Birding Big Year 2016

January 1, 2017

300: Birding Big Year Lessons

Filed under: Uncategorized — wfkeck @ 6:09 pm


Last year (no…wait), the year before that (December 2015) I set a goal to see 300 species of birds in 2016. That was 50 more than my goal in 2014, and 75 more than 2012. I knew that if I were to reach it, I would need to travel extensively, and indeed I did.  I didn’t keep a close count of mileage, but conservatively, I estimate over 10,000.  Birding took me to 14 states this year, and to over 50 parks and wildlife refuges. I had the privilege of birding with over 75 “serious” birders, and dozens of birdwatchers (you know who you are).  I’ve enjoyed talking birds with friends that wouldn’t know a red bird from a Northern Cardinal as well as birders that would debate a Hammond’s from a Dusky until the cowbirds came home.

It’s been a good year.  I added 13 lifers to an already respectable list, ending the year at 472 (literally getting life bird Crissal Thrasher with only hours to spare). There were many epic memories and quiet moments of reflection, praising the Master Birder who guided me on this journey. Some of the most inspirational places include Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Aransas NWR, Black Mesa (Oklahoma Panhandle), and Canyonlands National Park. Some of the most enjoyable birding locales included Henderson Bird Viewing Area – outside Las Vegas, High Island, Texas – home of the “fall out” and Portal, AZ – best pancakes and coffee in the middle of nowhere.

For me, birding is about absorbing the environment, paying full attention to the detail of habitat, color, movement, realizing that our fate is the same as birds, and recognizing the creator of us both. Who is to say that I know Him better than a Raven? Accumulating species is not the “be-all-to-end-all” of this pursuit. What is birding really…without birders?  I’ve met some good friends along the way, while traveling with old ones. Birds can’t share memories, like the time Russell and I discussed deep theology and cryonics while chasing Couch’s Kingbird in Santa Anna NWR, or sharing wacky political views with Bob and John at minus seven degrees during the Christmas Bird Count. And then there were the nights camping in the desert, nursing a beer, talking for hours, solving the world’s problems with Harry – business as usual for us.

My third Birding Big Year has ended, and I will take this year off…well, from setting goals and 5,000-mile junkets anyway. Birders never quit birding – it’s a way of life. I have learned a few lessons along the way, that I must remind myself now for 2018.

  • Wallace, you have 336 hours of accrued vacation – use more of it!
  • Tell your wife thank you a bit more often for tolerating your insanity
  • Go birding more with birders
  • drive less, bird more
  • don’t ever say, “I’ll get that one down the road later” – there is no tomorrow

About that goal of 300.  O boy, here comes the excuses.  You see, I would have hit 300 yesterday if I could have made one of those Canada Geese a Cackling Goose, one of those Eared Grebes a Horned, and… well, you get the idea.  I had a few 90%-sure sightings over the last 12 months, that left me packing up my gear at 295.  I used to be a Type A+ perfectionist; but lately I have surrendered to the wisdom of Solomon. “The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge but time and chance happen to them all.”  I had a great time, and if I get the chance, I’m going for 325 in 2018! Thank you dear friends for cheering me on along the way.

May 30, 2016

Epic Birding Trip Part 7: Edwards Plateau to the banks of the Rio Grande

Filed under: Adventure, Birding, Birds, Parks, Texas, Travel, Uncategorized, Wildlife — wfkeck @ 9:54 pm

Salineno crossing of the Rio Grande

Burn, Born, or Bernie?  It is slightly unsettling to wake up in a Texas town I cannot pronounce.  In a private moment Google saves me yet again.  I am able to join the breakfast conversation with Harry, Ken and Lisa, and sound like a local – Boerne is “Bernie.”  I know how silly a person sounds mispronouncing local place names.  A few days ago, Harry and I practiced saying Hachita, New Mexico: not hat-Cheetah, but whah-He-ta.  I marvel at how visitors to City of Rocks and my regional area completely botch the pronunciations:

CORRECT                      BOTCHED
Almo                               Elmo, Alamo
Elba                                 Elbow
Cassia (Cas-shuh)      Cass-ee-uh
Declo                               Delco
Cache (Cash)                 Ca-shay

The last morning of March in the Texas Hill Country couldn’t come more perfect. Last night’s rain and the rising sun reintroduce me to the concept of humidity – that strange climatological phenomenon not experienced back home in Idaho (or as people east of the Alleghenies pronounce it: Iowa). Today is another crucial leg of the epic big year trip.  Ken has promised to guide me to the endangered Golden-cheeked Warblers of Friedrich Wilderness Park managed by the City of San Antonio.  I am skeptical that any place within the limits of the 25th largest metropolitan area in the US could qualify as wilderness, but Ken is uncompromisingly confident.  We say our goodbyes to Lisa, and follow the pilot car of captain Ken through suburbia.

OK, I stand corrected. What a great park.  The lot is full of cars and joggers prepping for a workout.  Most have ear-buds inserted and dangling, evidence that they are not birders racing me to the whereabouts of warblers.  Ken praises the park as a great close-to-home winter training ground for summer’s western adventures.  I am not impressed – show me the warblers! We pass a person on the trail about every two minutes and I wonder if warblers will be wary. Ken leads us into the right habitat of Ashe Juniper and Plateau Live Oak.  I hear nothing.  Wait! I do hear a faint buzzy zeedle zeedle zweeeee tsip (or as they say in their winter home of Mexico: zeedle zeedle zweeeee tsip).  Golden-cheeked Warblers never sound like tourists.

Fixated now on the call, I side-step my scout and rush 20 yards up the terraced limestone trail until the song resonates from the canopy directly above. Yep, that’s him!  Now all I have to do is find him.  Suddenly a UTV (Utility Terrain Vehicle – aka Ultimate Torture d’Vice) pulls up with trail crew.  I no longer can hear the warbler over the motor.  Patiently waiting for the crew to pass or cut the engine, I watch horrified as the two-man crew begin to dump and spread gravel, and then proceed to run the machine over it for compaction. Are you kidding me?! I am losing it man! Ken senses a Mount St. Helens-like frustration rising from my gut to my mouth.  mere moments before my language breaks forth like lava, my six and a half foot, 250 lb. San Antonio “big brother” turns back down the trail and has a “conversation” with the oblivious and admittedly innocent crew.  Seconds later in relative silence, I relocate the zeedle and begin the task of pairing song with sight.  A life bird does not count by sound alone and must be observed visually. Fifteen minutes later, after suffering what birders diagnose as “Warbler Neck,” I get a 10-second unobstructed view of my quarry.  A photo is out of the question. I pride myself on getting the hard shots of uncommon birds, but this misbehaving bird, oak-choked foliage, and this into-the-sun angle will defeat even the best photographer (or as a Facebook friend accepting the auto-correct once called me a photo gopher).  Come to think of it, that sounds about right.

