Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Sight for Sore Eyes

No law about blocking another guy's trash with your trash in Missouri

Eastern Kansas. I’ve been on the road for a couple weeks. Sitting in the hotel’s dining room (sorry, it’s the only descriptive word I could think of that would pass the censor) this morning, unabashedly listening to the conversation at the next table, glad that the knife I was trying to saw through my waffle with was plastic, gave me pause.
The woman at one table was from Iowa, the couple next to her from South Dakota. They were in agreement on a number of things: The Interstate highways were wonderful, large round hay bales in the field were so scenic (I held my peace, honest), and the open spaces were just like home.
I wanted to join in but was in a bit of a hurry to head back to St. Louis so I opted for I-70 rather than the back roads I prefer. I decided to take in the scenery that so enchanted these people who spoke like visitors from another planet.
My conclusions are: The Interstate highways are as exciting as watching clothes in a dryer, gimmie square hay bales any day, and where the hell are the open spaces?
People who only travel the Interstates in the cities can’t see the scenery to begin with because of the sound barriers (don’t get me started on those atrocities) blocking the view. And when they do get out in the country, billboards, actually litter on a stick, blocks and distracts what might pass for something interesting. It’s a toss up which state tosses the worst visual crap in the face of drivers, Indiana or Missouri.
Why, as taxpayers, suffering to use these highways, do we have to be assaulted by junk mail? Talk about exploitation of the 98 percenters.
I tried to find a number for how many billboards there are in America and it’s not an easy chore. The number is someplace between 500,000 and a million. Close enough for government work. And a lot of it is government work. Laws regulating how close trees can be planted to the highway so that they do not intrude on the drivers’ view are in place in 28 states. Florida has a law that prevents trees within 500 to 1,000 feet of the “view zone” of a message telling you something you don’t really care about.
Four states, Vermont, Hawaii, Alaska and Maine prohibit billboards. Any wonder why they’re at the top of everyone’s most beautiful list?
And who doesn’t love those fancy new brilliant, giant, flashy pieces of trash made with light-emitting diodes? You can see them from 20,000 feet in the air, or a half mile away on the ground. They’re billed as energy efficient because they consume only 4.8 kilowatts of electric power per square yard per hour. To put that into perspective, the average household in America uses 950 kilowatts of energy per month. A sign measuring 30 feet x 90 feet would use about 1400 kilowatts per hour, or 34,500 kilowatts per day or more than a million per month. These numbers are based on my proper use of the kilowatt conversion tables.
These disgusting signs are huge money makers for the billboard industry because they can change messages rapidly, attracting more advertisers. Forget about safety and distracting drivers. We’re only going to see more of them.
It’s time to deal with this litter on a stick as we would with any other trash found along the highway. Let’s put it all in a bag and send it to the recycle center. Let the kids in the minivans watching senseless videos look out the window and see something they can’t identify—like a cow or a barn. They might even have to talk with their parents.
Where’s the Monkey Wrench Gang when we need it?

Gentelmen, start your engines

Thursday, December 08, 2011

… And We Lived to Tell the Tale

Long-tailed ducks, Niagara River

Oscar Wilde said, “Niagara Falls is the bride’s second disappointment of marriage.” Well, to my knowledge, he was not a birder, nor was his wife, so her disappointment would have been understandable—for several reasons. Before this gets too complicated I think I’ll move on to our latest adventure.
Susan and I, along with birding buddies Karin and Pat, are freshly back from a trip to the wilds of Niagara Falls, Canada. The falls is viewed as the place to go for sighting gulls in winter. Any wife who is a birder, as is mine, and picks up three life birds as Susan did, would hardly consider a trip to Niagara Falls a disappointment.
Our trip was weeks in the planning and seemed like a good idea at the time. However, when we were trying to keep warm in 37-degrees, fog and rain so hard we couldn’t keep the binoculars clean, no one would admit they were first to suggest the holiday.
Going all the way to Canada did seem a bit peculiar. Currently, here in northeast Ohio, we have some great birds visiting from the Arctic. Adventure, however, can be like a drug, the desire for which increases with the habit.
I was particularly excited about going. A Razorbill, a bird of the high Atlantic regions, had been seen off and on for a couple weeks. It would be a lifer for me; one I missed this past spring while working on Project Puffin in Maine.
One requirement for these kinds of adventures, along with checking the weather, is to constantly check updates on the rare bird alerts. I’m beginning to think neither is a good idea after all. First, the weather promised to be about as miserable as it can be. Second, the day before we left, the Razorbill was seen—floating belly up in the Niagara River. These were not exactly good omens.
I’ve been at the birding game long enough to know, however, like the line from that great Rolling Stones tune says, you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find, you get what you need. And, to keep the musical metaphor rocking and rolling, you get by with a little help from your friends. We ran into a mixed flock of birders from New York and Canada. They helped us spot some rare gulls—Iceland and Franklin’s to name two. They also gave us great directions to find the Little Gull.
And, while we might not have logged the species we were hoping for, in the end, after we dried out and stuffed ourselves full of food and Guinness in a great Irish pub, we got what we needed—a great time.
There was one last thrill to be had. Coming back into America from that foreign country to the north, with all the current border security these days, Customs Agents are definitely no-nonsense kind of people. So, when the serious-faced agent, wearing a gun belt with more tools hanging from it than a house carpenter asked if we had anything to declare, I was more than relieved he did not hear the quip from one excited person in our car, “Just a Black-legged Kittiwake.”

