This is a series of posts written in May and June 2011, a few days after I had left the RSPB. I flew to the USA and drove a circuitous route from Washington DC to Los Angeles CA. I relaxed, I thought, I had breakfasts in diners and conversations with waitresses and then I came home.
It’s late spring here in east Northants. It’s over a month since I saw my first sand martins, chiffchaffs, blackcaps and willow warblers. I’ve seen, locally, a good list of spring-bringers – those mentioned already and garden warbler, sedge warbler, reed warbler, grasshopper warbler, whitethroat, lesser whitethroat, cuckoo, nightingale, yellow wagtail, swallow, house martin, common sandpiper, common tern and swift. And all of those within a few miles of where I live.
And what I haven’t seen, has been seen by others – we are just waiting now for spotted flycatchers. But spring happens in different places at different times. The few Arctic terns and bar-tailed godwits which are rushing through the Nene Valley on early mornings are still heading for their spring in the high Arctic. They’ll end up in places where the smell of hawthorn blossom has never been experienced. Perhaps they’ll see polar bears while they are sitting on their eggs.
And tomorrow I am off to find a new spring. I’ll be on a plane to Washington DC (thank you US forces for your timing on the Bin Laden thing). Later this week I hope to be seeing American wood warblers in Rock Creek Park with US birders. I’m told this is about the best week in the year to see them and so I am keeping my fingers crossed.
I’ve read about Rock Creek Park. The great Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher wrote of it in Wild America and Mike McCarthy wrote of it in the US edition of Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo. If I get there, and if the technology works, I’ll be writing about it too.
I got here and the first bird I saw was … a starling. Yep a small flock feeding on some grass in central Washington. But I am glad to see there is still a Northern Mockingbird in the street outside the Tabard Inn where I am staying.
I spent yesterday evening with a bunch of nature conservationists in Washington Zoo. And then we sat outside in the warm evening air, had a beer or two and talked about nature conservation and about birds. Not so different from Home really.
In fact the topics were very similar – do we do nature conservation for nature’s sake or for ours? How do we get the public fired up? What about marine ecosystems? Do commercially important fish count as wildlife too? What will be the impact of Government spending cuts?
And which spring migrants have been seen? A Blackburnian? A Black-throated green? Lots of Yellow-rumps? Only the species are different.
There were three people I talked to whom I might more usually have met in Cambridge – the picture on Jane’s face when she saw me there! – and several existing US friends and some new ones.
As we sat outside a Nighthawk flew over to add itself to Gray Catbird, American Robin, Chimney Swift and House Sparrow. Yes, dear Reader, seeing nature and meeting friends make a cure for jet lag.
You never imagine your holidays in the rain do you? But when I woke up at 4am local time it was raining hard. Still a Northern Mockingbird sang outside – I didn’t feel mocked at all.
As well as the birds being different – or some of them anyway – we’ll come back to that – so is the human language. I’ve had to repeat myself several times for others and ask them to repeat things for me – I don’t know what it is but there’s a slight communications glitch between us.
And the birds aren’t all different – starlings and house sparrows are, by far, the commonest birds I have seen.
I’ve bought a cell phone and a netbook so this blog is, fingers crossed, up and running. Many thanks to a guy called Mario and the Geek Squad in Best Buy Columbia Heights who got me sorted out – much appreciated.
As I passed time while they did their stuff I was coming up the remarkably slow elevator out of the metro onto the sidewalk when I heard an unfamiliar bird song. At present, almost all the bird songs are unfamiliar, of course, but this one sounded like it should be a warbler.
In the small group of trees by the Navy Memorial it sang its trill. There were lots of sparrows in the tree, getting in the way, and then I saw a warbler with two white wing bars and a yellow throat and breast with an orange blob on it – a Northern Parula. If you are a US birder then nothing to write home about, but since I am not, I am.
And meanwhile, back home, the Guardian has published a comment piece by me on the state of nature conservation. James Meikle writes a piece about it and the NFU President Peter Kendall gets hot under the collar about it – but doesn’t actually address the points made.
My old copy of the Peterson field guide has a couple of plates of confusing fall warblers. And they do look confusing.
But this morning I got confused too – in the famous Rock Creek Park. I joined a group of birders and we were looking for migrating warblers high up in the trees. My guide was Wallace Kornack who certainly knows his birds – he was a great mentor for me. But the other birders present were all very helpful and friendly to a UK birder who doesn’t know his Black-throated Green from his Magnolia. Thank you from me to all of them.
We saw and heard a lot. There were: Black-throated Greens and Black-throated Blues, Parulas, lots of Yellow-rumps, American Redstarts, Black and Whites, Yellowthroat, Bay-breasteds (maybe the best one of the lot if you know what you’re doing) and Nashville. There were others but these are the ones I saw or heard.
And they don’t all look the same but many of them are yellow and black and white with some blue or red or brown. And they hide behind leaves. And the sexes are different. And they stay at the tops of the trees. And, and, and… And they move like lightening.
But they are beautiful – really beautiful. And they are amazing and lovely.
So I am going back for another lesson in lessening confusion with Wallace tomorrow. And I am really looking forward to it.
Yesterday was great, and today was even better. Better in several senses – I was less jet-lagged, we had some good birds and we had some great views of a stunning Magnolia Warbler.
The Rock Creek Park Crowd were regathering together in this green, wooded area within Washington DC soon after 615am. Warbler species added to my list today were Cape May, Blackburnian, Chestnut-sided and Magnolia.
Whilst many sightings were at the top of trees the Magnolia Warbler was close and at eye-level. What a stunning sight! A really beautiful bird.
Although I’ve only been to Rock Creek Park twice in my life, it has now entered my soul – those migrating warblers bring back hope and sound and colour to the world each spring.
I’m grateful to Wallace Kornack for being such a kind and knowledgeable host and to the rest of the Rock Creek Park Crowd for making me feel so welcome. Good birding to you all in the mornings ahead.
Actually, I did go back to Rock Creek Park this morning, but to a new bit with some different people. Greg Butcher, the Conservation Director of National Audubon was kind enough to take me birding and on a stroll through the park next to Rock Creek itself.
We added to the warbler list with Tennessee Warbler being a good edition, but also Swainson’s Thrush, Pileated Woodpecker and Great Crested Flycatcher being good editions to my Rock Creek list. And Red-winged Blackbird, Brown Thrasher, Solitary Sandpiper and Osprey being additions elsewhere.
I’ve been busy in Washington DC – but it’s been a good type of busy – birding, lunching, meeting people and a little bit of sightseeing. Here are a few thoughts about the capital:
- the White House is still there
- the Capitol area is very nice
- the Tabard Inn is quirky but would still be my first choice of Washington Hotel – no TVs, good food, nice staff and quaint.
- there are amazing numbers of starlings and house sparrows in DC considering how rare they are getting in the UK
- for fans of the West Wing, I met a Republican Josh Lyman figure (and if he is reading this blog – Drive with Strength!)
- most of the conversations about the environment and nature conservation are similar to ones happening in the UK and Europe
- I wish there were a Rock Creek Park close to Central London
- The Museum of the American Indian is a lovely building but was rather disappointing – I didn’t learn much
But I have now swapped the smell of power in Washington for the smell of seaspray at Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. I dawdled and got lost on the way but still managed some good large birds from the car – Osprey, Turkey Vulture, Brown Pelican and Killdeer.
It’s just occurred to me that if I were still working for the RSPB I would be on a Council weekend in South Wales. I miss my friends, of course, but the Louisiana shrimps on the way down, in a diner, were very good, it’s shirt sleeve weather and I probably would have missed the pelicans in Wales…
The soundtrack in the car today was Bruce Springsteen (greatest hits) and Carly Simon (also greatest hits).
The females of the deep South have a reputation for beauty, charm and politeness. I’ve now encountered a few.
The waitress at the Dunes restaurant at breakfast today called me ‘Honey’ as I ate my eggs (medium, sunny side up)), grits (my first time – I was until today a grits-virgin) and hot cakes ((just another name for pancakes to confuse the English) more times that I recall ever being called it before.
The old lady running a gas station somewhere where I was lost was very helpful in directing me to where I needed to be without making me feel a fool.
But today there were females all over me – they were very attentive. They all wanted a piece of me and actually bit. Some of them needed a good slapping. But, in a stable door and bolting horse sort of way, I now do have mosquito repellent.
I woke at 6 when the alarm went off – a legacy of a former resident of my motel room but a useful time to awake. And I was on Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge by 7. I’ve been there before and it’s great. The shorebirds mixed the familiar (Dunlin, Turnstone, Grey Plover) with the less familiar (including Willet, Marbled Godwit and Short-billed Dowitcher). A ruff flew past and was probably a ‘good’ record but didn’t excite me as much as the late-staying Iceland Gull and Bufflehead, the Louisiana Herons or the Black Skimmers.
The thing that drove away the mosquitoes was the rain which started early enough for me to be ‘Honeyed’ at breakfast before heading off to try to see what black bears do in the woods but I am none the wiser as they were doing it out of sight of me.
But I did see Wild Turkeys and several most amazing and lovely Prothonatory Warblers (what a name!). These yellow-headed warblers inhabit mosquito-ridden swamps (such as at Alligator River – didn’t see any alligators either) but are so beautiful that the bites are worth it.
I will now go to bed thinking about southern belles – or at least I’ll be scratching my mosquito bites.
Today’s soundtrack: Frank Sinatra and a compilation of ‘American anthems’.
Today was an easy day – mooched around the area of Bull’s Island near Charleston, South Carolina and Charleston itself.
Charleston has lots of ‘old’ buildings – but it is a very pretty place. You have to cross a very impressive modern bridge to get to it and then it’s quaint and southern and nice. And I’m sure its southern inhabitants occasionally quaintly and nicely make love with each other but the sex I saw was happening up the road a bit.
I did some mooching near the shore as there was breeze enough to keep the mosquitoes away. Mooching is good – a good mooch always produces some birds. My mooch was hanging around a jetty watching the crabmen and oystermen land their catches.
And as they did, shorebirds of the small variety, peeps, ran around feeding and they were close enough for me to have really good looks at Dunlin, Semi-palmated Plovers (very like our Ringed Plover), Grey Plover, Semi-palmated Sandpipers (there’s a whole lot of semi-palmation going on around here), Least Sandpipers and Spotted Sandpipers (like our Common Sandpiper but with spots). Also more distant were Greater Yellowlegs, Whimbrel, American Oystercatcher and Willets. None was having sex.
Nearby were Gull-billed Terns, Green Heron and Bald Eagle – not bad for a mooch, I thought.
But also there were Laughing Gulls and they were the ones having lots of sex. It’s interesting (is it? – you tell me) that our small dark-headed gull and the US version are both called ‘laughing’ except we only do that to ours in its scientific name and in its common name we saddle it with ‘black-headed’ even though we know the head is chocolate brown.
But Laughing Gulls are well named – they have a laughing cry – not least when having sex. And they seem to have quite a lot of sex and it lasts for quite a long time – although, I guess it depends to what you are accustomed.
It’s the male that does all the laughing. And this is when he is perched on the back of the female, trying to position his undertail parts correctly and is pecking (could be kissing) his female on the bill and head. And he laughs throughout – loudly. Almost to draw attention to the performance.
Didn’t work with me – I only watched about 20 times during my mooch. I was hardly paying attention at all. And you could get the impression that nor was the female ‘involved’. She just stood there for the most part – occasionally uttering a fairly quiet call (of impatience? of encouragement?) and shifting from one foot to the other now and again.
Her foot shifting once, in one pair, resulted in the couple twirling through 120 degrees whilst the male laughed away.
But, as I say, I was hardly noticing.
Today’s soundtrack was a compilation of US songs chosen by a friend at the RSPB – very aptly chosen. Although the one about the man who lied about being the outdoor type was wickedly funny.
Birdlist stands in the low 120s for anyone interested. Any guesses as to the total after another 5 weeks and crossing the USA through the Great Plains and into the Rockies before heading for Los Angeles?
And bears trump everything else – except wolves.
But it’s been a great day even without the bear (and there was a bear!).
I was back on Route 178 heading northwest at 0640 – which made me feel good. 178 and I had spent some good time together yesterday evening and now I left Batesburg/Leesville and headed up the road. It’s a nice road the 178 – easy to drive, nice scenery (grass fields and woods) and little traffic.
I passed several large bright yellow school buses picking up children. There’s a very nice rule that says that you can’t pass these buses while they are stopped and picking up – makes a lot of sense and says something about how America respects its children. So, when the school bus stops a ‘Stop’ sign emerges from its side, its lights flash and everyone stops – even traffic on the other side of the road – and even when it’s in the middle of the countryside with no other children in sight.
And I passed gourds hung up in groups on posts for purple martins to use as nests. This is something, I learned later in the day, that the Cherokee had done as an early form of pest control – those martins can gobble up insects.
And 178 showed me a sign ‘Cheerleader recruitment this Saturday’ which looked interesting.
Some of the bridges had signs warning that the ‘Bridge ices up before the road’ which seemed like a very paternal road sign for the land of free enterprise and the individual – but interesting nonetheless, although it was a lovely sunny day today.
178 occasionally tried to give me the slip – maybe I’m unkind – maybe it wasn’t intentional. Sometimes a little road like 178 goes hand in hand with a bigger road (like 25 thru’ Greenwood; general rule, big road=small number, big number=small road) and when that happens the little road gets second billing and you have to watch out for the signs for when the little road becomes its own man or woman again. But we stuck together.
North of Greenwood I found what I had been looking for – somewhere for breakfast that didn’t have neon lights, plastic seats or plastic food. 178 brought me to Lou and Perry’s restaurant which looked small, run-down and promising from the road but also looked busy – so I stopped.
It was vintage South. About 20 southerners having breakfast, coffee and conversation. I sat quietly by the window and pretended to read the Field Guide when I was really listening to the accents and the talk.
There were two waitresses, the young one (YO) and the not so young one (NSYO). Neither ‘honeyed’ me but NSYO ‘babyed’ me instead – I can take ‘babying’ but I think I prefer ‘honeying’.
YO explained with a smile that I couldn’t have my eggs sunny side up and medium as these are two mutually exclusive options – serves me right for thinking I’d learned the lingo. So I opted for 2 eggs (medium), hash browns and bacon, OJ and coffee.
Then I could listen to the conversation. Clearly, all but me were used to each others’ company and probably met up here most days. NSYO was on top of the banter, on top of the coffee refills and on top of the till. YO asked where I was from and what I was doing – she couldn’t quite imagine why anyone would vacation in South Carolina and I didn’t tell her that this breakfast was part of the authentic American experience that I wanted.
A large man in large dungarees and a large beard, who looked as though he tore up trees with his bare hands, paid, left and on exiting tossed a ‘Love you all’ over his shoulder. Who was I to argue but he was greeted with a chorus of ‘Love you too’s from the breakfasters.
YO asked me whether I’d been to Charleston and I said yes and that it was very old and attractive – she said she’d never been but had heard it was nice. She’d been to Myrtle Beach though. I’d driven through the strip of Myrtle Beach on Sunday and had hated it – but it must have seemed like a different world from Lou and Perry’s restaurant.
Now it would be easy for me to write that YO had a wistful look and was obviously longing to get away and see the world – but I don ‘t think she was. She seemed happy enough. And why not? I know nothing about her personal circumstances but what I saw at Lou and Perry’s demonstrated a greater sense of community than is common in many parts, even rural parts, of the UK.
Everyone who entered said hello to everyone else – everyone who left said goodbye. Two ladies breakfasting complimented NSYO on her new sandals and told her they made her feet look pretty. One customer asked another how she was feeling today and the second responded she was feeling ‘straight’ now – and several customers said that was good.
I was beginning to feel the pull of 178 and also that I was not an observer but an intruder – so I paid, tipped and left. I can’t imagine that I’ll ever pass that way again but the memory of that half an hour will last longer than many bird sightings on this trip.
So 178 and I continued our journey and through the prettiest part yet – the Sassafras Mountains. Great name – pretty place. At one point there was a wet patch of soil by the side of the road with about 200 American swallowtail butterflies on it – presumably licking salt. I don’t actually know what species they were but they look very like our swallowtails except they are – guess what? – yep, they’re bigger! And there were fewer of a large black and blue butterfly too.
But then we came to Rosman and 178 just stopped. The only options were 64 East or West. I looked up and down the map to look for where 178 might emerge from under 64’s shadow but that was it. I chose West knowing that that is the nature of road trips – you have to leave the good roads and non-wistful waitresses behind you and move on.
And we still haven’t got to the bear. Do you remember the bear? Are you even still with me?
A succession of roads whose numbers I can’t remember, I was still thinking of 178, brought me to Cherokee on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park where there are 1600 Black Bears – that’s apparently 2 bears each square mile of Park.
But before looking for a bear I visited the Museum of the Cherokee Indian – a great museum. I thoroughly recommend it. Learn about how a water beetle created the world, a buzzard created the hills and valleys and a water spider brought fire to the Cherokee.
I stopped at the Park entrance and got some information from a helpful young man and headed into the Park. It’s the busiest National Park in the USA and it was quite busy today – although I guess I don’t know the half of it.
I drove and then walked up to the highest point – over 6000ft – at Clingman’s Dome. And saw some birds – remember birds? And hold on for bear!
It was mid-afternoon by now – the worst time of day but I got brilliant views of Chestnut-sided Warbler (which I’d heard well and seen badly at the Maintenance Yard at Rock Creek Park), Hooded Warbler and Canada Warbler. All stunning views of stunningly beautiful birds – these American warblers get a grip of you – they have got a grip of me. I can see why Wallace is back at Rock Creek Park every morning in spring.
There was another birder – Justin – who was taking a 6 month trip and whose Sibley I borrowed to ID the Canada Warbler – although it was gratifying that when I described it he said that it was a Canada and that he’d only seen one so far this year. We spoke briefly about birds, as birders do, and then went our own ways.
My way took me into the Tennessee side of the Park and at another visitor centre I checked my strategy with a young lady ranger. She told me that I might well find accommodation in Townsend and that’s how I got to the Riverstone Lodge where I am writing this blog.
How careless – I missed out the bear! On my way to Townsend I was just pondering on the odds of seeing a bear if there is one every half a square mile – how many square miles of forest had I looked at already for heaven’s sake? But ahead of me a fat man was pointing a camera into the woods. Now it didn’t look like a particularly special view so I guessed ‘bear’ – and as I pulled in I could see the bear in the woods – moving slowly from left to right.
