April

 

American Gunslinger, Circa 2013

I slink.  I stalk.  I slither down the trail.

My weapon is charged.  I’m loaded for bear.

I know where he’ll hide and this time won’t fail

To blast the little guy out of the air.

 

Got you, sucker!  In ten eighty HD!

Just touch it up a bit and then I spot

A little mark that nails down the ID.

Olive-sided Flycatcher, you got caught!

 

In woods at dawn, so cold that I shiver

And later warmed by sun at ocean’s edge.

Or canoeing down the Manistique River

Or perching all day on a mountain ledge.

 

I leave the house and I’ve already won

Doing it with an SZ-31!

 

SSpoonbill

Tree Swallow, Stroud Preserve, PA

 

April 10- Wed- Spring starting at Tyler

The bird count was up; the bird watcher count was up too.  Usually there have been ten or fifteen on the winter walks.  Today we were up over 25 with more joining as we walked.

      Right away we got a taste of spring.  Tree swallows had claimed the nesting boxes in the field near the parking lot.  When Chris and I saw them at Santee, they were flying, which was nice.  Today I got to see them perching on top of their boxes, so I could really focus on their colors.  When you think about it, the sky and water are usually not blue.  It’s a treat to see a bird so beautifully colored.  It isn’t a blue-blue, like in a Blue Jay or a Bluebird.  It’s a deep greenish blue that seems lush and full of energy.

      The next sign of spring was a Flicker courtship ritual.  A couple was romancing in the fields not too far from the Tree Swallows.  They would fly a few feet up and dart at each other, then come together, and dart away again.  It was nice to see young creatures having good clean fun.  The finches were another treat.  I saw Goldfinches in their spring colors at my feeder this week and a few were out at Tyler today.  There are a lot of yellow birds, but none are as brilliantly, purely yellow as a Goldfinch with his fresh breeding plumage.

      We saw a lot of Pine Siskins too, which has been a recurring theme.  It’s a sign of spring only because we’ll be saying good-bye to them very soon as they head father north.  We got a good look at an Osprey flying overhead and watched a Crow harassing a Red-tailed Hawk.  Usually I root for the underdog, especially when sparrows drive off a hawk.  But I can’t bring myself to cheer for the Crow.  I hope that doesn’t make me a bad person.

      The final treat at Tyler was an Eastern Phoebe who was perched on a branch and tail bobbing like a champion.  I’m underlining it as a life bird only because this time I was with experts who could confirm for me that it was a Phoebe.  Sue, the walk leader, pointed out that the tail-bobbing was the field mark that distinguished it from other Flycatchers.

      There was a big surprise when I got home.  Getting out of my car and still standing in my driveway, I found myself staring into the piercing eyes of a large raptor who was perching  twenty feet away in my Maple tree.  He was between crow-sized and Red-tailed Hawk-sized, probably twenty plus inches.  His back and head was gray and his breast was white -- no lines or markings, but not pure white either.  His head was small and he had the sharp hooked beak of a raptor.  I watched him until he got bored looking at me and flew back beyond my property and out of the neighborhood.  I checked my bird guide carefully and I think it might be a male Northern Harrier.   I think this was the same bird that Chris and I saw together on a prior walk.  I’ve never seen a Harrier before and I’m not good at identifying raptors of any size and color.  So it appears that my bird feeding station is working its way up the food chain.  I just hope that he doesn’t catch any of the Gold Finches or Purple Finches or the Cardinals.  They are all too pretty to eat.

 

 

4/14/2013-Sunday Morning- Hickory Hill Camp

Where am I?  What state am I in?  What am I doing?

      I’m at a crossroad in the state of contentment.  I’m looking at a tree. 

      It’s a really big tree.  It is as tall as our tallest single trunk trees that live in the Northeast; I’d say about 130 feet high.  Its trunks are as thick as our big single trunk trees.  I can see nine that are still over three feet in diameter, thirty feet above the ground.  What makes it such a colossus is its vastness.  It spreads out across an acre of land.  Truly, it could not fit in my yard.

      The trunks start out from a central area -- you can’t say central point because the center spot is too big to be a point.  Then they stretch out in all directions and overshadow its very large territory.  No other big trees grow under it.  Almost touching its outermost branches are similar trees, stretching out from a different center.  Hanging from every branch and trunk in long grey-green tendrils, some fifty feet long, is Spanish moss -- giving the tree a ghostly appearance.  Beneath the canopy is a thick green carpet of bushes and small trees, about fifteen feet high, that too with a decoration of moss.  All of it is green and alive.

      The forest is full of sound.  For several hours the birds have been singing.  It’s from all directions and many different songs, warblers, woodpeckers, cardinals, and so many songs that they blend together until one song breaks out and then a different bird answers.  Even though I can hear hundreds of birds around me, I can only see a few as they flit around in the tree tops and briefly pop out of the bushes.

      I slept in a hammock last night and the birds woke me at dawn with a bold announcement that the day was about to start.  I was tempted to get up immediately, but didn’t because it was too dark.  As soon as it was reasonably light, I took the trail out of our camp marked “Ocean”.  It led though a pine and oak forest.  Although I could hear a lot of cheeps, trills, whistles, and even some squawks, I didn’t see any birds long enough to tell what they were.  Whenever they showed themselves across the path, it was briefly.  In the trees, they flitted about so fast that I couldn’t focus on any of them.  Several times I passed through areas that smelled wonderful.  Someday I might be able to describe the smells more poetically or scientifically, but today all I have is “perfumy” and “nice”.  Still, that’s significant from a guy who is severely aroma-challenged.

      In an area where the underbrush was more thinned out, one of the small acrobats slowed down long enough for me to get a good look at him.  His most obvious feature was his bright yellow throat.  His back and sides were grey, white, and black barred, with some black streaks.  The sides of his face had a dark black patch and his bill was black.  It was a Yellow-throated Warbler, easy to identify when he holds still for fifteen seconds.

      Farther along the path, a larger bird flew over my head and up into a tree.  In the same tree were a group of similar birds perching.  They were the princely looking Cedar Waxwings.  Their orangy brown crests and black eye-line gives their head a rakish and arrogant look.  Their orangy brown bodies and yellow bellies accentuate their plumpness.  They have grey tails with a bright yellow tip that seems to be saying “I’m so rich that I don’t need to flaunt it, but a little yellow on the tail is a nice touch.”

      Back at the campground, my camping buddy, Mike, was still asleep, so I sat down in a camp chair to look at the tree.  So where am I, what state am I in, what am I doing?  I’m on an island in a back country campsite at a National Seashore Park called Cumberland Island.  It’s off the coast of Georgia.  I’m enjoying the passage of time.

 

4/14 - 24 hours earlier- our odyssey begins

Mike and I planned our trip around the only time slot that we could reserve at Cumberland Island.  It’s an island that formerly belonged to the Carnegie family who kept it in its natural state.  It was donated as a wildlife refuge, but still has several private mansions that were here in the Carnegie glory days.  It’s unique because it’s a wildlife refuge that you can camp on, but the number of campers is severely restricted.  On an island the size of Manhattan, no more than 120 campers per night are given permits.  That’s 60 in the back country sites, 20 at the closest camp to the dock and 40 at the next closest site.  It’s possible to charter a boat or to kayak over to the island, but the usual way to get there is to take a ferry from the town of Saint Mary.  The ferry drops you off at the ranger station where you get your specific camping site permit.  After that, you hike in to your campsite, a half-mile for Sea Camp; ten miles for the farthest back country site.