Black-legged Kittiwake from above the Whirpool, Niagara River

Saturday, November 19, 2011


Sometimes you can't see the birds for the birds

Whether birding or fishing, often it’s better to be lucky than good. To take advantage of luck, however, one must be prepared and in the right spot at the right time. So it was for us today.
Susan and I, along with birding buddies Karin and Pat, joined about 50 other intrepid souls for a day of pelagic birding on Lake Erie, sponsored by the Black Swamp Bird Observatory. By definition, pelagic means, “found in the open sea,” or “deposited on an ocean bed.” Here in northeast Ohio, Lake Erie is as close as we can conjure up for an ocean. And with gull season heating up, getting out into the open water heightens your chances of seeing lots of species. It also affords the opportunity for a rare spotting of a jaeger species, either Pomarine or Parasitic.
Both jaeger species have been seen in our area this season so we had our hopes up and our fingers crossed. Well, actually we had the hoods up on our jackets and our fingers held a death grip on the gunwales of the good ship “Holiday.”
Thousands of Ring-bill and Bonaparte Gulls escorted us nearly the entire day, hoping for some free popcorn--chum. Streams of Red-breasted Mergansers in flight, estimated in the thousands, stretched for miles in all directions. Sharp-eyed ornithologist Dr. Andy Jones located a Red-necked Grebe among hundreds of Horned Grebes.

What's hiding in the trough of that wave?

Finally, someone in the stern of the boat shouted that he’d seen a jaeger resting on the water. With astute handling, our trusty, fearless captain swung the ship about and we approached a first-year jaeger who seemed as curious about us as we were of it. Cooperatively, it lifted off the water so we could see its diagnostic markings. I hope our waving and shouting meant something to it.

Pomarine Jaeger

Friday, November 18, 2011

Golden Opportunity

Silver dollars--honest

It’s not everyday you get to witness a new piece of currency being entered into the American system. In fact, it’s quite rare. So, Thursday, when the opportunity availed itself, Susan and I flipped a coin and it landed obverse—that’s heads in coin talk.
The occasion was the introduction of the President James A. Garfield silver dollar, issued at Lawnfield—his family home, Mentor, Ohio. The U.S. Mint has been quietly issuing dollar coins honoring the presidents, four per year, in their order of election, since 2007. And before you government-conspiracy types get your underplunders in a twist, the reason you haven’t heard of this is because the program suffers from lack of publicity.
Thursday was the fourth visit to Ohio for the folks from the U.S. Mint, with more dedication ceremonies to come, since Ohio has had six or nine presidents, depending on whether you want to count the state of birth or where they lived when elected.
"The Presidential $1 Coin series connects Americans to inspiring life stories like President Garfield's," said United States Mint Acting Associate Director for Manufacturing Marc Landry. "He was the last President born in a log cabin, fatherless by the age of two, drove canal boat teams to earn money for college, became a classics professor and college president, rose to major general in the Civil War, and enjoyed a long, distinguished career in the U.S. Congress."

In addition to Landry, speakers at the event included Rudolph Garfield, a great-grandson of President Garfield, and Dr. Allan Peskin, professor emeritus of history at the Cleveland State University, and officials from the National Park Service.

From left, Dr. Allan Peskin, Mark Landry and Rudolf Garfield

Peskin, who served as the event's keynote speaker, is the author of "Garfield," the definitive biography of James Garfield. He noted that because of Garfield’s shortened term as president, cynics might say, “Garfield should not be honored with a silver dollar. Maybe a dime would be better. Well, Garfield is not to be shortchanged.”
Among Garfield’s many accomplishments was the fact that more than 80 percent of the voters turned out for the election in 1880, hard to imagine in this day.
About 150 people, including many descendants of President Garfield watched the “pouring” of the coins, a huge bucketful, at the end of the ceremony. Kids 18 and younger all got a free silver dollar. The new coin is not actually silver. It’s gold in color and made of copper, zinc, manganese and nickel. And the late president would appreciate that it will have a life span of 30 years, is totally recyclable, unlike paper money he vehemently opposed and which only lasts three years.
If you’re interested in the Presidential Coin program, check it out at

Visitors had an opportunity to tour Lawnfield, Garfield's family home

Lucreia Garfield's talent showed in painted tiles framing the fireplaces at Lawnfield

