in a snit

The Old Issue seems timely enough today

"He shall mark our goings, question whence we came,
Set his guards about us, as in Freedom’s name.

He shall break his judges if they cross his word;
He shall rule above the Law calling on the Lord.

He shall peep and mutter; and the night shall bring
Watchers ’neath our window, lest we mock the King—

Hate and all division; hosts of hurrying spies;
Money poured in secret, carrion breeding flies.

Strangers of his counsel, hirelings of his pay,
These shall deal our Justice: sell—deny—delay.

We shall drink dishonour, we shall eat abuse
For the Land we look to—for the Tongue we use.

We shall take our station, dirt beneath his feet,
While his hired captains jeer us in the street.

Cruel in the shadow, crafty in the sun,
Far beyond his borders shall his teachings run.

Sloven, sullen, savage, secret, uncontrolled,
Laying on a new land evil of the old—

Long-forgotten bondage, dwarfing heart and brain—
All our fathers died to loose he shall bind again."
--From Rudyard Kipling, 'The Old Issue'
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Unit 1, Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, 1/23/16, 4:30-6 PM

The southern sky glows with winter sunset.

On the shallow lakes that stretch out around the wooden viewing platform, shorebirds, ducks, and ibis gather. As the sun sets they stream across the shining sky in thousands: black ibis in skeins, ducks in calling hordes. Wings rush.

The cranes come in, honking in their medieval voices, gliding wide-winged down to rest.

The thousands of birds settle, and slowly begin to quiet down. The moon tries to rise through cloud. Rails squabble in the reeds. Starting to get cold and tired, we wonder how much longer we should wait. The celebration, the evening show, has been spectacular, but maybe it's over now. A goose or two flies in, calling, to land on the water.

A star comes out. Maybe it's not going to happen tonight.

A cloud forms in the sky to the north. A vague sound, like surf, begins to rise. Through binoculars the cloud reveals itself: snow geese, thousands of geese, darkening the sky. They stream across the moon. Their calls rise to a paean. The sound of their wings is like the sound of the waves on the shores of Elvenhome. Four thousand white and blue and silvery snow geese arrive through the dusk and land with nightfall on the lakes.

This is why.

The Breeders' Cup

Somehow I never posted picks for the Breeders' Cup. Won some, lost some.

Hey, there's a coyote sauntering through the vacant lot outside my office window right now.

Anyway, my fantasy stable horse Liam's Map, a beautiful, powerfully built, dapple gray, ran in the Dirt Mile. He was the huge favorite. But things didn't go quite as expected.

Bright sunny day at Keeneland. Liam's Map, the dapple gray favorite, turns his head in the starting gate to look at Mr. Z, the longshot next to him. Maybe Mr. Z is telling a story about how he bit off American Pharoah's tail a couple of years ago.

It's dark evening at Churchill. The lights have come on. The big black-bay mare prances, sidles, then consents to go into the gate.

Liam, a speed horse who has never failed to make the early lead in any race, breaks flat-footed and is immediately trapped along the rail.

The dark mare breaks slowly, the way she always does. She settles. This is no big deal for her.

The gray stallion is angry. His rider won't let him shoulder the leaders, Bradester and that distracting Mr. Z, aside. He tosses his head, fighting the bit, down the backstretch.

Time to move up, to start circling the field, but as the mare catches up with her rivals, one of them swings out in front of her and she steadies, losing her momentum.

Liam's rider tries to move up between horses. The hole closes. The gray steadies, trapped again.

Into the stretch in the floodlit dusk. The mare swings out to make her final move: the blazing move, the perfectly timed last run that has never failed her once. Another horse, ahead of her, is also coming out to make a run. She steadies again and swerves around him.

In mid-stretch the leaders tire and Liam gets clear, but Lea, a horse who has never lost at a mile on dirt, has gotten an unimpeded outside trip and spurted clear by four lengths. The rest of the closers are coming. The big gray looks done.

The dark mare storms down the stretch. It's not enough. She crosses the wire half a head too late.

Liam flattens his ears and surges forward with powerful strides. Lea isn't slowing down. The wire gets closer. In deep stretch, Liam's Map flies past Lea, and the sun glitters on his silver coat as he crosses the wire two lengths in front.

