Friday, September 29, 2006

Birder’s Nightmare

What’s a birder’s worse nightmare? Missing a plane connection from East Jesus Island back to the mainland and having to stay an extra day? Not hardly.
Paying a godzillion bucks for a once-in-a-lifetime trip only to discover it’s monsoon season when you arrive? Any day bad for flying is a good day for birding.
No. I think the thing we fear most is being alone and coming upon a totally out-of-place bird; or one that has been extinct since white men invaded the North American continent.
I rank this scenario just above being alone and finding a body stashed in the bushes of some remote park. I must say, the body thing used to really bother me. I often bird alone in places I’m unfamiliar with. Then the other day I crossed paths with a live, very live, alligator in Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. The Zen moment was that in most places, any body would have been recycled by the time I found it. Except for maybe the baseball cap part. This enlightenment, resolving the mystery of how caps (and maybe shoes) turn up in remote places, took my mind off finding bodies.
My out-of-place bird is a yet-to-be-resolved problem. I easily studied a number of small birds working the trees in front of the nature center at Loxahatchee NWR last Tuesday. The center was closed. Even had it been open no one could have found it if they followed the directions given on the center’s Web site. As for maps of Florida, they might as well have provided a map of Nebraska. The directions were more than 10 miles off from the closest intersection noted. But that’s another story.
The point is, I was alone—except for the birds. Oh, and the ‘gators. So, leaning against my car I was ticking off warblers like I was walking the boardwalk at Magee Marsh. This was too cool. The most brilliant Prairie Warbler I’ve seen since … well, in a long time; Black-throated Blue; Common Yellowthroat. Man, this was easy.
Hmmm, Hermit Thrush, that seems odd. Then the nightmare. I of course did not realize it was a nightmare until I woke up. It was one of those tiny, nondescript birds working in the deep shadows. I applied my best pishing techniques and out he popped to see what all the silly noise was about. Oooo, a Red-breasted Nuthatch! Wow, that’s great!
Then it hit me—like getting out of an air conditioned car into the 96-degree heat and humidity too high to measure: Boy, you are way too far south to see a Red-breasted Nuthatch, especially at this time of the year. I watched the bird flit about the branches and disappear into the dense south-Florida underbrush.
A quick look at my field guide brought me up short. No nuthatch, red, white, brown or pygmy was to be found here. I checked the Loxahatchee list. None, as in zero, found here.
Oh boy, now what? My 2K memory bank searched for what else, anything else, it could have been. All the obvious birds were eliminated because this bird looked like what it was. Maybe it’s some exotic that flew over from the Bahamas? Nothing in the field guide qualified. I’ve seen an albino Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and partially albino American Robin that drove me to hours of page turning in field guides. This bird, however, left no (or little) doubt.
When I got back to my room I shot an e-mail off to friend Mauri Peterson, president of the St. Pete (Florida) Audubon Society, describing my dilemma. She was stumped as well. (I’ll leave out the part where she called me a weenie because I complained about the incessant heat.) She posted the sighting for comment to the Florida birders’ hot line. Nothing I’ve received from the folks down there has yet to change my mind about what I saw.
The bright point in all of this is that I no longer have to lie awake at night wondering what will happen if (when) I encounter an out-of-place bird. Maybe I should sign up for one of those group trips searching the swamps of Arkansas, looking for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. I have nothing to fear—now—but why chance doing it solo?

