Christian Cooper, a self-described gay Black nerd, writes:

“Some African Americans — some of the ones who aren’t LGBTQ — dismiss the gay experience because, unlike Black folk, gays can blend in at will…. Being Black and gay, I find the ‘Who’s More Oppressed?’ sweepstakes exasperating. There can be no winner, and it creates the false impression of a stark divide between communities. (It also ignores a special case where the gay and Black experiences are remarkably similar: the situation of light-skinned African Americans who hide their heritage to ‘pass’ as white, which maps closely with the experience of being in the closet.) The reality is that these experiences live together in the brown-skinned, queer bodies of hundreds of thousands of people, including me.” [Better Living Through Birding, pp. 25, 26-27]

As a gay teenager, Cooper found refuge in the nerd worlds of birding, and of science fiction and fantasy. (Coincidentally, he and I were both at Noreascon in 1980 worldcon, which is the only worldcon I ever attended.) Which is kind of interesting, since both birding and science fiction fandom are astonishingly White.

Turkeys on the Common

The Parish House of First Parish in Cohasset is directly opposite Cohasset Common. I’ve seen small groups of two or three Wild Turkeys skulking around in the bushes at the edges of the Parish House grounds. But today I saw about fourteen Wild Turkeys making their way across the common, out in the open, as bold as brass.

At least one male was gobbling. They were definitely aware of me, but they seemed to have little or no fear. Breeding season does that to many animals: reduces their level of fear, so they do stupid things.

Come to think of it, male humans are always in breeding season. Which explains so much about Homo spaiens.

Ten of the Wild Turkeys I saw on Cohasset Common, one with its tail erect and spread.

Radical Bird Club

Some people in Scotland have started a Radical Bird Club. Here is part of their manifesto:

“RBC strives to be inclusive* to adults** of any age, class, sexuality, race & ability. you don’t even have to know anything about birds. it’s just walking, talking, observing, listening & being with other people who want to appreciate the natural bounty around us – whether you’ve been doing it for years or are just realising that it’s kind of your thing.
*does not include bigots, fascists, sexists, racists, homophobes or ableists
**must be okay with general sweariness, so not recommended for anyone under 16″

I like this idea. I’ve been shying away from joining local bird clubs because too many of them feel too competitive to me. The competition can include macho posturing around who has seen the most birds, to wealth posturing around who has the most expensive birding gear. A Radical Bird Club focused on “walking, talking, observing, listening & being with other people” seems like a good idea.

They want to turn this into a global phenomenon. RBCs around the world!

I haven’t time or energy to organize anything at this point in my life. But if someone else organizes an RB near me, I’d check it out.

Bank Swallows

The highlight of a trip to Ano Nuevo State Park is supposed to be the sight of hundreds of Elephant Seals. But when Carol and I visited the park today, what I enjoyed most was seeing Bank Swallows building nests in a bluff high above the beach. I watched through binoculars as the swallows whizzed around the bluff, and in and out of their nesting holes. Every once in a while, a small shower of sand would come out of one of the next holes, presumably because one of the birds was doing some excavation work inside the hole.

A Bank Swallow leaving a nesting hole, while a second one approaches the hole


We’re all dealing with election stress in our own ways. I took an hour away from work to go birding.

Brown Pelicans flying over Charleston Slough, with the hills on the eastern side of San Francisco Bay in the background.

This is a messy election. As we all know, the pandemic means far more people mailed their ballots in than ever before, so the counting is going to continue for days. This gives both presidential candidates lots of time to badmouth each other.

Enough of that. That’s what I went birding to get away from. Sometimes denial is a fruitful way to deal with a stressful situation, especially a situation where you really can’t do anything to alter it. And look at birds; birds don’t care who wins the election. Sort of puts things in perspective.

Big Timber, Mont., to Pocatello, Idaho

Every once in a while on a long trip you have a day where nothing goes wrong. That happened today. In fact, today was as close to perfect as I’ve gotten on any cross-country trip. I got up on time, and got on the road on time. The drive was easy, with little traffic and no delays. I arrived at Camas National Wildlife Refuge at four o’clock, with at least four hours to spend there.