I don't know why Liam's Map's win in the Dirt Mile made me think of, and seemed like personal redemption for, Zenyatta's second in the Classic. It wasn't the only great performance of the event -- Tepin's Filly and Mare Turf, Songbird's Juvenile Fillies and Runhappy's Sprint stood out, as of course did American Pharoah's contemptuous dismissal of the Classic field. Victor Espinoza finally let him run. He ran the fastest mile and a quarter ever run on any surface at Keeneland, a track that has been in operation since the 1930's, without being touched by the whip. But Liam was the one I picked for my fantasy stable when he was a pretty yearling selling for 800K, and Liam's victory was the one that felt like mine.

Arctic Loon

For some reason, I've been really dialed in on birds lately. On the first, I went to Silverwood Lake, and normally I kind of struggle with some of the female ducks, like female Ruddy versus Bufflehead versus scaup. Not that day!

Things have just been... clicking. Like all the time spent birding and reading about birds has suddenly pushed my mind over some kind of edge. In a good way, I mean.

So on Saturday, as I was with a UCR class freezing my ass on Malibu Pier, we saw a loon. At first it was far away, and then it came closer and caught a fish, and we realized it wasn't a Common Loon, but we then thought it was a Pacific Loon.

Then it came right up under the pier and... CLICK... and I said, "Why isn't it an Arctic Loon?"

As we tried to look at its field marks, it went and hid under the pier for an hour or so.

We went down the beach to look at the birds that arrived for the low tide, and when we came back, the loon was back very close to the beach. It clearly showed white flanks above the waterline. What a handsome, elegant, cooperative bird it was, too. At that point, the instructor, Gene Cardiff, said we had confirmed it as an Arctic.

So I reported it on eBird, and Kimball (the eBird recorder for LA County) asked me for more details, and people went to search for the bird and take pictures (which the entire class Saturday failed to do), and the upshot is that:

On Saturday, we saw an Arctic Loon.

Here is the email citing all the famous people who agree it's an Arctic:


Your loon was refound and photographed by Todd McGrath, David Bell, Larry Sansone
and others today.  Among those who have looked at the photos and agreed it is an
Arctic are Guy McCaskie, Jon Dunn, and Curtis Marantz. I also agree with this ID.
Congratulations on a great find -- the first live Arctic Loon every found in
southern California south of Morro Bay (but do have a word with Gene about
recommending carrying a camera for documentation!).


Kimball L. Garrett
Ornithology Collections Manager
Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County
900 Exposition Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90007 USA

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"Just be sad" is not enough for me

I rarely blog about personal issues, let alone political ones, since that generally doesn't seem well received (or appropriate) but today I have something I want to say.

I have been surprised and disturbed by the amount of commentary I've seen, particularly on Facebook, on the Newtown murders, saying in effect that we should "just be sad", that we should definitely not talk about gun control in the wake of 20 6 and 7-year-olds being murdered, and that to do so is to "politicize" the event and to be insensitive and wrong.

My response to a horrific incident like this -- especially when it's far from an isolated event, but rather is one in a series of similar attacks -- is that we need to find a way to minimize the chances of something like this happening again. We cannot destroy all evil, or keep our citizens absolutely safe. But we can do something. One thing we can do is to ban automatic weapons such as the AR-15 which was used in Newtown (also in Colorado) from possession by individuals who are not actively involved with law enforcement or the military. There is no need for regular citizens to have weapons of war. I realize that the vast majority of owners of automatic weapons aren't going to kill anybody with them, but that's not the point. Getting these guns out of private hands will go a long way toward preventing mass murder.

As for those who argue the Constitution, I would offer them the right to have absolutely as many muzzle-loading black powder weapons as their little hearts desire.

There is also something else we can do. We can look at our methods of dealing with mental illness. How do we determine whether someone should be institutionalized or not? Not every killer has a known history of mental illness, but the Newtown killer did. And, not to go off on a list of personal grievances, but I have been physically threatened, harassed, and molested by mentally ill people on numerous occasions just during the course of my normal life (I'm not a social worker or psychiatrist) and I'm sure I'm not unique. People who are a danger to themselves and others shouldn't be walking the streets. I don't claim to know the best solution to the problem and I am not saying we should just shove everyone into an institution, but we need as a society to think about better solutions than the ones we have now.

