USA road trip 2013

12 May

I set off for the USA on Thursday.

I will miss: bluebells, orchids, black hairstreaks, Duke of Burgundy butterflies (again), spotted flycatchers, May blossom, cricket, decent beer, the Today programme, Desert Island Discs, the NGO State of Nature launch and the Derby.

I will not miss: Defra, George Osborne, cutting the grass, rain stopping play or UKIP.

What else should I be sorry to be missing and glad to be missing?  And what do you think I should look forward to seeing in late june when I return?

Long day, 17 May – blog 1

I am writing this in Shreveport, Louisiana.  It’s been a long day so it will be a short blog.

The day started in the UK at 430 am and at 430 pm I set off in my hire car from George Bush (presumably Snr, but maybe both) International Airport, Houston, TX .  It’s now 930 pm so that’s 17 hours but you also have to add in the 6 hours time difference so it’s been a long day.  And I got 15 minutes sleep on the 10 hour flight.  But I’m not complaining as I have seen a new species of bird, a new species of mammal and two new US states.

The mammal wasn’t looking at its best as it was squashed on the road, but I’ve never seen an armadillo before – and this was presumably the 9-banded one that has, I seem to remember, identical quads.

The bird was a bit frustrating as it was a scissor-tailed flycatcher – a stunning looking bird (according to the books) with an unmistakeable tail (according to the look I had before the lights turned green in Lufkin (what a  lovely name!), TX.   Objects in the rear view mirror may appear closer than they are, but not if they are small birds with amazing tails.

New birds that you see on Day 1 of a trip are ones that you tend to think ‘Oh I expect I”ll see plenty of them’ but I am, even now, teetering on the edge of this species’s range and will only reenter it after three weeks, or depending on route taken, maybe closer to six weeks – so one can’t be too sure.

Just a short blog to tell the world, but more particularly the few people who will be looking out, that I arrived safely and that the trip is underway.

Please do leave comments on this blog – but note that they are likely only to be moderated at the beginning and end of my day (which is going to be between five and eight hours out of synch from the UK readership’s days.

Louisiana to Kentucky – blog 2

Jet lag is a funny thing.  Despite having a very long day yesterday, and feeling knackered as I crawled into bed, I woke after just over four hours and have been awake from 0230 local time until after  2200 local time (although, the six hours that someone gave me as extras yesterday have been reduced to five somewhere between  Shreveport, LA and Henderson, KY.  Still, never mind, I’ll get it back in a while!

I drove for most of the day and added two states to my life list: Arkansas and Missouri.  I had breakfast too – but I’ll keep that until the end.

Since arriving at Houston yesterday afternoon I have mostly been driving a car. You could say that I have spent two days undoing the progress of the last two hours of the flight – as we flew over here a while before landing.

Imagine yourself birding from the UK’s motorways and A-roads – you’d tend to see large, obvious birds and a lot of the small stuff would go down as unidentified.  That’s what it’s like for me here too.

The first three birds I saw on arrival were; common grackle, great-tailed grackle and starling.  I’ve seen lots of the common grackles and starlings but only a couple of great-tails. But I have now seen zillions of red-winged blackbirds which has reminded me of how red their wing patches are.

Here is a selection of other species: lesser snow goose (a flock in a field in Arkansas), turkey vulture, red-tailed hawk, American kestrel, killdeer, eastern meadowlark, white ibis, a few herons, American so-called robin, eastern phoebe, northern mockingbird, ‘our’ collared dove, mourning dove, distant unidentified terns, unidentified small woodpeckers flying across the road, barn swallow, cliff swallow, rough-winged swallow, chimney swift and the nighthawk outside my motel room.

The UK version of this would be similar – wouldn’t it? Some raptors, corvids, hirundines, swift and pigeons with a few other things thrown in (and some pheasants?).

This isn’t primarily a birding trip, but I will see some birds whilst here, and I might even see a passerine or two as time goes on.

As I stopped outside Red’s Restaurant on the 79 near Fordyce, AR, I heard a familiar song.  There are very few songs of US birds that I have committed to memory but this one has stuck, thanks to good teaching by Wallace Kornack in Rock Creek Park two years ago.

I remembered the song as being like a very loud marsh tit call – I just couldn’t immediately remember which American species made this noise. Having thought about it over several hundred miles I now remember it was the ovenbird.

Red’s Restaurant had eight customers as I entered to be the ninth.  Our waitress, Karen (and I have been challenged to tell you the names of all waitresses involved in this journey and I intend to meet the challenge), gave me a smile and the menu and went off to get a coffee mug for me.

The other customers had all given me the once-over as I entered, but they had also all nodded or even muttered a ‘good morning’.

I opted for cheese omelette  and hash browns, with toast and orange juice as my start to the day – although to be fair, I had been awake for six hours already and this meal was the only one of the day.

The omelette (or in American, omelet) was fine (although no better than I could have cooked myself) but the hash browns were perfect – browned and tasty slivers of potato.

Altogether this was a very good breakfast experience.  I was struck, as I have been before, that everyone else in Red’s knew each other, greeted each other by their names as they arrived and said goodbye when they left.  Red’s seemed part of the community – and maybe an important part too.

Karen buzzed about, fuelling the atmosphere with both food and remarks to individuals and the room.

It was a rest from driving, a refuelling stop for the body but also a refreshing reminder of the atmosphere of rural America.

I paid, tipped, asked Karen her name (!), nodded to the room and stepped outside to be regaled by the sound of what seemed to be a giant marsh tit – for it was very loud.

Hash browns, ovenbirds and waitresses – I was back in the USA.

History – blog 3

American history must be quite easy – they don’t have as much of it as we do.  But then maybe they have more future than us? Who knows?

Actually (oh!, and by the way, today’s waitress is Susan), the USA seems to have fitted in a revolution, a civil war, a couple of World Wars (although arriving a bit late for both) and lots of other wars in a very short space of time.

I had a refresher on American history on the flight over – I watched Django Unchained and Lincoln so I’ve got the Civil War period more or less taped.  If you have a 10-hour flight then the more 2.5 hour films you watch, the better.

I am in historic Henderson, KY. It’s historic because John James Audubon lived here while producing his great work on American birds.  I’ve had a quick look at the Audubon State Park and hope to be there at dawn tomorrow listening for warblers and vireos and then looking at the exhibits.

Audubon saw a flock of about one billion passenger pigeons just east of here.  Here is a cheap motel on strip of cheap hotels, and cheap eating places just south of the mighty Ohio River.

Audubon’s sighting was about 200 years ago near a place called Hardinsburgh.  Hardinsburgh is still there even though there aren’t a billion pigeons there.

It must have been a small place, only about 30 years old, when Audubon stayed there.  Today it is clearly a farming town as John Deere and New Holland compete across the road to sell you a tractor on one road into town.  There is also a US Department of Agriculture Service Center (!), a Farm Bureau, Farm Credit Services (with an American so-called robin in their parking lot) and Southern States have a 15% off offer on chicken wire.

I was up early and looking for breakfast at Hardinsburgh – where it was drizzling.   There was nowhere obvious, but with all those farmers nearby I thought there must be somewhere.  So I got some gas from the Marathon station at the crossroads and asked Trish where I should look.  After trying to sell me a microwaved sausage bap (fair enough for trying – but no thanks) she told me where to find Jake’s Place.  Trish, with her striking dark eye-liner underneath her eyes, had heard of Audubon (and there are quite a lot of businesses, roads and parks named after him here) but not of passenger pigeons.  She was very helpful but not a waitress.

Susan is a waitress. She is (not that looks are everything) short, thin, limps in her right leg, is a bundle of energy and quite mouthy!  I ordered the special (since this was the first food since breakfast yesterday) of two eggs easy-over, hash browns, ham, toast and coffee.  Susan persuaded me to have gravy with it – white gravy.

The food was good but I’m not sure I’ll have white gravy again

I got chatting to two guys from Pennsylvania about passenger pigeons.  Susan told us that she had had one in her garden.  She’s also, apparently, had ‘that extinct woodpecker’ in her garden too.  I wish I’d had an invite!

I liked Susan.  She was full of energy and did a huge amount of work while I was there and yet still had conversations with lots of people including me. My suspicion is that Susan is a bit interested in birds but wouldn’t admit it.

Hardinsburgh was a nice stop.  It was a good breakfast.

During the day I didn’t track down a passenger pigeon but I visited some places and saw some things that will find their way into my book eventually.

It was a history day and I visited both the Kentucky Historical Society’s museum and the Thomas D. Clark Center (!) for Kentucky History too.  I did know, even before watching those two educational films that Abe Lincoln came from Kentucky but I hadn’t realised that Jefferson Davis, his opponent on the Confederate side, was also from Kentucky.

You see, Kentucky’s past was rooted in the South but its future was looking to the abolitionist west and north – it was conflicted.  Not so conflicted were the KKK who were (are?) quite strongly represented in Kentucky.  Did you know that in the 1890s there were 92 lynchings in Kentucky – 66 of blacks and 26 of whites? Neither did I until today – you see how educational this blog is?

You can’t understand the present without understanding the past (generally speaking). That’s true of race relations, voting in politics and the status of the passenger pigeon.

Today is tomorrow’s past.

And birds? Wild turkey (like on the bourbon bottle), gray (!) catbird and blue-gray (I can’t keep !-ing American spelling mistakes) gnatcatcher were old friends with whom I have become reacquainted.  Hoping for at least a couple of hours of proper early morning birding tomorrow.

Day 3 – blog 4

I was writing that last blog just before going out for a quick bite to eat and something to drink.

I sat in Henderson’s On Deck Riverside Bar overlooking the Ohio River.  I watched the sun set behind the trees on the other side of the river while sitting outside eating tacos and drinking coke. Well, actually it wasn’t Coca Cola, but nor was it Pepsi; it was RC (Royal Crown cola).

My waitress, Kaitlin wants to be a world history teacher and will be in London fairly soon – but don’t worry (anyone), we did not exchange cell-phone numbers and nor did we talk about passenger pigeons.

Sitting outside, drinking a cool drink and watching the sunset was good.  I was planning tomorrow’s travelling and flicking through Sibley to check bird id.

I find it difficult to get American bird songs into my head.  Maybe I should stick to evening birding as sitting there I was listening to the characteristic noises of chimney swifts and I picked out the cries of nighthawks too.  There were house sparrows chirrupping as well. And the other night-time songster that I associate with jet-lag, because that’s why I’ve heard it at night, is the mockingbird.    These four species can be heard in the middle of Washington DC as well as on the banks of the Ohio and many, many points in between, north, south, east and west.

The other thing I could hear was music of my vintage coming from the bar – The Eagles and Bob Seger (I have cds of both with me).  I’ll have to tell you about music playing in the car, upgrades, sat navs, fuel consumption etc etc as time goes on. Don’t get too excited!

Sunday – blog 5

One of the noticeable things about America is the number and variety of churches.  I don’t go to church but I am quite proud of my local church at home.  It has an impressive spire, medieval wall paintings and has dominated the landscape for hundreds of years.  If I come home after dark I can look along my street and see the lit spire of St Peter’s, erect as it has been for centuries, and that makes me feel content.

But America hasn’t been around for building churches for centuries and so many churches are very modern, rather small, and instead of being at the geographic centre of the community they are on the edge and surrounded by a parking lot.

I didn’t go to church but I paid my respects to nature (and Man, a bit) in four different ways.

I started with some early morning birding in the John James Audubon State Park – no breakfast today!  This was the first birding (rather than looking out of the car window and wondering what most things flying past were) I’ve done.  It was good to have a few hours to stroll around the Park and add some species to my list.

Here are some of the highlights; hooded merganser, American redstart, chipping sparrow, Carolina wren, cedar waxwing, parula warbler, tufted titmouse, Carolina chickadee, American goldfinch, eastern wood pewee…

And there were lots of eastern bluebirds, and I was in Kentucky, so it seems appropriate to remind you of the words of the song:

Kentucky bluebird, fly away
And take a message to Martha, message to Martha

When it looked like it might rain I nipped out to fill up with gas and buy a coffee.  At the gas station I was told ‘I love your accent’ to which I replied that I loved her’s too.  By the way, I should have said, Kaitlin ‘sweet-hearted’ me yesterday but I got no ‘honey’ from Karen the day before.

Back to the John James Audubon State Park for a spot more birding and a wait for the Museum to open.  I watched, and listened to, Carolina wrens at close quarters and I think I have their song fixed now. Although, to be fair, I had thought it was one that I knew.  ‘tea kettle, tea kettle, tea kettle’ describes it quite well but the first I heard today made me think ‘thrush’ not ‘wren’.  I wonder how many extra species I would have recorded if I had ‘American ears’?

Birding was my first way to pay my respects.  Visiting the Museum was my second.  It’s an unprepossessing building from the outside – a bit Victorian gaunt I thought it looked, but it opened in 1938.

The centre has a shop (I bought postcards), a discovery room (where a father and elder brother were encouraging the younger brother’s interest in nature (nice to see)), a gallery downstairs which had an exhibition of local artists (I skipped that) and a viewing gallery over some bird feeders (stunning American goldfinch) as well as the Museum.

The Museum is superb, at least it is if you are a fan of JJA (and I am).  You get his life history, an account of his meeting with Alexander Wilson (it was a bit cool -and you would have thought that a Frenchman and a Scot could at least have found common ground moaning about the English!) and a look at his art.

On December 6, 2010, a copy of Birds of America was sold at a Sotheby’s auction for $11.5 million, a record price for a single printed book.  The Museum has four original double elephant folio copies – and I saw them this morning.

Audubon drew from skins but also from knowledge.  But his paintings aren’t very accurate in many respects.  The passerines, in particular, often look rather dead!  But many of the paintings are incredibly beautiful: for example, the turkey, bald eagle, great blue heron and, yes, the passenger pigeon.

And the work that went into producing the set covering all of America’s known species was phenomenal for that time, 1820s-30s (or any other time, come to that).  This was artwork celebrating nature, and I was pleased to go and celebrate JJA in my own little way.

I had a very nice chat to the lady on the desk who seemed knowledgeable about JJA. We agreed he looked rather handsome, and I said he reminded me of the French footballer David Ginola (in the days when he was endorsing L’Oreal hair products) which got us onto Beckham, so it was time to leave.

Next stop, was Cincinnati Zoo where Martha, the last passenger pigeon of her species, died on 1 September 1914. I made the same visit to pay my respects two years ago and nothing much has changed since then – although it is now $15 to get in instead of $10, but still $8 to get out of the car park.  I was able to check a few things for my book, but really I couldn’t pass through Ohio without checking in at Cincinnati Zoo, could I?

Just briefly, so far the last few miles of Kentucky approaching Cincinnati have been the only cross-overs with my previous trip. I was interested to see whether the view of Cincinnati that you suddenly get as you sweep down a hill on the I71 and turn to the left, and there it is in all its glory, would impress as much as it did last time – and it did.  It’s an impressive, suddenly-revealed view of tall skyscrapers.

Finding the Zoo last time was a nightmare – with satnav this time it was a doddle.  I definitely went the quick way and it definitely wasn’t the same way as last time!  I was taken, by the female instructing voice of my satnav, past the most priapic of the tall buildings and down Martin Luther King Avenue to the Zoo.

So that was my third homage to nature.

Now I am in Piketon, Ohio.  It’s 2230 and I’ve filed my July column to Birdwatch – written in May, out in June, called July.

Piketon is not big but this motel room is clean and cheap.  It is, I have noticed while working at this keyboard, close to the railway line – sleep is for wimps!

The nice Indian woman who checked me in told me that Ritchies did a good steak (although she is veggie herself) and as I had only had a couple of doughnuts all day (and lots to drink – it’s been hot) I looked it up.  Ritchies was shut so it was take-away pizza from Gio’s.

Just down the road from here, as I have had a look, is the location where the last wild passenger pigeon was shot – in 1900.  I’ll have another look tomorrow, and I might tell you about it, or, it might all go in the book!

So, a funny day in a way.  Paying homage to live birds early in the day and then a dead Frenchman, a dead caged pigeon and a dead shot pigeon as the day wore on.  But it’s been good.  It’s been a long day though – how was yours? I’ve been working!

Oh Ohio! – blog 6

Today I had the worst breakfast I’ve ever had in the USA so the names and locations in this tale have been changed to protect the guilty.  But the food was not the worst part (there are happier bits later in the blog).

The coffee wasn’t good, the eggs were only OK, the toast wasn’t good and the home fries were poor.  But the place had a sort of lack-lustre character about it. There was no waitress, only, shall we call him Gerald (not, definitely not, his real name)?

Gerald’s regulars were all men above the age of, I guess, 60.  Some came and some went but at any one time 80% of them had baseball caps on, and at any one time about a third of the baseball caps were John Deere.  We are talking rural Ohio here.

And that’s important because rural Ohio is different from urban Ohio. Ohio is a bit like, in political terms, my home constituency of  Corby.  How – you might ask? Answer – it’s a swing state, like Corby is a swing constituency.  The voters of both change their minds when the country changes its mind.

Ohio is very good at it too.

Most of Ohio, geographically, voted Red in the last Presidential, which confusingly for we Brits means it voted for the Right not the Left.  Only the cities were Blue, and the three main cities are the three Cs; Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati.  But lots of people live in cities and so the overall vote was Blue (for Obama the man of the ‘Left’).

It’s rather like that in Corby too – Corby votes Labour, the small towns vote one way or the other and the countryside votes Tory.

Where I had breakfast, quite a poor breakfast, was rural and probably Right-leaning.

When I arrived and sat down there was talk of potatoes and racoons as garden pests – they could have been Countryside Alliance members for all I know.  Then one guy pipes up, let’s call him Clarence, and asks:

‘That Obama done good. Done reduced tax on us. What do you think of him now? He done good.’

This remark may have been uttered to get the torrent of disagreement that it evoked – Clarence struck me as that type.  One of Clarence’s friends said:

‘Don’t trust him. Good at playing dumb.’ which I have been thinking about all day.  Very profound.

The conversation then turned to agricultural matters for a while before Clarence said he had bought some metal monkeys and they were rare (Can’t get ’em on the internet’) but he was prepared to sell, at  profit, which he suggested was over $25.  He talked about these two monkeys for a while, and the crowd got interested (and so was I but trying not to show it) so Clarence got a monkey from the car.

It was an ugly little thing, hollow cast, and certainly a monkey.  Clarence said it was made of ‘that yellow metal’ – someone said ‘gold?’, and Clarence smiled.  I don’t think Clarence was anyone’s fool.

