A coyote successfully catching a rodent (maybe a gopher?) in San Diego County, CA.
A coyote successfully catching a rodent (maybe a gopher?) in San Diego County, CA.
Several years ago I spent a winter living in Montana. Here is a story from that time.
Since moving to Montana, I had been doing casual birding around Livingston. Spoiled by the warm, dry weather in southern California, from where I had just come, the cold, windy weather in Montana made me reluctant to go outside for long periods of time.
Finally, I had had enough. I had to go for a serious bird watching trip. It was time to go on a local birding expedition outside of Livingston to start finding some of Montana’s winter specialties.
I had written up a list of my most wanted birds. Included on that list was the gray-crowned rosy-finch.
I had searched for these guys, with brown, grey, and pink plumage, while back-packing in the eastern Sierras in California, a few months before, in September. One book, "Discovering Sierra Birds" by Keith Hansen, had described them as being abundant above 10000 feet. I spent several days above 10000 feet, examining every small bird I saw. None were rosy-finches. Maybe they were moving to lower elevations because winter was coming. I kept my eyes peeled below 10000 feet. No rosy-finches. I had my boyfriend, Aaron, looking too. No rosy-finches.
It became a joke between us. We started calling the finches the Pink Ones, mysterious pinkish birds sitting up on the highest Sierra peaks, giggling while we looked for them. At the end of our trip, as we drove through the Owens Valley and past Mount Whitney, I waved at the jagged peak, and at the Pink Ones, promising that I would find them one day.
After we moved up to Montana, I started perusing my field guides. I learned that grey-crowned rosy-finches were found in Montana in the winter. Good, I would find them here.
I set up my first serious Montana birding trip. My next tasks, after creating my most wanted list, were checking e-Bird, an online birding database that is popular among birders, and the Montana Outdoor Birding Group message-board. I focused on mentions of my most wanted birds, in particular the Pink Ones….aka, rosy-finches. I found several reports of sightings. In the end, I decided to head to the Shields Valley, since several life birds were possible there, including rosy-finches.
Early in the morning, I set out on my trip. Snacks and coffee available, binoculars and camera easily accessible. Outside of Livingston, I headed north up Route 89 toward Clyde Park, watching for the road I wanted to take, Shields River Road. I saw it as I was driving past it. Dammit! I kept heading north, looking for a good place to turn my little Pontiac Sunfire around.
A couple of miles up the road, I noticed a big fluffy bird of prey sitting on a fence post, by a pasture full of cattle. It was a rough-legged hawk, a common winter raptor in Montana. Arctic breeders, they have fluffy plumage, dainty beaks, and small feet, and are probably one of the cutest hawks out there. It was sitting in a good spot for a photo. I took note of it, and when I turned around, I made a point of stopping to try for a picture.
Cars can make pretty good blinds. The hawk did not mind my car, my open window, or me pointing a camera at it. I felt optimistic about getting a great photo. Unfortunately, I accidently triggered the timer on the camera, causing the camera to beep loudly. The hawk minded this beeping a great deal, and took off over the backs of the cattle, landing in a tree too far away for a good photo. Oh well, maybe another day.
I continued on to my original destination. I drove through the valley slowly, watching for small birds along the road and in the fields, looking for longspurs, snow buntings, horned larks, and, of course, rosy-finches.
I encountered no small songbirds the entire length of the road. There were groups of pigeons hanging out here and there, lots of black-billed magpies, more rough-legged hawks (none in a good place for a photo), bald eagles, golden eagles, and ravens. At one point I spotted some fat brownish birds in a field near the road. Since sharp-tailed grouse was on my most wanted list, I stopped. They turned out to be gray partridge, an introduced gamebird. So, not sharp-tailed grouse, but still a new bird to me.
I returned to 89 without seeing any small songbirds. It was looking like the Pink Ones would evade me again. Bummer. I decided to keep going through Clyde Park, because I wanted to head to 86 and Bozeman after my birding excursion.
Outside of Clyde Park, I spotted an interesting scene: a road-killed deer covered in black-billed magpies. Magpies are common in the American west, and considered a pest by some. But I think they are one of the most beautiful birds, with their crisp black-and-white plumage, and long elegant tails, tinged with rainbow iridescence. This was a great opportunity to get photos of magpies, so I took the opportunity to get several dozen.
After the magpie photo-shoot, I continued through Clyde Park and headed to Wilsall. Near the city limit of Wilsall, I stopped to photograph a barn that I found attractive. I noticed some birds fluttering around in front. I dismissed them as I took a few photos, thinking they were house sparrows. I would add them to my day list when I was done taking pictures.
I finished my photo taking and looked at the little birds with my binoculars. The markings were wrong for house sparrows…they had pink on them….
It dawned on me…ROSY-FINCHES! In front of the barn! Four of them! Surprise!
Such is the world of birding. Sometimes, the most desired birds show up when you least expect them.
