Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Packing Our Bags

We're outta here!

I’ve held off writing this because of fear of nasty email I’d get from snow-bound readers. Now’s the time, however, to let you all know that Susan and I are headed to Cuba on February 27, for a bird research project with the Caribbean Conservancy Trust.
We’ll be, electronically speaking, on the far side of the moon for a couple weeks, which means I won’t be writing for a while. It also means having to suffer through 84-degree (wind-chill-factor) temperatures and plenty of sunshine. I think I remember what the sun looks like.
We’ve been preparing for this trip for four or five months. You’d think by now we’d be ready. There was only minor hemming and hawing about whether to go. There was some slight nervous tension as the US Treasury Department seemingly dragged its collective feet in granting our group the proper licensing.
Now all is well and we’re (almost daily) agonizing over what—and how many—clothes to pack, what SPF will be best and how many field guides to load into the suitcases.
All this activity, with piles of snow outside, gives the whole affair an even greater surreal feeling than just the idea of going to Cuba, of and by itself.
Let me dispel a few myths: Americans can to go to Cuba, that’s the good news. The other news is that you have to make a lot of end runs to reach the goal line. You have to work with Canadian travel agents and fly via Mexico, for example. You have to be prepared to bring virtually nothing back—other than memories and photos—because of the embargo that’s been in place since the early 1960s. Even something as benign as a T-shirt is considered contraband by US Customs.
I’m trying to stay neutral on the multitude of political issues surrounding the now-absurd embargo of Cuba. Let me just say it’s time, for the benefit of both nations, to stop running with scissors and play nice.
Hasta la vista mis amigos.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

I Ain't Lying

We were fortunate to catch up with President George Washington on this, the 278th anniversary of his birth. Even though he was extremely busy preparing for the spring planting season, he took time out to talk with us about a wide range of environmental issues.
Me: Mr. President, thanks for taking time to talk with us about …
GW: Just call me W, young man.
Me: Errr, that one’s already taken—in the future. Sir, as a national leader and the man considered the father of our country, I was wondering if …
GW: Whoa there young man. I did not have sex with that woman. I never even met her. Talk with Ben Franklin about that father-of-the-country stuff.
Me: Well, errr, what I was going to say, sir, on this rather auspicious occasion, we’d like your take on the new federal law licensing people to carry loaded, concealed weapons in the National Parks.
GW: What’s a national park?
Me: Well, it’s an idea, some say our best idea, to …
GW: And how long have we needed a license to carry a weapon?
Me: Well, I guess we’ve needed a permit to carry guns about as long as we’ve needed a license to drive a car.
GW: What’s a car?
Me: We’ll circle back to that, sir. Since we’re talking about environmental issues, I’d like to ask you about that incident, when you were a youth—the axe and the cherry tree thing.
GW: Hmmm. Cherry, schmerry. Just who harvested that tree is not the issue here. Look, it’s why the tree was chopped and how many people benefitted from the warmth of its logs, that we should be talking about. There are thousands of people in this country who go to bed cold every night. Also, cherry trees are from the north. This is the south, Virginia. We grow peaches down here and we need all the room we can get.
Me: Hmmm, well, okay, sir. Let’s talk a bit about endangered species and how animals were treated in the late 1700s ...
GW: Ha! We treated all the animals well. Heck, most of them ended on the dinner plate so we took good care of them. And those hippos! They made the best teeth. I had a half dozen sets of teeth and the best were those made out of hippo tooth and set in gold. They had these fancy little hinges in the back that …
Me: Excuse me for interrupting, sir, but there are a lot of stories that your teeth were made of wood. What about those teeth?
GW: False! I had ‘em made from lead, ivory, donkey—even human teeth. Never would use wood. Had those teeth made by a guy up in New York City. Good man, for a New Yorker. Never did try to put the bite on me. Hahahaha. Little word joke there, young man.
Me: That’s great, sir. I see you’ve gotten out the Young Farmers’ Almanak and are preparing for spring planting. Last summer when I visited, I noticed a strange plant growing in the fields and smelled what I thought was Mexican food cooking. What was that five-leafed plant, anyway?
GW: What’s “Mexican” mean? You must be talking about the hemp we grow out behind the plantation house. Ladies use it to make clothes. And since we’ve cut back on tobacco production, some of the guys have been drying the leaves and smoking the stuff. I don’t think it will ever become much of a cash-crop for us.
Me: Well, Mr. President, thanks for your time and insight about the future of America.
GW: Sorry you have to run, young man. Too bad you have to go. Al Hamilton, Aaron Burr and some of the boys are coming over for a tea party, something else I don’t think will catch on in America.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Ya Gotta Do, Whatcha Gotta Do