It was a young black bear – and it was lovely. We watched it for a few minutes before it shambled out of our sight. A bear! Never seen one of those before.
Breakfast, butterflies, bear or birds – which is best? For me, it’s the combination. Enjoying what’s different and what’s the same, and accepting either as an interesting part of the jigsaw of how things fit together. Too many birders are blinkered to the people around them and too many people are blinkered to nature. I have plenty of blindspots but on this trip I am trying to keep my eyes and ears open to people and nature.
And today’s soundtrack was the great Roy Orbison: tracks like Pretty Woman, Running Scared and Southern Man. What a voice.
I’ve not been in the Deep South at all this trip, but I have been in the South until I crossed into Kentucky today. And it really is South too. If you head due East from Washington DC you hit Spain; and Charleston, the furthest South I will go on this trip, is on the same latitude as a whole bunch of trouble spots out East such as Libya, the Golan Heights and Afghanistan. Good job I’ll end up almost due West in Los Angeles in 5 weeks time – although to get there I go North, West and then South – what a trip this is.
Today I saw a beaver – not as good as a bear, but that wasn’t the beaver’s fault.
I also visited Dollywood – Dolly Parton’s cultured little theme park in Pigeon Forge. You have to almost go through it as you leave the Great Smokies to your South and so I just had to go. You didn’t believe that did you? I risked a speeding ticket in order to get away.
But can you think why it is called Pigeon Forge rather than Crow Forge or Eagle Forge?
And while I am in questioning mode – why am I heading towards Cincinnati do you think?
And why have the letters PRND been in front of my eyes for much of my journey?
And here is an answer from yesterday – I think the swallowtails are Eastern Tiger Swallowtails (but there are other possible species so I’ll try to check) and the black and blue butterfly also needs checking but looks like either the Spicebush Swallowtail or maybe the Pipevine Swallowtail. Whatever we call them – I call them beautiful.
Today’s soundtrack was Foo Fighters and revisiting the American Anthems CD that my kids gave me.
I did a strange thing in a zoo today.
My days are beginning to fall into a certain order. Wake at 5am after a good night’s sleep and without an alarm, check emails (‘cos Europe is already up), shower, move stuff into the car and then hit the road. And so I headed North from Somerset, Kentucky at around 630am this morning.
It’s a good time to start – there’s little traffic and the early start makes me feel virtuous.
At around 730 I was looking for breakfast in Lancaster. The first thing I noticed about Lancaster was Ron’s Pawn with a big sign saying ‘Guns – sell, trade or buy’ and he was open. It’s clearly never too early to think of lethal weapons in Lancaster.
I did a little loop around the town and found what I hoped to find – a quiet cafe selling breakfast. This was called Wajaba’s Too and I had a delicious breakfast of pancakes, bacon and coffee. I told the waitress, Anna, how good the pancakes were and then we got to chatting.
I asked Anna what Lancaster was like. She said it was…a bit of a pause…and then we both said ‘quiet’ and laughed. I didn’t ask whether that was because all the guns were in pawn but instead pointed to my bird book, said I was travelling around the USA birding, and asked whether I could ask her what might seem a daft question. The cafe wasn’t busy the only other customer was a grumpy looking man whom, I noticed, didn ‘t say ‘thank you’ when Anna served him. We English have lovely manners apparently. In fact a friend claims a crowd gathered around her on an AMTRAK once because she could eat with a knife and fork at the same time!
Anyway, my question was ‘Have you ever heard of the Passenger Pigeon?’ and Anna said ‘No’. I wasn’t surprised, but over a refill of coffee explained that maybe 120 years ago that the Passenger Pigeon had lived around these parts and had been the commonest bird in the world – maybe 9 billion of them. But that on 1 September 1914 there was only one remaining bird, a female, called Martha, who had died in Cincinnati Zoo and I was heading to Cincinnati Zoo this very day to look at an exhibit there.
Anna clearly thought I was a little strange but wanted to know why the bird had died out. I said that we don’t really know but habitat destruction, shooting, trapping and imported diseases may have all played their parts. But wasn’t it amazing that a bird went from commonest in the world to extinct in about 50 years?
We chatted a little longer about my trip and then a little later I got up to pay. Anna emerged from out-back and, with a smile, said ‘Your breakfast is on me today. It’s been so nice talking to you and I hope you enjoy your trip in America – it sounds really great.’. I argued a bit about this – after all the breakfast had been very good and the chat had been good too – but Anna insisted very nicely and so I thanked her again and left a tip covering half the breakfast in the jar by the till. The kindness to strangers of small-town, quiet-town, gun-pawned town, America.
So it was on up the road with a cheap breakfast inside me and I was thinking that Kentucky was a bit dull until I passed Keeneland Racecourse when I perked up. I noticed there were signs up for ‘Drive thru betting’. Americans like driving thru to do most things. There are probably drive thru births, toilets, brothels and cremations.
Further on, I saw a sign to the Buckley Wildlife Sanctuary and decided to give it a go. It was worth it. The road first took me through some lovely country and past the Pin Oak Stud with its own small private racetrack – presumably for training thoroughbreds – and there were some beautiful looking horses in the fields.
When I got to the wildlife sanctuary I was relieved to see that it was what we would call a nature reserve and not a home for injured birds and mammals. And I got to meet Tim Williams the Sanctuary Manager.
He’s a character and was kind enough to take me down to the blind (we’d call it a hide) which was small but had one-way glass so that we could look out but the birds couldn’t see us. We looked out over some feeders, a pool of water, the woods and a small lake.
I asked Tim how long he’d worked here and the answer was 37 years- so he knew the place!
A couple from Indiana joined us and outside there were good views of Blue Jays, American Goldfinches, Grackles, Tufted Titmice, Red-winged Blackbirds, White-breasted Nuthatch, Brown-headed Cowbirds, House Finch, Grey Squirrels and Eastern Chipmunks.
Tim gave me his card – he has a neat trick with this that must go down brilliantly with kids. He showed me his card, both sides, and it’s blank. Then he puts it in his closed fist, pushes one knuckle and makes the card, still blank, come out from his fist like paper from a fax machine. He does this a couple of times and then presses another knuckle and out comes the card with his details on it. It’s very neat – I’d like to see it again to see whether I can spot it this time.
And Tim can talk – he was good company. The conversation turned to grey squirrels and it is clearly one of the species whose popularity level is low. Tim reckoned squirrels make good gravy – you cook the squirrel, throw it away and eat the gravy.
But racoons are worse – for the damage they do to other wildlife but also property. Tim’s line on these was that squirrels and racoons were both born with engineering degrees but that racoons graduate to PhDs they are so clever at damaging things!
I turned the conversation around to Passenger Pigeons but Tim wasn’t too genned up on them and the couple from Indiana weren’t too sure either so I went for a lovely walk round the woods and meadows – seeing Fox Sparrow (which I recognised) and Mockernut Hickory (which was labelled). It was a relaxing walk – I imagined thousands and thousands of Passenger Pigeons pouring over in a seemingly never-ending stream as John James Audubon had once seen.
And onwards, past another thing, apart from racehorses, that makes Kentucky famous – the Jim Bean Old Crow Bourbon distillery.
Cincinnati is just across the Ohio River in Ohio State. Approaching it on Interstate 75 you get a great view of the tall buildings before you leave Kentucky (which I decided was really quite interesting).
At the Zoo I paid my $10 to get in (and it’s another $8 to get out of the car park), got the map and set off in search of the Passenger Pigeon Memorial. It’s easy to find -past gorilla world and it’s on your left.
The small pagoda hut has good information about the fate of the passenger Pigeon as a species and the fate of its last representative on Earth – that female called Martha. Martha was hot news in her last few years of existence, people flocked to see her, and her death on 1 September 1914 was a national story.
On her death, Martha was shipped to Washington DC, packed in ice, and she is in the Smithsonian Museum – although not on display (David Blockstein, from the National Council for Science and Education had told me, as we lunched at the Tabard Inn last week, that rumour has it she is in the Director’s office there).
David and others, including Dan Marsh from Cincinnati Zoo, are planning events to mark the upcoming centenary of Martha’s death in a few years time. I wish them well.
I think we sometimes overrate the importance of species’ extinctions but the Passenger Pigeon was phenomenally abundant just 50 years before being reduced to a sad widow we called Martha in a cage in Cincinnati Zoo. That is a cautionary tale to keep in mind and spread around, for sure.
There is a bronze statue of a Passenger Pigeon by the Memorial and it carries a plaque which includes the following words: ‘It is the hope of the Langdon Club that people who visit this memorial will want to work toward the preservation of all the world’s fauna’. I do.
There were two more things I did at the Zoo. First, I sat across from the memorial and watched the people go past – and go past they did. 120 passed the memorial without a single one looking at it. Fair enough – let’s concentrate on the living rather than the extinct.
But as I left I went into the Zoo Shop to buy a hat and some post cards. I would have bought a little memento of Passenger Pigeons if there had been any, but two different shop assistants confirmed that in the well-stocked shop there was not a single item with a Passenger Pigeon on it. Retail managers are a canny bunch – they don’t use shelf space for non-sellers, so that is further confirmation that it is only a strange Englishman who travelled 3000 miles and has been looking forward to visiting this Zoo for months that would have parted with cash for a memory of Martha.
And that strange thing I did in the Zoo? I imagine I was the only person who visited the Zoo today, perhaps this year, perhaps ever, who came to remember an extinct species and didn’t look at a live animal.
There’s much more to say about Passenger Pigeons, other extinct wildlife (and a further link to Cincinnati Zoo) and extinctions in general – but that will do for now.
Today’s soundtrack – American Anthems CD No. 2 where I discovered the wit of Crash Test Dummies.
oday was a birding day – an excellent birding day.
Yesterday evening I drove through the north Ohio landscape looking for a cheap motel. I travelled parallel with Interstate 75 on smaller roads including Route 66 (though not that one) for a while. It was like travelling through The Fens – the roads dead straight until you come to a 90 degree turn, the landscape dead flat, the fields all arable with no fences, walls or hedges, only the scattered large farmhouses and the occasional wood broke up the landscape.
And as I set off this morning, about 630am, from my cheap motel, I picked up the same landscape again. It was like driving across The Fens for a day’s birding in North Norfolk. The journey a bit dull but a growing sense of excitement as one neared the destination.
The destination was Crane Creek/Magee Marsh on the coast – the coast of Lake Erie. As I got close I asked the folk at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory and they pointed me further down the road and said I’d know when I got there as there would be 200 cars in the car park – they were right about it being unmissable but there were closer to 400 cars there.
Wallace Kornack had pointed me in the direction of this place as we talked in Rock Creek Park – he said it was a place to see warblers up close. And it is. You can see hundreds of birders up close too – and that’s a mixed blessing.
But, for English birders, Crane Creek is a bit like the wood at Holkham stuck on top of the marsh at Cley and then a system of boardwalks installed above the swamp.
The place was packed. The boardwalk is about 5 feet wide and when 200 people are waiting for a Connecticut Warbler to show you can’t move.
Under such circumstances birders show their best and worst sides. Through the day there was some tetchiness when people got jostled, blocked or unsighted but I met some really nice people out on the boardwalk.
I eased through the Connecticut crowd as soon as I could but the rest of the boardwalk was pretty busy too. The four rarest warblers of the day were apparently Connecticut, Mourning, Cerulean and Worm-eating – I saw two of these which was probably pretty good going.
You do have to imagine somewhere like Holkham Pines, the Scillies or Portland Bill when there has been a fall of migrants to catch the atmosphere. As a Brit, and as me, I wasn’t too worried about seeing the rare ones, I was keen on seeing the common ones up close and personal – and that’s what I did.
I saw 19 species of warbler today, being: Black-throated Green, Black-throated Blue, Black and White, Parula, Yellowthroat, Yellow-rumped, Prothonotary, Bay-breasted, Chestnut-sided, Cape May, Magnolia, Canada, American Redstart, Ovenbird and these three which were new for me; Yellow, Wilson’s and Blackpoll as well as the two rare ones I haven’t yet told you about. And all, without exception, were seen very clearly at some stage during the day.
There were other good birds too – let’s not forget Gray-cheeked Thrush, American Woodcock, Whip-poor-will, Nighthawk, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Screech Owl and Rose-breasted Grosbeak.
And the diversity of birders was high too. There were some beginners – some of whom didn’t know they didn’t know much – many of whom were helped by others. There were some excellent birders – most of whom were nice to everyone else – but some of whom were a bit superior about everything. And there were lots of keen people in the middle.
It’s quite interesting being a pretty good birder like me in a country whose birds you don’t know well. You know how to look but you don’t always know the significance of what you have seen. So I know how to look at a warbler – does it have a wing bar? is it streaked? how far do the streaks go? – when I have that information I may spend a few minutes with the Field Guide working out what I have seen. And that’s tricky too – how long do you watch before you check the book? Short watches may not collect enough information but long watches may leave no chance to look again with the knowledge from the Field Guide in your head. Don’t smile like that – this is serious stuff!
But admitting to being English got me a lot of help and in turn I was sometimes able to help others.
So which were the other two? The Worm-eating was only seen early morning so it wasn’t that and a few Ceruleans were seen but they all seemed very high and mobile. So I saw Connecticut and Mourning.
I went back to the Connecticut spot when the crowds had died back a bit – but it was still busy. This little warbler walks about on the ground rather than flicking about in the trees so it takes some spotting. To be honest, only its Mum would think it was lovely, but it was a triumph to see it at all.
But the Mourning Warbler illustrates a truism of birding – if there’s one there may be more, so leave the jostling crowds and find your own.
I wasn’t too fussed whether I saw a Mourning Warbler or not – don’t get me wrong, my preference was to see it – but if I didn’t, no sleep would be lost. But I looked it up in the book and kept it in mind as I warbler-watched.
And about 20 minutes later I found one. I was pretty sure it was one but I looked it up in the book to check – it was. And then I refound it through binoculars, and then I wondered how sure I was and whether I should announce it to the 30 people nearby when a lady down the boardwalk shouted “Mourning’ and 30 people gathered around to see.
So there usually is more than one, and that was shown to be true later in the day, near the visitor centre, when I went for a walk and found another one. There was no-one to tell at the time, so I am telling you now.
Full-on birding, and great fun. 19 species – pity I didn’t make the 20 but a great day. I’ll be back there tomorrow but I won’t inflict a bird list on you tomorrow – unless it’s a really really good one. I will blog on the costs and benefits of birding.
Cup Final tomorrow – Man City to win in 90 minutes would be my bet.
Today’s soundtrack: American Anthems CD3 with such tracks as Sweet Home Alabama, Baby I’m-a Want You and Bette Davis Eyes.
Sometimes you have an observation and you don’t make the identification – and it niggles away at you until you solve it.
I returned to Crane Creek early this morning. After yesterday I was keen to have some more. I wasn’t alone – the crowds were there too. But the weather was dull and the birds were fewer and didn’t behave quite so well. I saw a lot of warblers but maybe yesterday had spoiled me. When I saw a male Blackburnian at the top of a tree (my 20th warbler for the site) and it looked a bit dull despite being a fiery mixture of orange and black I knew that it was time to go.
This period, ending tomorrow (Sunday) is regarded as ‘The Biggest Week’ and it lives up to its hype for the hundreds of birders who come. In the car park I saw licence plates for just about half of US states. Not surprisingly most were from Ohio and neighbouring Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia and Pennsylvania but many from the next ring of states – Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina, Virginia, and New York. Then a little further away there were Iowa, Tennessee, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland. Long distance migrants were Alaska, Washington, California, South Dakota, Colorado, Texas and Florida. And throw in Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia and you’ll see it’s not just a meeting point for birds.
There can be few other small patches of Ohio farmland that attract visitors like this – and that’s what the locals think too.
When I filled up with gas at the BP station in Oak Harbour the elderly man in charge, sucking an unlit cigar, was fazed by by non-US Amex card and we took a while to work out how I could pay but he was very friendly – as were his mates, six of them, who seemed to be using his gas station for a boys’ meeting. As I left one of them asked ‘Are you a birder?’ to which I replied ‘Yes – how do you know?’ to which the answer was ‘There are a lot of you about just now.’ but it was said in a friendly way and was followed by a chorus of ‘Have a nice day!’. I certainly would not have visited Oak Harbour if it were not for the birds – not even for the excellent blueberry pie served in the friendly Kozy Korner restaurant (which isn’t nearly as naff as those Ks suggest it might be – very down to earth in fact.).
As I drove the 20 more minutes to Crane Creek I passed an ice-cream kiosk with a sign saying ‘Birders flock to us’.
At the Magee Marsh visitor centre I later bought a few things but had to pay cash as they don’t take credit cards. The lady serving me explained that ‘We are really busy for these two weeks but it’s kinda quiet after that so we don’t take credit cards.’.
And then in a tempting position in the car park is the Pam and Darryl’s Travelling Cafe which sells burgers, dogs, coffee, cakes and cold drinks. Pam, a short, slim, middle-aged lady with a ready smile is front of house – taking orders, being nice to the customers and taking the money whereas Darryl, who looks like he may have, quite properly, tasted his own cooking, fries away outside the van.
Pam told me they were based in Columbus Ohio and spent 10 days at Crane Creek each year – and it’s good business. Yesterday they sold out of hot dogs (200+) by noon and were expecting a busy day today when I had a breakfast of egg and sausage roll.
The rest of the year they do auctions, street fairs and art shows but Pam said she liked the birders best – I bet she says that to all the guys.
Darryl asked me to tell you his burgers are ‘awesome’ and so they are.
There’s no doubt that the local economy benefits from all those birders – gas stations, accommodation, eating places and others. It’s a windfall that I got the impression that the locals liked and appreciated. After all, birders aren’t that demanding as far as comfort and quality food are concerned – although I would have liked a Cerulean on the menu.
And that niggling identification problem? Yesterday I’d seen a chap who looked familiar but I couldn’t place him – and I didn’t hear him call otherwise I think I would have nailed him. Today he was wearing a top with a Wildlife Trusts logo on it as we almost bumped into each other. It was Derek Thomas from Wales (here pictured wearing a tie) and we had a chat about what we’d seen and missed.
Derek Thomas – who’d have thought it? These trans-Atlantic vagrants can be a bit tricky to identify!
Today’s soundtrack – back to Springsteen and Carly Simon.
And I told you that Man City would win inside 90 minutes didn’t I?
It’s raining here near Erie, Pennsylvania and the forecast is for rain for a week. A week!
But at least I have lucked out on where I’m staying – it’s ‘only’ a Travelodge but it’s got more facilities than the very cheap places where I have stayed most of the trip so far. It has a gym – and I’ve used it (that statement will amaze some of my readers).
