Wednesday, July 27, 2016

A day afield

I have succumbed to what Scott Weidensaul calls "fat man biology" in Living on the Wind. Yes, I study birds, but I do so from a dumpy office tucked along the sterile hallway of a science building. Yes, I study birds, but stationed in front of screens and textbooks, wrestling with concepts of Bayesian inference and Googling the abundant error messages I encounter with my neophytic coding abilities. Yes, I study birds, but I never see birds--I rely on preexisting databases and the information available from satellite imagery. 

It has been a challenging summer, full of headaches induced by excessive screen time and bewildering Greek notation that I haven't encountered since Calculus class years ago. I've learned a lot. But that comes at the expense of what Mycroft Holmes calls legwork, which I adore. I miss walking, pack embracing my hips, binoculars in hand, the sweat, the mosquitoes...

Finally I could take it no more and took Saturday to reconnoiter sites for my field season next year. I arose at 3:30, weary from spotty sleep (few things excite me such that they impair my sleep, but a day afield is one of them), brewed some coffee, and saddled up my lab's field truck. My mission: to find spots with grassland birds. 

I initially targeted some relic prairie fragments in the environs of Livingston in extreme western Alabama. But the fragments were just that: fragments, too small and too choked by invading cedars to host proper grassland birds. I kept myself occupied with Mississippi Kites, a common species that nevertheless always tickles my Yankee bird background. 
Another species I seldom saw growing up was Summer Tanager. They are verminous in Dixie.

The major drama of the morning occurred when I encountered a bird that I almost couldn't identify. I'd like to be modest, but...that seldom happens. After a double take, I realized that this was a hatch-year White-eyed Vireo, just dissimilar enough from its parents to prove confusing with its dark iris and muted plumage.
 I have the inexplicable obsession of photographing birds in flight. This is a Common Grackle--there were lots of them flying around in packs, a sure sign of late summer. It is engaging in some primary molt--and his tail is looking ratty as well.
 As the classic Alabama Swelter reached unbearable levels in the late morning, I jettisoned my mission and repaired to some shaded areas along the Tombigbee River. There I found lots of birds, including this Prothonotary Warbler, one of a group of four cavorting along the riverbank.
If I had to choose between seeing a cool bird or seeing a cool amphibian, I think I might choose the frog. I've seen so many birds in my life. I know less about frogs; they seem more mysterious; they are also fun to catch.
 Insects also beguile me. Every time I'm afield, I notice insects, and every time, I'm awestruck by just how little I know about them. Butterflies are the easy ones, the cardinals and robins of Class Insecta. This one is an Eastern Comma, lapping up residue from a deer skull leftover from past hunting season.
 It was hot, so I stopped in the mom-n-pop grocery at a backwoods crossroads. Attempting to blend in as an Alabamian, I asked the proprietor, "Y'all have sweet tea?" He was not fooled, immediately drawling, "Where ya from?" in response. 
Wood Stork
I finally found my grassland birds by accident at the end of the day. I stopped to gape at the swirls of vultures, herons, and Wood Storks around the sprawling catfish farms on the road back to Tuscaloosa, and there, in the old pastures and hayfields, I saw meadowlarks, Dickcissels, and Loggerhead Shrikes. A fallow field sandwiched between catfish ponds may not be as sexy as a restored nugget of prairie that enjoys prescribed burns every year, but if that's where the birds are, that's where I'll be. 
Catfish farms, the economic backbone of the Black Belt of Alabama

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Apartment 27

Descending the stair I saw people in a knot
Who are they, and what are they doing? I thought.
   Gathered round a turtle
   The scene I deemed fertile
For making friends by asking about the reptile they'd caught.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Birding Shorts: Very Old Friends (Colorado Edition)

Gandalf seeks his old comrade Bilbo for a birding adventure
I knew I had found him, pulling up next to the battered Subaru. There was no mistaking the “Do You eBird?” and “Sea Level is for Sissies” bumper stickers. The lad himself appeared a moment later. Marcel and I were both cute and nerdy high schoolers when our paths first crossed. I hadn’t seen him in years.
Right to left: Marcel Such, Joel Such, me. June 2010
Some things never change. He still saunters. Anything mildly funny still shatters his smirk into a goofy grin. But other things change. Now he’s a longboarding hipster dirtbag who uses lingo such as “dank” and “straight G.”  I suppose I could be described in a similar fashion, just with a less edgy parlance and no longboard.

Arguably homeless between leases, Marcel explained that we would head to BLM land in the hills for the night. That was fine by me. I love camping. And! These hills seethe with Gunnison Sage-Grouse, only described as a species within our short lifetimes, rare enough to make the palms perspire.