The refuge consists of over ten thousand acres of varied habitat — open water, marsh, seasonally dry ponds, uplands with bunch grass and sage brush — along Camas Creek. The refuge provides habitat protection for breeding and migrating birds, but hunting and agriculture are also allowed in parts of the refuge.

Agricultural use of Camas N.W.R.

The weather was perfect, with a temperature of 79 degrees, dry air, light variable breezes, and perfectly clear skies. Almost as soon as I pulled into the parking lot near the refuge headquarters, I flushed a Common Nighthawk from where it was roosting in a tree, and with the sight of it circling around over me calling with a plaintive “peent, peent,” I found myself detached from any thought of workaday affairs. And it got better from there. When you come across inviting green marshlands with large areas of open water in what is close to being a desert landscape, with just over ten inches of precipitation a year, it is an amazing and refreshing sight.

Flooded pool in Camas N.W.R.

The marshlands were teeming with birds. Admittedly, most of them kept far away from me, and I would have seen more birds if I had had a scope. But the light was excellent, and I could make out many of the birds I saw, even from a distance. I saw a good number of birds that had hatched this year. I saw two Trumpeter Swans accompanied a cygnet, a great many Mallards with ducklings, and lots of American Coots with their young — these three species are captured in the photo below, about as they appeared through my binoculars — as well as many other juvenile birds.

Camas N.W.R.

The refuge staff manage the water levels in the pools to maximize food sources, and several of the ponds had been allowed to dry out. These dry ponds looked stark and lifeless at first.


But a closer look at one of them revealed five Pronghorn Antelope — four adults and one juvenile — who were watching me cautiously. I stood watching them watching me, and as I did so a car drove by without even slowing down. A little boy looked at me through the rear window, and I wanted to tell him to tell his parents to turn around and come back and look — but then I got distracted by two juvenile Northern Harriers flying low over the dry grass.

If there was a disappointment in an otherwise perfect day, it was that I didn’t see any Sage Grouse, even though I spent half an hour walking along a trail in the upland habitat near dusk. These uplands hardly merit the name based on elevation, for they are only about ten feet above the level of the marshlands. But that ten feet is enough: the soil is dry gravel, and the vegetation is dominated by short bunch grass — dried a crisp brown in late July — and sagebrush. But I was more than compensated by this disappointment a little later. While I was sitting eating my picnic dinner, with the sun about to set behind the distant mountains, two Swainson’s Hawks tried to roost in nearby trees, only to be repeatedly attacked out by brave Western Kingbirds, and after ten minutes finally driven away, screaming loudly. It was a dramatic conclusion to the day.

I suppose if you are not all that interested in birds, this may not sound like an almost perfect day. Really, though, looking for and identifying birds wasn’t the point. I think we human beings are meant to be outdoors as much as possible, and we are meant to be interacting with other living things as much as possible; evolution has shaped us to this end. Computers and automobiles and toilets and hospitals have made our lives easier and longer and more comfortable, but not necessarily better and more soul-satisfying.

Posted a day late due to poor Internet connection.

Dickinson, N.D., to Big Timber, Mont.

The wind storm from yesterday continued unabated. The National Weather Service warned of sustained winds of twenty to thirty miles per hour, and gusts up to sixty miles per hour. It was an unpleasant drive from Dickinson to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and I was glad to park the car at the trailhead for the Paddock Trail. As soon as I parked the car, I realized that I was right next to a Prairie Dog town; thirty feet from the car, a Prairie Dog sat feeding at the entrance to a hole, warily keeping an eye on me.

Prairie Dog

As i looked around me, I saw more and more Prairie Dog holes, lighter-colored mounds of earth dotting the close-cropped vegetation. The mounds started near the edge of a creek and extended up a gently sloping plain to the foot of a butte.

Prairie Dog town

I estimated that the town covered an area of several acres. I walked up the Paddock Trail to the end of the town. Wherever I walked, a Prairie Dog would give a shrill alarm call, poised at the opening of a hole, ready to dart down inside when I got too close. I saw a pair of Mountain Bluebirds and an immature American Robin hopping around in between the holes; perhaps they were feeding. As the ground rose beyond the edge of the Prairie Dog town, I was more exposed to the full force of the wind, and to occasional spatters of light rain. It wasn’t fun, so I turned back, and decided to try the Jones Creek Trail. It turned out to be a little bit more sheltered, and I walked in for about half an hour, beneath the protecting buttes and amid the sagebrush.