      Both Mike and I took half days off from work to finish getting camping supplies and pack them.  I’m including our camping supplies check list as another appendix.  (A5.)   It’s a very good general list, especially good for car or boat camping.  For backpacking it’s too comprehensive, so you need to figure out what to leave off.  We left Mike’s house in Newark, Delaware around 5 PM and Mike drove the first shift -- a long shift.  Part of his job puts him in touch with a lot of truckers and they currently make a big deal out of driving 500 miles in a ten hour shift, so Mike decided to do that, partly out of curiosity, but mostly so he can trash talk his trucking associates.  Mike did his 500 miles in nine hours, and then I insisted on doing some of the driving.  I got the wheel for the last few hours into Georgia.  We got two hours of sleep at the Georgia 95 rest stop and a big breakfast near Saint Mary.  We were an hour early for the ferry, which gave us an hour to pick through the stuff we brought and leave items we didn’t think we would need.  This was critical because we were looking forward to a five mile hike and didn’t want to transport stuff that we didn’t use.  Some tools, tarps, clothes, and heavy rope got the thumbs down.  Our strategy for the transport was to use a large, two-wheeled, big-wheel garbage can to carry our heavy and bulky stuff.  That included our six-person tent, two camp chairs, and my birding equipment.  Since we were spending a week at the site, the big tent and the chairs would be nice to have.  If we had left them we could have managed without the wheeled carrier.

      So that was the crucial decision, more stuff and a carrier -- or, just the basics and then backpack all of it.  We relied on information from an enthusiastic beginner (I warned you about this, but keep getting caught myself.  By the way, I qualify as an enthusiastic beginner).  We saw a video where a guy had documented his trip at Cumberland Island and was transporting his heavy backpack with a cart he borrowed at the ranger station.  So we guessed that the island was flat and the trails were wide enough and hard packed enough to push a cart on.  Even better the map showed a road leading all the way up the center of the island.  So we decided to take the carrier and use the road to get to our site.

      Waiting at the ferry with our trash can full of gear; we got a lot of compliments on how clever an idea that was for a carrier.

      Actually it was a pretty good idea, but we made a mistake that turned the five and a half mile hike into a seven plus mile physical challenge.  The ranger told us that it was okay to take the road instead of the trail, but didn’t tell us that taking the road was about two miles farther.  She told us that the trail off the road would be clearly marked, but didn’t tell us that a very long part of it was so muddy that a narrow board walk had been built to allow hikers to walk through and beyond that more mud.  And even though we had a wheeled-carrier, she didn’t warn us that the road is actually less packed down than the trails.  At many points the road is soft sand.  So instead of pushing our well-balanced carrier with minimal effort on a macadam road like I had practiced, we were pushing a heavy cart through sand.  Then we had to drag the cart across the boards of a long board walk.  At the end of that was a quarter mile of muddy trail.  At this point, we were exhausted and decided to leave the cart and come back for it later.  We took our packs and hammocks and tent and water and went on.  We got to our campsite in a thankfully short time and after a brief rest decided to finish.  We went back down the trail and now without packs and some of the heavy stuff out of the cart, the two of us got the cart through the mud.  I realized that I was getting close to hurting something, so I conceded to Mike’s advice and stopped trying to help.  Even though Mike had been pushing the cart most of the way on the road while wearing a ninety pound pack, he still had enough power left to finish up the last bit.  At the camp, he was exhausted.  So was I.  We set up our tent, sat down in our chairs and I looked at the time on my cell phone -- no bars -- just the time.  It was 5:30 PM.  The hike had started at 1:15 PM.  It hadn’t felt like a four hour hike, it seemed a lot longer than that.  Our twenty four hour trip door to tent flap could have been easier if we had brought less stuff or taken the trail instead of the road.  But we did enough stuff right to get to our site with our gear.  Then Mike figured out how to work our new MSR stove (are you sensing a pattern here, where my birding partners do all the hard stuff, including spotting the birds?) and we ate a delicious and nutritious back country meal.  Anyway Mike met the truck driving challenge, followed by “the pulling a garbage can through sand and mud” physical challenge.  He got us to our site and I’m not sick or injured.  He’s an amazing guy.  He does stuff that should be unreasonably difficult to do, and in the process, pulls the rest of us along with him.

      That night lying in my hammock with its mosquito netting cover, using a flashlight to look in the bird guide for a bird we had seen on the hike in, I found we had seen a really cool bird.  We had taken a break where there is a trail that crosses the road and leads to the Pine Trail.  There’s a wooden bench at the edge of a long meadow.  In the meadow there were a dozen wild horses grazing.  After resting and watching the horses, we wheeled our cart past the meadow and past a beautiful mansion called Stafford Place.  In the pasture we spotted two brownish, chicken-like birds flying up briefly.  When one stuck his head up for a while, I identified it as the common quail in the area, a Northern Bobwhite.  That’s the bird that Charlie in Thomas Wolfe’s “A Man Too Full” built his hunting preserve/plantation around.  It is a cool bird, but not really cool.  In the forest a little further beyond, we stopped our hike to view a wren-sized bird with a blue back and a white breast and belly.  Its sides were black, blue, and white barred with some black streaks lower down.  It had a black bill.  Mike and I carefully noted what we saw, so we could remember it later.  In the book, it was easy to pick out as a Cerulean Warbler.  These uncommon birds are probably migrating through and might wind up in Delaware soon.  White Clay Creek Park near where Mike lives is a place that these birds breed, so maybe we’ll see them again up north.  It seems that sometimes you try really hard to see a great bird and find alligators.  Other times you are pushing a cart on a sandy road and a great bird flies right up to you.  At least it did this Saturday.

 

Monday, 4/17- we fetch water

After my Sunday morning walk, I sat down for a while to look at the tree at our campsite (it’s a Live Oak).  I had just written “Truly it could not fit in my yard”, when I feel asleep.  When I woke up the tree was still there and it was well past noon.  Two hikers came down the trail from the more remote direction.  I said “Hi”.  It must have been a little disappointing to be hiking in the wilderness and the first human you come across is an old guy lounging in a beach chair.  Mike emerged from the tent a little stiff and we both rummaged around our stuff, both too unmotivated to heat water for coffee or food.  We ate Power Bars instead.  Four campers came in and took a site far back from the trail.  We decided to move our tent to a better site and did that.  Then it started to rain.  We got in the tent and read for a while.  Rain was predicted for Monday.  It was early.  It rained harder.  For the next twelve hours, it poured as we stayed comfy and dry in our six person tent.  Then from about 2 AM to dawn it rained lightly on and off.  The four campers that had arrived just before the rain had bailed out, so we were alone again.  To be honest, I felt a little vindicated.  The expert advice on back-country camping is to take only what you can carry.  That’s true, and with a few trips under your belt, you can replace your sleep-over quality sleeping bag and eighteen pound tent with better gear that weighs almost nothing.  On the plus side, Mike and I had stayed warm and dry through the storm that hit us on our first day and second night and still had enough packed-in water for breakfast and coffee on the following morning.

      During breakfast -- which takes a long time because you have to start the stove, boil a pot of water, then steep the freeze-dried food in its own pouch -- a little brown bird poked around in a nearby bush.  “That looks like a Carolina Wren,” I correctly commented.  Correct because I said “looks”, not “is”.   It actually was the much plainer Swainson’s Warbler.  The wren has a reddish-brown back, while our breakfast bird was a very dull brown.  The wren has a white eye-liner (actually a little above the eye) and an orangey breast while this bird had a dark eye line and a clear, dull yellow breast.  So that’s a bird we won’t get to see in Pennsylvania.  And for breakfast, I had Lasagna with meat balls.  It was ridiculously good.  I’m ready to make my restaurant recommendation for Hickory Hill Campsite.  It’s Mountain Homes freeze-dried camping packets.

      After breakfast, we moved our chairs right onto the trail because that was a pleasant, sunny place to sit and chat.

      “If anybody comes by, I’m going to say that we’re trolls and demand a toll.”

      Mike didn’t actually say, “Please, don’t “, but I mentally felt his cringe.

      A group of three hikers did come down the trail late in the morning.  The first hiker was a woman in her late twenties.  Before I could even say, “Hi”, she shot out, “Are you guys supposed to be trolls?”

      “Yeah”, I responded. “You have to give us something to get by.”

      A guy came into the campsite.  “They’re trolls,” the first hiker told him.

      “They don’t have a bridge,” he pointed out. 

      “We’re new at being trolls,” I defended us.  “This is just our first day.”

      The third hiker came in, another woman.  “Don’t give them anything,” she said.

