl after eating
Maybe we would find a goshawk in Conconully, I thought. We didn't. Lots of snow, little groups of Mule deer clustered under trees in people's yards, only their ears visible over the top of the snow banks, no California Quail at all (unlike on my first visit). After driving through town and up the road to the bus turnaround, we drove out along the west shore of the lake and on the way back stopped to investigate a scolding Red-breasted Nuthatch about 30 feet up in a pine tree. I couldn't see what it was scolding but as I watched, I noticed a downy feather drifting out now and then from the pine branches. After the first few feathers, it was hard not to conclude that something was getting plucked, but it was equally hard to see what was doing the plucking. Darchelle set up the scope and I spotted the Pygmy Owl moments before it picked up the still fuzzy body of its prey and swallowed it whole. Before it went down I noted rather large yellowish legs and a short pinkish bill. We felt sorry for the Junco but were relieved that it wasn't the mate of the irate nuthatch.
Northern Goshawk?
Looks like a Cooper's Hawk instead
Juvenile Cooper's Hawk
The day wasn't over yet. On the way back to Omak Darchelle spotted a large Accipiter on a utility pole across from the turnoff to Riverside Cutoff Road. She quickly set up the scope and when I saw the pale streak over the eye and the grayish color of the face, I concluded that we had found our Northern Goshawk. Darchelle got photos to confirm the ID, but unfortunately the photos (and the Sibley app on my phone) confirmed my growing suspicion that we were looking at a Cooper's Hawk, not a goshawk. A juvenile Northern Goshawk would have heavier brown streaking down onto the legs, more generally speckled scapulars, a shorter and broader (particularly at the base) tail and just a generally heavier and bulkier appearance. Disappointing but educational.
We made it back to the Omak Inn in time to watch the Oscars, except for Jimmy Kimmel's opening monologue. For supper we got takeout at the Koala Grill across the parking lot. The food was mediocre, the Oscars somewhat better.
Monday - Wenatchee
We didn't actually stop in Wenatchee but we went home that way. Our final birding stop was at Riverside Park in Cashmere where just upstream from the bridge I found my final year bird of the trip, an American Dipper bobbing on a cobble at the water's edge. Our first birding stop was along Highway 97 about 14 miles north of Brewster where I spotted a flock of birds which looked like starlings in an orchard. We were headed for Bridgeport State Park to look for the Bohemian Waxwings which had been reported there almost 2 weeks earlier, but starlings, while common in the Okanogan, don't usually gather in large flocks in orchards during the winter. Bohemian Waxwings do. We were a half-mile beyond them by the time I processed all this so Darchelle turned around and we went back and photographed the big flock of Bohemian Waxwings which I had been hoping to find at the State Park.
Bohemian Waxwings
Bohemian Waxwings
Bohemian Waxwings
We stopped at Bridgeport State Park anyhow, mostly to look for the terminally cute Northern Saw-whet Owls which winter there. I found three of them within a few minutes, then Darchelle found a fourth while she was showing one of the three to a couple who was walking their dog in the park. They may be cute but the owls are efficient predators. Under one of the roosts I found a Cedar Waxwing and a Meadow Vole, both of them missing their heads. Although I don't know for sure, I suspect that the little owl was sufficiently well-fed that it was satisfied with just the head of its prey. At that location the owls usually favor dense Blue Spruce trees, but one was perched in a rather open spot in a young Douglas Fir. We found all four near the north end of the park, including two in one tree.
Northern Saw-whet Owl
Northern Saw-whet Owl
Northern Saw-whet Owl
3/18/2018   Making a Brook  
After several months of deliberation, we are building a water feature in the backyard. A few weeks ago Daniel built the back wall of the hillside down which the recirculating stream will run into the pond using large landscaping blocks. Last weekend we framed the hillside by building a low wall of gray landscape blocks on the left side, facing the magnolia tree, and a wall of stones on the right side, facing the shed. Marco and Daniel dug out the pond and piled the dirt up between the two walls.
Initial excavation
Front garden (Artichoke in box)
Snowdrops in median strip
Darchelle's Dad and Mom visited us for a few days last week so he and I drove over to Lowes and bought materials - a 20' x 13' sheet of 21 mil woven black plastic to underlay the pond and stream, a roll of tarpaper to underlay the plastic, a 700 gph pump, a plastic filter box to put the pump in and a 20 foot piece of 1" corrugated hose. About $300 altogether. We picked up a few more landscape blocks at Home Depot as well. Although the two stores are less than a mile apart and look similar inside and out, the parking lot at Home Depot was almost full and the store was crowded with shoppers and orange-vested salespeople. As soon as we entered one of the salespeople offered to show us where the landscape blocks were, then loaded them onto a cart and wheeled them over to the checkout area for us while we picked up a couple of tools. At Lowe's by contrast, the parking lot was almost empty, a few lonely shoppers were wandering the aisles inside and when we asked a clerk about pond materials, she gestured vaguely in front of her and said "In the garden center", not very precise given that the garden center was about a third of the total area of the store. No big deal really because I had preordered most of the items and just picked them up at their customer service desk, and after some searching we managed to find the 1" hose I was looking for.