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

And Why Not

Currently, birding for me is a pause; a break in the action of daily life. It’s the white space between the notes that define the music. It functions well in that capacity, particularly when I’ve been around folks who think wearing a tie can actually improve what you do or what you say.
These are the kinds of people who allow societal pressures define what they call a normal life. And they grow up to become corporate CEOs and the like. Maybe even lawyers and NASCAR drivers. I take pleasure in knowing I’ll never be burdened with unearned income, or tangled in the lines of golden parachutes. You only need a parachute when you’re on the way down, right?
So if you pass up a chance to play golf and talk more about what you’ve been talking about, incessantly, since you ate the quiche this morning, you’re suspect. And if you say you’re going birding, they look at you, not often straight on, but out of the corner of their eye. Their heads turn a bit, trying to assess the danger level. Flight or fight?
Yesterday I had just finished a speaking gig in West Palm Beach and was heading for Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge and a few hours of birding. One of the conference attendees ambushed me in the lobby of the overly plush Breakers Hotel. I never saw him coming. His green cap with matching logo shirt and shorts proved to be great camouflage. He stood behind the potted plants used to make the inside of the place artificially look like the outside. Why do they do that, then go to great efforts to keep out the bugs and other creatures?
“Great talk this morning. Wanna join us for some golf?”
“Ah, thanks. Nope.”
“We’ve got room for one more. We’re playing on the Ocean (something) course this afternoon.”
They never listen to your first answer.
“No, thanks. I’m going birding.”
And there was that look. He wanted to be sure no one saw him talking with a birder—whatever that was, or is.
“Aaaa, like bird watching? Why would you want to go out in this heat [96 degrees] and watch birds?”
The greatest of all philosophical questions—why.
And it’s so easily answered with the greatest of all philosophical answers—why not.
I had a lot of smart-ass answers I could have used, such as, you’re going to go hit a little white ball around in this heat … That kind of stuff.
I’ve learned that just saying “why not” is usually enough. It gives the asker enough space to nod his head and slip away, feeling like he won the discussion, which is what it’s all about for these corporate-leader types—winning.
This guy didn’t cave. He hadn’t grappled to the top of his corporate heap by not knowing all the answers. “So, what do you expect to see out there?”
Hmmm. Was this an opportunity to educate, or just some dude passing time, waiting for a more likely golfing prospect?
Let’s educate, I thought. “Well, Loxahatchee is about the only place you can still find the endangered Snail Kite,” I said in my most pleasant, instructional tone of voice.
Oops, that did it. His eyes narrowed. He furtively glanced around, kind of bird-like. Still, he couldn’t let it go. “A bird called a snail?”
I could pull out the field guide … No, let’s quit wasting time. Go directly to smart-ass. “Nope. The bird is a kite. It eats snails. Apple snails, actually.”
Now he was cooked. He had to get in the last word, however. That’s what bosses do best. He knew he was dealing with someone who was loosely wrapped; potentially dangerous. “Ya know, none of those words make a bit of sense if you’re really talking about birds.”
I just grinned, raised my shoulders and bid him a tolerable day on the course.
He certainly made my day. So, maybe I bird to be able to have a bit of fun with corporate leaders.

Monday, September 25, 2006

A Lot Can Happen Between Here and There

We were about half way between here and there, maybe 60 minutes outside of Baltimore flying to West Palm Beach. The flight attendant calmly asked for a doctor or medical person. Chimes dinged in a couple spots. I cranked my neck around to see what was happening.
Seems there was a woman in distress two rows back and across the aisle.
A young woman across the aisle from me, without hesitation, climbs over the two people next to her and gets to the woman in distress about the same time as another young woman from the back of the plane. Turns out the first is a nurse, an EMT, and the second a doctor.
In a case of life-imitating-art (at least what passes for art on television), or maybe it’s the other way around, the doctor had caught my eye while waiting on line for the flight. I think she had captured just about everyone’s eye. About 5’ 10”, blond and fresh off the pages of some fashion magazine. Now she looked like a new character for ER. (Sexist! ((Who said that?)))
The crew of the Southwest flight 881 is incredibly efficient. While a couple of the attendants work to get the aisle clear and the doc to the patient, another opens the first overhead bin and plugs in a special headset to talk with … ? Well, talk with someone, probably the pilot. She also has a diagramed yellow sheet with instructions and procedures to be followed. She gives a running commentary to someone, and now I have the feeling it’s someone with medical experience since she seems to be answering questions.
The doc is making a quick assessment. The nurse helping as they talk things through. The woman in distress is getting more so. The doc tells the flight crew to get the defibrillator handy. Just get it out. And she also says something with her eyes that I can’t understand.
Out comes the red bag and cords.
The doc calls for some orange juice as she tries to communicate with the patient. She doesn’t seem to be giving the doc the answers the doc wants.
Doc calls for oxygen and it’s there faster than I can type the word.
More orange juice. Aspirin? Aspirin.
More oxygen.
Patient’s looking better, but the doc wants everyone to hold their places.
A decision is made to move the woman up a half dozen rows to the front bulkhead seats. More space for the doc to work on her.
Looking better by the minute the doc says. Nurse and doc sit with her and comfort her. Lots of elderly people on this flight paying close attention.
These airplane people are good! No panic. The crew acts like it’s an everyday occurrence. I’ve been flying for 45 years and it’s the first time I’ve seen this.
Crew member writes down how much oxygen was consumed.
Smiles all ‘round. What looks like an exchange of names and addresses is going on! Lots of conversation, like they’re talking with a groggy prizefighter.
Doc stands to let the attendant climb on the seat and put the oxygen bottle back in its cradle. Doc flashes a killer smile to the guy who got on the plane with her.
He returns a knowing smile. Damned proud of you, he’s thinking. All in a day’s work, her eyes say.
Situation under control.
Then the grumbling about slow service starts. And just when I thought the human race might be worth saving …