I deemed my birding trip for the day a success.
Shields Valley (Rt 89, Shields River Rd, and Rt 86)
Rough-legged Hawk (one lucistic!)
Bald Eagle (observed pair by nest on ranch)
Eurasian Collared Dove (gas station parking lot)
Sunset Hills Cemetery, Bozeman
more Black-billed Magpies
Handsome, cooperative, grasshopper sparrow, singing in fennel, in northern San Diego County, CA.
I could hear the soft footsteps of the bobcat before it materialized in the clump of dead arundo. Do you see it? Look in the center, to the right of the tree trunk. Our gazes met briefly, and then the bobcat walked away, as softly as it had arrived.
The bird calling loudly in the background is a fledgling Cooper's hawk, the nest it came from in a tree about 15 meters behind the bobcat.
San Luis Rey River corridor, Bonsall, CA.
I recently read an essay called “Home” in the book “Wild Mind” by Natalie Goldberg. In the essay she describes a writing class where the students are told to write about home. Most of the students describe their houses, Goldberg writes an abstract piece describing home as the stars and her writing. Another student writes about a specific event at the place he works. The essay got me thinking. I move around a lot, so I don’t consider myself to have a physical home. For me, being home is a feeling of belonging in a place, being a part of the place. Home for me may last for months, or only a few moments. Here are some of my homes:
A hot summer evening in the Texas Hill Country, sitting out at a picnic table on the deck with a cold beer and a good book. The field adjacent to the field house is full of white-tailed deer, wild turkey, and feral pig. The bucks spar, the does, pigs, and turkeys graze, and the fawns chase each other through the grass. As darkness falls, the deer fade into the woods, and nocturnal birds, chuck-wills-widows, start to call.
Winter afternoons on Sanibel Island in Florida, perusing the beach for sea shells. The gentle waves deposit hundreds of shells on the sand, sometimes right at my feet! Lightning whelk, horse conch, lace and apple murex, banded and true tulip, calico clam, kitten’s paws, among others. Tiny, colorful coquinas marked from the bills of hungry shorebirds. Sometimes I find a rarity, like a lion’s paw, pearl oyster, or junonia. Sometimes I find huge live horse conchs, the size of footballs. I help them back into the water.
Sometimes, I spot dolphins and sharks foraging in the shallows.
I walk barefoot over the sand and shell piles. One woman tells me I’m brave.
I watch brown pelicans and sandwich terns plunge dive. I wade out to my knees to capture shells before they make it to the sand. Once I am caught up in a feeding frenzy at the shoreline, surrounded by terns and pelicans. I don’t move. Another woman tells me I look like I am one with the birds.
Sometimes, I stay until evening. One evening I succeed in seeing the green flash as the sun sets.
A summer night in a rural mountain town in West Virginia. Thirty field biologists are having a bonfire. We sit on folding chairs and tree stumps around the fire. Beer, tequila, and Southern Comfort make the rounds. The crackling fire feels good in the cool night air. Sometimes, between lulls in conversation, I hear crickets. People talk about their projects: birds, deer, salamanders, and other things. They talk of home. Of school. Of future plans. As it gets later talk gets more intimate. Tales of lost loves and secrets are whispered. Eventually, people start drifting off to bed.
A cloud forest in central Costa Rica. I walk down a lush trail, where plants are growing on plants. Birds flit in the shadows. Every one is new to me. I am in heaven! Two big black birds float through the mist. Black guans! A plump brown bird with a pointy crest, resembling a brown teardrop, sits quietly on a branch. Tufted flycatcher! A robin-sized, black bird with fluffy yellow thighs runs across the trail. Yellow-thighed finch!
The air is moist, mist hovers in the treetops. As I walk I disturb hard dark green fruits that are littering the ground. They are wild avocados, preferred food of the replesendent quetzal, a spectacular Central American bird with irridesent green tail feathers that are nearly two feet long. I scan the tree branches, but don’t see any quetzals today. I know they are there, and that I will see them soon.
I head back to the lodge and sit near the hummingbird feeders. Firey-throated hummingbird, magnificent hummingbird, volcano hummingbird…all visit the sugar water fearlessly, mere feet from where I am sitting.
Winter in the Mojave Desert of California. My boyfriend and I are biology volunteers for the Mojave National Preserve. It is cold, and often cloudy. I hike across old lava fields, creosote flats, and through Joshua tree forest with my boyfriend, as we track collared mule deer. We see wildlife: a desert bighorn ram, kit fox, poorwills, golden eagles, a badger, and more. We find the tracks of feral burros and mountain lions, but never see the animals themselves.
One afternoon, retracing our steps in a canyon, we find a haunch of jackrabbit on our trail, surrounded by fresh lion tracks. A lion had just been there! We look at the quiet canyon walls, but see nothing.
We find a glossy snake at the Kelso Dunes. It acts fierce, but it is not dangerous.