And it’s raining. The rain outside my room will end up in the Allegheny River which flows into the Ohio River which feeds the Mississippi River which is full. Here the news is all about opening the floodgates to let out the Mississippi waters onto Cajun farmland so that Baton Rouge and New Orleans don’t get flooded.
That’s ecological services of land for you.
Sitting in Kozy Korners restaurant in Oak Harbour a couple of days ago – eating a ‘farmer’s omelette’ of potato, onion, peppers and ham (those farmers eat well) – there was a group of men who looked like farmers talking about the impending flooding of all that farmland. “They’re are going to be a lot of pissed farmers down there’ opined one good old boy.
Google Maps suggests it would take about 20 hours driving for me to get to Baton Rouge, I think it’s about 1100 miles by road. I wonder how long the drops of water pouring off the Travelodge roof will take to get to Cajun country?
And as Bob sang – maybe the definition of blogging:
And I’ll tell and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
I thought of detouring to Niagara Falls but that would have been silly – it would have added too many miles and I have seen torrents of rain all day anyway. When it hasn’t been raining hard it has been raining very hard.
So not a bird-rich day – even though the Allegheny Mountains, through which I have meandered, look good for a warbler or two – but not in this weather.
I have two Field Guides with me and I have been comparing them – if you can’t bird then bird-book!
They are the ‘old’ Peterson ‘Guide to the Birds East of the Rockies’ and the ‘new’ Sibley ‘Guide to the Birds’. There are other guides available.
My Peterson must have been bought in about 1981 when I came to Canada for a few weeks to study bats. I see it cost me 7.50 (pounds – can’t find the pound sign on this US keyboard) and it is still a very good guide. I’m sentimentally attached to it but it also has the big advantage of being pocket-sized, partly because it covers fewer species than Sibley and covers them in less detail.
But Sibley is fantastic – in the depth and detail of its coverage. It shows every US and Canadian species in flight and all plumages but that makes it, for me, more a ‘leave it in the car guide’ than a ‘field guide’. It’s a tome.
It’s good to have both.
Peterson has some quirkiness and some wisdom.
He includes in the 1980 edition, which was completely updated from the 1934 first edition, illustrations of the Passenger Pigeon (which went extinct in the wild before Martha fell off her perch in Cincinnati Zoo in 1914) and the Carolina Parakeet (which fell off its perch (an interesting story here which I promise to come back to some time) in 1918). Peterson didn’t include the Heath Hen which survived on Martha’s Vineyard until 1932 – probably because he regarded it as a race of Greater Prairie Chicken (or maybe he just didn’t like it for some reason). Peterson included two more species as ‘nearly extinct’ – Ivory-billed Woodpecker and Eskimo Curlew – and most would agree with his prediction – although there is a story to be told there too. And Peterson also includes Bachman’s Warbler though noting it as the ‘rarest North American songbird’. Sibley doesn’t include any of these species – he’s a hard man it seems, he’s written them all off for ever, or maybe his publisher was tough on the number of pages.
Bachman’s Warbler was the last one to go – with the last one being seen in the USA in 1988 (and before that in 1961) at the I’On Swamp just North of Charleston and near where there was all that sex and laughing going on last week. There is a possible sighting from the wintering grounds in Cuba but it may well be that this species is extinct too – but if it isn’t, hang on to your Petersons because Sibley is no help here.
And yes, I did visit the I’On Swamp last week, not to look for Bachman’s Warbler but to look at the swamp – it’s a swamp for sure. The habitat looked quite similar to lots of other local habitats and the species was formerly widespread but it was interesting to have a look.
So there have been a few birds which have gone extinct, or probably have, in the last century. And mostly they disappeared in the period between the American Civil War and the First World War at a time of massive growth in the US economy and population, and when the West was ‘won’. We’ll come back to this too.
But Peterson also has a note at the front of his book which reads as follows: ‘Birds undeniably contribute to our pleasure and standard of living. But they also are sensitive indicators of the environment, a sort of ‘ecological litmus paper,’ and hence more meaningful than just chickadees and cardinals to brighten the suburban garden, grouse and ducks to fill the sportsman’s bag, or rare warblers or shorebirds to be ticked off on the birder’s checklist. The observation of birds leads inevitably to environmental awareness.’.
Brilliantly put and still true. And maybe that ‘ecological litmus paper’ is why Peterson included those extinct and near-extinct species. Maybe he thought we ought to be reminded of changing baselines and of what we have lost. Maybe he thought we should not close the page on these species; we should turn the page and be reminded of them. And maybe, if he did think these things, he was right.
Today’s soundtrack was Don McLean’s Greatest Hits and, I have succumbed at last, Bob Dylan (The Essential Bob Dylan – not by any means his best, but one I have listened to less than many others).
Room 101 is not a very auspicious place to be put but actually the Courtyard Marriot in Ithaca is a very friendly place and Room 101 is very comfortable.
Ithaca, NY is famous for vegetarian cookbooks, a defunct shotgun company and the truly famous University and the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. The bird people are based on Sapsucker Road and I’ve been talking birds with them all day. The staff I’ve met have all been very keen and very proud of Cornell – and I think they have every reason to be proud.
The Cornell Lab is approaching its centenary and that makes it a very well established global centre of ornithological excellence.
One of their big projects is eBird – have a look and see what you think – if you are a birder you’ll be impressed. I was privileged to be talked through eBird by Steve Kelling and Chris Wood – both nice guys, good birders and with a passion for data-gathering, data-sharing, data-analysis and birds.
And Chris is a world record holder! Beat that – I’ve been with a world record holder today.
I can beat that – I had dinner with two world record holders this evening – Chris, and Jessie Barry who also works at Cornell. They were both members of a team who recently beat the North American record for the number of species seen in one day – amassing 264 species (and beating the previous record by 3 clear species). That’s probably more species in one day than I will see in my whole trip!
We ate at Maxie’s Supper Club where I had a delicious jambalaya – and we talked birds – everything from grassland bird declines to the impact of mute swans in marshes (they are seen as a pest), and grouse shooting to the decline in hunting in the USA. And everyone here wants to know the secret of the RSPB having million and more members.
But it’s late, and I am going out birding at 6 tomorrow with a world record holder so I need to get some sleep – if Room 101 will let me…
I’ve spent another day at Cornell talking to interesting people about birds, the environment and environmental issues. Everyone has been very open and welcoming.
The day started with birding at 6am. We saw a few waders – a familiar Dunlin, some almost familiar Semi-palmated Plovers (much like a Ringed Plovers) and Spotted Sandpipers (much like Common Sandpipers with spots) and the slightly less familiar Least, Solitary and Semi-palmated Sandpipers (although I have seen all those species on this trip already). Also a new warbler – Blue-winged – and the first Ruby-throated Hummingbird of the trip. And the checklist is on EBird with my name attached to it along with my companions’ names.
Amongst my conversations I’ve been lucky enough to spend some time with the boss of the Cornell Lab – Professor John Fitzpatrick.
Fitz – as he is known throughout the lab – is an eminent ornithologist. I first came across his work when I was studying Bee-eaters in the early 1980s and his book with Glen Woolfenden on the Florida Scrub Jay was a landmark publication.
As we talked, it was clear that we see nature conservation in very similar ways – and a couple of Cornell staff told me in my conversations with them ‘You sound just like Fitz’ and I take that as a compliment.
Fitz told told me that he’s seen all but three of North America’s 700-odd breeding birds, and that he got hooked on birds as a child when he saw that the picture in the Peterson Field Guide looked just like the bird he was looking at – and that the book was full of birds – ‘All those treasures’.
We agreed that urban America sprawled across the landscape in an unpleasant way – wasteful of space and harmful to nature. And we talked briefly about those extinct American species that fascinate me – the Passenger Pigeon, Carolina Parakeet and Heath Hen and we touched on the probably extinct Eskimo Curlew which was pillaged after the Passenger Pigeon’s decline and thus came to be known as the Prairie Pigeon.
Fitz also told me that the Wood Duck, now common again, and visible from his office window as we talked, had once been expected to be the next American bird extinction before Theodore Roosevelt introduced better regulation of hunting.
It was time to broach the subject of that other possibly extinct species – a picture of which is outside Fitz’s office and a postcard-sized image was behind his head as I talked to him – the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.
On 3 June 2005 the Cornell Lab published a scientific paper in the journal Science entitled ‘Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) persists in continental North America’ whichset out the evidence for there being a male Ivory-billed Woodpecker living in the Big Woods region of eastern Arkansas. The evidence is of some observations and some rather fuzzy video footage which has allowed speculation and debate to rage over the last six years.
Some people believe the record, others definitely do not, many are undecided but hope that it is an indication that there are still a few individuals of this magnificent beast out there in the woods of the South-Eat USA.
Fitz gave me a copy of the paper and I asked him to sign it, which he did with the words: ‘For Mark, hoping one or the other of us sees one some day!’ as Fitz, although senior author on the paper, and the main recipient of other’s scepticism or derision, did not witness the bird himself.
I read the paper at the time it was published but have read it again a couple of times and it is suggestive of Ivory-billed Woodpecker but probably not strong enough evidence to be totally convincing. But as with any good piece of science it lays out the evidence, draws some conclusions, and allows others to draw their conclusions too.
Possible sightings of Ivory-bills still come in to Cornell. Maybe one day someone will get a perfect image of a perfect Ivory-bill and the world can rejoice, although it seems quite likely that if any still exist they are so few, and far apart, that they are, in Fitz’s words ‘ecologically extinct’ even if there is the odd ‘Martha’ still out there. I guess we’ll see.
But the abiding memory of Cornell and Fitz for me is of a tight team of good people working hard to do the science on which sound nature conservation has to be based. It’s clear that the Cornell team admire and respect their leader – and my belief is that that admiration and respect has been well-earned.
My Republican friend in Washington DC (whose name must be kept a closely guarded secret because if his colleagues knew he had been meeting with an effete, European, pinko-liberal like me he would be doomed) and I came up with a great deal. It’s going to change your life. It’s coming soon. And it goes like this – we swap President Obama for David Cameron. MRfiWDC will be happy and so will I – done, sorted!
Having cracked this one I have been trying to engineer another swap but I can’t find anyone, even after a few drinks, who will go for this. How about if the USA takes back all those grey squirrels and Canada Geese and we take back our House Sparrows and Starlings?
Nobody will say yes to this one.
If you haven’t seen for yourself, you may find it difficult to believe how common these two introduced species are in the USA. Starlings were, you may remember, the first species I saw in the USA on arrival. And I have seen both species every day since.
I would guess that the only species I have seen every day since leaving Washington DC and starting birding are: Starling, House Sparrow, Common Grackle, American Robin, Red-winged Blackbird, Mourning Dove, American Goldfinch and American Crow.
It was a strange love of Shakespeare that may have persuaded Americans to introduce these two species to the continent. And Starlings were released in Central Park – just a few blocks from where I am now in New York City.
Both species flourished, as non-native species sometimes do, and are spread right across the USA. I wonder whether I’ll see them both every day – including in the Rockies? And their success here is in contrast to their current status back home where, although quite numerous, both species have declined a lot in recent decades.
It certainly won’t be the weather that puts them off here – it’s still raining in a very British way (this is Day 5 of rain) – although I gather from home that you need more rain. I’ll get Pres Obama to bring some with him when I send him over.
A few people have commented that my waistline must be expanding even further given the breakfasts I’m having – obviously in the interests of research with waitresses.
And I’ve just had breakfast at the Morning Star Cafe (open 24 hours) on 2nd Avenue just around the corner from the Pod Hotel where I am staying.
Breakfast was bagel and cream cheese, fresh orange juice and two coffees – $8.35 plus tip (that’s a fiver in UK). ‘Bout the same as in a similar place in London as far as cost is concerned.
And I survived – I only mention that as there is a large and somewhat incongruous poster above the kitchen hatch entitled ‘Choking victim’ with diagrams and everything. The bagel was very nice.
And from the photos on the wall President Carter and Mayor Giuliani also survived.
But my waistline has shrunk – breakfast has been the main meal of the day, exercise is up and consumption of booze is down. Just thought I ought to correct any misconceptions.
It has stopped raining – or is that a pause?
Actually, I’m not, as I am still in New York, although gas is so cheap and parking so expensive, and the traffic moves so slowly, that driving around Manhattan might work out cheaper than parking!
‘My’ car is a tank! It’s a Dodge Grand Caravan – which would easily seat 6 people. It’s very comfortable, quite a nice drive (for an automatic transmission – I never did say that PRND is Park Reverse Neutral Drive did I? But you probably knew that any way) but not what I ordered at all.
I spent quite a lot of time choosing between hire car companies on the basis of the fuel efficiency of their cars on offer and then I get upgraded to a comfortable tank!
There was a moment of confusion when I picked the car up at Union Station in Washington DC and was told I could have a van but we got over that. Although it is a white van – so I am white van man in the USA.
The upgrade will cost me quite a bit in extra fuel and the planet too for the same reason but I mustn’t grumble as I was lucky…I’ll tell you that story when I am safely home.
And when home – which is ages away – I will work out the carbon expended on this trip – the amount will be huge.
And when back home – which is ages away – this blog will revert to commentary of the UK environmental scene. Remember I have a book out of previous blogs which is selling well and will help to pay for the fuel on this trip and a newsblast which will start in July. So cough up for the book and sign up (free!) for the newsblast.
I walked north 8 blocks to Central Park and on the way saw countless house sparrows and starlings – I won’t keep going on about them but it is really striking how common they are here. Indeed, Greg Butcher, from National Audubon, made a good suggestion – that Audubon and the RSPB should do a joint study of the species to try to elucidate the reasons why they do so well over here in the middle of big cities which look, on the face of it, very similar to our big cities.
More by luck than judgement I came across the part of Central Park which is best for birds – The Ramble. So I rambled. There were plenty of others rambling too – with cameras and binoculars. Earlier there had been a Bittern (that’s an American Bittern) apparently but I think it had gone.
I met a man who said it was rather quiet because after 4 days of rain and northerly winds there was nothing about. A good birder yesterday had, apparently, only seen 15 warbler species in the day and that had taken a lot of effort. The norm would be around 20 or so.
Well, I saw 11 and they were: Redstart, Yellowthroat, Bay-breasted, Chestnut-sided, Black-and-white, Yellow-rumped, Black-throated Blue, Ovenbird (sounding like a very loud Marsh Tit – Wallace Kornack taught me that one in Rock Creek Park), Canada, Blackpoll and Nashville. Of these, I had my best-yet views of Black-and-white (which is a little like a Treecreeper or Nuthatch in manner – always edging along the branches and trunks) and Nashville (one of which was singing its little heart out). And I added Black-crowned Night Heron to my USA list.
One birder told me that when he starts seeing Blackpoll Warblers it signals the coming end of the migration season. I thought it appropriate that a black-capped warbler marks the coming death of migration until the fall season, or for these warblers, in their finery, until the next year’s spring.
Rather luckily my ramble ended just where I wanted it to finish and I was facing an imposing statue of President Theodore Roosevelt sitting astride a horse with two native Americans by his side at the entrance to the American Museum of Natural History.
Roosevelt lived from 1858-1919 and served two terms as President. He set up the USA’s National Parks, with Yellowstone (where I intend to be in early June) being the first of all. As I queued to buy my ticket I read inspiring words from the great man on the walls around me. I’d be hard-pressed to think of a single UK Prime Minister who has been eloquent about the environment – but they haven’t been a very eloquent bunch since Churchill.
I eschewed the dinosaurs and went straight to the gallery of ‘Birds of New York’ which was a dry old exhibit of the stiff and the stuffed, the dull and the sad. I walked quickly through here only pausing to look at the Passenger Pigeon case which was rather well done with 11 PPs in it and a nice commentary.
Onwards to the display of American birds. This was rather good – including, as it did, a number of tableaux of scenes from different habitats with the relevant birds in them. There were Bald Eagles and Limpkins, Sage Grouse and Cormorants and I enjoyed looking at them.
But the warblers came out badly in their little display. They looked so small and lifeless. The Black-and-white somehow looked half the size of the one which had been clinging to a tree trunk 10 feet from me not half an hour before. It was as if the absence of life had drained the birds of their very essence – which I guess it had. And the Cerulean Warbler – the only one on display which I have not yet seen – certainly did not send my pulse racing as I am quite sure a live one would.
I then spent some time in galleries dedicated to eastern American woodland native Americans and Plains Indians. Is it just me who finds it bizarre that these peoples of the continent are rather treated as another form of wildlife alongside African Mammals and Primates?
So it was with mixed feelings that I enjoyed gathering some knowledge about Native Americans. I was particularly struck by the Societies of Native American culture. I knew nothing of these and was struck by the Arapaho Dog Society (whose members had to remain fixed to the spot under certain circumstances – whatever the personal danger) and the Arapaho Crazy Society whose members acted in bizarre ways and said the opposite of what they meant – that does take us back, perhaps, to UK politicians.
As I left the Museum I was thinking of live and dead warblers and live and dead native Americans, and live and dead Presidents but as I walked down the West edge of Central Park, heading to meet my niece for lunch (nice niece, nice lunch, not for this blog) my mind turned to another day when presumably Central Park was full of joggers and tourists, the streets were full of yellow New York cabs, NYPD officers were directing traffic, the sharp-suited were walking briskly through Manhattan, people were picking up coffees from Starbucks and two planes crashed into the skyline and the world changed.
Presumably some, perhaps many, of the people I passed were here then, having a normal start to the day which then went apocalyptic. I’ll go to Ground Zero over the next couple of days to…I don’t know what exactly. But it would seem wrong to mourn the passing of the Passenger Pigeon, as I do, and not mark, in some way, the much more recent and personal extinctions which took place on 11 September 2001 a few blocks from where I am writing this blog .
I had a nice day’s birding today. And I think I saw another warbler species.
I went to Jamaica Bay – over the Queensboro bridge from 59th St Manhattan, then get lost a bit, and you are there!
A walk through some scrub and then you are looking out over a wetland.
Many of the usual birds and some new ones besides – Glossy Ibis, Osprey, Yellow Warbler, Towhee, Tree Swallow, House Wren, Willet, Forster’s Tern, Canada Goose, Brown Thrasher, Laughing Gull and more. The new birds for the trip were Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Ruddy Duck, Lesser Scaup and Black Brant.