Malicious destruction perpetrated by a single Pileated Woodpecker

I knew it would be risky, going into the national park unarmed, however, I had a couple of new pieces of photo gear I was not comfortable with and needed to try them under real-life conditions. It will be safer on Monday, after the law allowing people to carry loaded concealed weapons goes into effect (or is it affect?). For today, I just had to take my chances with those crazy American Crows, voyeuristic White-tail Deer, or, everyone’s nightmare, wily Coyotes.
I slowly drove into the parking lot at the trailhead for the Oakhill area in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. I waited in the security of my car until two park employees were in their vehicle and outta sight down the road. I was nervous, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that we have not had a clear, sunny day here in northeast Ohio since December 21, 2009—according to one of the weather dudes I watched last night. Here it was, bright and sunny. One might say blindingly bright with all the snow, meaning one had to be on guard at all times.
With my fully loaded DSLR, and 500mm lens fully extended, I headed down the trail. Less than 50 yards into the bush I knew I was not properly armed for any in-close combat. I knelt and quietly switched lenses to something that would give me a wider angle of fire coverage among the trees and leafless weeds that were closing in on the trail from all sides.
It was a nervous mile and a half that I covered. I was constantly looking back over my shoulder, adjusting my binocular straps, trying to find the proper balance in the camera gear pack on my back. The occasional robin zipped past on reconnaissance. Nearby, a Pileated Woodpecker opened up on me, hammering away on a defenseless tree. I popped off a few rounds at him and his threatening attitude. He disappeared into the dense tree canopy.
White-breasted Nuthatches chuckled from afar. After about an hour of tension so thick I could cut it with a bayonet, I breathed a sigh of relieve when I saw my car—the only car in the lot—sitting there, unmolested. It looked like I was home, free. I relaxed too soon, apparently. From behind me I heard a whooshing, giant sucking sound, unlike any engine I had ever heard. A doughnut-shaped object was slowly descending in the southwest. Its light was blinding me! Aliens! We forgot to invoke legislation to protect us from aliens!
Stay tuned. Film at 11.

Have no fear ...

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Are We Safe, Yet?

Pass me the night-vision glasses.

