The remnants of a heavy wind; and I’m overtaken by starlings

Written by JAYSON JACOBY Baker City Herald May 15, 2009 10:59 am

It must have been quite the gale that blustered through the forests near Elk Creek.

I wish I had seen it happen, as I am fascinated by all manner of meteorological spectacles.

Although probably it’s better for me, and in particular for my skull, that both of us missed this particular show. A windstorm in the woods is an event best viewed from the summit of a rocky peak or the middle of a meadow, but these sorts of treeless safe zones aren’t abundant around Elk Creek.

I first saw evidence of the prodigious gusts a few weeks ago. I was hiking the road that climbs from the Elk Creek ford to Old Auburn Reservoir (which these days rarely qualifies as much more than a snowmelt puddle).

At least half a dozen mature trees, ponderosa pines and Douglas-firs, had toppled within 100 feet or so of the road. All were in an area of maybe a couple of acres — I could see them all at the same time, anyway. Each tree had gone over intact rather than severed part way up the bole, and the root wads were up in the air, splayed in a way that has always reminded me of the tentacles of an octopus.

The thickest of the trees was maybe 24 inches through the trunk, the slenderest about half as much.

The trees all lay with their crowns pointing south, so it must have been a norther that felled them.

The sight of the downed trees surprised me because the road runs along the bottom of a draw oriented east-west. The place is as a result sheltered, by the higher ground to the north and south, from winds out of either of those directions. This was in fact why I had gone there to hike that day. The weather was typical for April — clear skies and a hard gusting wind from the north — yet only the gentlest zephyr dipped into the draw.

It scared me a little to imagine how powerful the wind must have been to push down 100-foot pines even there on the leeside.

Last Friday I went hiking about a mile north of the road, up toward the headwaters of Elk Creek.

I climbed a steep slope on the west side of the creek’s canyon. On the spine of an east-west trending ridge I found nine big trees down, all pines and firs, all lying in the same direction as the others.

What I know of trees is scant but I figure, based on what I saw during the two hikes, that the damaging wind was potent but brief. Had the storm been of long duration it would have carved a wider swath through the woods.

I suspect too that the blowdown happened this spring, after most of the snow had gone but while the ground was still soggy from the meltwater.

I put the question to Bruce Countryman, who works for the Forest Service. He agreed that it’s likely the trees fell recently rather than during the winter. When the ground is frozen and the snow deep, he said, wind more often cracks the trunks of trees than it levers their roots from the ground.

Probably it was one of those days we get half a dozen of every spring, when a storm has passed and in its wake the wind swings around to the north.

I wonder where I was and what I was doing when the gusts got strong enough to conquer all those tons of stubborn fiber. I wonder too if anybody was near enough to see the trees go, or to hear the thuds, which must have been considerable.

I doubt it. Almost everything that happens in the hinterlands happens without anyone being there to see it.

I think it is this essence of mystery which cloaks wild places, which makes them so dramatically different from the towns, that draws me to them.

When I’m home after a hike I often try to imagine, as I lie in bed and listen to the night wind whine past the eaves, what is going on right then at the places where I walked hours before.

This is a peaceful sort of pastime, though, and quite unlike the nagging feeling, which also sometimes intrudes on my bedroom after dark, that I have forgotten to latch the deadbolt on the front door. 

The woods, fortunately, are in the main free of doors, and of locks.

 

Spring has finally taken hold on my property, following the series of false starts that is the season’s custom at our northerly latitude and elevated geography.

My wife has sown seeds, trees are leafing out, the daffodils are on the wane.

The most exciting development, though — or at least the most interesting — has been the family of starlings that has appropriated the flower box just outside the kitchen window.

This is the sort of faunal trouble a man can get into even when he lives in the city.

It’s a common thing for a town dweller to embark on a modest campaign to tame his land holdings, only to end up with a place that’s wilder than it was before he started tinkering with it.

He builds a deck, for instance, and then he goes out to watch the sunset and gets stung by a yellow jacket that built its nest under the boards. Or he puts in a pond because he enjoys the serenade of frogs in the evening but what he breeds, mainly, are mosquitoes. Also then he’s misplaced the bottle of DEET.

I’ve been complaining about the starlings but my wife reminds me that I had ample time to deny the birds their accommodations. I in turn accuse her of sticking up for starlings, an introduced species reviled for its tendency to steal nests from prettier, more musically inclined native songbirds.

The truth, though, is she’s right.

(Although I stand by my indictment of starlings.)

I noticed more than a month ago that starlings were roosting on the flower box several times each day. I should have known then that the birds, as is typical with young families that are expecting offspring, were casting about for larger quarters. 

At any rate the box is empty, so the birds weren’t perching there to get a meal.

Then, before I got around to dismantling the nest (which is light work and would have been a satisfying trick to play on starlings), we found four pale blue eggs. A couple days later there was a fifth egg.

I was raised in a staunchly anti-starling home, and so was unaffected by the sight of the eggs. In fact I used their presence to bolster my argument that the nest ought to be destroyed.

My case, though, was as flimsy as the straw from which the starlings had constructed their nest, being based on vengeance but utterly lacking in persuasive evidence. I could hardly pretend that preventing the hatching of five starlings would curb in any meaningful way the local starling problem, nor could I argue that allowing those five birds to fledge would significantly add to the nuisance.

The starlings hatched last weekend. We took our daughter, Olivia, outside so she could peer into the nest at the almost hairless creatures. They were so tiny that all five would have fit on Olivia’s palm, and she’s not quite two. As with most baby birds these were capable of little more than uttering a feeble squeak and thrusting their gaping mouths toward anything that might be a regurgitating parent.

Which, fortunately, I am not.

Olivia suggested that what the birds wanted is soup.

Her mom and I laughed at this but to be frank I didn’t think the idea was funny.

I’ve already supplied the freeloading starlings with shelter, after all. There’s no way I’m chewing so much as a single nightcrawler for them.

Although there’s an abundance of those right now, from all the rain.

 

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.