We jolted along dirt tracks, hoping for a road grouse. Then we switched our strategy and walked into the sagebrush, dust underfoot, desiccated branches clawing our calves. I eyed the buxom Leicas riding Marcel’s hip.

“Sexy bins,” I said.

“Thanks—it’s Travis.”

It took a moment to register. Then I realized that Marcel was brandishing a celebrity binocular, Travis the Traveling Trinovid! I was star-struck. My own tattered Trins fawned in the presence of greatness.
Can't refuse a photo op with celebrity optics
Light receding, we returned to the car for further cruising. Up a hill, down a two-track. Darkness fell. Meadowlarks warbled in the gloaming. I noticed a smudge in the two-track ahead of us—a bush? No—an ambulatory smudge! The grouse scurried into the brush, then flushed as the car approached. It was the first Gunnison Sage-Grouse I’d ever seen. Marcel punched me in celebration.
The desolate haunts of the Gunnison Sage-Grouse
We repaired to our bivouac, a site we shared with Marcel’s friend Cam. Around the fire, Cam recounted Marcel’s stint as a mercenary in the World Series of Birding. A Wall Street sugar daddy flew him to New Jersey at the last possible moment to join his team. From Cam’s perspective, he was losing Marcel forever. Young Marcel, foolish Marcel, boarding a plane, beguiled by the promise of making a few bucks, only to be dismembered in a dark saltmarsh, losing his vital organs to the black market. At least in his last moments he would hear Black Rails…
We swapped stories late into the night. Then we peed on the coals and the three of us retired to Cam’s two-man tent for the night. Road wearied, I slid into a gradual sleep. Breeze battered the fly. As my neurons punched the clock, I questioned the real purpose of the rain fly—to repel droplets or amplify night sounds.

Marcel and I awoke when the strengthening sun raised the tent’s temperature to a swelter. Cam had left hours earlier for an epic bike ride. We spent the day the way you might expect from hipster dirtbag birders—nursing coffee at the café from which Marcel lusts employment, eating poptarts garnished with peanut butter, bumming around the university, and, of course, looking for birds.

After another night of three-man spooning under the Sound Amplifier, Marcel and I absconded well before dawn for grouse espionage. Cam did not come. He cited exhaustion from his bike ride, but Marcel and I both well understood that he would not allow himself to be seen birding. In the end, it’s a good thing he didn’t come—we didn’t see any grouse. I dropped Marcel off at his fantasy coffee shop and headed east.

I wondered when I’ll see him next. Whether it will be three years again. How we will change in that time. Where our paths will cross, and what birds we will see. Only time will tell.
Marcel, me. May 2016

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Numerical and pictorial highlights of a cross-continental meander


My original summer plan was to travel to backcountry Alaska to work as a research assistant with Kittlitz's Murrelets. However, a stubborn lower back injury rendered me unfit for service, so I opted to head to Alabama early to commence my graduate research. I decided to take the long way.


20  -  days on the road
4298.2  -  miles traveled
9  -  peanut butter burritos consumed
261  -  species of birds
14  -  states
-  life birds
7  -  cans of iced tea imbibed (Georgia Peach Peace Tea being the favorite)
1  -  night of sleep in a Walmart parking lot
-  life states (Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Arkansas Mississippi, Alabama)
2  -  factories toured (Noosa Yogurt and New Belgium Brewing)
27  -  episodes of The Memory Palace podcast enjoyed
1  -  bird-car collision (I think it was a Barn Swallow)
16  -  plays of the Songs for Traveling CD
Three weeks behind the wheel
Svelte Stilt Sandpipers slice the sky. Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma.
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma
Field Sparrow bouncing acoustic balls. Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, Oklahoma.
Western angles, nostalgia. Tulsa, Oklahoma
Yellow-headed Blackbird staking his claim somewhere on the divide between the Rockies and the Great Basin
Give us this day the tenacity of weasels. Great Salt Lake, Utah.
Brutal phalarope fly-by. Great Salt Lake, Utah.
Possibly one of the least appreciated birds in North America, the peerless Downy Woodpecker. Boulder County, CO
Bound for the taiga, a Blackpoll, a rare-ish bird in the shadow of the Rockies. Boulder County, Colorado.
Bighorn Sheep. Gunnison, Colorado
Creative scoping solutions for windy days
Antelope Island Causeway near Salt Lake City, Utah

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Vignettes: Chasing the Wind (Montana edition)

I rolled to a stop outside the collegy-looking house and walked into a graduation party. "Is this where a certain Andrew Guttenberg lives?" I asked the guy who opened the door. "Gutes!" the dude yelled over his shoulder, "Someone is here for you!" And there he was, the legend himself. The man who will surely illustrate many field guides in his time. Don't believe me? You should.