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

There's a bird out there--honest

The wind was blowing hard, an estimated 30 knots out of the northwest; temperature 34 degrees and waves of lake-effect snow blinded Susan and me, along with a couple other dozen birders this afternoon. A perfect day for birding along Lake Erie. Today was special.
On Tuesday, intrepid birder Craig Holt reported a Black-tailed Gull, sighted in Ashtabula Harbor. Alarms went off all over the nation. This is an Asian species seen on rare occasions along the west coast of America, and on even more rare occasions in the northeast. Never, until Tuesday, in Ohio.
For us, Ashtabula is only a bit more than an hour’s drive. We talked to one chap who’d just driven straight through from Hendersonville, North Carolina, 600 miles away. He was only one of many birders making the pilgrimage to northeast Ohio to see this rare bird.
I’ve had my share of easy lifers, the kind you just accidently find, or chase down and there it sits, smiling, waiting to be photographed. Today’s bird was more of a challenge.
When we got to one of the more-reliable places where the bird had been seen, yesterday, we saw a flock of birding friends huddled next to a building, trying to stay out of the wind. Friend Dwight Chasar said he’d been on the spot almost seven hours and no bird was to be found. Not a good report.
Within 20 minutes our fortunes changed. A birder from another group came running over to us, arms waving, shouting mostly intelligible words. It went something like this:
“It’s up! The bird’s up.! Right side of that pond!”
In unison scopes and binoculars swung to the right. People started shouting, “Where? Where?”
“To the right of that pole.
“Which pole?”
“I thought he said left!”
“The one to the left of the yellow pole?
“No, left of the one on the right!”
“There he is! Right behind the Herring Gull to the left of the light pole on the right side of that coal car.”
Well, there were an estimated 300 Herring Gulls in the flock in front of us, more than a quarter mile away, through a maze of wires and cables and coal cars. And did I mention it was snowing like crazy?
Suddenly the snow stopped and the sun popped out. Everyone caught their breath. The semi-cooperative Black-tailed Gull moved just enough for us to see the color differentiation of its mantle compared with hundreds of other gulls. And as a final salute, in a bird manner, he mooned us, or turned and wagged his black tail.
It don’t get much better than that.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

End-of-the-Season Fantasies

So I asked the farmer’s daughter about her cup size …
Oh, maybe I should back up a bit. Here in upstate New York it’s the end of the trout fishing season, but that doesn’t stop guy from dreaming. When I got up this morning, with dreams of the nearby Battenkill River dancing in my head, it was just barely 30 degrees. I was not prepared for Arctic conditions, which meant the whole fishing expedition would probably be a fishing expedition.
Driving east out of Saratoga Springs, just before the town of Schuylerville, thoughts of the two brown trout I had managed after a million casts last fall had me planning for battle. I came up over a rise and there, on the south side of the road she sat; the Farmer’s Daughters’, so I had to stop.
This little shop has about the best ice cream east or west of the Hudson River. The Maple Walnut flavor is to die for. I asked for a medium. That’s when she handed me this huge, overflowing cup and I said something like, “That’s really huge for a medium.”
What did you think I was talking about?

Friday, October 28, 2011

This Land is …

Along the Clear Fork

I wanted to get an early start on the day. It started as one of those mornings when you’re unsure if you ever went to bed the night before. I stayed up to watch Game 6 of the World Series, which might go into the books as the best World Series game ever, or at least until another thriller comes along. The alarm went off before dawn and I was a bit rattled with less than five hours of sleep.
It was a gorgeous, star-filled sky that greeted me as I loaded my fishing tackle into the car. All those stars, not the kind for navigation, necessarily, more like the kind you can wish on. I was heading back down to the Clear Fork, a branch of the Mohican River, where Susan and I fished five days ago. I used to fish the stream a lot and our excellent day last Sunday whetted my appetite for more.
A giant go-cup of Starbucks in place, and Adele blasting out of a half dozen speakers in my car—I was on the road. Temperature just lifting it’s head above freezing guaranteed I’d be warmer in the water than on the land.
Ninety minutes later I swung into the dead end gravel drive that skirts the grain mill in Bellville and was on the water a bit after 8. Not bad.
On my third cast I had a great strike. The kind that keeps fisherman on the water longer than they should stay, and brings them back next week, filled with hope like a high school kid who thinks the best looking girl in the class winked at him and it was not some dust in her eye.
Some law-breaker was burning leaves at this early hour and it gave me hunger pains. Power to the people.
I worked a familiar stretch of water for four hours with nothing to show for my efforts save a squeaky rotator cuff. I managed to get myself into a spot that was deeper and a bit more challenging than I anticipated so I opted to head back to the car by cutting across an open field, rather than negotiate my way back on the stream. That’s when I saw the sign. Make that plural, signs.
Square, cobbled together pieces of wood that had nothing on them, at least from my vantage point, spaced about 10 feet apart. I walked over and read the other side. It said, in effect, No Nothing, Especially Fun. The stream was posted! No trespassing.

Immediately, Woody Gutherie’s comment came to mind. When he saw a sign that read “No Okies,” he said what was on the other side of the sign was meant for him. I wasn’t trespassing anyway, I was fishing.

A beautiful stretch of land forbidding fishers and anyone else from entry. What are the property owners afraid of, litter? So they mess up the place with hand-made signs and pieces of twine, guaranteed to keep the likes of me out—unless one approaches from the other side.
Songs can be like tattoos. In 1943 Woody wrote, “This Land is Your Land.” The song is as relevant today as it was then. It was and is about greed; the haves versus the have nots.
We are the 99%.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Perfect Timing

Susan Fishing the Clear Fork

So, when I reached the top of the mountain after an arduous climb, I asked the guru, “What’s the secret to lifelong happiness?” She put down her Kindle, looked at me and said, “Timing.”
That’s it? I’ve long understood that. If I’m ever lost in the woods, someplace where there’s not another soul in sight, I know I can always draw a crowd if I stop to pee. Simple.
Fishing Sunday I proved my theory and wasn’t even out of sight of the car. In fact, I was leaning against the car.
Susan and I spent a glorious day challenging trout on the Clear Fork River in central Ohio, one of few streams in our state cold enough to support browns and rainbows. Fishing should not be about competition; it’s about sport. And in true sport there are no winners and losers. But people always ask. On this day, Susan had a half dozen fish caught and released before I had a line in the water, almost. By the end of the splendid day we both had caught enough fish to brag about, saw plenty of birds to compare notes on, and had full tummies after a well-earned streamside lunch.