There were offers of $2 on the table already but Clarence was holding out for more to recoup what he said he had paid for them – I don’t think Clarence was any sort of fool.

There was apparently a little bit of yellow showing and the conversation centred on them being brass monkeys.

One man said ‘It’s dark’

Clarence ‘Scratch and you’ll see it’s yellow’.

Other man ‘Scratch Obama – what colour’ll he be?’.

Clarence and others ‘Still black’.

Someone ‘Monkey here looks like Obama – might be his ancestor’.

General laughter, then someone asked for wheat toast and gravy.

I don’t think you’d hear that sort of talk in Beans in Oundle!

I am quite shocked at the hatred for Obama in some parts of the USA.  I have seen roadside signs saying ‘US threatened by foreign leader – Obama!’ and ‘Obama bringing down US economy with spending policy’.

Now the latter is a fair economic debating point but even I, as an ordinary citizen, haven’t bothered to make a sign criticising the boy-Osborne’s duff economic policy and put it in the garden.

Is it just a political difference? Is it fuelled by the fact that Obama is young? or good looking? Maybe the fact that he is clever is the problem. Maybe it’s all of these and more. Maybe, dare we say it, it is at least partly because he is black?

It was just an overheard conversation over a bad breakfast – but it left a worse taste in my mouth than did the breakfast.

But happily I met some really nice people, who were really helpful, and put me in the direction of Dysart Woods where there is a chunk of old growth forest.  I stood by oaks and beech that were around 400 years old. When the passenger pigeon was still at its most abundant these trees were alive.

Some trees there have been dated to 600 years old – before Columbus arrived.  This forest may resemble the forests before Europeans invaded America.  Certainly some of the trees probably had passenger pigeons perching in them over the years.  If they could talk they would talk of the rivers of pigeons passing by unpredictably and in search of acorns and beech mast.

There is more to tell of these woods and the impact of our management of them on passenger pigeons – but that’s for another time and place.  But it’s late, and I need to sleep and dream of ancient forests and rivers of pigeons flooding the skies.

More old trees – blog 7

The highpoint today was success in a cemetery – but that’ll be going into the book so it’s a secret.

Much of today was doing domestic stuff.  I bought some water to keep hydrated as I drive, and filled up with gas at the same time. A nice lady at the gas station and I talked about the oil boom in this part of Ohio – everywhere has oilmen, which means that fuel prices are low (lots of competition) but room prices are high (lots of competition for a limited resource). She thought I was Australian and had a nice accent.

I’ve spent quite a lot of time in Coshocton today. It’s a convenient centre for things I want to do – visit cemeteries, see old trees and see a stuffed bird (tomorrow).

But Coshocton is full of nice people – they may all hate Obama, for all I know, but they seemed very nice to me.

The lady in Walgreens, where I bought toothpaste and a new pair of cheap specs (having sat on one of my two pairs – silly me, but that’s why I buy cheap ones (so that I can enjoy sitting on them!)) pointed me in the direction of Bob Evans for breakfast but nearby was a place much more my scene – Jerry’s family restaurant – where I had two eggs easy over and hash browns (very nice too).  Next door is the Motel where I am staying.

A very nice lady (a lot of ladies aren’t there?) in the optometrists on Main Street replaced a screw (no I didn’t have one loose) in my RayBans and wouldn’t take any money for it – even a couple of dollars for charity. She hadn’t heard of passenger pigeons but she might buy my book when I’ve written it.  She also pointed me to Radio Shack where I looked for a battery for my camera.

My plan was to take photos every day but on my last day in the UK I realised the rechargeable battery was flat and wouldn’t charge.  I have been searching for a battery, not very hard so far, ever since.  Radio Shack seemed a possibility.

Radio Shack didn’t have the battery I wanted but they gave me some help. There was a man (see  – I do talk to men, when I must) and also a young lady. I asked about good places to eat and was pointed to The Warehouse which is near the motel and where I have just had a very fine burger, salad and sweet potato fries, with Pepsi, for $8 – good food and excellent value. I also bought a charger for my phone – see, very domestic.  The young lady was very quiet and I said to her ‘You think I’m mad don’t you?’ and she said ”No, I wish you’d stay and talk to us all day’.  I probably blushed but since none of us had a camera we’ll never know.

Neither of them knew of the passenger pigeon but the guy confused it with the carrier pigeon – quite a few people do.

I checked into the Motel and the lady there knew nothing about the passenger pigeon. And then I did some washing – there are shirts and socks dripping dry in the shower right now.

But then I went to see some old trees!! Twice in two days!

The Johnson Memorial State Preserve is about 200acres of old growth deciduous woodland an hour and a bit north of here.  It is a really lovely spot.

It has red oak, white oak, pin oak, beech, shagbark hickory, black cherry, white ash, sugar maple and white ash (because the interpretation boards say so).  It also has a pair of red-eyed vireos feeding their young  – ‘cos I say so.

Many of the trees are over 400 years old.  There is lots of dead wood and, really, I thought there was a lot of birdsong.  Some of the trees are enormous.  It was another glimpse into what the woodland would have looked like when the passenger pigeon was the commonest bird on Earth.

And this wood, this small remnant, was in an area where there are good records for tree cover through the 19th century.  Even in 1800 practically the whole township was woodland like this with the main gaps being in the boggy areas.  And this area, Wayne County, was an area much used by passenger pigeons for winter roosts too.

Tomorrow I am off to Columbus to see Buttons – I hope.

PS Yesterday I checked the BBC news to see what had happened in the Test Match and got the news about tornadoes in Oklahoma – and it’s on the TV all the time here of course.  It’s a long way from here – but Shreveport (night 1) had a tornado warning for today.  And in a couple of weeks I’ll be quite close to Oklahoma.  The destructive power of nature, eh?

Buttons and the road – blog 8

I liked Coshocton very much, and if I find other places as nice, that would be good.  I am, now, in Wisconsin, which means I have done a lot of driving today.

I drove through Chicago with Ol’ Blue Eyes on full volume, and on ‘repeat’, singing ‘My kind of town, Chicago is…’ over and over again.

But after an early breakfast in Jerry’s (same meal as yesterday except with wheat toast instead of rye toast) I did some writing (this isn’t a holiday you know) and then headed to the Ohio Historical Society Museum in Columbus.  I’d have gone sooner but it it doesn’t open until 10 and it isn’t open on Monday or Tuesday so Wednesday at 10:15 I arrived.

There were lots of those lovely evocative yellow school buses arriving too. And they were full of excited kids – so I fitted in well.  I paid my $10 entrance and asked the nice man whether he knew where I could find a passenger pigeon to look at.  He thought it might be just down the aisle, but if not it would be in the natural history section.

It was in the natural history section in a case with other extinct species – Carolina parakeet, ivory-billed woodpecker and blue pike.  There she was – ‘Buttons’ – the last wild passenger pigeon that was shot by a lad in Pike County (in March 1900).

Given her age and her manner of death I thought Buttons looked pretty perky really.  Although the unbiased might have said slightly dull and tatty.  But this was the last wild specimen of the most abundant bird on Earth.  Hardly anybody else gave her a glance.  She suffered from there being a stuffed bison just down the way and that got a lot of attention.

But I stood for a while and looked at her while young excited Ohioans rushed past.

I thought this was an excellent museum.  Not stuffy at all.  Light and airy in decor and design and light and friendly in interpretation.  Here are some things I learned about Ohio relevant to the passenger pigeon story.

In 1800 9.5% of Ohio was forest but in 1900 that figure was less than 0.5% (a 90% reduction) and has now bounced back to around 3%.

In 1860, 1880, 1900 and 1920 the rural human population of Ohio remained fairly constant at 1.9, 2.2, 2.2 and 2.1 million whereas the urban population went from 0.4 to 1 to 2 to 3.7 million in the same periods.

Given that the passenger pigeon went extinct in the wild in Ohio, and on this planet, in 1900 it was interesting to see that other species went extinct in Ohio in the following years; bison (1803), red deer (or elk, 1838), wolf (1848), mountain lion, lynx, fisher, marten ( all 1850), trumpeter swan (1860 – being reintroduced), black bear (1881 – coming back from W Virginia on its own), snowshoe hare (1900), raven (1900), porcupine (1906) and prairie chicken (1934).

A very interesting museum indeed.

I was still thinking about all that when I listened to Frank Sinatra in traffic going through Chicago.  The Wrigley Building is still the most beautiful part of the skyline but not by any means the tallest these days.  Things change.

And now I am just in Wisconsin –  ‘home’ of cheese (there are cheese factories, cheese adverts and restaurants offering cheese curds everywhere).

Bev, 2 lifers , a monument and more – blog 9

Today is Bob Dylan’s birthday (although for British readers – that was yesterday) so I started the day with Blood on the Tracks, whose first track (Tangled up in Blue) starts ‘Early one morning the sun was shinin”.  But it wasn’t first thing today, although it did for a lot of the day.

I drove to Wyalusing State Park, which I thought would be a quick visit but it turned out to be a bit longer.  Wyalusing has a monument to the passenger pigeon – they say the first monument to an extinct bird in the world – and I wanted to see it.

When I arrived, Bev,  the ranger at the entrance, was talking to two other couples. She was telling them where they might find cerulean warbler, yellow-throated warbler and Henslow’s sparrow.  But she was also plugging the passenger pigeon memorial hard.  And in the reception area there was a stuffed male passenger pigeon and three different paintings/prints of the bird too.

I waited patiently for my turn, which wasn’t difficult as I looked at the pigeon stuff and the ruby-throated hummingbirds on the feeder, and then said ‘I’ve come to see the passenger pigeon memorial, but I’d like to see some birds too, so can you go over all that again, please?”.  A big, really big, smile spread over Bev’s face, and we started talking passenger pigeons. A kindred spirit at last. Bev – where have you been all my life?

Should I stop and look and listen for Henslow’s sparrow before visiting the memorial? No, I don’t think so. Life’s sometimes too short to bother with sparrows.

Should I stop and lokk/listen for yellow-throated warblers as their spot was right by my route to the memorial – no, they’ll probably be there when I come back.

So, straight to the memorial – a simple metal plate in a stone cairn in a wonderfully beautiful setting.  It’s high on a wooded ridge overlooking the confluence of the Mississippi and Wisconsin rivers.  This morning, having it to myself, it was an idyllic spot.  The sun came out, an immature bald eagle circled below me and then gaining height, above me, and a song sparrow was building a nest.

The words on the plaque are very simple:

Dedicated to the last Wisconsin passenger pigeon shot at Babcock, Sept 1899.

This species became extinct through the avarice and thoughtlesness of Man.

Erected by the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology

It’s a beautiful setting, and an appropriate tribute (and admonition).  I was quite moved and I was glad I had come, and glad that I had the place to myself for the time I was there.   Looking down on the Mississippi River one could imagine a river of passenger pigeons in the sky above.

The yellow-throated warbler was singing from the top of the pine trees and in the same tree I saw a yellow-billed cuckoo – two lifers together.

I went to the spot where a couple of days earlier 30 cerulean warblers had been seen with little hope.  That many meant they were on migration, and in spring birds don’t stop long.  There had been no sightings yesterday so I guessed they had gone.

I had a chat with an elderly couple from Utah who were also looking for ceruleans.  It’s OK, I think, for me to call them elderly as they had been married almost 50 years and were treating themselves with a year of travelling to bird festivals all over the USA – way to go!  I said I hoped to revisit Mom’s Cafe in Salina in a couple of weeks time – and I do.

I checked in with Bev as I left and told her to read this blog and that I had really enjoyed the passenger pigeon monument.  It’s just a plaque in some stone on a hill – but it meant a lot to me.

One of the people who attended the original ‘opening’ of the memorial was the famous American ecologist and writer Aldo Leopold.  I’ve only recently discovered his writing although I’ve known the name for ages.  His most famous work is the Sand County Almanac set on his farm in Wisconsin.  It’s a lovely read – I don’t have it with me but his account of upland sandpipers is wonderful as are his musings on conservation ethics.  He wrote about the passenger pigeon memorial too, in a very moving way.

Sand County was really Sauk County and it wasn’t that far so I headed off to have a look, and visit the Leopold Center.

I like Wisconsin.  It’s very rural. My drive, of 90 minutes or so, was through wooded hills and open cultivated valleys with some fields of grass.  I followed the Wisconsin River and saw more bald eagles, great egret and Sandhill cranes.

There wasn’t much traffic and it was all very pretty – the sun was now shining and Bob was singing away for me.

As the scenery passed it reminded me of Scotland – somewhere a bit like the Grampian farmland with the Dee or Don passing through it.  There was little traffic, few people and it was a lovely drive.

As I approached the Aldo Leopold Center I had to slow down and go slightly off the road to avoid squashing a really big terrapin.  I’ve seen quite a few on the roads, mostly tiny ones, and some squashed ones, and I didn’t want to arrive at the Leopold Center with squashed terrapin on my tyres.

I had a quick look at the exhibition and interpretation, chatted to the young lady on reception, bought some postcards and chose not to spend $7 looking at the cabin Leopold built.  It was enough to look around the very well-designed exhibition and be reminded of some of the lines he wrote.  Again, it was a kind of homage.

But the day had yet more to offer. Only 15 minutes drive away from the Leopold Center, through the quiet Wisconsin countryside is Wisconsin Dells – the tourist trap to end all tourist traps!

Water parks, theme parks, casinos and everything kitsch under the sun is here.  A mixture of Blackpool and Alton Towers with America thrown in!  It didn’t appeal to me, but I don’t want to be snooty about it. After all, I had spent the day so far visiting a monument to a dead  bird and, really, another to a dead man – I’m the weird one.

I wanted to see Wisconsin Dells though. Partly, just to see, but also because it has a part in the passenger pigeon story too.

Wisconsin Dells was once called Kilbourn, and in 1871 there was an enormous nesting of passenger pigeons here.  Kilbourn, now Wisconsin Dells the water park capital of the world, was the southernmost point for two enormous pigeon nestings which merged there.  One arm headed off, northwest,  to Black River Falls, the other headed northeast almost to Wisconsin Falls.

For those not familiar with the geography of Wisconsin, Black River Falls is 80 miles away and Wisconsin Falls 50 miles away.  These two arms were six and eight miles wide respectively so the total area covered was in the order of 880 square miles.  880 square miles of a bird colony – with some trees holding up to 100 nests.  Imagine it!

One reason I was here was that I couldn’t imagine it – I wanted to see the ground. Of course there would have been gaps in the colony and there may have been some exaggeration (but there may have been some shyness at seemingly telling a tall story too).  But the mind can’t really take in the number of birds that might have been involved.  Perhaps close to the whole American population of the already much-reduced passenger pigeon nested here in this year.

There were certainly tens or hundreds of millions of birds – perhaps billions.  Lots anyway!  Even though 28 years later the last Wisconsin bird was killed and 29 years later the last one on Earth was shot (remember Buttons from yesterday?).

The juxtaposition of the modern Wisconsin Dells and what was probably the largest described passenger pigeon nesting – overlapping in space but separated by 140 years – sums up rather a lot about ‘progress’, to my mind.

I wanted to head northeast so I drove up the length of the shorter arm of the colony – just 50 miles.  After passing Wisconsin Dolls gentlemen’s club (which I noticed had some handy motel rooms round the back, I tried to imagine what the landscape would have been like and I tried to imagine it full of nesting pigeons. I looked across to a range of hills running parallel to the river and tried to imagine those woods full of nesting pigeons.  I looked at a wooded hill in Friendship (25 miles out of WisDells) and tried to picture it covered with passenger pigeons.  It’s very difficult, even for me, and I’m hooked, to keep thinking passenger pigeon for a 50 mile drive through the countryside but 140 years ago this site was covered with pigeons.

People flock to the modern-day Wisconsin Dells but would they flock to see one of the wonders of the natural world if the pigeons were still around? I wonder.  I would – but then I’m a bit odd – but I bet Bev would come too.

Petoskey – blog 10

Driving around, and I’ve already done a fair bit of it, you need things to keep you entertained. Music is one thing, listening to US radio is another, reciting all 50 states of the USA is another.

My car has Texas license plates so I’ve already had a few ‘You’re a long way from home’ remarks which lead into conversations about quite how far away from home I actually am.

I’m quite surprised how faithful the car license plates are to their states. Here in Michigan, almost every car I see has Michigan plates, and in Wisconsin they were almost all Wisconsin plates. It’s as though nobody leaves their state, except a few do and that means one can play ‘spot the license plate’ as one travels around. And try to get the set!

So far I have been in 11 states so their license plates were easy but I have added another 18: California, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, N Carolina, Minnesota, Mississippi, Maryland, Nebraska, New York, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Pennsylvnia, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia and Wyoming. I was pleased to ‘get’ Wyo today!

I’ll be in another four states, I think, where their plates will be easy but (even assuming Alaska and Hawaii might be very difficult) that leaves 15 that may be tricky. Even though you may not be the least bit interested – I’ll keep you posted on progress.

Today I drove along with Lake Michigan on my right for most of the way.  It’s like being by the seaside – they’re not called the Great Lakes for nothing.  It was a nice sunny day.

I almost gave up glancing at the lake to see if there were any birds because there didn’t seem to be any, and then I saw two great northern divers (common loons, if you will).  At a brief stop I confirmed that the gulls were ring-billed and saw a blackpoll warbler. A raven or two passed overhead.

I got to Petoskey around noon and, by chance, by happy happenchance, I spotted a museum.  The museums I’ve visited so far have been good – and so was this one.

The Little Traverse Historical Society Museum  had information about passenger pigeons and a very attractive large painting, at the end of the room, of folk collecting pigeon squabs in the woods as they did in prodigious numbers here in 1878.

Being on the lakeside, and the railway having arrived in 1874, this area could send out passenger pigeons to the hungry mouths of Chicago and points east.

In 1878, a minimum of 1.1 million passenger pigeons were despatched from Petoskey and nearby Boyne Falls and Cheboygan by rail and boat.  The local paper described the 7-week period of the ‘big slaughter’ as having put into circulation locally between $30,000 and $40,000.

The number of birds killed in this colony must have been higher than those sent off for food.  There will have been young that died because their parents were killed, birds killed but not recovered, birds scared away by the proceedings whose squabs starved, birds eaten or preserved locally and any manner of other losses along the way.  Some say that as many as 5 million passenger pigeons lost their lives in this nesting.

But it was a huge colony – 40 miles long and a few miles wide.  Who knows how many pigeons were there to start with.