Friday afternoon Darchelle and I laid tarpaper in the bed of the pond and the stream. Yesterday afternoon we cut a 15' x 13' rectangle of the black plastic and laid it out over the tarpaper. Turning on the hose, we filled the pond, pressing and shaping the tarpaper down under the plastic as the water level rose. The sun had set by the time we turned off the water. Today was sunny but chilly, the temperature only in the low 50s, so I wore my insulated pants and parka all day but went barefoot so that I could help move dirt around and position rocks and such with my toes. That involve lots of balancing on one foot in awkward positions, something I can still do fairly easily. What I can't do very easily anymore is hold my head up. The muscles in the back of my neck fatigue and my head drops forward so that I am looking at my toes. Working on the pond, which for me means mostly standing around watching someone else work, has been a bit of an ordeal because of that. I would so much prefer to be doing the digging and shaping, planting and moving rocks around myself rather than trying to explain to someone else exactly what I want done. But my disability is contributing to this project being a collaborative effort between Darchelle and me, and that is rewarding for both of us. Challenging too at times. I can get grumpy towards her and she can get irritated with my micromanaging, but even when our anger flares up at each other we are able to recover quickly. That is a new experience for me, one for which I am very grateful.
We planted a couple of Evergreen Huckleberries on the right-hand side of the stream outlet, in a bowl formed by an extension of the plastic from the pond. My idea is that they will be watered by seepage from the pond itself. We won't know until later this summer whether that works or not, but at least for now they look very nice. This afternoon we laid the plastic for the stream. We used the pond plastic to extend about 3 feet up from the outlet of the stream and ran a second piece, 8' x 5', down from the inlet pool at the top of the hill to meet the lower section with about a foot of overlap. Around 4:30PM we placed the pump in its filter box into the pond, positioned the hose to run into the inlet pool and plugged in the power cord. We had a stream.
View from the deck - future water feature
Tarpaper in place
Preparing the stream
A hole for the pond
Contemplating the mess
Ready to go live
Now to make it pretty. My vision has been to emulate a little stream through the forest in the mountains with white granite gravel, moss-covered stones, little waterfalls over stones and logs, and at least initially, moss, ferns and forest shrubs for vegetation. The site doesn't get much sun so whatever we use needs to be shade tolerant, and I don't have a lot of time so I want it to look presentable pretty quickly. With those criteria in mind we have been foraging for plants and rocks along the Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie above North Bend. It has what we need: granite bedrock, lots of moss and ferns, relatively easy access to gravel bars and little streams and all on public land. The Middle Fork is meaningful to us in another way; it was the site of a (mostly) delightful race together back in the fall of 2013 which precipitated the painful chain of events which resulted in our being together now.
3/21/2018   The water feature, flawed  
View from the deck - The water feature v1
Side view
Waterfall pool detail
Darchelle and I collected plants and rocks from the Middle Fork on Monday, then Marco helped me with some planting yesterday. This morning Darchelle and I took some photos before sitting down in the family room to eat breakfast. It is our little ritual. She sits on the sofa while I sit on the tall chair at the kitchen counter; we drink coffee and eat breakfast and talk about our plans for the day. That's when she discovered a fundamental flaw in the design of our stream. Virtually none of it is visible from the family room where we generally hang out.
3/26/2018   Making the Brook, v2.0  
We decided to expand the hill a couple of feet to the right and add a loop to the upper part of the stream to the right of the existing inlet pool. Darchelle and I hauled home an additional 1000 pounds of landscaping blocks from Home Depot on Thursday evening. Friday, Marco and I extended the back wall about 2 feet to the right then replaced the stone wall which previously faced the shed with a new wall of gray landscape bricks, and filled it all in with dirt. Darchelle and I built the stream together. I had a really hard time of it. Although I knew how I wanted the stream to loop around the big granite boulder Marco and I had placed in front of the inlet pool, I couldn't see how to make it work and I felt profoundly frustrated to not be able to experiment with it myself. I would just have given up but Darchelle would not. She kept working on it until we devised a way to do it. In the end it turned out much better than our original version and even better than I had imagined the new layout would be, but it was a painful process getting there.
View from the deck - The water feature v2
Side view
Waterfall pool detail
Blair invited me to join him and a few others in pursuit of the White-tailed Kite which showed up a few days ago in Toledo. They saw the kite, and a Tufted Duck, while I worked with Darchelle on the pond instead. Turning Blair down felt like admitting that I can no longer pursue birding, and that felt like a step towards giving up on living. Not a good feeling. By the end of the day today though, I felt pretty good about what we had accomplished with the pond and stream - improving the layout of the stream, interring most of our accumulated plants and finishing one small section of the pond edge with rocks and native flora.

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