The way that we find solutions in our society is through democratic political activity. If suggesting solutions is "politicizing" the events, so be it. It would not be appropriate to use the situation to score political points off an opponent, like FOX News trying to blame President Obama for things like hurricanes (I'm sure they have tried to blame this on him too). It is not appropriate to use tragic events to promote personal hobbyhorses -- those who say this happens because we aren't Christian enough need to take a much closer look at history. Nor does it seem appropriate to suggest censoring the news, as one particularly fatuous statement making the Internet rounds does -- we don't even know that any of these are copycat killings, and censoring news coverage goes against everything I believe in. But suggesting legislative and social policy solutions? If that's politicizing, so be it.

The "just be sad" argument is, to me, a weak and passive one -- and that is not an appropriate response when the lives of innocents continue to be in danger.

Tlaloc Wins the Election

So now that the election is over,

I can disclose a very interesting dream that I had on Sunday (I think) night.

In this dream I was with my friend Jason, and we were hurrying up to the top of a very tall house, to keep some unspecified yet scary thing from happening. I often have dreams involving ascending multi-story houses and I'm sure this is symbolic of an ascent to the world of the gods or what have you. In this one, there were ledges to walk on, collapsing stairs to jump over, and this huge sense of urgency.

I reached one of the upper rooms and there was a white ceramic figurine, with blue and red paint, sort of Mexican-looking, sort of part animal and part human (not a specific animal but I think it had four legs), and I knew that this was the god Tlaloc.

Bear in mind, I don't study Aztec or pre-Aztec mythology whatsoever and have no idea how my subconscious came up with this idea.

Before my friend could get there, I quickly made a cut on my wrist and smeared blood on the mouth of the figurine as a sacrifice so that the scary thing would not happen.

I pretty much woke up then.

Of course I got curious, and looked up Tlaloc, and found that he is a rather classic weather god, of storm and flood as well as drought, whose priests "imitated the cries of waterfowl" and of course who receives human sacrifice and is associated with jaguars. (It's also the name of a good-sounding Mexican restaurant in SF).

I have to say that was a much more interesting way of helping the election along than four years ago, when I just did a little sovereignty ritual with a circle of stones in a dry wash in Joshua Tree.

Chasing the Starthroat

Chasing the Starthroat

            It's July, 2012, and I'm heading off to a long-needed vacation in Southeastern Arizona with a field ornithology class from UCR Extension.

            I pull up to K's house half an hour early. I'm in a hurry, like a kid on Christmas morning. Apparently K, the class instructor and my birding guru, and M, his friend who will be driving, feel the same, because they have M's truck pretty much loaded.

            As we head east on the 10, M says something to the effect that his truck has been making strange noises and he thinks it's about ready for the junkyard. I wonder why we didn't take K's. Half an hour later, somewhere around Chiriaco Summit in one of the bleakest stretches of desert in the States and with the outside temperatures topping 100, the air conditioning quits. We try to make believe cold air is still coming out, but it's no good. We turn the system off for the climb past Chiriaco, and when we turn in back on, it works… for the time being.

            Our conversation is typical for the start of a birding trip. What birds can we see? What life birds might we get? What wonders are reported and might, with luck, be ours? There are several enticing reports, and one of the best is a Plain-Capped Starthroat, a large, brilliant hummingbird that isn't a regular Arizona bird.

            By the time we reach Tucson, the air conditioning has quit, the air smells of burning belt, and the truck is making a funny noise. We check into our motel and regroup.

            The next morning, M takes his truck for a service (he ends up having to replace his air compressor) while K and I catch a ride to the Sonoran Desert Museum with one of the class members. There, we meet up with five more people and the birding begins! Cactus Wrens are feeding young a few feet away. A Purple Martin flies over. White-Winged Doves sing everywhere. A tenebriid beetle plays dead in K's hand. But where are my Gilded Flickers -- the only life bird I really think are a sure thing for the trip?

            They are not to be seen.

            Nor are they to be seen at the Saguaro National Park headquarters. Those who haven't been to Arizona before are in heaven. I'm getting some year birds, but where are my flickers? I've driven down Cima Road in Mojave Preserve at 5 MPH looking for them with no luck. Now I'm supposedly in the heart of their territory. Secretly, in my heart, I despair of them.

            But a roadside stop later, there they are, flying through the saguaro cactus. One, a male with his brilliant red "moustache", lands and can be seen through K's scope. Life bird!