Pigeon catchers, pigeon pluckers, barrel makers, ice-suppliers all had a bonanza.  All looked forward to the pigeons coming back nest year or soon after but they never came back in remotely similar numbers to Petoskey. And they were soon gone completely.  To what extent was the slaughter at Petoskey an important event in hastening their demise?

The telegraph and the railroad made it all possible, and the fact that Petoskey has and had boat links was important too.  Other places, and this place at earlier times, could not have turned pigeon-killing into such a protitable industry for thousands of people – many of them arriving at the news of a pigeon nesting here rather than being locals.

I had a long chat with Michael Federspiel at the Museum and I am grateful to him for his kindness and his help (Michael – thank you!).  He pointed me in the direction of another passenger pigeon memorial back up the road I had travelled a few miles.

The historical marker is at Oden (by the fish hatchery but the railway carriages by the side of the road are the best landmark).  The front of the memorial has an image of a passenger pigeon and some general information.  The back has:

At one time Michigan was a favorite nesting ground for the passenger pigeons. Vast quantities of beechnuts and other food attracted them. each spring immense flocks arrived, literally darkening the skies hours at a time as they flew over. Here at Crooked Lake a nesting in 1878 covered 90 square miles. Millions of birds were killed, packed in barrels and shipped from Petoskey.  Such wanton slaughter helped to make the passenger pigeon extinct by 1914.  The conservationist’s voice was heard too late.

I’m tempted to say, in that gloomy way that conservationists do, ‘ ’twas ever thus’ but tomorrow I hope to see a conservation success story.

KW – blog 11

The Mio Motel, in Mio Michigan, hasn’t got uniformly great write-ups on TripAdvisor but I liked it.  The guy in charge is a bit brusque I agree – but by the standards of British customer care he is in the ‘eccentric and a bit curt’ category – no worse.

And my room had photos of birds in it too. But the big advantage of the Mio Motel is  that it is only c400m from the Forest Service office where, if you are there at 0645 at the right time of year (and pay $10) they will introduce you to one of the biggest conservation successes on Earth and show you what is still one of the  world’s rarest birds.  I write of the Kirtland’s warbler.

Seven of us were there today and we heard, from Tim, about this species’s need for young jack pines – 5-20 years old.  It’s a fussy bird rather like woodlark and nightjar back home.

A difference is that the KW only lives in this part of Michigan, a small part of Canada and fewer than five pairs in Wisconsin.

In 1951 there were 500 pairs, and a similar number were counted in 1961. But in 1971 there were just a few over 200 pairs – in the world.  Conservationists, foresters and birders leapt into action and now there are over 2000 pairs – still not a huge number is it?

The successful recipe was to create large areas of the right aged trees (by clear-felling) and to bump off 3-4000 brown-headed cowbirds a year.

Clearfelling replaced the role of wildfires in maintaining enough large chunks of the right sort of habitat for this picky bird (which winters in the Bahamas – lucky thing!).  The cow birds are nest parasites (like cuckoos) and were plains birds until we cut down forests and had farmland and then they moved in.  KWs seem pretty susceptible – 70% of nests were affected by cowbird eggs and nestlings before control and only 6% after.

After the excellent briefing we followed Tim’s car in our own to a KW patch. As soon as we parked in a place which could easily be in the Brecks (sandy soil, pine trees of different ages in blocks) we heard a distant KW.

It was now about 0745 and the morning was sunny.  I was wearing my jumper for the first time on this journey and when I left the Mio Motel I had had to wait for the windscreen to defrost.

During a short walk we heard lots more KWs and saw several too – males sitting at or near the tops of trees and singing away.  They are proper American warblers – yellow and black and well-marked.

We were even shown a cowbird-trapping site (there are 54 scattered through the range of the KW) – no hiding anything here.

By 9am I was heading south after a very enjoyable and successful visit.  There’s quite a contrast between the fate of the once superabundant passenger pigeon and the always quite rare Kirtland’s warbler.

The KW should come off the Endangered Species Act some time but I hope that doesn’t mean that the money disappears – otherwise its numbers will plummet again.

Penn sylvania – blog 12

Pennsylvania isn’t named after the Penns for nothing – and nor is it called sylvania for nothing.  It’s full of trees.  It’s the most tree-rich state I have seen so far.

As I drove up the Allegheny river’s course there were trees everywhere.  Trees and rivers.

It’s May and so the mayflies are flying.  Here in the USA the mayflies are bigger than ours – as you might expect.  The Pennsylvania rivers had their fishermen, and the occasional fisherwoman, trying to fool the fish into taking their flies rather than the juicy large mayflies on offer.  I have no idea if the fish were fooled or not.

I spent the day in a leisurely way driving through wooded valleys and over wooded hills to Ithaca, NY where I am staying with friends and visiting the world-famous ornithology lab too.  It was a leisurely day because I had driven further than planned last night – I couldn’t find a motel, and so today’s travel was a short one.

My friends’ house, in the woods, provided yellowthroat, cardinal, hairy and red-bellied woodpecker, rose-breasted grosbeak, scarlet tanager, gray catbird, ruby-throated hummingbird and more over dinner.  And a short walk before dinner added swamp sparrow, house wren, pine warbler, blue-winged warbler, eastern towhee, black-capped chickadee, veery and alder flycatcher to the trip list – it’s good to have friends who are birders!

Tomorrow is a birding day.

PS actually today! Had internet connection problems, now resolved

A memorable Memorial Day – blog 13

Today has been a holiday here in the USA just like back in the UK.  Here it is Memorial Day where those who fell in battle are remembered.  There are stars and stripes all over – and I like that.  Remembrance Day in the UK, with its poppies, is moving, but the only time you see anything like the number of flags back home is when England are just about to lose in some international football tournament.

I spent today birding with friends from Cornell – new and old.  It was so good to be with people who knew all the calls and songs as we travelled around Cayuga County.  I think we got 120 species in a pretty leisurely birding tour – and had scones (which weren’t scones but were very tasty (and were sold in a store where Bruce Springsteen was on air)).

We talked as we drove from place to place –  about birding, about the challenges facing nature conservation, about people, about birds, about my accent, about American spelling, about wine, about whether England is to the EU what Texas is to the USA, about state gas and car taxes,  about radio programmes. We talked about a ton of things but it always came back to birds.

We nibbled on Caspian tern and least sandpiper before a starter of bobolink (with savannah sparrow accompaniment), followed by a main course of cerulean warbler with a side of mourning warbler. Dessert was a very tasty upland sandpiper, with a cheese course of dunlin, short-billed dowitcher, semi-p sandpipers and plovers, white-rumped sands and more.  It was quite a feast.

Cerulean warbler was a much-awaited delicacy.  Great views of a difficult but gorgeous bird.  This is a species that hugs the tree tops but we, thanks to my companions, saw one out in the open and very well.  Stunning.

But, and it seems slightly disloyal to the cerulean warbler to say this, I think the bobolinks may stay more firmly in my mind for longer. Gorgeous, but declining, birds of grassland, we stopped in one place where the males were everywhere; singing and fluttering like skylarks across their grassland home.   This was a glimpse into what meadow bird densities were like before silage and early cutting caused bird declines.

If I hadn’t looked at a bird in the USA until today, my trip list would only be about 10 fewer than it is now – that’s how many birds we saw today (or what a rubbish birdwatcher I am)!

The birds will stick in the mind for a long time, but the companionship of friends and a fabulous meal with more friends this evening will stay as a memory even longer.

I hope your Memorial Day was as good and as memorable.

What a hoot – blog 14

The ospreys, herring gull, turnstone and swallows could have been in Scotland – even the brood of goosander ducklings and the distant great northern diver could have been Scotland, but these were common merganser ducklings and a common loon. And they were with hooded merganser, spotted sandpiper, ring-billed gull and purple martin so we were in upper New York state getting a few minutes birding in before a day’s work.

I had meetings with quite a few people at the Cornell lab of ornithology and then gave a talk in the evening.  I’m making new friends all the time and strengthening the links with existing ones.  Everybody has been very kind and helpful.

Tom Schulenberg showed me some of the skins in the Cornell collection.  There were extinct Bachman’s warblers, Eskimo curlew and Carolina parakeets.  And I held a passenger pigeon, a male, in my hands for a while.  It was a male shot nearby in the 1890s and was in very fine condition except for having breathed its last breath over a century ago.

This passenger pigeon was a strong-looking bird with that long graduated tail and the iridescent sheen on the side of the neck.    My hands did shake as I held it – it was a moving moment.  As I handed it back to Tom he told me that I should wash my hands as some of these old specimens had been dusted with arsenic.

Then an excellent dinner on Cornell and I gave my talk to a pretty respectably large audience.

It was coming on to rain as my hosts hooted like mad – and any observer would have assessed the behaviour as mad – by the road in the rain.  The target was barred owl.

We saw Virginia opossum snuffling about and fireflies flashing in the trees (I wasn’t expecting fireflies).  We heard a barred owl to end the day – what a hoot!

Mostly on the road – blog 15

It’s been a long day and I’ve covered a lot of miles.  But I also met someone I have only previously ‘met’ on social media.  Hope to see her again soon – at the Bird Fair, I hope.

Let me take you back nearly, but not quite, two weeks to when I picked up this car.  The man at the hire car desk was very keen to get me to upgrade to a better car.  I was quite happy with what I had ordered (and I thought I knew what was happening).  In the end he upgraded me for free – and when I went out into the place where the cars were it was clear why (and I had thought that I knew what was happening) – he didn’t have any smaller cars so he had been trying to get me to pay extra for what he had to give me anyway.

He also suggested I hire satnav – and I wanted satnav because my experience on my last trip was of missing lots of turnings and taking wrong turns and sitting staring at a map – it’s difficult when you are on your own in the car.  But at $10 a day (I think it was) it’s cheaper to go into Walmart or Sears and buy one (or two or three or, just, four) than hire at that rate. So on my first night in the USA, after going to bed at 11pm, I woke at 2am and was in Walmart at 0230 – but although they were open they had no phone and no satnav I could buy. Huh!

So thumbs up to Sears somewhere in Arkansas the next day who sold me both very easily.  The satnav has been invaluable already – saved me worry and time (and therefore gas and money).

I think my car is a Hyundai – I don’t really pay that much attention!  I’m getting 37mpg out of it but those are US gallons which means, I think, that I am really getting about 45mpg out of an automatic car. Not bad but wish it were better.

Gas prices vary from place to place but also dependent on the State – as there are State gas taxes.  I think the cheapest has been $3.25 and the most expensive was definitely $3.99 per gallon.

And, although I can’t think that many people will be interested in this, I have added Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, both Dakotas, Maryland, Maine, Massachussetts, New Hampshire, Oregon and Vermont to my list of state license plates – bringing the total to 39 out of 50 (or out of the lower 48 as the contiguous states are known).  I can see Rhode Island and South Carolina being blockers in this silly little game!

I’ve thought a lot about how great the folk at Cornell are during the day.  Not only were they very kind to me but they are great birders and great professionals in their work.

Mostly on the road – blog 16

It’s been a long day – starting in Indiana a bit west of Indianapolis and ending in Kansas a bit west of Topeka.  You can tell it was a long day when I say that the first words I heard were from the satnav saying ‘stay on the I70 for 200 miles’ which only got me to near St Louis. When I got there the satnav said ‘stay on the I70 for 252 miles’.    And those weren’t all the miles involved.  But there was a lot of loveliness in the day: the three lifers were lovely; Joyce, Danielle, Wendy and Alex were lovely; the tall grass prairie was lovely; the discovery center was lovely.  That’s quite a lot of loveliness for one day.

The second voice I heard was The Boss, Mr Springsteen from New Jersey, whose greatest hits tend to get me off in the morning. I’ve hears Thunder Road, Born to Run, The River and others hundreds of times but I keep coming back for more.  I like Glory Days a lot too.

I had a shower and checked the internet and TV for any tornado warnings before I set off too.  I’d quite like to see a tornado – briefly and in the distance – but I am not seeking them out and I hope they aren’t going to come looking for me either.

I like I70- it’s my type of road.  It goes straight and it goes west.  Sometimes it goes a bit south (which is OK) but basically it goes west and I like that.  I suppose it also goes east, but it was definitely the going west bit that I used.

Maybe it was because I had The Boss playing that I noticed two black New Jersey plated cars pass me one after the other. A coincidence or were they travelling together?  I didn’t see another NJ plate all day but I did, and there may be one person interested in this, but I ‘got’ Colorado, Nevada and Idaho plates today.  And saw several more North Carolinas but none from the South.

My first lovely lifer flew across the road in Indiana – a black-billed cuckoo with no rufus above or below the wing.  Nice.

Although I70 is my kind of road for driving on, and heading west on, it’s not my kind of road for eating breakfast.  It is infested with McDonalds and all the other chains.  But luckily, running parallel with I70 is the much smaller route 40 which runs through Brownstown, Illinois.  I was lucky to start looking for breakfast when I did and when I saw a place called Mark’s cafe I had to stop.

The waitress gave me a smile, a menu and a coffee and I ordered my standard fallback of two eggs easy-over and hash browns.  The last page of the menu gave me the lowdown on the staff.  Mark’s cafe was owned by Mark (he wasn’t in evidence) and Connie-Sue (present) is the ‘manager/grocery go-getting kind of gal’.

Leanne and Tina are the day-cooks and Becky the night-cook.

Mark’s cafe has fine server’s (sic) and waitress’s (sic), namely: Joyce, Shannon, Tina, Betty, Jessica, Sara and Connie.  I asked and found that my waitress, wearing the purple T-shirt saying ‘Our blood runs purple. our spirit reflects gold‘ was Joyce.

Joyce told me that she had moved to tiny Brownstown 30 years ago with her husband, got divorced but was still here.  She was good at her job and talked to everyone.

A young-ish man was talking about his and his wife’s progress with adopting twins – disclosing quite intimate details of the process openly to the dozen folk in the cafe.  I guess 11 of them go in there most days and, in a way, I wish I did too.  Everyone knew everyone else, and probably knew a lot about their lives too.  If I became a regular customer I’d have to wear a baseball cap as every male over the age of about eight does.  I have one – from Marble Canyon, Arizona, it’s just that it isn’t glued to my head and I don’t wear it indoors.

I saw from a poster that the rodeo will be nearby on 12-14 June.

A grandpa and grandson (aged about eight?) were sitting silently in their baseball caps waiting for their sausage sandwiches.  When Joyce brought them she let the kid choose which one was his – which made a smile come to his face, and to that of Grandpa (me too!).  She said Grandpa could choose tomorrow. A bit later when Joyce brought the check Grandpa said the kid better have that since he got to choose and they all laughed.

Joyce sat and chatted to them, getting the kid involved in the conversation, when a new customer (although you couldn’t say a young customer) came up behind her and made Joyce jump.  ‘Yo near jumped into Louisiana’ said the old man.

My check came to $5 for eggs, hash browns, toast and ad-lib coffee so I left Joyce a $2 tip on top.

The insight into the lives of the people in Mark’s cafe was worth far more.  Everyone was friendly to each other (and to me), they all seemed to care about each other and they’d all be there tomorrow or soon.  And Joyce was lovely in an ‘Aunty Joyce’ sort of way – talking to everyone including me (about passenger pigeons (no she’d never heard of them), where I was from and where I was going), topping up coffee cups, taking orders and settling bills.

The food was very simple but perfectly good, and as I left I hoped I’d find other places like that on the trip and I slightly regretted not being able to call back there some time.

But the road, the big I70 ( a good road for driving but not so good for breakfast) was calling me, and I had more loveliness in store – although I didn’t know that of course.

I crossed the Mississippi, which looked impressive, but not as impressive as I’d hoped and then realised, as I crossed the Missouri River a few minutes later that I was just north of where they join, and the Ohio comes in a bit later too.  Crossing 150 miles south, as I had to get into Kentucky just under two weeks ago, the Mississippi has the water from the edge of the Rockies (from the Missouri), its own water (from northern Minnesota) and the Appalachian rains (from the Ohio) mixing in its currents. Over 30 US states contribute to its flow.

Somewhere in Missouri a yellow-billed cuckoo flew across the road on almost the same trajectory as the black-billed had earlier.

I went through a thunderstorm but no tornado.

I was heading to Kansas to see Tall Grass Prairie and the loveliness of Danielle, Wendy and Alex – but I think I’ll tell you about them tomorrow.

Loveliness on the Tall Grass Prairie – blog 17

I think yesterday was so lovely I didn’t have room to tell you all about it.

Let’s backtrack just a bit.  I crossed the Mississippi River, heading west. The river forms a notional boundary between the forest area (to the east) and the Great Plains (to the west). Obviously it’s not a hard and fast border but by crossing the Mississippi I was leaving the main former land of the passenger pigeon.

That tells you that my book starts with the passenger pigeon but doesn’t end there.  So the next three weeks or so will take me, and any readers who are coming along, to the Rockies (which I can see from my hotel room right now), Yosemite, the Pacific and back through Arizona and New Mexico to Texas.

But I did want to see some Tall Grass Prairie – and that’s why I came to Kansas.  Like American coffee sizes, there are three sizes of Prairie; Tall Grass Prairie, Regular Prairie and Short Grass Prairie (one of those is a made-up name).  And the Tall prairie is the easternmost for reasons of soil and climate whereas two years ago when I visited the Little Bighorn that was short prairie.

The main thing about all types of prairie is that most of it is gone.  But the best bit of Tall Grass Prairie is in the Flint Hills of Kansas and Oklahoma.  So, I came to Kansas and arrived after a long drive at the Flint Hills Discovery Center in Manhattan, KS where I met the lovely Danielle.

Danielle had a nice smile, lots of information and was very helpful.  She told me that the film was going to start soon and that it was really cool because it had snow in it.  I thought this was a slightly odd thing to get excited about.

The film was really great.  One entered a cinema style room with a cinema-sized screen but fewer seats.  There were about 10 of us there.  The film was truly excellent and just the right length for people of a limited attention span like the two kids present and me.

And when the wind blew in the film it blew in the cinema too – and it came from the right direction!  And when the prairie burned, smoke poured across the floor and with it a burning smell – that was cool.  And when it snowed, white stuff fell from the ceiling – now I see why I was supposed to get excited about the snow.  Danielle had correctly gauged my intellectual level – I liked the smoke and smell of burning best though.

I looked around the display and made some notes.