A Great Blue Heron fishing buddy

Within the six-plus hours we fished I saw maybe four cars pass along the road. A couple guys stopped to fish, then headed downstream from our spot. We had a spectacular stretch of river all to ourselves, all day. So, when It was time to take off our waders and head for home, I thought the two-hour drive would be more comfortable if I removed the sweat pants I was wearing inside my waders and slipped into my jeans.
Standing on the road, not a soul in sight, I proceeded to undress. About the time I had one leg out of the sweats and the other stuck in the cuff, along comes a giant silver Cadillac creeping at about five miles per hour, driven by a little old lady on Sunday. Classic. She was so low in the seat she had to look through the steering wheel to see the road. The window slowly lowers and, grinning, she says, “Fishing?”
Seems that the lady really wanted to chat and stopped right next to me as I balanced on one foot trying to preserve some dignity.
I thought Susan was going to choke with laughter, instead, she came to my rescue. She dashed around the car, set up an effective screen and chatted it up with the woman who was bent on telling us her life story—a long life story, it was, too. When I realized that the odds of this action to draw a crowd were not in my favor, I managed some fancy footwork, for a guy my age, got into my jeans and acted like nothing much out of the ordinary happened.
Just another day when my timing was a bit off the mark, or on, depending on one’s perspective.

Hey! Wasn't there a fish on the end of that line?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Netting Birds in Cleveland

Rare Hudsonian Godwits at Ottawa NWR made a spectacular appearance, thanks to northwest winds

Anyone familiar with bird banding knows birds must be trapped in fine-mesh mist nets before they are banded and released. And while banders do all they possibly can to insure the safety of the birds, accidents occasionally happen and birds die. I try to be philosophical about the process and hope the banded birds, or at least their bands, provide important data for the birding and science communities.
There’s another type of net out there, following if not trapping birds—capturing information and more. The mesh of the net has just tightened a bit. It’s part of an electronic net; another connection among birders in the local patch of birding networks. This net does no harm to the birds, although it might cause some frustration to birders—all part of the game—when a rare bird’s name pops up.
For those of us who enjoy birding, the current top spot for following what’s happening is the Ohio Ornithological Society’s list server at There are regional and national lists as well, but the closer to home you can find information, the better.
Now, thanks to the efforts of two of our area’s premier birders, Jen Brumfield ( and Gabe Leidy, we have a great source, What Jen and Gabe have done is add the weather to their bird reports, a critical element to birding that everyone talks about, but until now, few have done anything about.
Knowing which way the wind is blowing is key to locating rare birds in this area where we, ornithologically speaking—live or die at the mercies of Lake Erie.
Jen and Gabe seem to be prowling the edges of America’s north coast, constantly, regularly posting information for those of us who would like to be out there, facing those 30-knot winds in 10-below temperatures. Right. Some things are better left to the young and intrepid among us.
And if you’re interested in great bird art, check out Jen’s Web site. This artist’s talent belies her age. She has an international reputation for her art and her skills as a birding guide.
Now, we no longer need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

This Yellow-rumped Warbler rides the winds of migration through northeast Ohio

Saturday, October 15, 2011

When is a Tunnel Not a Tunnel?

The ones what got away

This is one of those fishing stories that says a lot about great scenery, etc., and not much, make that nothing, about catching fish.
Friday, I was standing on the banks of the Middle Fork of the Red River in east-central Kentucky. A more beautiful spot to fish for trout would be hard to find. As fishing buddy Tom says, “Trout don’t live in ugly places.” This spot was beyond gorgeous.
I had been warned that the water was low, however, as I examined a fishy-looking place just up from a foot bridge that crossed the stream, I was sure I could walk across the stream and not get my boot laces wet. Low water was an understatement.
It was obvious that the water was too low to support anything, especially trout. About that time a dozen brown trout shot past me heading for who knows where. It was one of those moments when all you can say is, “Hmmmm.” Fortunately, I had a camera in hand, not a fly rod, so I guess you could say I caught a dozen or so fish on electrons …
When you’re in a foreign country, like eastern Kentucky, and want to find fish, it’s always best to ask the locals—assuming you speak the same language.
Here’s the way the conversation went:
Local: Well, ya can git out there on the four lane and head up to road 77. It’s aways, just past, well that’s not a tunnel up there.
Me: Huh? It’s what?
Local: Not a tunnel.
Me: Aaa. If it’s not a tunnel, what is it?
Local: It’s not a tunnel.
Okay, I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck so I knew when I was being the butt of a joke.
Off we went, up to road 77 and sure enough, what we found was Nada Tunnel. Not only was there a tunnel, there was a whole town called Nada Tunnel.
Damn fine day to find anything, even Nada Tunnel, if not a fish.

