Saturday, August 31, 2013

Spruce Berries

Only two things can produce euphoria such as this: Spruce Grouse and the promise of blueberry pie.

Spruce Grouse are extraordinary creatures in that their very existence compels human beings to drive inordinate distances and donate quarts of blood to thirsty insects for the mere chance to glimpse this dappled boreal chicken. I, for one, am not immune to their spells, nor are my comrades Harold Eyster and Alison Világ. For this reason, we found ourselves wandered down sandy Clark Lake Road, scrutinizing the trees and underbrush for grouse-shaped objects.


 One could call it birding. In reality, rather than walking or birding our way down the road, we slapped and joked and laughed deeper into the bog as the light faded and the mosquitoes crescendoed. Harold and Alison slapped, swore, and danced in an effort to assuage the suckers’ assaults. I attempted to employ Zen, convincing myself that the proboscises that pierced my skin caused me no pain or reason to react. My enlightenment produced only a triple layer of welts on my feet that took nearly a week to fade.



Upon reaching the end of the road without a grouse, or really any birds at all, Spruce Grouse virtuoso Alison had a suggestion. “On the way back, let’s be quiet and see what happens.”

Easier said than done. Anything said when martial law demands silence is automatically funny, so we choked on our laughs as we retraced our steps.

Harold, quite accurately perceiving that the dozens of mosquitoes latched onto my feet were causing me pain, repeatedly came to my aid. “Jeez, Neil,” he said, stomping on the little vampires. “There you go, buddy.”

On one such occasion, I was standing in the middle of the track, stroking my fifty-seven chin hairs and pondering whether the faint sounds I was hearing were the work of a Red Squirrel gnawing a pinecone, an exceptionally large beetle scraping on spruce bark, or a Spruce Grouse munching on needles.

Stomp.I’ve seen you four times,” he whispered.

What?” I hissed in return.

We’ve only seen each other four times,” he explained.

Wait…now, Colorado—“

He cut me off. “No, I’m not counting now. And actually, it’s five.

Inexplicably, we found this hilarious. Ahead of us, Alison turned and hurled visual poison darts to express her displeasure with our poorly stifled snorts. We quickly sobered up and continued to scan the boughs.

We rounded a bend. “Spruce Grouse,” Harold announced nonchalantly. My initial reaction was skepticism; surely he was being facetious. But—no. A male Spruce Grouse scurried in the sandy road a hundred meters ahead. It soon burrowed into the roadside undergrowth. We stealthily approached, and, tracing faint rustling sounds in the blueberry shrubs, found in stripping the sweet sapphires that we ourselves had been feasting on throughout the day.

Excellent. However, that is not the end of the story. Birding, particularly when done with such charismatics as Harold and Alison, is rarely the mere pursuit of birds. This expedition to the Upper Peninsula was a pretext for the excessive consumption of blueberries. It all began innocently enough; an occasional handful stripped as we trekked to the tip of Whitefish Point.

But, to the eternal regret of the blueberries, our plundering took on megalithic proportions when discussed how fun it would be to bake a blueberry pie in the campfire. The pillaging saw no limits as we plucked berry after berry to transform this romantic whim to reality.


Accoutering ourselves with a pie crust, sugar, and tin foil in Paradise, we detoured to make the aforementioned Spruce Grouse search, gorging ourselves on a quart and a half of Bear Claw ice cream on the drive to Clark Lake. After our triumph, we made an incognito pause along a county road to acquire fuel for the fire.


The dashboard of the Stinkpot after the Spruce Grouse campaign. From left to right: bandana, headlamp, binocular strap, DeLorme atlas, empty ice cream carton, pie crust, sugar, Furious George, day pass for Hartwick Pines State Park.

What emerged from the glowing coals half an hour later was, we agreed, the tastiest blueberry pie any of us had every tasted. We felt an odd communion with the Spruce Grouse. Blueberry-eaters, all of us.


Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Such Diaries: 12 July 2013


July the twelfth is Renée’s birthday, so, in conformation with family tradition, we ventured into the mountains on a hike. Our destination was the Fourth of July trail, which we reached despite being trapped behind an obstinately slow-driving sedan picking its way up the dirt road. We had wisely selected an easy hike to save ourselves for a 5K race the following day; upon arrival we learned that “easy” meant an 1,800-foot elevation gain over three miles to Dorothy Lake above tree line.

We began in the solemn douglas-firs, serenaded by saucy kinglets and their out-of-control whistles and warbles. As our elevation ticked upward, the trees shrunk until they tempted abduction as house plants. The kinglets gave way to White-crowned Sparrows as the dominant species. Finally, vascular plant life all but surrendered, leaving us exposed among rock and lichen, the domain of Pipits and Ptarmigan that we did not see.


