Snowbirding 2017 Postcards: Salton Sea Birds

A few photos from my visit to the Salton Sea.

While I was traveling around Arizona and California this winter, I had more than a few opportunities to do some photography. At the Salton Sea in California, which I visited in mid January, I spent much of a day photographing the birds along the salty water or walking on the barnacle beach. For most shots, I used a 70-300mm Nikkor lens on my Nikon D7100 DSLR. I thought I’d share the best of them in a quick “postcards” blog post here.

I suppose I should say a few things about the Salton Sea. It’s a strangely beautiful, highly saline lake in the middle of the desert in southern California. It’s surface is roughly 235 feet below sea level. It was formed years ago when the Colorado River flooded and jumped its banks, pouring water into the low-lying desert for about 16 months. There are no outlets; the lake is fed by irrigation runoff and kept level by evaporation. The salt level rises steadily. The beaches are not sand; they’re barnacles. The place is home to more than 300 species of birds, many of which are migratory. The visitor center has a lot of good information with friendly, knowledgeable staff. I would definitely visit again. You can learn more on Wikipedia and the Salton Sea Authority website.

Here are the bird photos. One of these days, I might get back into this blog entry to add captions with the names of the birds. If you know any that aren’t named here, please comment to let me know and I’ll add a caption.

Salton Sea Birds

Salton Sea Birds

Seagull at Salton Sea
Seagull at the Salton Sea.

Salton Sea Birds

White Heron at the Salton Sea
White Heron at the Salton Sea.

White Pelicans
White Pelicans at the Salton Sea.

Salton Sea Birds

Salton Sea Birds

Seagull at Salton Sea
Seagull at the Salton Sea.

Salton Sea Sunrise
Birds flying at sunrise over the Salton Sea.

Drone Pilots: Beware of Bird Strikes!

Just a quick warning, with photos.

Last week, I did a few photo missions with my Mavic Pro flying camera. For two of the msisions, I launched from an open area at the far east side of the Tyson Wells complex in Quartzsite, just south of Keuhn Road.

I’m in the habit of using the Return-to-Home feature of my Mavic to get it back to its launch point quickly and efficiently. In all honesty, I’m awed by its ability to land exactly on its takeoff spot nearly every single time. I like to watch, with my finger poised over the pause button on the control (just in case), as it comes to the right coordinates far overhead, turns to the direction in which it took off, and descends to the spot.

On one of the three missions I flew from that spot, a small flock of pigeons flew right past the Mavic. I watched in shock and a bit of horror as the five or six birds swooped around my fragile aircraft. I felt relief as the Mavic continued its descent unharmed, but the whole thing repeated itself when another flock — or the same flock? — swooped past. Again, the Mavic was unharmed.

I happened to have the video camera going when this was happening. Here are two screen grabs, one from each flight, that show the closest encounter. The first one was definitely closer.

Near Miss
This reminds me of a scene from The Birds.

Near Miss
The bird is a bit farther off in this one. Can you see it?

Of course, the camera can’t capture action in a direction it isn’t pointing. For all I know they could have come closer behind the camera.

While this is all kind of cool in a weird sort of way, it wouldn’t have been so cool if one of those birds clipped a rotor. The Mavic has four independently powered rotors. If any one of them was destroyed, I’d have to think the whole thing would immediately go out of balance and crash. This is one good reason why we don’t fly drones over crowds of people. Even though the Mavic weighs in at less than 2 pounds, having one crash onto your head from 150 feet would definitely cause some injuries.

Honestly, I’m surprised this hasn’t happened yet. A matter of time?

About the Header Images

A quick summary of where the current images were taken and who I was with.

You may not realize it, but I shot all of the photos that appear in the header on this site. There are currently more than 90 of them and they’re set up to appear randomly. Each time you visit this site or click a link to another page here, the image up top should change.

I noticed just the other day that although all images were shot within the past 10 years, the vast majority were shot when I was alone. That made me realize how much I traveled by myself, even when I was married, and how the places and things I saw were beautiful or interesting enough to capture an image of.

Anyway, here are the images, with summaries.

Alfalfa

Alfalfa

This was an alfalfa field near where I spent my summer in Quincy, WA. I think I shot this in 2008. Alone.

American Coot Family 1 & 2

American Coot Family

American Coot Family 2

I shot these two images at Quincy Lakes in Quincy, WA in 2008. Alone.

Bark

Bark

Birch Bark 2

I like photos that show texture. These close up photos of bark were shot at Quincy, WA in 2008. Alone.

Barn Roof, Wagon, and Waterville Farmland

Barn Roof

Barn Wagon

Waterville Farmland

These three images were shot on the Waterville Plateau near Douglas, WA, probably in 2009. I was with my wasband.