      These people were expert hikers.  They had their base camp at Stafford Camp, the back-country site closest to the dock (3.5 miles) and were hiking around carrying just what they absolutely needed.  They had hiked up to Brickhouse Camp (7 miles from Stafford Camp), hiked thru the afternoon rain, and stayed dry through the night in their small and light-weight back-packing tents.  Then on the second day of their hike they had explored all the trails on the northern part of the island.  After exchanging observations with us about armadillos, wild horses, and butterflies, they headed down the trail to the beach.  We saw them again on the beach in the afternoon and chatted again.  I failed at being a “beach troll” and got only the playful threat of being whacked by a walking stick.  Except for two hikers passing through the camp on Tuesday morning, these were the only hikers we saw on the island until Thursday night.

 

      After breakfast, we were out of water, so our first order of business was to hike to a spot where we could refill our four empty one gallon jugs.  It’s about a mile hike, one way.  Along the trail we spotted more Yellow-throated Warblers and Mike got them in his binoculars too.  There are a lot of them.  The drinking water site was a pipe with a valve and faucet.  It gave out sulfur smelling water that needed to be treated.  Mike ran the water through a filter that could be used to purify water from the Ganges River.  I have a lot of friends from India and most of them would probably say that their river is already pure in a religious sense, so let’s say the filter could purify water from the Hudson.  Then Mike added chemicals to kill any bacteria or viruses, and the job was done.  He didn’t need any help, but I occasionally pushed in to take a turn at pumping the water through the filter, only to quit as soon as I saw a bird.  There were lots of warblers around and two in particular were building a nest in some of the hanging Spanish moss.  These had very yellow throats and breasts, but they also had a red/orange band across their throats, so they weren’t Yellow-throated Warblers.  We also saw a warbler with blue on his back flitting around a particular bush and we wanted a better look to see if it was another Cerulean.  After the water purification was complete, we took a jug into the meadow off the trail to see if we could identify the little blue guy, while we drank a lot of water.  It took a while, but we had a while or two.  The blue warbler came back and now that we were just sitting quietly, he went about his business as if we weren’t there.  His business seemed to be hopping around on the branches of a bush, but that’s okay, he’s a bird.  An extremely beautiful bird.  The blue was on the top and sides of his head and along his sides.  His front, from below his beak to his belly was a bright yellow, except for a spotted red band across his chest.  His belly was white.  His wings were streaked with dark blue and black and crossed by two flashing white wing bars.  I think that two bars makes him a lieutenant.  I’ll bet he’s one of those management types who got his job based on his good looks.  Oh, what is he?  He’s a Northern Parula.  Those birds that had been building a nest and that had yellow fronts with a red breast band -- they were Northern Parula too.

      So Mike did our survival job, and I tagged along and got a great birding fix.  We sat in the meadow drinking water for an hour and saw some other birds too.  Way up high, riding a thermal current we saw three big birds.  When the sun hit them just right, we saw the obvious red tails of two Red Tailed Hawks.  The third bird was a puzzle.  He was much bigger than the hawks, white and black, with a very long neck-like an egret or a stork.  The only birds similar in the bird guide are the Wood Storks, but both Mike and I agreed that the shape of the bird could be a Wood Stork, but the pattern of black and white on the underside of his wings was very different.  From below, the stork’s wings are white toward the front and have a thick black band at the back from the body, all the way to the tips.  This bird had a pattern of black and white alternating in stripes or checks.  Maybe my description isn’t very good, but we have clear pictures of the bird in our heads.  It’s not a bird in “Sibley’s Guide to Birds”.  It’s something from another continent that got blown off course.  To be continued, when we get home and have an Internet connection.

      On the walk back to our camp, we saw an Armadillo.  I walked up to within a few feet of him and got a few pictures of this silly looking, peaceful critter.  So far I have pictures of wild horses, a skink, trees, and an armadillo.  No pictures of birds.  These woodland birds don’t hold still long enough to see them in binoculars, let alone snap their pictures.  I have a lot of respect for nature photographers who get good shots of warblers.

 

 Cumberland Island Armadillo, April, 2013


 

Lizard, Cumberland Island, Georgia, April, 2013

 

Monday Afternoon at the beach, Cumberland Island, Georgia, April, 2013

      The beach hike was a mile and a half, one way. We brought stuff to fish and bird, but the huge long and wide expanse of sand was almost completely empty.  Mike cast for bait fish with a net, but got nada.  Even if he had gotten some bait, the wind was blowing straight in so strong that it was doubtful he could have cast out against it far enough to get to the fish.  We next tried combing the beach for crabs to use for bait, but didn’t get any of these either.  There were some sandpipers, plovers, and gulls on the beach, but I didn’t have the energy to scope them and study their minute differences.  Maybe I could do that later.  Before we packed up to go, we sat for a bit to rest and look at the ocean.  Mike noticed a big dark thing on the beach and after a few minutes saw that it was a bird.  It was a Golden Eagle, staring us down.  The eagle flinched first and flew away over the dunes.

 

Tues - Plum Orchard

We planned to leave early in the morning for a hike to a “point of interest”, but after a good breakfast and some coffee, both Mike and I felt like spending a little R and R at the camp site.  He finished reading a text book on statistics to use for process and quality improvement at his company.  I wrote the previous few sections.  When we finally got moving it was early afternoon.

      Plum Orchard was a three and a half mile hike one way from our camp site.  On the way out we saw an all red bird that we almost bypassed as another Cardinal, but he sounded different, so we waited until he moved out in the open.  He was all red, expect for a few black streaks on his wings.  No black on the face.  And no crest (the book says, he should have a little crest, but not on this bird).  So he is a Summer Tanager, the bird I saw briefly last August at the Eastern Shore Virginia NWR.  We hadn’t researched Plum Orchard, so we had no expectations.  Since it was an unoccupied, former home of a Carnegie, I assumed it would be a ruin.  It isn’t.  It is a beautiful and imposing building with Greek columns and elaborate cornices.  It has porches on every side.  The front is extremely long and the front porch runs along the entire main part of the house with its multiple doors.  The side towards the river has another large porch.  This one has a big wooden swing wide enough and long enough to hold a queen-size mattress.  It’s obvious that this was a prime spot to sleep on hot nights without air conditioning.  The side away from the river has a smaller porch with an identical swing.  The rooms inside are for the most part plain, but there are a lot of them.  The house rambles.  As impressive as the building is, the setting surpasses it.  There is a giant lawn with Live Oaks for shade and a very tall Royal Palm for style.  The house overlooks a river, with an unending salt marsh on the other side.

      After a brief look at the house, we headed down to the river.  It was low tide and the exposed muddy banks were crawling with crabs.  It took a few minutes before we noticed some large white birds feeding a little downstream from us.  And then a minute of two more before we looked up and saw in the trees behind the wading birds a rookery with dozens of roosting herons and egrets.  It took my breath away.  It seemed like we had stumbled on a nesting spot with almost every kind of wading bird in North America.  The sun lit the mostly white birds so that they contrasted beautifully with the brilliant greens of their perches.  Behind them the sky was crystal blue; below them a few of their number were gorging on the crabs. 

      Hyperbole aside, here’s what we saw.  Several White Ibis were hunting in the shallows.  These beautiful, startling white birds have small, round bodies and long legs and necks.  Their signature feature is a very long and very curved, brilliant pink bill.  With them were two ibis with brown and white patched bodies.  These were juveniles of the same species.  Also hunting in the mud for crabs were two interesting and beautifully colored exotic-looking birds.  They were about the same size as the ibis.  They had yellow on the top of their heads followed by black, white, and black bands giving them a white eye stripe.  Their heads were topped with feathery plumes.  Their beaks were blue-grey and their legs white.  Their bodies were a light, shiny grey color with all the edges of the wings lined in a darker grey to make an intricate and elegant pattern.  We had never seen any bird like this before, but had no trouble picking him out in the bird guide.  These were Yellow-crowned Night Herons, which normally forage at night, but seemed willing to take advantage of an early bird special if the crabs are really good.  There was one hunched-over, all dark bird in the foraging area.  He was mostly standing still, but occasionally grabbed a crab.  He was a Little Blue Heron.  Up in the trees, there were other Little Blue Herons, looking much bluer and much prettier as they stretched out their necks and wings.  I felt like my mother telling the hunching heron to stand up straight -- “you look terrible, all-hunched up like that!”  Also in the trees were more than a dozen Great Egrets, flashing their slender yellow bills in the sun and occasionally stretching and flapping to demonstrate that they are among the most beautiful of birds.  With them, on a branch close to the river, occasionally diving into the river, and acting like he owned the place was a single Belted Kingfisher.