            On we go to Sweetwater Wetland, a sewage pond where we pick up a few species, including a close Great Horned Owl being harassed by Cassin's Kingbirds, but miss the local specialty, the Harris's Hawk. Then it's on to the great shopping at the Tucson Audubon Society headquarters, meet up with M and his rejuvenated air conditioning, and we hit the road south for our real destination: the sky islands of southeastern Arizona. A quick Safeway stop, and it's up a washboarded road to a little-used trail and a rumor of rare Rufous-Capped Warblers near a "check dam".

            A word on timing: these trips move fast. There's always another bird to find. It helps to be stocked with food, drink and ice when you start out, to keep your eye on the leader, and to plan your siestas for after you get home.

            Anyway, for the next hour or so, we bicker about what exactly a check dam is and whether it might be this pile of rocks or that old scrap metal, and it becomes the catch-phrase for the trip: the rare bird is near the check-dam. The warblers are nowhere to be seen, but Varied Buntings give us good looks from ocotillo stalks, and a Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, not always an easy bird to see, goes into a frenzy at the sound of K's iPod.

            We head up to the Santa Rita Lodge. Mixed oak and pine forest immediately provides new species, and I find that my study of local birdsongs is helpful, especially in identifying most of the weird noises as Brown-Crested Flycatchers. Hummingbirds, which can swarm these feeders, are a bit scarce, but we see a few. After making our dinners in the room kitchenettes, we head out into the darkness, where K's tireless hooting calls in a Whiskered Screech-Owl.

            The next day, we head up the canyon, where there's a trailhead for various well-used National Forest trails. We pick up many more mid-elevation forest species, but the real treasure here, the Elegant Trogon, is elusive. We listen for its deep clucking call in vain.

            Still, hopes are high: we're heading to Montosa Canyon, site of the Black-capped Gnatcatcher (life bird for me), Five-striped Sparrow, and our first Plain-Capped Starthroat. In the heat of a rocky wash, we try to see gnatcatchers' tails, but can't really distinguish a white tail among the others and the horde of Bell's Vireos. Canyon Wrens are there in hordes. We try really hard to make a juvenile Broad-billed Hummingbird a starthroat… but finally have to be honest with ourselves. As for the sparrows, they don't show. It's disheartening, at least for me.

            We go back to the lodge for a short break.

            Then the skies open.

            A note on the weather. Generally, southeastern Arizona is deadly sticky hot and humid. Many afternoons see giant monsoon storms, and that is what we wait out in the trailhead parking lot. Usually these clear up after an hour or so, but they must be treated with respect, as they can produce lightning and serious flash floods. That night while owling I am actually cold, and I go to sleep shivering -- so be prepared.

            The storm clears, and we hike back out into the clean, fresh, dripping woods. A trogon calls just off the trail. We waits. A male and female briefly come into view. Most people get looks at them; I see a flash of moving color and hear the call, enough to count my year bird; a few miss them. That's the way it goes. You have to expect to see stunning, soul-satisfying views of some birds, bad views of some, and no views of others (even while the person next to you is crying out in rapture).

            After dinner, more owling. Did I mention waiting to sleep till after the trip is done?

            The next day, back to Montosa to continue the quest. This is beautiful country, with or without birds. Mesquite flats, green with the monsoon, lead up into rocky canyons or shady mixed forests, which in turn lead to tall conifers on the peaks. This day, lots of other birders show up at Montosa, and some of us get looks at the sparrow; its head is behind a branch from my perspective, so no Five-striped Sparrow on my year list for 2012.

            And then, we wait (by a culvert, another water-control structure supposedly pointing to a rare bird) for the starthroat. Feeders have been set up. Binoculars raise every time another hummingbird arrives. We wait. Clouds drift by. Cardinals, Canyon Wrens, Bell's Vireos and Varied Buntings make the canyon ring with song.

            After over an hour, we drag ourselves away, defeated.

            But there is no time to mourn, because riparian birds await on the road to Patagonia. We quickly add beautiful Gray Hawks and Black-Bellied Whistling-Ducks. Then it's on to the famous Patagonia Picnic Table, where Thick-Billed Kingbirds are always to be found, one of the only places in the States to see them…

            Except today. Where are they? We desperately play their calls and strain to stare at every distant Cassin's Kingbird (or any bird at all). But they are nowhere to be seen.