Basalt Cliffs

Basalt Cliff

I’m pretty sure this photo was shot while repositioning my RV from Washington to Arizona by way of Glacier National Park with my wasband — one of the last “vacations” we had together — in 2009. I think it’s at Palouse Falls.

BC Mountains Pano

BC Mountains Pano

This was shot from a cruise ship on an Alaska Cruise with my wasband in 2007. Our last day on board took us between Vancouver Island and the mainland.

BHCB

BHCB

This was shot at Quincy Lakes in 2008 or 2009. I assume BHCB is an abbreviation for the type of bird. Alone.

Birch Leaves

Birch Leaves

I liked the way the sun shined through these leaves in the late afternoon. Shot at Quincy near the golf course in 2008. Alone.

Blue Heron & White Heron

Blue Heron

White Heron

I was kayaking with my dog at Lake Solano in Central California in 2014 when I shot these photos of herons.

Bowman Lake

Bowman Lake

This was shot at Glacier National Park in 2009 while traveling from Washington to Arizona with my wasband.

Bryce and Bryce Dawn

Bryce

Bryce Dawn

These two photos were shot at Bryce Canyon in 2011. I’d gone there with a client in January on a photo flight for this 360 interactive panorama: Bryce Canyon in Winter, Utah, USA.

Cache Creek

Cache Creek 1

Cache Creek 2

Cache Creek 3

Cache Creek 4

These four images of Cache Creek were taken from my helicopter’s nosecam on an early morning flight up Cache Creek in Central California in 2014. I was alone.

Cascades

Cascades

This image of a ridge and cloud-filled valleys was taken from my helicopter’s nosecam on a flight between Wenatchee, WA and Hillsboro, OR in 2012. I blogged about the flight here and shared video from the flight here. It’s notable not only for the perfect weather and amazing scenery, but because it was my dog Penny’s first helicopter flight — 90 minutes long! And yes, that is Mt. St. Helens in the background.

Cherry Drying Cockpit

Cherry Drying Cockpit

This is a shot from a GoPro camera mounted in the back of my helicopter during a cherry drying flight. It was probably taken in 2011.

Close Up Wheat

Close Up Wheat

This closeup of wheat growing in a field in Quincy, WA was shot in 2009. I was alone.

Combine

Combine

This aerial shot of a wheat combine at harvest on the Waterville Plateau in North Central Washington was shot in 2011 during a flight between Wenatchee and Coeur d’Alene, ID. My friend Jim was flying his helicopter; I was on board with a camera.

Corn

Corn

I like patterns. This field of young corn plants in Quincy, WA was capture in 2009. I was alone.

Cows in the Road

Cows in the Road

I was on my way up to my old Howard Mesa, AZ place one bright winter day when I came upon these cows following tire tracks in the road. When I approached, they just stopped and stared. I took a photo before continuing, herding them along with my Jeep. I can’t be sure of the date, but I expect it was around 2003 or 2004. I was probably with my friend Jeremy.

Cracked Mud

Cracked Mud

I shot this alongside the road to Alstrom Point on the northwest end of Lake Powell in Utah. It was probably shot in 2008. I was alone.

Crescent Bar View, Yellow Flowers

Crescent Bar View

Yellow Flowers

I shot these photo of Crescent Bar in Quincy, WA in 2009 not long after drying a cherry orchard down by the river there. I was alone.

Dandelion

Dandelion

I shot this photo of a dandelion seed puff in Quincy, WA in 2008. I was alone.

Desert Still Life & Desert Wildflowers

Desert Still Life

Desert Wildflowers

I shot these photo of hedgehog cacti blooms and California poppies near Wickenburg, AZ between 2009 and 2011. It was probably on one or two Jeep outings and I was probably with either my wasband or my friend Janet.

Fern

Fern

Patterns and textures again. This was shot in Alaska sometime during a cruise with my wasband in 2007.

Float Plane

Float Plane

I shot this image of a float plane taking off at an Alaska port while on a cruise with my wasband in 2007. It was shot from the balcony of our stateroom.

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge

This image of the Golden Gate Bridge was shot during a trip to San Francisco in 2011. Not sure if I was alone — isn’t that odd? — but I was probably there for a Macworld Expo speaking gig.

Glacial River Rocks

Glacial River Rocks

I shot this closeup of rocks in a river bed while on a trip to Denali National Park in 2007 with my wasband.

Golf Balls

Golf Balls

Attach a GoPro to the bottom of a helicopter with the lens pointing down. Then hover over a golf course green and drop hundreds of golf balls. This is what it might look like. Shot in late 2011 or early 2012. My client was dropping the balls.

Grand Canyon Sunset

Grand Canyon Sunset

I’ve been to the Grand Canyon countless times so I don’t know exactly when this was taken or whether I was alone. I know it was shot before the summer of 2011.