Monday, October 10, 2011

No Bad Days for Birders

American White Pelicans in formation over Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge

I think it was Lance Armstrong who said words to the effect, there are no bad days. Some days are just better than others. And while the bicycling great was referring to life in general, maybe racing in particular, it also applies to birding.
Sunday was one of those rare days when lots of things came together to make it one of the better days: It was to be our first birding day with friends Pat and Karin, recently returned from a 14-month hiatus in Africa, weather was about as good as it gets in northeast Ohio in the fall, and Jason Lewis, manager at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge (ONWR) opted to open this sprawling natural area to cars—a rare occurrence.

A Great Egret does its morning stretching

Typically, ONWR does not allow auto traffic into the interior of the refuge. You can hike the area if you’re among the intrepid. This fall, Lewis and his ambitious crew worked especially hard to control water levels to encourage shorebird habitat during migration. The results of their efforts, especially after many battles with Mother Nature, were some dynamic birding spots.

Any perch works for a Great Blue Heron on a sunny morning

Loaded with high spirits and plenty of coffee, we packed into Pat and Karin’s new birding car well before dawn for the two-hour-long trip west. We anticipated a day of hectic hunting for small birds usually seen at a great distances, lots of walking and some great food. And while this was partially the case (especially the food), it proved to be a quite relaxing day with larger birds putting on spectacular displays, the kind that had the crowd oooing and aaaing.
Birds rarely seen in this area were a bonus: Red-necked and Wilson’s Phalaropes, Hudsonian Godwits and American White Pelicans all were crowd pleasers. In fact, the pelicans put on a better show than the Navy’s Blue Angels, according to some birders.

Colors of fall warblers can be confusing. Here, a Cape May Warbler

Warbler migration is about finished in our area, however, some late moving birds provided accents of color—and identification challenges—in the wooded areas. The day ended with about 70 species recorded, full stomachs and even a bit of sunburn. We’ll be replaying this day in our brains a lot when the snow flies.

Hardly a back-breaking day of birding

Monday, August 29, 2011

No More Sunsets—Maybe

Driving up to western Michigan this week for some R&R (that’s retirement and romping), I promised myself that I’d skip taking photos of that big, hot glob of gas. I’ve expended way too much film (in the old days) and too many electrons in the past 20 years on pictures no one wants to see. Or, they’re tired of seeing them, especially in those dreaded PowerPoint presentations.
I stuck to my guns and held out for all of 15 or 20 minutes the first night. The sun is picturesque and such a willing subject. I figure she likes to have her photo taken because she’s still a hot babe (with the occasional hotter flashes), lives out of town—way outta town, and everyone talks about her being the center of the universe.
So I really had no choice. I had to take some pictures—maybe just one or two I told my 99+-year-old mother-in-law. She didn’t pay any attention to me because sunsets are the reason she comes to western Michigan each summer as she has for more years than anyone can remember—including her.
As those of us from Cleveland are so fond of saying, just wait ‘til next year.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

When the Going Gets Good …

The bee balm still offers food for migrating hummingbirds

Maybe because I’m a creature of habit, I enjoy the habits of other creatures. In particular, the migration habits of birds. I had a reminder this evening that The Great Mandala is still in spin.
I was minding my own business, trying to get some reading time in while watching Common Grackles head to their roost, and Chimney Swifts and Tree Swallows seine the air for bugs too small for me to see (go get ‘em guys!), when a Ruby-throated Hummingbird chose to hover about 12 inches from my face.
Whoa there, buddy! Do I look like a flower? Not hardly.

Don't need GPS to find Central America

I blinked once or twice and he was on his way—but where? We’ve had a healthy crop of hummers all summer and they are a pleasure. Too bad we get only one species here in Ohio. But ya take what ya can get. I commented to Susan just a couple nights ago that it seemed like suddenly we had a lot of male hummers hanging around, make that chasing around, the feeders the past few days.
Sure enough, in spite of the record-setting high temperatures (or maybe because of them) hummingbirds are on the move, headed for Central America, mostly. According to available data, hummingbirds start moving out of this region as early as July. It’s all about available food supplies and these guys need as much food as possible since they really don’t store fat for the multi-thousand-mile trip like other birds.

Look Ma, no hands!

In fact, don’t look now, but almost all the migrating birds are on the move. Shorebirds from northern breeding grounds, local nesters and first-year birds from all over are making a pit stop here in Ohio, on their way to the places where they spend most of their lives. We have them here for a short time, breeding season, then one day you go looking for Red-wing Blackbirds for example, and you learn the train has left the station.
Better check the garage this weekend for those snow shovels.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Voice at the End of the Tunnel