Harry is relieved that I am satisfied with the observation, fearing a long boring trip back to Kerr Wildlife Management Area if I had failed to locate the warbler here.  Ken is proud to have proven up on the promise.  Shortly, a husband and wife volunteer survey team reaches us and shares their findings.  They mention a few other birds seen close by that are needed for the big year list, and so off we go.  Anything seen now is icing; I got what I came for.  Soon we are relaxing on benches below one of the oldest working windmills in Bexar County, listing and snapping photos of #163 Black-and-white Warbler.  White-eyed Vireo and Northern Mockingbird also make the list before reaching the vehicles.

Heartfelt valedictions are shared but not belabored. I may see Ken in Almo before the passing of summer. Soon Ken is headed back to Boerne and we descend the Balcones Escarpment of San Antonio toward the border town of Laredo and the Rio Grande. With every passing mile, the temperature rises, until we find ourselves parked on the black asphalt of Laredo Walmart, cooking at 105 degrees.  We need ice and lots of it.  The chest is a slurping pool of tepid water.

From Laredo we make out like bandits to San Ygnacio, Zapata, and Falcon Dam.  Bob Jennings led me here in February ’93, where I was privileged to be the novice member of one of the greatest birding teams ever assembled: Bob Jennings of course, and Bob G. from Kansas, Don from Arkansas, Wally from Tulsa, Jim and Gerald from I now forget where, and Jay – a retired snowbird I first met while working Devil’s Den State Park in Arkansas. It was in this area that I scored Common Black Hawk, Brown Jay, Olive Sparrow, White-collared Seedeater, and Northern Jacana.  I am looking to list these again for the Big Year.

I follow the signs to Falcon State Park where we plan to camp for the night, but I get so turned around, I find myself nearly Carretera a Septina Base Militar headed straight into the international border patrol station without a clue or passport.  I pause just short of the booth like an outlaw fearing capture.  Slowly I back up and reverse course, hoping to find some place to bird along the river below.  We find it in the small Mexican-American village of Salineno. The village is over 280 years old, and prior to that served as an important crossing of the grand river by prehistoric inhabitants and Native Americans.  Salineno once served as the headquarters of the vast Rancho Salinas.  A short drive through the plaza, the road descends to the smooth flowing Rio Grande. Reeds disguise the banks on both sides, but the old river crossing is evident. I pause to skip a rock to Mexico. This is as good a place as any to smuggle marijuana or hunt for border birds.  I strike off upriver while Harry guards the gear. Once again I am trying to find success during the height of siesta.  The sun directly overhead hails (hells?) on us unrelenting.  But a bird is whistling just ahead, and so I press on in the oppressive furnace.  A perfectly field marked male White-collared Seedeater perches on a stalk of river cane – small and boisterous. #166 – Yahoo! (or as they say in Texas – Wahoo!).  Nothing else flits, sings, calls or flies.

Enough of the day remains that we decide to push on to Mission and find more modern accommodations.  Besides, I have arranged for a 7 a.m. rendezvous in Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park with Russell – my new found birding buddy I met back at City of Rocks on January 7 and with whom I birded unsuccessfully for Sharp-tailed Grouse the following day.  The distance and traffic soon prove me right.  It is nearly dusk when we roll into Mission Motel 6.  Like a saddle-worn, unshaven, and dusty cowboy, I freshen up, put on a respectable shirt and head out with Harry to find a saloon and restaurant.  No Taco Bell for us, we are on a mission in Mission to find authentic Mexican grub.

A few miles away, a modern strip mall proudly displays the name of a restaurant that sounds Mexican enough (which as a tourist I dare not pronounce), so we pull in and take a chance.  A large dining area of perhaps 20 tables spread before us, but only three are taken.  Well, it’s Thursday night, so perhaps that’s to be expected.  We are escorted to a booth with cloth-wrapped silverware, and are handed pretentiously over-sized menus entirely in Spanish.  Harry and I struggle privately with the contents and the prices.  The waitress stoically offers to take our order, but we pepper her with questions.  What is this; what is that; why is this priced at $120?  In broken English she attempts to answer questions the usual customers need not inquire.  Finally, I ask, “Do you have Chile Relleno? She pauses briefly, raises her nose slightly and states, “We’re not that kind of restaurant!” Finally, we order something akin to sweet goat meat wrapped in a soft flour tortilla – $15.  There’s little else on the plate but a pepper that Harry dares me to eat.  I happen to love peppers, but from the moment I stick my fork into it, my eyes water and I begin to sweat.  By the time it reaches my mouth, Harry is asking the waitress on my behalf for first aid and a second glass of cold water.  “Just pour the water over my head kind sir.  I am about to spontaneously combust!”

Back at the motel, Harry flips through the channels while I update my notes and edit photos.  I quickly conclude that I am in desperate need of a big day.  My numbers are embarrassingly low for someone who has just spent three days birding Texas.  At least the pressure of listing the Golden-cheeked Warbler is behind me.  I am consoled by the knowledge that tomorrow I will once again be birding with a birder (sorry Harry, but you are no help – and bats don’t have feathers, nor do they count).  Russell has been in the area for weeks, and should help me cut the id time in half as well as lead me directly to the hotspots.  Speaking of hotspots, I may have to sleep standing up tonight for fear that the weaponized pepper (most likely banned by the Geneva Convention) may return a modo de esófago. Buenos nachos?  Unlikely.

(Stay tuned for Epic Birding Trip Part 8: Bentsen-Rio Grande to Goose Island)

May 23, 2016

Epic Birding Trip Part 6: Davis Mountains to Edwards Plateau

Filed under: Adventure, Birding, Birds, Parks, Travel, Uncategorized, Wildlife — wfkeck @ 3:13 am
Kerr WMA

Kerr Wildlife Management Area, Texas

The sun rises quickly over the Davis Mountains of west Texas, or maybe I am just waking to the reality that somewhere back in Culberson County we entered Central Time Zone. I contemplate the unlikely idea that clocks in west Texas are set the same as in Nashville, Tennessee.  From the moment I left Almo, Idaho, I have become temporally-challenged.  I started in Mountain Time, entered the Pacific through Nevada, lost reality again in Arizona – that state where daylight savings time is not observed.  Frankly, I still don’t know what time it is there.  And now, here we are at the western extreme of Central Time Zone with the Jeep clock still set on Almo time.  Almo….that small village I call home, where one needs at least a tank of gas and a time machine to get there from most any place worth being from.  It’s best if birders just observe the dawn and leave it at that.

Thank God for Poorwills, nature’s goatsucking/nighjarring alarm clocks.  Big Year Bird #152 wakes and whacks me into a Texas-sized state of awareness. Today is the day that will decide the success or failure of the entire trip.  Somewhere at the end of it, I hope to be celebrating with good friends near San Antonio and toasting my observations of Black-capped Vireo and Golden-cheeked Warbler.  These two endangered species, located almost exclusively in the Edward’s Plateau, are the inspiration and purpose for my epic trip.  But first I need to give Montezuma’s Quail one last chance to attend a meet-and-greet. Rumor has it (i.e. choice gossip heard around the camp host site) that MOQU occasionally visit the designated wildlife viewing areas of the park.