            Defeated again, we check into the Stage Stop Inn in the little town of Patagonia and have time for a quick swim before going to the Patons' feeders to pick up the lovely Violet-Crowned Hummingbird. Then it's dinner at the local restaurant, and finally bed -- but some of the group drive up Harshaw Canyon, where they see a mountain lion!

            Tomorrow is another day, and this tomorrow starts with more disappointment at the picnic table. I wonder if this stresses K out. He generally doesn't seem very susceptible to stress, but this is another specialty bird that's not cooperating, and we try for a long time before moving on. Still, people don't seem too frustrated.

            Every group seems to have a beginner who can't really identify birds yet but is very good at spotting them; someone who is picky about restaurants and lodging and when are we going to stop for ice; someone who has trouble staying with the group and always needs to be looked out for; at least one expert birder. Due to a core of cheerful, interested people, this is an extra-good group. The fiftyish guy with the blond ringlets who brings nothing but black clothing, the rather deaf older gentleman who keeps declaring there aren't any birds around because he can't hear them, and the emotionally unstable oddball are there, but nobody minds much. Seeing birds is a bit of a drama at times, with helpful directions -- "It's in the green tree! No, on the other partially obscured, semi-dead, diagonal small branch" and cries -- "I can't see it!" "Oh, it's beautiful!" and snarls -- "George, you are STANDING IN MY WAY."

            As for what role I play, I'm not quite a beginner and I've been here twice before, so I try to help by finding birds and directing others to them, but I'm not really sure if I'm a help or just that obnoxious girl who has hummingbirds on the brain thus yells "Broad-Tailed!" as a Zone-Tailed Hawk flies over. I don't quite know where I stand. But that's nothing new.

            On this trip, I get frustrated with myself for not doing better, for not finding the good birds first, for not being able to hear the distant Elf Owl. It's not that I want to compete with others, but with some standard I set up for myself that I feel I'm not attaining. I probably need to be more Zen, or something.

            Another stop by the Patons' brings another tyrannulet, but no Thick-Billed Kingbird. But we get lucky at our last chance, a huge sycamore on Harshaw Canyon Road. There it is, harassed by its Cassin's cousins. And now goodbye to Patagonia, as we head out across the open grasslands -- Grasshopper Sparrows, Lilian's Meadowlarks, distant pronghorn -- and over to Sierra Vista. There, we hear of… another Plain-Capped Starthroat. This one is in the yard of one of K's friends. Supposedly. We never see it. We do see elusive, harlequin-patterned Montezuma Quail as we dodge a storm. Then it's up one of the canyons, following a road that was burned over and then suffered badly in storms; huge debris flows cross it and it looks like it'll give way in the next rain. At Beatty's bed and breakfast, accompanied by redbone and blue tick hounds, we get such close views of a White-eared Hummingbird that we don't need binoculars. Then it's up the rocky trail in search of Spotted Owls.

            I collect rocks for my yard. I'd promised K I wouldn't fill M's truck with them. In fact, I said I would collect only one. But secretly, I am squirreling away rocks under my feet in the back seat. After we see the owls -- dark-eyed benign shadows in the wet woods, and a ball of fluff that is the chick -- I sneak one more rock -- irresistible red veined with quartz -- into my backpack.

            The next day, it's up another winding, steep, precipitous (but not currently washing away) canyon road to get the mountain specialties. These birds, found in the higher chaparral and the conifer forests, can be hard work, but we find many Greater Pewees in a burned area, brilliant red Hepatic Tanager, even an apparently breeding pair of Indigo Buntings.

            Another day, and onward. We've already stopped by the excellent gift shop at the San Pedro River, but now, in the relatively cool morning, we go down to the river to find Yellow-Billed Cuckoos. We head off to a break from birding, a tour of the Copper Queen Mine in Bisbee, for which I strive but fail to find another adjective than "quaint". The adjacent open pit mine is, however, more Mordor-like than quaint. Then it's on to the slightly cooler weather and the striking cliffs of Cave Creek overlooking tiny Portal, Arizona. There are more trogons here -- but they evade us completely, despite several tries over our two-day stay. And there's another starthroat, seen in the yard of a hospitable but endlessly talkative local. Do we see it? Of course not. It turns out that Plain-Capped Starthroat really wants insects and only visits feeders as an aperitif. Still, we see other birds, and a night drive produces a fluffy gray fox crisscrossing the road in search of prey.

