Empire High School encounters the incredible

On October 11th, 2019, 10 students from Empire High School left for a wild adventure into the Santa Catalina Mountains. Hiking Sunset trail, we hoped to beat the heat by hiking Sunset Trail through mixed coniferous forests. We wanted to observe how altitude effects desert mountains, discussing Sky Islands and their greater ecological effect on the Sonoran Desert. To understand their greater ecological systems, we wanted to focus on the local animals and plants that inhabit the valley and creek which we followed. This was the first expedition of the semester for this group, who had no idea what they were getting themselves into. We wanted to learn on this hike, but we did not expect to truly be taught by the landscape itself in such extreme ways. The learning we had on this trip was truly unique and one of a kind. 

I first knew the forest would lend itself to our favor when a stellar jay dropped to a branch only feet from us. It had a deep black head and crest. Its royal blue coat was fiercely deep, deeper than any natural thing I’ve ever seen. The white streak above the eye sits clear and fresh in my mind, as if I’d only observed it moments ago. From my position, its three colors were the perfect contrastors, and it seemed to glow in the sunlight. It dropped down and made some alarming calls, moving its head sporadically to view us with both eyes. The students and I were silent, just observing how it might interact with us. I was soaking in every movement, every color, every sound. It stayed for a while, before taking off to taller, then more distant branches methodically. I used this as an opportunity to describe to my students that some birds will vocalize a preditors presence, especially corvids. I noted that in this case, we are the “predator”. I don’t think they believed me, or if they did, they held a great deal of skepticism.

In the Santa Catalina Mountains, there is a climbers trail I like to use for outdoor education expeditions. It follows a beautiful spring creek that carves itself into granite bedrock, turning it into a kind of smooth marble. After some time, the forest seems to part, leaving a wide granite clearing similar in size to a professional basketball court. Carved, it holds many pools before coming to a 35ft edge and waterfall. It is a beautiful destination. I use it to teach about riparian creeks within mixed coniferous forests, and sky islands and their greater ecological impact. I knew I wanted to use a very old and large douglas fir tree as a key talking point. It was a grandparent of the forest. A true elder. I imagine that in its past, it felt a world with mexican grizzly bears lumbering above its roots. It might be 10’ round and I can’t honestly say how tall, it’s top extended far above the canopy of competing trees. It was the perfect example of a key piece to a larger system. The tree provides endless nutrients seasonally to the forest floor. It provides vertical habitat for insects, arachnids, reptiles, birds, mammals – both in its branches and trunk, as well us far beneath its roots. Its roots also stabilize the creek walls far more than any other tree along it. Some of its roots are far bigger than the surrounding trees. It’s a host for lichen, fungi, and a vast and poorly understood system of mycelium networks beneath the soil. Because of its age, I use it to describe migratory species that benefit from the offspring of this tree, tying it to a global system for the student’s understanding. 

Standing under the tree, I paused in thought. Something was missing. Before we could learn about ecological systems, we needed to spend time observing one. I asked the students to find a place by the creek where they could fully relax. Here, the creek fell into a series of pools. Tricking waterfalls echoed in the open space around the pooling water. We were in a semi-clear area, with space to breath and look around. Trees had fallen across these pools in years past, offering a horizontal layering to the vertical world forest world. I asked the students to close their eyes and become aware of the force of gravity, to feel their bodies being pulled into the unbreachable ground beneath them. I asked them to listen. Of sounds that were furthest, and closes. The quietest, and the loudest. To ones that seemed pleasant, and to others that felt stressed. I asked them to feel the texture of the air passing over their skin, and to the sun’s warmth, filtered by thousands of mountain leaves. Then I had them open their eyes, flooding their awareness with color. “How many different colors can you see? How many shades of green….brown….red….yellow…..How many different textures do you see? What about the furthest thing away….and the closest? What is the stillest thing you can see, and what is moving fastest?” I asked them to feel with their hands, and smell and taste the air. Then we just sat in silence. I watched their eyes closely. Some of them looked haunted as their eyes darted around, seeing things they’ve never seen before. We heard the landscape light up around us, and every color filled in the dimensions. The forest was loud, and completely devoid of any human sounds. We sat for a long time in silence, just watching what was happening. Rediscovering the truth of the forest. 

As quietly as I could, without shattering the peace, I asked the students to return to the grandparent fir. In careful silence, students moved forward. Each movement was thoughtful, every moment was aware. They were tuned in, cooperating with the larger system around us. When we all gathered together, I oriented my body toward the tree and made a gesture with my hand. Then I was suddenly interrupted.