Harry and I pay the first viewing area a visit near the aptly-named Montezuma Quail Trail Head.  No quail here, but I do confirm with camera the presence of #153 Rufous-capped Sparrow.  With no time to waste today, we proceed to the second wildlife viewing area adjacent to the Interpretive Center.  Here we find only White-winged Doves and a Javelina snorting birdseed. Our friendly camp host is around the corner, chatting with fellow parkies and a local visitor about birds.  I join in briefly until a nearby bird begins to sing.  The truth is I enjoy talking about birds only half as much as hearing birds sing.  Abruptly (and possibly rudely), I extract myself from the conversation and gravitate to what surely must be some new towhee or sparrow.  I pride myself on birding 80% by ear, but this one falls within the 20% category: must see to confirm.  The park staff watch me circle a juniper like a drunkard.  Bobbing and weaving, I try to make sense of the little shadow jumping around the darkened interior. Two other birders enlist for the cause, and finally the bird flushes to a deciduous tree not fully clothed for the season.  Why, it’s just a wren!  But which?  Everyone joins into the conversation, speculation, and process of elimination. I am the first to settle on Bewick’s, but immediately face doubts and diverse opinions.  Hey, I’m the new guy here, and these folks are supposed to be the resident experts.  I spend another precious five minutes convincing them that indeed it is – probably because I need to be convinced that I have just added Big Year Bird #154.

I desperately want to add MOQU to the life list.  Harry and I proceed up the steep and narrow Skyline Drive to the scenic overlook.  Harry hops out for a photo, I scan the grassy ridge – both of us leave less than satisfied.  We both want to see Fort Davis National Historic Site down in town, and time is slipping away.  We can’t afford unproductive distractions, and we decide to be satisfied with a slow ride down Lt. Henry Flipper Drive. As a life-long park professional, I know that in most parks, visitors rarely leave the vehicle or venture a few hundred yards beyond the road. I am ashamed to say we did not read a single wayside exhibit, let alone tour the visitor center or historic buildings.  My apologies to the staff at FODA, but somewhere 340 miles east of here Black-capped Vireos are vociferously defending territories and wooing hot-looking females. Who would want to miss that?!

From Fort Davis to Fort Stockton, I clutch the wheel.  Harry provides relief from there to Sonora, and then hands-off the com to me for the final leg.  From the atlas, the quickest route to Kerr Wildlife Management Area is not entirely clear, but it feels good to be rid of I-10 for a while.  We opt for Texas Highway 41, but are not confident of the choice.  Driving what seems like the wrong direction for nearly 20 minutes, I almost talk myself into a turn-around. Fortunately, I am distracted by #156 Black Vulture just long enough to reach the long anticipated junction of Farm-to-Market Road 1340. Shortly thereafter, #157 Crested Caracara leads the way to the grand entrance of Kerr WMA.

The stress is building.  Earlier I made a commitment to be at Ken and Lisa’s house in the outskirts of San Antonio around 6:30 p.m. for dinner.  They have generously invited us to spend the night.  Good food, conversation, and a real bed required little persuasion.  And yet, the clock on the jeep says 3:30 p.m.   …wait, is that Almo time or Texas?  No matter, I only have a few hours to find and observe two rare and endangered birds.  Sometimes expert birders can spend half a day looking for a common bird that for some unknown reason chooses secrecy.  Like a rock climber at the base of a new multi-pitch route, I need the inside beta to bag this one.  A quick stop at the WMA office results in only one valuable piece of information: “drive up the road until you come to the listening shelter.”  What’s a listening shelter?

Oh.  duh. A short drive up the road, we encounter a small structure built to provide shade over a small sitting area, where birders are encouraged to wait and hear the birds.  The first shelter is located proximal to prime habitat of the Golden-cheeked Warbler. We sit.  We wait. We stand…. I really don’t have time for this!  3:45 p.m. – I fear they are sleeping.  With feral cat-like steps, I maneuver through the nearby Ashe Juniper woodland in hopes of observing an active albeit silent bird.  Nothing moves, nothing sings.  Not good.

We proceed to the second listening shelter, this one located in the homeland of the Black-capped Vireo.  Mere seconds pass and cha-ching! We both hear the song of North America’s tiniest vireo, emanating from within a small island of scrubby brush.  At first the song reminds me of a hurried and hyperactive Green-tailed Towhee. I imagine locating this Texas bird in a New York minute, snapping off a stellar photo, and then moving on to more productive locations for the Golden-cheeked Warbler.  But the vireo is having none of it.  I can almost hear him lecturing me: “You have been planning this trip around me since December.  I am one of the most sought-after birds in the country.  Do you seriously think I am going to expose myself to you just so you can click a photo and check me off some list?” BCVI plays hide and seek with me for 15 minutes, flitting from one tree to another 40 yards away.  I catch only mere glimpses, and getting a photo is out of the question.  Finally, I settle for a two-second, full-on view of the magnificently marked head – white eye-ring contrasted with black hoody.  It’s not what I planned for, certainly not the dream sighting, but it will have to do.  Time is running out and I have yet to see a Golden-cheeked Warbler.

Somewhere along Ringtail Road (named for an equally elusive animal) we stop abruptly to examine a large avian-filled oak.  More than a few birds fly across our path into the lichen-covered branches. By the call, they are vireos, and for a brief moment I imagine a second chance at the Black-capped.  With patience, I do get a photo…of Yellow-throated Vireo. YTVI is thrilling to say the least – but not really the species that makes the trip epic.  Time is up, and we back-track along Kerr WMA Road, picking up a few new birds along the way – Eastern Phoebe, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, etc.  Just off Road 1340, we try one more trail head, but the gate is locked.  Frustrated, bewildered, and unsure what to do, we depart the region and head for Ken and Lisa’s.  Ken sends a text asking our location and if I was successful.  I reply with our GTA (Guesstimated Time of Arrival) and confess my failure to locate the warbler.  He assures me they are singing and easily found in Friedrich Wilderness Park near their house, and he promises to personally take me there tomorrow.

We have the makings of a plan, but I promise Harry that if Ken’s strategy fails, we will be driving all the way back here for round two.  No matter how discombobulated the trip schedule becomes or how many hotspots I must cut from the itinerary – I will not leave the Edwards Plateau without listing a Golden-cheeked Warbler. I can be at such times obstinate and unyielding.

We arrive at Ken and Lisa’s about 10 minutes before them.  Ken had said, “If you get there first, make yourself at home; there’s beer and food in the fridge.  The front yard of their ranch-style home is canopied in live oak, and the backyard has a swimming pool aerated by a small waterfall.  Bird feeders hang at the border between manicured lawn and jungled hillside.  Surely new birds will be seen here.  I plant myself in a cushioned patio chair and wait for painted buntings.

