Yesterday I went rock climbing at Smith Rock in the Oregon high desert, just east of the Cascades. Although only a few hours from where I live, the dry, rugged, sun-baked landscape contrasts sharply with the green, damp, cloudy Willamette Valley. Arriving the night before to camp, my group was greeted by Pacific tree frogs calling from cattle tanks scattered among the sagebrush. These hearty, ubiquitous critters are also common near my home, where they have plenty of wet habitat; in Eastern Oregon, though, they must abide with scarcer water. Green and brown male frogs puffed up their throats and bodies to catch the attention of females, and at least one male I saw had convinced a female into amplexus. So preoccupied were the calling males, they could easily be scooped up by hand. As I was falling asleep beneath the stars I think I heard coyotes, although my mind was already drifting on the verge of dreams and might not have been trustworthy.
The next morning, our camp was visited by boldly strutting quail and brown-headed cowbirds, which make a sound uncannily like gurgling water. At Smith Rock, fence lizards scurried in and out of the crevices with much better climbing skills than I displayed, and I caught a western yellow-bellied racer (a snake) which had probably been hunting them. An immense bald eagle’s eyrie was heaped upon a ledge of a tall cliff, and an adult in the nest was feeding a small mammal to the two babies (I got an excellent view of this, thanks to a kind couple with a telescope).
What was impressive was that we were not in an untouched lost world. Hundreds of climbers and hikers were enjoying Smith Rock yesterday, and the stone face of the earth was covered with recreational equipment. It was all temporary, though, save for the small bolts in the rock, and the habitat remained natural enough for the lizards and birds. I’m not saying it was perfect; the Crooked River beneath us has suffered from agricultural runoff, and probably from overfishing and a history of misguided stocking. But the scene suggested that humans can heavily use an area without using it up. Frogs calling from cattle tanks, not wilderness, is probably the future, and the best hope for many species is to integrate into a human-touched landscape. Humans, after all, are not going away. Hopefully, neither will the eagles.