Rather than launch immediately into birding escapades, we demonstrated our ostensible maturity by joining a rousing football match with the Bros. We saved birding for the following day. And that day can only be described as a Big Day--albeit a relaxed one. "Our birding today was like firing a shotgun...our pellets scattered wide but all managed to hit targets," Andrew said* at the end of the day.

A male Calliope Hummingbird was on the bush precisely where Andrew said it would be. Only my second one. Ever.
A Ruffed Grouse drummed in the undergrowth. A ventriloquist, the grouse always seemed right beside us. Then it was there. We saw it at the same time. Neither of us had ever watched one drum, an act I found strangely intimate.
Cottonwood Reservoir, an oasis for ducks and shorebirds in the sage desert. "I wish it were a bit more windy so my knuckles would dry out faster," complained Andrew. We took turns scoping--the gale rendered our eyes springs.
Gray Partridges fled the roadside, hoping to evade addition to my North American list. They could not.
Howling winds in the foothills of the Bridger Mountains prevented us from hearing much, which should have crippled our birding efforts. But then Andrew spotted two Northern Goshawks wheeling overhead. As we admired them, a male Williamson's Sapsucker flitted over our shoulders.

We could not resist stopping to admire an abandoned leather couch along a mountain road. Neither could we resist posing for photos with it.
Vociferous drunks at the Boreal Owl campground dismayed us. Surely no owl would tolerate such ruckus. We walked around--legs stiff from football--as the sun set. A female Dusky Grouse tried to camouflage herself in the gravel but could not. After a half-hearted search for owls in the gloaming, excessive bodily fatigue and shrieking wind forced us to capitulate.
I bade Andrew farewell and drove east, hoping to find two small brown birds of the prairie that I had never seen before. One of them I found: a Sprague's Pipit, aloft on quivering wings, circling, fighting the breeze, spilling forth an amorous cascade to the prairie below.

* This quotation may or may not be entirely accurate. When Andrew uttered this (or similar) proverb, it was late and my only focus was not falling asleep at the wheel.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

On the proliferation of Eurasian Collared-Doves in Orange County

A Eurasian Collared-Dove in Anaheim on Sunday

Orange County is different every time I visit. New housing developments encroach ever deeper into the hills. Trees are "trimmed" (read: mutilated) further and further into oblivion. And there are always more Eurasian Collared-Doves. 

This is going to make me sound old, but here goes. I remember when things were different. There was a time when Eurasian Collared-Doves were not common in Orange County. When I moved here in 2007, they were downright difficult to find. Over the last few years, they've become commonplace. In fact, I saw one the other day a mere mile from my house. I predict that I will soon add this species to my almost legendary Hood List. 

This expansion is hardly surprising, given hemispheric trends for this species. Want a good laugh? Check out the dove's map in the original Sibley. It is rapidly expanding west, east, north, south. "Collared-Dove," I told Joel as we crossed the Michigan-Indiana state line in early January, "Will probably be the first new species we see." Sure enough, dozens greeted us at a rest stop in central Illinois. Their coos serenaded us at every piss stop across the country--Missouri, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, California. Then we flew to Mexico--and there, too, the streets echoed with their calls. And they were verminous in the Dominican Republic. I just can't get away from them.

Let us consider their conquest of Orange County. First, courtesy of eBird, here is an overview of their North American range.
This next map shows Eurasian Collared-Dove records in southern California up to the year 2005.Very sparse in Orange County, with greater numbers up north towards Los Angeles.
Fast forward to 2011. Things are filling in slowly in Orange County, though the species seems to be increasing rapidly up north in Los Angeles County and in western Riverside County.
And finally, all records up to the present (red pins indicate records from the past month.) Explosion. Blietzkrieg. The Collared-Dove has conquered Orange County. 
Using eBird to track the expansion of this species may be deceptive, since the dove's invasion of Orange County coincided (or slightly preceded) the widespread adoption of eBird by birders. Fortunately, Christmas Bird Count data for Orange County is readily available online (thanks, Sea and Sage Audubon). The data support my general impressions that (1) Eurasian Collared-Doves first began appearing in Orange County in roughly 2005, and (2) that the population has rapidly increased since then--particularly since about 2010.

In past decades, a different dove reigned in Orange County--the Spotted Dove. They were abundant through the 90's (the 1990 Coastal CBC recorded upwards of 250), but their population crashed. The last surviving Spotted Doves overlapped with the pioneering Collared-Doves in the early 2000's. It is fun to speculate about the rise and fall of two nonnative doves in Orange County--did the Collars drive out the Spots? At least in the context of Orange County, I find this hard to believe--by the time the Collared-Doves showed up, the Spotted Doves had already been gone for years. But, who knows? 

