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Karen Hussey will lead a birding hike on the Jacksonville Woodlands trails May 7 as part of a spring hike series organized by the Southern Oregon Land Conservancy. [Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch]

Exploring the land

Karen Hussey walks down a Jacksonville Woodlands trail listening to the chattering overhead and armed with binoculars so she can get a glimpse of these spring singers.


Coming from a madrone is the voice of a particularly gruff-sounding bird, barking out a series of "check-check-check" iterations like an old man telling her to get off his lawn.


"That's the scrub jay we're hearing right now," says Hussey, a New England native. "When it does that, it sounds like someone's talking to me in a Maine accent.


"It's amazing what different people think birds sound like," she says.


Hussey is likely to get a good cross-section of avian-ese interpretations May 7 when she returns to the Jacksonville Woodlands to lead a birding hike as part of the Southern Oregon Land Conservancy's annual spring hiking series.


Along with the usual wildflower and birding hikes, this year's free hikes will include expeditions to see butterflies and dragonflies, as well as the unique history and ecology of Hellgate Canyon along the middle Rogue River near Merlin.


New this year are five hikes meant as coming-out parties for the Rogue River Preserve, a 352-acre ranch the Land Conservancy is in the process of purchasing to protect oak woodlands, meadows, chaparral and an intact and diverse floodplain forest along the upper Rogue near Eagle Point.


"It's definitely a gem for us, and not everyone has seen it yet," says Kristi Mergenthaler, the conservancy's stewardship director and a leader on several of the hikes.


Hikes are limited to 15 to 20 people, and participants must preregister at www.landconserve.org.


The hike series began more than a decade ago with smaller, more low-key outdoor visits, but the conservancy ramped up its presence in 2012 as a way "for people to get out and enjoy the natural world and highlight our conservancy projects," Mergenthaler says.


That includes the Jacksonville Woodlands, where a series of trails above Britt Gardens traverse a mixture of Jacksonville, BLM and private lands that include seven SOLC "conservation easements" crafted to ensure protection and improvements of the natural habitats.


"People can get a feel for what conservation actually looks like," says Hussey, the conservancy's land steward.


On Hussey's hike, people will also hear what conservation sounds like.


The woodlands are a unique area where oak woodlands flow into stands of Douglas fir, Ponderosa pine and gnarly madrones, with an understory of wildflowers and old-growth poison oak that can reach more than 10 feet skyward in places.


Curious eyes with good optics can spot holes in the occasional fir tree from a sapsucker, with its nasaly, mewing notes. Acorn woodpeckers abound in the woodlands, and their jack-hammering on tree bark is a common backdrop.


Hussey stops on the trail when the tell-tale voice of a violet-green swallow pierces the air.


"They sound like crackling electricity," Hussey says.


Birding missions into these woodlands in spring always come with a built-in Plan B.


For those not faring well while looking up, they can always rely on looking down.


At worst, hikers will be welcomed by spring's offerings of bright trilliums, shooting stars, Gentner's fritillary, borage and other wildflowers that are signature residents of the Jacksonville Woodlands.


"If the birds aren't singing, and someone's having trouble with their binoculars, there's always something beautiful holding still for you," Hussey says.


— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtfribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

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