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. 

Friday, April 15, 2016

The death of a raccoon, and the part I played

Cruelty is Nature’s foremost virtue. We often see the signs of her brutality—scattered bloody feathers, a skull shining from the leaf litter, or a pillaged nest dangling from a crotch. But rarely do we partake in the cruelty.

It was a muggy June morning, the bugs merciless, the birds listless, the heat already relentless by nine. As I traversed the swamp’s margin, a pathetic whimpering interrupted my botanical scrutiny of the forest floor. It was unlike any bird I could think of, so, interest piqued, I followed the sound.

Soon the sound was at my feet. I stopped, looked down, and found a simpering heap of fur huddled beside a downed branch. Gray, black—a raccoon, and a small one, only a baby. Something was wrong. I parted the foliage only to be assaulted by a storm of flies, those repulsive green ones that patronize roadkill. Yet this raccoon breathed—its body heaved, and it murmured, perhaps calling for help or perhaps attempting to assuage its own fear. The aroma of putrid flesh wafted in the wake of the flies. To my horror I realized that the coon’s back was matted with blood. The flies returned to feast upon the festering flesh. I attempted to fan the flies away, but such a superficial act could do nothing to lessen the animal’s misery.

I knew I had to kill it. The coon would otherwise suffer for hours, perhaps days, as maggots ate it alive. In its last moments it would feel worms gnaw its muscle fibers and be helpless to the slow, wriggling death.

How? Blunt trauma to the head I deemed the most practical option, and since the animal was curled up in a narrow spot, a downward thrust—a stab—was the only way. Regrettably, my only weapon was a kitchen spoon used for exhuming root systems. I needed a better tool of execution.
Fortuitously, the raccoon lay near a junk heap of the bygone farming era. I sought my weapon among a previous generation’s refuse. After rejecting several pieces of scrap metal, I found my quarry: a two-foot section of rusty lead pipe packed with earth. Hefting it in my hand, I was delighted to find it heavy—five or six pounds.

Each step to the raccoon’s final resting place increased my dread. It seemed unjust for such a young creature to experience such pain, greater anguish than I will probably ever experience in my life thanks to the miracle of modern pills and surgeries.

Slowly, carefully, I snapped away the vegetation that veiled the prostate coon. I needed a clear shot. “Sorry, buddy,” I breathed as I positioned myself. I braced one foot on the log, lifted the pipe, aimed, and—WHAM! Drove the pipe with all the force I could muster into the unfortunate animal’s head.

To my surprise and horror, the skull withstood the blow, and the coon writhed and screamed. Again I lifted the pipe and struck with even greater force, throwing my whole body into the blow. This time I had the satisfaction of feeling the skull collapse with an audible crunch. Still the raccoon twitched and moaned. Driven mad by its pernicious grasp at life, I rained blow after blow on its head until the twitching ceased.

The raccoon was dead; its head was flattened and mashed into the soil. I stared at what my hands had done and realized that Death itself lay before me. Inspecting my weapon, I found that the lower third was plastered with gore. I cast it away in disgust. Wiping my hands, I backed away, legs and arms shaking uncontrollably.

The raccoon was no longer a raccoon. It was just fur, bone, and some proteins. Life had departed. Never again would the nostrils sniff, the leg flex, the tail caress some massive oak limb. Everything that composed the animal was still there, but it was gone—and where had it gone? Nature had struck it down, but now she would gather the corpse to her bosom and nourish thousands of others with its particles; in a way, the raccoon would live in the bodies of thousands of others. But the spirit cannot follow atoms, and that spirit was gone.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Poem from the Field III

"The Blind"

Ensconced in a burlap fortress
Invisible, to some degree,
to life around me,
I struggle to sit still
on the shoulder of a 45° hill.
Though mosquitoes mob my face
I must stay in his place
til this watch is...

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Poem* from the Field II

Hispaniolan Woodpeckers (Melanerpes striatus)

This itinerant life
guided by two things:
One, my whim.
Two, the Texas A&M Wildlife Job Board.
Society cannot comprehend,
calling me directionless.
(Maybe a failure, behind my back)
Working jobs for no money.

I'm here, outside
Hauling a pack, watching birds, climbing trees
Living with former strangers
(Now dear friends)
Eating good food,
laughing in the sun.
It's a good life,
this itinerant one.

* A literary critic informed me that a limerick is a poem with a specific structure and not, as I had thought, a term for a amateurish diddy. (Thanks, Mom.) So, this series gets a new title...