And this warbler. Help me out here US birders, please. It had a very obvious double wingbar, was yellow and olive green, generally unstreaked and had a partial yellow eye-ring. Prairie Warbler I think – am I right? As soon as I saw it I thought ‘I haven’t seen one quite like that before’. What I didn’t notice was any white on the tail but it might have had some. Does the location and date fit or not – looks like it does actually? And if not, then what was it – I don’t think it was a female Blackpoll – far too yellow and green.
I met three other birders – which was nice because each stopped to chat. The first lady had seen a few warblers and was happy. The second lady struck me as a good birder – just by the way she spoke about the birds. She was very pleased to have seen a Willow Flycatcher – I tried to look pleased for her too even though I have not much idea what that look like. She had also seen Dunlin and Red Knot (neither of which did I see) but she didn’t mention Ruddy Turnstone or Willet (maybe because they were not worthy of mention? but both of which I did see). She had heard there was a Black-billed Cuckoo around and was keen to see it. I hope she did – I didn’t. And the third birder was a bloke who told me a bit about what he’d seen and the best path to take.
We are a band of brothers and sisters we birders. Almost all of the birders I have met have been much chattier than the average English birder – it’s nice. Loosen up, you Brits!
I drove down to the ocean. I knew of a site for Piping Plover and when I got there the beach was fenced off to give the birds a chance to nest in the dunes. I saw Oystercatchers and Least Terns but in the rain there were no Piping Plovers.
But I did look out into the Atlantic and thought that home was 3000 miles that way. But I was going 3000 miles the other way, West, and I would be seeing another ocean in three weeks time.
In some ways, after one more day in New York, my journey would start. It was due West from here, in the direction that the continent was opened up (not that it was closed to people before), in the direction of European progress or exploitation – depending on your view.
But tomorrow I will visit Ground Zero, take a look at the Statue of Liberty and spend my last night in a big city for a while. My last bite of the Big Apple. And why is it called the Big Apple? – click here.
I was in Central Park by 630am – and it may have been too early. There weren’t that many birds around. I added Magnolia Warbler to my list for Central Park but saw few other warblers.
I added cream cheese bagel and coffee to my waistline and got a cab south down Broadway.
Walking the last few blocks I came to Ground Zero. I was struck by the buildings around it, still standing close to where those horrific events that killed 3000 people took place. What must it feel like to go to work next to this site every day?
There’s not much to look at – but plenty to think about. If you didn’t know about what had happened here it would look like just another building site.
Turning my back on Ground Zero, physically but not emotionally, and taking a few steps West, I could see the Statue of Liberty, designed by Frenchman, Frederic Bartholdi and built by Frenchman, Gustave Eiffel, this symbol of Freedom has welcomed immigrants and visitors to the USA, and specifically to Ellis Island for 125 years. Inside there is the inscription which includes the words ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free’ by Emma Lazarus.
I walked through Battery Park enjoying the sunshine and popped into the National Museum of the American Indian. Here I learned that a good horse had been worth 8 buffalo hides or 15 eagle feathers or 10 weasel skins or 3lb tobacco or a rifle and 100 loads of ammunition in the early 1800s and that many Indian tribes called horses, brought to the New World by the Spanish, after dogs; Big Dogs, Elk Dogs, Red Dogs, Mystery Dogs or Holy Dogs.
Before I took the return trip on the Staten Island Ferry – best value attraction in New York – it’s free, I remembered the billboards and news coverage I had seen telling me the world was going to end today. Maybe it will – there’s still time – but I’m reasonably confident there will be a blog tomorrow.
Within these few blocks of downtown Manhattan I had been made to think about people’s lives ending out of the blue at Ground Zero, their ways of life drastically changing as the native American culture was largely overwhelmed and America giving many a new start in life on Ellis Island. Anything is possible here.
I might have been keen to shake the dust of New York City from my shoes if there were any dust, but the sidewalks are hosed down each morning and it was a bit of a drizzly morning. But this was the start of my drive West and I was keen to see the miles ticking by, but there was just one more thing to do before I really put the right pedal to good use. I wanted to get to see something of Audubon.
Heading through the Lincoln Tunnel into New Jersey there was only one choice of music – Springsteen, a New Jersey boy, himself.
My journey would take a couple of hours according to the journey planner and it probably would have done if it weren’t for the difficulty of reading a map as a sole driver and spotting the signs and having a feel for the route. But it took more like 5 hours to get to where I intended.
Admittedly I stopped for gas and tried to stop at Vera’s Family Restaurant for breakfast – but Vera’s was clearly a great place for breakfast and there was a long queue. So I carried on down the road to the Chalfont Family Restaurant which also was busy – but had space for me. I wonder what I missed at Vera’s? After my country omelette I was pointed in the direction of Ralph and asked him to point me in the direction of Audubon, PA where John James Audubon had once lived. Ralph pointed me helpfully in the right direction.
John James Audubon was sent to live in Pennsylvania by his father – probably to avoid having to fight for Napoleon against our own Duke of Wellington. He arrived in PA at the age of 18 and stayed for a few years – farming, sketching and studying the local wildlife.
If he hadn’t been a draft-dodger maybe he would have died at Waterloo, bayonetted by a Coldstream Guard, and the world’s most expensive book would never have been produced.
Audubon’s Birds of America is a priceless work of life-sized prints – although you have a chance of purchasing a copy if you have a spare $11.5m on you – the price one sold at last December.
The admission to the Audubon Centre in Audubon PA is, by contrast, a very reasonable $4 (and I could have got in for $3 if I had been prepared to lie about my age – upwards!). There is an exhibition of the great man’s work in various forms including a quarter-sized, four volume copy of the work. I looked at all the warblers.
The plates are very beautiful even if not a patch on Sibley or Peterson for accuracy. This work was at the time a stupendous achievement and Audubon sent far and wide for skins of birds which he then painted.
I looked at the Bachman’s Warbler carefully as I am never going to see one in the flesh – it’s a gorgeous rendition of what I assume was a gorgeous bird. The Passenger Pigeon, Carolina Parakeet (which we will get to, eventually) and other extinct American species are illustrated. At the time of his work Audubon could not possibly have predicted which of these species would by now have exited the planet. I imagine Passenger Pigeon, present in its billions and well-known to Audubon himself, would have been way down his list of threatened species if he had had such a list.
The Museum is small but intimate. You can sit and draw from stuffed birds as Audubon himself did if you care to, and looking out of the upstairs window I wondered how often this great artist had looked out of the same pane.
At 39 ” by 26″ the Birds of America is no pocket guide – but the plates are stunning in their beauty and breathtaking in their vividness considering that the artist was dealing with skins and bodies for the most part.
If you are in the area, do go visit. But do your research as to how to get there – it’s very near the historic site of Valley Forge but not well-signposted at all.
I took away a little book of postcards of the warblers – for far less than $11.5m. But I also took away a great deal of pleasure in finding out a little more about one of the world’s finest artists and most admirable draft-dodgers.
Today was a driving day. I started off somewhere south of Pittsburgh and ended up somewhere east of Chicago. So that’s Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, a short detour into Michigan just to say I’ve ‘been’ there and now in Indiana.
My journey today started where the opening and closing scenes of the film The Deerhunter were supposed to be based – industrial Pennsylvania. I didn’t see Robert de Niro but I saw an awful lot of deer – road kills.
As one drives along at a brisk pace (though always inside the speed limit) the number of birds one sees is small but there are splattered mammals every now and then.
White-tailed Deer corpses are common along the roadside (and fairly easily identified) but also there are Racoons and the odd Porcupine. I have yet to figure out what is the occasional large rodent in the grass by the roadside.
But I am mostly driving at the moment and here are my tips for safe driving over long distances:
- Keep the car a bit too cool for comfort
- Drive in bare feet – it means you can wiggle your toes more which is very refreshing
- Play music sometimes on the CD or radio and sing out loud with your favourite tunes
- Adjust your seat position several times a day – even small changes in height, uprightness and distance from the pedals make you sit in a different position which helps freshen you up
- Wear sunglasses quite a lot – it’s surprising how much you squint even if the sun is not bright and sunglasses
Well, they seem to work for me.
And today I crossed over my route of 10 days ago in Ohio, and drove past the turn-off to Crane Creek.
I am now in Amish country in Indiana and have seen quite a lot of the bearded men in straw hats and the long-dressed ladies with their hair covered – some riding in horse-drawn buggies. This is like another film, Witness, but I haven’t seen Harrison Ford yet, nor Kelly McGillis.
But I probably will see lots of Turkey Vultures – all that road-kill is good for them, I guess.
It’s windy, but tomorrow I hope to drive right past the Windy City and head for Iowa through Illinois.
Robert Allen Zimmerman is 70 today. Happy Birthday Bob Dylan!
And today I did something that I have never done before, but I am going to do it again fairly soon. That probably makes it sound much, much more interesting than it was. But I enjoyed it – one often does the first time.
And that mammal from yesterday – thank you to those suggesting it is probably the Groundhog – it probably is. One of the Marmot family.
I did see a new bird today – Sandhill Crane – a couple of times.
And because it is Bob’s birthday then it had to be my favourite Dylan album as soundtrack today – Blood on the Tracks (harking back to yesterday’s roadkill blog, perhaps?).
And in Shelter from the Storm we hear ‘I’ve heard newborn babies wailin’ like a mournin’ dove’ and in You’re a Big Girl Now we hear ‘Bird on the horizon, sittin’ on a fence, And I’m just like that bird’, and in Tangled Up in Blue there is ‘Was to keep on keepin’ on like a bird that flew.’ and in Meet Me in the Morning we get ‘The birds are flyin’ low babe, honey I feel so exposed’ which must make BotT the most birdy of all Bob’s albums – surely?
Today I started in Indiana and am now in Wisconsin – didn’t make as much progress as I would have liked today. But Bob kept me happy – and the cranes helped too.
And that thing I did for the first time? You might be disappointed. I drove into a new time zone. I’ve only ever changed time zones by crossing the English Channel or getting off a plane in a new country. Today, for a brief instant, the back end of my tank-like car was in Indiana and the front end was already in Illinois but one hour earlier – work that out?
And I am further West in the world than I have ever been before too.
Maybe it’s been quite an exciting day really. Happy Birthday Bob!
I’m in South Dakota – only just over the border from Minnesota, but in Sioux Falls. I started in Wisconsin, drove right across Minnesota and arrived here in South Dakota. This is the West – although Sioux Falls doesn’t seem very wild at the moment.
And that mammal from yesterday – thank you to those suggesting it is probably the Groundhog – it probably is. One of the Marmot family.
It has rained most of today but it cleared 100 miles shy of my destination. I had expected this drive West to be marked by the sun pushing me from behind in the mornings and sucking me towards the sunset as evening came – but mostly it has rained for the last few days.
But many places I have been, and some places I am going, have tornado warnings at present and clearly further South in the Great Plains things have been rough. Fingers crossed for those affected and a little for me too.
Today I crossed the Mississippi River and tomorrow I will pass the Missouri River. Most of the rain falling on the Northern USA flows through these great veins.
I covered more than 500 miles today on Interstate 90 – which is quite a road – and we have become mates. I90 doesn’t mind my singing along with Green Day and I don’t mind I90 having a noisy carriageway in places.
I didn’t stop much today, except for lunch in Wisconsin – the USA capital of cheese. For West Wing fans, Donna Moss comes from Wisconsin. I had to have cheese curds as part of my lunch – fried cheese (can aid slimming if taken as part of a calorie-controlled diet).
And I didn’t add many birds today – the rain was torrential. I passed plenty of interesting looking places but nowhere is that good for birding in a deluge.
However, I did add one species to my trip list, in Minnesota, even though it is, bizarrely, the State Bird of South Dakota. Why did they choose this species? Click here to find out what it was.
I90 heads straight West. I like that in a road. West, West, West, West, West. I seem to have come a long way West but apparently I am now poised equidistant between the Atlantic and Pacific. There is a lot more West to come and I’m really looking forward to it – it would help if the rain kept off though.
Today, the sun shone all day and the birds came out and it was great.
I occasionally renewed my friendship with I90 heading West but mostly I stuck to smaller parallel roads that took me out of the homely and friendly Sioux Falls and through a mainly arable, mainly flat landscape broken up with wetlands and woods.
Having done little birding for a few days I suddenly picked up a bunch of new species – many of them Western species. Birds such as Western Meadowlarks were now sitting on fence posts and Western Kingbirds were on the fencelines. Amazing Red-winged Blackbirds were joined in the marshes by lovely and gorgeous Yellow-headed Blackbirds.
The marshes had familiar Shoveler, Mallard, Pintail and Gadwall alongside slightly less familiar Green Heron, American Coot, Blue-winged Teal, White Pelicans, Marbled Godwit, Black Duck and American Avocet.
It was good birding and lovely weather. I stopped at a place marked on the map which you could miss if you blinked – Aurora. The Central Store sold a few candy bars and drinks so I bought a Mound Bar – as similar to a British Bounty as the Great Blue Heron is to the Grey Heron – pretty similar but noticeably different. This Mound Bar was different though – it was covered in dust and when I came to bite into it I realised it was past its best – probably by a year or two, or more. How many customers did the Aurora Central Store have? And do they all know to swerve the ancient Mound Bars? Have they been waiting for a stranger like me to stop by so that the 5-year old Mound Bars can be brought out to replace the 10-year old ones?
I didn’ t ask the old man behind the counter that, after all the purchase was just an excuse for a break and a talk. He wanted to know where I came from and when I said, he wanted to know why I was in South Dakota. Mount Rushmore always seems a better answer than Yellow-headed Blackbirds so that was what he got. I said how great the weather was and he agreed, but told me there were three days rain ahead – oh no! We talked about tornadoes and he said there hadn’t been one here since the 1940s – but then the new Mound Bars may have arrived about the same time.
I got on with my travel towards the Missouri River and he got on with cutting his lawn.
I really like my sunglasses that I bought in Charleston an age ago. I have once or twice thought of writing that it is unusual for me to keep a pair of sunglasses for this long without breaking, losing or scratching them. Today I almost lost them – in fact I did for a while, but then just as a smiley farmer’s wife was asking me what was wrong – I was parked by her gateway – I found them. I moved my tank of a car as her husband drove an enormous tractor over where my sunglasses had just been found – I told you it was close. She wanted to know where I was from and was amazed that anyone from England would turn up here, and she, too, wanted to know why I was here. My explanation of birdwatching – you can lie to the old men but not to the young women – was received with polite surprise but she probably put it down to the English being a bit odd. I checked the way to the Missouri River and then turned down the offer of a soda. I’ve been kicking myself ever since as the chance to talk farming would have been really interesting. It’s that English politeness – I didn’t want to intrude.
Americans do not show some of the outward signs of politeness that would be expected in the UK – it’s just their way. I noticed at breakfast in Sioux Falls this morning that two well-dressed men in the diner ordered and received their meals with no pleases and no thank yous. It’s just their way.
I stopped at the Missouri River to look at the view and to put back my timepieces by another hour. If anything, crossing the Missouri was more impressive than crossing the Mississippi – maybe the better weather had something to do with it but also the Missouri marks more of a natural barrier.
The land changes quite abruptly to rolling hills with cattle and some deep gorges. There is a lot of grass. Many say this is where the West really begins so I am now scratching its surface.
I am now hotelled-up in the Stroppel Inn in Midland, SD. A spa hotel where you run the hot tap for minutes to allow the naturally occurring hot water to find its way through the plumbing. The owners were out and grandpa, sporting a WWII Veteran’s baseball cap (and it is Memorial Day on Monday) wasn’t totally au fait with how things work. The light bulb on the stairs doesn’t work, we tried one bedroom but found it already occupied by Frank and he’s trusting me to pay tomorrow morning rather than cash in advance. But it’s a friendly tacky place with lots of things with stars and stripes on them, messages written on the wooden walls (eg Delighted you are here), natural hot water at 110F in the basement and, most of all, a very genuine and warm welcome.
Chimney Swifts and Killdeers called over head as I walked across the street to Just Tammy’s bar which does food. I would have had steak or maybe fish but each is seasonal and is only available June-August – I couldn’t wait that long so I had a burger with fries, salad and my first alcohol for a week – a cold Coors beer.
Tammy’s was large, and largely empty apart from Tammy and her daughters. Two elderly ladies came in, had a Coke each, had a chat and then left looking at me slightly suspiciously. I headed back to the Stroppel – this time in the pouring rain. Maybe I won’t need those sunglasses after all – but I have enjoyed my day in the sun.
I woke early this morning and knew that it had been raining in Midland, SD but that now the air had cleared.
I got up, dressed, tip-toed down the creaky wooden stairs of the Stroppel Hotel and strolled down the rain-soaked main street. Midland was quiet at 630am although there were orioles singing, House Sparrows chirruping, Killdeers calling from near the railroad track and a couple of dogs barked as I passed by. It didn’t take long to get to the edge of town, and back again, but the stroll was pleasant and the air was fresh.
A few male-driven flat-back trucks drove past – everyone gave me a look but also a friendly wave. It felt a bit like the far north of Scotland in a way. Not much here, not much happening, but a friendly atmosphere. And no midges either.
I just stood in the street for a while and then two men left the Stroppel and headed for Just Tammy’s, I guess for breakfast, and they said ‘Morning’ as they talked about the price they could get for calves ($400) and their plans for grazing a particular stretch of ground.
Heading back into the Hotel I paused to look at the row of plastic Uncle Sams outside, and by the front door a notice setting out the events of Monday’s Memorial Day – a service, a potluck lunch, entertainment by the Haakon County Crooners and proceeds going to help to defray Mary Parquet’s medical expenses – right next to a sign saying ‘Cancer cures smoking’. Inside, the words to the ‘Star-spangled Banner’ were on the wall below a mounted elk head and next to a drawing of President GW Bush, and then I met up with the lady in charge who had been absent last night. As I settled the bill she told me that she had been in Pierre because her daughter’s place there was in danger of flooding and they had been moving stuff – including the grand-daughter who was running around.
The Missouri River was very high she said and it just kept raining. She’d heard that they’d had snow in Yellowstone last week and there was still meltwater coming off the Rockies as well as all this rain. But although the forecast said rain for today she was hopeful of fine weather.
Her grandparents had set up the Hotel and when she grew up, Midland had had 350 occupants and there were now 120. There were no jobs and nothing to keep young people here. But she herself had a beauty shop down the road in Philip, about 20 miles, and she didn’t really want to move out. She liked the quiet life and Midland was home to her.