Soon enough they arrive and hugs and handshakes abound.  We recount the birding adventure thus far experienced over chips, homemade guacamole, and fajitas.  Conversations turn to good times and future plans.  Ken and Lisa own land in Almo and may one day settle there.  The draw for them has been the climbing, hiking, and spending time with friends, of which I am blessed to be among.  As the conversation wanes, we find ourselves sitting in the dark around the patio table, coyotes howl in the valley below.  A strange bird call is heard – not quite an owl or poorwill.  Lisa was hoping I would put to rest the nagging question of what it could be.  I haven’t a clue.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven…

A time to chase vireos, and a time to be with friends
A time to attempt to figure out what time it is, and a time to lose all track of time
A time to obsess, and a time to let be what will be

I am convinced that Ken will find me the Golden-cheeked Warbler in the morning, and so sleep comes easily enough on the eastern slopes of the Edwards Plateau.

May 17, 2016

Epic Birding Trip Part 5: Chihuahuan Desert to Davis Mountains

Filed under: Adventure, Birding, Birds, Parks, Travel, Uncategorized, Wildlife — wfkeck @ 1:21 am

McDonald’s Ranch, Hachita, New Mexico

Sunrise comes late to Cave Creek Canyon, but no matter; we are both up at dawn.  I follow the creek downstream in anticipation of encountering all the birds that migrated through last night’s dreams.  Harry catches up and we walk the closed campground loop.  The road and creekside campsites look as if they have just recently been rebuilt. A 500-year flood nearly erased all memory of the canyon on September 17-19, 2014. The creek is flowing harmlessly now, but today’s torrential winds channeled between the high cliffs remind us that the canyon keeps what it captures. It’s too breezy here for birds – except for one.  A lone Hermit Thrush bounces along the ground like a junco.  Big Year Bird #141 jumpstarts the day.

We’ve a long drive to Texas by sundown, but I am in no hurry to leave.  South Fork Cave Creek of the Chiricahua Mountains is as spectacular as Zion – both the National Park in Utah and the predestined resting place of the Saints.  I insist on birding the upstream trail into the Chiricahua Wilderness Area.  I first fell under the spell of South Fork on May 14, 1992, while birding with my mentor the late great Bob Jennings. The former director of the Oxley Nature Center in Tulsa deserves as much credit for my present-day obsession with birds as anyone.  It was here along this Sycamore-lined, crystalline creek that Bob introduced me to Elegant Trogon, Whiskered Screech-Owl, Strickland’s Woodpecker and Plumbeous Vireo.  Twenty years had passed between that visit and the one Harry and I made on March 28, 2012.  But now, Harry is insisting that he has never been here before.  When the Jeep reaches the end of the road, I realize why.  The 2014 flood has removed perhaps a mile of it and completely obliterated the picnic area.  South Fork has been rechanneled, regenerated, and reborn.

Harry remains back at the vehicle; I press on disoriented and somewhat disturbed of soul.  Time changes everything, creeks and protégés.  I did not expect this secret paradise to remember me, but I had hoped it would safeguard my recollections. Ah memories…

They spring up like flowers and wither away; like fleeting shadows, they do not endure.

The canyons will not keep them and nothing is the same – not even the birds.  I walk a few hundred yards deeper into the woods and collect new sentiments: Painted Redstart, Brown Creeper, and Ruby-crowned Kinglet.

If ever there is a place to forget the itinerary it is in Portal.  Here Cave Creek is liberated from the canyon, and the Jeep is bathed in sunlight. We park beside the Portal Store, Cafe & Lounge, ready for a real breakfast.  I navigate past the shelves of camping supplies and narrow aisle to a side room that is the crowded cafe.  Five mismatched wooden tables and small kitchen counter occupy the space.  One table is empty and we claim it.  Against one wall a local sits alone, offering advice to tourists a few feet away.  Another couple sits silently, lost in their cell phones.  I quickly realize the cafe offers free WiFi and take advantage of the opportunity to get word out to Susan – I’m still alive!  The menu has few items, but no matter.  I can almost taste the maple syrup dripping off my soon to be served short stack of pancakes. The waitress/cook/owner carves a groove in the wooden floor from the kitchen to our table, delivering over a gallon of coffee one cup at a time.  Outside the window, an Acorn Woodpecker fights with finches at the feeder.  A Cactus Wren calls forth a scorching sun. Time to go.

East-bound on New Mexico Highway 9, we pass Animas and unperceptively ascend the continental divide. Just before the so-called summit, a Greater Roadrunner …well…runs across the road, and I would expect nothing less.  This cuckoo is no dummy.  He can an outrun a birder, kill a rattlesnake, and live off the fluids of its prey in this parched and arid landscape.  I have no such skills, and am reminded that in a land of needles, fangs, and thorns, only the cautious and capable travel should venture ever deeper into the heart of the Chihuahuan Desert. We gas up at Playas junction just to be safe.

Ever east, we encounter no sign of human existence except the occasional west-bound green and white pick-up of the ubiquitous US Border Patrol. Agents seem to outnumber rancher and resident 6 to 1.  Even in Hachita, a rusted, dusted graveyard of a once noted town, reveals no humanity.  The 2010 census records 49 souls here (2015 Census lists 57!), but we see none of them. In seconds we are both entering and exiting town limits.  But that which catches my eye for a fraction of time, demands that we turn around and revisit the site.  At the crossroads the town lies south.  On the north is the typical posts and cross-pole entrance to a ranch – McDonald’s Ranch.  A pair of modern-day golden arches mark the way.  We drive through and dream of fries.  A corroded VW bug with four deflated tires sits permanently parked nearby with a scarecrow of sorts behind the wheel.  Back in town, we idle like vagrants, photographing old churches, adobe walls, and collapsed cabins. The streets are laid out 1st through 5th and A through C, just as an old rail town should be. I would not be exaggerating to compare present-day Hachita to a war-torn Syrian outpost, and yet I am strangely attracted to her.  No doubt full of stories of America’s Old Southwest, Hachita sprung like a desert flower, but now fleeting, withered, there is no reason to endure.  She no longer keeps her memories. There are no shadows at noon in the desert.

Like grand explorers we press on through Columbus, edging ever closer to “the pass.” Harry and I pass the time trying to guess where the newly designated Organ Mountains Desert Peaks National Monument begins and ends.  Established less than two years ago by President Obama, the monument boasts:

…a rich diversity of Chihuahuan Desert wild lands and unique Pre-American, New Mexican, and American history including training sites for the Apollo Space Mission, the Butterfield Stagecoach Trail, Billy the Kid’s Outlaw Rock, Geronimo’s Cave, World War II aerial targets, and thousands of Native American petroglyphs and pictographs.