      We had traveled light on this hike and I didn’t have my spotting scope and had forgotten the camera.  Likewise, Mike had left all his fishing gear behind.  We agreed that we would come back properly equipped on the next day including food and water, so that we could stay all day.  On the way out, we got rewarded for all the study that we did on the unidentified white and black soaring bird.  We knew what storks were supposed to look like, and Mike spotted two of them flying over the mansion lawn just above the tree tops and coming straight at us.  They were temporarily blocked from my view by a Live Oak.  As soon as they cleared the tree, two Wood Storks were right above us and very close.  Their all white bodies, wide black band across the back of their wings, and huge beaks were clearly visible without binoculars.  It was about 5:30 PM.  They headed out across the river and across the marsh.

 

Tuesday Night and every night

There is a Whip-poor-will who sings shortly after dark and a few times during the night.  He cries “Whip poor Will” over and over and over.  He’s right on the edge of the campsite and he’s really loud.  A few times, I’ve heard some scratching in the bush behind and to the side of my hammock.  I think that’s him pecking around for food.  Despite his loud volume, he’s a small ground bird, mostly brown.  I don’t expect to see him though.

    The Whip-poor-will call was obvious.  Anyone who had heard the bird’s name could pick out that sound.  There were two other night sounds repeated loud and often.  One was a loud, repetitive whistle with the same quality as the whip-poor-will, just a different phrase, something like “cheer-up wowoo wowoo”.  The other was a croak noise that sounded like a frog.  Probably both noises were from a Chuck-will’s-widow, another nightjar found in the Southeast.

      This one night, we both heard an owl calling from the swamp named Willow Pond.  Two three syllable phrases, a pause, repeated, a pause, and on and on.  Softly in the night for a long, long time.  It went “Hoo, hoo, hoo. Hoo, hoo, hooooooo.”  It could only have been a Great Horned Owl or a Barred Owl.  It could be either, but we are thinking more likely the Great Horned Owl.  Deep in a quiet night on an island off the coast of Georgia, with no other people around for miles in every direction, the calling of the owl in the distance pulled us into a secret night world where we were exposed as two large, but relatively defenseless animals, who would scrounge around the camp site the next morning to get their breakfast.

 

     Near Plum Orchard, Cumberland Island, Georgia, April, 2013

Wed - back at Plum Orchard

For breakfast we had a visitor.  Not just in the bushes at the edge of the camp, and not the Blue-grey Gnatcatcher who flies in and out of the flowering shrub next to our camp chairs.  It wasn’t the Cardinals building a nest right behind us.  And it wasn’t the Yellow-throats who occasionally flash in to join the gnatcatcher.  This new visitor strolled down Willow Pond Trail, into the camp-site and ate his breakfast with us.  He was a huge tom Wild Turkey.  He was pecking at the sand and at the grass tops.  At one point, he even lied down in the sand to continue his pecking from a resting position.  He gave no indication that he knew or cared that we were ten feet away.  We continued eating and talking and eventually he meandered out of the camp-site on the other side.  A little while later we saw a second bird behind the camp, so there was probably a flock moving through.

      On the way out we saw another Parula at Yankee Paradise camp.  We saw these brightly colored birds at our camp, at the water site, and along the trail.  We also saw a grey-headed warbler on Duck Pond Trail just a little past Yankee Paradise camp. 

      This little guy was a puzzle for us.  We both had good long looks at the bird (which for a warbler was suspicious).  It had an obviously grey head, a small and pointed grey beak, and a black eye.  It’s breast and belly were whitish -- definitely not yellow.  The back color changed a little depending on how the light hit it.  It was not blue, grey, or grey-blue.  It was pretty much a dull green with some indication of wing bars.  I looked in the guide for grey-headed warblers and found that all but one had yellow breasts or some other obvious coloration.  I looked at small, grey-headed non-warblers.  I know the Dark-eyed Junco (our bird was too small, wrong location) and the Blue-grey Gnatcatcher (no long tail, wrong back color) and our bird wasn’t those.  It wasn’t a finch because of the beak and it wasn’t a vireo.  The shape and the “look and feed” kept saying “warbler”.  I’m eighty percent confident that it was a Tennessee Warbler.  This nice little bird fits all our field marks and is found in the region during migration on its way to Canada.

      Hickory Hill camp seems to have lots of birds and so does Yankee Paradise camp, but Yankee Paradise seems a little more open and easier to actually see the birds.  On the way thru we also saw a Summer Tanager and a Wood Thrush.

 

Spoonbill, Cumberland Island, Ga, April, 2013

   Along the river at Plum Orchard, the ibis were gone and so were the Yellow-crowned Night Herons.  However there were three Roseate Spoonbills.  These have a beak even more unusual than the Oystercatcher.  It’s very long and ends in a wide circular disc about the size of a human hand.  And it is a beautiful and showy pink.  It is a huge spoon that they use to shovel around in the mud, letting them get at the crabs that have retreated into their holes.  The spoonbills have apparently evolved under the principle that if you are going to be conspicuous, you might as well be really conspicuous.  They have big bodies and long pink legs.  Their bodies are mostly a soft pink and that color is delicately blended into some white on their bellies.  I can’t think of any bird that I’ve seen that is more beautiful.  Despite their unusual bill they are all about style and grace.     

      In the trees, all the Great Egrets were gone, but there was still a lot of white up there.  There were fourteen Snowy Egrets displaying their black bills and legs and yellow feet.  The Little Blue Herons were still in the rookery.  Tucked way back into one of the trees was a new bird.  It was a sleeping Black-capped Night Heron.  I tried to digiscope all the birds, especially the spoonbills and the night heron.  I’m sure the spoonbill pictures came out at least well enough to tell what they are.  I think we’ll be able to use the night heron pictures to confirm the identification, but those are kind of boring.

 

Little Blue Heron, Cumberland Island, Georgia, April, 2013

 

      We had arrived late in the morning and took a break for lunch and a nap around 1:30 PM.  Mike had tried his luck fishing and hadn’t gotten anything on his lures.  Our plan was to rest in the hottest part of the day and see if the late afternoon and evening were a repeat of Tuesday.  We had the whole facility to ourselves with its mansion, lawn, dock, and shoreline.  After eating and sleeping in the shade of a Live Oak, I explored the house by walking around and looking in the windows.  There had been a tour group earlier that we could have joined.  We were just too filthy from back woods camping and five days without a shower to join a group of clean people.  I found a public bathroom that was open and for the first time that week washed my face (and various other parts) in warm, soapy water.  Although it washed off the woodsman persona, I admit that it was refreshing.  Besides we were lounging around at the former vacation home of one of America’s richest families, so we should try to look decent.

 

Yellow-crowned Night-heron with juvenile White Ibis, Cumberland Island, GA

      Around four o’clock, from the dock, Mike casted for sea trout that he could see in the shallows.  I dangled my legs in the cold water and washed off the coating of chemicals that I had applied.  My legs were bright red, like from a chemical burn.  It may have had something to do with spraying them with four kinds of bug spray, a layer of Hydrocortisone, and a final thick coat of SPF 50 sun screen.  Ya think?  After a nice soak, my legs felt a lot better and the angry red color cooled down.  I spotted some Red-winged Blackbirds in the salt water marsh, an Anhinga diving up near the rookery, and several shore birds farther upstream that I was too relaxed to try to identify.  When I went back over to the rookery at about 5:00 PM, I woke up quickly.  Three yellow-crowned Night Herons were back in the mud bank and also some of the ibis.  I took a lot of pictures of them, so despite my inferior photographic skills, some of them are sure to come out.  There was a juvenile Little Egret, looking very much like the Snowy Egrets, but with a grey bill and straight tail feathers, instead of tucked up tail feathers.  While I was documenting my heron/ egret/ spoonbill encounter with additional photographs, eight Wood Storks flew out of the swamp from behind the rookery, flying over my head and into the salt water marsh.  I pointed my camera at one and snapped a picture, but expect that when I get home, I’ll see a picture of a solid grey blur.  I did get an unusual picture on our way back to camp.  A dung beetle was rolling a ball that was probably made of dung with a second beetle holding on for the ride.  That’s something you don’t see much in Exton, PA.