You remember that in “Oh what a beautiful morning’, from Oklahoma (and OK is just south of here) the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye? Well in the Flint Hills the Big Bluestem (grass) is 10 feet high and has roots that go down to 12 feet.  That’s the secret of the prairie – that’s how native grasses cope with drought and fire (most of them is underground).

Danielle gave me information about where to go and what I could see that was really useful.  She was clearly amazed that anyone from England would be so keen as I was to visit the Discovery Center and then see some Tall Grass Prairie – but this was one of the more planned parts of this trip.  She also made a note of this blog’s address.  She was lovely.  Although, she hadn’t been to the Tall Grass Prairie National Preserve – tut tut, Danielle.

But I did! I left Manhattan at about 515pm and was talking to an elderly couple who had just finished their walk at about 630pm.  I went for a walk and the place was full of  birds.  There were yellow-billed cuckoos and upland sandpipers from the road and then eastern meadowlarks (even though we are getting west now) and dickcissels in the prairie.  Dickcissels were everywhere – they are finchy things – and were a new bird for me.

As I came back to the car I talked to the lovely Wendy who works at the center at the TGPNP.  She was just leaving work, at around 730 and she was really helpful too.  She asked about my ‘hike’ and told me about the opening hours and various other stuff but she also told me where I could get a room and that probably saved me money and certainly saved me time at this end of this day and the start of the next.  But Wendy hadn’t been to the Flint Hills Discovery Center – I told her it was very good and to ask for Danielle.

So I checked into the Prairie Fire Motel and asked where I might get a meal and they said to try the Longhorn Saloon in Strong City.  Longhorn Saloon sounded very western.  But Strong City is a tiny town and it doesn’t look very strong to me.  In fact it looks rather quiet and not likely ever to get noisy again.  But it is rather pretty and it has cottonwoods that are lovely, and flying over the cottonwoods was a Mississippi kite which was my third lifer of the day (back-b cuckoo, dickcissel and M kite).

The Longhorn Saloon said it closed at 8pm and it was now 755pm so my hopes weren’t high of getting a meal but the lovely Alex (who completes the set of Lovely Joyce, Lovely Danielle and Lovely Wendy) said it was fine and they’d get me something.  So I had a fireburger, fries and salad.  Alex was slim and young – very slim and very young compared with all other waitresses so far referred to in this blog.  We had a quick chat and she said they would be open for breakfast at 8 so I thought I might see her again – although the note on the door said they opened at 10 on Fridays.

Anyway, that’s the catch-up on yesterday’s loveliness.

This morning I woke quite early and was walking the trails back at the TGPNP at 7am.  It had rained overnight and was misty and cloudy – and very humid.  There were meadowlarks and dickcissels again, and a water snake swam in a pond.

A bearded young man in a vehicle stopped to talk to me.  I noticed his equipment and asked what he was radio-tracking and got the reply – prairie chickens.  Along with dickcissels and meadowlarks these are the ‘signature’ birds of these prairies (but, to remove the suspense – I didn’t see any (but to re-inject the suspense – I did see something…)).

The walk was good for me, and I enjoyed it.  I was surrounded by grass – Tall Grass Prairie.  Not very tall at this time of year but give it a couple 0f months and you’ll see…

The bearded biologist had told me that there were grasshopper sparrows here. II thanked him but said I’d probably ignore them as life was too short for sparrows. He looked slightly shocked so he’ll be glad to know that I did indeed look at some, and hear many more.

The bearded biologist was waving his aerial about as I passed him at the top of a hill.  I carried on walking and wondered when to turn back.  And then I saw something (this isn’t ‘the’ something but we are getting close).  The something was a bison.

Bison have been introduced here and I didn’t expect to see them but here was one and it was with about 20 others – almost all the bison in the Preserve in fact – the other one was probably over the horizon.

Bison are big – really big.  I’ve seen them before and I like them.  The herd was grazing its way up the slope slowly.  I was about 200 hundred yards away so it was a good view.  I didn’t want to disturb them so this was where I would turn around but for some reason I took a couple of paces forward and saw a mother bison with a very young calf (which isn’t the ‘something’ either – but we are very close now).

Bison calves are lovely.  And that’s what the three coyotes (they are the something) which were staring at the calf seemed to think too.  One was standing and the other two lying down – but all were looking at the calf.  The calf didn’t seem to mind and its mother didn’t either –  so I didn’t.

The standing coyote seemed more wily than the others and looked at me, looked at the bison calf, looked at me again and then lollopped off over the nearby horizon.  The other two sat for a while and then followed at their leisure.  I wondered whether the calf had been born overnight and the coyotes were waiting to eat the afterbirth but that’s just a guess.

Coyote was a new mammal for me and baby bison was lovely, and old bison were special too.  There was a spring in my step as I walked back.  I reported the bison calf in the office and they said that was the first sighting of the year but they’d been expecting it.

I left to look for breakfast at 9am – what an excellent start to the day.  I wasn’t surprised that the Longhorn Saloon was shut, so I couldn’t tell Alex about the baby bison, but nothing could dampen my spirits.

It was time to drive west again.  As I left the Tall Grass Prairie National Preserve I almost wished I paid US taxes so that my money could be supporting such a fine site: a remnant grassland that covered huge areas but was now almost restricted to the Flint Hills.  Go on Danielle – go and have a look! And Wendy – go visit the Discovery Center up the road in Manhattan.  I found it worth coming 5000 miles to see how lovely you both are (and Joyce (yesterday) and Alex) but I’ll remember the grassland, its birds, its bison and its coyotes for ever.

Boundaries – blog 18

I’ve already told you twice, so this is time number three, that I crossed the Mississippi River two days ago.  That marked a sort of boundary between east and west. Yesterday I passed another boundary, and another today.

Today’s was easy – the Monarch Crest marks the Great Divide. If I spat on one side of the pass my spit would go to the Atlantic but on the other side it would be Pacific bound.  By the way, I didn’t do anything as coarse as spitting.

Yesterday’s boundary was an entirely imaginary one – but real enough! Let me explain. The 100th meridian is a line 100 degrees west of the imaginary north/south line through Greenwich. It  goes through Dodge City I noticed as I went around the said city (choosing not, tempting though it was, to take Wyatt Earp Boulevard).

The 100th marks the boundary between eastern and western birds in the USA.  Here’s an example – the eastern kingbird is a nice bird that sits on wires by the side of the road.  It is easy to see and easy to identify; it has a Union blue back and a tail with a white tip.  I like them.  I’ve probably seen them almost every day since I arrived in the US of A.

The western kingbird is almost as nice. It sits on wires by the side of the road too but it wears Confederate grey.  It has white sides to its tail.  I like them.

The first western kingbird I saw was just before Dodge City and a little before the 100th.  I haven’t see an eastern kingbird since Dodge City.  There are many western kingbirds in front of me and all my eastern kingbirds are behind me (until I recross the 100th later in the trip – I’ll let you know).

There are lots of other species with similar ranges.  It’s as though there was a race, and a bunch of species set off from the west and another from the east and they met at the 100th and called a truce.  And, indeed, it was a bit like that!

When America was glaciated there were warm places left as refuges, by chance, on the southeast and southwest of the country.  Species ended up in them and some evolved differently in their two refuges.  When the ice melts species spread back and meet in the middle.  Amazing – eh?

It is a bit more complicated than that – but not much.  So for much of yesterday and today I have seen western kingbirds, western tanager, mountain bluebird, spotted towhee and white-throated swift.  Different species.

In Strong City a couple of nights ago, as I came out of the Longhorn Saloon, there were chimney swifts flying above me. No more!

This is a short blog as I am going out to grab something to eat and then spending the evening looking for wildlife in a National Park. Wish me luck!

Utah in three parts – blog 19

Part 1:

Arches National Park is a landscape feast.  It has the red cliffs of Marble Canyon, the weathered sandstone of Badlands NP and the majesty of Sion NP all rolled into one.  If you think I liked it, you’re wrong – I loved it.

I visited it first late yesterday afternoon and stayed until after dark – and I was back again for another look just after dawn.  Low light throws the shadows around and makes the rocks look the most spectacular.

The most famous formation is the Delicate Arch which features on signs as you enter Utah, on Utah state license plates and in all sorts of other ways.  It’s quite nice, I suppose, and I prefer the nick-name of Cowboy’s Chaps to that of Ladies’ Bloomers, but there are plenty of other rock formations to make you gasp in this National Park.

Many of the rock formations have daft names: The Organ, The Courthouse and the Three Gossips.  But the Three Gossips look very much like women in bonnets have a  chinwag – once the idea is put into your head. I looked at what appears to be an unnamed column which looked exactly like a troll with a bag of gold.  If only I had a working camera the ‘Troll Running Off with a Bag of Gold’ column would be born.

The views made me gasp.  It was like nothing that I had ever quite seen before and words like majesty, beauty and grandeur came to mind.

It’s quite a drive through the landscape and I drove to the end and did some walking too.  There were people about, it was Saturday evening, but not so many as to mar my enjoyment (and I can be pretty demanding on that count).

I looked at a rock face, which was red anyway, made redder still by the setting sun, and realised that no-one would ever see this rock face like this again.  Only today would the sun be at this angle until another year and then the clouds would be different, or maybe it would be raining but this was it.  So I tried to soak up the sights fully.

I stayed in the park until after dark to look at the stars.  It was a clear-ish night, just bits of whispy cloud.  My first spot, near the Balanced Stone, wasn’t a great success as other people kept coming and stopping for a while, with their engines running and their lights on.  I was suffering from the fact that the National Parks (many at least) are open 24 hours a day – I couldn’t be star-gazing if they weren’t and other people is the price you have to pay.  Fair enough.

But I did find another spot and the sky was very dark and there were lots of stars.  I stood watching in the warm desert night for at least half an hour.  I saw only one shooting star and made one wish.

I got back to my motel room in nearby Moab at 11pm and left it at 6am to go back to Arches.  Everything would look different in the dawn light – isn’t it good that he sun sets on one side of the Earth and rises on the other – it makes rock-watching so much better.

There were even fewer people around at this time and I did a few walks and noticed some fantastic formations which had looked dull yesterday evening.  The “Troll Running Off with a Bag of Gold’ column looked pretty good in any light.

I left at 730am feeling that I had seen some wonderful, memorable scenery on a scale that is like nothing we have in the UK.  I wish I’d had a camera – and I don’t often say that.

Part 2:

They do say (well some do) that you should never go back.  This is definitely true if you disgraced yourself last time but I think it is generally true of wildlife places which have excited you – they are rarely as good again.  But what about cafes?

For some reason, Mom’s Cafe in Salina has stuck in my mind ever since I was there almost exactly two years go.  I’m not exactly sure why.  I think it was just a good breakfast in an interesting place at the right time – and I was pleased with the blog I wrote about it at the time.

Since planning, to some extent, this trip back in the winter, I had noticed that the route between Kansas and California went through Salina (which I now know is Sal – eye – na, not Sal – ee – na) and I planned to revisit. Was this wise?

As I entered Mom’s at 10am (I’d made good progress from Arches) it was slightly busier than on my last visit and I couldn’t take the seat I’d had last time.  But the waitress was still Sharon with her sensible shoes and toothy grin.  I told her I’d had breakfast here 2 years before and she had served me and she gave me a big smile and said ‘How lovely that you remember me.  I love your accent!’.

I ordered the same breakfast (with sourdough toast – the only time it has been on offer I think) and enjoyed it as much as last time.  I told Sharon that I’d really enjoyed my last visit and had somehow thought that I’d be back some time.  And that she’d been part of that day so I was glad to see her again. She said ‘I’m going all fuzzy at the thought of it’.

There were some new pictures on the wall but many were as before, and there are still books on each table – mine had ‘The Bad Day Book’, ‘How to Make People Think You are Normal’ and ‘So you think you can ‘Geezer”. I didn’t need them – I was having a good day, I’m not normal and I can ‘English’ so I don’t need to ‘Geezer’.

This year’s Sorensen Electrics calendar is where the old one was before, and has a similar theme – a drawing of a man enjoying the outdoors (having a nap in a hammock) unaware of the bears playing around him. I’m pretty sure 2012’s was similar too.

The price of my breakfast had gone up to $8.32 from $7.84 but that’s not bad – the hash browns were as good as ever.

Outside, Bella’s has had the window fixed and looks quite prosperous. Lotsa Motsa Pizza looks like it is no longer in business but all the other firms are still there and a gym is opening soon. It was Sunday, Father’s Day here, so it was quiet but I think Salina is quiet.

When I’d said goodbye to Sharon she had smiled, wished me a good trip and said she hoped I’d be back again one day. I said that I doubted it – I’d just had a feeling that I would return on my last visit but I hadn’t got that feeling now.  But it was good to see that all was just as it was at Mom’s.

So, if you are passing one day, pop in, give my regards to Sharon, have the two eggs, hash browns, sourdough toast and coffee and let me know what Sorensen’s calendar looks like when you are there.

Part 3:

Leaving Utah was easy – I just drove into Nevada.

I filled up with gas at Hinckley and headed west down Route 6 towards Nevada. This was the area of the Great Basin and the land was flat and the road was straight.  Water falling here, and there isn’t much, doesn’t go anywhere.  No rivers leave. It evaporates.

And so it’s hot here.  The car said it was 94F outside which is warm,  certainly.

I started counting western kingbirds, then I stopped and counted cars instead.

The road was dead straight and there was no traffic to speak of. In fact, I drove 83 miles to the Nevada border and only 25 cars and 5 motorbikes passed me on the other side of the road.  One car overtook me, and one bike too.

That’s like driving from Bristol to Exeter and seeing 25 cars – I wish!

I set the cruise control to 56mph, the speed limit was 65mph but I wasn’t in that much of a hurry, and I didn’t touch a pedal for c55 miles when the road crossed a range of hills and some braking and accelerating were in order.  All I had to do was steer – and that was only because the road wasn’t dead level as it was dead straight.

Fuel efficiency went up, for a while to 44mpg (52mpg Imperial, I think) but the hills brought it down again. You lose fuel efficiency on the up-slope which you never quite recapture on the down-slope.  Is that someone’s law of thermodynamics? If not, it can be mine – I claim it.

I passed signs to places that I couldn’t see and didn’t feel like exploring – Death Canyon and Blind Valley were two, but more incongruously, Eskdale as well.  I was heading for Ely, of all places, from Hinckley, of all places, and had passed a sign to Eskdale, of all places.

So it didn’t surprise me when I passed a sign for Outback Taxidermy which conjured up an Aussie in exile stuffing deer heads for hunters from western Utah.

The land was flat and dry.  Scrubby vegetation prevailed. Dust blew up in little devils or just clouds – and it was dusty brown dust, not even red dust.  I saw more western kingbirds than cars, and a few mockingbirds and a raven every 10 miles or so.

It was different.  It let me think. And I listened to Hotel California several times as I am heading that way.

I knew it was going to be a bit odd when I passed a shoe tree outside Hinckley.  It’s a dead tree with dead shoes tied to it. It’s a little bit famous.  And there are other shoe trees in the USA too.

It wasn’t physically difficult leaving Utah, but it was a bit of a wrench. Before visiting, Utah meant Mormons and Osmonds to me, now it means great National Parks (all of Utah should be a National Park), friendly folk, roads with no traffic and wildlife.  I didn’t want to go to Nevada.

Nevada – blog 20

I didn’t want to come to Nevada but I’m staying two nights in the Clown Motel in Tonopah.  There are clowns everywhere – in the motel office, on the doors, on the walls and, yes probably, as guests.

All I knew about Nevada was that Las Vegas was in Nevada – a rather popular but pointless place where people quickly get married or divorced and indulge in mindless gambling.

However, Nevada carried on where Utah left off so I am now a lot keener on Nevada.  It has more desert and semi-desert.  But the hills are different.  Gone are the red sandstone bluffs and cliffs.  Now we have rounded hills sticking out of a flat matrix.  It’s rather like a dry version of Caithness and Sutherland – the hills are very similar.  There are some like Scaraben, Ben Loyal, Ben Hope, Ben Griams, Maiden Pap and, more distantly, the Arkles, Canisps and Suilvens appear.

I half expected a greenshank to fly across the road but instead a coyote crossed about a quarter mile ahead of me and I couldn’t find it when I got there.  And a pronghorn, not a red deer, was grazing in the mid distance.

I ate at the local Mexican restaurant (two veggie days in a row!) and people stared at me.  It might have been because I am taller, it seems, than anyone else in town. Or it might be that i am a stranger in town – but I think there are a few of them. Maybe I look foreign?  I was certainly one of the few men in town not wearing a baseball cap.  Maybe it was because I was walking – quite possible.  The two men in the rooms next to mine drove the two blocks to the restaurant whereas I walked – that’s enough to make anyone stare in most of America.  Walking is done by people who are tired from jogging or people with dogs.  And I was carrying a book in the streets (Sibley’s field guide) and that is odd too.  I think it may have been the combination that made people stare – a tall foreigner without a cap walking in the street with a book!

Today I have written.  This place is cheap and the internet works.  All that time in the car gives one plenty of ideas and i am getting them down as fast as I can. This isn’t a holiday you know!

Tomorrow – Yosemite for a few days.  And then on to San Francisco for an appointment with an extinct insect.

Yosemite – blog 21

I take back all I thought about Nevada – I like it!  Even quieter roads than Utah, looks like the Flow Country, has clownish motels and has a few birds too.  As I left Nevada, with a touch of sadness, but quite quickly as it was on a long downhill straight off the White Mountain Peak on Route 6, I had to smile.  On a white round water tower type of thing was written ‘Missing you already’ which I thought was a nice touch.  Underneath in less well crafted letters was an extra message ‘Jeff Welch is a rat’.  In the rear view mirror, as I sped downhill, I could see that the same message was displayed to people entering Nevada from California.  There must be a story behind that.

Entering Yosemite from the east, as I did, was very impressive.  You travel uphill for miles with granite peaks around and in front.  It’s rather special.  I was enjoying it so much that I’d forgotten that I wasn’t already in the National Park when I came to the entrance and showed my annual pass.  The camper van in front of me had Alaska plates! And I’ve picked up Washington, Arizona and Montana too.

Later in the evening I visited the Yosemite Valley when lots of people had gone.  In the cool of the evening it was awe-inspiring.  I wasn’t sure whether to look at the Bridalveil Falls or El Capitan – so I alternated looking at both (and occasionally glancing up at the swifts to see if they were black – they looked black but I wasn’t sure they were Black).  I preferred the massive rock-face to the waterfall but both were special – and so was the pygmy owl being mobbed by American robins in the tree behind me.