Two female Northern Harriers flew above me, one apparently pursuing the other, twisting and turning through the tree tops, screaming at each other in the face of the high wind. I wanted to just keep walking for the rest of the day, but I had to drive halfway across Montana before nightfall, so I headed back.

When I was almost to the car I saw two people with binoculars around their necks. “Did you see the Harriers?” I said excitedly. They looked at me blankly. “Harriers?” said the man. “You’re not birders?” I said, pointing to the binoculars. “No,” said the man, with undisguised scorn. “Never mind,” I said, and didn’t bother to tell him what he had missed.

I stopped in Beach, North Dakota, for lunch; I avoided the fast food joint right next to the highway and drove a mile into the town and found La Playa Restaurant was open. In the restaurant, classical music was playing, and the young woman at the counter said, “Sit wherever you want, but not at a table that’s not clean yet.” A man with a graying pony tail sat across from a thin middle aged woman and talked about people they knew. An older woman with a grumpy face said to a young waitress, “There’s no lettuce left at the salad bar. The eggs are gone, too.” I ordered a small steak, medium rare. “Here’s your steak, darling,” said the waitress, and it came cooked perfectly. An elderly man and woman walked in, having a conversation that I’d describe as eccentric, with leaps of logic that I couldn’t follow. It was after two o’clock, and the music switched to a country rock radio station. The grumpy-faced woman ate methodically and stoically. I paid my bill, left the restaurant, and drove around a couple of blocks of downtown Beach. The town had a friendly feeling to it, and I particularly liked a hand-lettered sign in the park: PET POOPS YOU SCOOP.

Beach, N.D.

The highway wound through the buttes and over the rivers and creeks of Montana. I was driving right into the teeth of that strong wind, so strong that the car was using about a fifth more gas than usual. I stopped for gas, and kept driving: a broad plain with cultivated fields; fantastically eroded buttes; a glimpse of a river with muddy water; softly rounded buttes; huge rolls of hay; cattle at a water hole; a small valley with a cluster of ranch buildings and trees whipping in the wind; another creek; another butte; the landscape passed by, always a little different, slowly changing as I drove onwards, the big sky overhead. I had a recording of of Terry Reilly’s minimalist masterpiece “In C,” and it seemed to fit the passing landscape perfectly: slowly changing, a sense of excitement and discovery slowly waxing and waning.

I stopped for a moment at a roadside rest area where I looked out over Rosebud Creek. The old Chinese art critics said the highest form of landscape painting depicted a landscape that you could wander in. This was a landscape you could wander in: the railroad winding between a cliff and a river; a large island in the river; ranch buildings just visible hear an there among the wide-spaced trees; mysterious bluffs in the distance leading to a hidden prairie beyond.

Rosebud Creek

Rosebud Creek

Rosebud Creek

By the time I reached Billings, I had to buy gas. Carol had said Billings was worth stopping in. Had Carol been with me — Carol, that best of traveling companions, who always knows where the interesting places are to be found in any city — I’m sure I would have found the funky quarter where there are good cheap restaurants, a farmer’s market, a used bookstore, and a coffee shop with free wifi. But since Carol could not come on this trip, all I found was a supermarket and a gas station.

This post is for Carol, who asked for lots of photos.

Alexandria, Minn., to Dickinson, N.D.

At night, I dreamed a great many dreams, but when I was finally awake I remembered none of them; all I remembered was pieces of them: someone needing a pad of paper; children being cared for while their parents did something together; a building with an office that I no longer used. It took me several minutes to come awake, though; I walked around the motel room for a minute or two trying to get re-oriented to the waking world.

Minnesotans have a reputation of being nice, but in the morning I ran into several grim and unhappy people while I bought gas and tried to get some breakfast. Years ago, I took a business trip to Warroad, Minnesota, and in Warroad everyone I met really was nice. But of course not all Minnesotans are nice; Garrison Keillor, with his grim view of human nature, comes to mind. Most of the background music I heard this morning as I did my errands was country music, and I thought that Garrison Keillor was like those lesser country music singers who say they are humble and simple, when they are actually proud of being country, and not at all simple in the way they use their country origins.