We find Indian arrowheads in the sand, and petroglyphs carved into the rock. We climb to the tops of several mountain peaks for better signals, and find old geo-caches from the 80s. We sign our names to the papers and return them to their hiding spots. We are the first people to find them since they were hidden over 20 years ago.
Spring in the Southern California desert. The sun is warm, but it’s not too hot yet. I visit Anza-Borrego. Desert wildflowers are blooming in the state park, in a rainbow of colors, red, blue, yellow, and misty purple. I hike on trails in the canyons, and stand in the shade of California fan palms. I find a Costa’s hummingbird building a nest.
In the afternoon, I drive to the Salton Sea and enjoy its abundant birds: stilts, avocets, burrowing owls, ibis, phalarope, and more.
In the evening, I enjoy dinner at Carlee’s Restaurant in Borrego Springs. The waiter remembers my name. I drive to Plum Canyon that night and camp, anticipating tomorrow’s adventure.
Summertime in the lower peninsula of Michigan. We are a PhD student and her four field assistants, collecting data on Kirtland's warblers, living in a lakeside field house. Baltimore orioles and rose-breasted grosbeaks sing from the tree tops, and yellow-bellied sapsuckers drill holes in the tree trunks. In the lake behind the house, common loons tend to their young, bald eagles snatch fish from the water, and painted turtles bask on logs.
Our mornings and nights are early, and we make the most of our days. In the afternoons after work, sometimes I unwind by walking the road, listening for mourning warblers and Cape May warblers, and catching the snakes that like to bask on the gravel shoulders.
Often, in the evenings, we play board games together, our favorite being "Settlers of Catan", or we watch DVDs of TV shows (especially Dexter and Stargate Atlantis) and movies, lounging on the cozy chairs in the living room, enjoying cold drinks and nibbling snacks. I always look forward to the end of day social time, with Alana, Sarah, Sky, and Erhen, and it is my favorite thing about working with that field crew.
This is an older story that I'm fond of. I pull it out sometimes and do minor edits on it. The first version was published in PSU Altoona’s "Hard Freight" magazine in the fall of 2005. The setting is the mountain Gamelands above Altoona, PA.
On a cool day in early fall, I escaped campus between classes to hike in the Gamelands. The grey clouds spit rain as I took my binoculars in hand and headed down a dirt road. My intention was to look for birds, warblers in particular. I was pondering warbler identification challenges as I meandered, and hoping the rain and chill in the air wouldn’t spoil things.
Acorns, leaves, and rocks crunched under my boots as I walked past clumps of aster, goldenrod, and touch-me-nots. As I rounded a familiar turn I noticed a thick tree branch sticking out of the grass that hadn’t been there on my previous visit. I quickly trained my binoculars on it.
It was a timber rattlesnake.
I became giddy with excitement. I had never seen a wild rattlesnake before. I crept towards it and checked with my binoculars again. It's scales were blackish. Unsatisfied with my proximity to the snake, I got closer. I did this a few times, until I was about fifteen feet away. At this point I was close enough to the snake to observe it without binoculars. Then, worried that I may be too close, I jumped back. I spent several minutes hopping around all over the place, trying to decide how close I wanted to be to the snake.
Finally, I stopped, and a funny thought occurred to me. The snake hadn’t moved a muscle since I’d arrived. My dancing about hadn’t perturbed it. It still sat, sticking out of the grass and hovering over the road in exactly the same position as it had been in when I rounded the bend in the road. It didn’t waver from the effort of holding itself, and there was no tongue flicking in and out of its mouth.
I became suspicious. Was the snake real? I looked around nervously. Of course there were no people around. I studied the animal with my binoculars again. No fake rattlesnake could look that good. It was a chilly day. Maybe the temperature had something to do with the snake’s reluctance to move. So it had to be real. My paranoid thoughts quieted for the moment and my mind turned to other things.
I briefly fantasized about picking the rattlesnake up. This desire was immediately suppressed because of its stupidity. I was alone and had no experience handling venomous snakes. Surely the animal would bite. I had no cell phone on me, and even if I did it would be useless because there was no cell phone service in that area. It would be up to me to drive myself down the mountain and to the emergency room.
So I settled back to watch the snake. After several minutes, almost imperceptibly, there was movement. I blinked my eyes hard. Yes, the snake was moving! Ever so slowly it lowered its head to the ground. At the same time it turned its body toward the grass behind it. The snake was leaving. When the snake’s head was fully in the grass I crept a little closer to admire the pretty markings on its back and to see the delicate rattle at the tip of its tail. At almost four feet in length and as thick as my arm, the reptile was bigger than I had thought it was.
As the grass swallowed the snake, I bid it farewell and hoped it would not run into a person with malevolent intentions. I continued up the dirt road. A breeze rustled the leaves, hemlock needles pattered to the ground, and birds called to each other from the forest and the brush.