Half Dome was shining in the evening sun and this was the other side of it from the one I saw as I passed over by the Tuolumne Meadows Road.

All this was great but I was also interested in the next door valley – the Hetch Hetchy valley where two of the heroes of US conservation, John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt, disagreed over the fate of the valley (which is in the National Park).

Muir lost and so did the valley as it was dammed and flooded and provides water for San Francisco about 180 miles away.  The arguments still rage about whether it should have happened and about whether the dam should be removed and the valley restored to a second Yosemite.  That would be one heck of a restoration project.

I couldn’t comment on this issue (not here anyway) but it got me thinking about which have been our, UK, largest mistakes of this sort and could we possibly rectify them? Any thoughts?

More from Yosemite tomorrow.  Maybe bears – or lack of them.

Sequoia and bears – blog 22

There are a lot more bears in Yosemite than there are giant sequoias – so they should be easier to find.  Of course the bears can hide behind the giant sequoias in a way that the sequoias can’t hide behind the bears.

I asked a very nice lady on the entrance to Yosemite where to go to see bears.  She told me that the ‘bear action’ recently (I assume she didn’t mean ‘bare action’) was at the only gas station in the Park – ‘those bears just love the smell of trash’.

So, off I went yesterday evening – no luck with the bears.  But I did see a complicated junco (the common one that looks different in different parts of the USA and keeps changing its name).

And back I went today too, but after a quick look for bears I went to see the Tuolomne Grove of giant sequoias – about 25 of them, about a mile down the track (and it is down – it’s up all the way back).

There are lots of trees in Yosemite – and some of them, many of them, are huge by UK standards. I actually found myself pointing out a very large tree to the empty (apart from me) car, I was so impressed by it.

At the start of the walk you are told that you’ll see the first sequoia in ‘about a mile’, so after ‘about a mile’ I wondered whether any of the trees were giant sequoia.  ‘Gosh! That one’s really big’ I thought to myself.  Surely there would be a notice saying ‘Giant sequoia’ when one gets to the giant sequoia? I’d have thought so, but you never know.  Gosh that’s another really big tree – I wonder.

And then you get to the notice that says something along the lines of ‘giant sequoia coming soon’ and then you see it and you really don’t need a sign.  Blimey!  That is big!  I mean, really big.

There are three groves of giant sequoia in Yosemite, accounting for about 300 trees.  That’s quite rare.  I think it will be difficult to be impressed by a tree again – giant sequoias have spoiled me for all other trees.

They were definitely worth the walk there (downhill) and even worth the walk back to the car.  The return walk was slower – not just because of the hill but also because of the good views of pileated woodpecker and a new warbler species (lifer – but more on warblers another time).

No bears though – even though bears are common.  No bear action at all for me.  I should have checked behind that last giant sequoia – I bet that’s where they were.

Not everyone’s cup of tea – blog 23

The Holiday Motel, Los Banos, CA is not everyone’s cup of tea.  It is the cheapest place I’ve stayed and for $35 a night you don’t expect much. But I don’t want much – wifi, a shower and a bed will do it.

The wifi works, the shower works (I’ve washed myself and some clothes in it) and the bed looks like it will work too. It’s right by the road but that won’t keep me awake, I’m sure.

And Los Banos has nothing much to recommend it on paper – but it does have the 6th St Diner which is a very lucky find.  I left Yosemite earlier today (no bears) and was pretty hungry when I got here mid-afternoon.  I found the Motel and the guy here was very friendly, and then I did a bit of a wander and came across the Diner (which also has wifi).

I have been drinking a lot of Cola (but very little alcohol) on this trip.  I started by asking for a Coke each time – and had a run of ‘Is Pepsi OK?’s. so I switched to asking for a Pepsi and today was my first ‘Is Coke OK’.  So I had a Coke with my green salad, steak sandwich and sweet potato fries.  Very nice they all were  too and excellent value at $13 with large helpings.

I’m in the San Joaquim Valley, which I have learned to pronounce ‘Whackeem’, and I’m here because I have booked a place on the coast for a few days but that starts tomorrow night – so I needed a stopover.  I saw that there is a National Wildlife Refuge, San Luis, near here so that’s why I am here.

I called in at the visitor center and was given lots of help with leaflets maps etc.  The people I spoke to couldn’t have been more helpful and they were a bit apologetic about the fact that this area is lifting with birds (geese and cranes)  in winter but is a bit quiet now.

But like the Holiday Motel and Los Banos, San Luis is giving me just what I need despite its unpromising first impression.  I’ve already seen a dozen new species for the trip in a short look around (including greater yellowlegs, white-tailed kite, black phoebe) and I have been typing away for a few hours after dark in this motel room.

For a birder on a short stop, or for a bunch of birders on a winter trip with birds at the top of their list, then the Holiday Motel, 6th St Diner, San Luis combination would be ideal for cheapness, proximity and birds.  But they wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea.

I haven’t had tea for weeks.

Monterey Bay – blog 24

And now I am in Monterey, just up the road from Carmel where Clint Eastwood was mayor, and the setting for a couple of Steinbeck novels.  Hello Pacific Ocean.

Fisherman’s Wharf is a bunch of restaurants and gift shops that are keen to sell you fish food or hats and tea-shirts.  But there are also whale-watching trips.

On a whale-watching trip one might hope to see whales but this isn’t the best time of year.  However, there are seabirds, sea otters and sea lions also potentially on the menu.

California sea lions are abundant on Fisherman’s Wharf.  There are loads of them in the water and hauled out on boats, jetties, rocks. They are big and beautiful – and noisy too.

The whale-watching trip took about three hours and around 30 of us headed out into Monterey Bay to the area where there is a deep water canyon.  We saw Dall’s porpoise (never heard of it before) and some guillemots, western gulls and lots of Brandt’s cormorants.  We seemed to be heading somewhere, and it seemed to be where there was another boat – and through my binoculars I could see that the boat had lots of people on it and they were all looking off the front of the boat.  This seemed promising even though our boat crew hadn’t given anything away yet.

They were killer whales – about half a dozen – one of the species at the very top of my bucket list.  I’ve missed killer whales in Shetland (several times) and Spain but I wasn’t missing them in California I was looking at their huge pointed dorsal fins slicing through the water.  Do they look menacing because we know that these are marine carnivores or would they look like trouble heading through the water even on a plankton-eater?

We cruised behind and to the side of the killer whales for several minutes and every so often they would all surface together and we would see the white and grey patches that are so diagnostic.

I hadn’t really expected to see these (partly because my luck has so often been of the ‘You should have been here yesterday’ variety’) and it made the trip for me.

But there was more to come.

About 10 minutes further on and we came across several blue whales – first seeing them ‘blow’ and then seeing the enormous blue-grey backs come out of the water at a shallow angle and seemingly to last forever until just before they disappear you see the tiny dorsal fin (which looks a bit pointless really).

They are big – like everything in America.

We came close to driving this species to extinction – like the bison, the pronghorn, the sequoia and others – but like them we stopped just in time.  With the passenger pigeon and Carolina parakeet we went a little too far and they were lost from our planet forever.

If every politician in the world saw a blue whale, or a sequoia, would they do more to save threatened species?  I think they would. I hope they would.

Cute as anything – blog 25

I was still glowing with delight at seeing killer whale and blue whale yesterday when I woke today.  It was quite a misty morning as I headed along California Highway 1 to Moss Landing and Elkhorn Slough.  Here, I’d been told, I would see the cute sea otter.  And I did!

I had a few false alarms with sea lions but eventually got to a place where I could see three or four sea otters in the distance – lying on their backs in the water.

The distance soon became the foreground as I drove a short distance to the car park on the north side of the slough (little estuary) to get a better look.  I spent nearly an hour looking down on a sea otter feeding 10 feet below me.

He or she – I had a good look but didn’t see any ‘bits’ that would tell me which it was (so he’s going to be a ‘he’, as ‘he’ is quicker to type than ‘she’) – was diving and coming back to the surface with some sort of bivalve (I think). Lying on its back in the water, with its meal partly balanced on its chest, but held in its paws, he would bite through the shell and then eat the contents. Then the shell fragments would be discarded and fall through the water and he was off again to catch another mollusc.

My sea otter seemed very good at finding these food items as almost every dive resulted in a capture.  When it didn’t, he would have a bit of a scratch (all done lying on his back in the water and paddling to remain in the same place with his back legs) of his chest, armpits, shoulders or head.  Sea otters have very thick fur (rather than thick subcutaneous fat like most marine mammals) and that’s why they were hunted almost to extinction too.

Now and again he would come back to the surface, lie on his back, with not just a mollusc but also a rock.  Once he had the rock in his paws and smacked it against the mollusc on his chest to crack it open but other times the rock was on his chest and the mollusc in his paws.  The latter way made it easier when the mollusc was cracked, which usually took about 3-5 sharp smacks, to twist his body (this is all done while swimming on his back remember) and let the rock fall to the seabed again and carry on getting the good bits out of the shell.

Twice, the rocks that this amazing creature brought to the surface, along with its shellfish meal, and balanced on its chest to use as a tool, were bricks.  Full-sized bricks!  Sea otters aren’t small but to bring a brick to the surface to use as a hammering block to get your meal is quite a thing!

How did he know whether he would or wouldn’t need a rock each time – because usually he just used his teeth? How did he choose his rock? The biologist in me was coming to the top of my brain whilst the bottom of my brain was just going ‘Cute! Cute! Cute!’.

He occasionally looked at me – I think he was used to being watched. I didn’t want to be the one to leave – I thought he should go first and eventually he moved on to a new, more distant, stretch of water.

Across the slough there was a raft of 25 sea otters asleep in calmer water (with a western gull and (slightly oiled) Pacific diver). I went around to watch this group of sea otters for a while.  They didn’t do anything except drift very slowly in the current.  Now and again they’d all wake up and slowly paddle back, as a group, to where they started and then go to sleep again.

So, today was writing and cute sea otter time. It was an unforgettable encounter (for one of us).

More whales – blog 26

Today was writing, whale-watching, writing, whale-watching, writing.  I went on morning and evening whale-watching trips  and each was excellent, each was different from the other and from my earlier trip (which seems like it was ages ago!).

Taken together these two trips provided more blue whales, 2 humpback whales, lots of Risso’s dolphins, lots of Pacific white-sided dolphins, lots of northern right-whale dolphins, harbour porpoise, sea otters and California sea lions (mustn’t forget them even though they are everywhere).

There were birds too!  Cassin’s and rhinoceros auklets. black-footed albatross and Heermann’s gull.

And there were people on the boats – fellow punters like me.  They were interesting too.  I think predicting who will get seasick and throw up is quite interesting (and quite difficult).  And it is quite difficult to tell who will be very enthusiastic about the trips (which last 3 hours or more) and who will begin to look bored stiff after a few minutes.

I met some nice people though – the Mom with her two children, the Afro-American couple and others.

Just as the people are a little unpredictable, so is the weather. My rule of thumb for going on any boat is that it will probably be both hotter and colder than you expected – so go prepared.   I was fine, though I have caught the sun a little, but others who started off cheery returned a bit less cheery as a result of not wearing the right clothes.

Kate Spencer was the naturalist/biologist on board and she was excellent – full of information of the right type, delivered at the right times, in the right ways.  Quite a class act and I enjoyed talking to her (she identified birds too!).

Each of the three trips was different – you can’t instruct nature to be in the right place at the right time. And that is part of the excitement for any naturalist – what will we see?

What a fantastic place is Monterey Bay.  I had a marvellous time.  Will I ever get back here – I doubt it? I’m glad I have visited.  I have always wanted to see killer whale and now I have – that is great for me.  Blue whales were not as high up on my list, but now I’ve seen a few I think they should have been.  That enormous, lasting-forever, blue-grey back and that afterthought of a small fin  make a lasting impression of majesty.  But when you realise how badly we have treated this species, harpooning them in their thousands and thousands, then you can’t help, when you see them, to be glad that they are still alive and that makes you, or at least it made me, glad to be alive.

Strange collection – blog 27

I am going to see an extinct butterfly’s last home so I may not have time to write a blog tomorrow (now today, 11 June), so here, as a stop-gap,  is a collection of wildlife sightings and sightings of Americana that I just want to get off my chest:

  1. Amerigo Vespucci, after whom America is named, probably never came here, and C Columbus only got to the Bahamas. So this place might have been discovered by two geezers setting out from my home town of Bristol in 1497 – John and  Sebastian Cabot.  I’m in Cabotia!
  2. I was driving along a busy big road in Utah when in the distance I saw two ravens.  They appeared to be mobbing something in the central reservation between the carriageways.  I assumed it might be a fox but looked hard as I dashed past and saw an adult golden eagle not ten feet away tucking into some dead mammal.
  3. I haven’t seen many butterflies – but I have seen a monarch.
  4. A distant sign caught my eye as it seemed to say SOD in large letters.  This being the USA I thought it might be GOD, but it was a billboard advertising turf – Farm Fresh Sod.
  5. There are two magpies here – black-billed which is very similar to ours but has a longer tail, and yellow-billed which is very similar to ours but has a yellow bill.
  6. I could hardly believe this building which I drove past in Ohio.  I await the new RSPB headquarters in the shape of an avocet, or WWF’s panda building.
  7. I had a sudden worry that some of the things that I have been calling great white egrets were actually the white phase of great blue heron – but they aren’t ‘cos those don’t live where I’ve been.  But the GWEs don’t seem to kink their necks in quite the way that European ones do.
  8. I did see a roadside sign in Colorado saying ‘Vote Obama’ so somebody loves him.
  9. One of the consequences of having states, making their own laws, is that laws on fireworks differ greatly.  This is why you often see fireworks being sold and advertised at state boundaries.
  10. The United Kingdom is about the same size as the state of Oregon (I’ve never been to Oregon) but has 15 times as many people living in it.
  11. There are lots of billboards asking you to drain the water from your boat so that you don’t carry non-native species around the USA – if I had a boat I would comply.
  12. And there are also, for the same reason, notices asking you not to bring your own wood for barbecues but to get it locally – those tree diseases…

Two cafes and a butterfly – blog 28

The only person on the scene, missing, was the Xerces blue – almost what Bob Dylan sang.

A few days after I disclosed that I was leaving the RSPB, back in January 2011, I was in Oxford for the farming conference and had a coffee in a cafe with Martin Warren, the Chief Exec of Butterfly Conservation, one of the nicest nature conservationists that I know (is there anyone nicer?), and one of the most knowledgeable (is there anyone more knowledgeable?).  When I said that I was heading off to the USA  in search of extinct birds he told me about an extinct butterfly – the Xerces blue.

Today, in Cafe Flore on Market Street, San Francisco, I met Liam O’Brien who told me all about this extinct little blue butterfly.  Liam is a great guy and I very much enjoyed his company, his knowledge, his humour and his turn of phrase.  And just to get this fact out of the way, there aren’t many experts on butterflies who have played 1000 performances on Broadway (as Liam has – and in Les Mis of all things).

The Xerces blue was a species that lived in the coastal sand dunes of this area.  It went extinct in the 1930s and 1940s because we destroyed its habitat – in other words the usual story.

In the 1780s, half of what is now San Francisco was sand dune.  This covered much of what is now the Sunset district and Sea Cliff and Richmond.  Looking down from the top of a hill, and San Francisco has plenty of hills remember, to the distant ocean it was difficult to picture this as a scrub-covered shifting dune system with little blue butterflies (amongst others) flying around in the sun.

The Xerces blue had a small range and we concreted it over. It’s difficult not to keep humming Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi at this stage; ‘They paved paradise And put up a parking lot’.  Yes, there were collectors taking specimens – Liam described it thus: ‘The polka-dot butterfly was the Willy Wonka Golden Ticket specimen’ but they wouldn’t have had anything to collect after WWII anyway.

The house where Ansel Adams grew up overlooked the spot, now having its habitat restored, where the last Xerces blue specimen was taken.

This is the only butterfly species (but was it a full species – it’s so hard to tell with flutterbys?) to have gone extinct in the USA, and it’s a different type of impact from that of the passenger pigeon.  This butterfly was a restricted range species and was always rare (-ish).

Liam had a ‘good news’ story to tell too – in fact I think he had a whole bag full of stories to tell.  The green hairstreak butterfly (same genus as ours – different species) used to fly around with the Xerces blue.  Liam and others are making sure that it doesn’t disappear from the streets of Sand Francisco.

When I was looking down to the ocean over thousands of roofs where there used to be sand dunes, at my feet was a patch of native vegetation running down one side of the many pedestrian staircases mounting the hills.  This provided a linear corridor of native vegetation for the green hairstreak.  Liam and friends are persuading lots of people to do their bit and as we drove around I began to be able to spot the patches of Liam’s influence.

It’s a great idea to spread the habitat through the streets and with it the butterflies too.  And it seems to be working.

I’m really glad that Martin told me about the Xerces blue (and that I listened and remembered) and I’m very grateful to Liam for being such a kind, amusing but knowledgeable host.  I should also thank the Xerces Society (named after the butterfly, of course) whom I contacted and who put me in touch with Liam.

So, I saw as many Xerces blue as I, or anyone else, will see passenger pigeons, but I saw where they used to live, understood more about why they aren’t there any more and heard about the work going on to make sure that although some of the blue has gone out of the San Francisco world, the green will remain.

Identification in Kit form – blog 29

And that Liam O’Brien doesn’t just identify butterflies, he identifies mammals too.

By the way, I am now in King City, not that far from Monterey really, and not that far from Los Banos either.  King City, whose motto should be ‘ King City – fit for a pauper’  as it has several cheap motels and several cheap eateries (all Mexican as far as I can tell).

Anyway, Liam and I were chatting, and I think it was about how difficult it is to get the general public interested in creepy crawlies, except perhaps butterflies, compared with, say, the San Joaquin Kit Fox. ‘The what?’ says I, ‘The San Joaquin Kit Fox’ says Liam.

Only a few days earlier I had seen a small fox at the San Luis NWR early one morning.  I’d been driving on a track and a small fox had got up in front of me and then run, quite slowly, off.  It had been a small fox, and I had immediately thought ‘fox cub’, but it looked wise enough to be grown up and it had big ears.

I almost wrote about it here – but didn’t.  I had tried to look it up and had drawn a blank.  I even tried ‘Kit Fox’ but had decided that though everything seemed to fit, I was out of their range.  But I wasn’t and I see that the Kit Fox does indeed occur on this very site – and I saw one!