Gyro Cache Creek & Gyro Pattern

Gyro Cache Creek

Gyro Pattern

I learned how to fly a gyroplane in the spring of 2014. These two shots were made with a GoPro mounted on the mast. In the first shot, I’m flying up Cache Creek; in the second, I’m doing a traffic pattern at Woodland Airport. Both were shot in Central California.

Hay Bales

Hay Bales

I’m pretty sure this was shot on the road between Upper Moses Coulee and Waterville in North Central Washington in 2009. I was alone.

Helicopter

Heli Header

This is a photo of my helicopter right after sunrise parked out near my new home in Malaga, WA. I shot this in 2014; I was alone.

High Tension

High Tension

This was shot in 2008 near the Chief Joseph Dam near Bridgeport, WA. I was on a daytrip with my wasband.

Hopi House

Hopi House

Another trip to the Grand Canyon. I suspect I was alone when I shot this one, possibly on a day trip by helicopter with clients from Phoenix. Sometime between 2009 and 2011.

Houses

Houses

Here’s another straight down image shot with a GoPro from my helicopter. This was Peoria, AZ in 2011 or 2012. I was alone.

Inspecting Bees

Inspecting Bees

I set up a GoPro on a tripod to record a beehive inspection in 2013. That’s me in the picture; I was alone.

International

International

This is a closeup of an old International truck parked outside the bakery at Stehekin, WA. I was there with my wasband and another couple on a helicopter trip in 2011.

Juvenile Robin

Juvenile Robin

Shot in 2008 at Quincy, WA. I was alone.

Ladders, Side

Ladders Side

Patterns again. These are orchard ladders neatly stacked at an Orchard in Quincy, WA. Shot in 2008.

Lake Berryessa

Lake Berryessa

An aerial view of Lake Berryessa in Central California, shot with my helicopter’s nosecam in 2014. I was alone.

Lake McDonald Sunset

Lake McDonald Sunset

This was shot on a trip to Glacier National Park with my wasband in 2009.

Lake Pleasant

Lake Pleasant

Another nosecam image from my helicopter. This is a dawn flight over Lake Pleasant near Phoenix, AZ. I was alone.

Maine Coastal Town & Main Fog

Main Coastal Town

Maine Fog

I shot these during a trip to Maine to visit some former friends with my wasband back in 2008 or 2009.

Marble Canyon

Marble Canyon

Another nosecam image from my helicopter. I’m pretty sure I shot this one on my way back from a Bryce Canyon photo shoot with a client in 2011.

Mini-Stack

Mini-Stack

An aerial view of the so-called “mini-stack” of at I-17 and Route 101 in north Phoenix, AZ. Probably shot in 2011 or 2012.

Mission Ridge Pano

Mission Ridge Pano

I shot this photo from Wenatchee Mountain near Wenatchee, WA during a jeep ride to Mission Ridge with my friend Don in 2014. What an amazing day!

Monument Valley

Monument Valley

I’ve flown over Monument Valley dozens of times. Once in a while, there’s a camera on the helicopter’s nose. This was probably shot in 2011. I was either alone or with aerial photo clients.

Monument Valley Wide

Monument Valley Wide

I used to do multi-day excursions by helicopter to Arizona destinations that included Monument Valley. While my clients took tours, I’d explore on my own. This is Monument Valley from the overlook, shot in 2010 or 2011.

Moonset Sunrise

Moonset Sunrise

I used to camp out at a friend’s place overlooking Squilchuck Valley near Wenatchee, WA. This was one of the early morning views from my doorstep. I was alone.

North to the Future

North to the Future

I shot this in Girdwood, AK in 2008. I’d gone up there alone for a job interview. I got an offer but turned it down. Beautiful place.

No Wake

No Wake

I shot this with my 10.5mm fisheye lens at Lake Pateros, WA in 2008. I was with my wasband.

Orchard Still Life

Orchard Still Life

These are apples culled from the trees in Quincy, WA. Shot in 2008; I was alone.

Peacock

Peacock

This is one of the dozens of peacocks strolling around at the Lake Solano campground in central California. I shot this in 2014; I was alone.

Penny Kayak

Penny Kayak

This is one of the few images I didn’t shoot. I was on a kayak trip in the American River near Sacramento with a Meetup group and one of the other members shot this and sent it to me.

Petrified Wood

Petrified Wood

I’m not sure, but I think this was shot in Vantage, WA in 2008 or 2009. I was probably alone.

Phoenix

Phoenix

Another nosecam image, this time of downtown Phoenix. Shot in 2011 or early 2012; I was likely on a tour with passengers.

Poppies and Chicory

Poppies and Chicory

Another desert jeep trip near Wickenburg, AZ. I could have been alone, with my wasband, or with my friend Janet.