You won’t find the Stroppel Spa Hotel in the guidebooks and you’ll struggle to find Midland, South Dakota on the maps, and South Dakota usually gets a mention for the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore alone, but I’m glad I stayed at the Stroppel. It’s not that small town America is in any way more real than New York or San Francisco but it is just as real. And stepping off the tourist route is often much cheaper and much more interesting than staying on it.
Midland has attracted some new residents though. As I walked, I heard and then saw Collared Doves. Sibley’s distribution map doesn’t show them here, but here they are. I wonder when they arrived; probably in the last decade, maybe they moved in on a day when a resident family moved out.
I didn’t really want to go to Wall Drug but I am glad that I did.
The legend behind the drugstore, restaurant and shopping arcade on the I90 is that it was set up in the 1930s and wasn’t really making a go of it until the lady behind the business had an idea. They started advertising ‘Free iced water’ and that pulled in the hot tired thirsty crowds which had formerly kept on going East or West.
And having discovered the power of advertising Wall Drug has never looked back. The first billboard I saw said that there were 391 miles to go to Wall Drug and they came thick and fast after that. The billboards advertised coffee at 5 cents, the bookstore, the fact that Wall Drug has been mentioned in newspapers all over the world, its kid-friendly atmosphere, its home-made donuts and its pies.
And as the miles tick down there was a growing feeling of inevitability that I was going to stop. How could one not want to take a peek?
Really, I didn’t want even a peek. I wanted to head into the Badlands National Park as soon as possible and see whether I could see bison, pronghorn, prairie dog townships and burrowing owls. I didn’t really want to stop and I didn’t want to see some tacky shopping emporium. But I did want breakfast and there was a bit of me that wanted to reward Wall Drug for all the effort that it had put into enticing me with hundreds of roadside billboards.
But I would only stop for a few minutes. Just enough time for a quick bite to eat. I stayed an hour and a half.
I think I made a good choice having cherry pie and coffee for breakfast as the cooked food looked a bit average, and then I could have got away, but I lingered and browsed and bought some books about local wildlife, looked at the western paintings (which range from the kitsch to the stylish), looked at the photos from the 1880s of sad- or proud- (or sad and proud) looking indians and ambitious-looking European Americans.
I could have played one-armed bandits, bought rocks or gems, a cowboy hat and a host of other things.
So I spent time and money at Wall Drug. They got me, as they get so many people wih their billboard advertising and 80 foot tall plastic model of a dinosaur. I don’t begrudge them the time or money, and I enjoyed the cherry pie and coffee. But I’ll think of Wall Drug the next time someone tells me that they don’t pay any attention to adverts. Of course, neither do I, except I would never have stopped for that cherry pie and coffee, and bought those books, if there had been a single sign saying ‘Cafe’, or even a single sign saying ‘Delicious cherry pie made as the English like it’.
And the two blocks by two blocks that is Wall Drug must have sucked money away from other localities nearby – surely? Maybe Midland would have more people in it still if Wall Drug hadn’t hit on the simple idea of advertising free iced water. But that’s capitalism and a free market for you – winners and losers, and you can’t really argue with that.
The Badlands National Park is 224,000 acres of scenery south of the I90 and it is stunningly beautiful. A prairie grassland with striking rock formations. And the sun shone all day.
I saw Bison and Pronghorn Antelope roaming the Plains, Bighorn Sheep on the rocks, Mule Deer in the valleys and Prairie Dogs in their townships. The bird list increased with Burrowing Owl living among the Prairie Dogs, stunning Mountain Bluebirds, Rock Wrens (which took me a while to work out) and others, including a Magpie.This was the type of day I came to the USA to enjoy and I got the most out of it – even watching the sun set in the direction of Yellowstone where I will be in a few days time.
I drove through the Badlands enjoying the scenery, the early morning coolness, the promise of another sunny day and the ubiquitous song of the Western Meadowlark.
Meadowlarks, Eastern and Western, are declining grassland birds who suffer from the earlier cutting of hay and silage these days. They are the corncrakes of North America. But with their yellow fronts and beautiful songs they are well worth holding onto.
Not many American birds, in my limited experience, have great songs. Many are stunning to see – like the Mountain Bluebirds of yesterday and today (and by the way – no internet connection last night) – but apart from the orioles and the meadowlarks I have met few great songsters.
While travelling through the Badlands today I called in at Wounded Knee – a small town in the poorest county in the USA in terms of per capita income, and within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Have you heard of Wounded Knee? Perhaps you have read the book ‘Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee’ or seen the film of the same name? Or perhaps you know the story of the massacre of over 150 Lakota Sioux indians at the hands of the 7th Cavalry in December 1890?
This account of what happened is particularly poignant.
If you are keen to visit the site then you will have to make an effort – it’s not signposted at all. And when you arrive there is precious little to tell you what happened there or what is its significance – a strange combination since the events here are widely regarded as having been the culmination of the war against the native American.
You can park in the dust and stroll up to the cemetery where a simple monument, inside a chain-link fence, marks the mass grave of the indian victims. Forty-three names are inscribed on the monument – 21 of them have animals as part of their names and there are no women listed.
If you didn’t know it was here, you would drive past. There is no sign to point you to the hilltop and no sign that America wants to mark its home-grown My Lai massacre of all those years ago.
I can see why the US would be ashamed of events here – past events perhaps but certainly the current poverty of the local people is no basis for pride today. Thinly disguised begging and selling of trinkets to passing tourists, like myself, makes one wonder about the land of the free and the home of the brave.
And the Meadowlarks sing on over the prairies as they did in the time of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. It’s as though the Meadowlarks remain hopeful despite their depleted numbers whilst man remains fickle in his kindness to his fellow man. Have the native American indians lost hope or do their hearts still sing like Meadowlarks?
Yesterday I wrote about Wounded Knee and today I bought Roger L. di Silvestro’s ‘In the Shadow of Wounded Knee’ which I will read properly but share these points from his book. The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is almost the size of Connecticut and is home to 40,000 people whose median annual income is $2,600. There is about 90% unemployment. The teenage suicide rate is 3.5 times the national average, infant mortality is 4 times the national average, cervical cancer is 6 times the national average, tuberculosis and diabetes are both 9 times the national average. Average life expectancy is 45 years. At least 60% of Pine Ridge homes need to be burned to the ground because of infestations of a potentially fatal black mold. More than a third of homes lack basic water and sewage systems and 39% have no electricity. The school drop out rate is 70%. Now I couldn’t see all that as I drove through, but it doesn’t surprise me based on what I did see. And what do I, a tourist with a pair of binoculars, know about such complex issues? Obviously, not very much at all. However, it strikes me that when the USA opened its arms, at Ellis Island, to the poor, the tired, the huddled masses arriving from the East it was turning its back on some of its own, out West. And its back seems still to be turned.
Today I drove around the southern Black Hills of Dakota in the rain. I saw a few Bison, I saw some birds and I had a nice day.
I also learned what I did, really, already know, that I really should check where the jack, wheelbrace, spare tire etc are just in case I get a flat after dark, in the rain, without a flashlight and far from help. But I was very grateful to the Highway Patrolman who stopped and gave me a hand.
Tomorrow is a Public Holiday – Memorial Day – just as it is in the UK, and I will spend a good chunk of it trying to get roadworthy again – what are the odds on a bright sunny day?
So I may have plenty of time for blogging tomorrow.
I have spent a lot of time in the car and, as a result, see lots of roadside birds. Many of them are black.
Starlings are still with me – I have seen starlings every day of my trip and that includes Starlings hopping round near bison.
Larger than a Starling but similarly iridescent when seen really well, is the Common Grackle. The males have characteristically shaped tails – kell-shaped in flight – and I think I have seen them every day too.
Brown-headed Cowbirds are mostly black, and you only see the brown heads of the males when up close. These are of similar size to Starlings and often form small flocks. They are nest parasites and are thought to have played a part in the declines of many American woodland species as forests became fragmented and access to those forests became easier for cowbirds. They follow grazing animals to catch insects stirred up by the animal’s passage and I have now seen flocks of cowbirds under a bison’s feet.
Red-winged Blackbirdsare black too – with spectacular yellow and red shoulder patches in the males. Andre Dhondt, at Cornell, pointed out to me that the males can hide their red wing patches when they feed in groups around bird feeders – as if to say ‘I’m not looking for a fight’. These birds are often by the side of the road and only when they fly do I realise from the wing-patch which species is involved.
So, there are four regular black birds to keep the birder-motorist guessing right across the continent. But a few days ago, around the 100th meridian in the South Dakota prairie-land, I noticed another black bird. This one feeds on the roadside and is a similar size to the others, and is often with the others, but has white wing patches. A new black bird – what can it be?
This bird always seemed to fly directly away from the road without perching conveniently on a fence to give me a better look. At first I laboured under the misapprehension that it might be a Tri-coloured Blackbird as they have white wing patches but once I got a good look at Sibley I realised how foolish that idea was as they don’t live in South Dakota and the white patches are very different – no points for that guess.
New birds on new continents are fun – but sometimes one spends ages looking in the wrong part of the book. Eventually I realised that these were male Lark Buntings. The white on the end of the tail isn’t nearly as obvious as Sibley suggests and that sent me the wrong way for a while.
The 100th meridian marks something of a watershed for western/Eastern American birds and I knew that I ought to be seeing another blackbird too. So, yesterday, in the rain, but before the flat tire, I paid more attention to black birds by the road and after a while I saw the characteristic white eye ring of the Brewer’s Blackbird.
Must get that tire fixed so that I can see what black birds the road has in store.
Yesterday I woke fairly early and the sun was shining so I wrote a blog about black birds by the side of the road. It was too early to get the tire fixed.
Here is some very valuable information for anyone who gets a flat tire in Custer, SD on the Sunday before the holiday of Memorial Day. It goes like this:
Don’t bother with LaMonte’s Auto Center, 1029 Mount Rushmore Road because it doesn’t exist anymore.
And don’t bother with French Creek Loggers’ Supply because they stopped fixing tires on 28 May 2011.
Don’t bother asking the only two people out on the streets of Custer at 815am as both had only just moved there and knew nothing about tyre repairers
What you need is Leo’s Auto Repair and Towing Service (Owner Paul Schmitz). The sign on the door said ‘Closed’ but a face poked out and turned it to ‘Open’ when I pulled up. This was Paul’s son Troy – he’s a nice lad and did his best with my tyre but it couldn’t safely be mended so we needed a new one. Dad phoned around without success while Troy told me that Custer had more days sunshine in the year than Hawaii. Troy had lived in Custer all his short (25 years?) life but was obviously proud of it and the surrounding Black Hills. He admitted the winters were ‘slow’ but fall was very nice. The Schmitzs suggested that a drive to Wal-Mart in Rapid City was the best option as few places would be open on this holiday Monday.
The sun shone as I drove slowly to Rapid City passing a couple of Bison, several Golden Eagles, a grebe which I couldn’t stop to identify and an Upland Sandpiper which flew over the road.
The sun still shone as I entered Rapid City and the place was full of tire centers, auto centers, and most were shut – although a couple could sell me a whole car but not a single tyre.
I found Wal-Mart and they were open (hooray!), and very helpful (thank you!) but didn’t have the right tyre in stock – but Ron said he could order one. ‘How long would it take?’ I asked. ‘About 5 weeks’ was the totally amazing answer. I said ‘But this is America – I could probably get one quicker than that in Afghanistan.’. ‘You could here before Obama got in’ was Ron’s colleague’s reply. We didn’t get into why the Pres had screwed up on tires but the good news was that if they could find one on the internet it might only be 5 days instead of 5 weeks.
I wasn’t feeling very hopeful but asked whether there was anywhere else in town and Ron said he’d try Sears. He phoned, he spoke, they had one suitable tyre. ‘Get there quick and ask for Ken’ was Ron’s advice and as I headed off I thanked him.
It was sunny as I drove around to Sears and met Ken and his colleague whose name probably wasn’t Ken. She oozed competence and made me think that all would be OK. ‘Come back in an hour and a half and it’ll be done’ said the Angel in Overalls.
It was sunny as I walked around the Mall, had a Mexican late lunch, mooched and kept hoping that the Angel in Overalls was right.
And she was! I didn’t kiss her or hug her but I was very English about putting in lots of ‘thank yous’ in my goodbyes. As I drove off it started to rain – but I almost didn’t mind.
I had been warned that Mount Rushmore was commercialised and tacky but I liked it. The first view of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln that I got was from miles away and was impressive. I got more as I approached on the specially-designed Iron Mountain Road – specially designed to give the traveller impressive views of the Mountain. I liked it – and there is an impressive view of Washington’s profile alone as you leave the site, which is well worth catching.
I saw birds too, but I’ll tell you about them this evening if I don’t have internet problems like last night. But here in the Green Bean Cafe in Spearfish, SD, drinking organic coffee and eating apple pie I have internet access and four good tires, and the sun is shining – so let’s go!
I’ve spent much of the last four days in the Black Hills of Dakota in Western South Dakota. Some of it in rain, some with a flat tyre, but even so I can see why Doris Day wanted to go back. Maybe she hadn’t quite seen all the region’s birds either.
But the bird list keeps mounting. Townsend’s Solitaire, Red-naped sapsucker, American Dipper, White-throated Swift, Western Tanager and Western Grebe amongst others.
But I will probably remember best other moments. The party of Yellow-rumped Warblers, about 30 of them, mostly males, and presumably newly arrived as they were not territorial, moving through the trees and looking gorgeous. And the half hour spent sitting by a lake watching hundreds of swallows fly past to within about six feet. There were our Swallows (Barn Swallows – though noticeably more orange underneath), Cliff Swallows (more like the European Red-rumped Swallow), Tree Swallows (a bit like a large House Martin but without a white rump) and, although it took me a while to realise, Violet-green Swallows too (with a thin white rump).
The gold of the Black Hills led to the US Government breaking several treaties with the native Americans as prospectors headed West into Indian land and to towns such as Deadwood. These hills were and are precious and sacred to the native Americans, who knew about the gold but also knew you couldn’t do much with gold so didn’t overrate it in the way that European Americans did. I feel I have tapped into rich seams of wildlife and scenery here but have left each to future travellers to find for themselves again.
In film terms I have moved from South Dakota where fellow Bristolian, Cary Grant, climbed over faces in North by Northwest, to close encounters with Black-tailed Prairie Dogs at Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, to Montana where the plains are wide and rivers run through them.
And the soundtrack has been Bob Seger’s greatest hits – and will be today too.
I’m standing on the prairie in
Montana and the sun is shining. Prairie is a wonderful thing – it’s a
work of art and a work of technology.
The technology bit is that prairie acts like a finely designed machine. The grasses and flowers that make it up, hundreds of different species, are well-adapted to the soil, the weather, the grazing animals – everything that makes up Montana, or Wyoming, or the Dakotas, or what did make up over a half of the American land mass a couple of centuries ago, and of which only about 2% survives.
Prairie plants are adapted to fire – which is a frequent event out here – caused by lightening. Their long roots allow them to find water and more than half of their biomass is below the surface so that when fire rushes across the prairies the native plants can spring up soon after the earth cools.
It’s a system that works well, and produces great beauty. Up here in Montana it feels like spring even on 1 June. The cottonwood along the rivers is just leafing up and the prairie flowers are blooming in blues, yellows and whites.
And these flowers and grasses support the bison, the pronghorn antelope (I can see one from where I am standing) and all those sparrows and Killdeers, Brown-headed Cowbirds and Western Kingbirds. Maybe because it is a lovely warm day I can also see lots of butterflies moving over the grassland – mostly one yellow species called the Pink-edged Sulphur, and many of them heading east as though they have somewhere to go.
A yellow butterfly passes by a white gravestone on the prairie, marking the spot where a young 7th cavalryman died and then passes a browner stone marking the deathplace of a young Lakota brave, for this is the battlefield of the Little Bighorn where the native Americans won a pyrrhic victory against the might of the US Government in a war that ended in defeat for their way of life.
The site is sensitively and clearly interpreted on foot and by car. It is easy to imagine the fear of the cavalrymen when they realised they had attacked a large and well-armed native American settlement. The cavalry retreated up the hill, Custer’s men were separated and maybe could have regrouped but they failed to do so. Custer’s own troop, including his brother, were isolated, surrounded and killed their own horses to make a last stand on a conical knoll. But the indian forces overwhelmed them and around 270 European Americans died on this prairie on 25 and 26 June 1876. Fewer native Americans died and there was great rejoicing among Sitting Bull’s people.
Were there Pink-edged Sulphur butterflies passing across the battlefield on that June day 135 years ago? Did pronghorns pause their grazing to scan the firefight below them? And was the song of the Western Meadowlark the last sound heard by some dying men? And why have the prairies been valued ever since for the blood of a few hundred men and yet not for their beauty and perfection away from where human blood was spilled?
I doubt whether anyone gets on a plane to the USA because they want to see a small burrowing rodent. They might head for Yellowstone, as I am doing, hoping to see Grizzly Bears, Wolves and Moose – and, yes, I really hope I do see all of those. At the moment I really hope I get into Yellowstone – there’s too much snow at the moment. In fact yesterday I got to 10,000 feet on the Beartooth Pass, passed the state sign showing I was exiting Montana and then found the road down into Wyoming blocked by snow. The Shore (Horned) Larks running about on the snow were nice but not nice enough to compensate. The scenery was spectacular – but not spectacular enough to compensate either.
But down on the Plains the mammal that I may well remember the best and with most affection is the Black-tailed Prairie Dog – a colonial, burrowing, grazing rodent whose colonies are called townships and which cover areas of up to a few acres in extent. As one looks across a township one sees these Cute Little Rodents (CLRs) sitting by their evenly spaced burrow entrances looking cute.
The CLRs have a variety of ways of looking cute. They sit up and look around (think Meerkat and you’ve got the look), they occasionally make alarm calls by throwing back their heads in a spasm and uttering a cry, they are very tame and come right to the roadside, and at this time of year they bring their newly-born young to the burrow entrances to maximise the township cute factor. I am,of course, a hardened scientist who doesn’t do cute – but the CLRs are really, really cute.
Of course, not everyone thinks so. In the Badlands I saw a sign, presumably put up by a rancher as it was at the Park entrance but not on Park land, saying that CLRs carry plague. They do actually – bubonic plague – but there are fewer than 10 cases of plague in the USA each year (too many of course, and no fun for the victims) and none of them occurs up here, they are all in the southwest. But, just to be certain, I didn’t exchange lice, fleas or kisses with the CLRs and I believe I have got away with it.
The reason, I suspect, that the rancher doesn’t like CLRs is that they eat grass and dig holes. The farmer probably doesn’t like Bison or Pronghorn much either for the same reason – the eating grass reason (bison holes would be worth seeing). And in South Dakota, outside the National Parks, CLRs are listed as pests.