Then I realized that all I saw was white people, just as Garrison Keillor’s fictional world is predominantly white. There are too many grim people spinning out fictional worlds that are mostly white. I had been waiting more than five minutes for the grim young waitress to make an appearance, and I left the menu on the table and got in the car and started driving west. As I drove to North Dakota, I sang along to Johnny Cash — “I wear black for the poor and beaten down, living in the hopeless, hungry side of town” — and thought about how this was a song that was on the last CD that my father was able to play for himself on his stereo system before his neurological condition took away his small muscle coordination.

Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge is about thirty or forty miles from the interstate highway. I drove across the prairie, and down to the refuge headquarters overlooking Arrowwood Lake. One of the rangers pointed out on a map where I might find Sharp-tailed Prairie Grouse: “Here’s where they had their lek,” she said. “It’s a big lek, and there were about fifty males this spring, so there are a lot of birds around. The best time to see them is in the morning or evening.” I told her that I had to leave the refuge before evening. “Well, you’ll just have to walk out on the prairie,” she said, “and see if you flush one out of cover.”

I drove to the place she had indicated on the map, pulled the car over on the narrow dirt road, and walked out onto the prairie. After walking for a while, I turned around and looked back at the car: it looked small and insignificant. Here and there in the prairie were depressions filled with water, and ringed with cattails. Some Common Grackles screamed at me when I got close to one of these prairie potholes.

Prarie pothole, Arrowwood NWR

A Savannah Sparrow clung to a milkweed, swaying dangerously in the gusty breeze, singing until one big gust upset him and he flew off. Clouds blew across the sky, leaving patterns of shadow and light on the prairie. I lost track of time. At last I circled back to the road, my trousers marked with dark streaks from some plant, my shoes stained reddish brown in places from having stepped in damp ground, empty of thoughts. It would have been nice to have seen some grouse, but I was satisfied.

Car and prairie, Arrowwood NWR

In some tiny North Dakota town I pulled over at a small truck stop to get a sandwich for dinner, and I couldn’t help noticing that about a third of the people there were Hispanic or Asian, not white. The coffee was good, and the sandwich was adequate. I saw my first butte, one of the signs that I was entering the Far West, and then other small formations that weren’t quite buttes, one of which had a giant cow on it.

New Salem, N.D.

The clouds grew darker as I drove west, and the wind grew stronger. A few patters of rain on the windshield, and then I saw lightning strike somewhere off to the south. The wind began to blow the car around, and I was glad there were hardly any cars on the road. Ahead of me was one small bit of blue sky. Lightning flashed to the north. Another strong gust of wind, and the headlights showed bits of grass and plants blowing horizontally across the highway. Lightning flashed in the rearview mirror, and in front of me, yet still the road wound towards that one small patch of light sky.*

Gusts of wind hit the car now and then, and I found myself gripping the steering wheel hard. I had to pass a semi-trailer; another car passed me, and I saw that car get blown from one side of the lane to the other. Steady rain for a few minutes, then nothing, then a few drops of rain; and still the road kept winding towards that one calm spot in the sky. At last I pulled into Dickinson. It was almost dark, but it wasn’t raining, and there wasn’t much wind, and that bright spot of sky was directly overhead.

But a half and hour after I checked into the motel, the power went off. Years ago one of our housemates, Judy, had said that you should always carry a flashlight when you stay in a motel, just in case, and so thanks to Judy I had a flashlight. With the lights out, it was time to go to sleep, and some of my last waking thoughts were of my dad in hospice.

Posted a day later and backdated, due to power outage

* “One insurance company reports that farmers had been hurriedly buying hail insurance early Monday to protect the remainder of their crops, which in some instances, has already been severely damaged by storms last week. High winds are expected today [Tuesday, July 28] to follow in the path of severe storms unleashed late Monday, according to the National Weather Service in Bismarck…. Severe weather from Monday night’s storm or high winds could cause farmers to lose the rest of their crops because what’s left is already damaged, according to [Wade] Haselau [of Cottingham Insurance]. ‘Some of the farmers lost what they had left,’ Haselau said. ‘There’s no coming back from this. They’re a whole year away from getting income again.'” — Bismarck [N.D.] Tribune, Tuesday, July 28, 2015, page one.