Unaccustomed to high elevation, I felt dizzy, as if mildly drunk. Joel and Marcel forged ahead; I plodded behind, attempting to correct for the rocks that spiraled underfoot. Finally I reached them at the lake. I gave a triumphant shout and facetiously yelled, “Who’s jumping in with me?” The frigid lake leered at us, caped in ice that I had to convince myself was not blue.

Upon hearing of our planned tomfoolery, the parents disapproved. “What will you do, jump in your underwear? That will be wet and miserable for the hike down,” Renée interjected.

“Exactly. That is why we will take it off.”

It was cold.


Our unclothed adventures distracted us from the gathering gray clouds to the west. Afternoon thunderstorms are about as regular as defecations on a fiber-rich diet; thus, we decided to flee the tundra, where we towered as fleshy lightning rods. We hurriedly packed up and made it to the stunted trees before lighting began striking. I doggedly slid-walked down the trail, my hood up and my head down, occasionally tossing back a handful of chia seeds from the flask that Dave lent me.

We reached the parking lot thoroughly drenched.

It wasn’t until I was mostly finished with lunch at the Nepalese buffet in Nederland that I realized I had a chia seed imbedded in the blister that I had sustained on my palm the previous day from weeding an onion bed.    

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Such Diaries: 9 July 2013

For most of my life, east has been the boring, west the exotic. (Parenthetical: this rule was shaken up by a three-year sojourn in California, but, for the majority of my years, it holds true.) Western Meadowlark deserved a detour. Once, I drove (or, more accurately, my dad drove) an hour to see a Bullock's Oriole. Today, the poles flipped, and east became exciting.

Eastern Meadowlark, a first(ish) record for Boulder County. Instead of straining for the bubble of a rogue Western, Marcel and I strained for the sweet slurs of an errant Eastern at the periphery of its range. Yes, there it was, therefore making today, the ninth of July of 2013, the first day that I have seen Sturnella magna, Pygmy Nuthatch, and Sage Thrasher in the same day.


Later I found myself entombed in a kayak drifting across a very large reservoir with Joel. Life is absurd sometimes.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Such Diaries: 6 July 2013

Preface: My Kansas sinecure sputtering to an end, I found two weeks at my disposal with nothing to do. Therefore, I turned the hood of my trusty Taurus northwest to visit the Suches, my alternate family, in their montane abode near Lyons, Colorado. 

Here I am at the Suches. Mountains, trees, and green are welcome after many weeks of wheat, feedlots, and dust.

I rode out to Meade with Reed. An interesting fellow. We talked about grad school, alcohol, women, wildlife conservation, and especially hunting.

Seven more road hours awaited me. The trick to making good time, I've discovered, is to not stop. I only did so once, in Stratton, Colorado. Even when my head and lower back allied themselves in affliction, I pressed westward, straining for the hazy purple outline of the Front Range after miles and miles of plain.

Found the house (a cabin retreat by most standards) by following landmarks and flashes of deja vu up the network of gravel roads. The family is as loving and hospitable as ever. Bushtits, Steller's Jays, Magpies--yes, I am definitely not in Kansas any more.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

All that pertains to feedlots, meadowlarks, dust, and a certain '70's progressive rock band that shares the name of what most people think is a boring state

Neglected but not expired, this blog tenaciously clings to life like a doomed raccoon being bludgeoned to death by an irate septuagenarian gardener.

Here in Ulysses, Kansas, I recline [crunch crunch] on a veritable landfill of pillows in the Single Tree Inn. A fan of data sheets lies to by right; at my foot, my tired backpack, sun-bleached and dusty, regurgitates water [crunch crunch crunch] bottles, notebooks, a clipboard, binoculars, a GPS unit, and sundry other accoutrements that are a part of my daily life. And—provisions! Half a [crunch crunch] loaf of Sara Lee bread shares my bed, awaiting either mold or adornment with peanut butter, hummus, avocado, or some combination thereof. [Crunch]

(Your puzzled expression reminds me that I should parenthetically explain all the crunching going on. The culprit is a bag of baby carrots on the nightstand—or, more accurately, the culprit is me, periodically groping for a crisp cylinder of orange cellulose. I love carrots. This summer, I’ve consumed an average of four pounds a week.)

By some cruel twist of fate, I find myself working in southwest Kansas, surveying those great green pies upon which bored airline passengers gaze during flights from Chicago to Los Angeles. I’ve been on those flights myself; I’ve stared at the crop circles with detached horror, thinking of how miserable life would be among them.


The signature of center pivot irrigation. Photo courtesy of  Wikipedia, since (a) I cannot fly and (b) my camera no longer resides among the living.