In Wind Cave NP visitor centre, in the rain, I read the following carefully worded statement, ‘…some ranchers believe that prairie dogs may adversely affect their livelihood. Since prairie dogs play an important part in the prairie ecosystem they will always have a home at Wind Cave National Park.’.
The role of CLRs in prairie ecosystems is interesting. CLR townships are favoured by a range of other grazing species, such as Bison, because of the prairies dogs’ impact on the vegetation. Presumably all that nibbling, weeing and pooing creates a nice grassy sward that others can enjoy.
CLRs are loved by predators too. The Black-footed Ferret, once thought to be extinct, but recently rediscovered, and making a come-back, likes CLRs to death – their deaths. And I saw an immature Bald Eagle in a township yesterday – perhaps eating a CLR.
Back near 1800 there is a report of a township in Texas which covered 25000 square miles and numbered 400 million individuals – cuteness writ large. Just as the prairie, the Bison, the Passenger Pigeon, the native American Plains Indian and the Eskimo Curlew have suffered great losses of range and population, so have the CLRs.
I think the CLRs deserve higher billing amongst the Plains wildlife – or maybe we should keep them a secret so that everyone gets a nice surprise when they discover their cuteness.
I was out into Yellowstone NP by 630am and had seen Black Bear, lots of Bison (and baby Bison), Elk (Red Deer to you and me) and some good birds (Hooded Merganser, Cinnamon Teal, Osprey) before breakfast.
The bird list has passed 200 species – which is certainly not spectacular and illustrates the amount of time driving, the weather and my general approach being relaxed.
Am spending the next four nights within the park where I do not know whether WiFi will be available – so don’t worry if there is a bit of a blog-break – I probably haven’t been eaten by a Grizzly or a Wolf (but if I have been, then it was a lifer).
Breakfast today was a good meal – partly because it was preceded by a Black Bear, but also because of the conversation.
I slipped into an empty booth between a man of retirement age thumbing though a Peterson Field Guide and a middle-aged couple. I asked the Peterson Man whether he was a birder and he said that he was really a photographer, but it started the conversation going. He’d seen what was probably the same bear yesterday so we talked about ‘our’ Black Bear for a while. He seemed quite clued-up so I broached the subject of Grizzlies and Peterson Man suggested a couple of locations to try.
The couple then joined in the conversation and I found that they, Skip and Barbara from Pennsylvania, had followed a similar course to my own – through the Badlands, the Black Hills, Devil’s Tower and to Yellowstone.
Barbara loved Prairie Dogs (I didn’t mention the plague problem – I don’t think she would have liked it) and Skip said that ‘She’ had ‘about a million’ photos of Prairie Dogs. Barbara and I agreed they were very cute.
Skip told the story about one Prairie Dog that Barbara was going to photograph which turned its back on her, groomed its hair, and then turned round again to be photographed.
Skip and Barbara were, shall we say, generously proportioned. In fact, they were of the proportions that explain why so many Motel rooms have two Queen-sized beds in them. Skip had been a truck driver and was now retired so they were visiting lots of places that he had been close to but never had the chance to visit when ‘Every load had to be delivered yesterday’ as he put it.
They were a really nice couple and were going to be spending many days in Yellowstone before wending their way back to PA laden with presents for the grandchildren. But for now they were camping.
As we all exited the diner I noticed the enormous trailer behind their motor – bigger than many a student room in college – and revised my picture of them under canvas under the stars.
I set off in the direction that Peterson Man had suggested and made slow progress as there was plenty to look at. The day was sunny, the views of frozen lakes, icy rivers, snowy mountains were spectacular and there were plenty of birds to stop and identify.
But as I travelled I saw a lot of cars by the side of the road. Lots of cars mean star wildlife so I joined the throng and looked in the same direction as everyone else. This was easy as there were now about 100 people training binoculars, telescopes and cameras on a brown shape in the middle distance – maybe 400m away. It was a Grizzly Bear – the large size and prominent shoulder hump made that an easy enough identification. And it was just on the near horizon so I was lucky to have caught her before she disappeared from view – except that she started heading towards us all, and brought her two cubs with her. These were great views of a large mammal – and one of the star attractions of Yellowstone.
There are rules about approaching wildlife in the park. For wolves and bears you cannot approach within 100m – well who would want to? and who would have the chance anyway? But this bear didn’t know the rules, or knew that they applied to us but not to her, so she kept on coming giving us all – maybe 200 people now – amazing views.
The mother bear didn’t seem to look where she was going most of the time. She shuffled along with her snout down on the ground, pushing through the sage bushes of the flat wet ground that lay between her and us. The two cubs followed her. Occasionally she stopped and looked rather vaguely around and then started snuffling again.
She was coming straight towards me and my car. All the literature warns you about how unpredictable bears are, how mothers with cubs are the most unpredictable, how they can outrun humans, are immensely strong and how you shouldn’t get in their way. But this Grizzly had decided she was coming straight at me. Occasionally her shuffling and snuffling would take her in another direction temporarily but she was coming straight towards my car or the one ahead or behind me.
She was about 100m away now and some of the more sensible photographers were moving from the roadside into their cars having got the photos of their lives already but wanting to keep their lives. The road was mostly quiet except for the sound of motordrives and clicking shutters – and still she kept coming. A wildlife sight to remember forever – whether one had a camera or not. A mother Grizzly and two cubs down to 25m distance when she decided to about turn and head back the way she had come. There was a slight sense of relief that she wasn’t going to lead her cubs through my hire car after all.
What a sight. What an experience. And you can understand why Theodore Roosevelt was so inspired by a visit to Yellowstone that he set up the National Parks Service. Nice Teddy.
After yesterday’s Grizzlies – didn’t I mention the second distant one, also with two cubs, late in the evening? – I was reconciled to a more mundane day. But this was a warmer day and the sun shone and the scenery continued to be gorgeous and amazing.
And who needs bears anyway? There are plenty of Bison to watch, lots of Elk and even Yellow-bellied Marmots (which look rather like fat Prairie Dogs – so, cute, but not quite so cute).
But I hadn’t realised, silly me, that Yellowstone is such a great place for waterfowl. There are loads of Canada Geese but also Trumpeter Swan, White Pelican, Great Blue Herons, Sandhill Cranes, Western Grebes, Common Loons and a large array of ducks.
The ducks include the very familiar Mallard and Gadwall and the far less familiar Cinnamon Teal and Hooded Merganser. There are Goosanders and Mergansers, Barrow’s Goldeneyes, Lesser Scaup, Ruddy Duck, Bufflehead, American Wigeon and Green-winged Teal, and more – maybe I will add Harlequin Duck, Canvasback or Redhead to this list over the next few days. There is a lot of water and there are a lot of ducks.
But I did see two Wolves today too – not as close as yesterday’s Grizzly and cubs but still a wonderful sight across a beautiful valley. Each time they crossed a patch of snow their shapes and gait leapt into sharp relief and then they would reenter the green vegetation and become dark unclear masses. But even as the Wolves walked indistinctly in the distance they exuded confidence. There was no need to hurry – this was their valley, they had killed an Elk there earlier in the day and had full stomachs. They could amble and they did. They ambled into the tree line and were lost to sight although not to memory.
But the ducks were nice too.
Yellowstone National Park is an amazing place – it really is. People have written books about it and I can only scratch the surface in this blog.
Here are just a few thoughts to be going on with;
– visit yourself if you can
– in the very early days two tourists were killed by hostile native Americans – you probably won’t face that problem if you visit
– the Old Faithful Inn is quite possibly more impressive than the Old Faithful Geyser – an amazing high-ceilinged wooden building that looks as if it were built by elves
– the Great Prismatic Spring is amazing and well worth a look
– don’t bother looking too hard for Moose as you are more likely to see them in adjacent Grand Teton National Park (I did)
– while waiting for Old Faithful to do his stuff keep an eye open for Black Rosy Finches – that’s when I saw one
– avoid the summer masses – my first impressions of Yellowstone were ‘Yuk – loads of people’ but the Park is big and people spread out, but in summer it must be crowded
– all the really good mammals I saw (Black Bear, Grizzly Bear, Wolf and Moose were found by seeing large numbers of cars stopped in the same place and people pointing in the same direction. Bit of a shame, but true. My heartfelt thanks to those who first spotted this wildlife for us all.
– Artists’ Point and the view from it are, again, well worth a visit
And so I said farewell to Yellowstone National Park and headed through Grand Teton with quite breathtaking views of the mountains across the lake (and a Bald Eagle flying across this vista too).
As I headed away from Old Faithful Inn I crossed the Great Divide (several times) which is the boundary between where falling rain ends up in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
And this seemed to mark a watershed for my journey too. The first part of my trip took me from Washington DC to nearby New York City via Charleston, SC, the Great Smoky Mountains and Ithaca, NY. Stage Two was all about heading West to Yellowstone via some remarkable scenery of South Dakota and Montana and leaving behind Eastern birds and switching to Western ones. As I leave Yellowstone the road takes me further West but mostly South and it is not long until this fantastic journey will be over. But there is Utah and California to come – and the final route is not yet planned. I still have the Pacific Ocean to see – and plenty more birds, but certainly rather fewer exciting mammals.
I didn’t know much about Utah before I started driving through it and I’m not an expert now. Brigham Young and Donny Osmond came to mind but I have tried to blank out both.
Before I left the UK I met the Independent’s Travel Editor Simon Calder in a TV studio and his advice on my trip was ‘Go to Utah – more National Parks than anywhere else’ so here I am.
And driving through Utah is good – the sun shines, the scenery is very beautiful and the likes of ZZ Top, Frank Sinatra and Roy Orbison are keeping me company.
I would have passed through Salina even if I hadn’t taken a wrong turn but the way I approached it, from the West, gave me a view of the town from above and from afar. Something made me think, perhaps my rumbling stomach, that there would be a good place for breakfast here.
I passed a tatty billboard advertising Mom’s Cafe on the edge of town and its claim to have the ‘Best food in town’ didn’t seem likely to be greatly overhyped since the competition didn’t seem that stiff. Salina looked a typical small US town – I passed a bank with its ‘Drive thru” cashpoint machine, the Salina Lumber Company and an auto repair place, and perhaps more interestingly the State Liquor Agency (open Mondays). Perhaps the Burns Saddlery with its ‘Red Tag Boot Sale’ placed Salina more firmly in the West but I didn’t need a saddle or cowboy boots, what I needed was a good breakfast after an early start.
At the crossroads, and the crossroads more or less is Salina, everyone from each direction has to stop and decide who goes next. It’s a strange system but seems to work pretty well – although why Americans haven’t discovered the roundabout I am not yet sure. But paused at the crossroads I had, and you would have, if you pass this way, one of those instant decisions to make – there’s Mom’s Cafe, does it look OK? shall I go in?
It didn’t look all that promising but it did look open. I guess the line of large motorbikes, but not Harley-Davidsons, outside sent a mixed message – Mom’s was popular but was it welcoming my type of business? I decided to find out and parked up outside.
On entering I was immediately sure that I had made a good choice. The bikers were mostly older than me and were tucking into what looked like good breakfasts – steak, eggs, toast, hash browns – the works.
I chose a booth to sit in and Sharon, the waitress, brought me the menu with a broad smile. Sharon was a homely shape, dressed in a green waitress uniform with a pink collar and pink cuffs to her short sleeves. She wore sensible shoes as she delivered the menu and poured me my first coffee of the day.
The only other customers, apart from the well-behaved ageing bikers, and well-behaved me, were a young couple charging their mobile phone from a socket.
Mom’s has plenty to keep the lone traveller interested – the menu contains information about the place, so after ordering Breakfast Number 4 (2 eggs, medium, with hash browns and sourdough toast) I read that Mom’s had been here since 1926. The menu also explained that the local industries included coal, salt mining, ranching of cattle and sheep, gypsum, clay milling and now oil, and that one or other of these accounts for each of the large lorries passing cautiously across the crossroads outside.
Each table at Mom’s has a few books to keep you occupied. I noticed on other tables I could have been reading ‘If life were fair then horses would ride half of the time’ and ‘Understanding women – a guidebook for guys who are often confused’ – deep and useful material, and nice to see the subjunctive used so properly.
My own table’s reading matter comprised ‘Geezerhood – what to expect from life now that you’re as old as dirt’ and ‘How to stay humble when you’re smarter than everybody else’. Seemed too near the mark to be purely chance but I’ll leave it to others to spot what I learned from perusing these works.
What I learned from looking around Mom’s was that they don’t accept ‘out of State checks’ but that they had a sign ‘We accept Cash’. And the menu told me that many celebrities had stopped here and eaten.
I asked Sharon about the celebrities but she looked a bit flustered and just pointed to the photos and clippings on the walls before giving me another toothy smile.
If any passing celebrity is looking for advice on what to eat at Mom’s then Breakfast Number 4 is a good choice. The two ‘farm-fresh’ eggs were delicious, as were the hash browns. If you have never had hash browns in the US, and only had their UK counterparts then you haven’t had the full hash brown experience. Hash browns in the US do not come as a hard brown composite but as a sea of lightly browned potato shreds and those that temporarily covered my plate were delicious – the best yet, I kid you not.
Maybe the potatoes had come from nearby Idaho, a state which has a small share in Yellowstone and across one corner of which I had passed yesterday. Idaho’s cars’ state license plates have “Famous potatoes’ written across them which seems a bit down-market from Washington DC’s ‘Taxation without representation’, Ohio’s “Birthplace of aviation’ or Connecticut’s “Constitution State’ but each to his own I guess. And Idaho had presented me with Franklin’s Gull, California Gull and some White-faced Ibises as I drove, so no complaints from me.
I checked the celebrities on the wall but recognised none of them by name or picture. There was certainly no ZZ Top, Ol’ Blue Eyes or Big O but there was plenty of evidence that Mom’s itself was a celebrity. It featured on the cover of National Geographic Magazine in January 1996, for example.
On the wall by the window was a calendar whose picture was a family of bears enjoying a picnic outside their tent and next to their jeep, this was a gift from fellow Salina business Sorensen Electrics whose sign I could see across the street above the clothes shop “So Sheikh’ and along from another shop selling women’s clothes, Bella’s, which proudly proclaimed that ‘We know what she wants’ alongside a notice advertising a Father’s Day Special on designer jeans and shorts (so Bella’s ‘knows what he wants’ too?). I think the middle pane of Bella’s shop front must have been broken some time back as the left hand window had written in large white letters across it ‘Wedding Re’ and the right hand window picked up apparently the same message with ‘Gifts – Etc’ in the same font, but the middle window was blank allowing you to fill in the missing words in whatever way you chose.
Time to move on, and although the wall showed a Guest Check for Mom’s for Breakfast on 7 February 1947 for 57c my bill of $7.84 still seemed very good value and I left $10 to put another toothy smile on Sharon’s face.
Outside the bikers were standing in the shade – some smoking, some using their cell phones and I saw they mostly had Washington State plates.
Inside Mom’s I had noticed an old newspaper clipping on the wall from the Salt Lake Tribune with the headline ‘Mom’s Cafe makes Utah trips worthwhile’ and outside Mom’s there were vending machines for three local newspapers, the Salt Lake Tribune (Utah’s independent voice since 1871, 75c), the grimly entitled Reaper (75c) and the Deseret News (Utah’s locally owned paper, 75c) alongside the national USA today ($1). I didn’t buy but I did wonder whether the news from all those other states was worth the extra quarter to the citizens of Salina.
Mom’s seemed to be in good heart but its fellow businesses didn’t look in great shape. The Sunkyst Tanning, Lotsa Motsa Pizza and Sho Time Video shops were quiet. The Five and Dime Pawn and Thrift shop offered me ‘gently used clothes’ and American West Realty didn’t look like anyone was buying or selling property. I was disappointed that the Hatch Barber Shop was closed as I need a trim.
Two more bikes pulled up outside Mom’s as I headed left, south, in my turn, at the crossroads. I was heading for the National Parks where I might hope for chance encounters with nature, but chance encounters with those gems of small-town America are precious too. Mom’s looks like the liveliest place in Salina by quite some way and if I am ever passing by this way again I will take its pulse another time.
Hummers are gas-guzzlers to most Americans – but they are hummingbirds to some.
Hummingbirds seem exotic to the UK birder because we have nothing really like them – and because they really are exotic.
My first hummingbird ever was about 30 years ago when I was sitting on a log in Ontario, looking at a Beaver dam, and I heard a buzzing noise behind me. Now because I have mentioned hummingbird, you, dear reader, know already what it was but I had no idea as I turned my head what I was going to see – a male Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeding on a flower stalk about four feet away. That was quite an introduction, and it was only near Ithaca, on a dreary morning a few weeks ago that I renewed the acquaintance.
Here in the West there are more and different hummingbirds and two volunteers, Bob and Eva, in Bryce Canyon National Park yesterday tipped me off about a Mexican restaurant just down the road (25 miles) which did good food and had hummingbird feeders so that you could eat and see hummers all around.
Sounded good – too good to be true? I drove the miles to Hatch and the Adobe Cafe and the Large Green Salad I had was indeed excellent – but although the hummingbird feeders are usually out, today was too windy (it wasn’t very windy!) and they were missing. Oh well!
Bob had noticed my Cincinnati Zoo hat and as an Ohio man was singing the praises of Cleveland Zoo so I told him the story of the Martha and the Passenger Pigeon and that was all news to him.
Bryce Canyon was a great place scenically and produced Western Bluebird so that I now have the set – Eastern, Mountain and Western – and Pygmy Nuthatch, as well as a new Prairie Dog – the endangered Utah Prairie Dog. Yippee!
And there was a group of people eating at the Adobe who had seen a strange bird of prey and asked to see my bird book. Most strange birds of prey turn out to be Red-tailed Hawks in my recent experience although I’ve seen some lovely Swainson’s Hawks too, and quite a lot of Bald Eagles and Golden Eagles recently too.
But their strange raptor seems likely to have been an Osprey – seen lots of them but love them to bits. Our conversation moved on and the group, who all left on hired ATVs (along with White Water Rafting – big business in these parts) told me where to go to see Californian Condors. Not sure whether I want a Condor moment or not. At the moment I’d like a hummer moment. We’ll see.
Marble Canyon, Arizona is not much to look at – but it is great to look from.
I arrived at the Chevron gas station and went inside to pay in advance – the permutations of paying for gas in the US are seemingly endless – and listened to John telling two young drivers that in this country you should fill up at any opportunity if you are less than half full. They grunted and left.