 

Digiscope of a juvenile White Ibis, Cumberland Island, GA

 

 

Digiscope of a Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Cumberland Island, Georgia

 

 

Is it a Little Egret, or a juvenile Little Blue Heron?  What do you think?

 

4/20/2013 - Thursday – For this we needed pictures for proof!

For our last full day in the back country, we planned a long hike through several different environments.  To start, we headed back to the beach.  At the spot where Mike had spotted the Golden Eagle on the edge of the dunes, we found a two foot long, brown flight feather stuck in the sand.  The eagle had looked pretty raggedy, so obviously he had been molting.  Another hiker probably stuck it in the sand.  If I’m lucky enough to get it home unbroken, I’ll add it to the dream catcher.

      Each spot where hikers are allowed to cross the dunes is marked by a tall black and white stake.  The dunes are much wider than up north.  It takes about ten minutes to hike through them, as opposed to a minute on most of the northern beaches.  We passed the Duck Pond Trail Stake and continued north looking for the next trail marker to take a new trail through the dunes.  We went at least two miles without finding the marker.  Instead we found a flock of what I excitedly identified as Black Skimmers, the same birds that in S.C. I had spent an afternoon trying to digiscope.  We snuck up close enough to get good pictures without the spotting scope.  I got an accurate count, 48 plus the three that had flown off as we approached.  With them were Black-capped Gulls and one very small white headed gull.  The skimmers were bigger than the gulls, but not as much as I remembered.  They had the big beaks and black tops of their heads, but they had grey bodies.  One of them opened his mouth up real wide showing his top and bottom bills.  The bottom bill was supposed to be longer than the top.  It wasn’t.  These weren’t skimmers.  They were Royal Terns.   A little smaller than the skimmers, they still have an impressive wing span and great flying ability.  They also seem to like to spend the day standing around with Black-caps on an extremely remote beach.  There was another tern with them that was littler, with a goofy black thatch on the top of his head.  He was a Sandwich Tern.  In the picture that I put on the title page, it looks like the Royal Terns are having a good laugh at his expense. 

      A little north of the not-skimmers, we gave up looking for the second access trail marker and turned back to take the Duck Pond Trail marker.  Just after crossing the dunes, we took a break in a pine forest.  The clean and turpentine smell, the lack of bugs, the thick bed of very soft pine needles, just the right amount of filtered sunlight -- a perfect spot for an outdoor nap.  Refreshed, we continued on the Duck Pond Trail to where it intersects with an unmaintained trail called Lost Trail.  That trail is a big loop (perhaps three miles) into a swamp, connecting with a trail called Tarkum Trail that leads back to Duck Pond Trail near the Yankee Paradise camp.  Not far along Lost Trail, we looked back to see that two wild horses were following us.  When we stopped to take their pictures, they waited.  When we moved on, they came up close behind us.  One was a black beauty with a white star on its head.  They were close enough that maybe Mike could have caught one to tame it.  At least that’s what we joked about.  When we got to a spot where the trail was blocked by a fallen log, Mike hopped over it, I crawled over it, and the horses went off trail to go around it.  We went on and in a few minutes heard the horses breaking through the brush on our right.  Suddenly Mike stopped fast and yelled, “Snake!”  Mike is a great actor and likes to prank me, but something about his instant fighting stance told me that this was real.  My momentum had carried me right up against his back.  I grabbed his pack and tugged and we both backed up a step.  There in the middle of the path, four feet away, was a Diamond-Backed Rattle Snake.  If Mike had been distracted by the horses a second longer, he would have stepped on it and surely been bitten.

      The snake was two inches thick and four feet long.  A medium rattler is more likely to maim a human than kill him, but we were about five miles from the nearest emergency call phone, and ten miles from any people.  We backed up even more to decide what to do.  The first order of business was obvious.  Get pictures for proof.  I got the camera out.  

     “I’m ready. Now go grab it by the back of the neck and hold it up.”

     Mike moved toward the snake.

      “Wait! I was kidding!”

      Mike turned around and gave me the got you grin.

      I got several wide shots, but when I tried for a close up, I got too nervous to work the telephoto lens.  Mike offered to do it.  He got down close enough to get a beautiful shot of the snake.  It was so perfect, it didn’t look dangerous. 

      “Let’s see if we can get him to rattle,” Mike suggested.  “Throw something at him.”

      I tossed some leaves at the snake.  Nothing happened.  I tried again.  This time some of the hard leaves landed right on the snake.  The ticked off snake rose up quickly, bared his fangs and hissed.

      “I got it!” Mike reported.

      He had an awesome shot of an angry snake with a wide open mouth showing two nasty-looking fangs.

      “Okay,” I said.  “Now we need to get past him. There’s about six inches of the trail behind him.  We should be able to slide past him there, if we go very slowly.  I’ll go first.”

      “Are you sure that’s safe?”

      “No. Of course it’s not safe.  Now I got you.  We’ll have to turn around.”

      “I’m not going back for a snake!”

Mike had a big stick and started at the snake to poke it.

      “Wait!” I yelled.  Mike stopped.  “Let me get a picture.”

      I moved up on Mike’s left and snapped the first shot as Mike poked the snake.  The snake lunged at Mike, but banged against the branches of the stick.  Mike poked again.  I got another picture.  Mike pushed the branches at the snake and finally, it gave in and slid off the trail.

      We waited a minute -- safety first -- then quickly walked past the snake’s old spot.  We continued deeper into the swamp and the trail narrowed until it was just a path barely wide enough to get through.  I didn’t like that.  Potentially there was another snake ahead.  But I knew for sure that there was a snake behind me.  No way was I going back now.  Mike still had his snake stick.  I picked one up too and held on to it until we got out of the swamp and off of Lost Trail.

      Later on the phone, when I told Chris that Mike had fought a rattle-snake, she shot back, “I don’t believe you.”

      “Would you believe me, if I had pictures?”

      “You’ve got pictures?”

      “Yes, I do.”

      Then I got the awkward pause that indicated I was getting marked “Needs Improvement” on the parenting section of my report card.

 

Annoyed Rattlesnake, Cumberland Island, Georgia

 

 

Mike poking a  Rattlesnake, Cumberland Island, Georgia

 

4/21 Friday, the walk out

After breaking camp, we redistributed our loads, so that most of the heavy stuff was in our packs and the tent and lighter, but bulky, stuff were in the garbage can.  We took only the water we needed for the morning, instead of the four half-gallon jugs that we packed in.  Also, most of our food was eaten.  Even though we had lightened the carrier by more than fifty pounds, it still was at least eighty pounds.  We took the Parallel Trail which was much shorter and, for the most part, hard packed, so much easier for a cart than the sandy road.  Still, rolling that heavy carrier through the back woods was very tough work.  Mike did most of it.  I was able to spell him for an occasional five or ten minute period, but near the end, I had to admit that I was tapped out.  Mike was near the end of his strength as he pulled the carrier into the Sea Dock Ranger Station.  It was an impressive three-hour exhibition of his strength and endurance.  They aren’t many men who could have done what he did on Friday morning. 

 

4/21 – A couple observations on back-country camping

After a few hours of rest in a rocking chair on the ranger station porch and several cold drinks from the ferry, we recovered enough to enjoy the ferry ride back to the mainland.  With cell phone service for the first time in a week, Mike snapped off a few “vacationing in a tropical paradise” photos and sent them to his co-workers.  We also chatted about how much more physically rigorous it had been than we expected.  We are still a little conflicted on whether the wheeled carrier was a good idea.  Expert advice is to take only what you can carry.   On the other hand, when we got to our site with a comfortable tent and an extra day and a half of water, we were able to sleep through the rain storm in comfort and safety.  Mike and I think the best approach is the one used by the group who joked with us about trolls.  Bring in what you need to be comfortable and camp near your drop off point.  Then do overnight hikes from there, coming back to the base to resupply and rest.  This wouldn’t work for a pass-thru hike like doing the Appalachian Trail, but would be an excellent approach for Cumberland Island.