Of course you know the four Axioms of Kansas. Kansas is hot. Kansas is windy. Kansas is flat. Kansas is agricultural. A month and counting of life here has convinced me that these are, indeed, true. However, even vegetation assessments under the overheated-car-engine blaze of 104 degrees beats menial labor in a paint lab, or not working at all.

My job, I explain to the uninitiated, is a combination of off-roading, geocaching, mud-bogging, birdwatching, and quantifying weeds (weeds, not weed, though wild marijuana does grow rampant through disturbed areas a bit east of here.) Although the surveys are endless permutations of the same seven or so species—Red-winged Blackbird, Horned Lark, Mourning Dove, Lark Bunting, Grasshopper Sparrow, Western Meadowlark, Dickcissel—the occasional novelty will pop up, like the Upland Sandpiper and Burrowing Owl yesterday, or the Golden Eagle and Bullock’s Oriole this morning.

It’s not so bad, being a field biologist. But I should shut my laptop and nap to compensate for my 4 AM rise—and to prepare for tomorrow’s similarly early start. Crepuscular is what I have become, crepuscular and carrot-consuming.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Zitting Cis-ta-whaaat?


Reputation. I’ve never met Barack Obama, but I’ve heard he’s a solid guy. In the same vein, certain species have reputations that waft to their seekers long before the birds ever reveal themselves. Conversely, there are banalities like Meadow Pipits. Brown and streaky, they are obviously pipits, and they do indeed inhabit meadows. Nary a thought had I donated to this species before I saw my first one in January; now, they only come to mind as the epitome of blandness. 

And here I must contradict myself and write of another brown and streaky bird that nevertheless has a grand reputation, at least in my mind. Zitting Cisticola. I received my copy of Birds of Europe at the tender age of ten; upon hitting Sylviidae, I remember thinking that the Old World Warblers had been designed by some highly uncreative child who moreover clumsily smeared his hand across the blueprints, effectively destroying any inequality or difference between species. To make matters even worse, this avian engineer hastily bestowed upon this myriad of brown blights the most unhelpful of names: Green Warbler, Greenish Warbler, Dusky Warbler…

One stood out. Zitting Cisticola. Pronunciation was futile; all I knew is that I wanted to see one.

That desire remained unfilled for a decade for the simple reason that Zitting Cisticolas live in southern Europe and that I lived in various parts of the United States. But, two days ago, as I was hiking through the coastal bluffs north of Luanco, a small, virtually tail-less sprite lofted into the air and began calling—zitting, you could say—before diving back into the cover of some gorse. I knew what it was. I cautiously stalked forward and, with a bit of patience and pishing, found myself looking at the little bird with a big name that had caught my attention all those years ago.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Las Islas Canarias

The epitome of spontaneity: purchasing tickets to the Canary Islands six days before departing and making no plans whatsoever. That is exactly what I did with my friends Nait and Virginia. Neither of them are birders; our transportation was limited to wherever our thumbs, feet, or public buses could take us. Therefore, I didn't have any chance to see any of the fancy endemics, but nevertheless I saw a few birds.

Barbary Partridge -- three flushed from a roadside on 7 February
Little Egret -- small numbers along the coast
Cattle Egret -- several seen in flight, first near El Golf del Sur and later near Los Realejos
Common Buzzard -- one or two on the north side of the island near Ocotava
Eurasian Coot -- twenty or thirty in the large reservoir between Ocotava and Los Realejos
Whimbrel -- two or three on the rocky coast surrounding Las Galletas (my first experience seeing the Eurasian white-rumped Whimbrel--made me do a double-take!)
Ruddy Turnstone -- a flyby at Las Galletas on 7 February
Yellow-legged Gull -- very common along the coast
Rock Pigeon -- no comment
Eurasian Collard-Dove -- common. I threw my shoe at one that was disturbing us as we tried to sleep in a park in Ocotava
Plain Swift -- several swirling overhead near Cantaras on 8 February as we sat along a roadside munching on Nutella and tuna sandwiches
Eurasian Kestrel -- the first bird of the trip, actually, a dead bird in the gutter as we walked away from the airport late in the night on 6 February. Afterwards I found them to be extremely common (I saw 20+ in ~15 kilometers of walking on 10 February.)
Southern Gray Shrike -- one near El Fraile on 7 February
African Blue Tit -- a couple in urban trees in El Taco on 8 February
Canary Islands Chiffchaff -- abundant in the countryside around Cantaras. I saw and heard a few others in subsequent days in the vicinity of Ocotava
Spectacled Warbler -- Fairly common in the coastal desert outside Las Galletas where we hung out. 
Eurasian Blackbird -- these buggers woke us up singing nearly every morning at four.
White Wagtail -- one or two
Berthelot's Pipit -- common, particularly in the arid areas on the southern end of the island.
Eurasian Linnet -- small numbers in the countryside between Cantaras and La Laguna on 8 February
Island Canary -- very common, particularly in the north
House Sparrow -- a few

So, it could be said that the trip was a failure in the birding department. But, of course, there is more to life than birding. Perhaps I'll return someday; I doubt it, though.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Algunos aves de España

I'm in Spain. True, I'm here to study. I'm not birding--false. Class ten minutes imminent begs brevity, so I will scribble about a few highlights and toss out a couple photos.