Thanks to a story in this morning’s (February 17, 2010) Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal, I, for one, feel much more relaxed about the dangers that lurk behind every tree and bush in our national parks. Writer Bob Downing did a great job of explaining why people carrying concealed weapons will now be “welcome” (to use the ABJ’s headline word) in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Here’s a link to Downing’s instructive story, http://m.apnews.com/ap/db_15980/contentdetail.htm?contentguid=KDchWM7d. It should be on everyone’s reading list if you’re thinking about heading down to the park for a Sunday stroll. Here’s a tip: Don’t pack a picnic. Pack a pistol.
Having lived in the fringes of the park for more than 10 years, and having hiked more miles there than I can remember, I must say, I’ve never once felt the need to carry a gun. Nor have I ever felt the need in the 800 miles of the Appalachian Trail that I’ve hiked. There must be something wrong with me. Surely, I must have felt threatened enough to need a sidearm to shoot a potential mugger. I’ve met plenty of people I thought were a bit strange—and I’m sure they felt the same about me. Even the lady flossing her teeth on the trail one morning did not make me worry (too much) about my safety. I have encountered a few dogs running off the leash that I thought should be contained, however, not with a slug from a 9mm automatic.
Beginning February 22, a new federal law kicks in making it legal to carry loaded, concealed and unconcealed, weapons in 392 national parks in 48 states (Illinois and Wisconsin do not permit concealed weapons) plus 551 national wildlife refuges.
My favorite quote from the Downing story is this: ‘“Carrying a concealed weapon makes park visitors safer,” said Dan White, executive director of the Cleveland-based grass-roots group Ohioans for Concealed Carry.
''Safety is the issue,'' he said. ''Carrying a concealed weapon won't be a problem. The problem has never been law-abiding citizens. We're convinced there will be less risk. Muggers approaching a victim in the park will be forced to stop and ask: 'Is this person armed?'”’
Gimmie a break! I can see the need to carry loaded, concealed weapons on city streets; it’s a real jungle out there. But in the National Parks …
I never understood the logic that claims the more guns a person has the safer he’ll feel—until his neighbor gets a bigger gun.
I think I’ll head for the woods to discuss this issue with the coyotes. I’m sure they’ll be setting up a real howl about this story.

Did you hear a twig snap?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

No Smoke and Mirrors

Basic camo

We’d been doing some errands, so a run through the Cuyahoga Valley National Park was decidedly in order. The sun made just enough of a showing to temp us to get into the woods. My brother from D.C. was visiting. Well, not exactly visiting. He was trying to get home after his month-long overseas’ vacation. A succession of weather-related airport closures over the 9,000 mile duration of his trip had plunged him, head first, into a snow drift in Detroit. I rescued him from the Notel Motel in Detroit and we turned the whole sordid mess into a cheery family visit.
The fun of having a non-birder in the car is that birders get to show off their mystical skills, calling out this and that species, based on the slimmest visual evidence. We were zipping along a snow-covered road, under the skillful driving of my wife—all three of us talking at the same time—when I spotted an Eastern Screech-owl. Since Susan and I have the well-trained responses of experienced birders, when I said, “Whoa! Owl!” she was on the brakes like a chicken after a June bug.
My brother, less adapted to this kind of emergency, was mumbling something like, “what, what, what?” And the guy in the white pickup truck behind us was saying something less complimentary, I think.
By the time Susan could shake the guy off our back bumper and get the car turned around on the narrow road, we had camera gear sticking out the windows like cowboys riding shotgun on a stagecoach.
As we drew parallel to the tree, Susan and I oooed and aaaaed at the owl while my brother kept asking where? What owl? I told him to keep shooting, we’ll check the pictures later.
In the end, I’m not sure which was more satisfying, seeing the owl sitting in the open, or listening to my brother’s endless commentary about how birders can see things like that—or get in their cars and drive hundreds of miles to find a bird. I told him it’s magic.

Eastern Screech-owl

Saturday, February 06, 2010

What’s Black & White and Red All Over

Dark-eyed Junco

It was a monochrome kinda day here in northeast Ohio. Those of us living in the shadow of Lake Erie, aka, the Snow Belt, could only take pity on our brethren and sisteren on the Atlantic Coast. Our 10 inches or so seemed paltry compared with the whupping they're getting.
I was supposed to be watching the bird feeders so I could make a decent showing in Su Snyder’s Snowy Day Bird competition (www.ohiobirds.org). The last time she held the event I was distracted by something important—like rearranging my sock drawer, I think—and didn’t have a very good total. This time I didn’t do much better. I got hung up on the observation that almost all the birds coming to the feeder were in shades of black and white. Maybe I was going snow blind!

Hairy Woodpecker

Not that I’m a hypochondriac, however, I was beginning to wonder if squinting through a camera eyepiece for 50 years had finally taken its toll and I was doomed to watching the world drift by like a dog for the rest of my life. Not that this would be all bad given the fact that I am a bit fashion challenged.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Well, the self-pity lasted only 30 minutes or so. A blinding-red Northern Cardinal, followed closely by a Red-bellied Woodpecker restored my vision, to say nothing of my common sense.

