Dispatches From The Road

Back in March while exploring residency opportunities, I came upon a birding event held at PLAYA in Summer Lake. The long weekend included a guided birdwalk with local legend, Pepper Trail and a group dinner that night. It was a five day, four night stay in a cabin overlooking the pond right off the deck. Out beyond that pond is Summer Lake, which it happens, is quite a storied place. A friend I had met at Mineral School has been in residency here several times and has raved about the place. Now I know why. 

As I write this I am listening to the serenade outside my back door. It’s pretty serendipitous to wake up to birdsong and fall asleep to a chorus of frogs. The bonus the past couple mornings has been a brilliant deep orange civil twilight. Light comes up across this ancient lake bed and it paints the sky. Bright orange and dusky rose strokes reflecting in the shallow water between the horizon and where I stand. 

A playa is described as the flat-bottom of an undrained desert basin that becomes, at times, a shallow lake. At high water, Summer Lake is about 15 miles long and 5 miles wide, supporting a variety of birds (250 species) and other wildlife in its marshes. The average depth here is just one foot. This area is an important stop for waterfowl along the Pacific Flyway. 

Three of my five days here I visited the Summer Lake Wildlife Area. The 8.3 mile driving loop highlights a variety of habitat and gave me opportunities to photograph many bird species I don’t ordinarily see to the north in Washington. My cabin here at PLAYA was a cacaphony of birdsong and I was able (with Merlin’s help) to compile an impressive list of birds singing their little hearts out that I’ve added to my larger list (below).

This place of cracked earth, alkaline dust storms, midges and fascinating geology has been such a treat. The year or more leading up to this moment has been busy in ways that have left me emotionally drained and starved for good sleep. I think I’ve mentioned before that I seem to have an overactive worry gene and a wildly abnormal sense of diection. Without GPS and the occasional break from routine I might be swallowed up by all the things I can’t control as I walk in the circles of my mapless mind. 

The greatest surprise for me so far has been the quiet time with owls. Friday, with our group, we visited a small parking lot near an old barn. The owls have been spotted here in the tree near the parking lot and also inside the barn. No luck with the tree or the barn until we were getting ready to leave. I spotted a juvenile just outside, between the barn and an out-building. It made my day to see this little poser just 8 feet away from us, wide-eyed and curious. 

When I did the loop on Saturday morning alone, I parked in the small lot and saw some commotion in the tree. I look up to see the same youngster, this time poised on a branch. As I looked to get a better angle I spotted mama just above! More commotion and the next time I looked up I saw papa with that same youngster and an even younger owl directly across from me in the reeds. Four owls! And I had them all to myself. 

Sunday morning I took a longer drive the other direction and before returning to PLAYA, decided to check out the owls one last time. This time I spotted two IN the old barn. They might just be my spirit animal. 

River Ranch Barn at Summer Lake Wildlife Area

“Owls symbolize inner wisdom, change, transformation, intuitive development, good luck, and self-actualization,” says Charlotte Kirsten, M.A., a cultural symbolism expert.

I’ll take it. 

So many colorful birds on this trip! Yellow-headed blackbirds, Western tanager, Bullock’s oriole and Western meadowlarks.

As a stop on the Pacific Flyway, many shorebirds stop here on their way to final destinations. We rarely see these birds up north at Nisqually so it has been a real treat. Black-necked stilts, avocets, white pelicans, trumpeter swans, cinnamon teals, killdeer, red-necked and Wilson’s phalaropes, willets, long-billed curlews and Wilson’s snipes.

Red-winged blackbirds were plentiful. Nest building and guarding their spaces, they were active in my backyard pond. Yellow-headed blackbirds, yellow warblers, brown-headed cowbirds and swallows were plentiful on this trip as well.

I was giddy to discover a wren nest just off my deck, but soon discovered it was one of many likely built by a male marsh wren. Birds will do all they can to protect their nest and some over-achiever males build several during nesting season. The one off my deck is a beautiful piece of engineering.

At the Summer Lake Wildlife Area on Friday we encountered half a dozen cowboys and at least that many dogs herding these cattle into open spaces. I believe it’s a management tool used at the refuge to keep the vegetation from over-running specific areas. These cattle take their jobs quite seriously!

The Summer Lake Wildlife Area is also home to Sandhill cranes. We visited another road in Paisley that had a pretty impressive population of them as well.

White-faced ibis are gorgeous birds with irridescent feathers but I could not capture them in open water to show them off. They stayed quite a distance away and traveled in fairly large flocks. Arrivals and departures were usually coordinated and they stayed in the tall grass.

At PLAYA, the walk on the property down to the lake is stunning. I took some liberty with filters on a couple of these to increase the drama. Summer Lake is an alkali lake and looking across the lake, geo-thermal activity can be seen from afar. The lake gets its inflow from the Ana River and its primary outflow is evaporation. This often creates alkaline dust storms. One such storm in 2015, carried on 60 mph winds, swept the dust as far as 500 miles away where it appeared as a milky, dirty rain and as it dried left a chalky “dust” on cars and windows as far away as Spokane.

PLAYA is A Center for the Intersection of Art and Science. It offers this unique campus for workshops, supported residencies (developing projects at the nexus of art and science), self-directed residencies and immersive residencies all with the goal of transforming the world through creative inquiry. It is a beautifully maintained campus and I was fortunate enough to sit with board members for our group meal. These are passionate, creative people and listening to how art and science have collided in their own lives was a gift. I stayed in Cabin #9 and I will leave here a little wiser, a little calmer and enriched by both people and place. How lucky am I?!

Tomorrow I head home and am hoping for a trip through Painted Hills. This has been a delicious trip of birding, writing, drawing and a few naps! It has been a two-book trip and although Pearl is filthy after my drives through the refuge, she has taken very good care of me. I miss my wife and my family and my little Yoda Boy but I highly recommend a few days away ❤️

“Be the weirdo who dares to enjoy”

– Elizabeth Gilbert

15 Comments on “Dispatches From The Road

  1. I couldn’t wait to see your photos of your stay and I was not disappointed. Gorgeous! I especially liked the sandhill cranes and the various waterbirds, Bonnie.

    • Oh my, it was awesome! I got to ride with Pepper on our drive through the Summer Lake Wildlife Refuge. What a treat! I think the owls were my favorite, but the cranes and ibis were right up there. Also saw two tiny snowy plovers out with the stilts and avocets. A great trip!

  2. Never heard of this place, but glad you found it. Beautiful photos, great piece. Thanks.

  3. So much perfection on so many levels. I can feel your happiness radiate from your toes to your head and beyond. I’m on the road so I’m only seeing these pictures on my tiny phone; I’ll need to come back to this so I can enjoy them fully. So glad everything worked out so well! You deserved every minute.

  4. Oh yesss, that’s the way, you creative individual! So happy for you. I love everything, the sunset, the impressive list, the owls! All the other birds, and the cows and the boys, and the interiors! I must wonder how “killdeer” got its name. But most of all I like it when you say that you “walk in the circles of my mapless mind”. That’s the way. No need to tell you, but carry on.

    • Thanks, Manja! Thanks for noticing that line. It felt so spot on. I have to keep exploring and pushing boundaries
      … it’s like oxygen to me! I’m off to look up killdeer … *

  5. Sooooo much to digest just reading this, what a fantastic trip. Thank you for sharing.

    • It really was a full few days … all birds, all day! And waking up to the sun across the horizon, priceless.

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