      If you use a wheeled carrier, you absolutely need to know the ground.  It was easy to roll our big-wheeled carrier on a macadam road.  It was torture to roll it on soft dirt.  An unpaved road is more likely to be soft than a trail because the cars kick up the dirt, while boots tap it down.

      The most important issue is to know your limits.  Don’t be misled by my account into thinking that back-country camping at Cumberland Island is a pleasant choice for a father-son outing.  It is a wonderful place to see wild life, but it is an expert level, back country experience.  Although I am beyond middle-age, I’m in better than average shape for my age, especially my legs.  That said, I would have been in serious trouble, if my companion had not been a twenty-four year old athlete, six foot three inches tall, with 220 pounds of muscle and zero percent body fat.  As a freshman in college Mike was briefly on the Penn State Rugby team.  At that time, he was dead-lifting 500 pounds.  On this trip he was carrying a twenty two caliber hand gun and an all-purpose four inch knife.  Mike is a tough man.  He was very motivated to keep me safe and uninjured and did that very well.  He’s also a fitness nut, planned every meal and our water intake to provide muscle recovery and adequate hydration.  I plan to go back to Cumberland Island with Chris.  We’ll camp at Sea Camp and cook ourselves steak and eggs.  We’ll take one or two day hikes into the back country and ride the shuttle to Plum Orchard.

 

4/23/2013 - I see a Painted Bunting

I wasn’t going to mention our trip back home.  I didn’t want this to be a “what I did on my vacation story”, full of interminable details, but then I saw one of the coolest birds of all.  So I need to explain a little how I got there.

      On the way in, doorstep to tent flap took a little over 24 hours.  Tent flap to my back porch took more than 4 days.  On Friday night in South Carolina, my car blew a thermostat gasket which is only critical if you keep driving.  Oil was spraying around on the engine top and doing an impressive display of smoking.  We got towed to a dealership in Summerville.  The repair could not be completed on Saturday, so I rented a car to get Mike to his business meeting in Richmond on Monday morning, stayed overnight in Richmond on his company’s dime (thank you) and on the way back, taking my own advice from March, stopped at the Santee NWR at 95 South Exit 102.  At the visitor center, I was walking across the parking lot, when a very nice lady stopped me to tell me that there was a Painted Bunting at the feeder.  Just as I got to a spot where I could see the back of the feeder, a larger, black bird (most birds are larger than a bunting) flew to the feeder and chased off the Painted Bunting.  I sat down in the shade and waited.  It took some time, but the bird came back.  It was a teeny jewel of a bird.  It had a red breast and belly, blue head, and green wings.  Not a drab spot anywhere.  There are many beautiful things in nature.  The Painted Bunting is one of them.

 

4/24 – still in Summerville

Can you believe that a very large dealership, in a decent sized city, ten minutes from an international airport, cannot get a bolt for their company’s most popular selling vehicle of all time?  Do they think that providing service means being friendly?  Do they only provide service if they have an expectation of repeat business from that specific customer?   Chris and I will be buying a new car this year.  It won’t be a Ford.  This happens in every business.  Every interaction is an opportunity to encourage repeat business.  But a bad interaction usually will result in the customer walking away for good.  Why shouldn’t he?  There is almost always someone else anxious for his business.  There’s a problem in management in American companies that is very, very deep.  I’m sad for America.

       On the other hand, I saw a Black and White Warbler in a tree in the Kohl’s parking lot near the Summerville Sleep Inn.  I can’t decide whether to cheer or to boo.

 

4/24 - Are we still evolving?

       I expected to have hours of solitude in the woods to write and philosophize.  The hikes were so rigorous that the down time was spent in recovery.  Each evening I’d go from numbness to feeling good, then to getting the hammock ready, then to time with the bird guide, and then conked out asleep.  We walked seven miles a day, except on Thursday when we walked fifteen.  Friday morning was only 5.5 miles, but we were packing and dragging a lot of gear.  So after a few days back in civilization waiting for my car to get fixed, what’s on my mind?

      After being with creatures that don’t seem to have substantially changed for millions of years -- like alligators and fish -- and seeing descriptions of birds from the 1700’s that are still accurate, it’s interesting to think about lack of change in relation to change.  When Mike was in junior high school, he got interested in fish and imported fish from Africa to breed.  He started an online discussion by posting the question “Why isn’t inbreeding a problem when breeding fish, like it is for mammals?”  The final answer came from a PhD biologist from a southwestern U.S. university.  It’s that fish are such an ancient life form that the bad recessive genes (like Hemophilia in humans) have been completely bred out of the gene pool.  That indicates a level of perfect adaptation to the environment that is the ultimate goal of genetics.  The well-adapted species can persist for a very long time and remain relatively unchanged.  Most species probably die out before they reach that evolutionary level.  Those that reach it dominate their biological eras, but have reached a kind of biological dead end.

      What happens if a major event happens that they are not equipped to handle like, an ice age, or a century long drought, or the emergence of a new species that is especially good at killing them?  They either die out altogether or die back substantially.  In either case there will be a huge biological void waiting to be filled by a different species or, in the die back scenario, the survivors of the old species.  Potentially there are survivors who will have unusual traits that formerly gave them little or no advantage, but in the current crisis, give them a significant advantage.  Examples: opposable thumb --good for holding a tool to crack previously uneatable nuts or holding a weapon to hit a new predator; Ability to stand on two legs -- good for seeing over the top of tall grasses while running and holding a weapon; A brain lacking significant sections of the species inheritable instincts- good for coming up with new solutions to both new and old problems.  After the crisis, there will be a higher percentage of the survivors with the new trait -- as I think I said earlier, talking about geese.  On the way back up, the mutants will have all the skills of the non-mutants, new advantages, and for the first time an advantage in greater number.  They will fill the available ecological openings and then aggressively compete against the non-mutated species in their overlapping environments.  That includes actual fighting for resources and habitat.  Humans call this missionary work, colonization, warfare, and ethnic cleansing.  As human precursors developed the ability to use tools, their pace toward Homo sapiens rapidly increased and they developed the abilities to use ever more powerful tools.  Rocks become guns became remote controlled drones.  Cave dwellings gave way to villages which gave way to nations.  Simple belief systems gave way to complex religions.

      And religion may have been the greatest evolutionary driver of all.  But before we get into that, I think we should give the paid readers a break and let them skip up to the next chapter.  And fellow first year birders could skip up to the next section, which is going to be on birding equipment.  Anyone who thinks they may be a little bored reading a religion/ evolution dissertation, you can skip up to the nice poem at the start of the May chapter.  I won’t be offended.

      … So where was I? ... I was about to point out that organized religions, such as Christianity and Islam, were essential organizational structures that allowed for the consolidation of separate villages into unified and functioning nation states…

      Actually I was just bluffing about a dissertation on religion.  I was scaring off the fair-weather philosophers, so that we can get down to some hard thinking without the hassle of having to watch every little thing that I say.  Also I’m kind of sensitive about being boring or long-winded.  I hate when some of you roll your eyes and start tapping your fingers.  So here goes. 

      Some of the ideas on evolution that I’ve been talking about can be found in “Mein Kamp”.  I never read Hitler’s manifesto, but Mike is widely read, and he pointed this out to me.  The general idea espoused by Hitler in the 1930’s and other contemporary idiots who called themselves progressives in the early 1900’s is the advancement of their own groups of humans and the extermination of any other groups.  I realize that a few of our most loved past politicians used this label and that most of those currently using this label do not have any link to its more sinister past.  Those people thought that their group was the “master race”.  Any other group was not.  The justification for persecution was found in nature when one ecologically superior organism supplanted its predecessors.  An example is the very stable Neanderthal species becoming extinct after the emergence of Cro-Magnon man.  The problem that history had with the ideas of Hitler and the Progressives is that they completely missed the “time scale” component to the equation.  The minor differences that existed in the 1900s between races and ethnic groups may have seemed like a big deal to them, but they are ecologically trivial.  All these different groups had the ability to breed with one another, learn each other’s cultures, and effectively compete against each other.  When humans went about exterminating pigeons and buffaloes, I doubt that any of the killers died in the process, except in accidents.  If the Nordic races were truly superior, then their exterminations would have proceeded without incident.  Instead millions died on both sides in a conflict that was initially one-sided in favor of the Nazis, but in a few short, awful years, one-sided against them.  Cro-Magnon was so vastly superior to Neanderthal that Neanderthal was essentially defenseless and unable to survive.  In the 1940s Hitler was killing off people who were ecologically similar to the Nordic people, in some ways inferior, in other ways superior.  Examples of non-Nordic contemporaries who didn’t cooperate with his world view are Jesse Owens (in athletics, a black athlete who dominated the 1936 Olympics in Berlin by winning four gold medals),  Jews (in banking, medicine, science) and the Tuskegee Airmen (in killing,  a group of black U.S. Airmen famous for their contribution in the World War II assault on Germany).