I didn’t understand the relevance of the overheard conversation fragment until I asked about paying – “No gas’ said John. But he immediately asked me where I was from and when I said England he said ‘You’ve just missed my Mrs Slocombe impression’ – which is a phrase you don’t expect to hear in Arizona even when the speaker acts a bit camp and keeps touching his earring.
‘Keeping up Appearances’ and ‘Are you being Served?’ are John’s two favourite English TV programmes. We had a good chat, I got the information I needed about accommodation, food and bird sightings, I bought an ice-cream and that was it.
I decided to give my custom to almost the only other business in Marble Canyon – the Marble Canyon Inn. The person in charge of the Motel, let’s call her Big Sally as that gives the right impression, was smoking outside the office when I rolled in. ‘Want a room?’ asked Big Sally, ‘Yes please’ I replied in my polite English way, ‘Good’ said Big Sally in her Arizona way. Big Sally has two eyes but they never point in the same direction so our conversation was a bit unnerving for at least one of us. But she had a room, and that’s what I wanted. Big Sally also told me about the third of five visible businesses in Marble Canyon – the restaurant (and gift shop) which stays open until 9pm (and opens for breakfast at 6 again).
Aside from the Gas Station, the Lodge/Motel and the Restaurant/Gift Shop there is a small airstrip across the road, a Post Office and a jewelry maker in Marble Canyon – that’s all I can see anyway.
So having failed to fill up with gas (no disaster – I have half a tank), got accommodation and found out how to eat I go down to the river which happens to be the Colorado River heading for the Grand Canyon down the road. And on the old bridge across the river, there just happen to be two California Condors roosting at 7pm – more or less as John had told me.
One of the Condors – there are fewer than 200 in the wild – was wing-tagged and sported #54 on his tags. I walked over the old Navajo bridge, built in 1929 which is now a foot bridge since the newer bridge opened in 1995.
I’ve never stood 12 feet above 1% of the world population of any bird species before and it was exciting but odd to be doing it now.
The Condor story is one of a species being brought to the brink of extinction, all 22 of its wild individuals being brought into captivity and then a slow release and growth of a wild population, including #54. It’s a great success but only achieved at great financial cost and quite a lot of bickering.
But #54 knew nothing of this. And most people on the bridge, about 40 came and went in the hour I stayed, knew nothing of Condors. They were photographing the view, the Colorado River below or themselves. A German couple looked at the birds when I pointed them out and two young American guys stopped to look when I pointed out to them an iconic bird of this region and their country. But most people were missing their Condor moment while I was enjoying mine.
I walked back to the Lodge Restaurant and had a Southwestern Green Chili Steak (which is chicken) with fries and a salad. It was good food and lots of it. There were others eating too and the place was busy.
But when I walked back down to the bridge after dark there was no-one else there. The sky was clear and I could see more stars than would be possible back in England. Tonight the worst source of light pollution was the Moon – which I forgave.
I looked down in the moonlight and saw #54 below me. An Englishmen on a bridge in Arizona over the Colorado River looking down on a California Condor – how romantic? how weird? For me, it was an experience that will always stay with me. The warm wind, the dark sky and stars and one of the world’s rarest birds. I saw four shooting stars and made four wishes on that bridge – one for #54, one for condors, one for American birds and one for me.
I’ll come back in the morning to see what time Condors get up.
I woke later than usual and strolled down to the Navajo Bridge to see what time California Condors get up. #54 was still sitting on his or her metal girder and his or her companion resolved himself or herself to be #73. They looked quite perky together but the world was still ignoring them so I strolled off to have breakfast.
Over a breakfast of cream cheese bagel, V8 juice (tastes like tomato juice but has lots more healthy things in it) and coffee I wondered why Marble Canyon wasn’t making more of its Condors. If I hadn’t had a clue that they were here then I would have met nothing in Marble Canyon which alerted me to the presence and visibility of one of the world’s rarest birds. Even on the Navajo Bridge itself there are several interpretation boards but none of them mentions Condors.
So I drove back down to the Bridge and was disappointed but not very surprised to see that #54 and #73 were missing. But then I realised that they were only missing from their spot on the Bridge, they were actually sitting on the cliff opposite – and still the world ignored them.
As I looked, a young man with the words “Peregrine Fund – Condor Project’ walked by and I engaged him in conversation. Eric Weis, handed me a small Condor leaflet and started to explain why he had been throwing stones near a critically endangered bird species which has all sorts of legal protection. I wish I had seen that.
Eric’s leaflet and talk told me a lot more about Condors. Apparently there are now over 350 of them in the wild, they live for up to 60 years and lead poisoning is one of the main threats to them.
I know a bit about the lead poisoning story and was able to do a bit of name-dropping that convinced Eric to stop and talk some more – even though it was his day off and he was doing his stone-throwing through love.
I told Eric that the late Bill Burnham, the former boss of the Peregrine Fund, had once shown me, at the RSPB Headquarters at Sandy, an X-ray of a deer carcass, shot with a lead bullet, with many tiny fragments of lead distributed widely through the muscles and organs of the deer. These tiny fragments can then be eaten by scavenging mammals and birds (like Condors) or by humans if the meat goes into the human food chain.
Eric told me about progress and difficulties of solving this problem for Condors in their range and we swapped anecdotes about the situation on either side of the Atlantic.
And Eric told me about his stone-throwing. Apparently, #54 with whom I had had my nocturnal tryst the other night, is a ‘bad’ female Condor and Eric and others are concerned that she might be leading astray other Condors, so she must be discouraged from being bad!
Condor conservationists are worried about too many Condors getting too tame, sitting around on bridges, visiting car parks, getting too friendly with humans and becoming reliant on people for food. This could lead to problems if Condors start taking food from people – and this does happen – in a similar way to the previous problems with bears in National Parks when they became tame enough to feed.
Nobody wants Condors to be taking hot-dogs from children – particularly if it leads to children being bitten. And there are still ranchers who are not Condor-friendly because they, wrongly, believe that these large carrion-eaters kill cattle so tame Condors are more likely to end up as dead Condors than ‘wild’ Condors.
So female #54 is a ‘bad’ Condor as she is taking a walk on the unwild side – and particularly if she leads others astray by example. She already seems to be having an unfortunate impact on male #73 – such is the way of the world! And, so, even on his day off Eric has to throw the odd stone out of love.
Midway through our conversation, Eric and I had been joined by a lady who had overheard some of what was said and was clearly interested. As I wished Eric goodbye and thanked him Lee-Anne and I got talking about Condors.
Lee-Anne was well wrapped up against the sun and looked to me to be a bit older than me but our subsequent conversation indicated she might be a bit younger so I apologise for my initial misdiagnosis.
She had arrived in Marble Canyon, by plane, yesterday evening and was going on a white-water raft trip down the Grand Canyon tomorrow. She was from Maryland and was interested in birds too.
We talked about Condors and we swapped experiences about travelling alone and then I drove her the short trip down to Lee’s Ferry where her aquatic adventure would start tomorrow. Lee’s Ferry was one of the few crossing points of the Colorado River when wagon trains and horseback riders were travelling these parts and is an important historical landmark still.
The short drive through the Arizona desert country, past big red cliffs and ancient boulders was striking and when we came to Lee’s Ferry there were yellow and blue inflatables setting forth packed with supplies for their journeys and slightly nervous looking passengers. I noticed some of the men talked a lot – bravado I reckon.
Lee’s Ferry itself had very calm water but only a little downstream we could see the water running faster and getting rougher. Lee-Anne told me that she had given up ‘the addiction to the corporate dollar’ back in December and this raft trip was her equivalent of my trip across America.
Good luck! to her and I’ll be thinking of her over the next couple of weeks as she makes her way the 200 miles down the Colorado River, through the Grand Canyon itself, as 22,000 people a year do. We parted back at Marble Canyon for Lee-Anne to do some painting and me to follow Eric’s directions to see some more Condors.
Down (or up – I’m not telling) the road, a few (or many – I’m not telling) miles I came to the Condor release area and saw the cliffs with their white-spattered Condor roosting sites. Up to four Condors were in the air at any one time making the Ravens look tiny in comparison. I stayed a while to watch the distant birds and then, before crossing the new Navajo Bridge to leave Marble Canyon I called into the Chevron garage to see whether John could sell me gas today and another ice cream.
John was in good form – perhaps because the gas had indeed come – and he seemed eager to talk to a Brit. I learned he taught drama in the winter, was a Texan, did this garage thing as a summer job, was a fan of Oscar Wilde and had, no surprises here, been a big fan of Elton John back in the 70s.
I bought gas, an ice-cream and thanked John for pointing me towards the Condors when I arrived yesterday. As I left, before crossing the river, I slowed to wish Lee-Anne a final safe journey on her adventure as I set off on the last few days of mine.
I hadn’t known I was going to Marble Canyon until the day I did, and I hadn’t known I would see a Condor until the moment I did. I certainly didn’t know that this small place would serve up a list of characters as rich as John, Big Sally, Eric and Lee-Anne. Nor did I know that I would meet and spend part of the night with #54 who was a ‘bad’ lady who might lead others astray.
I drove into Flagstaff on a fragment of the ‘historic’ Route 66, which I last touched near its other end south of Chicago many days ago, hoping it would be nice as my ‘Rough Guide’ says it is – and it is. I’ve spent very little time in towns you would have heard of since New York and it’s really nice to be in a bubbly place.
I arrived at the Monte Vista Hotel to find that it was an hour earlier than I thought (I’m now 8 hours ‘behind’ the UK), they don’t take AmEx (very unusual), the lift isn’t working and I am sleeping in the Debbie Reynolds room.
There were lots of young people drinking downstairs when I arrived and the place had a really nice atmosphere.
My room is very pink – very pink – and has a signed letter from Ms Reynolds from July 1991 giving permission for the room to be named after her. Ms Reynolds and I are sleeping above Bing Crosby – scandal!
I had a ‘quick nap’ when I arrived yesterday – the Arizona heat must have got to me – and found myself waking at 11pm and walking around central Flagstaff looking for a bite to eat. I found one in the Pita Pit opposite the hotel (after walking around several blocks) which had looked like an unpromising fast food place but was actually a promising fast food place. I had a pita bread with hummus, avocado and various other green things and it was just what was needed. I am sticking more or less to my four veggie days a week although I have had some excellent steaks in the other three days.
Sitting in Pita Pit I noticed that some of the lights on my hotel were out – my pink room is apparently in the ‘TEL VISTA’.
Having had a three and a half hour ‘nap’ I was more easily woken by the sound of merry young people saying goodnight, banging doors and heading off in cars. Funny, there are far fewer of them now in the early morning.
In a way I would like to stay in Flagstaff longer but it’s best to move on – there are plenty more places down the road and the bird list could do with a boost – I added no new species yesterday but who cares?, yesterday was one of the very best days of the trip. And today might be too!
I’m writing this with the sound of the Pacific waves near Carlsbad, California in my ears.
I could live in Flagstaff it’s the most agreeable American town I’ve met. It provided me with breakfast in the Grand Canyon Diner, whose waitress was a bit slow, and whose booths seemed full of English people – me and five others I counted. The kitchen provided me with a passable but unexceptional 2 eggs and hash browns and the waitress and I talked about Cincinnati which is her home. No – she knew nothing of the Passenger Pigeon and Martha. But the chef knew where I could get a haircut, and correctly judged I would prefer a barber to a hair stylist and so directed me to Herman’s two blocks away.
Now, Herman’s is actually Ulibarri’s, named after Ulibarri between Burgos and Pamplona. That’s where Herman’s family came from, although he has never visited and he has lived in Flagstaff all his life, cutting 61,000 heads of hair in the process. As he made it 61,001 we talked about the economy (and how people still need haircuts, the fires that are burning in Arizona, my journey and how nice is Flagstaff. I came away with a good haircut and a sense of wonder that a life-long Flagstaff barber holds a torch for his ancestral Spanish town that he has never visited.
Pita Pit supplied me with lunch to go and I headed out of Flagstaff and after some desultory birding in the heat of the day near Sedona (Hepatic Tanager) headed onward to stay at the space age motel in Gila Bend where the desert temperature was over 100F. I added Gambel’s Quail and a couple of doves to my bird list.
Yesterday I headed West on I8 past Yuma, in sight of the Mexican border, through three checks to make sure I wasn’t carrying fruit or vegetables or Mexicans and into California. Just before 4pm local time, and just over 3 weeks from when I last saw the Atlantic near New York, and 5 weeks from when I saw it in the Carolinas, I stood with my toes in the Pacific Ocean, lifeguards on the beach, surfers in the sea, bikinied babes on the sand, and Brown Pelicans in the air.
Not quite over, but the journey of a lifetime from ocean to ocean and from the shore of Lake Erie (with Canada invisible across the lake) to the I8 with Mexico invisible behind a big fence (to keep the rich Americans in?).
I shall spend the next three days close to Los Angeles as my wanderlust is now sated and try to bump up the bird list a bit before heading home where I see things are not going well for my local football team and there are droughts in place.
I neglected to say yesterday, so I’d better get it in quick now, that yesterday’s soundtrack was The Eagles, and Hotel California was playing as I crossed the State line. Today I played another CD for the first time and it was, of course, the Beach Boys.
I did some coastal mooching and then headed inland and got a bit lost – it happens. But I did find my way to the Joshua Tree National Park by 5pm which is just when the desert is cooling down.
I was hoping to see at least a Wile E Coyote but preferably a Roadrunner – but no luck so far, trying again tomorrow.
I looked at a lot of cactus before I found a Cactus Wren and this is quite a wren. When UK folk think of wrens they think of one of the smaller of the wrens living in the US – our ‘wren’ is the US Winter Wren.
The Winter Wren is a titchy 4″, whereas the House Wren (a commoner species) is 4.75″. The Carolina Wren, whose song (tea-kettle, tea-kettle tea) I miss (partly because I learned it more easily than many others) is 5.5″ – but all of these species, though very wrennish are just wrens. The species I have been keen to see, but haven’t, yet?, is the Canyon Wren, at 5.75″. I can’t understand why I haven’t seen one – I’ve seen lots of canyons, and very nice canyons too. At Marble Canyon a few days ago there was a wren singing from the canyon edge. But was it a Canyon Wren? It was not – it was the slightly larger Rock Wren measuring 6″.
Now size isn’t everything in wrens, and slightly larger though the Rock Wren is, and a perfectly nice wren too, although we’ll come back to that, I would have preferred a Canyon Wren because Canyon Wrens are rufous and I like rufous.
My first Rock Wren was in the Badlands of South Dakota. It took me ages to identify it as it didn’t look that wren-like to me and I didn’t see the buff tail tips for ages. So I harbour a bit of a grudge against Rock Wrens for being difficult and for not being Canyon Wrens.
But if you want to see the wren of wrens, look no further than the Cactus Wren. Indeed, it is difficult to look past a Cactus Wren as it is the mightiest of wrens at 8.5″. And it has streaks, stripes and spots. So that is a wren worth seeing.
I’m staying tonight in 29 Palms and I ate in Denny’s Diner at the recommendation of the French Motel owner. We had a little chat in my version of her language and she was sweet enough to say I spoke it well (I don’t – but I try). Her insistence that I spoke French well suggested to me that she had been in the US for quite a while and she has – 17 years – so she has probably heard little passable French for quite a while.
She said Denny’s was typically American and I guess it is – the waiting staff are cheerful, your soda gets a free refill, the choice of food was burgers, chicken, steaks and suchlike. I had a cranberry and apple salad (which is an adventurous chicken salad) and then apple pie a la mode (ie with ice-cream). All that came to $17 with tax which is about a tenner and that isn’t bad really. And I didn’t have lunch today, but tomorrow I probably won’t have breakfast just in case Road Runners get up early – and who knows when the wrens will be about?
I was out in Joshua Tree National Park at 615am this morning – before the desert got hot. My hope was to come across a Road Runner although my hopes weren’t that high as the official National Park Service website suggests there may not be very many of them in Joshua Tree.
This seemed to jar with the fact that Road Runners are liberally spread over the within-park notices and signs – which suggested to me that either they do live here and there is a chance of seeing them, or that the marketing guys in Washington DC designed the displays. Either was possible but I could only control how hard I looked for this bird – so I looked.
I did add 5 species to the trip list by breakfast; Ashy-throated Flycatcher, Scott’s Oriole, Phainopepla, Ladder-backed Woodpecker and Bushtit. But no Road Runner.
As I temporarily exited at about 930am I asked the young lady on the gate what I’d have to do to see a Road Runner and she said they were potentially everywhere – she’d seen one from her seat just yesterday. I immediately looked in the direction in which she had gestured to check that there wasn’t one sneaking across the road – there wasn’t.
I had breakfast in the Country Kitchen Restaurant – my antepenultimate US breakfast of the trip. It was a good 2-egg Denver omelette with ham, onion, pepper and cheese, coffee and rye toast. Not bad.
I popped into the Park Visitor Center to ask about Road Runners and a helpful man told me that they were active at all times of day and in all parts of the park, but he did say that another visitor center often had then running around outside. That sounded good so I filled up with gas and went back to where I had started (almost) and visited the other Visitor Center where I asked a nice young man about Road Runners. He said they were everywhere (which was getting to be a mixture of tiresome and encouraging). He said that they often ran around on the patio outside, gesturing over his right shoulder with his thumb and nodding his head in that direction. I checked where he indicated but there was no Road Runner at the moment.
But there was a rabbit, or desert cottontail, and if it had been a bit smaller, the helpful man told me, it would be potential prey for Road Runners as they are ‘fierce predators’. Only a few days ago there had been a Road Runner ripping the head off a Mourning Dove on the patio there he said, gesturing with thumb and head again.
I was getting the impression that this patio had to be hosed down to wash away the blood from Road Runner kills every evening. The helpful man said that decapitating the Mourning Dove had upset some visitors and I assured him that I would cheer on any Road Runner who did that in front of me, and, if necessary, pay its court fees if it were had up on a charge.
It was now 11am and my original plan had been to leave at 12 and head for nearer to LA to do some birding there but the bloodbath patio seemed a good place to spend time and so I did.
I have the patience of a saint and so I sat still for at least 15 minutes before I decided that going for a walk on the nature trail was just as good as sitting still. And I think I was right as I added another 2 species; Costa’s Hummingbird and Black-tailed Gnatcatcher. There were also lots of lizards of various sizes and some small edible-looking mammals which must have been antelope and round-tailed ground squirrels. All looked as though they might have had LUNCH written all over them as far as Road Runners were concerned.
