Bluebirds

While livestreaming the Sunday service, I happened to catch sight of a couple of Western Bluebirds. After the service was over, I went out to the front garden for a little stress reduction break, and sure enough, there was a bluebird resting on the perch attached to the nesting boxes.

Thanks to my super-zoom pocket camera, I managed to get a pretty good photo of this bird:

We had bluebirds nesting in these boxes from 2016 to 2018. The nesting boxes began to split in the sun, so we had to replace them in early 2019; nothing nested in the boxes last year. I’m hoping that this bird has decided this will be its nesting site in 2020.

Nests

It was the first day of Sunday school, and our middle school ecojustice class took a tour of the various projects the class works on — small-plot gardens, rain barrels, composters, and so on. It is well past the end of nesting season for birds, so one of the things we were able to do is check on the nesting boxes the class built a couple of years ago.

Both the nesting boxes in the front yard of the church campus had been occupied. One of the nesting boxes did not have a great deal of nesting material in it, and if there was an active nest, the eggs wound up sitting on wooden floor of the box:

The other nesting, box, however, had clearly been occupied — probably for more than one year, as there appeared to be at least two layers of nesting material. Evidence of occupation included fecal matter, and one of my co-teachers, Francesca, found an infertile egg, with some black mold on it, buried in the nesting material:

I had seen Western Bluebirds active around the nesting boxes during nesting season, though I never saw any nestlings. The appearance of the nests and egg corresponds well with the description given of Western Bluebird nests and eggs in Nests, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds (Baicich and Harrison, 2nd ed., Princeton Univ. Press, 1997): “Nest: A slight cup in a cavity. Of dry grasses and a few feathers. … Eggs:… Subelliptical to short subelliptical….Blue and unmarked. 21 x 16 mm.” I would characterize the blue as light blue, or sky blue.

The nesting boxes are showing signs of wear; the front of one split in two while we were opening it for inspection. So one project for the class this winter will be to make new nesting boxes.

Bath time

We left a large clay saucer (the thing you put under a potted plant to hold excess water) out on the railing of our balcony, and filled it with water to make a bird bath. Many of the neighborhood birds have come to drink or bathe, including California Scrub Jays (Aphelocoma californica), American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos), Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum), House Finches (Carpodacus mexicanus), and Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis). The crows and scrub-jays are too big to bathe, and all they do is drink the water — pretty boring. I most enjoy watching the juncos bathing — sometimes, one bird will be splashing around in the water while another waits impatiently for its turn to bathe. Yet even watching crows drink is better than staying glued to online “news” sources for more stories about a U.S. president who denies human-caused climate change while taking great glee in dropping the biggest bombs he can.

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.

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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.

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.

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.

Geneva, Ohio, to Rensselaer, N.Y.

Of course I awakened late. First of all, I hadn’t gotten into the motel room until 11:30 the previous night. Second of all, the time I awakened might seem late in the Eastern time zone but in the Pacific time zone I got up at six o’clock. When I finally got to Erie Bluffs State Park, it was half an hour before noon.

Erie Bluffs State Park, the largest undeveloped stretch of Lake Erie lake front in Pennsylvania, is mostly fields and woodlands. There is a boat launch, and there’s a tiny beach at the mouth of Elk Creek.

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But, as I say, it’s mostly fields and woodlands. I walked down through the woods to the shore. The trees were mostly maples and oaks, with some nut trees and sassafras — typical woodlands of the middle Appalachian region, and very similar to the woodlands I got used to growing up in eastern Massachusetts on the eastern edge of the hills of central New England. The woods felt familiar, more familiar than the town I grew up in which has been so altered by development and gentrification, and so many of the woodlands built up with very expensive houses, that it no longer feels like the town I once knew. But there were still surprises in the woodlands of Erie Bluffs. I came across a downed tree covered with some kind of insect I had never seen before, coming out of its larval stage to its adult stage.

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There wasn’t much to see at the shores of Lake Erie except people on personal watercraft bouncing over the chop raised by the northeast wind. I got tired of their buzzing, and the faint stench of two-cycle engine, and head back up the bluffs to the fields. The eastern fields at Erie Bluffs cultivated, with what I think was an annual rye grass, some kind of seed-bearing grass that probably provides good foraging for migrating birds. The western field is not cultivated, and it was filled with birds: Field Sparrows, Blackburnian Warblers, Indigo Buntings, Baltimore Orioles, and many more birds took advantage of the ecotone, the edge zone between the woodlands biome and the field biome.

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Then, all too soon, it was time to go. I started driving east, and kept driving east.

After dark, I stopped at a rest area somewhere in upper New York state. By that time, there was little traffic on the highway, and few people in the rest area. Just one other person was waiting for coffee at Starbucks, and she and I got into a conversation with the two workers at Starbucks. I asked the workers if they got time and a half for the holiday, and they said they did. But, they said, no benefits. I told them I thought Starbucks had good benefits, but they said they were actually employed by the company that runs the rest area, a company which pays minimum wage, provides not benefits, and does not allow them to take tips. The other customer and I commiserated with them. She — the other customer — said she drove that stretch of highway regularly, because one of her children was involved with Circus Smirkus. We both said we love to drive, and we both agreed that the best time to drive was after dinner, after the crazy drivers got off the road. When I left, I told one of the workers that I wasn’t leaving a tip, because that wasn’t allowed, but it looks like I left some money on the counter by mistake so they better keep it.