      So Hitler was phenomenally wrong.  What about the argument viewed from the lower classes vantage point?  That basically stated is that by facilitating the growth and dispersal of “less intelligent” groups, the human race is dooming itself to becoming increasing less intelligent, devolving into a race of idiots.  Have you seen the movie, “Idiocracy”?  In the movie, the Luke Wilson character named Not Sure accidentally winds up in the future world populated by complete morons.  He is literally the smartest person in the world.  He saves the world from starvation by convincing them to use water on their crops, instead of Gator Aide.  The problem with the Idiocracy theme is that it obviously is not coming true.  Even though there are massive pockets of illiteracy, on the whole, the human race has never been more literate.  Two hundred years ago, most children did not go to school.  Now lots do.  Children and adults all over the world are adept at handling cell phones, computers, cars, and electricity.  It may be true that America’s 1950’s-based school system is obsolete, but most intelligent people just train themselves using widely available resources.  Even though today’s kids might not be able to do simple math problems as well as people schooled in the 1950’s, they also can’t work an abacus as well as an ancient Egyptian.  But on the whole, their computing power vastly dwarfs that of the previous generation.  Every kid in America routinely bounces radio signals off of satellites, and uses a simple geometry calculation to determine his exact location on Earth.  It’s a pretty useful tool.  Moreover the current generations have adapted to the onslaught of new inventions to routinely incorporate into their lives new technology, new jobs, and new experiences.  Compare that to the 1950’s people who were so confused and devastated by change that they wrote books about it, like Alvin Toffler’s “Future Shock”. 

      “Idiocracy” isn’t happening, although logically it should occur.  So what up?  The confusion comes from applying a completely Darwinian explanation to organisms that have long ago evolved out of a Darwinian model.  Darwin’s theory correctly explains that a species adapts by passing along beneficial mutations to successive generations.  For millions of years, we’ve been doing that and continue to do that.  But in the last few thousand years (a thousand is .1% of a million, in ecology it is a blink) humans have spread across the globe in huge numbers and impressive influence.  Human individuals might be similar to those of 1000 B.C., but human culture is unbelievably different.  And its rate of change is exponentially increasing.  We aren’t doing this through mutations in our DNA.  Many of our most influential and powerful individuals never even passed on their DNA.  George Washington and Mother Theresa are two examples of people who either had no children, or their offspring died in childhood. Yet these people have had a profound influence on our civilization.  All of the most influential people changed our culture by creating or promoting new ways for people to think and interact.  They invented new tools, physical and social.   Their impact wasn’t just passed on through oral tradition.  It was physically stored in inert storage mediums and reused over and over millions of times. 

      The changes that we make to our culture reverberate back to us as individuals, changing us physically, intellectually, and emotionally.  A really obvious example of a device changing our species is texting.  Before Rachel’s friends could drive, I occasionally needed to give them directions to our house, so that the one or two parents without GPS’s could pick them up.  My habit was to give a direction, pause to allow them to repeat it, and pause again.  One time I noticed that Rachel’s friend was looking at me puzzled by the pauses.  So I just finished the directions as fast as I could say them.  She had no trouble keeping up.  She could text as fast as I could talk.  Our young people have skills that our schools don’t test, don’t value, and don’t understand.  Typical modern day people have a lot more survival skills than people from the Middle Age.  We could wipe them out, if we wanted to (and if we had a time machine).  We have clearly evolved past them on the order of Cro-Magnon versus Neanderthal.  We did this in less than a thousand years.

      So to understand human evolution it is insufficient to understand how an organism passes on its genetic material.  Currently that type of evolution is relatively insignificant for humans.  More important is how an organism passes on its power to successive generations.  Power is codified in culture, in inventions, in words, in buildings, in satellites, in networks of cables, in alteration to the physical world.  Since we are the products of our evolution, it becomes impossible to separate what we are as individuals from our existence as participants in human society.  It’s more than ants carrying out their roles in an ant hill.  It’s that as the human culture continues to evolve, new roles keep getting created for the participants.  As an individual fills a role he adapts and is changed.  This will probably happen multiple times in the lives of current young humans.  Evolution during the lifetime of a single organism is a concept not covered by Darwin’s theory.

      It might take a little getting used to, but to understand what we are, we need to stop thinking of ourselves as purely carbon-based life forms.  Right now, I’m not talking about a soul.  It’s about a component of our personhood that exists in the culture independent of our physical nature.  Consider a corporation.  It is a purely inorganic personality that has an existence and legal rights, independent of the control of its creators, often surviving for many human generations.  One view of World War II is as a conflict between the two great corporations that supplied the belligerents.  The Americans had DuPont and the Germans had Siemens.  At the end of the war the Americans, concerned over the incredible power of the company, broke DuPont up into Hercules, General Motors, Firestone, and a smaller DuPont.  Siemens remains one of the world’s largest companies, with over 400,000 employees.   Viewed as a conflict between two corporations, who won the war?

      For a long time, bad eye-sight put a human at grave risk.  For the last few hundred years we’ve had eye glasses to correct bad eye sight and telescopes and microscopes to enhance our visual sense.  Now we have laser eye surgery to physically correct a defective eye.  We have Google glasses that can identify a person who the wearer is looking at and give the wearer a read out of info on that person.  We have cars that can parallel park themselves.  Soon we’ll have cars that can drive themselves on roads, unaided by us, avoid colliding with other cars, stop themselves at traffic lights, and safely navigate to our destinations.  So what will we use our eyes for?  For something else.  Something we haven’t imagined yet.  These inventions don’t just change what we do.  They change what we are.  It continues to happen so fast, that even in the few decades that I have left on this planet, I can expect to see changes so rapid and profound that they would render previous generations of people incapable of functioning.  But current people will eagerly absorb the new ideas and technologies.  Before the 1950’s, change occurred so slowly that most people lived out their lives preparing for, doing, and retiring from a single job.  After that, change occurred fast enough that unlucky individuals sometimes woke up one morning and found out their skills were obsolete.   I’ve met some of these people and the most consistent reaction was puzzlement.  “What the heck happened?”  Current young people have incorporated rapid change into their lives.  They seek out the latest technology and enjoy learning new skills.  They may look the same as their parents.  They may have diplomas from the same schools.  But they are very different.  They could kick out butts if they wanted to.  They are evolving at a speed that no species has ever achieved before.

 

End of April- More on Equipment

Earlier, I talked about my birding scope and tripod and my first inexpensive pair of binoculars.  Since then, I’ve added a better pair of binoculars, an inexpensive camera, and another birding guide.  It’s not a lot, but it is keeping me in the game and worth taking a check point here to see whether the equipment is meeting my needs.

      So first let’s review the birding scope and tripod.  Kathryn gave me good advice about not jumping to extremely expensive equipment right away.  “What if you break it?”  I actually have already broken one of the snaps on my tripod by getting a lot of sand in it.  So I can’t extend it to its full height unless I duct tape the joint.  I almost lost the eye piece to the scope, not realizing that it had fallen off in the back of the car.  I had been carelessly putting the scope and tripod fully set up and not in the case on top of the junk in the car.  That’s probably not too bad going from one birding hot spot to another.  But I got lazy and didn’t put the equipment away at the end of the day.  Fortunately I didn’t damage the scope and got a reminder to be more careful.