And will the Eurasian Collared-Dove share the Spotted Dove's fate in Orange County? I doubt it--I foresee the dove expanding further, saturating the county--nay, the country-- interminably.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

La brigada de los carpinteros: reflection on a sojourn in the Dominican Republic

An unhappy Hispaniolan Woodpecker

In January I migrated to the Dominican Republic to serve as a research assistant for Josh LaPergola, a doctoral candidate from Cornell University. Josh is researching the behavioral ecology of the Hispaniolan Woodpecker, a charismatic species that nests colonially in palm trees. Unfortunately, the field season came to early end when Josh had a serious climbing accident. He ultimately required medical evacuation to the United States. (He is recovering well.)

Unexpectedly home, I’ve spent a lot of time puttering around the house, processing and reflecting upon my experience in the Dominican Republic. I’d like to share some of my thoughts.


Graduate research can be open-ended. I had the idea that a graduate project attempts to answer questions drafted at the project’s conception. Well—that is sometimes the case, but many other projects constantly evolve. The more time spent studying a system, the more questions that arise.

How to bleed a bird! Next time you find a bird in your hand, part the feathers on the underside of the wing. There’s a pipe there—great for stabbing!

A woodpecker chick at two weeks, ready to surrender a drop of blood for the sake of science.

Dominican Spanish is…different. Pronunciation is relaxed—the letter s in particular is often dropped. The convergent pronunciation of estás and está frequently bewildered me, but the locals don’t seem to notice the ambiguity.

If a Dominican kid shows up at your door and brags that he owns a bazooka, he is not lying.


Palms form a unique community. Their lichen-plastered trunks are patrolled by lichen-mimicking mantids. Palmchats obsessively construct massive stick nests, which in turn house myriad other animals from Greater Antillean Grackles to fungi. And Hispaniolan Woodpeckers provide apartments for many other species. Bats often commandeer the old cavities. If the chambers flood, tree frogs and mosquitoes capitalize on the arboreal pools.

Palmchats--monkeys of the bird world

See it?

Knots! In order to climb the palms, we had to learn many aspects of technical tree climbing, including lots of knots. Give me a strand of cord, and I can tie you a Klemheist, a bowline, a clove hitch, a half hitch, a fisherman’s knot…

I am very privileged. Many of the country folk were incredulous that we made a living studying birds. “I wish I could do your work,” Ricardo the foreman said one day as we passed him saddling his mule for the day.


Unparalleled camaraderie. Foremost I will miss my coworkers Amy, Josh, Kiera, and Shelly. Field jobs such as this forge deep friendships—we live together, work together, and depend on each other, becoming a family.

Josh, Shelly, Kiera,and Amy demonstrate the rigors of biological research

Avocados. I’m from California and thought I was an avocado snob. But these Dominican avocados rocked my world. We bought them fifteen at a time. They are huge; they are creamy. Guacamole was a staple in our house.

Tostones (fried plantains) with fresh guacamole

Luis, our trusty and congenial taxi driver. Whenever we needed groceries, we would summon him for a ride down to Jarabacoa. As we lounged in the truck bed, the breeze whistled—as did scores of young men as we passed. Although their amorous displays were directed at my female coworkers, I retaliated by blowing many a kiss.

If you ever find yourself in the vicinity of Jarabacoa and need some wheels, here's the number to call

The neighborhood kids. Whenever they were bored (which was often), the troupe of neighborhood children would appear at the back door. Two year-old Reuben was content to roll giggling on the floor. Ten year-old Evenson found every excuse to visit and try to woo Amy, with whom he was hopelessly in love. Thirteen year-old Cris wandered over to boss Evenson and to make half-hearted attempts to learn English.

The birds. It was great to live with new birds for several months! The boisterous Gray Kingbird, the quizzical Smooth-billed Ani, the psychedelic Broad-billed Tody, the minute Vervain Hummingbird…these were all new species for me, and they quickly became familiar neighbors.

Black-faced Grassquit


Cold showers. Our water was piped up from the river and it was frigid. Despite our sweat and grime we dreaded the shower, delaying bathing for as many days as we could stand.

Laundry. We used a bucket and a plunger. It never quite got the stink out of my clothes.

The moldy house. It was humid. Mold thrived on the walls and ceiling. We waged war, but our bleach and sponges and half-assed attitudes toward hygiene could not overthrow the inevitable onward march of mildew.

Amy prepares for a valiant but vain war against the Kingdom of Fungi

Unsafe tap water. Here at home, I press a button on my fridge and cold, delicious water spews forth. In the Dominican Republic, we had to walk up to the neighborhood colmado once a day and shell out forty-five pesos (roughly a dollar) for a five-gallon jug of purified water.