Identification in kit form – geddit?

Maybe someone could help me out with this snake that I saw while looking for condors, unsuccessfully, at the Pinnacles NP.  It was on the road, but alive, and was large by UK standards.  I guess, unfolded, it would have been 5ft long.  It was chocolate brown with pale stripes, or maybe you would have said it was pale with chocolate brown stripes. It was pretty.  Any ideas?

On the road, mostly – blog 30

Today has been mostly a driving day, the first for quite a while.  And it occurs to me that I won’t see the Pacific Ocean again on this trip (unless I get very very lost!).  My last view was while looking at green hairstreak habitat restoration with Liam near the top of a hill in San Francisco.

I now have to head south and east.  Heading east in the USA always seems slightly odd to me – ‘Go west young man, go west! And grow up with the country’.

I’m heading for the Joshua Tree National Park, but I haven’t got there yet, where I have unfinished business with roadrunners.

On my way I have seen Altamont Pass and its eagle-killing wind turbines, commented on someone’s accent and identified that snake I told you about.

Altamont Pass is across the Bay from San Francisco and has the reputation for being the raptor-killingest windfarm in the world.  When you see it you aren’t surprised as it is chock-full of windfarms – hundreds, actually thousands, of them.  And they are mostly small and old and they appear, from the road, to form an almost impenetrable barrier to birds migrating through the pass.

And birds do migrate through the pass although my knowledge of west-coast raptor migration is very slight.

Interesting to see and the impression is that there is nowhere remotely similar in the UK (and long may it remain) as there is nowhere with the density of turbines (as far as I know) of old design and in a migration hotspot.  So, Altamont Pass is a warning for us all but it doesn’t translate very easily into the UK situation.

I filled up with gas on the freeway and as my UK credit cards rarely work in the pumps outside I usually have to have a conversation inside.  This time it was with a Hispanic-looking lady who had an accent that seemed as if it was off the west coast of Scotland.  This was how our conversation went:

Me: ‘Interesting accent’

Her: ‘Got hit by a car a long time ago’

Me: ‘Sounds quite Scottish’

Her: ‘Get told that a lot’.

Her first answer had made me feel a little uncomfortable for raising the subject, but I’d thought I was just being friendly, and her second answer made it clear that this wasn’t a subject on which to linger.

Fair enough. I wonder what it is like being Hispanic in California and sounding as though you are from Oban?

And further on I decided to stop at a ‘Rest Area’ for a rest and to use the facilities. Amazingly there was a poster outside entitled ‘North American snakes’ which revealed to me, and I have done some internet checking too, that the snake I saw the other day was a copperhead – pretty, and pretty poisonous too.  Good job I didn’t give it a cuddle then.

Unfinished business – blog 31

It’s funny isn’t it. I’d never seen a coyote until I saw three looking at a bison calf in Kansas but now I am seeing them all the time.  The other evening I had something like 10 coyote sightings and I must have seen about 30 or more on this trip.

So having seen wile e coyote I am determined to see roadrunner too.

And I would like to see a roadrunner in the Joshua Tree National Park – as that is where I spent a couple of days trying to see them two years ago.  So I am going to dedicate the next couple of days or so.

The lady at the motel, who still has a lovely French accent (being French (still)) told me that she had had a family of roadrunners running around her garden until the neighbours got some big dogs.  And the young lady in the air-conditioned visitor center said that they were always around and looked outside, just as her male counterpart had done two years ago, as if she expected to be able to point one out immediately and then say ‘There you are you silly Englishman – how did you not see that?’.

This evening I bought a large pepperoni pizza from the New York pizza place in Joshua Tree and ate half of it there and had the rest boxed up.  I drove through the National Park at dusk and stopped to see a beautiful sunset spread across the western sky (where else?) behind the mountains.  I ate pizza and watched the sunset.

I couldn’t help recalling that as I had walked down to Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey a few days ago I had passed the ‘Sunrise Retirement Home’.  Now, I can see why you might not want to call your retirement home the ‘Sunset Retirement Home’ but when it nestles into the hills and faces the Pacific to the west, then sure as eggs is eggs, your residents are going to see an awful lot more sunsets than sunrises (well, the lucky ones will).

In the few hours I have been here I have seen some of the Park’s special birds (eg cactus wren, Scott’s oriole, phainopepla) but not all of them (eg ladder-backed woodpecker) and not roadrunner.  Yet!

But I have seen Joshua trees, and cacti, and a sunset and there is always tomorrow for roadrunner.  I even saw another coyote – so there must be a roadrunner somewhere nearby.

Finished business – blog 32

Even the ladies in Andrea’s cafe had seen roadrunners and they didn’t seem that interested in birds.  I am interested in birds and I started off another day not having seen a roadrunner.

There is a terrific mural of a roadrunner on the Joshua Tree-29 Palms road – it must be about 20 feet long – but I don’t think I can count that.

Breakfast at Andrea’s, after early-morning birding, in the relative cool of the day, was a very reasonably priced ($5) two eggs, over-easy, and hash browns and sourdough toast.

The French lady motel owner had asked me why I was writing a book about an extinct bird rather than a living bird and that isn’t a bad question.  I said that we had quite a lot to learn from our mistakes.

Another lady, who sold me a smoothie, asked me where I was from so I asked her where she thought I was from and she got England right.  Her first husband was from England – from Bath.  I asked her whether she hated him and she said no, but she didn’t like him.  I said we Bristolians don’t like people from Bath either, so she and I had something in common.  She wanted to know why people from Bristol don’t like people from Bath and I said it was because, these days, they are so much better at rugby than we are.  She’d seen a roadrunner a few days ago too.

I feel that yesterday and today I have looked at just about every patch of ground in the Joshua Tree NP but that can’t be remotely true because the park is so huge. As you drive through it you can see the transition between one type of desert (Sonoran) with cactuses and another type of desert (Mojave) with Joshua Trees.

I strolled around the very short walk in a ‘cactus garden’ where the signs saying ‘Don’t touch’ just made me want to see how sharp the spines were and whether they really could travel through your shoes so easily – but I didn’t.

After 10 minutes walk I sought the cool of my car and gulped a bottle of water.  The outside temperature was 103F (c40C). I wondered how the gold prospectors and miners coped here.  And I imagined riding through the desert on a horse (with no name) and how you would cope if your horse died.  Where I was, it was at least 20miles to the nearest house.

The desert is amazing – but it is quite lifeless in the middle of the day.

I headed back to the visitor center to have a quick look around the vegetation there and to fill a bottle or two with water – and also to use the restrooms.  As I pulled in and turned off the engine I looked at a movement in the small patch of cultivated land and there was a roadrunner.

It was walking around as though it owned the place, and in one of the places where I’d been told they ‘always’ were.  It took a few steps, partly raised its crest, raised its tail and then slowly lowered it, and took a few more steps. A roadrunner.

I’ve seen a road-runner – at last.

And what fine birds they are too.  This relative of the cuckoo is unlike anything else you have seen and it’s worth a bit of a struggle, and a bit of a wait finally to see one.

I watched my first roadrunner with interest but then whether it was the excitement of the roadrunner or the gallons of water I had drunk I remembered that I needed the rest rooms for a, you know, rest.

I kept eye contact with the roadrunner as I entered the restroom but moments later, on exiting, it was gone.  And I walked around and couldn’t relocate him.  With a stronger bladder I would have had more roadrunner but I am infinitely better off for roadrunner sightings now than I was when I woke up. I will never start another day not having seen a roadrunner.

I’ll probably see roadrunners everywhere I go now! And next is Arizona where on Wednesday evening I am giving a talk to Tucson Audubon.

Leaving California – blog 33

I’m not sure abut how I feel about California.

With  a population of 38million it is the most populous of US states, and indeed it would rank as the 12th largest economy in the world in its own right, so it isn’t to be ignored.

I’ve spent about two weeks here – partly to see Yosemite and the Xerces blue parts of San Francisco, partly to see Monterey Bay and a roadrunner in the Joshua Tree NP and partly because I knew it would be a good place to watch wildlife at either end of the day and write in a cheap motel in the middle of the day.  All that has worked well.

California seems less American than quite a lot of America.  The only times on this trip when, so far, I have encountered anything close to English off-hand rudeness were in California.

And there are masses of people and with them come the masses of parking lots and sprawling malls and casinos and just stuff.

But then, arriving in eastern California from Nevada it was like another world from that of the Central Valley or the ghastly Los Angeles – remote roads and beautiful country.

And then in the San Joaquin Valley there are wonderful wildlife refuges and kit foxes and coyotes and butterflies.

I’ve hardly scratched the surface so there’s no reason for me to have a view on California but as I drive out with the Beach Boys playing I carry a rucksack of good memories with me – of blue whales, of Liam the butterfly man (and actor), of my first roadrunner, of Mexican food, of sea otters, of El Capitan, of giant sequoia, of a very good Caesar salad, of avocados, of heat in the desert and of some good walks and some friendly people.

And a trip like this is for filling up the memory bank so that you can dip into it in the future.  I’ll be dipping into my California memories for some time to come.

Still looking for Hawaii (won’t happen), South Carolina and Rhode Island license plates.

Bird list on 235 species.

On the border – blog 34

Around here they go for short names.  Up the road is Gila Bend where there is a ‘famous’ ‘space hotel’ where I stayed on my last trip.  But this time I took the road south towards Mexico and the Organpipe Cactus National Monument (one down (?) from a National Park?).

You know the organpipe cactus – you see them in lots of westerns and lots of cartoons of deserts.

I am staying in the Marine Motel (eh?) in Ajo, and I drive through Why (yes, Why) to get to the National Monument.

Driving through California and into Arizona you glimpse the Mexican border quite often and there are loads of Border Patrol vehicles around.

I’ve had two conversations with the immigration staff today – both times they checked the glove compartment for tiny Mexicans and were perplexed that anyone might go birdwatching around these parts.  I would guess that I was put down as eccentric and harmless.

I’ve seen some good birds; Gila woodpecker and ladder-backed woodpecker as well as what I thought was thick-billed kingbird but that species is classed as occasional on the park checklist so now I am slightly unsure (although I can’t see what else it could have been).  Most thick-billed kingbirds live south of the border – but I know the border guards are easily distracted by foreign birders so one or two may have slipped through.

There are lesser nighthawks flying around outside.

The temperature got up to 112F, allegedly, today and that is hot.

So tomorrow I will be up early to see some birds and then be writing during the heat of the day – and thinking about my talk to Tucson Audubon Society which is on Wednesday evening.

I drove through the desert – blog 35

I drove through the desert in a car with no name early this morning to avoid the heat.  The alarm was set for 5am but I awoke a little earlier so I was at Alamo Canyon by 0530.

There were jackrabbits and cottontails, there were organpipe cacti and ocotillos, and there were Gila woodpeckers, ravens, Scott’s orioles, cactus wrens, white-winged doves and curve-billed thrashers.  And I had it all to myself and it was 70F not 110F.

White-winged doves were making lots of noise, but so too were Gila woodpeckers.  The doves go ‘Who cooks, for you?’ according to Sibley but I had decided that they go ‘We have pastr – am -i’ with the last syllable being a faint whisper.

Some of the organpipes had flowered overnight – their yellowish-white flowers brightened up the place.

I arrived at the information center at about 0820, thinking it would open at 0800, but found it opened at 0830, except today it opened at 0822 because the two ladies inside were so pleased and surprised to see someone trying to get in!

They also seemed pleased and surprised when I said ‘Yes please’ when they asked if I’d like to see the 15 minute introductory film to the Organpipe Cactus NM.  It was very good, as these things usually are in the USA.

I bought postcards and we chatted about F1 racing, how lovely my accent was and where I should go next before I headed off back to Ajo for stamp-buying and breakfast (and a failed attempt at a midday snooze).

I went back to Alamo Canyon at around 4pm. As I had read, all the cactus flowers from the morning, that had appeared overnight, were gone – shrivelled up or eaten.  There will be more tomorrow morning – how wonderful is that?

As I left at about 630pm I saw a bird fly from the roadside and I thought it might be a towhee, maybe a canyon towhee.  Canyon towhee would have been good but it was a pyrrhuloxia which is better.  Better because it has a better name and because it is a smarter looking bird.

The pyrrhuloxia looks like a northern cardinal with some sort of skin disease so that it has gone all blotchy – how cool is that?  And I assume that it is named after Pyrrhus, of dodgy victory fame (as presumably is the bullfinch) but I’m guessing there.

I like the desert.  In the desert you can remember your name and there are plants and birds and rocks and things.

Aha, Ajo – blog 36

If you are reading this then it’s because I didn’t have time to write a blog ‘today’ because I was giving a talk to Tucson Audubon – so I wrote this ‘yesterday’  (except that another blog follows this one – I spoil you really).

This is a very useful website as it gives you bird checklists of lots of national parks etc. These are invaluable in planning your journey and in figuring out what you have seen.  Sometimes it boils down to a choice between two species – and if one of them doesn’t occur in the site then you probably haven’t seen that one, you’ve seen the other one.  But it all depends on the checklists being accurate.

In my experience they seem pretty good.  But sometimes you wonder…

In the Organpipe Cactus National Monument both turkey vulture and black vulture are said to be Common and Resident.  I’ve seen both species lots in the past but on this trip I have seen thousands of turkey vultures (and very nice they are too – I’m not complaining) and no black vultures.

Here in the National Monument I reckon I have seen hundreds of turkey vultures and no black vultures so I was beginning to wonder whether I was missing them. So yesterday I went out in the heat of the day and watched vultures for an hour.  I saw lots of turkey vultures (and some ravens and red-tailed hawks) but no black vultures.  And that goes to prove nothing, maybe I was just in the wrong part of the area for black vultures.

I did have bison yesterday though – in a burger.  My bisonburger, medium/well done, southwest style, with salad and no bun and no fries was delicious.  With a couple of Cokes thrown in it came to $19 (an expensive meal for me) but I’m worth it.  I was told the bison was ranched in Montana.

That meal was in the 100 Estrella restaurant in Ajo.  I like Ajo – it has an attractive central square and everything else is a bit grotty – but I like that.  And the lesser nighthawks are still flying around.

A red letter day – blog 37

You get two blogs today for the price of none.

Today has been a lovely day – although I am writing this in a Starbucks in Tucson before giving my talk this evening so maybe it’ll all go wrong.

It’s been an easy day.  I woke around 6am and set off from Ajo towards Tucson in a leisurely way.  I kept my eyes open for raptors and saw a black vulture (at last) and a Harris hawk which took the bird list over 250 for the trip.  So far, so good.

I stopped for breakfast at Todd’s Restaurant at Ryan Airfield where there were lots of pilots and lots of old people having breakfast.  Gayleen was a very helpful waitress – not only did she help me decide on corned beef hash with eggs and toast but she gave me some prickly pear jelly to have with the toast.  Delicious.

Gayleen wants to visit Europe so I told her that Europe was worth a visit.

Further down the road there was evidence that ‘all you need is Walmart’ – I bought a top-up for my phone and I had a haircut too.  I always have my hair cut when I am in Arizona (twice out of two).

I need my hair cut because next week when I am back in the UK I have to go to my son’s graduation from Cambridge so although I will try to embarrass him in lots of ways I might as well have decent hair.

And today was the day when we might hear of said son’s final exam results.  The tension mounts…

I like the look of Tucson.  I found a cafe with wifi and learned that Golden Boy got a distinction in Part III of the Cambridge Maths course and so now will be heading to Edinburgh to do a PhD in maths.  Excellent!

I had time to spare and I spent that time driving around urban Tucson from park to park.  Surely I would see a bird of interest?

There are some birds that you know what they are the minute you see them – even though you’ve never seen them before and you haven’t swotted up on them.  I saw one in Jacob’s Park.

It wasn’t the woodpecker which I started looking at to figure out which species it was, it was the small bird sitting under the tree on a yellow metal picnic table.  Just a small bird with its back to me.

With its back to me but with the most striking of heads – the back of its head was…well…vermilion, I guess, as this was a male vermilion flycatcher.  There was no doubt about it – I didn’t need a book.  I could see some more vermilion low down and then it flicked around and sat on a metal waste bin and it was vermilion all over.  No other bird could be called the vermilion flycatcher – this was vermilion and a flycatcher.

Stunning! And in a park in Tucson.

Will I remember the day that Tom got his fantastic maths results as the day I saw my first vermilion flycatcher?  You bet!

A bit random – blog 38

If you are reading this it means that I have spent today without time to write a blog.  This will, I hope, be because I have been seeing loads and loads of birds with Richard Frey.

Seen:

Bumper sticker – Obama so loved the poor that he decided to make millions more of them

Billboard – don’t move a mussel (advice on how to make sure you don’t import invasive aquatic species through recreational boating)

Bumper sticker – Beef – it’s what’s for dinner

Leaflet – Fuel your Arizona travel with ethanol (in praise of biofuel)

Leaflet – How to live with coyotes (make them know they aren’t welcome and tell your neighbours to do the same)

Leaflet – If attacked by a mountain lion – fight back!

Leaflet – Dove and Band-tailed pigeon regulations 2011-12 (You can, if licensed, shoot up to 10 of those nice white-winged doves in the season).

Guided up a mountain – blog 39

Apologies for the late posting of this blog – yesterday was a great day but ended with difficulties in finding accommodation, difficulties in finding a meal and impossibilities in getting onto the internet.  Never mind.

Where was I?  The last ‘live’ update you got from me was just before I went to talk to Tucson Audubon.  Paul Green (ex-BTO) who is the Exec Director of Tucson Audubon, and several of his staff, were very kind to me and made a fuss of me, and then I gave my talk to about 40 folk who had braved the heat to come out for the evening.

Rather surprisingly there was a gentleman in the audience whose daughter lives about half a mile from me at home (yes, it is a small world isn’t it?) and also the author of “Hope is  a thing with feathers‘, Chris Cokinos, who was very kind in giving me a signed copy of his book and we will, I’m sure, be in touch over the next few weeks.

The next day (this was Thursday), I went birding with Richard Fray who is a Brit from Leicester who is in love with south east Arizona and its birds, and other wildlife, and scenery (and birds, again).

Richard is a tour leader and bird guide and he took me out for free, so I would be in a slightly difficult position if I’d found him to be hopeless because what would I now write…?

Luckily, although luck has nothing to do with it, only hard work and hours in the field, Richard is an excellent bird guide.  We went up Mount Lemmon and with his help I added around 50 species to my trip list, of which about 30 were lifers for me.