Soon enough we enter the backdoor to El Paso via Santa Teresa.  An angry wind whips the Mexican dust and flings it at Texas.  No wall can hold it back.  Poverty spreads across the south bank of the Rio Grande, while commerce and truckers rage on along both sides of I-10. This is my second trip through “the pass” and I still have nothing good to say about it.  I miss Hachita.

Milepost 85, I-10 diverges from the Rio Grande and aims us toward 6,891-foot Sierra Blancha. Somewhere west of the “white mountain” a Swainson’s Hawk glides alongside I-10 and checks off as #146.  These Hawks are on the move north from Central America, and I will see plenty of them over the Almo Valley in a few weeks. Desolation dominates until Van Horn, then resumes again to the Apache Mountains. Finally, at Kent, we leave the chaos of I-10 and settle into the verdant and pastoral Davis Mountains as seen from Texas Highway 118.  Time well spent this morning in Portal is costing us the opportunity to explore the McDonald Observatory.  We see the giant domed structures that house the telescopes, but visiting hours are over.  There is just enough day left to secure a campsite at Davis Mountains State Park.

For a Tuesday, the park seems quite full. We find a handful of empty sights in the most distant loop and settle on one with relative privacy.  Immediately, I am seeing first-of-year birds like Northern Cardinal, White-winged Dove, and Canyon Towhee. The routine plays out.  Find a site, take care of fees, and bird until dark.  After all, the whole idea of the trip is to bird the morning when birds are most active, drive during the day when birds are non-vocal and resting, bird all evening at the day’s final destination, then get up and start all over again.  The problem thus far has been too much driving, shaving off precious time in the morning and evening.  According to all my sources, Davis Mountains State Park is THE place to check-off Montezuma’s Quail, a strangely marked bird of grassy canyons mixed with oak.  My best source is the camp host, who informs me that about this time in the evening the quail occasionally wander out of the grass and onto the road.  The appropriate habitat just so happens to border the campground, and off I go, hoping for a quick pick and a new “lifer.”  When no birds appear, I hike up slope into the canyon on the off-chance I can flush one.  The host also says that you have to nearly step on one to get them to flush.  It’s a big hillside…may the odds be ever in my favor.

I wander back into camp, exhausted, skunked, and quail-less.  I rummage through the food pantry looking for something quick to satisfy the hunger, and watch Canyon Towhees bravely hop into the open door of my Jeep looking for something to satisfy their hunger.  “Sure, you can hitch a ride with me back to Almo.” A few minutes pass, and then it’s off again to the large oaks down toward the shower house.  The shower can wait, but this repetitive one-note call in series of four, then three, and finally two has me baffled.  I might need a crash course in Morris Code.  It’s almost too dark to make out field marks.  There he is!  I lock-on with steady aimed binoculars and follow his movement from the tree’s dark interior into the light of an outstretched branch.  Well I’ll be…. it’s a Black-crested Titmouse!  Formerly lumped with the Tufted Titmouse, this bird has been determined genetically to be a separate species, whose distribution in the US is restricted to central and west Texas. I end the evening with a totally new-to-me species!  Life Bird #461; Big Year Bird #151; and Trip Bird #98.

Take shower – check.
Gaze at stars – check.
Double-check the checklist – check.
Collapse in exhaustion – ……….

(Stay tuned for Epic Birding Trip Part 6: Davis Mountains to Edwards Plateau)


April 24, 2016

Epic Birding Trip Part 2: What Happens in Vegas…

Filed under: Adventure, Birding, Birds, Parks, Travel, Uncategorized, Wildlife — wfkeck @ 12:03 am

Ruby Lake NWR below the Ruby Range

Snow.  Are you kidding me?  At least I am headed in the right direction – south to Nevada, Arizona, and Texas.  Still, I’m a bit concerned about what it might be doing down at Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge where I will spend the first night of this 15-day epic birding trip.  Setting anxiety aside, the Jeep rolls across the cattle guard that separates Idaho from Utah.  The loud metal clang flushes the second bird of the trip – Black-billed Magpie.  I might as well check him off early.  Quick to follow are sightings of Horned Lark, Common Raven, and European Starling.  Common birds help prop up a healthy trip list.

The Jeep bounces down the Lynn Road, reaching the all but abandoned community of Lynn.  A right-hand turn takes me up the steep grade that levels at 6,960-foot Cotton Thomas Pass.  I pause to take a few photos of the Goose Creek Mountain peaks and reflect on the utter absence of human beings and the absurdity of a roadside sign that reads:


You would have to be a Columbian drug lord to be that paranoid.  I haven’t passed a single vehicle in over 45 minutes, not even as I roll through one of my favorite (not-giving-up-the-ghost) towns in Utah – Grouse Creek.  This unofficial county seat of northwest Box Elder County has a small elementary school, LDS Ward, post office, and the Grouse Creek Mall, a one-room store that boasts “Grouse Creek Mall Has It All.”  A few years back I stopped in for some road snacks.  The Mall did have it all…but only one of each.  I bought the last Mountain Dew, the last peanut butter crackers, and (you guessed it) the last Payday candy bar.  I suppose it’s my fault that they had to drive to Wells, Nevada and resupply.

The high desert is a battle ground between dry air and snow squalls.  As I turn west on Utah Highway 30 (which quickly becomes Nevada Highway 233), the snow surrenders.  Under partly cloudy skies, I push on through one of Nevada’s barely-breathing cattle towns – Montello.  The last census guessed about 84 souls, but in its railroad heyday Montello boasted ten times that. I have passed through Montello a dozen times in 20 years and always marvel at the never-say-die persistence of the town’s two bars and small market. However, I take it as a bad omen for them when listing Trip Bird #11 Turkey Vulture here. Twenty-one miles later, with 10,716-foot Pilot Peak constantly in view, I meet I-80 at the recently deceased dry-spot called Oasis. Next stop Wells.

This stretch of I-80 offers little to write home about, unless you are one of the minimum security offenders placed at the Wells Conservation Camp within view of the highway.  Interstate signs read:


Suddenly, I remember how bald my tires are.  Somewhere on the downhill side of Pequop Summit it hits me.  I forgot to sign everyone’s digital timesheets before leaving the office!  I had caught up all of my email correspondence and left Carl in charge for the next 15 days…but he won’t be able to take care of this duty due to security protocols.  Think…..I have my cell phone with me…..I have my laptop.  I do my best thinking when driving through Nowhere, Nevada.  I also promised myself to leave the car radio off and CD player empty the entire trip.  I want to hear my own thoughts.  I want to see what comes to mind.  I want to let God speak to me through the silence. Ah ha! There’s a McDonalds up in Wells.  I’ll pull into the parking lot, skim the WiFi and take care of this final chore.  I don’t expect to be near the internet for a few days, and my cell phone data plan is hit and miss in these parts.