As an early adopter of GPS technology, about the first thing I did after installing the device in my car was to turn off the voice that tells you what to do every driving moment. I’ve heard the voice referred to as, “the bitch in the box,” in my estimation an apt description by those who opt for the female rather than male voice. I’m not sure what the male voice is called, other than irritating.
Recently, two friends added GPS devices to their lives—for better or worse. Both these people are the kind who would resent (for lack of a better term) someone telling them what to do, especially when it comes to driving.
After the second of these folks extolled the virtues of the voice in breathless terms “… and she knew right where the ally was!” I decided to re-examine my life as it relates to the pleasant British-accented lady in my GPS, aka, the bitch in the box.
On a recent 350-mile trip that had a total of six turns to get me to my destination, I opted to turn on “the voice.” Packed and ready, humming the opening bars of John Denver’s “Take Me Home Country Roads,” I backed out of the drive as “the voice” delivered her first instructions. I was ready to shut “the voice” off within 50 feet. “Honestly lady, I know how to get out of my own condo complex!” I said to the colorful, glowing box and the stunned neighbor who happened to be walking her dog near the spot where I began my rant.
For hundreds of miles she rode along, pleasantly enjoying the endless miles of corn and soy beans, didn’t have much to say and made only a few, unnecessary interruptions to the book I was listening to. It was at the point where she was telling me to go straight (I wanted to say, “Go forward, never straight,” but I didn’t think she would appreciate the humor.), the protagonist of the story was in a heap of trouble and my cell phone was ringing with such enjoyment I thought it would leap off the dashboard, that I decided she had to getouttathecar!
Fortunately, this all happened as I was about to enter a rest area. I managed to push the wrong button on my fancy new phone and dispatch the caller. Ooops. Next, I sent the finely tuned British babe packing so I could pay attention while my hero extricated himself from a jam that would have taken my life.
So, the experiment lasted only a few hours, probably not time enough for true evaluation. Guess what? I don’t care. I dug around in the four, count ‘em folks, four, map pockets in my car for a map of Indiana. Then, like a blinding flash of the obvious, it hit me: Why would a car manufacturer carefully engineer four map pockets into a car with only two doors? Duh.
I unfolded the map of Indiana, a state more vertical than horizontal, which makes it easier to drive and read while you’re going 70 miles per hour and don’t have a passenger to hold the steering wheel.
First thing that hits you is the aroma of a map. Like that first cup of coffee in the morning that awakens your senses in anticipation of the mysterious, unknown day that lies ahead. Second, there’s the peaceful pleasure of paper maps—they don’t talk back. They allow you to make your own decisions.
And maybe best of all, paper maps can be shown to people who might not otherwise speak the your language, like folks in North Carolina where you’re trying to find some trout stream that does not seem to exist.
Take me home country roads.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Defining Patterns of Change

Like a blinding flash of the obvious, I figured out why our country is having its current budget crises. I know, you’re thinking that politics is a bit outside of where this blog usually takes you.
Well, not so. Explanations of the budget crises and lots of other things can be found out of doors. Here’s the secret: I have evidence of what makes politicians so whacky. It's a pending alien invasion. And I have proof.
We happened upon the first piece of evidence Tuesday. Fishing-buddy Tom, along with my everything-buddy Susan, and I were driving back from a special trout stream, arms tired from hauling in fish all day, energized by gorgeous weather, when we saw it; a landing strip being prepared by aliens.
It was all I could do to convince the others that we needed to stop and get some photos—just in case. Look at this photo and tell me it’s something other than preparations for alien landing craft.

What’s happening here?

Then today, Susan and I were doing some work on the Ohio Breeding Bird Atlas II in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park when we spotted more evidence, only beneath the water this time. The place we were doing our census work was along a section of the Ohio and Erie Canal. Because of construction south of our location, water in the canal has been drawn down, enough so that we could clearly see tracks being made by alien submarines. Honest, I’m not making this stuff up. Here’s a photo for proof.

Obvious signals to alien landing craft

We even watched little creatures, neatly camouflaged as fresh-water muscles, as they created patterns, probably signals for their fellow creatures to home in on.
Okay, what’s the key here? How do these two observations correlate?
A century or two ago, British novelist-turned-politician Benjamin Disraeli noted, “We all live too much in circles.” Then, in the late 1960s, Joni Mitchell wrote a gripping song, “Circle Game,” about youth coming of age.
So, to bring this around to where I started, how do obvious preparations for an alien invasion impact politicians, isolated from the rest of us by the beltway?
It’s all about circles. The answer is simple as pie. First, pie are not square, pie are round. Next, politicians all talk too much, particularly around subjects that really matter. Next, they are always reaching out for the brass ring of their merry-go-round of lives.
PR flaks spin stories so fast, scenery changes before our very eyes. Aliens have convinced our elected officials, if they can keep us folks out here in the hinterlands spinning, we’ll forget the visions we all had when they were elected. Then they can easily change those visions to fit their current reality. Simple enough.
So, what are we to do? What’s the antidote? How do we hold off the aliens?
What if, just this once, the whole Washington crowd would stop talking in circles, stop spinning, stop heading out on some mission without a road map or even a star to guide them? What’s so tough about crafting a new vision that defies, not defines, political boundaries? What if?

I have to turn off the lights now. I used to right this stuff with crayon, but since I traded my crayons for this computer I get a lot more done. And I don’t have to ask the staff to mail the envelopes …

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Pickin’ n Grinnin’

Making music with a little help from their friends

It’s hard to imagine a more pleasant setting, or better weather, for live music than the Hale Farm Homestead in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. This weekend was the 36th Annual Music in the Valley event. All acoustic, all traditional.
At this venue there’s no central stage where big-name performers do their latest hit from their latest CD. No flashing lights. No microphones. These are real people playing and singing real music. They’re accurately called, “parking-lot pickers.”
To say the event is informal is a bit of an overstatement. Essentially, the performers get in free, find a shady spot, snap open their instrument cases and make music. Friends and family join in. Even the audience joins in, assuming they brought an instrument along. Whenever someone wants to join a group, the circle just expands a bit. And yes, the circle remains unbroken.
Throughout the grounds of this 19th Century homestead bagpipes competed with banjos for listeners’ attention. A standup bass player lugged his monster fiddle into place, probably wishing he’d learned to play the piccolo instead. Guitars, dulcimers and more gorgeous banjos than I could count came to life with seemingly no prodding by talented players. Musicians moved from group to group, playing with friends, or making new acquaintances. Music was the common denominator.

