PLAYA at Summer Lake is fortunate to have many gifted alumni and friends, including a talented and dedicated Board of Directors. Serving his third year on PLAYA’s Board, Dr. Pepper Trail is an ornithologist, conservationist, writer, and photographer. He began watching birds as a boy in upstate New York, and traces his incurable love of travel to a family trip to Mexico when he was twelve. Since then, Pepper has studied birds around the world, from the rain forests of Amazonia to the coasts of Antarctica. He lives in Ashland, Oregon, where he is the ornithologist at the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory, the world’s foremost lab dedicated to crimes against wildlife. One of several recent stories highlighting Pepper’s work can be read here, at National Geographic online.

On the weekend of June 15-17, 2018, Pepper led his second annual birding weekend for PLAYA. Also returning for the weekend for the second year straight was PLAYA’s new Board Chair Paul Brown, Paul’s spouse Dr. Martha Reilly, and family members Josh, Teresa, Liz, Pat, and Sidney.

The birders, some experienced and some beginners, spotted 68 different avian species between Friday evening and Sunday morning. Pepper says, “We didn’t quite equal the total of 80 observed last May, since the migration season has passed. The first half of May is probably the ideal time.” Potential participants in next year’s event, take note.

Lake Abert and Rim. Photograph 2018 Pepper Trail.

Pepper and group spent all morning at the Summer Lake Wildlife Area and after lunch drove to Lake Abert, with stops at Valley Falls. They went as far the petroglyphs about a third of the way up the lake. Of all the birds they saw at these locales, owls ranked among the most loved.

Pepper says, “I think everyone’s favorite was the great-horned owl adult and fuzzy fledgling in the barn at the wildlife area. We got fantastic looks through the spotting scope. Other memorable sightings at the wildlife area included many displaying yellow-headed blackbirds, lots of avocets and stilts, and several white pelicans. On the way to Lake Abert, we got great looks at sandhill cranes near Paisley and a group of pronghorn antelope near the lake. The pronghorns were with two fawns—adorable!”

White pelicans. Photograph 2018 Pepper Trail.

During the birding weekends at PLAYA, Pepper takes time to reconnect to a place that’s become important to him. He found the group wonderful. “They were open and enthusiastic. It was fun to show them avocets and stilts, cranes, and nighthawks. Afterward, I had the chance to do some citizen science by conducting a bumblebee survey on Winter Rim, which was a real bonus for me.”

Black-necked stilt. Photograph 2018 Pepper Trail.

Pepper loves introducing people to PLAYA and Summer Lake—not just the birds, but the geology, botany, butterflies, and bees. “The landscape overwhelms,” he says. “It’s rewarding to provide some context, to help people see where they are more clearly.” With a bit of knowledge, newbies to Summer Lake find themselves grounded in the place and its origins, as well as the comings and goings of various migrants.

Yellow-headed blackbird. Photograph 2018 Pepper Trail.

At PLAYA, we’re very fortunate that Pepper wants to continue to offer these outings in the spring as long as there is interest. Paul Brown, Martha Reilly, and friends and family have crushed it on the 2017 and 2018 weekends and gone away with smiles on their faces. Any birders interested in sponsoring a weekend in 2019, please email becca@playasummerlake.org for more information. Funds raised on birding weekends help support PLAYA programs and residencies.

Pepper is also the author of three poetry collections, Flight Time, Cascade-Siskiyou, and An Empty Bowl, as well as the photo-essay, “Shifting Patterns: Meditations on the Meaning of Climate Change in Oregon’s Rogue Valley.” He has been a finalist for the Oregon Book Award. On the birding weekend, he treated us all to this fresh bite of poetry, written on the white board in the PLAYA Commons.

Dawn, Summer Lake

The sun has buried the mountain in light
Dazzled the lake
Woken the birds
Painted a map of the world on the western wall
Taken my breath
And given it back

Thanks, Pepper, for your amazing words, your expertise, and for all you do for PLAYA. Thank you, too, Paul Brown, Martha Reilly, and family, for your generous support of PLAYA. We appreciate all the time you spend here to help make PLAYA’s residency program possible, and for your enthusiasm for the basin’s abundant birds and wildlife. Come back soon!

Edge effects in ecological science are the “influences of border communities upon each other” (Brittanica.com). PLAYA alumni, friends, guests, and neighbors are invited to submit blog posts that explore the diverse influences experienced here or because of time spent with us—whether the effects are among disciplines, environments, relationships, or communities. Email PLAYA’s Executive Director to join this conversation.