After topping off the tank in Wells, I drop south on US 93, marveling at the scenic grandeur of 11,306-foot Hole in the Mountain Peak.  By the time I reach Nevada Highway 229, The clouds yield to the afternoon sun, and snow is a distant memory. The highway turns north and over Secret Pass, but I steer south on Ruby Valley Road, along the east side of the Ruby Range.  The awesome grandeur of the Rubies, from Verdi and Liberty Peaks to King and Tipton Peaks (all in excess of 10,000 feet), rival that of any Rocky Mountain Range.  They are to me among the most seductive ranges, nursing my life-long addiction to mountains.

I’ve never met a mountain I did not quickly like
Nor one which did not whisper as bidding me to hike
I have yet to cross a stream not flowing in a dream
Or have failed to meet Your peaks -aflamed by morning beam
I’ve treasured all Your colors: the alpine fl’rs of spring
and sung the songs from mem’ry that all Your birds do sing
Now own my heart eternal, I promise and recount
I will forever climb them, yet never to surmount

Soon the shallow and deeply blue waters of Ruby Lake appear, and I ready the binoculars and camera for what I hope will be the spillway of rapid sightings and hurried listing. First comes Trip Bird #13 Canada Goose, followed by Mallard and coot. Ugh.  I could see these anywhere!  I really didn’t need to drive all this way for the dandelions of the bird world.  But then I hear them: the raucous and rasping rattle of two First-of-year (FOY) Yellow-headed Blackbirds. The male perches perfectly in the sunlight, but my Canon misfires.  Then I remember the birder’s meme – Birders bird, and photographers photograph – one must decide who they will be to maximize success.  I put down the camera and my field of view invites a preponderance of waterfowl. They are all here – teal, bufflehead, ruddy, redhead, ring-necked, etc.

Entirely too soon, the sun slips behind Sherman Mountain.  It’s time to secure a campsite in South Ruby Campground, Humboldt National Forest.  I find site #2 tucked away into the pinyon-juniper woodland and to my liking. Over the howling wind, I hear the familiar sounds of home – Pinyon Jay, Western Scrub-Jay and Mountain Chickadee.  Although my Nevada sky is clear, these winds are hurried north by a storm system exploding over southern Idaho.  The National Weather Service is predicting more than a foot of wet snow there over the next few days.  It is cold here too, and I opt for the added shelter of the Jeep.  My body heat will be retained better in the vehicle than tent; plus, I am too lazy to set it up.  I record my sightings, feast on a can of tuna, and pay one last visit to the comfort station.  I have tallied an unimpressive list of 27 birds for the trip, and only one FOY.  One by one the stars appear; their gravitational pull slowly overpower my eyelids.

Saturday, March 26, 6:05 a.m.  I have spent the last two hours fighting what campers often describe as the dreaded piss-shivers. The pre-dawn morning bottoms out at 15 degrees, and I can no longer neglect the biology of the bladder. The most frustrating malady of winter camping is the precise moment you are forced to choose between internal physical relief or bodily warmth, death by uromysitisis poisoning or hypothermia. I can hear a Great Horned Owl laughing all the way to the comfort station.  Minutes later, with the Jeep’s heater at max, I am toasty, packed, and driving down to the wetlands.  I want to photograph the moonbeams bouncing off the lake, catch the sunrise, and list a few more birds.

I depart the refuge with another dozen species, including Big Year Bird #115 Savannah Sparrow. Not far down the gravel road (and still within the refuge) I am pleasantly surprised to find Fort Ruby National Historic Site (1862-1869). There’s not much here beyond the wayside exhibits, an old cabin, and a vast and lonely landscape.  The fort was intended to thwart skirmishes between California-bound emigrants and Shoshone warriors.  The small military presence also lent security to the Pony Express that ran between Salt Lake City and Carson City.  The War Department called Fort Ruby the “worst post in the west” probably for all the same reasons I am enjoying the place – silence, desolation, a place of undistracted contemplation.  Trip Bird #40 Sage Thrasher warbles in the weeds.  Check!  Moving on.

I proceed south on White Pine County Road 3 (I have no idea where county roads 1,2, or 4 could possibly be).  There are no directional signs or civilization south of the fort. The road eventually leaves the Ruby Valley, crosses over the Maverick Springs Range and enters the accurately-named Long Valley.  I encounter no sign of human life until passing through the Butte Mountains and into the north end of Jakey Valley.  Here, US 50 (aka the loneliest highway in America) leads me east into Ely.  This desolate and almost entirely graveled route covered a distance of 95 miles, and admittedly, I was ready for company.  In downtown Ely, I locate the city park and partake of crackers, a trail mix bar, and water-packed mandarin oranges.

The Jeep now fueled, I take the road more traveled (US Hwy 93 South) toward Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge.  I had hoped to take US Hwy 6 to Nevada Hwy 318 and bird the wildlife management areas from Kirch to Key Pittman, but made a tactical decision to get to Pahranagat as soon as possible.  I am beginning to realize that I need about 20% less driving and 25% more birding.  So when in Nevada, take a gamble.  I’m placing all my hopes on a productive return at the federal refuge.  Upon reaching Cathedral Gorge State Park, I whip in at the overlook.  Tired from driving and depressed that I haven’t seen a trip bird in nearly five hours, I hope to add one on the quick.  Not even a raven greets me.  I take a few scenic photos for the journal, and continue.

Finally, just south of Alamo, the cool waters of Upper Pahranagat Lake can be seen.  I have arrived in time to relax, bird from a secluded campsite, and even set up the tent.  I have also arrived in time to discover that the few dozen campsites are packed with families from Las Vegas on a Spring Break Saturday night.  One by one I drive past perfect campsite, perfectly taken.  At the end of the loop.  I park and walk off into the cottonwoods, hoping for a woodpecker and some idea of what to do next.

Down the highway a few miles is the newly-built and architecturally pleasing visitor center.  I fully expect it to be closed, but then discover that I am no longer on Mountain Time, and haven’t been since 2 p.m. yesterday!  The center is open, and the volunteer at the desk is most helpful with advise.  “I am sorry, I know of no place to camp south of the refuge – not even a private RV park.”  She continues, “I suppose you could drive into the Desert National Wildlife Range on Corn Creek Road for a mile or two and find a level place to park, but it’s a four-wheel drive.”  I consider my tires, and quickly discount that option.

I am 90 miles from Las Vegas.  I just won an extra hour.  Perhaps this is the right time to blow my emergency motel stash and “camp” in a Super 8.  As I cover the desolate miles east of the Sheep Range, I can’t help but think of all the bodies that might have been buried here in a season of CSI.  That cheap motel is looking even better. My plan is to secure a motel on the outskirts of the city, but too soon I am swept into the traffic and carried downstream to the heart of the metropolis, eddying-out a few blocks south of the Strip.  Side streets flooded with vehicles form impenetrable log-jams.  The city pulls me under, and I find myself gasping for air.  After treading for an hour, I swim to a Walmart parking lot that rises above the chaos like an island oasis.  I am done for.  I call Susan.  “How’s it going she says cheerfully.”  In my best exhausted and whiny voice I say, “I can’t find a hotel!”  ….[silence]….”You’re in Las Vegas and you can’t find a hotel? Do you hear yourself? Look around…what do you see?”  “I think I see a Comfort Inn,” I answer sheepishly.  Go get you a room, forget the cost, and just regroup tomorrow.”  Such words of wisdom completely refresh me, and soon I am collapsed in a sea of pillows in an air-conditioned suite.