Summer in Northeast Ohio at its best

Musical selections ran from Woody Guthrie’s, “Do Re Mi,” to Ry Cooder’s “Footprints in the Snow,” to the unknown composer who never earned a penny from a song, yet everyone seemed to know the chords. Of course, if you wrote a tune with the words, “It’s hard to be sad when your momma doesn’t die,” you might rather not be recognized.
Sitting in the shade, feeling the summer breeze rustle my hair, listening to traditional music got me to thinking about how much better it is to celebrate America in this fashion, than to celebrate wars and glorify killing, which we seen to do, most often. How much better it is to honor freedom by getting out to hear live music, see live birds or chase after live fish—all with free air conditioning.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

I’m a Human, I’m Here to Help—Honest

Atlantic Puffin

I knew, if it came to hand-to-hand combat, I could probably take her. I outweighed her by probably 170 pounds, but her reach was better than mine. Standing beak-to-beak with a Great Black-backed Gull, her 65-inch wingspan and a beak that could crack open an oyster shell, is a daunting, humbling, if not a bit scary experience. It was all in a day’s work for Susan and I in June.
The first week in June we had the honor to work (as volunteers) on Project Puffin ( off the coast of Maine. The program we participated in was a joint effort by Road Scholar ( and the National Audubon Society ( There are books available discussing Project Puffin, however, in an egg shell, it’s an effort, started by Dr. Steve Kress, to reintroduce Atlantic Puffins to barren islands off the East Coast.

An Atlantic Puffin fly by

The program is more than 30 years old and, after years of false starts, is proving that birds, with a lotta help from dedicated humans, the species that helped wipe them out, can make a comeback.
Working with Steve and a host of other noted ornithologists for a week was a thrill in itself. To be standing next to the largest gull species on the planet was equally thrilling. I was sure the ornithologists wouldn’t bite. The gulls had yet to prove themselves.
As with most pleasure-filled outings, our week seemed to be over before it began. Yet, unlike many experiences, because we did about three weeks worth of things in 6 days, it felt like so much longer. A typical day started with a bird walk at 5:45 a.m. and ended with a superb lecture on seabird conservation at 9:30 p.m. In between there was little time for rest, which suited most of us just fine.

Gulls nest among the collection of trash that washes ashore

One of our service projects on an uninhabited (by humans) island was to census the nesting gull populations and remove trash that accumulates. The primary nesting species were Herring Gulls and Great Black-backed Gulls, the largest of its kind. As our leaders told us, all we had to do was look into the nest, determine which species had laid the eggs, and call out the information to a fellow volunteer acting as the designated recorder. Sounds easy. Getting onto the island, however, from a rocking dory was just the first challenge. And since the Herring Gull and the Great Black-backed’s eggs look virtually identical. The only way to be sure which species, was to pick up the egg and measure its circumference with your fingers.

Great Black-backed Gull egg

Hmmm. This definitely fell into the easier-said-than-done bucket. And did I mention the hazardous, rocky shores these birds nest on? Or the cacophony of sound surrounding us? Or the drop-dead gorgeous scenery that pulled us away from our task?
Being a peace-loving, tree-hugging, left-leaning, non-aggressive individual, I thought I could talk my way past some of the bellicose birds. That’s when I remembered I are a righter and not a talker. I learned, after a few tension-filled moments, that the gulls were bluffing—most of the time. If we walked slow, said nice things about their parents and children, and how we were just trying to help them—not eat them, everyone seemed to play nice together.

Herring Gulls fight for space among abandoned lobster traps

The day we headed out to East Egg Rock, the major site of Project Puffin, the weather was not in our favor. Through the skillful handling of our boat by the captain, we got relatively close to the island and saw some puffins, most of which were currently attending nests in burrows in the rocks.
These days, when it seems any news about humans and animals is generally about destruction, I urge you to take a look at Project Puffin’s web site,, to see what one man’s faith in his beliefs can do to change the world.

Dr. Steve Kress (center) could easily give a field lecture on botony as well as birds

Friday, July 01, 2011

Well, If It Was Easy …

Tom pinpoints his cast between rock and tree

To paraphrase Yogi Berra (I think), I’ve been so busy of late I don’t have time to do anything—like post to my blog, for example.
One of the things that recently kept me away from the keyboard was a fishing trip to the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee. It’s been my experience that most fly shops sort of live up to their names, at least geographically, if nothing else. Mountain Angler in Breckenridge, Colorado, or, Lakestream Fly Fishing Shop in Whitefish, Montana, as a couple of examples. I try to stay away from places with names like “BIG Fish,” etc., for the same reason you should not eat at a place called “Mom’s.” So when fishing-buddy Tom called and said I had to drop everything unessential in my life because he had an opening on a trip with fishing experts from the Trophy Water Guide Service in Boone, North Carolina, I was a bit dubious.
As luck would have it, we had a great time. Rhett Shroyer, along with his brother, Justin, run Trophy Water (, or maybe it’s more accurate to say they “float” trophy water, which in our case was the Watauga River.

