East meets west

This afternoon felt like a summer day, so I abandoned my computer, ignored a small mountain of laundry and a pile of accumulated mail, and went outdoors to soak up the warm sunshine.

White pine trees, over 100-feet tall, tower over everything else in our yard. They are majestic trees, and one is so wide that two of us can’t reach our arms around it. The green foliage of the big pines was surrounded by blue sky and blue lake. There was a sudden flash of bright blue as a blue jay darted past the top of one of the pines, and then I noticed a maple branch with brilliant scarlet leaves. It seemed at that moment that this is the most beautiful place on earth.

It is tempting to believe there is only one beautiful or interesting place on earth, especially when that place is home, but there are other interesting and beautiful places worth exploring as well. Last week, we visited such a place, where we stood in an old forest, and looked up at tall majestic trees. Our white pines at home have been growing for a couple of centuries, but these trees have been growing for a couple of thousand years, and when a bright blue bird flew by it was not our familiar blue jay. We were in northern California, in a forest of giant north coast redwoods, watching a Stellar’s jay.

There are five species of jays in North America that are blue, but our local bird is the only one on the east coast, and the only one named blue jay. In northern California, we found western scrub jay and Stellar’s jay. Although they look different from our blue jay, they are easily recognized as jays by their general appearance, behavior and calls. We saw gray jays, too. These gray and white birds, with no crest, live across the northern part of the continent, and are the same species we see in northern Maine, where they are known as Canada jays, and camp robbers.

The magnificent redwood trees, Sequoia sempervirens, grow along the moist fog-shrouded coast of northern California and southern Oregon, and are so tall we could not see the crown when we stood at the tree’s base. Many are over 300-feet tall, and the tallest are well over 350 feet in height. The lowest branches can be more than 120 feet from the ground, but gazing up into their foliage we lost all sense of size and found it hard to imagine that our tallest white pines at home would not even reach those lowest branches. The life of these trees is fascinating. They can reproduce from tiny seeds, but sprouts can grow from the roots as well as from any breaks in the cambium layer. According to Richard Preston, author of The Wild Trees, recent explorations high in the redwoods have revealed entire ecosystems living in the large complex canopy.

Many of the birds in that north coast area seemed both familiar and unfamiliar, like the jays. Red-tailed hawks perching on fence posts beside grazing cattle, or soaring high above, or kiting in the wind, looked like red-tailed hawks in New England, although there can be variations in darkness of the plumage. Northern harriers, Cooper’s hawks, red-shouldered hawks, kestrels, and peregrine falcons, all looked very familiar, but the ferruginous hawk that we saw perched on the ground was like no hawk we have in the east. This western bird of arid open terrain is very pale, with lovely rust colored markings and rust colored back, and it hunts either from the air or from the ground.

Along the dramatic rocky coast the double-crested cormorants were the same species we see along the coast of Maine, but there were also pelagic cormorants, who breed around the Bering Sea and winter along the west coast. We watched red-necked phalaropes twirling on the calm water of a lagoon, and black turnstones searching for crustaceans in the seaweed on the wave-washed shore. Female hummingbirds poking their long bills into colorful trumpet-shaped flowers were not our eastern ruby-throated, they were Anna’s hummingbirds, who live only in the far west. Great blue herons, mallards, robins, and the multitudes of turkey vultures were familiar, but the phoebes were black phoebes, the blackbirds were Brewer’s blackbirds, and the chickadee was a chestnut-backed chickadee. The differences between east and west intrigued us, as did the similarities.

At the end of our trip, flying back east high above miles and miles of western mountain ranges, we looked down from the plane to see entire mountainsides covered with gold, the aspens showing their autumn colors. We were happy to be on our way home to Maine, one of the most fascinating and lovely places on earth, with its lakes and mountains, its beautiful birds and tall white pines, and its magnificent fall foliage.

Congratulations to Jean Preis on writing her 500th Bird Watch column for The Bridgton News! —WER.

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