Poppies Plus

Poppies Plus

This wildflower closeup was shot on a trip to the Seattle area, possibly in 2007 with my wasband and his cousin.

Quail Mom

Quail Mom

A Gambols quail hen and her chicks, shot from my doorstep in Wenatchee Heights, WA in 2012. I was alone.

Rafting

Rafting

Put a GoPro in a head mount, get in a raft, and head down the Wenatchee River and this is the result. I was rafting with a bunch of friends in 2013.

Red Wing Blackbird

Red Wing BlackBird

Red Wing Blackbird 1

Red Wing Blackbird 2

I shot these at Quincy Lakes in Quincy, WA in 2008. I was alone.

Rocks Under Water

Rocks Under Water

I’m pretty sure I shot this in 2009 at Glacier National Park on a trip with my wasband.

Saguaro Boulders

Saguar Boulders Big

I shot this photo of saguaro cacti among sandstone boulders near Congress, AZ on a Jeep trip in 2009 or 2010. I was probably with my wasband.

Sand Dunes

Sand Dunes

This is an aerial shot of the sand dunes west of Yuma, AZ. This was probably shot in 2008 on a flight to the San Diego area with my wasband.

San Francisco

San Francisco

What a memorable flight! This was on a ferry flight from the Phoenix area to Seattle in 2008. Another pilot was flying my helicopter so I got to take photos. Low clouds over the coast forced us high over San Fransisco. Amazing views!

Sedona

Sedona

The red rocks of Sedona at Oak Creek. Shot in 2010 or 2011 while on a multi-day excursion with passengers.

Squilchuck View

Squilchuck View

The view from where I spent several late summers at Wenatchee Heights. This was probably shot in 2012.

Steam Train

Steam Train

This is an aerial shot of the old Grand Canyon Railroad steam train. I used to buzz that train with my helicopter any time I saw it from the air. This was probably shot in 2007. I was alone.

Stucco Scroll

Stucco Scroll

I shot this on a photo walk at the San Xavier Mission in Arizona with my wasband and a group of photographers.

Sunset

Sunset

I can’t be sure, but I think I shot this from Howard Mesa in 2006 or 2007.

Surprise Valley Drugs

Surprise Valley Drugs

I shot this in California during my 2005 “midlife crisis road trip.” I was alone. It was one of the best vacations in my life.

Helicopter Tail

Tail Header

An early morning shot of my helicopter parked out near my new home in Malaga, WA. Shot in 2014; I was alone.

Tetons

Tetons

Another shot from my 2005 “midlife crisis road trip.” This was at the Grand Tetons.

Turtle

Turtle

Shot while I was kayaking with my dog at Lake Solano in 2014.

Two Hillers

Two Hillers

I shot this at Brewster Airport in Brewster, WA on a day trip with my wasband in 2008.

Wheat Irrigation

Wheat Irrigation

Textures and patterns. What’s not to love about them? Shot in Quincy, WA in 2008. I was alone.

Yellow Headed Blackbird

Yellow Headed Blackbird

Yellow Headed Blackbird 2

I shot both of these photos at Quincy Lakes in Quincy, WA in 2008. I was alone.

Yellow Flower

Yellow Flower

A yellow flower. Probably shot somewhere in Washington state in 2011 or 2012. I’m sure I was alone.

Yellow Kayak

Yellow Kayak

Although my kayaks are yellow, this isn’t one of them. This was shot at Glacier National Park on a trip there with my wasband in 2009.

Paddling with the Birds (and Turtles) at Lake Solano

It’s more than just an upper-body workout.

On Thursday, I took my kayak out to Lake Solano near Winters, CA.

I blogged a little about this lake last week — I’d driven through the campground there and was amazed to see dozens of peacocks strutting around. I took lots of photos.

Map of Lake Solano
The area of Lake Solano where I paddled on Thursday.

The lake isn’t anything to brag about. Really, it’s more of a very long, narrow pond. When I mentioned it to a local friend, his response was “What lake? Never heard of it.” In fact, Google Maps doesn’t even refer to it as Lake Solano — instead, it’s just Putah Creek.

What attracted me to it was the calm, smooth water. An easy paddle — something I was really looking for after my 9-mile paddle last Saturday on the American River. (If you’re wondering why I didn’t blog about that trip, it’s because I’ve been just too darn busy to blog most of the things I do these days. Maybe if I ever slow down.) Secondary was the wildlife — including birds — that I expected to find along the way. I’ve bring my camera and turn it into a “Photo Paddle.”

The weather couldn’t have been better. Temperature in the low 70s and not a cloud in the sky. I put on my swim shorts and a tank top, packed a picnic lunch that included a salad, some almonds, some string cheese, and a bottle of icy water. I grabbed Penny’s life jacket and the waterproof case I used to keep my phone safe on the water. Then I loaded up the kayak into the back of my truck and headed out. It was around noon.