Northern Cardinal

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Past, Present and Future

The first anniversary of my mother’s passing, the death last week of my journalism mentor and the knowledge this week of the pending death of a dear friend’s mother had us in a bit of a funk. The best cure for the blues is a good birding adventure, so we tossed the gear in the car and headed for—right—Funk Bottoms Wildlife Area. It’s just a bit west of no place and a great wetlands spot. It not far from Shreve, Ohio, but if you want to find it, load this into your GPS and keep your fingers crossed: Latitude: 40.75376 deg N, Longitude: -82.11329 deg W. That should put you in about the middle of the 2,000 acres of prime birding habitat.
We timed our departure from home so that we’d hit the great Funk Country Store at just about noon. Recalling the taste of those trail bologna sandwiches and ice cream made my mouth water.
Rolling into the Funk area, we spotted a Northern Mockingbird. Whoa, great bird for the area. As I zipped past the Country Store, Susan was cranking around in her seat saying, “Hey, there it is! It looks closed!”
Not possible. We doubled back and, sure enough, another of those classic places you’ll never find again, was closed. Oh my. Lots of memories of birding trips to the area, all of which included a stop at the store. I once purchased a sweat shirt there for a niece who was uncertain of which college to attend. The shirt said, “Funk University.” Right. Funk U. She and I had a great laugh. I don’t think her mother has forgiven me, yet.
As a metaphor for life, the Country Store had it all. Now, it too, was gone. We said our goodbyes and moved on. Among the 30 species of birds we saw, the highlight was probably the largest flock of Wild Turkeys either of us had ever seen. We stood on a hill overlooking a field of corn stubble and counted more than 125 birds a half mile away. They looked like a herd of miniature bison grazing—not the kind of thing you see every day.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Pinch Hitting For Punxsutawney Phil

Selling global warming—or climate change to use the current term—has been tough this winter. I’ve taken to watching some of the too-many awards shows so I can join in the important conversations at my local coffee haunts. Usually the weather is a safe topic. Not so anymore.
Since I’m unabashedly addicted to the Weather Channel, the build up to Groundhog Day this year had me in a cold sweat for a week. I realized that Punxsutawney Phil, Buckeye Chuck and a host of other fuzzy weather prognosticators were calling the shots for their own backyards. I needed something closer to home.
With the thermometer bumping its head against 22 degrees, any self-respecting whistle pig is tucked seriously underground. Groundhogs, being one of those critters that truly hibernates, are only going to wake up for the three letter word beginning with s. And I don’t mean sun.
I did a bit of research and found that groundhogs are related to squirrels. Perfect! I have plenty of those around and even the whacky animal rights people aren’t going to get bent out of shape if I use a squirrel for weather forecasting. If you dig deep enough into this tedious tradition you’ll find that waaaaaayyyy back, people used badgers, even bears, to do this weather prophesy stuff. I guess it’s easier to lift a groundhog up for the cameras than it would be a bear.
I looked over my current crop of long-tailed critters and determined which in the lot would make the best fly tying material—just in case things went terribly wrong and he ended up going to the big bird feeder in the sky. I picked out the most-likely candidate and dubbed him Sagamore Sam. I liked the alliteration and if we had to put his full name on a death certificate, it would look cool—to say nothing of monogrammed T-shirts, SSS.
He appeared to be shy, even reluctant about participating in any kind of event as critically important as calling the weather shot six weeks out. I explained to him that even Punxsutawney Phil, who has a national reputation, only gets it right about 39 percent of the time. He countered with the knowledge that 39 percent was better than the local TV people—and they all have nicer hair. I told him Phil has a heated “burrow,” even a special language spoken only on his day, so maybe we could work something out?
So the deal is, no one touches him, he gets a bag of peanuts for his trouble and only pictures of his left side.
Regardless of how this turns out we still get six weeks of winter. We need some new traditions.