            One more day in Portal, and, after a stop to look at javelinas, up another steep dirt road to another mountain forest. We hunt down local warblers and chickadees and see a Short-Tailed Hawk dive from a mountain meadow; we chase an orange-breasted Apache Fox Squirrel up a tree.

            Then car trouble strikes again. We've had interim needs for oil and panics about gas smells, but now one of the trucks has made a clunking noise and then proceeded to act very ill indeed. The driver continues down to the lodge (which is remote, and doesn't have cell phone coverage), eventually gets a tow, and finds out that his pre-trip service resulted in a bolt not being tightened properly and racketing around his engine. Due to generous carpooling, he doesn't miss too much, but it strikes a note of caution, because had he been traveling alone, he would have been very much more inconvenienced. (And, after writing this, I saw a group email that someone had to stop in Blythe to replace her radiator.)

            Now K becomes the Captain Ahab of the Juniper Titmice. This little gray pointy-headed bird can be found in California, but not easily, and K decides that we must stop at every turnout in suitable habitat and call for them with iPod, owl sounds, and pishing. They don't appear, and it's the same sense of concern (they SHOULD be here!) as earlier with the trogon and the kingbird. I don't need the titmouse for the year, having seen it on January first in Sedona, so I'm just sort of bemused by this obsession. Later, I'm annoyed when I realize that we could have been calling for another little gray bird, Virginia's Warbler, which I still have seen only in un-countable silhouette, nanosecond flash, and mocking chip note form. But I get over it. We find the titmouse at a local feeder, and we also get amazing looks at normally elusive Montezuma Quail -- including one that crouches in the road, pretending to be a rock or a cow pie, and is almost missed until his black and white head pattern suddenly comes into view.

            The next morning, there is still no starthroat at the feeder. Our last chance is gone, but even though this would be a life bird for everyone, I don't think we really mind not seeing it. Is that because we didn't really believe we would see it (I know I didn't believe in it after the first long wait), or because, as a rare vagrant, it doesn't reflect on our skills to miss it? Or is it some kind of philosophical thing where the quest is more important than its end?

             On to Willcox, a sewer pond (birders love sewer ponds), where we find shorebirds, including Baird's Sparrow and hordes of phalaropes. Then to stay in Benson, and a drive to Tombstone, complete with its reenactors, for dinner. Being somewhat claustrophobic, as I discovered last time I was here, I skip that day's tour of the hot, wet, drippy Kartchner Caverns, but for those so inclined, they are interesting, and the visitor's center is exemplary. By now, there are five large rocks under my feet -- a striped purple one from Montosa, two medium-sized red ones from the picnic table, the red and white one from near Beatty's, a quartz from the top of the Huachucas near Sierra Vista, and a striped brown one from near the Kartchner state park. There are also little rocks in my bags. I have not quite kept my promise to take only one, but nobody seems to mind, except for the occasional surprised exclamation from people riding in the back when we leave M to rest, I get a rare turn in front, and we head out owling.

            And then for home -- with a last Sweetwater stop, and a noble Harris' Hawk watching from a post, and picking up a desert iguana to repatriate in California (he scratches unhappily at his cardboard box for the whole 8-hour drive, and poops several times judging by the smell, and I expect he is happy to be released). A stop at Cracker Barrel, a stop at the bookstore popularly known as the Naked Man due to the state of almost complete undress of its proprietor, and we are back in Palm Desert, 100 degrees and witheringly low humidity.

            I get in my reliable, happy little Corolla, turn the keys, and… click.

            There in civilization, AAA comes rapidly to give me a jump start. The tow truck driver says, "You know, I've been having a Plain-Capped Starthroat coming to my feeders. They're just up the wash by the check dam…"

            Not really. But I dreamed of one last night, brilliant green and white with a red star at its throat…


Western Field Ornithologists conference, August, 2011

Cottonwoods hide tempting wings:
sometimes, there are sapsuckers.

Storms raise flowers from the earth:
why does sorrow not bring joy?

The yellow eye of a black grebe
on the black eye of the white lake.

Two antelope on the wrong side of a fence.
You, on the wrong side of a door.

Will all these damn humans stop staring at me
so I can feed my chicks this giant, struggling damselfly?

My sky! the gray hawk calls:
Black zone-tails need say nothing.