I took the freeway to route 128 and headed west through Winters, stopping only long enough to put some fuel in the truck. A short while later, I was pulling into the parking lot for the day use area near the bridge, ignoring the signs that said “No Pets Beyond this Point.” After all, it wasn’t as if Penny and I were going to have a picnic in the park. We were there for the boat ramp.

I backed the truck down the narrow ramp, pulled down the tailgate, and slid my kayak into the water. I put the picnic lunch in the watertight compartment and my bottle of water in the cupholder in front of my seat. I carefully stowed my camera bag on the floor of the boat, shoved up toward the bow where it was more likely to stay dry. Then I put Penny’s life jacket on her, fastened her leash to it, and put her in the boat. I attached the leash to the elastic tie-downs on the front of the boat and left her to move the truck. I parked it in the shade, locked it up, and returned to the boat.

I decided not to wear my life jacket, although I did bring it with me as required by one of the many signs in the park. I’d use it as a backrest. The water was calm and smooth and not very deep. The possibility of me flipping the boat and then being unable to keep my head above water was pretty much nil.

I pushed the boat out a little and climbed on board. I settled myself into the comfy seat, put my feet on the supports on either side, and paddled out into the lake. After fiddling with my camera while the boat drifted in lazy circles, being pushed by a mild current and light winds, I started paddling upstream (northwest) with Penny sitting on one of her dog beds fastened to the bow.

I started seeing photography subjects immediately. The first was a heron, which I’ve always had trouble photographing. The birds are extremely spooky; it’s next to impossible to get anywhere near one. Fortunately, I had my 300mm stabilized lens. I managed to frame a few shots before it took off.

Heron
This great blue heron was standing in deep water when we drifted by.

Heron
Another heron along the shore of Lake Solano.

Later on, I shot another one on the other side of the lake. As I expected, he didn’t wait around. If it weren’t for the 300mm lens, I never would have captured these images. I really like that lens for wildlife photography.

Heron in Flight
Although I didn’t capture an image of the heron taking off, I did get this shot of it flying away. (Frankly, I’d rather look at wildlife than photograph it.)

After that, it was mostly various types of ducks.

Ducks
A pair of Barrows Goldeneye ducks. IDed by my friend Dale.

Ducks
A pair of Common Merganser ducks. Also IDed by Dale.

Duck on a Log
A female Common Merganser.

Paddling was pretty easy, even though I was moving upstream. There was a little bit of a breeze behind me and the current, for the most part, wasn’t even noticeable. I took my time, pausing plenty of times for rest and to just look around me or snap photos.

Eventually, we reached the lower end of a long island (see map above). I brought the boat up on a gravelly shore and stepped out. Penny jumped out and I unfastened her leash. It was a nice place to stop for lunch — sunny and quiet with a nice view down the lake. I settled down with my picnic lunch of salad, cheese sticks, and almonds while Penny sniffed around the island and nibbled goose poop. (Of course, that could explain why her digestive system hasn’t been quite right since then.)

Lunchtime View
I sat on the shore and looked down the lake while eating lunch.

After lunch, we continued upstream on the southwest side of the island, which seemed a bit shadier. Since spending the winter in Wenatchee, I’ve lost most (but fortunately, not all) of my year-round tan and I’m a bit susceptible to sunburn. The creek got narrower as I paddled upstream and the current became noticeable. I kept going, paddling around fallen trees and rocky sandbars.

Finally, we reached a place where there were “rapids” — if I could use so strong a word — as water rushed over rocks. I suspected I was pretty close to the top end of the island and got the idea that I could sort of portage the boat up the rapids by dragging it and then come back down the other side. I climbed out and gave it a try. I got about 100 feet upstream — far enough to look beyond to see whether I was near where the water split around the island. It didn’t look as if I was. So I turned the boat around, got back in, and paddled through the rapids back downstream.

Rapids
Here’s a GoPro BowCam image as we left the “rapids” on our way back downstream. (You didn’t think I’d do this trip without a GoPro on board, did you?)

For the most part, Penny was pretty comfortable up on the bow, taking in the view. After her initial frustration of seeing so many ducks so close up and not being able to get them, she settled down. She took great interest in the weeds and sometimes river rocks right below the surface. She may even have seen a fish or two — she certainly reacted as if she’d seen something interesting.

Penny in the Bow
My dog will go anywhere with me.

The paddling was easy in the smooth, calm water with a hint of a current behind us. We were back at the bottom end of the island in no time. With no hurry to be anywhere else, I turned up the northeast side of the island and started paddling upsteam again.

Calm Water Reflections
Here’s another BowCam shot. The water was mirror smooth in some places.

