The story so far: U.S. Fish and Wildlife special agent Angela Dimato is out of her element as she accompanies a group of volunteers on a habitat restoration project via raft in remote western Colorado. Their objective: remove invasive, exotic tamarisk trees and reintroduce native plants, with the goal of improving habitat for native wildlife, including the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher. The group of 14 volunteers and staff is diverse, and includes two at-risk juveniles performing court-ordered restitution after setting fire to public land.
“Okay, listen up,” said crew chief Kate as they got ready to shove off. “We are in a Leave No Trace zone, which means everything we take in, we take out. Fires must be built in fire pans. Fire debris must be carried out. Dishwater must be strained and food debris carried out. Human waste must be carried out.”
“Eewwww,” the blond boy said.
“The only things left behind are footprints,” Kate said. “Got it?”
“What about the wood we cut?” a man in a fisherman’s vest asked.
“We stack it, and send a crew back to raft it out. Anymore questions?”
There was a typical flurry.
Bugs? Yes. Kate stocked a supply of bug spray.
Poison ivy? Yes. She also carried calamine lotion.
“Will there be rapids?” the blond kid asked.
“Yes, some Class II and Class III, but that’s not what this trip is about.”
Questions exhausted, Kate pointed to the rafts. “Let’s divvy up. I’ll take six of you, Danimal will take the other six, and Greg will follow with a supply raft. You two, and you.” She pointed at the two juvenile delinquents and Angela. “You’re with me. We need three more with us, six with Danimal.”
Perfect, just perfect, thought Angela, eyeing the two youth.
Once they had their group, Kate asked everyone to introduce themselves.
“Peter Hinkley,” said the boy with the blond mop.
His sidekick stepped forward and bowed at the waist. “Damon.”
Kate’s lips thinned. “Tell us a little more.”
Peter shrugged. “We live in Cortez. We’re juniors in high school.”
“I’m Julia Glew,” said the woman who had been checking them in. “I’m a cashier at the casino in Cortez. I thought this sounded like a fun way to help the environment.”
Angela raised her eyebrows. Obviously she’d never wielded a chain saw or cleared brush before.
The older man in the fisherman’s vest stepped forward. “Bob Bochenek, from Michigan. My friends call me Bobo. I’m a birder. This is my grandson, Maxwell McFadden.” He gestured toward a youngster with bright, curious eyes.
Angela introduced herself, and then Kate stepped back onto the tube.
“I’m Kate Grandy, your crew chief.” She launched into a spiel on paddling, weight distribution and what they could expect on the first leg of the trip. Everyone paid attention, except for the two boys, who clowned around with their paddles. They were the only ones who didn’t know where to sit when they climbed in the raft.
After launching, the rafts meandered down the river through private ranch land and Little Glen Canyon. Walls of sandstone rose from the river’s edge casting rosy shadows across the water. Exiting the canyon, they floated out through the Big Gypsum Valley, a wide salt block formation offering breathtaking views of the red-rock canyon mouth, cliff faces and piñyon-juniper forest.
The two boys at the front of their raft looked bored, and leaned over the sides, dangling their paddles in the water. Kate and Julia quietly made plans for camping later, while Bobo and Maxwell scanned the grasslands of the valley through binoculars.
“See anything of interest?” Angela asked.
“A loggerhead shrike, an American kestrel, and—”
“There’s a black-throated sparrow.” Maxwell pointed.
Angela dug out her own binoculars and tracked the arc of his arm. She found the small bird perched on a bush. Gray above, white below, it had a striking black throat and breast with two conspicuous white stripes on the sides of its head—one above and one below the eye.
Bobo swiveled to study the piñyon-juniper stands near the cliffs and Angela followed suit.
“There’s a juniper titmouse,” she said. “Two-o’clock on the tallest tree.” The bird perched on a limb, basking in the sun. Small and gray, distinguishable only by the small tuft on its head.
A flash of yellow caught her eyes and she tracked the movement. A medium-sized bird with a bright yellow body, and black head, back, throat and chest lit on juniper branch. Angela noted the white wing bar and yellow epaulet bordered in white.
“A Scott’s oriole,” she said, pointing it out to Maxwell.
Peter squinted toward the distance. “What are you guys looking at?”
“Birds,” Angela said, offering him the binoculars.
“Nah.” Peter shook his head. “That’s a little weird.”
“Well, there’s one bird you have to learn,” Angela said. “The southwestern willow flycatcher.”
“Why’s that?” Damon asked.
“It’s an endangered species, and we’re in its potential nesting habitat. If we come across the bird while removing tamarisk, all work stops.”
“Then there’s hope yet,” Peter said. “What’s it look like?”
“It’s small, brownish-olive to gray-green. It has a whitish throat and a yellowish belly. You’ll probably hear it before you see it.”
Damon sat up against the tube. “What’s it sound like?”
Bobo puckered his lips and let out a liquid, sharply whistled whit.
Angela was impressed. “Like that, or maybe a dry spriit. Its song sounds more like a sneezy witch-pew or fitz-bew.”
Bobo did another imitation, then Maxwell did one better.
“You’re pretty good,” Angela said.
Maxwell’s face pinked up.
“Hang on,” Kate yelled.
The raft picked up speed through some rough water and everyone paddled to keep the boat on course. Angela found herself having to back paddle to correct for Peter’s enthusiasm. Then the raft settled back into its meander.
Bobo pointed to where Highway 141 crossed the river. “We’re coming up on the bridge,” he said to Maxwell. “We might see a black phoebe here.”
The bird was a no show.
“Here we go,” Kate said as, just past the bridge, the raft plunged into Sliprock Canyon.