      Both the scope and the tripod are working really well for me.  I’m really happy to be able to see birds clearly with the scope that are just little blobs with the naked eye.  It has been fantastic for ducks, shore birds, birds out on the ocean, and eagles.  All these tend to stay in the same spot for a while but are usually far away.  The scope brings them right up in your grill with all their color and detail.  The tripod is extremely important as well.  At first, I couldn’t get the tripod to lock down where I wanted it and was way too slow on getting it set on anything at all.  Now I’m not too bad.  Having a good tripod that is easy to adjust is critical for the enjoyment of the birding scope.  My tripod was made to go with my scope and works well.  I realize that my $300 rig is in no way comparable to equipment costing in the thousands.  However, I don’t think that a better birding scope would make much difference for me right now.  I’m limited more by my knowledge of birds and my ability to get to where they are.  That’s improving monthly.  Eventually I’ll be going on more professional trips and I’ll have enough detailed knowledge of field marks that better equipment will be needed.  I’m guessing that I’m still a year or two away from that.

      Next is my new binoculars.  Here I can give you excellent advice.  Call Anita Guris at 1-215-234-8557.           She is knowledgeable, honest, and will work hard to get you what fits for you.  If you remember, a few months back, I bought a small Nikon Travelite for $130.  They are 10 x 25 degrees. Ten is the magnification power.  Twenty-five is a measure of how much light they let in.  I’ve been using them on the Tyler walks and comparing the detail I’m able to see with what the others are seeing.  I’m not too far off.  I’m able to see pretty much the same detail, but I suspect that I’m not seeing the colors correctly when the light is poor.  I’m okay with my cheap binoculars and especially like that they easily fit in my vest pocket, so I can inconspicuously take them on my neighborhood walks.

      But I needed a second pair for my partners on the Carolina and Georgia trips.  I figured that I might as well get a really good second set.  The advice that I got from the birding group was to get something 8 x 40 and don’t get anything under $800.  Anita agreed on the 8x strenuously, and just as firmly disagreed on the opinion that I needed to be in the $800 and up range.  She started with Nikon’s Monarch 3 and Monarch 5, but I immediately pushed back and we settled on Monarch 7, which were a little under $600.  Anita said that she gets any binoculars she wants for free to test them, including many that cost over $1000.   She uses the Monarch 7 to bird because it performs as well as the more expensive equipment and it is lighter to carry.  An article that I found on the Cornell School of Ornithology website backed her up on this observation.  In general, it reported that the binoculars that were tested from the $500 to $800 range performed as well as the models in the plus $1000 range, except in very low-light conditions.  The article limited that to the fifteen minutes at the start and end of the day.  (F15.)   The Monarch 7 has been a lot of fun to use.  I can definitely see color better than with the travelers.  When Mike and I saw the yellow-crowned Night Herons on the first day, he was sure that they had white caps on their heads, not yellow.  The second day when we saw them, we switched binoculars and he could see the color correctly with the better binoculars.

      Our next purchase was a camera.  I was looking at $900 camera bodies and $1500 lenses, when Chris stepped in and got my head straight.  She’s the main photographer and she was adamant that she did not have the time and patience to spend on complicated equipment.  She also pointed out that if I spent $2000 on a camera and lens, I wouldn’t be able to take it on a remote back country experience without being afraid of breaking it.  She found a $400 camera that was $200 on a one-day internet special.  It is              basically a 24x optical zoom lens with a camera attached.  I also bought a San Disk memory card for $40 which can hold lots of pictures at 1084 dpi.  We are getting great pictures with it.  Granted, we aren’t able to get fantastic shots of warblers flitting through the woods, or exquisite detail on birds perched 200 feet away.  But we’ve got decent shots of Oystercatchers on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, nice Egret pictures in South Carolina, and shots of spoonbills in Georgia that are beautiful despite being fuzzy.  When I looked at my really excellent pictures of Royal Terms, I noticed that there were similar terms with them, smaller with black beaks.  They are Sandwich Terns.  Thank you, new camera.

      I added a new field guide specializing in shore birds.  It’s “The Shorebird Guide”.  (F16.)  It has extraordinarily beautiful pictures frequently showing it’s easy to confuse species in the same picture, making it an exercise to identify which is which.  It’s a good book and one that I expect to spend many hours with walking along the Delaware and New Jersey coastlines.

      I also bought a copy of “Birds and Blooms” magazines.  I know this isn’t very macho to admit, but I really like it.  I meant to sacrifice, but it’s getting close enough to Father’s Day that I think I’ll start dropping hints about what a good present that would make.

      Additional sources for information, documentation, and field information are apps available on cell phones.  Sibley’s is available on iPhones and we’ll probably get that.  Mike downloaded an app for his Samsung Galaxy called iBird Pro.  It has every bird with easy to review pictures and info.  It has a feature where it can play the bird calls.  It also has a feature that can record the bird calls that you are hearing and automatically identify them for you.  The app costs three dollars for his Samsung!  On iPhone it is $20, but still it is a bargain.

 

4/27 – More than one kind of hawk

Bombay Hook cured me of referring to all ducks as Mallards or not-Mallards.  But so far, I’m still pretty much thinking of hawks as Red-tailed or not-Red-tailed.  I’m not so bad on birds of prey, in general.  I’ve seen Bald Eagles, a Golden Eagle, Osprey, and several kinds of owls, but none of these are hawks.  I’ve been seeing hawks all winter driving around Chester County, but so far the only ones that I could positively identify are Red-tails.  These can be hard to identify sometimes because of the different color morphs.  But lots of time they are ridiculously easy, because of their large size and brown bodies.  The experts at Tyler are looking for the dark streaked band across their white bellies, but when the sun catches their tails just right, that’s all you need.  Sometimes it is red.

      But that’s all behind me now.  Today I identified my first hawk that wasn’t a Red-tail.  On route 100, north of Exton, near the Turnpike, I saw a small brown hawk perched on a utility wire.  His back and head were a uniform brown.  His breast was white.  He was crow-sized.  My bird guide says that the only hawks that perch upright on utility wires are Red-Shouldered and Broad-winged.  So flipping to the correct page, it was easy to pick out my bird as a first year juvenile Broad-Winged Hawk.  YEAH!!

 

4/28 – A drive up north

There were no birds along the Delaware River in southern New York.  The birds that had been wintering there have cleared out, but the spring migrants haven’t arrived yet.  Probably the food is used up.

 

4/31- Bear Meadows

Third time is a charm.  This time we got to do the entire loop.  Where I come from (the USA), a loop is a path that starts and ends in the same place.  That’s not true in central Pennsylvania.  The end point of Bear Meadows Loop is more than a mile from the start, on a different road.  When you get to the road, turn right and keep walking.  Just before you get to Bear Meadows Road, the web-site suggests hiking on a different trail that parallels the road.  We were running late, so we just continued walking until we got back to Bear Meadows road and turned right again.  It was still about ¾ of a mile to the car from there. 

      So was it a good walk?  Yes, but again we didn’t see a lot of birds.  Although we saw more birds than we saw in the dead of winter, it is still a little too early for the birds to find a lot of food here.  None of the hardwoods are in bloom yet.  You can feel the warmth emanating out of the ground.  Once things start to pop, I think there will be a few months of very fast growth.

      On the way in, we saw several unidentified wrens and a solitary Morning Dove sitting on the peak of a dead tree.  That’s unusual behavior for this social-able bird.  He looked really lonely.  After we passed through a small clearing with a spring, the trail opened up enough so that we could walk side-by-side.  There were a lot of singing birds on that stretch.  A few came out long enough to be identified.  Chris saw a Red-winged Blackbird and I saw a Hooded Warbler.  Along the road, we saw a raptor like the one that has been hanging out in our backyard.  I forgot to tell you that it was back sitting in the middle of our yard about a week ago.  We think that bird is a Harrier.  We heard Crows and Woodpeckers, but didn’t see them.  We saw Blue Jays several times.  The best time to come here might be in the summer, but I like to go to lakes and streams and the beach then.   I’ll probably try again in the fall.  I don’t know why, but this little walk is starting to get addictive.