Saturday, May 11, 2024

Night game

Yesterday had already been a good day. Jessa and I erected a pole in the back garden to hang additional hummingbird and oriole feeders, and while out there saw not just Baltimore orioles but also one or more Swainson's thrushes and a rose-breasted grosbeak. The orioles, we believe, are the pair that nested in the neighbourhood last year, and we're within the breeding range for rose-breasted grosbeaks as well, so we hope to see him again. Swainson's thrush is just a migrant here, so whether our four sightings represented multiple individuals or one bird spending the entire day here, he, she, or they were on passage and we take the visit(s) to our garden as a compliment on the habitat we've restored.

While we were working, though, Jessa mentioned that a solar storm was predicted and that the northern lights might be visible in our part of Nebraska. We had been disappointed once before; an aurora predicted last July prompted a drive well up into South Dakota, and while we enjoyed a stopover at Sioux Falls (photos from which, it now occurs to me, we never got around to posting), the lights were a no-show. We decided it was worth another attempt, especially in light of a shorter drive. Accordingly, we set ourselves an early bedtime and an alarm for half-twelve in the morning.

By one o'clock this morning, we were on the road from Lincoln north to Ceresco when it occurred to me that perhaps we should have driven west toward Aurora just for the sake of storytelling. ("I saw the aurora borealis in Aurora, Nebraska" reads the imaginary T-shirt.) As it turned out, west would have worked.

We were expecting a small patch of colour low on the northern horizon, and I was beginning to wonder if it would be discernable against the glare of oncoming headlights, when we both noticed what could have been the glow of city lights, not due north but off to the northwest in the direction of Valparaiso—if Val was a major metropolitan area and not a village of some six hundred people. We continued on to a wildlife management area up near the county line and parked to find that the glow had expanded from the northwest to fill the entire northern half of the sky. 

As we watched, the display grew further, from 180° to a full 270° of sky: lesser or greater areas of mauve confined to the northwest, wide curtains of green everywhere else, nowhere bright enough to hide the brightest stars but certainly enough to wash them out, and the whole in rippling motion as the solar wind blew across the ionosphere. We tried briefly, but couldn't get our camera to focus on the vast shimmering nothing, which is just as well. The experience was in that motion, and in the cool night air, and in the soundtrack: the constant brek-ek-ek of the chorus frogs, the occasional plaintive cry of a killdeer, and just once, the deep who's-awake call of a distant great horned owl rolling across the acres of marsh and grassland where we stood.

In Native culture, at least among the lacrosse-playing peoples, the northern lights are held to be a celestial stickball game, departed spirits continuing their ballplay for the edification of the Creator. And as I watched, I could see why, the tempo continually changing—now the steady flow of the passing game, then a brief lull as someone held the ball, occasionally the frenzy of a fast break—and given how much of the sky was in play, this was not the modern 110-yard field circumscribed by chalk endlines and sidelines, but an old, traditional ballground, miles long, with obstacles but no hard boundaries—not 10-on-10 but everyone on the field, the contestants uncountable, whole tribes in pursuit until someone with a supreme effort wins possession of the ball and with unfailing aim sends it rocketing into the post. They're all there: Thirsts-For-Stone, He Who Stands On Both Sides, Dr. W.G. Beers, the great Jim Brown, my Uncle Dave, who played for Perry Hall and who later took me to my first lacrosse game (the North-South All-Star game at UMBC). And while I'm in no hurry, I'll be glad to take the field when it's my turn to glow in the northern skies. 

* * *

UPDATE: Okay, so "it's just as well" may have been a bit of sour grapes. Below, by kind permission of my co-worker Crystal Schroer, are photos of the aurora taken northwest of Kearney. Five-second exposures on a smartphone. Now why didn't we think of that? (Answer: we may not be as smart as Crystal's phone...)

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Don't drive angry

Somewhere in Tennessee, Jessa back behind the camera, and a semi-cooperative Marmota monax in front. A critter of many names: groundhog, woodchuck, whistlepig...

"Westley, what about the ROUSes?"

"Rodents Of Unusual Size? I don't think they exist."

This one was intermittently gathering leaves, probably for nest-building purposes. 

"You like the guys with the prominent upper teeth?"

Saturday, May 4, 2024

Falls of the Cullasaja

We've visited and posted several of these before, but not all, and never in context to one another, so I thought here we'd combine several waterfalls into one post, starting at Highlands, NC and moving downstream, where the Cullasaja River parallels US Highway 64. (That is to say, where US-64 follows the river.) All photos by yours truly this time.

The Cullasaja begins at Sequoyah Dam and Falls at the edge of town. The dam was built (1927) at the site of the falls but did not completely obliterate it, so we're left with a blend of the natural and the man-made.

Bridal Veil Falls is not technically on the Cullasaja but on a tributary creek; immediately below the falls, it flows through a culvert under the highway and then empties into the river. 

[Fiona, our trusty '16 Crosstrek, at Bridal Veil.]

Next downstream is Dry Falls. We've photographed it to better advantage on other occasions; the trail behind the falls was closed this time, and it was a rainy day, so I encourage you to view our earlier visits; use the "waterfalls" link at the bottom of this post.

The locked gate did not, however, keep us from our standing appointment with dusky salamanders, and even with access limited there's really no such thing as a bad view at Dry Falls.

In the warmer months, Quarry Falls is often used by locals and visitors alike as a water slide, hence its alternate name of Bust-Your-Butt Falls. We were here in March, and content to stay as dry as the rain would allow.

This is also a popular area for fishing; the Cullasaja and its tributaries are home to rainbows and brown trout, but most importantly the native char, southern Appalachian brook trout. (I've pursued them myself, not on the Cullasaja but nearby.)

[Fiona again.]

Perhaps the prettiest waterfall on the river—it's so hard to pick a favourite, though—is the least accessible, Cullasaja Falls. To get close requires a steep hike down from the highway, and to the best of my knowledge there's no well-established trail. There's a good view from the road, but we rarely even get to see it for more than a second or two because the pull-off is too small for more than one or maybe two cars. We got lucky on this recent trip, though.