Feather jewels in mesquite
through tears or sweat in eyes.

The 2011 Birding Challenge: Further Exploits of the Blue-Footed Boobies

Once again, it’s the wee hours on a hot Palm Desert spring night. And once again, a lovelorn Northern Mockingbird is singing. They only sing at night if they don’t have mates, and this boy is lonely, hoping for love. He’s also Bird #1.

                The four Blue-Footed Boobies pile into the Durango and head up the hill, up to Pinyon Crest, where it is darker and windily cold and from the depths of a ravine, a Common Poorwill is saying his name. The experts claim he won’t sing at colder than 55 degrees, but he is more interested in proclaiming his territory than checking the thermometer, so he is Bird #2.

                We drive up into the San Jacintos, into increasing wind and fog, stopping to call and listen for owls, but Bird #3 seems elusive. Finally, after driving on curvy roads through wet white-out, we stop near Julian and play a recording to try and attract a Western Screech-Owl. After the recording plays a couple of times, we hear his staccato hoot approaching through the dark trees. He’s thinking there’s a rival for his mate or his patch, or maybe he thinks the iPod sounds like the sexiest female owl he’s ever heard. He’s probably not thinking of helping out the team! But we’re very glad to have him on the list.

                After that, dawn breaks, and the birds come more quickly. A wealth of brilliant black, orange, and white Black-Headed Grosbeaks at a feeder. A treasure-trove of little yellow Nashville Warblers, with a brighter Yellow Warbler alongside. Hawks, geese, ducks, turkeys. The birds are cooperating. Of course, they don’t know that we are raising money for habitat conservation that will help them out. Still, they seem well-mannered, responding to our pishing sounds by giving us good looks at them. But morning is moving on and we have to too.

                We head back down from the mountains into Anza-Borrego. The day continues windy and cold, the grayest day I’ve ever seen in that part of the world. Still, a Least Bell’s Vireo is singing his high-pitched chatter from Sentenac Canyon, and a Canyon Wren’s chime descends.

                Onward to the Salton Sea. It’s warmer here, and hordes of bold yellow Western Kingbirds sit on the wires. Gambel’s Quail seem to be enjoying the absence of the winter geese and cranes, and Burrowing Owls are perching on fence posts and even up on a wire, possibly looking for a break from a burrow full of screaming chicks. Ponds are full of shorebirds. Everyone who has a mating plumage to change to is in it, and almost everyone who has a song to sing is singing it. That’s spring for birds. Time to mate, or reconnect with your mate for life. Some pair up on migration, and some will wait till they get where they’re going. However they do it, spring is all about bird love, and raising chicks, and getting them out in the world.

                We stop at the Salton Sea park headquarters and try and spot a Gull-Billed Tern through the heat haze, but can’t. Flamingoes do show up at the next stop, a pink blur in the scope. Red Knots, rare and threatened shorebirds, are in their red-and-silver spring plumage, as is a distant Common Loon. More shorebirds, more terns, more gulls. If you stayed long enough on the shore of the Salton Sea, every bird on earth would probably pass by. But we have to move on, up the freeway to the Wild Bird Center.

                “Bud” the Great Horned Owl doesn’t cooperate, and neither does the Pied-Billed Grebe, maybe hiding from the blistering wind howling down the Coachella Valley. Still: Crissal Thrasher, Yellow-Headed Blackbird, Common Moorhen… and back on the freeway again. At the exit for Morongo, the wind is blowing so hard that when we stop for gas the Durango rocks on its tires.

                In the preserve it’s slow going, with nary a chat nor oriole. We have to beg for help just to find a Vermilion Flycatcher nest. It’s not our finest moment. But when we add up the numbers… we’re ahead of last year. We’ve broken our own winning record.

                It’s late afternoon now, and the wind, and the early start, are getting to us. College of the Desert campus is short on birds. But we just want one more. One of us has an old friend, a Black-Crowned Night-Heron who usually hangs out at the city park. Will he be there today, with the wind and the hordes out for the weekend?

                Indeed he is there, loftily ignoring people, strollers, and dogs in his elegant gray, black, and white plumage. Our final bird. Bird #147.

It took me a long time to decide to write about the weekend because there were also some disturbing human elements. In particular, I have no idea how to respond when the spouse of a friend verbally abuses said friend in both of our presence. So I said nothing.