Starting at Tucson and going to the top of the road at Mount Lemmon you keep passing markers telling you how high you are and you get to over 9,000ft.  At different altitudes there are different habitats and therefore different birds.  Knowing where to stop and what to look for is pretty important.  I know that if I had ‘done’ this day on my own I would have seen a  fraction of the birds I saw with Richard.

A long list of birds we saw would be quite dull for you to read but here are some highlights; ‘wow!’ birds; painted redstart, red-faced warbler, olive warbler, Grace’s warbler, broad-billed hummingbird; ‘difficult birds’; northern beardless tyrranulet, Abert’s towhee, rufous-winged sparrow, greater peewee, buff-breasted flycatcher; ‘nice birds’; Arizona woodpecker, yellow-eyed junco, black-throated gray warbler.  And there were roadrunners too!

And it was rather nice to talk about British birders, the American scene, house prices in Arizona, American food, birds, birds and birds with a fellow Brit.  Richard was good company.

We called in at a Tucson Audubon ‘birds and beer’ evening in the Sky Bar and talked more birds and ate pizza before heading back to Richard’s place for an unsuccessful search of the grounds of his house for scorpions and a few cold beers outside looking at the Arizona stars and talking birds (mostly).

A great day – a long one but a really good one.  More birding with Richard tomorrow.

Humming – blog 40

I  opened the curtains to look at the feeders in Richard Fray’s ‘yard’ before 6am on Thursday morning and all the birds flew away.  But then they came back and from my bed I saw two lifers – canyon towhee and varied bunting.  How great is that?

And there were curve-billed thrashers and jackrabbits and antelope mice thingies.  On the hummingbird feeders there was a small hummingbird on one and a large hummingbird on the other.  Hummingbirds are pretty difficult to identify until you get used to them – and I am still very much feeling my way.

But without binoculars it was easy to see that one was big and the other was small (well, of course, being hummingbirds they were both tiny but one was a monster hummingbird compared with the other).

I looked at the small one first, maybe because small is beautiful, but also because I am clueless about hummingbirds, and identified it easily – although for the life of me I can’t remember which one it was as we’ve been talking about the other one ever since.  Maybe the small one was a black-chinned – I like them a lot.

But the other one was tricky.  As you flick through the pages of Sibley it is often the case that none of the birds on the pages seem to resemble the one you have in front of you.  This is not to say that David Sibley can’t draw birds, he most certainly can, but it just feels that ‘your bird’ is missing sometimes.

And then you find the bird but it is the wrong size or lives in the wrong place or isn’t quite right.  So I went to the loo instead.  When I came back the bird had gone.  But it came back to the same spot on the same feeder so I had another go.  And then it went. It was large, it was in Richard’s garden and it had two very obvious light stripes on its head.  The house finches and lesser goldfinches were pretty and I knew what they were.

Pretty soon Richard and I made contact and I told him about the hummer – and he got quite excited.  Whichever large species it was it was new for his ‘yard’ and on the basis of what I had said about it and time of year etc then it may have been a plain-capped starthroat which would be a rare bird.  But then again it might have been a ‘funny looking’ commoner species so we’ll never know- except I have a feeling Richard will be glancing at the hummingbird feeders even more often for the next few days

We spent some time waiting for the sky to darken with the slow flaps of the wings of giant hummingbirds – but it didn’t happen so we headed off for breakfast and more birds – many of them hummingbirds.

By the side of the road, withing five minutes of breakfast, I had three lifers; tropical kingbird, black-bellied whistling-duck and gray hawk (and another roadrunner soon after).

We saw a whole bunch of birds before parting at lunchtime but three stops (which didn’t involve too many sparrows) were particularly good.

At the Paton House in Patagonia we met Larry Morgan who looks after a huge array of hummingbird feeders, seed feeders, brush piles, fat balls, cut open fruit and water sources.  You can go into the yard and watch birds but a donation for sugar is welcome and was readily given by me.

There were birds everywhere, including hummingbirds, but the star was the violet-crowned hummingbird which appeared as soon as we arrived.  This is a lovely bird and when it is just a matter of feet away from you it is a special experience.  This backgarden is ‘the’ place to see it in the USA.

Actually the star was probably Larry who comes from Mississippi and has a southern drawl.  I told him he had a lovely accent and he told me that he had Scots-Irish ancestors and some Welsh too.  I think it was south USA rather than South Wales that gave him that voice.  He is the ‘Ambassador to the birds’ and a lovely man – looking after a ‘yard’ to die for.

We stopped at a pull-in, or layby, where we added yellow-breasted chat, canyon wren (a bird I missed completely on my last trip and, until I had Richard’s help, on this one too) and thick-billed kingbird.  Having seen this undoubted thick-billed kingbird I am 99% sure that I did see one on the scenic drive in the Organpipe Cactus National Monument.

Then off we went to another backyard, that of Mary Jo Ballator at Ash Canyon B&B.  Mary Jo is a lovely lady and appeared with an African gray parrot on her shoulder.  We talked of  birds and gun laws, hummingbirds and the Selfish Gene, fires and feeders with Mary Jo and her son (and her parrots) while we watched Bewick’s wrens, more hummingbirds, ladder-backed woodpeckers and blue grosbeaks.

This is the place to see lucifer hummingbird, and other rarities, but I was very happy just chatting and getting great views of lots of common species.  It was a wrench to leave, and if I am ever back that way then I would think of taking B&B there for the conversation and the birds.  If you visit, and birders are welcome just to come and look, then please make a donation for the feeder costs.

This was the parting of the ways for Richard and me – I thanked him for providing me with about 45 new species for the trip of which about 25 or more were lifers.  If you want to see birds in a foreign land then a guide like Richard is a good investment.  I like to find my own birds at home – and by ‘home’ I’d include much of Europe! – but when you are a fish out of water a guide can help you an awful lot.  If I were contemplating a week in south east Arizona I think I’d try to find birds on my own for 4-5 days and employ a guide for 2-3 days to get the most out of the visit.

Having said that I had to get on the road, I allowed myself an hour in Tombstone enjoying the Wild West – it was an impulse thing.  I didn’t plan to do it, but I did it – and I enjoyed it too.

But the miles don’t drive themselves so it was onto the freeway and heading east.  As I entered New Mexico I waved goodbye to Arizona.  Each time (twice) I have visited Arizona I have thought that I could live there.

And as I entered New Mexico I gave back an hour of time.  And as I drove east along the freeway I passed signs saying ‘Dust-storms may occur’ which seemed very philosophical (or perhaps just vague).  But what wasn’t vague was that I saw a South Carolina plate at last!

I may not know my hummingbirds but I am a pretty mean shot at reading state plates.

Richard Fray’s websites:

Arizona birder & Funbirding tours

Disappointed of NM, delighted of TX – blog 41

Yesterday wasn’t a perfect day.  Nothing absolutely awful happened but it just didn’t work out that well.  But today ended on a very high note.

Yesterday I drove through New Mexico and Texas to get to a National Park of which I had heard many years ago – Carlsbad Caverns.  Here I hoped to see an abundance of wildlife that might recall that of the passenger pigeon.

The drive through the desert was long but enjoyable.  Whenever my brain was saying ‘ just another bit of desert, then’ I told it to snap out of it as we don’t have much desert in east Northants and that’s where I’ll be in a couple of days – so let’s make the most of it.

Some of the desert was very deserty – dry, hot and with impressive mountains framing the desert landscape too.

I arrived at Carlsbad Caverns and drove up to the visitor centre where there were lots of cars (about half the license plates of the USA were represented – but not Rhode Island).

I could have gone down the caverns but I didn’t – instead I asked the nice man about the bat flight  programme.  He explained that it was free, where to go and when to arrive.  Then, rather sheepishly he said that they didn’t have that many bats this year – hundreds or thousands rather than hundreds of thousands.

Oh.

That’s a shame – I thought.  I had been banking on, and looking forward to, around half a million Mexican free-tailed bats streaming out of their caverns like a plume of smoke.  That’s what I had promised myself.

Oh.  Oh well.

I drove back down the road and booked into the only motel in town which I thought was a bit expensive at $100 (inc tax) but the man said it was normal for round here.  When I raised a quizzical eyebrow at the mention of ’round here’ (since there wasn’t anywhere else round here) he said he meant in this local area. In fact the Roadway Inn was a very clean motel with good wifi, well appointed rooms and a swimming pool if you wanted a swimming pool.  So it wasn’t as much of a rip-off as I had feared.

I moved some stuff from the car into my room and dropped my binoculars and some books.  Then I caught up on blogs and emails and then bought most of the bananas in the shop opposite (the only shop in town) for later and ate at the restaurant (the only one in town).

Then, thinking that I was on 296 species for the trip I resolved to inspect all the local sparrows for some new species and see what else I could see.  Except I couldn’t see much, or rather I could see blurred versions of everything.

I suppose that they make binoculars quite carefully so that the two eyepieces point in the same direction and dropping them on the concrete had adjusted the setting rather a lot.  Since I have had these Zeiss 10x40B Dialyts since my 18th birthday (they are 37 years old) I feel quite attached to them.  Fingers crossed they are mendable.

Being an optimist I told myself that it would have been much worse at any other time on the trip.

Birding was impossible – the only species I could identify were vermilion flycatchers, and only the males of them.  So, I was let off looking closely at sparrows.

I turned up for the bat flight and added a new species of bird to the trip list when I realised, rather late in the day, that the swallows flying around this cave were cave swallows not cliff swallows – 297 but not much scope for any other additions.

There were hundreds of us waiting for the bats to come out.  we were told that we must turn off all cameras, phones games etc at 1945 and that we would be in trouble if we didn’t.  We were also given the chance to spend $5 on adopting a bat (but we couldn’t take one home).  And we were told to be quiet.

I got a good view of an amazing insect that shoots around these parts – it’s a tarantula hawk, a kind of wasp that lays its eggs on tarantulas down their burrows I am told.  I’d seen some and wondered what they were.  My first sighting had me thinking it was a hummingbird at first.  But they are big, fly very fast in straight lines and are black and red.  When this giant wasp landed amongst us most people backed away but I leaned forward to get a better view.  Impressive and no need for binoculars.

Eventually the bats started coming out of the cave.  They were an impressive sight and we all enjoyed them but there were high hundreds or low thousands so it wasn’t quite the wildlife spectacle I had been expecting.

More impressive was the wildlife law enforcement officer who hoiked several people out of the crowd for using cameras – we had been told sternly and often that we could not.  Whether these people were fined thousands of dollars I don’t know- but they had been warned.

You know what they say about Texas – they have it bigger!

This evening I stood on a bridge in Austin over the (Texas) Colorado River with maybe 500 other people, and there were another 300 or so on the banks of the river and another 100 or so in boats or kayaks on the river.  We waited for a bat spectacular.

The Austin American-Statesman newspaper let lots of us park in its parking lot and we thronged the Congress Avenue bridge in the middle of Austin. On the north side of the bridge were tall buildings including the Radisson Hotel whereas the Hyatt was on the south side.

Great-tailed grackles flew around and perched on debris in the river.  A few green herons and snowy egrets flew past.  A large turtle was in the river too.

Men sold ice-creams and water bottles.  Nobody told us to be quiet or to turn off our phones.  There were all sorts of people there.

A young lady in cut off shorts, a deep tan, a scooped neckline, red lipstick, white teeth and matching light green finger and toenails said to the two drippy looking blokes with her that ‘Things should start right now’ at 2038. Huh – what does she know?

Within 90 seconds, the first few thousands of bats were emerging from the very bridge on which we stood.  20 feet below me thousands of bats were swirling around.  Then they headed off along the river at tree-top height, heading south east.

A plume of bats headed out from the bridge for a couple of minutes – an unending stream.

Wow! That was great!  But that was just the beginning.

After a short break the stream started again and bats poured along the river side.  Then another stream started from the middle of the bridge and another from the northern side.  Three plumes of bats heading off to feed.  In the twilight we could see them hurrying away in long flappy lines.  They passed across the face of a distant block of flats (apartments) where a peregrine plucked a bat from the throng and headed back to the centre of town with it.

For a few moments there were bats everywhere to the east of the bridge in long whisps of bat-smoke.

This was a wildlife spectacular. This was a natural wonder.  This was free and it was in the middle of one of the USA’s big cities – and it will happen every night through the summer.

We are told that about 1.5 million bats use this bridge as their nursery colony.  I’m not arguing with that – there were lots.

I note in passing that several flocks of passenger pigeon were estimated at being in the low billions of individuals.  Audubon estimated a flock as over 1 billion near Hardinsburgh, KY where I met the mouthy waitress on a Saturday five weeks ago.

The Mexican free-tailed bat show in Austin is the closest that modern-day Americans, and passing Brits, can get to seeing the abundance of life that the passenger pigeon provided.  Let us hope that the next century is kinder to wildlife, in the USA, and across the world, than it has been in the last couple of hundreds of years.  We can and must do better…

I fly home tomorrow but there will be some USA trip-ending blogs to come.  And then I have some book reviews to write for this blog, including one of George Monbiot’s book.  And then, soon, this blog will revert to pointing out how nature could be better served in the UK by politicians, NGOs and the rest of us.

To the just under 5000 readers of this blog whilst I have been in the USA – I hope you’ve enjoyed the trip.  Thanks for coming with me.  No roadrunners were harmed in the making of this blog (and I saw another one today).

I have blue eyes – blog 42

I have said too little, I feel, about the music which has accompanied me across 20 US states in just over five weeks.

With a little help from Francis Sinatra;

Thank you for coming to fly with me to see what spring is like in Michigan, Kansas and Utah.

We saw Chicago in passing, which is Frank’s kind of town but LA is no lady that I’d like to be with and I gave NY, NY a miss too this time.

I have been a rover, and driven 10,000 miles, while crossing you in style.  But, USA, despite all your faults, and all of mine, I get a kick out of you. Back home I will remember the summer wind across the plains and mountains, forests and deserts.  And I’ve got you, under my skin and the memory of all that will stay with me forever.

And now the end is near, what now my love? I have a book to write – some of which was written in every one of the states I passed through.  That’s life, and I feel on top in June.

Top 10s – blog 43

I covered 8270 miles in the USA and visited 20 states (TX, LA, AR, MO, KY, IN, OH, WV, WI, MI, PA, NY, IL, KS, CO, UT, NV, CA, AZ, NM) which means, completely incidentally, that I ‘need’ to visit only Oregon, Washington, North Dakota, Iowa (how did I ‘miss’ Iowa again?), Oklahoma, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Florida (and that would make quite a good trip as it happens) and Vermont for the set of the lower 48 contiguous states.

Just for fun, here are;

The top ten landscapes/views of the trip:

  1. Arches National Park, Utah – the three gossips etc
  2. El Capitan, Yosemite National Park
  3. the first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean after driving across the USA (near Monterey Bay)
  4. the open road anywhere where it stretches ahead with no cars (preferably with distant mountains)
  5. crossing the Mississippi River from Missouri into Kentucky on day 2 of this journey
  6. Sunset in the Joshua Tree National Park, California
  7. The Organpipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona
  8. the road from Utah into Nevada
  9. Old growth forest in Ohio as a very rare glimpse back in time
  10. The view from the Passenger Pigeon Memorial in Wyalusing State Park, Wisconsin, looking over the confluence of the Mississippi and Wisconsin rivers.

The top ten wildlife sights:

  1. Blue whale – Monterey Bay, California
  2. Sea Otter – Monterey Bay, California
  3. Roadrunner in Joshua Tree National Park, California
  4. Mexican free-tailed bats pouring out from under the Congress Avenue Bridge, Austin, Texas
  5. Killer whales – Monterey Bay, California
  6. Kirtland’s warbler, near Mio, Michigan
  7. Bobolink in the rare uncut, unfertilised pastures near Ithaca, New York
  8. Coyote – first in the Tall Grass Prairie National Preserve, Kansas (and many sightings after that)
  9. Giant sequoia – Yosemite National Park, California
  10. California sea lion – Monterey Bay, California

The top ten breakfasts;

  1. Mom’s Cafe, Salina, Utah
  2. Tony’s family restaurant, Sealy, Texas.  This was only on Monday so I haven’t written about it. Good hash browns and very friendly staff.  As I hoiked up my trousers as I paid the bill (check) the lady on the till told me I hadn’t eaten enough if my ‘pants’ were falling down, and another waitress told me that ‘we’ll miss you’ when I said I was heading back home.
  3. Mark’s cafe, Brownstown, Illinois
  4. Cup of coffee made by Jessie Barry with an avocet drawn, perfectly, in the froth.  Ithaca, New York
  5. Jerry’s family restaurant, Coshocton, Ohio
  6. Jake’s place, Hardinsburgh, Kentucky
  7. Red’s restaurant, Fordyce, Arkansas
  8. Andrea’s Cafe, 29 Palms, California
  9. Todd’s restaurant, Ryan airfield, nr Tucson, Arizona
  10. Fresh, cheap avocados eaten in the car in California

USA checklist of birds – blog 44

For what it’s worth, here is my bird list for five and a half weeks in the USA – just over 300 species and over 80 lifers (in bold).  On a careful run through Sibley I noticed I’d missed out a few species – western grebe (from California), black vulture (from Arizona) and roadrunner (of all things) from California too.  And then there was the hummingbird that got away…

If you know lots about American birds and doubt any of these records then do get in touch. However, most of them were actually seen in the company of birders who know their stuff!