Total birds after 8 a.m. – 0
Total miles driven today – 400
Total hours birding after Ruby Lake NWR – .1

But tomorrow is another day, and my luck is bound to change.  I’m banking on an entire morning at the City of Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve. Somewhere in a distant casino, just before fading off to sleep, I hear a gambler jostling the dice and shouting, “Come on baby, daddy needs a new bird!”

(Stay tuned for Birding Big Trip Part III: Leaving Las Vegas)

April 15, 2016

Epic Birding Trip Part 1: Strategery by the Numbers

Filed under: Adventure, Birding, Birds, Parks, Travel, Uncategorized, Wildlife — wfkeck @ 11:14 pm

The Epic Big Year Birding Trip begins!

Time is a ruthless taskmaster, and the calendar an obnoxious billboard; both reminding me that the appointed date of departure for the one big birding trip this year is looming.  Since early winter 2015, I have been planning meticulously (some might say obsessively) every detail and every mile.  I have engineered the itinerary forwards and back, affirming key dates where I need to be and when, yet trying to work in enough flexibility to stay longer or leave sooner depending on how cooperative the birds are.  I know birds.  They are prone to misbehave and fail to meet me at the designated locations.  If ever there is a time to be bird-brained, it is this week. I simply must think like them, for I am scheduled to take flight at noon, Friday, March 25. My devious plan to see 200 species has to be flawless.

If planning a 5,000-mile/15-day birding trip is not enough, add to it the pressure to keep up the big year list, lest I fall horribly behind my competitors.  Thankfully, I reach my 100th bird on February 21.  The American Dipper presents himself without prompting at the Cassia Creek bridge in Elba.  Shortly thereafter, #101 Golden-crowned Kinglet fidgits in a nearby willow.  But then I suffer through an 11-day dry-spell until Say’s Phoebe and Sandhill Crane migrate in.  All told, my pre-trip total is a mere 113.  My competitors had that many before leap day!  I try to console myself with the fact that I only had 94 at this point in the chase back in 2012, but then remember that I was only 2 behind in 2014.  No, the only consolation I relish is the knowledge that I will get many, many birds on this trip.

Work is unrelenting.  I put in the overtime to wrap up various projects and assignments in anticipation of the prolonged absence.  Conference calls, business trips, and the incessant assembly line of email remind me of the Wac-A-Mole arcade game.  Just when I am sure I have them all answered, four more pop up.  And then there are the honey-do’s, the car repairs, and other off-duty responsibilities.  I still need to buy a camp stove, food, and withdraw my stash of mad-money from the credit union.  Finally, I need to just sit down and finish my itinerary!

The Big Year Birding Trip revolves around two key species: Black-capped Vireo and Golden-cheeked Warbler – both endangered species, both potential lifers, and both arriving even now to the Edwards Plateau west of Austin and San Antonio, Texas. The “strategery” of the trip is to reach the area a few days after the first arrivals are typically reported in eBird and soon enough to find them by call and song.  If they pair up and stop singing I’m doomed.  Departing on March 25, gives me just enough time prior to that event to bird my way down through Nevada, Arizona and along the US-Mexico border.  If all goes well, I’ll have a few days in Southeast Arizona to raise the Big-Year tally to 150 or better.  I really don’t know what to expect in the Davis Mountains, but I’ll need a day there just to keep from reaching the Edwards Plateau too soon.

If after bagging the vireo and warbler, and if the plan is still intact, I will race for the border along the Rio Grande and “mine for gold.”  Every birder knows that a serious big year demands a visit to the mecca of hotspots between Laredo and Port Isabel.  Emerging from there, I should be sitting around 200 if I time it perfectly with the neotropical migration.  As I bird my way up the gulf coast from Padre Island to High Island, I’m counting on another 30.  Traveling through NE Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas, I could keep raking in the migrants, or at least score 25-30 common birds of the eastern US.  After a day or two of downtime with family in NW Arkansas, I will turn my attention to the Great Plains of Oklahoma, southern Rockies of Colorado, and finally the Colorado Plateau of Utah.

Hours at the computer, I rub my eyes and wonder; have I picked the right refuges, parks, and hotspots?  Have I given adequate time at each stop to make the trip count?  I tally the miles, estimate the cost of gasoline, project the price of camping and food.  I even pad the budget with three random nights in a cheap motel, knowing I won’t be able to live with myself for two weeks without the occasional shower.  In addition to these logistical fear, I worry – have I studied enough?  I cannot afford to spend precious minutes in the field thumbing through field guides just to decide whether I am looking at a Bell’s Vireo or a Gray Warbler.  I need to know that a Cassin’s Kingbird in spring along the banks of the lower Rio Grande is less likely to be seen than a Couch’s Kingbird.  But I also need to remain vigilant, because the best part of birding is catching up to and confirming the presence of a species that by all accounts should never be where it is.  some birds ignore the books and statistics and just do their own thing.

Finally, there are these lingering fears: will Susan be ok while I am gone? Will these Jeep tires really last another 5,000 miles; will I fall victim to highway robbery? (I watch too many movies).  She assures me that she will be ok.  I have far less confidence in the tires.  Thursday night, March 24, I fold and pack the last load of laundry, and add the duffle bag to an already bulging cargo hold.  Fifteen days on the road in spring…one cannot be sure if they will need a parka or pair of shorts – so both make the trip.

Friday, March 25: I spend the first half of the day whacking the last few moles.  I set the out-of-office feature on my phone and email app as a vain attempt to reduce the workload that will be waiting for me on the other side of this trip.  And then it happens…noon.  I point the Jeep south toward the nearly 60 miles of dirt road between me and the Nevada state line.  I haven’t a care in my mind, except the self-imposed pressure to get the birds. I make it a rule not to count any birds for the trip list until I travel the four miles to the Utah border.  Moments later with the Almo Valley in the rear-view mirror, I reach the boundary and grab my pen and notebook: Trip bird #1 – Mountain Bluebird. The male takes quick flight without a sound. A hush falls over the high desert.  It begins to snow.

(Stay tuned for Epic Birding Trip Part 2: What happens in Vegas….)