This will catch what?

My first inkling of challenges to come was when Rhett showed me the fly we’d be using. I’ve always subscribed to the theory of “big fly, big fish.” I looked at this bug, which was nothing more than some tan thread, thin gold wire and a tiny bead on an obvious hook and figured it would take about 10 of these babies to cover my thumbnail. This was not going to be easy fishing. But then, if it was easy, the place would be crowded. I quickly learned that this kid has not been fishing these waters for eight years without learning a thing or two. We were still within sight of the boat trailer when Tom hauled in the first fish of the day.
The end of story is that we probably did not set any world records for numbers of fish caught or for size of fish caught. We did catch some super wild trout and plenty of them; a nice mix of rainbows and browns. As often happens on fishing trips, the largest fish were the ones that got off the hook, or, as in this case, never see the hook. We had just reeled in our lines so Rhett could safely navigate us through a dicey stretch of water, when a huge splash near the stern made all three of us turn to look. Beyond our wildest fish-dreams, a huge brown trout, doing a great imitation of Jaws, was chasing a small (maybe 10-inch) rainbow. The rainbow was in such a panic it nearly beached itself getting away. We three humans could only offer deep, philosophical utterings, like “Wow!” or, “Holy Shit! Did ya see that?”
After the fact we tried to guess the size of the brownie, and like witnesses to a crime, we all have different stories. I’m sure the fish was at least as large as one of my grandkids. Tom and Rhett have their own size guesstimates and they’re stickin’ to them.

Size doesn't matter if you're wild

We spent the next couple days floundering around small, off-the-map mountain streams, picking up a few fish here and there, seeing some of the most beautiful backwoods scenery in the country. (I saw a bumper sticker that sort of defines it: Paddle faster. I hear banjo music!) When I commented to Tom on how drop-dead gorgeous this place was, he said, “Lad, I keep tellin’ ya, trout don’t live in ugly places.”

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Changing Landscape

I’ve done a lot of fishing, not enough really, in my time, and I’ve used, even abused, just about every excuse there is for not catching fish. So when I find a new excuse, I feel it my duty to share with others, just in case you’ve used all the old ones and even your spouse no longer believes you when you said you got skunked.
Today’s excuse happened on the second fishing day of my somewhat irregular regular trip to the East Coast in lust of the Striped Bass, a worthy opponent. Yesterday hardly counts as a fishing day since I was only on the water for about an hour. I’ve learned, however, to some people, just having a rod in your hand counts as time fishing if there is some other chore that needs doing.
So today was more of an all-out effort. Having learned that stripers fish best on the incoming tide, it was pleasant knowing that I did not have to get to my favorite spot before noon. Time for plenty of coffee, reading and contemplating the vagaries of life before the battle. I got to the spot about an hour into the changing tide, lined up my rod, checked the clouds for wind direction, then had a minor coronary at the sight before me.
Someone, since last I was here, has built a house smack in the middle of my favorite fishing spot! How can this be? It’s not a houseboat or floating casino. It’s a functional house in the middle of—well I can’t tell you where since it’s a secret spot. There it sits, picture postcard pretty.
Truth be told, even on my best day I could not hit it with a cast. Maybe fishing buddy Tom could hit it with his double-hauling whatever cast. But then what would we do with a hook up on the front door?
And that’s why I didn’t catch any fish today. Honest.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Childhood Memory

Early this morning I caught myself channeling my great grandfather, Ed Court, whose name, in-part, I carry, and who could be celebrating his 134th birthday this year, had he lived.
Friday is trash day in our neighborhood. I went to retrieve the trash can (Is it still a can when made of plastic?) and decided to hose the thing out— just as I remember Grandpa Court doing some 60-plus years ago.
Since all things, real and imagined, are attached, the trash can memory brought back other memories of great grandpa: always spitting chewing tobacco on his worm when baiting a fishhook, using turpentine to cure all external cuts and bruises, plus his staunch Republican politics.
These things I can remember, yet am challenged to find my car keys …

Sunday, May 15, 2011

It’s All About Layout

Northern Parula, Magee Marsh, May 13, 2011

Dear Readers:
Several faithful followers have commented about the layout of the blog they’ve been receiving since signing on as camp followers—or whatever the proper term might be. I, too, have been receiving via eMail and the layout really stinks. It’s a pain in the neck, sort of like the experience for this Northern Parula I photographed last week, struggling for a bug (of all things). You should not have to struggle to read the blog. In the lower left corner of that eMail blog you received there’s an unsubscribe block to check if you want to make a quick departure.
Or, you can hang in there as a follower if you choose, however, I’d just make checking the blog on a regular basis part of my daily routine rather than using the eMail notification. I’m checking to see if there’s a way for you to just get a short eMail note telling you something new has been added to … I’m also contacting the BlogSpot folks to see what can be done about that lousy layout. I guess it’s the price you pay for a free service.
In any case, thanks for reading and thanks for the great comments. It all helps to make for a better blog.

Clyde the Guide

That feels better. Any questions?