Canada Geese
There was more to this scene than just a pair of Canada geese.

I shot some more photos along the way. The Canada geese shot was particularly memorable. As I paddled up the northeast side of the island, I saw a goose standing alongside the creek. I got my camera ready as the boat drifted upstream. That’s when I realized that there were two geese standing side by side. I snapped two good shots of them and then took a moment to just look at them. That’s when I saw the deer behind them, moving away into the brush. I’d been so focused on the geese that I’d missed the deer. And I’d been so surprised to see the deer that I didn’t react with my camera. Photo op lost, but that’s okay.

All of the birds — except the geese, of course — were spooky. Any time I got close, they’d take to the air. As I paddled up the side of the island, I got rather close to a pair of ducks. The GoPro captured footage of them taking off.

Runaway Ducks
A screen grab from the BowCam video. The ducks were airborne in less than 2 seconds.

I reached the rapids at the top end of the island and turned around without stopping. By then, I was ready to go back.

Later, back in the main body of the lake, I managed to capture some images of turtles, sunning themselves on logs. Like the birds, they were pretty spooky and I could only snap photos from quite a distance away.

Turtle on a Log
Bet you didn’t know turtles could climb trees. Per my friend Terry, this is a red eared slider.

Great Egret
This great egret was fishing across the lake from the boat ramp.

I caught sight of a great egret not far from the boat ramp and paddled over as close as I dared to get one final photo.

Afterwards, I paddled back to the boat ramp and brought the boat onshore. I fetched the truck, loaded up the boat, and climbed into the cab.

I took one quick ride through the campground to look at the peacocks again before heading back to our temporary home.

It had been a nice, relaxing day out. According to my GPS track, I’d paddled about four miles. Best of all, I had some really nice photos to share from my day out.

The Peacocks of Lake Solano Campground

A campground drive through turns into an amazing photo opportunity.

There are a few weird little things I like to do. (Actually, there are probably enough weird little things to fill a book, but we won’t go there now.) One of them is driving through public campgrounds to check out the facilities.

I don’t remember when I started doing this. It might have been way back when I first started doing road trips with my wasband in the 1980s. Or it might have been in 1995, when I began doing road trips on my own. In any case, when I’m on the road just wandering around and don’t have anyplace special to go and I see a state or county park campground that looks interesting, I detour to drive through it.

I’ve seen a lot of really neat places to go car camping this way. A lot.

Lake Solano, west of Winters, CA, was just a point on the map when I went out for a drive to Lake Berryessa midday yesterday. The satellite view on Google Maps didn’t show it to be anything special. But when I drove by it on my way up route 128 into the mountains, I noticed its calm, clear water stretching alongside the road. And after a 9-mile kayak paddle the day before that had left me very sore indeed, the calm water of the little lake looked extremely inviting for a paddle one day in the future. So on the way back, I drove slowly past the lake. And that’s when I noticed the sign for the campground.

A campground near a lake. Of course, I had to check it out.

It’s a nice campground with plenty of wooded site. I didn’t really notice whether water and electricity were available. The reason for that was the initial distraction of seeing what looked like a small person carrying some sort of netted frame along the road ahead of me. My brain asked, “What the hell is that?” I looked harder and soon realized I was seeing the side of a peacock with his fan of feathers fully extended. It was the fan that looked like a frame with a net.

I pulled over on the side of the road and grabbed my camera. I’d brought my Nikon D7000 with me, hoping to see something photographic at Lake Berryessa. (I’d been disappointed.) The bird was standing in the middle of the road, rotating slowly so all the females in the area could see him. When he faced me, I snapped a photo with the 24-70mm “everyday” lens that I keep on the camera.

Peacock

Surrounded by PeacocksAnd that’s when I realized that we were pretty much surrounded by peacocks and peahens. They were strutting through the empty campsites, along the road, and into the brush. Occasionally, one would let out a shrill call. Penny stared at them through her window. I used my phone to grab a photo of that.

I spent the next twenty minutes driving around the campground, snapping photos out the truck window of the peacocks and peahens. When I realized after a few minutes that I wasn’t scaring them off, I took a moment to put my 70-300mm stabilized lens on the camera. Then I kept shooting. Yes, every single one of the shots on this page was taken from inside a running diesel pickup truck.

Peacock

Peacock

Peacock

Peahens

Peacock

Peacock

I did get a chance to check out the boat launch, which was perfect for canoes, kayaks, and other non-motorized boats. And I looked at a bunch of campsites, trying to judge whether my mobile mansion would fit into any of them.

But mostly I looked at the peacocks. I never realized just how beautiful these birds are.

My Helicopter is NOT a Birdhouse

Or is it?