BULLFINCH! I was out for a run and saw a pair. Bird I've wanted to see for a long time...in fact, I used to have a stuffed animal Bullfinch that I ordered off eBay at the age of ten because I admire this species so much.

Gray Wagtails. They're badass longassed.

Tits. Great, Blue, Coal, Long-tailed. 'Nuff said.

Firecrest. A psycadelic kinglet, pretty much.



Saturday, January 5, 2013

A dabble into Orange-crowned Warbler taxonomy

Psshhhh, psshhhh, psshh-psshhh. A whirlwind of Audubon's Warblers, Anna's Hummingbirds, and Bushtits made the twigs and leaves boil. Then, a new face--gray, but not a Bushtit. Hello, an Orange-crowned Warbler! The eye arcs and muted breast streaking were unmistakable, but the bird looked like it had been left on the dashboard of a car for a few weeks--gray, faded, a far cry from the rich lemon yellow and olive birds that skulk in every hedge around my neighborhood. It reminded me of the Orange-crowns I see in Michigan. Aha! An eastern bird--Oreothlypis celata celata, a bit lost from its normal wintering haunts in the Southeast. "Eastern" is a misleading designation, since this bird could have hatched west of California in Alaska.


(From Warblers by Dunn and Garrett, p. 159.)

Returning home after my walk, I pulled out my trusty references, since I could not recall having ever seen such a blatantly gray--and therefore O.c. celata--in California.

The Birds of Orange County, California: Status and Distribution: "Gray-headed birds believed to represent V.c. orestera and V.c.celata are uncommon fall migrants (arriving in early September), rare in winter."

San Diego County Bird Atlas: "Vermivora c. celata (Say, 1823), breeding in the trans-continental taiga zona, is even less yellow than orestera; the head is always gray, and in some females the yellowish on the underparts is reduced to irregular blotches. It reaches southern California as a rare migrant and winter visitor (Grinnell and Miller 1944)."

I believe this is a case of subspecies neglect (think Cackling Goose). Were Oreothlypis celata celata considered its own species (I propose "Goldenrod Warbler" for the common name if this ever happens), birders would probably find a lot more of them in California. But, that will probably not happen in the near future--and I hope it doesn't, since identification would be a nightmare! This bird, however, seems to be a slam-dunk.



An intriguing quandary of taxonomy and distribution five minutes from the door!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Trabuco with Chandler

A few days ago, I made my now-annual pilgrimage to the upper reaches of Trabuco Canyon with my buddy Chandler. I first met him nearly four years ago when we thoroughly chilled ourselves body surfing at Huntington Beach. On this hike, we once again ended up wet and cold! No birder is he, but I slung my bins over my neck and kept ear and eye attuned to avian life.

It was cold, but the strenuous climb kept us warm and sweating. Fog rolled in and shrouded the canyon and peaks.


This rugged landscape is the final frontier of Orange County birding. Bolsa Chica, Newport Bay, San Joaquin Marsh--those places are daily visited by dozens of birders. Seldom, though, do binocular-toting bird nuts venture up into these perilous reaches despite the promise of sexy mountain birds. This particular day was lackluster, probably because of the gloom, but we managed to seen several Townsend's Solitaires, two Hairy Woodpeckers, and a Golden-crowned Kinglet.

We made it to the ridge. Now a couple thousand feet higher and hiking roughly level ground, we were cold. Puddles were glazed with ice. We kept our hands into our pockets and kept moving.


It began to rain! First, a Seattle-grade mist, morphing into a steady drizzle. Then, unbelievably, soggy snowflakes began pelting us in the face. Many miles laid ahead of us. As we descended, rain replaced snowflakes. Each mile brought a new milestone: soaked pants that clung to calves, water penetrating our outer layers, shoes officially saturated. It was cold!

Newts saved the day. We saw four, and hopefully did not trod upon too many more. Unlike us, they were enjoying the drizzle!

When we finally reached the car, we stripped off the majority of our clothes and rode home in the waterproof, heated, and wonderful confines of the car.