It caught my body before I understood the situation. I reacted by jerking my neck and head toward the sound, eyes wide like an owl, body poised. A fierce alarm call was being made by a bird, the shrieking call was gaining proximity and volume. Suddenly a hawk bursts from a densely forested background, pumping its wings. The sound was blatant. The bird repetitively shouting out. I couldn’t tell if it was coming from the hawk, or the bird trapped within its talons. Now, this is a key moment. The hawk was moving from our 2 o’clock, moving toward our 8. When it appeared in the clearing, it spotted us standing silently as a group next to grandparent fir. I made direct eye contact with it, its yellow iris capturing me. Upon seeing us it reacted, banking to its right suddenly and flying a tight circle in the clearing before dropping to the ground, just to the other side of a fallen tree beside the pool of water. In that brief moment, I noticed the bird in its talons was a lot smaller than it, blackish, maybe a little white. The hawk looked to be a sharp shined hawk, no wait..maybe a juvenile cooper’s hawk. After it landed, most of its body was blocked. Everything but its chest, shoulders, and head was visible. It watched us for a moment, then bowed its head and disappeared, no doubt checking on the captured prey. It lifted its head and began shifting left and right, working its talons between feathers in search of flesh. 

Then a chorus of calls came. From the direction the hawk came from, loud and alarming calls were being made, and they too were growing louder and closer. 5-6 stellar jays broke through the surroundings, landing on trees that circled the clearing. The hawk noticed too. The stellar jay’s had their heads and beaks pointing toward the hawk, they were shouting alarm calls at it, and darting from tree to tree. The hawk seemed to care, something told me it was nervous and uncomfortable. It beat its wings lifting off and flew a tight circle in the clearing again before swooping down for a landing, this time closer to us and in full view. Brownish back, striped tail, brown speckled chest, yellow eye, curved beak. I wasn’t really thinking, I was collecting. I was drinking it all. The stellar jays must have recognized their presence had an effect, because they swooped in for a closer encounter. Between two trees, and within 3-5 feet, they barked at the hawk. Relentless beatings. Sharp jabs, one after the other. The hawk was beginning to shift on its prey again. The jays grew bolder, and with every call one dropped to a closer branch. This continued until one swooped and landed next to the hawk, this time physically attacking it, The hawk obviously distressed, beat its wings and started to fly a tight circle in the clearing again. This time its grip slipped, and it dropped its prey into the pool of water near its first landing spot. A splash of water lifted from the creek and the hawk landed to our 9, perching on a silver aged and half missing tree tunk. The hawk was motionless, and instead of viewing the stellar jays or its escaped prey, it stared right at us. As if, we had been responsible for this situation. It stared at us as if we were the most inconvenient element, not the jays. 

The bird that had been in the talons of the sharpie suddenly lifted and for the sake of its life, it batted its wings with ferocity into the forest maze. A trail of water followed it before slipping off and back down to the pool. When this happened, the hawk swooped from our 8 to our 2, and perched on a douglas fir. This was the moment that convinces me the hawk was more disturbed by our presence than by the stellar jays. It perched poised within a thick of young fir branches and needles. The stellar jays swarmed the hawk, screaming and disrupting the area around it. The stellar didn’t seem to break the hawk’s focus. It remained poised without a flinch. I thought to myself that this seemed odd, it was actively focusing. 

Then it lept from its perch, staying low and unchanging in body and wings for 25-30 yards and flying in the direction of the escaped prey. Suddenly it banked up and to the left with a motion that told me it was reaching its long legs far in front of it. I then realized its intense focus prior was on its escaped prey who must have fled injured to a distant branch. It was probably using its beak to comb through feathers, removing bits of blood and flesh. I wonder if the small bird ever saw the hawks final attack coming. I wonder because I didn’t see, it was hidden behind stands of trees and needles. I did watch the gang of stellar fly furiously in tow, screaming and yelling until they too disappeared in the thick. For a while, we just listened to the fading sounds of the Sellars. Then we just listened to the silence, watching stillness, feeling those furious winds of energy blow away, leaving the clearing calm and spacious once again.

We all had questions, we were all replaying the scene in a mild shock. I turned to the students, and we began to immediately break down the scene. I asked them for observations – “What did you see? What did you hear? What did you feel?” Together we pieced it together frame by frame, experience by experience. The students were shocked. It was blatant that the forest has a complicated social structure and ecological system after this experience. This display was unlike anything the students had ever seen before. It was the hook I needed, to gain the life long dedication to the natural world from the students from Empire High School