Black Wolf, Wis., to Alexandria, Minn.

I said my good-byes in Black Wolf, took one last look at the antenna I helped Ed put up over the past two days, and started driving west. After about an hour and a half of driving, I was ready for a break, so I drove a couple of miles south of U.S. 21 to Roche-A-Cri State Park. The main feature of the park is a 300 foot high sandstone formation, a mound known as Roche-A-Cri,” or crevice in the rock. This formation is mostly overgrown with trees, but in one place there is a dramatic sandstone cliff, weirdly weathered with petroglyphs at its base.


If this cliff were in Arizona or New Mexico, it would barely merit a glance, but it is in Wisconsin and thus it is strange and wonderful. I looked at the petroglyphs, left by ancestors of the Ho-Chunk people; I had passed the Ho-Chunk Nation casino earlier in the day. I climbed the 303 steps to the top of the mound, pausing half a dozen times on the way up to let my heart rate slow to normal. From the top, you can see for a long way across the flat plain of the Central Sands of Wisconsin, where there was once, thousands of years ago, a huge glacial lake. But it doesn’t look like much more than a flat tree-covered plain, so I headed back down.

By the time I climbed down the 303 steps and walked back to the parking lot at the entrance, it was time for lunch. While I was eating, three girls ran to play on the little playground there, and Tom, their grandfather, came over to chat with me. He told me about Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, half an hour down the highway, where Sandhill Cranes nest. So I decided to stop there.


The first thing I noticed about the refuge is that the soil is that same sandy soil I saw in Roche-A-Cri State Park; the soil of the Central Sands region. The next thing I noticed was the variety of plant communities within the refuge: I walked through woodlands and oak savanna and prairie and walked on boardwalks over marshland, all in the space of less than a mile.

It was the middle of the day, and most of the birds kept themselves far away. But I did see some Sandhill Cranes fly by, giving their loud rattling honking call; I saw a couple dozen White Pelicans glide over the marsh in the distance, their heads tucked back against their bodies, black wingtips barely moving as they soared in close formation. I saw a pair of Trumpeter Swans in the distance, distorted by the shimmer of heat rising from the marsh, with three or four cygnets swimming between them. Way off in the distance, I saw some sort of tall white long-legged wader; could it be some of the Whooping Cranes that have been re-introduced into Wisconsin? They were too far away for me to be sure.

Then, in the middle distance, flying low over the marsh, I saw some white birds with black wingtips flying along, but they weren’t pelicans for no pelican would fly with its neck outstretched, and no pelican would flap its wings like that; against all my expectations, I had just seen one of North America’s rarest and most dramatic birds, the Whooping Crane. True, I had only seen the birds at a distance, and only for a few short moments, but I had seen them; and the birds I had seen were part of a small population with a dramatic story: they have been re-introduced into the eastern half of the continent where they hadn’t lived in over a century, and they have had to be taught to migrate by following ultralight aircraft.

After seeing Whooping Cranes, the rest of the day was anti-climactic.

Cuyahoga National Park

My uncle wanted to meet for lunch, so I went over to Cuyahoga National Park. Did I go look at the historic railroad that runs through the park? I did not. Did I go to look at the beautiful waterfalls? I did not. No, I walked along the Plateau Trail off Oak Hill Road, to look for vireos. Vireos are small, drab, unremarkable birds that sit in the very tops of trees in woods. They are almost impossible to see, looking up thirty or fifty feet above your head, trying to see a small drab bird through the leaves. This is what it looks like, hunting for vireos in the Cuyahoga National Park:

Cuyhoga National Park

Mostly, you don’t really look for vireos, you listen for vireos. I only heard one or two vireos, and I certainly didn’t see any vireos. But looking up into the treetops was pleasant, and I did not consider it an ill-spent morning.

This July 22 post was actually uploaded on July 24, due to poor Internet access.