THE JOYS OF CURIOSITY AND COUNTING


I miss hiking.  I miss snowshoeing, my last one five weeks ago now, when I soloed into Arrowhead Lake in the Diamond Peak Wilderness with nobody out there.  I knew I would not be going any time soon, and I fondly remember that special day.

Snowshoe tracks on Arrowhead Lake, Diamond Peak Wilderness March 2020

I am fortunate enough to be able to go out and walk, and nearby Alton Baker Park, straddling Eugene and Springfield, has miles of trails in meadow, oak savannah, and riparian zones.  I  cross Alton Baker to get to stores by the UO, and I’ve walked the entire 16 mile river bank loop on both sides.  Occasionally, I do a loop from Knickerbocker Bridge to Autzen Bridge and back through the park coming home.  It is about 4 miles and goes along the Willamette and then the canoe canal.  For the first week, I did my usual walks that I had done before.  

Then I decided to add more distance, going further downstream to the deFazio Bridge.  Because it is spring, I started counting the number of different wildflower species I saw.  I have a good app from the brother of noted trail writer William Sullivan.  For the past two years, I have used the app and a few other books to identify well over 150 species of wildflowers on my hikes over the course of the season.  I almost hit 200 last year.  In the park, I could usually hit 20, and one memorable day got near 30.  

Mind you, many of the wildflowers are weeds, but many of them are pretty, and I’m a non-native here, too.  I started by walking through a neighborhood over to the parking lot by Autzen stadium, past Cuthbert Amphitheater, where I have seen a couple of concerts, down to the duck pond, and the center of the 1 to a billion solar system model, and then upstream along the river to Knickerbocker Bridge and back home.  It is somewhat more than 5 miles and fairly quiet.  There are interesting birds, too.  Two of us are making an analemma at local noon throughout the year near where the big “Sun” is. I get to see rushing water leave the duck pond to go to the Willamette, then the Columbia, and finally the Pacific.  Or the atmosphere.  

But I couldn’t have imagined what I was going to see in the way of flowers.

With wildflowers, like birds, or stars, observing is quite simple: you look, if you don’t know what something is, you try to find it in a book or ask somebody, and eventually, if you see it a lot you know what it is, and after a while know its habitats. What you need is curiosity more than anything else, and I was lucky enough to have a lot instilled in me when I was a kid.  It ranks up there with reading as one of the greatest gifts I’ve received.  In Tucson, I did birding on my neighborhood walks, being called the Bird Man, and 20 species in a day was great.  The Christmas Bird Count included my neighborhood, and then I would push 30 species. I found that telling the difference between a pyrrhuloxia and a female cardinal was easy, whereas earlier I thought it impossible.  Verdins had different calls, depending on the time of year; we had rock wrens in the neighborhood and I heard an occasional canyon wren, in addition to the ever-present cactus wren, the state bird. I am very auditory; I remember people by their voice rather than their face, and I do birding the same way. I may not see a spotted Towhee, but I sure can tell when I hear one.  Lately, however, I have been spotting them more easily.  It’s practice and knowing what to look for.

Two weeks ago, I saw twenty species of wildflowers on a walk for the first time this year.  As I walked through the neighborhood, I saw a non-native pale blue violet growing outside someone’s yard.  By Autzen Stadium, I saw my first California poppy, and by the Science Center I saw the first camas of the year, a lovely five blue petaled plant.  I found a stretch near Frohnmeyer bridge where within 100 yards there were over 20 different species. I saw Hooker Fairy bells and realized the past couple of years I had misidentified a Woodland buttercup.  I went nearer the river and saw a Money plant, 4-pealed pink flowers. Larkspurs and Plumed Solomon seal were everywhere, along with Trilliums and Fringe cups.  Someone picked an Iris that I needed for my count, but a week later two more sprouted.  Near them were a cluster of Fawn lilies.   I learn more each year from the mistakes I have made.  Last year, I learned about salsify flowers, this year, I realized there were three kinds of geraniums with different sizes and leaves. I am picking up on grasses, too.  A few days later, I hit thirty species and ended the day with about 35. I figured that would be the top number. 

Camas

The app is great: I open it, make sure I have the right part of Oregon, the right week, and the right elevation. That decreases the flowers to about half, or 1800.  Wildflower (vs.  conifer, other tree, grasses, etc.) color, number of petals, size of blooms, whether leaves are alternate, opposite, apical or basal, the environment (Disturbed, alpine, rocky, riparian) bring the numbers down often to a dozen, sometimes to three or four. Then I can look at a map, read the description, and see if this is the plant.  

As the weather got sunnier, the counts rose.  I hit 40, then 45, and even 48, getting a sow thistle, Persian speedwell, and yellow oxalis in the last 20 yards, when I wasn’t expecting anything. That’s the other thing about observing; you have to always hope there is something there and at the same time be happy just to be looking and seeing what is there. Sort of like fishing.  I identified a Torlinga crabapple tree, then looked at my feet where I was almost standing in a patch of Lesser Periwinkle.

Today, I was musing how the single dogwood blossom I had seen for the past week had finally gone. For whatever reason, I looked up, which apparently I had not done, being more interested in ground blooms. There above me the whole tree was abloom. Fabulous.

Dogwood

A lot of times, I need to try different colors of the petals to make sure I am not missing something else.  I don’t identify everything but close to 90%.  I write them down when I get home and count them when I am out there.  I count a lot of things, always have, every day, often without thinking and often without knowing what I will do with the counts.  I watch the birds, too.  The other day, a Canada goose landed on the duck pond. As he landed, his feet extended and briefly, he was skimming the water like a water-skier, minus tow rope.  I had never seen that before.  There is a lot of interesting stuff in nature, but one has to look, and it helps if one both knows what one is looking for and at the same time, have the joy of looking for its own sake. One memorable morning in Nebraska, dancing cranes made the whole Platte River bounce for about 2 seconds.  I saw it myself.

https://michaelspinnersmith.com/2018/04/09/the-morning-the-platte-river-danced/

Canada geese young

This past week, I topped 50, then 52, reaching 56.  Some wildflowers are starting to fade. Oregon grape will be gone soon.  Someone picked the iris and the salsify, but I found another salsify near the river and two new irises have appeared.  The Wild roses are blooming now, and one of the plants I could not seem to identify turned out to be Miner’s lettuce.  That gave me 57 for today. And it was raining.

I’m looking forward to what I hope will be a chance to go back up Spencer Butte and this summer into the high country.  Trail work also means a chance to see new wildflowers.  But I am so happy I started looking where I hadn’t looked before.  

It’s remarkable what one sees.

Ladybug on English plantain
Fawn lilies
Plumed Solomon’s seal
Hooker Fairy bells
Red Columbine

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