Like I did the past four summers, this May I parked my helicopter outdoors at an ag strip — a simple runway used by crop-dusters — near the RV park where I begin my summer work season in Quincy, WA. (My first season here, in 2008, I managed to get a hangar at Quincy Airport.) My “helipad” is a concrete tie-down pad, created long ago when the ag strip was busier and was home to more airplanes.

These days, the strip is home to just one crop-duster, a yellow turbine biplane that barely fits inside a big hangar on the strip. That airplane’s predecessor was parked, partially disassembled, on the concrete pad in front of mine, tied down with frayed ropes. Its big radial engine had bled out its oil reserve years ago, leaving a grimy patch on the pavement that had absorbed dust and dirt and small pebbles throughout the years. Last year, part of its tail section was taken away. What remained was broken and forlorn, a sad reminder of what might have been a glorious past, its bright yellow paint faded and dirty from a long spell in purgatory outdoors.

Parking at the Ag Strip

Over time, birds had built nests inside its wings. They’d done this long before I arrived in 2009; I saw them come and go right from the first day I was there. Bits and pieces of straw stuck out of odd places. A bird would perch on a strut or cowling, then disappear into the airframe. I watched them while I was warming up my aircraft for a flight, or when cooling down at the conclusion of one.

The plane was still there when I arrived this May. But a few days later, I saw a flatbed trailer working near it. And then, one day, it was gone.

I hoped it was going to a new home, someplace where it would be rebuilt and would return to the sky.

Birds in the Fan Scroll

I was in Phoenix later that month, dealing with personal business, when my phone rang. It was the owner of the ag strip, Randy, who also flew the turbine crop-duster in the hangar. He’d never called me before. I didn’t even know he had my number.

“What’s up?” I asked him after we exchanged greetings.

“I’ll let Dalton explain,” he said.

I think my blood pressure must have jumped up a few points. Dalton was Randy’s ground guy. He spent a lot of time tearing around the strip on an ATV, running between the hangar and the refueling area and chemical loading area. I imagined him having some kind of mishap that involved the helicopter.

“I saw some birds flying in and out of the back of your helicopter,” Dalton told me. “When I looked in there, it looked like they were building a nest. I covered it up so they couldn’t get back in,” he finished.

Okay. A bird nest. Not something I wanted to deal with, but at least it wasn’t some sort of accident that involved the helicopter’s airframe. I thanked him for keeping an eye on things for me and for covering it up. I told him I’d be back in a few days and we hung up.

It made sense, when I thought about it. With the big biplane gone, a lot of birds were homeless. They moved to the closest replacement — my helicopter.

Nest in the Fan ScrollWhen I returned, I found the fan scroll cowl covered with cloth that turned out to be two old coveralls. I pulled them off to find a mess in the back end of the helicopter. Birds had flown between the fins on the fan scroll cowl (consult photo above) and had brought all kinds of hay and twigs. They’d left nesting materials inside the cowl and inside the fan itself. And there was a ton of bird poop.

What a mess!

I returned to my RV to fetch my battery powered screw driver, some hot water, and some rags. Then I got to work. First I removed the two screws holding in one of the fan cowl fins and attempted to remove all the material by reaching in. It soon became obvious that that simply wouldn’t work. So I removed the entire cowl — which involved removing about 20 screws — and began scooping out the junk I found. It took quite a while; there was an amazing quantity of the stuff. I wiped up as best as I could with the water and rags.

By then, Randy and Dalton had come by to chat. They told me to use the hose in the hangar. So I carried the filthy cowl into the hangar and cleaned it as well as I could with the hose and a brush.

Plastic over Fan CowlWhen I was satisfied all the nesting material was out and the cowl was as clean as I’d get it, I put it all back together. Then I used plastic bags to cover up the fins so birds couldn’t fly back in there. That would have to protect it until I flew again.

I should mention here that I opened all the inspection doors and looked carefully throughout the interior of the cowling to make sure that was the only nest they’d built. I admit that I was surprised that they hadn’t built anything in the main inspection area, near the upper sheave, beneath the hydraulic reservoir, or under the main rotor gearbox. I tapped on the mast cowling and tailcone in an attempt to scare out any birds that might be in there. Nothing. Not any other trace of birds anywhere.

What a relief.

Flying an Aging Aircraft

I started doing a lot of flying a few days later — charter flights, mostly. I removed the plastic bags, preflighted thoroughly, and saw no other sign of birds. When I flew, everything seemed fine.

Well, I did notice that the engine seemed to run a little warmer than usual.

The cylinder head temperature gauge has a little tick mark about 2/3 from the top. In the 8 years and 1600 hours I’ve flown the helicopter, temperature in flight is usually right around this line. It might be slightly to the left (cooler) on a cool day and slightly to the right (warmer) on a hot Arizona day. I’d never seen it to the right of the line in Washington state — it simply didn’t get hot enough. Yet that spring the temperature consistently reached and edged slightly past that line.

