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

PREMISE

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.

THE NUMBERS

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.