My USA lifelist is now bigger than my UK lifelist.  Although, in both countries, there are plenty yet to see…

  1. Pacific loon
  2. Common loon
  3. Eared grebe
  4. Pied-billed grebe
  5. Western grebe
  6. Black-footed albatross
  7. Sooty shearwater
  8. American white pelican
  9. Brown pelican
  10. Double-crested cormorant
  11. Brandt’s cormorant
  12. Pelagic cormorant
  13. Great blue heron
  14. Great egret
  15. Snowy egret
  16. Cattle egret
  17. Green heron
  18. Black-crowned night-heron
  19. White ibis
  20. White-faced ibis
  21. Mute swan
  22. Canada goose
  23. Brant
  24. Snow goose
  25. Black-bellied whistling-duck
  26. Mallard
  27. American black duck
  28. Gadwall
  29. American wigeon
  30. Shoveler
  31. Cinnamon teal
  32. Blue-winged teal
  33. Hooded merganser
  34. Common merganser
  35. Ruddy duck
  36. Turkey vulture
  37. Black vulture
  38. Northern harrier
  39. White-tailed kite
  40. Mississippi kite
  41. Cooper’s hawk
  42. Harris’s hawk
  43. Gray hawk
  44. Red-shouldered hawk
  45. Broad winged hawk
  46. Swainson’s hawk
  47. Red-tailed hawk
  48. Golden eagle
  49. Bald eagle
  50. Osprey
  51. Merlin
  52. American kestrel
  53. Peregrine
  54. California quail
  55. Gambel’s quail
  56. Ring-necked pheasant
  57. Wild turkey
  58. Moorhen
  59. American coot
  60. Sora
  61. Sandhill crane
  62. Black-bellied plover
  63. Semipalmated plover
  64. Killdeer
  65. Black oystercatcher
  66. American avocet
  67. Black-necked stilt
  68. Greater yellowlegs
  69. Lesser yellowlegs
  70. Spotted sandpiper
  71. Upland sandpiper
  72. Long-billed curlew
  73. Ruddy turnstone
  74. Sanderling
  75. Dunlin
  76. White-rumped sandpiper
  77. Semipalmated sandpiper
  78. Least sandpiper
  79. Short-billed dowitcher
  80. Bonaparte’s gull
  81. Ring-billed gull
  82. California gull
  83. Herring gull
  84. Western gull
  85. Heermanns’ gull
  86. Caspian tern
  87. Elegant tern
  88. Common tern
  89. Forster’s tern
  90. Gull-billed tern
  91. Black skimmer
  92. Common murre
  93. Pigeon guillemot
  94. Cassin’s auklet
  95. Rhinoceros auklet
  96. Mourning dove
  97. Eurasian collared-dove
  98. Rock dove
  99. White-winged dove
  100. Inca dove
  101. Ruddy ground-dove
  102. Yellow-billed cuckoo
  103. Black-billed cuckoo
  104. Greater roadrunner
  105. Barn owl
  106. Barred owl
  107. Burrowing owl
  108. Northern pygmy owl
  109. Common nighthawk
  110. Lesser nighthawk
  111. Chimney swift
  112. White-throated swift
  113. Violet-crowned hummingbird
  114. Broad-billed hummingbird
  115. Magnificent hummingbird
  116. Black-chinned hummingbird
  117. Anna’s hummingbird
  118. Ruby-throated hummingbird
  119. Broad-tailed hummingbird
  120. Belted kingfisher
  121. Acorn woodpecker
  122. Red-headed woodpecker
  123. Gila woodpecker
  124. Red-bellied woodpecker
  125. Downy woodpecker
  126. Hairy woodpecker
  127. Nuttall’s woodpecker
  128. Ladder-backed woodpecker
  129. Arizona woodpecker
  130. Northern flicker
  131. Gilded flicker
  132. Pileated woodpecker
  133. Northern beardless-tyrranulet
  134. Greater pewee
  135. Eastern wood-peewee
  136. Western wood-peewee
  137. Cordilleran flycatcher
  138. Acadian flycatcher
  139. Willow flycatcher
  140. Alder flycatcher
  141. Least flycatcher
  142. Buff-breasted flycatcher
  143. Black phoebe
  144. Eastern phoebe
  145. Say’s phoebe
  146. Vermilion flycatcher
  147. Dusky-capped flycatcher
  148. Ash-throated flycatcher
  149. Great crested flycatcher
  150. Thick-billed kingbird
  151. Eastern kingbird
  152. Tropical kingbird
  153. Cassin’s kingbird
  154. Western kingbird
  155. Scissor-tailed flycatcher
  156. Loggerhead shrike
  157. Red-eyed vireo
  158. Warbling vireo
  159. Philadelphia vireo
  160. Bell’s vireo
  161. Hutton’s vireo
  162. Plumbeous vireo
  163. Steller’s jay
  164. Blue jay
  165. Western scrub-jay
  166. Mexican jay
  167. Pinyon jay
  168. Clark’s nutcracker
  169. Black-billed magpie
  170. Yellow-billed magpie
  171. Common raven
  172. Chihuahuan raven
  173. American crow
  174. Fish crow
  175. Horned lark
  176. Purple martin
  177. Northern rough-winged swallow
  178. Bank swallow
  179. Violet-green swallow
  180. Tree swallow
  181. Cliff swallow
  182. Cave swallow
  183. Barn swallow
  184. Bridled titmouse
  185. Oak titmouse
  186. Tufted titmouse
  187. Black-capped chickadee
  188. Carolina chickadee
  189. Mountain chickadee
  190. Verdin
  191. Bushtit
  192. Red-breasted nuthatch
  193. White-breasted nuthatch
  194. Pygmy nuthatch
  195. Brown creeper
  196. Carolina wren
  197. Bewick’s wren
  198. House wren
  199. Marsh wren
  200. Cactus wren
  201. Rock wren
  202. Canyon wren
  203. Blue-gray gnatcatcher
  204. Black-tailed gnatcatcher
  205. Mountain bluebird
  206. Eastern bluebird
  207. Western bluebird
  208. American robin
  209. Veery
  210. Hermit thrush
  211. Gray catbird
  212. Northern mockingbird
  213. Brown thrasher
  214. Curve-billed thrasher
  215. California thrasher
  216. Sage thrasher
  217. European starling
  218. Phainopepla
  219. Cedar waxwing
  220. Northern parula
  221. Blue-winged warbler
  222. Virginia’s warbler
  223. Lucy’s warbler
  224. Yellow warbler
  225. Chestnut-sided warbler
  226. Magnolia warbler
  227. Cerulean warbler
  228. Yellow-rumped warbler
  229. Black-throated gray warbler
  230. Kirtland’s warbler
  231. Pine warbler
  232. Blackpoll warbler
  233. Yellow-throated warbler
  234. Grace’s warbler
  235. Prothonotary warbler
  236. American redstart
  237. Painted redstart
  238. Ovenbird
  239. Northern waterthrush
  240. Mourning warbler
  241. MacGillivray’s warbler
  242. Common yellowthroat
  243. Red-faced warbler
  244. Canada warbler
  245. Yellow-breasted chat
  246. Olive warbler
  247. Hepatic tanager
  248. Summer tanager
  249. Western tanager
  250. Scarlet tanager
  251. Northern cardinal
  252. Pyrrhuloxia
  253. Black-headed grosbeak
  254. Rose-breasted grosbeak
  255. Blue grosbeak
  256. Indigo bunting
  257. Varied bunting
  258. Dickcissel
  259. Spotted towhee
  260. Eastern towhee
  261. Green-tailed towhee
  262. California towhee
  263. Canyon towhee
  264. Abert’s towhee
  265. Rufous-crowned sparrow
  266. Botteri’s sparrow
  267. Rufous-winged sparrow
  268. Black-throated sparrow
  269. Black-chinned sparrow
  270. Chipping sparrow
  271. Grasshopper sparrow
  272. Savannah sparrow
  273. Lark bunting
  274. White-throated sparrow
  275. White-crowned sparrow
  276. Fox sparrow
  277. Song sparrow
  278. Dark-eyed junco
  279. Yellow-eyed junco
  280. Western meadowlark
  281. Eastern meadowlark
  282. Bobolink
  283. Brown-headed cowbird
  284. Bronzed cowbird
  285. Yellow-headed blackbird
  286. Red-winged blackbird
  287. Brewer’s blackbird
  288. Common grackle
  289. Great-tailed grackle
  290. Bullock’s oriole
  291. Baltimore oriole
  292. Hooded oriole
  293. Orchard Oriole
  294. Scott’s oriole
  295. Purple finch
  296. Cassin’s finch
  297. House finch
  298. Pine siskin
  299. American goldfinch
  300. Lesser goldfinch
  301. House sparrow

Driving, eating and sleeping across the USA – blog 45

Just a few thoughts for travellers to the USA, particularly from the UK, based on my experience.  And my experience, of two long trips now, is based on driving long distances and not planning ahead too much so that you have the flexibility to go where the road takes you.

Driving across the USA:

  • it’s a big place but, compared with the UK and Europe, the roads are far less busy
  • most people drive on the right, most of the time, so it’s a good idea to do that too…
  • American drivers are pretty good, rather nervous folk actually out of the big cities, so driving isn’t scary
  • get satellite navigation, and buy it yourself rather than hire it with the car if you are staying for more than a few days.  It will save you lots of time and wasted miles and will help you track down places to eat and sleep in unknown distant towns too.  Satnav also gives you quite accurate real-time info on speed limits which is useful if you want to stay within them
  • get a car with cruise control – it makes life a bit easier and will help keep down your fuel costs
  • pay for ‘roadside assistance’, either with the hire car or buy it independently, because you may need it and even if you don’t it feels like the sort of insurance that is worth having for peace of mind
  • check where the spare tyre is before you leave as finding it in the rain and the dark by the roadside in South Dakota is no fun in my experience.  This is good advice, but not advice that I ever heed…
  • you can turn right on red lights, if there is no traffic, in some states – but not all of them
  • gas prices vary across states (because taxes do) and with a little planning you can fill up on the right side of the state line
  • your car may give you information on fuel consumption – keeping an eye on it is something to do and an aid to cheaper better driving
  • buying ‘gas’ is confusing in a fun sort of way.  Often you need to pay before filling.  You can pay at the pump or inside but with a non-US credit card you’ll find (not always) that you are asked for a zip code by the petrol pump and you don’t have one so then you have to go inside and pay.  How do you know how much to pay if you haven’t filled up yet? If you pay for $50 worth of gas and then only get $47 into your car then your credit card is automatically refunded $3 – at least it should be. I have yet to check whether the couple of times this should have happened for me it actually did.
  • it’s a big place and your next gas station may easily be 75 miles distant in unpopulated parts of the USA – keep your tank well-filled
  • if you reverse into a parking space people will clap and cheer in admiration

Eating:

  • I’m in favour of it!
  • if all you want to do is eat Macdonalds then you have come to the right place.
  • I made a point of avoiding the big chains wherever possible (I found myself in a Pizza Hut once and a Denny’s once too – not much choice those times) and this is worth it.  Most things called ‘family restaurants’ are indeed that and tend to get my custom.
  • you’ll usually pay tax on top of what is the price on the menu
  • breakfast is the most important meal of the day and is a social occasion for many Americans too.  This is the meal you want to get right and it is the time when you will experience American culture best too.
  • breakfast menus are pretty standard across the USA: a standard breakfast is protein, carbohydrate and more carbohydrate such as eggs/bacon/sausage/hashed beef/steak with home fries/hash browns and toast (rye, wheat, white or sourdough is often the choice) or ‘English”muffin’.  I often had 2 eggs, hash browns and sourdough toast.  Be prepared to be quizzed on how you want your eggs, which type of potato you want, which type of toast you want, whether you really don’t want any meat – if you pass the test you get some breakfast.
  • most drinks you order, certainly soda fountain drinks (Cokes, Pepsis etc), iced tea and coffee come ‘bottomless’ – you will be offered, or simply given, free refills for the price of your drink.
  • I quite like the standard coffee that you get everywhere but can also understand why Starbucks is such a success – it tastes like luxury coffee after a few days of the standard fare (and there is free wifi in most Starbucks cafes).

Drinking:

  • I drank an awful lot of sweet fizzy drinks but hardly any alcohol – whether that worked out as a nett health benefit I am not sure
  • most US eating places I visited were not licensed so alcohol wasn’t an option and that was fine
  • much of the USA is distinctly warmer than the UK and quite a lot of it is desert – you need to buy water (at gas stations usually) to drink in the car.  The back of my car filled up with empty water bottles tossed over my right shoulder into the back as I drove.
  • I developed the routine of taking a few bottles of water into my motel room at night so I had cool water first thing in the morning

Sleeping:

  • I stayed in motels across the USA but had to stay in hotels a few nights
  • Prices vary from $30/night (rock bottom) to over $100 – plus local taxes – and I think I averaged about $52 (c£37)
  • You get the same thing wherever you stay; one or two enormous beds, a large TV, a microwave, a fridge, a shower/bath.  The difference in price derives from location and grottiness.  Grottier places are cheaper – and if all you want is to crawl into bed, go to sleep, shower and leave, then grotty is fine.  Otherwise in-town is more expensive than edge of town, tourist places are more expensive than the type of place where people are puzzled to meet a foreigner, and places that offer breakfast (most hotels) are more expensive than those which don’t.  Breakfast is not worth paying for in most places where you stay – go out and find a diner for better food, cheaper food and better surroundings.
  • I needed wifi and most places claim to have it and it is always free – please note UK establishments!  On a few occasions the wifi connected but didn’t really work.  Commonly the wifi barely reaches the rooms most distant from the motel office so I made a point of making ‘wifi that works’ a standard question and requirement when getting a room.  I tested the wifi before the bed or the shower on entering a room for the night and asked to change rooms if it didn’t work well.
  • Often when you pay by credit card your transaction goes through overnight – which means that some places are reluctant to give you a receipt before your payment has cleared.  If you aren’t worried about this then don’t worry about it

The USA is a big place, and a varied one.  Driving large distances across it, through it, with it, is a great adventure.  It is, though, a middle-aged man’s adventure – not very adventurous really!  Americans speak a pretty good version of English (although you will meat Hispanic and Asian motel staff whose English is a bit rough), the food is familiar and a credit card will get you most things that you want.

But, I recommend that you try it.  Someone told me that there is a book which says that the USA is really 11 countries rolled into one.  That rings true.  My experience was that the USA is a wonderful country full of lovely people, fantastic vistas and stunning wildlife.  See what you make of it.

David, Gladys and other companions – blog 46

I wasn’t on my own as I travelled across the USA.  David came with me the whole way and Gladys was there almost throughout.

The Sibley ‘Guide to birds‘ was in the passenger seat of my Hyundai Sonata right the way across the USA.  Border Patrol officers glanced at it and were reassured that I really was birdwatching and not smuggling people or drugs.   David accompanied me into diners and spent the night with me in motel rooms.  His pages were flicked through while I ate hash browns in Kentucky, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Texas.  He provided most of the answers I was looking for.  He was even the perfect size to slip behind my back and give lumbar support on those long days of driving.

He now sits on my bookshelf and will remind me, over the next three months of writing, of the sights of gorgeous warblers, difficult flycatchers, numerous woodpeckers and the hummingbird that got away.  Just the sight of the red-tailed hawk on the front cover takes me back to blue skies in Arizona, telegraph posts in New York and points in between.

Gladys joined me on Day 2 but I only discovered that her real name is Samantha much later.  She is the voice of my satnav and she gave accurate and useful advice, in a timely manner right across the USA.  When I strayed she didn’t even sigh before telling me how to get back on track.  Gladys, you took me to new places and I am really grateful for that.

As always in the USA I was struck by the widespread nature of some bird species.  There is the east/west divide which means that you drop some familiar companions on either side of this fascinating varying biogeographical line but some species stay with you.  Let’s hear it for the raven for example – a species I saw in northern Michigan where the winters are hard and Arizona where the summers are torrid.  Mockingbirds were with me almost everywhere too.  House sparrows and starlings are found just about everywhere across the USA and many Americans would like us to take them back.  But one bird I saw on most days, and in some numbers on many of them, was the mourning dove.  Because my journey was focussed on getting information and inspiration for my book on passenger pigeons I believe that mourning doves must be mourning their passenger pigeon cousins.

I can honestly say that every time I saw a mourning dove I thought ‘passenger pigeon’ – a species once so abundant that its numbers would have meant that if it had been found right across the span of my travels then almost every other bird I would have seen in the USA would have been a passenger pigeon.

I’d better write that book.

Tomorrow finishes these American blogs with some thank yous and then this blog will go back to its accustomed UK focus.

Thank yous – blog 47

Flight Centre at Cambridge for sorting out my flights and car hire and especially Samantha for moving quickly just before I left to correct the mistake of my car hire being booked at a different airport from the one where I arrived and left!

I was lucky, in the Wayne National Forest to meet several Forest Service staff who were incredibly helpful when I asked how I could see some really old trees.  Dawn McCarthy pointed me in the direction of her husband, Brian, who just happens to be a professor at the University of Ohio in Athens and is an expert on old growth forest and vice-chair of the American Chestnut Foundation.  Brian was kind enough to point me in the direction of Dysart woods which happened to be near somewhere else that I needed to go anyway (sorry to be so mysterious – you’ll need to buy the book).

In Wyalusing State Park, Wisconsin, I met Bev Pozega who shares my enthusiasm for passenger pigeons and was not only great to talk to but also helpful with information on getting gas etc

Michael Federspiel of the Little Traverse Historical Society for providing lots of information at Petoskey.

At Cornell, many people, but especially:

  • Matthew Young and Jennifer Smith for arranging for me to talk there
  • Jessie Barry and Chris Wood for putting me up and showing me loads of birds – the two of you hooting into the dark, with fireflies in the trees, to encourage a barred owl to talk to us will stay with me as a memory for ever!
  • John Fitzpatrick for introducing me for my talk and for continuing friendship
  • Tom Schulenburg for showing me a drawer full of extinct birds and letting me hold a passenger pigeon in my trembling hands
  • and many others for discussions

Laura Kammermeier for being one of those people that you meet on the internet and then find that they are very nice real people too – see you at Bird Fair!

Danielle at Manhattan’s Flint Hills Discovery Center for being lovely and very helpful.

Wendy at the Tall Grass Prairie National Preserve for being lovely and giving me useful tips on where to stay locally – saving me time and money.

Alex at the Longhorn Saloon, Strong City, KS for being lovely and staying open and feeding me even though I arrived only 10 minutes before closing.

Monterey Bay Whale Watch for providing some of the top wildlife-watching moments of my life as well as of this trip and especially Kate Spencer for her knowledge, enthusiasm and good humour.

Liam O’Brien for a great day with butterflies in San Francisco (and thanks to the Xerces Society and Bob Pyle for putting us in touch)

All at Tucson Audubon but particularly Paul Green for arranging for me to talk there and for being a very kind host.

Chris Cokinos for the signed copy of  ‘Hope is the thing with feathers‘ that I re-read on my return flight.

Richard Fray for being a great bird guide and a real laugh.

Larry Morgan for having a lovely accent and great hummingbirds in his ‘yard’.

Mary Jo Ballater for conversation that was good enough to distract me from the swarms of birds in her back yard.

The Outback Steakhouse at 11600 Research Blvd, Austin for providing an excellent steak as my last US dinner (with sweet potato fries) but also accurate, cheerful advice on where to go to see the Mexican free-tailed bats.

And all those waitresses and all those ladies who loved my accent…

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