The engine was running warm.

At the same time, I noticed that the engine was warming up a bit quicker than usual. I figure it was because outside temperatures were pretty warm. That would also explain why it took a bit longer to cool down.

I also noticed a slight decrease in performance — I simply couldn’t maintain the 110 knots cruise speed I’d usually gotten when flying light. That could have something to do with the accumulation of dust and bird poop on the top of the main rotor blades. I cleared it off as best as I could as often as I could. I also figured that the performance issues might have something to do with engine compression; I’d learn more at its next 100 hour inspection.

Hell, my helicopter was getting old. Little changes like this were bound to happen.

Overall, however, the helicopter ran smoothly without any problems. I did numerous charter flights and numerous cherry drying flights without any problems whatsoever.

I did also notice some fresh bird poop on the fan scroll cowling, but regular examination of the area failed to show any trace of bird habitation. I figured that the birds just liked perching and pooping there with their old biplane home gone.

I should have known better.

The 50-Hour Inspection

I dried 73 acres of cherry trees yesterday morning. Afterwards, I landed at Wenatchee Airport, waiting for more expected weather to move in. I had just 2 hours left on my Hobbs meter before I’d need a 50-hour inspection. A 50-hour consists of an oil change with a filter change plus the removal of the spark plugs for inspection and cleaning.

When it became obvious that weather wasn’t moving in anytime soon, I figured I’d get the 50-hour inspection taken care of while I was there; more rain was expected the next day and I didn’t want to overrun the inspection time. I ran up the engine and repositioned the helicopter in front of Alpine Aviation’s hangar. While I was driving down into Wenatchee to fetch a case of oil, the excellent mechanics there would drain the helicopter’s oil and start working on the plugs.

Bird NesI was gone about 45 minutes. (I admit I also stopped at Dairy Queen for a chocolate shake.) When I returned with the oil, I saw a bird nest, complete with pale blue eggs, on the floor in the hangar.

I put the case of oil down and looked up at the ceiling. “Did this blow off the roof or something?” I asked Mike, who was working nearby.

“No,” he replied. “Cass pulled that out of your helicopter.”

I stared at him. “You’re kidding.”

But Mike wasn’t kidding. “He’s got quite a mess to clean up.”

I went outside to take a look. The left side panel was off and the panel that normally hid the top half of the engine was also off. Cass was pulling bits and pieces of straw off the engine’s cooling fins.

Nest on my Engine“I got a picture of it,” he told me. On his phone, he showed me a photo of the engine with hay stuffed into the area on top of it.

“Both sides?” I asked.

“Mostly this side,” he assured me. “But it’s in the oil cooler, too.”

He spent an extra half hour with a shop vac and compressed air, cleaning the nest out of the engine compartment. Mike waited until he’d gotten most of it out before pulling the plugs on that side.

As you might imagine, I was troubled by this. A preflight inspection should find problems like this. But mine hadn’t. The nest had obviously been in there for some time — perhaps a month or more. It was probably causing the warm operating temperatures I’d noticed. (With luck) it could be causing the dip in performance, too.

Fortunately, it hadn’t caused a fire.

I talked to Cass about it. He assured me that there was no way I would have spotted it on a preflight. He had to remove two panels — both of which were secured with screwdrivers — to see the nest. This is not something that’s done on any kind of standard preflight inspection. And since the temperature and performance issues I’d noticed were not substantial, there was no reason to go beyond a standard preflight inspection.

Lessons Learned

A few lessons can be learned from this experience:

  • If an aircraft is left outdoors, in an area known for bird nesting activity, a preflight inspection should include a search for any bird activity at all. Poop is a good indication of bird activity.
  • If an aircraft you’ve been flying for years suddenly shows any change in gauge readings or performance, it could indicate an issue that needs to be found. Look beyond a preflight inspection; think about what could have changed since you noticed the different readings.
  • A preflight inspection cannot uncover all problems with an aircraft. It’s limited by what you have access to when you make the inspection.

Knowing all this, would I do anything different? Yes. The next time I see a change in the helicopter’s gauges or performance, I’ll follow up with a mechanic. I may have been lucky this time; I might not be so lucky next time.

Please Don’t Hit the Owls

Another close encounter.

Some of the orchards I dry with my helicopter in Washington state have resident owls. This is great for the orchardist — owls kill and eat the smaller birds that feed on cherries. Unfortunately, owls tend to wait until the last minute to take flight when I’m flying over.

Today, I happened to have my GoPro mounted and running and I captured this encounter. (It’s more impressive in HD, so click that button when you play it if you have the bandwidth to support it.)

And no, I’ve never hit one. (At least not that I know of.)