Big Springs, Neb., to Avoca, Iowa

As you drive along Interstate 80, the people you meet in desert places, like in Winnemuca, tend to be friendly, tolerant of eccentricity, with a live-and-let-live attitude towards the world. The people you meet in mountainous places, like Laramie, tend to be outdoorsy and a little bit macho or macha, mountain-men and mountain-women who like to prove themselves. And the people you meet in the Midwest are courteous, pleasant, and just plain nice.

As anecdotal evidence to prove this theory, I offer the desk clerk at the Motel 6 in Winnemuca: friendly and tolerant even when he had to chase people out of the motel pool after the posted closing time, and on the edge of being eccentric himself. And I offer the clerk in the food coop in Laramie, who works in the ski industry, who obviously lives for his time outdoors, who was polite but uninterested in anything but outdoor sports. And I offer the waitresses as Ember’s Restaurant in Avoca, Iowa, who were unfailingly polite to me though I was the last customer of the night, the only customer in the place; they even chatted pleasantly with me and made me feel welcome while they were cleaning tables and mopping floors around me.

Of these three regions, where would I prefer to live? The idea of proving myself to the junior Paul Bunyans of the mountainous regions is not very appealing to me. I like the niceness of the Midwest, but I’m too much of a New Englander to trust constant niceness. But I’d like to live with the desert rats: I like friendly and tolerant people, and I’d fit in pretty well with the eccentrics.

East of Kearney, Neb., I saw a sign that said “Rowe Audubon Sanctuary Next Exit,” so I took the next exit. I crossed over several channels of the Platte River, turned right onto a gravel county road where a sign told me to, and soon pulled into the parking lot of the sanctuary headquarters, a stone’s throw from where the Platte River rushed by under cottonwood trees.

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A staffer in the the headquarters building told me that they were experiencing a “high water event”: heavy snow in the Front Range in April, followed by heavy rains in May, caused high water in the Platte River in June. I found that the water was indeed high, right up to the main trail in places, and covering a number of small side trails completely.

It was hot — better than ninety five degrees, with humidity that made it feel hotter — and the mosquitoes were biting. But I hardly noticed. Northern Bobwhites were calling everywhere, and I saw several, running along the edge of a field, bursting into flight when I got too close, flying from a low perch in a cottonwood into the brush. I haven’t seen that many bobwhites since I was a child, and their calls brought me back to childhood, listening to them call in the fields behind our house: “Bob — white! Bob, bob, white!” over and over in the mysterious dark humid summer evenings.

It wasn’t just the Northern Bobwhites that drew my attention away from heat and mosquitoes. Dicksissels sang throughout the fields, a female Baltimore Oriole screamed at me when I got too close to her nest, a three-point buck stared at me from the edge of a corn field then sprang away, Tree Swallows zipped past just a few feet above my head. Overhead, high cirrus clouds refracted the sun into red, yellow, green, and blue; and since cirrus clouds are made of ice, this created a partial ice bow.

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A big old rabbit stretched out in the shade with its legs splayed out fore and aft, so that its belly was on the cool, damp ground. It looked at me imperiously, daring me to come any closer, ready to spring into action if I did.

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But I went back by the other path, because I suddenly realized how hot I was, and how good the air-conditioned car would feel. Besides, I had been walking around for two hours, and if I were to get to Avoca, Iowa, at a reasonable hour, I had better start driving.

Heading west

We got a late start this morning, and didn’t leave Van Buren, Arkansas, until nearly noon. After we had been driving a bit, we turned off at a sign that said “Oklahoma Welcome Center,” and turned into the poshest rest stop I think we’ve ever seen. It was staffed by three volunteers. One politely asked me if she could help me with something, and I said, “No thank you, I’m just waiting while she checks email,” pointing to Carol, who was sitting an a very comfortable armchair enjoying the very fast Internet service. “In that case,” she said in her Oklahoma drawl, “I’ll just kill flies,” and, picking up a flyswatter, proceeded to do just that. “Do you keep score?” I said. “No,” she said, “and I’m not doing a very good job, either,” as she missed a fly for the third time.

As we drove through eastern Oklahoma, I noticed that the land looked much greener and much less dry than it had when we drove east a couple of weeks ago. Clearly they had had rain since then.

At exit 200 for Seminole, Oklahoma, we turned off to see if Robertson’s Ham Sandwiches was open. We had seen their distinctive red-and-white billboards heading east, but we had arrived after they closed. They were open. There wasn’t much on the menu but ham sandwiches, so we each had a double ham sandwich for less than five dollars. We sat at one of the wood tables to eat our sandwiches. It was about the best ham I’d ever eaten in a ham sandwich.

We turned off the interstate at El Reno, Oklahoma. Continue reading “Heading west”