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Fishing for Stripers

Fishing for striped bass (sorry, all you guys who Googled a similarly spelled word hoping to see scantly clad women) is always a treat and like-new experience for us fresh-water fly fishers.
I’m just finishing a four-day trip to the ever-changing scenic Cape Ann area of Massachusetts, where the end of the striper migration is happening. These big-shouldered fish are heading south for a while, some as far as Florida.
The fish I got into are referred to as “schoolies.” I don’t know why they carry that tag, however, it’s what the locals call the little guys. Little, in this case is a relative term. Most of the fish I landed (the biggest one got away, honest!) were in the range of 18 inches to 20 inches and weighed in around three or four pounds.
As a trout fisher, that’s getting close to record size, and if you’re a trout fisher from Cleveland, steelhead excluded, a 20-inch, four-pound fish is enough of an excuse to call off going to work on Monday.
The schoolies here were great fighters (as any of us would be with a hook in our jaw) and all were returned to the ocean, traumatized I’m sure, but no worse the ware. One fish in particular is telling an unbelievable tail to its buddies. It was the second fish I caught yesterday. I was playing it for a few minutes (Playing is the human’s term; fish, I’m sure call it something else. You really can’t call fishing a sport since the opponents don’t know they’re even in a game.) and I began to see it flashing a red color. I knew it wasn’t blood and thought I had hooked up with some other species.
I landed the fish and discovered it had a huge artificial lure stuck in its jaw. The lure was fuchsia-colored creature and about 10-inches long, equipped with more hooks than a small tackle shop.
I carefully got the hooks, mine included, out of the fish’s mouth and put the confused creature back into the ocean. It waved good-by as it sped off to tell a tale of capture, rescue and release.
Hmmm. Same story as I’m telling.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Seesawing of the Seasons

Summer’s running on empty. From 38,000 feet above the surface of Planet Earth, it’s easy to see the changes when you head west and back to the future. By the time I arrived in Salt Lake City I was only an hour late for lunch, which I had eaten in Chicago a couple hours before, which was an hour earlier than it was in Cleveland. Or something like that.
But above it all the changing colors dominate the landscape and your mind. Ohio, from that altitude still has an attitude of green—mossy green, but green nonetheless. There are the occasional punctuation marks of orange and red, reminding us that the sentence has to come to an end. The unsure yellow spots seemed more like question marks.
Iowa this day was decidedly tan, punctuated by a bit of gray here and there. Few and far between were barns, water towers and other evidence of human habitation. Gray/brown was the color today in Iowa and will be the color in Cleveland in the future. Thank goodness for Northern Cardinals and Blue Jays.
As we moved over the mountains in Colorado it was suddenly white, bright white with fresh snow capping the rocks. Lower down was the bumpy grayish brown of last season’s leftovers, not unlike that piece of meatloaf you found in the back of the fridge last week.
And on to Utah. More incredible shades of tan and gray and again, snow. Lots of snow. It was Cleveland’s future. Well, okay, minus the mountains.
I made a quick three-hour trip out the Antelope Island State Park, located in the middle of the Great Salt Lake. I was amazed to see snow floating on the water as far as I could see. Through my binoculars I discovered it was not snow. It was more American Avocets than I ever dreamed were on the planet! Tens of thousands of them, all virtually in basic plumage. As far as I could see, and here I think you can safely measure the distance in miles, were avocets. I pulled out the scope (Why we need confirmation of what we already know remains a mystery to me.) and the view, distorted by a shortening of perspective, was even more spectacular.
When the ranger walked up to me and asked if I was going to pay my $9 entry fee I jokingly said, “I think I’ve seen the whole show already.”
She looked at the avocets as I do European Starlings and said, “Well, the big flock is at the West end of the causeway.” Yikes!
She was about half right. The flock at the end of the causeway was enormous, however, what made it seem larger was that tens of thousands of the birds in the flock were Black-necked Stilts! Here the massive white covering of the lake was punctuated with black of their necks and backs.
I figured I had already squeezed more than my $9 out of this place, however I should drive around to see if there were any bonus birds about. Mid-September is the nadir of the birding season in this part of the West. I got lucky. A Burrowing Owl who should have been on his way south played peek-a-boo with me until he figured I was less of a threat than the Northern Harrier who kept passing overhead. His golden eyes, the color of the turning aspen leaves in the mountains behind him, stared at me, never blinking. We chatted a bit about the changing season, going to Mexico for some warmer weather and did I think the global warming thing would change his migration patterns. Birds of the feather ...
By the time I arrived at Park City, my destination, most of the snow had melted. It hung on in places hiding from the sun. The mountains at 6,700 feet were awash in golden aspen leaves and snow. The air up here is so clean you can’t even see what you’re breathing. Just like Cleveland will be in a couple months. Well, maybe not exactly, however it was a nice preview of coming attractions.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