There were Cactus Wrens aplenty and I enjoyed watching them and the hummers. But Road Runner came there none. Midday came and went and I decided that 2pm would be my cut-off. The temperature in the shade was 98F, but there was shade, and there were free water-bottle filling facilities and free bladder-emptying facilities, both of which were needed as I drank 6 litres of water between 11am and 2pm.
I sat, I watched, I walked, I sat again. Now I think I’d done everything required of me to see a Road Runner – I had risen early, spent time in the field, asked for advice and then followed it, been patient and active. What more could I have done. But still Road Runner came there none.
If this blog were fiction then this is where a Road Runner turns up, stomping down the patio with a bloody ground squirrel in its beak, dripping gore on the patio and scaring the children. But this is an accurate account and the Road Runner is the one that got away. There always has to be a reason to come back.
Perhaps when Rita Coolidge performs at Joshua Tree on Friday evening she’ll have more luck but that’s no good to me, I’ll be in rural East Northants again by then.
My friends, family and work colleagues (especially my long-time former PA, the saintly Claire) will tell you that they are extremely lucky that I do not have moods. But if I did, then this morning’s would not have been one of the best.
I woke early (which is good) realising that I was in this grotty motel room (which is not of itself bad as there have been quite a few of them) for which I was paying too much money (which is bad) and also that this was the last full day of my trip and that it was a dull day.
Now the last day of a holiday is always an odd one for me as my mind is half way back home yet my body has to find something to do. And I’m not looking forward to the long flight back which includes a few hours on the deck in Canada. And even if all goes to plan I might just miss the last train and spend the night at St Pancras Station.
And then there was the weather – misty and cold.
But don’t worry, Dear Reader, things do get brighter weatherwise and as far as my spirits are concerned. But I must warn you that this may be a long blog, and for those of you who have told me that you like the bits without birds best, then you’ll have to do quite a bit of skipping over paragraphs although you will learn how daft I can be and get a little bit of chat with a waitress called Courtney.
I had a plan – get up early, have a quick look at the Malibu Lagoon, go up into the hills of Santa Monica to a State Park and then explore the coast some more.
Malibu Lagoon was dull weatherwise but provided some good birds – Caspian Tern, Pied-billed Grebe, lots of Brown Pelicans and Allen’s Hummingbird.
I then set off into the hills to the Malibu Creek State Park and the birds came tumbling out – maybe because the sun was shining up here. Immediately there was a beautiful White-tailed Kite. Three seed-eaters followed. First, Goldfinch (which I have probably seen already but this was the first definite) and then, at the same time, a Lazuli Bunting and a Blue Grosbeak. The Lazuli Bunting didn’t look quite as good as in the Field Guide but the Grosbeak was even bluer. They were both in view at the same time, with the Grosbeak singing, and it was difficult to know where to look.
And then, soon after, in the distance, there were several birds flycatching from a large oak tree. They looked like flycatchers until I got the binoculars on them and saw they were woodpeckers, Acorn Woodpeckers, who have interesting social systems but we don’t have time to go into that. I watched this group of 8-10 woodpeckers for quite a while as they were very active, very pretty and lived in a very large, attractive old oak tree.
There were Hooded Orioles and Pacific-slope Flycatchers and I finally was sure that I had seen Cassin’s Kingbird, which is very similar to Western Kingbird, as I saw the white tips to the tail feathers and not the white outer tail feathers of Western. Then there was a non-native Black-hooded Parrot (I never did write about Carolina Parakeet did I? I meant to, sorry). And then I wondered where my wallet was.
I didn’t have it. Did that mean I had left it in the car or lost it? At various stages, in less than a second, my mind adopted each explanation completely several times. Had I put it in my pocket? Probably not. Had I put it in the rucksack and could I have lost it with all that consulting of Sibley that I had done? Yes, that’s it. Or had I left it in the car? Not what I normally do but possible. Which was it?
I assumed the worst but hoped for the best and headed back to the car at quite a brisk walk, only pausing to identify California Towhee and Black-headed Grosbeak. The wallet was in the car – panic over. The only thing that would have made it more typical of me was to rush back to the car and find that it was in the rucksack all the time. I was slightly disappointed that I couldn’t roll out my ‘getting home without any money plan’ that I had developed but maybe next time.
It was only 1015, so should I walk back and see what I had missed in my brisk walk back for wallet or call it a day here and find breakfast. Breakfast won, so it was back to Malibu lagoon, down the Malibu Canyon Road and into the coastal gloom again. The coastal gloom is a bit like the haar of eastern Scotland – a coastal fog that rarely penetrates inland very far but shrouds the coast in dimness. That was how it was here – hills sunny, coast cloudy and dull. Through the day I criss-crossed this brightness barrier several times.
The Marmalade Cafe was open, I was glad to find, as I’d seen it earlier and it looked promising. I sat and was greeted by the second-most attractive waitress of the trip whom, I discovered not much later, was called Courtney. Imagine Courtney Cox, tone it down a bit, and you have the gist.
On one side of me was a man with a laptop, on the other was a woman to whom I took an immediate dislike and two very handsome young men. They may have been her sons – they were in their early 30s and she was late 50s but looked well-preserved. She talked a lot but they only looked animated when they talked to each other – particularly when she visited the rest room and they really came alive in their facial expressions. When she returned she quizzed Courtney on what type of sausage was involved in this breakfast and could she have this variant or that variant – and it took for ages. I almost admired her, for the form of ordering breakfast in the US is that the waiting staff ask all the questions and you must get the right answers or no breakfast! But Snobby Woman, as we will call her, for that is what I had her down as already, was, I thought, asking these questions to make a point and through boredom. And she was holding up my breakfast.
I ordered a 2-egg Denver omelette with avocado and ham, rye toast and coffee. It was good, but as I ate my breakfast Snobby Woman was moaning about hers. Courtney asked whether she would like another egg, done differently, but Snobby Woman preferred moaning to that so she said ‘no’ (but not ‘no thanks’). Her sons, looked very handsome, very bored, very tanned and very disconnected from their mother ( if that is who she was).
I asked for the check and also for some information. How long would it take me to get to LA International Airport (tomorrow)? Courtney said about 45 minutes and I said I thought it would take longer as I’d probably get lost. Then we had a chat about my trip and where Courtney came from (not far up the road) and what her job was like. She told me she’d been a bit worried about working in Malibu in case the people were, you know, a bit snobby, but actually they were mostly very nice. At this very point, Snobby Woman decided she wasn’t getting enough attention and asked for more toast – I noticed her breakfast had been pushed around the plate a few times, assaulted but not eaten.
I rolled my eyes at Courtney who was too professional to do anything other than smile back and as I left she wished me a good return home and last day of my trip. For readers not interested in birds (and mammals) cut to the end now.
And so it was ,following my plan, further West along the coast, to Point Dume, of which I had never heard but which is quite famous. This was the only bit of coast today that I visited where the sun shone – it was lovely. Now I promised more than just birds. Here were some pretty plants – but I have no idea what they were, except pretty and quite a lot of butterflies (which have been in short supply here in the US) and although I have little idea what they were, some were very like Painted Ladies, others were small and milky blue like Chalkhill Blues and one was quite like a Speckled Wood but had red edges to the wings.
But the birds I can do – there were Short-tailed Shearwaters, Surf Scoter, Brandt’s Cormorant and a Red-throated Loon offshore, whereas onshore there was my first California Quail. But as I looked at the scoter I saw that they were not alone in the sea, oh no, there were hundreds of dolphins moving East (and South) along the coast. And as I looked at the cormorants I saw that they were sharing their rock with Sea Lions! How great! Some marine mammals at the end of the trip.
I moved further up the coast to Channel Islands Beach where I saw Black Oystercatcher and some terns.
Returning via Malibu Creek Park I saw no new birds but it was a lovely evening. The Lazuli Bunting sat on the same bush and looked superb this time and the Blue Grosbeak later sat on a nearby perch and looked pretty good too.
Just further up the path was where the TV series M.A.S.H. was set but although I thought of Trapper, Radar, Hotlips, Hawkeye and others I didn’t go look. And there was no point looking for the last sunset of the trip as the coast was still misty. And, anyway, the most romantic part of the trip was on the Navajo Bridge (I’ve worn the cap all day) with bad lady #54 and nothing can compare with that.
So that’s the last day, rounded off with a steak (passable, no more) and quite a lot of Napa Valley Merlot, Burgess Cellars 2007. Very nice.
There will be a blog tomorrow, as I’ve already written it. It contains an ‘ask’ of many of you. But the Napa Valley is making me sleepy and it’s been a very good day despite its grumpy start.
So after 6 weeks (slightly more), 10,000 miles by car (slightly less), 270 bird species (slightly more) and 100 ‘lifers’ (more), what’s it all been for??
Well, this was a holiday so it was about relaxing and I relaxed, but it was a holiday only possible after I gave up the well-paid post of RSPB Conservation Director. The prospect of this trip kept me going through the emotional times of leaving the RSPB and the trip provided me with practice in saying ‘they’ rather than ‘we’ when talking about the RSPB. Although it is still ‘we’ really.
I’ve travelled thru almost half of the US States – Virginia, North and South Carolinas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, West Virginia, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Utah, Arizona and California. 23 in all though I have been grazing rather than drinking deeply.
So what has it all been for? I wanted to make a clean break with the RSPB so disappearing for a while made it easier for them and easier for me. Any journey, and this has been a journey rather than a stay (much more active), is a journey of exploration and I have found out some things and decided some others. I’ve become more certain of what I love in life.
I am happy enough, for a while, with my own company. But I want nature in my life and that is important to me so I must stand up for nature in the years ahead. I’ve also enjoyed writing to you, Dear Reader, and writing must form part of my future too. But I’ve also realised how much I like talking to people – that’s important too.
And there are many things about which I have not yet written. I haven’t told you about the Indiana waitress’s warning (and she was the prettiest one of the lot), about my horrific bird misidentifications, about how to pay for gas in the US, about US talk radio, about games to play while driving, about the Carolina Parakeet or Heath Hen or Rocky Mountain Locust, about why I was lucky to get a car, about windfarms, about Bison or about the differences between the gents toilets in the UK and the US.
Some of what I have learned will crop up in this blog over the weeks and months ahead as it switches to being a commentary on how nature fares in the UK – and what should be done to improve its lot. So for some of you it’s worth sticking with this blog, for others maybe its interest will diminish. I’ll take a few days break in any case – a holiday after my holiday!
I come back to the UK with many great memories of places, nature and people – Grizzlies, Lou and Perry’s, the Badlands, Condors, Flagstaff, Little Bighorn and so much more. I come back with a tan, too many books, a new laptop and a greater knowledge of US geography.
My abiding sense is of a wonderful country with wonderful people. But a young country that not much more than a century ago was spreading West and causing ecological havoc. We did it too in Europe, but long long ago – the loss of species like the Passenger Pigeon and near loss of the Bison were late 19th century events that came to completion in the early 20th century and so are well-recorded.
Yesterday, at Malibu Lagoon, I saw a man walk along the shore while a Killdeer parent called loudly and incessantly. The man seemed completely unaware of the fact that he was disturbing the Killdeer’s chicks who were no doubt crouching in fear nearby, but maybe he just didn’t care. Much loss of wildlife on Earth is done without us realising what we are doing, without noticing the Killdeer crying out in distress, but some of what we do is done when we have the cries of nature ringing in our ears but we don’t listen.
I would have called from the bridge where I was watching if the man hadn’t moved on fairly quickly. Those of us who hear nature’s call need to stand up for nature and make a difference.
A request: if you have been reading this blog regularly then I’d love to hear from you. I have heard from many (maybe all, for all I know) of you already through your comments, through Facebook and Twitter and through emails to email@example.com . If you haven’t been in touch then please do drop me a line through one of those ways – preferably by posting a comment – but any way will do. I’d just like your feedback and thoughts on anything you’ve read here.
This is just a list of birds I saw in the USA between 3 May and 15 June.
If you are an American birder and think there is anything odd about this list – things I should have seen but haven’t listed or things I claim to have seen but seem very unlikely – then do get in touch either way. The list is in Sibley order and the species in bold were lifers for me.
I was told that I might see a little over 300 species on my trip but fell short of that – the amount of rain didn’t help and I may well have had an extra day’s birding if only I hadn’t spent a fair amount of time lost on the road but I am very happy with the birds I saw.
- Red-throated loon
- Common loon
- Eared Grebe
- Pied-billed grebe
- Western grebe
- Black-vented shearwater??
- American white pelican
- Brown pelican
- Great cormorant
- Double-crested cormorant
- Brandt’s cormorant
- Great blue heron
- Great egret
- Snowy egret
- Tricolored heron
- Cattle egret
- Green heron
- Black-crowned night-heron
- Yellow-crowned night-heron
- White ibis
- White-faced ibis
- Glossy ibis
- Wood stork
- Mute swan
- Trumpeter swan
- Tundra swan
- Canada goose
- Snow Goose
- Wood duck
- American black duck
- Northern pintail
- American wigeon
- Northern shoveler
- Cinnamon teal
- Blue-winged teal
- Green-winged teal
- Ring-necked duck
- Lesser scaup
- Surf scoter
- Barrow’s goldeneye
- Hooded merganser
- Common merganser
- Red-breasted merganser
- Ruddy duck
- California condor
- Turkey vulture
- Black vulture
- Northern harrier
- White-tailed kite
- Sharp-shinned hawk
- Cooper’s hawk
- Swainson’s hawk
- Red-tailed hawk
- Golden eagle
- Bald eagle
- American kestrel
- California quail
- Gambel’s quail
- Ring-necked pheasant
- Wild turkey
- American coot
- Sandhill crane
- Black-bellied plover
- Semipalmated plover
- Black oystercatcher
- American oystercatcher
- American avocet
- Black-necked stilt
- Greater yellowlegs
- Lesser yellowlegs
- Solitary sandpiper
- Spotted sandpiper
- Upland sandpiper
- Long-billed curlew
- Marbled godwit
- Ruddy turnstone
- Curlew sandpiper
- Semipalmated sandpiper
- Least sandpiper
- Short-billed dowitcher
- American woodcock
- Common snipe
- Wilson’s phalarope
- Franklin’s gull
- Laughing gull
- Ring-billed gull
- California gull
- Herring gull
- Iceland gull
- Western gull
- Lesser black-backed gull
- Great black-backed gull
- Heermann’s gull
- Caspian tern
- Royal tern
- Elegant tern
- Common tern
- Forster’s tern
- Least tern
- Gull-billed tern
- Black tern
- Black skimmer
- Mourning dove
- White-winged dove
- Eurasian collared-dove
- Ringed turtle-dove
- Inca dove
- Rock dove
- Black-hooded parakeet
- Burrowing owl
- Eastern screech-owl
- Common nighthawk
- Chimney swift
- White-throated swift
- Costa’s hummingbird
- Black-chinned hummingbird
- Ruby-throated hummingbird
- Allen’s hummingbird
- Belted kingfisher
- Acorn woodpecker
- Red-headed woodpecker
- Red-bellied woodpecker
- Red-naped sapsucker
- Downy woodpecker
- Hairy woodpecker
- Ladder-backed woodpecker
- White-headed woodpecker
- Northern flicker
- Pileated woodpecker
- Olive-sided flycatcher
- Western wood-peewee
- Eastern wood-peewee
- Pacific-slope flycatcher
- Acadian flycatcher
- Black phoebe
- Eastern phoebe
- Say’s phoebe
- Ash-throated flycatcher
- Great crested flycatcher
- Eastern kingbird
- Cassin’s kingbird
- Western kingbird
- Loggerhead shrike
- Red-eyed vireo
- Warbling vireo
- White-eyed vireo
- Steller’s jay
- Blue jay
- Western scrub-jay
- Gray jay
- Pinyon jay
- Clark’s nutcracker
- Black-billed magpie
- Common raven
- American crow
- Fish crow
- Horned lark
- Purple martin
- Northern rough-winged swallow
- Bank swallow
- Violet-green swallow
- Tree swallow
- Cliff swallow
- Barn swallow
- Oak titmouse
- Tufted titmouse
- Black-capped chickadee
- Red-breasted nuthatch
- White-breasted nuthatch
- Pygmy nuthatch
- Brown-headed nuthatch
- Carolina wren
- House wren
- Cactus wren
- Rock wren
- American dipper
- Ruby-crowned kinglet
- Black-tailed gnatcatcher
- Blue-gray gnatcatcher
- Townsend’s solitaire
- Mountain bluebird
- Western bluebird
- Eastern bluebird
- American robin
- Wood thrush
- Swainson’s thrush
- Gray-cheeked thrush
- Gray catbird
- Northern mockingbird
- Brown thrasher
- European starling
- Cedar waxwing
- Northern parula
- Tennessee warbler
- Blue-winged warbler
- Nashville warbler
- Yellow warbler
- Chestnut-sided warbler
- Magnolia warbler
- Cape May warbler
- Black-throated blue warbler
- Blackburnian warbler
- Yellow-rumped warbler
- Black-throated green warbler
- Pine warbler
- Bay-breasted warbler
- Blackpoll warbler
- Prothonotary warbler
- Black-and-white warbler
- American redstart
- Northern waterthrush
- Kentucky warbler
- Connecticut warbler
- Mourning warbler
- Common yellowthroat
- Wilson’s warbler
- Canada warbler
- Hooded warbler
- Hepatic tanager
- Western tanager
- Scarlet tanager
- Northern cardinal
- Black-headed grosbeak
- Rose-breasted grosbeak
- Blue grosbeak
- Lazuli bunting
- Indigo bunting
- Spotted towhee
- Eastern towhee
- California towhee
- Black-throated sparrow
- Chipping sparrow
- Grasshopper sparrow
- Savannah sparrow
- Lark bunting
- Lark sparrow
- White-throated sparrow
- White-crowned sparrow
- Fox sparrow
- Song sparrow
- Swamp sparrow
- Dark-eyed junco
- Western meadowlark
- Eastern meadowlark
- Brown-headed cowbird
- Yellow-headed blackbird
- Tricolored blackbird
- Red-winged blackbird
- Brewer’s blackbird
- Common grackle
- Boat-tailed grackle
- Great-tailed grackle
- Bullock’s oriole
- Baltimore oriole
- Hooded oriole
- Orchard oriole
- Scott’s oriole
- Black rosy-finch
- Purple finch
- Cassin’s finch
- House finch
- Pine siskin
- Lesser goldfinch
- American goldfinch
- House sparrow