For a Better America

When President Bush calls to ask me what’s needed to get this country back on track, I’m ready. It occurred to me this morning, while waiting for the bus in a torrential downpour, that what this country needs is not a really good five-cent cigar, as the forgettable Thomas Riley Marshall, vice president from 1913 to 1921, said, but a mandatory walk in the woods. (As an aside, Marshall’s other great line was, "Indiana is the mother of vice presidents, home of more second-class men than any other state.")
An annual three-day backpacking trip should be a requirement for U.S. citizenship, right up there with a mandatory driver’s license re-exam every three years—and a five-year suspension of all NASCAR events and merchandise sales.
What prompted the thought was all the grousing by my bus-buddies, and all the crap we carry just to get through the day in a dry office.
I’ve done about 800 miles of the Appalachian Trail over the years, and numerous other hikes and camps. Out there (where ever "there" happens to be) you carry all you need for a week or so on your back. Everything. You learn if you get wet, you’ll dry. If you get hungry, you’ll fix something to eat. You won’t need newspapers because what happens doesn’t really matter and effects you even less.
All you really need to survive is on your back and in your pockets. If you need entertainment you stop to examine the bark of a tree. You stand still, stare at the ground and bust your brain trying to remember a bird’s song. You talk with people you’ll never see again so you’re free to tell the truth. Danger is not some druggie in a car, it’s your imagination: Was that a bear or a crazed Wild Turkey? Oh, another hiker taking a pee.
A backpacking trip brings life down to it’s most basic common denominators. At the end of the trip you swear you’ll never do it again. Two weeks later, hassling an umbrella, coffee cup, lap top computer case and deadlines, you start planning next year’s hike. It makes you focus on what matters most, something that’s missing from most political agendas.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Her Name is Luna

Some days are not meant for working. Today is one such.
6:28AM. Dark. Head north to the bus stop. Challenges of the office tax my brain.
6:30AM. Moon-roof open. Dylan crooning on the CD player. Zip across the architecturally spectacular bridge that spans the Cuyahoga River. Helps us commuters sail through the air along Route 82. Cleveland, if not in my sights, is in my mind.
6:31AM. There hangs the moon—just hours past its full stage. Closing in on apogee in a couple of weeks. Only 238,855 miles away today. I could reach out and touch her. We measure her orbit against the stars. Humans try to do the same with themselves. Our future is in the stars.
6:32AM. Now is when I need to run out of gas. Maybe a flat tire. Please Ra! Grant me this one wish and I’ll never again … Luck is not with me. More unanswered prayers.
6:33AM. The river, somewhere down there 145 feet below, looks like it’s smokin’. I’m a wishin’ and a hopin’. If this is not the top of the world, I can, at least, see the top of the world from here.
6:33.5AM. Luna’s golden buttery color belies her minus-387-degree- and maximum-253-degree temperatures.
6:34AM. Who decided it was a "man" in the moon, then gave it a feminine name? Sorry Luna, white guys rule—or at least they used to—which is how we got to where we are.
6:34.5AM. Summer’s over. You want the world to just let you be. Let the fog wrap you in its coolness. Cool sheets. Whispered good-byes.
6:35AM. A flock of geese honking. Heading south. No! It’s the line of cars behind me. Forming the letter I, not the letter V. Follow.
6:35.5AM. Some day I’ll learn to read lips in the rearview mirror. For today, however, I’m going to work on my internal compass; contemplate an attitude adjustment and figure a way to break Luna’s gravitational pull to achieve an escape velocity of 5,324 miles per hour.
6:36AM. Or, maybe I'll do that tomorrow.