Epic Wildlife Watching: The Big Year

Filed under: Birding, Uncategorized — Tags: , — wfkeck @ 12:52 pm

Epic Wildlife Watching: The Big Year

122015 photograph1

Planning the Epic Birding Big Year Trip

Written by Wallace Keck* for Windows to Wildlife (Spring, 2016)

Somewhere between bear jams at Yellowstone National Park, once-in-a-lifetime big game safaris in Africa, or ecotourism adventures to Central America, a much more watchable wildlife experience is possible – the Birding Big Year. And it is just as epic! Like so many birders before and beside me, I’m doing a big year.

Some readers might be familiar with the big year, having seen the 2011 movie of the same title, starring Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson. These comedic actors represented real-life characters who competed in the calendar year 1998 to see as many bird species in North America as possible. Sandy Komito won that competition with 748 species, a record that remained unbroken until 2013 when Massachusetts birder Neil Hayward topped it by one.

Big year birding is not birdwatching or merely listing birds one has observed. The essence of big year birding is competition, either with other birders or with oneself. Like all competitions, birding can be ruthless and fierce, all-consuming, and let’s face it – expensive. I am a few months into my third big year in the last six, and consequently perpetually and happily broke. I’ve set a personal goal of seeing 300 species in the United States in 2016. This goal is a far cry from the current record, but it is respectable and within my financial reach. As far as competition, I am personally driven to set goals and achieve them, but a handful of my friends are also doing a big year, so naturally a competition (be it real or imagined) can be assumed.

Chasing birds can be expensive. I’ve been socking away extra cash since last September. The costliest aspects of big year birding are fuel, oil changes, and probably a new set of tires before it’s all over. There are only so many birds within the habitats of Southern Idaho, and while it is possible to see 300 species in the state, my best chances for success require travel to the vastly different eco-regions of the country. To date, I have seen 107 species within about a five-county area. As the spring migration begins and Idaho becomes inundated with species from Central and South America, I am sure to pick up another 120. But that still leaves me way short of the goal.

Since early December, I have been pouring over field guides, maps, state checklists, and the Internet for times, seasons, and occurrences of birds, especially those I have never seen before. New birds are called “lifers.” I started the 2016 big year with 460 lifers to my credit – a feat that has taken over 30 years to achieve. Of the 300 species I intend to see this year, I am hoping that a dozen or more will include first time sightings (lifers).

Serious competitive birders do not simply bird by chance or serendipity, we study as if trying to pass the bar exam. I have spent countless hours digesting every piece of information about two target species that are located in the Edwards Plateau of Central Texas. I am determined to add Black-capped Vireo and Golden-cheeked Warbler to both my life list and big year list.

These two species (the Vireo and the Warbler) are the centerpieces of a 5,000-mile epic big year trip that will surely include many rare and unusual birds from the Great Basin, to the deserts of southeast Arizona, down the Rio Grande River, up the Texas Gulf Coast, through the piney woods of East Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas, beyond the Ozarks, over the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, and finally the Colorado Plateau. Every birding big year should include at least one epic big year trip. However, unless I open a go-fund-me account, I will be birding fairly close to home the rest of the year.

I am well aware of the peer pressure to set a good example of environmental conservation and live a low carbon footprint life. On the other hand, big year birding and traveling is as valuable as pursuing a college degree. The education one achieves through significant study and field experience will last a life-time. By December 31st, big year birders will have gained a deeper understanding of ecosystems in peril, effects of climate change, impacts of non-native species, the interplay between urbanization and agriculture, and the threats associated with fragmented habitat. Not to mention, birders greatly increase their knowledge of botany, geology, and geography, as well as diverse cultures and history. Upon my return from the “big trip” I will have something far more valuable than a list of birds. The knowledge and experiences gained will serve me well in serving the park visitors, school children, elected officials, and colleagues within my sphere of influence. I will be able to speak more fluently about the state of our environment and the importance of an individual conservation ethic. At the very least, I will have some great campfire stories.

Finally, big year birders gain something even greater than knowledge and influence, or personal satisfactions. Birding is ultimately about relationships and life-long friendships. Birders can be cranky loners at times, but we share a bond that breaks all stereo-types. I have birded with high school seniors and senior citizens, complete strangers and Christian brothers. I’ve never met a birder I didn’t like.

If you’re still a birdwatcher, consider stepping up your game. It’s not too late to start your own big year. Join in with a nearby Audubon chapter, or visit your parks and wildlife management areas to attend a bird walk. Better yet, participate in a citizen science project, backyard feeder watch, or Christmas bird count. But be careful, the leap from a bird walk to a big year obsession is shorter than you think. Soon you will be on your way to an epic watchable wildlife adventure.

*About the Author: Wallace Keck is the park superintendent of City of Rocks National Reserve and park manager of Castle Rocks State Park in southern Cassia County. In addition to his obsession with birds, Wallace is an avid writer, public speaker, field botanist, and photographer, tirelessly promoting the parks. You can follow his 2016 birding big year at

February 21, 2016

To Kill a Chickadee

Filed under: Uncategorized — wfkeck @ 1:53 pm
1374 Mountain Chickadee31.jpg

Mountain Chickadee before the incident

I am easily lost in the drama displayed this early morning at the feeders.  Feet propped up on the desk in my home office; fingers interlocked forming a make-shift headrest.  I watch as Pine Siskins attack the thistle socks dangling from the roof of the covered deck.  Only ten feet and a glass door separate my perch from theirs.  The room is dark, so the glare prevents them from seeing in. Still, somehow they sense my presence and periodically dart into the juniper a few feet from the sock.  They take a breath (I hold mine); They look both ways and quickly return to breakfast.

Juncos pace around the deck floor cleaning up what the siskins drop.  Occasionally, they will stick their head into the feeder mounted to the deck rail, but mostly they prefer the floor or the ground ten feet below.  The birds have their black-oil sunflower seeds and I have my black-only straight-up Starbucks.  Sunrays strike Cache Peak a few miles away.  The rich-blue sky is crisp, and junipers stand at perfect attention – no wind today! Everybody is enjoying the morning.  And now a Mountain Chickadee pops in from who knows where, and gets everyone excited.  Chickadees are always the life of the party.  They chatter on, but never really scold in anger.

I still remember my first Mountain Chickadee: September 8, 1990.  Susan and I had spent the day before driving 460 miles from Billings to Glacier, arriving just in time to get the last available campsite.  We were living and working in Devil’s Den State Park, Arkansas in those days, and the trip to Glacier was intended to feed my need for mountain inspiration and the fragrance of sagebrush.  I got up with the sunrise and birded my way down to the lake.  Once Susan woke up, and after a quick bowl of blueberry oatmeal, we hit the trails. One grizzly, four miles, and a few lifers later, we found ourselves at the next trailhead – this one to Apikuni Falls.  Susan stayed in the Trooper, while I ran up the trail for photos.  (I am still a sucker for waterfalls).  But I am always birding, so when I walked into a thicket of chatter, I stopped and took note.  I gave a quick “pish” and a Mountain Chickadee presented himself front and center.  The black eye-stripe immediately separated him from the other Chickadee members in the ranged: Black-capped, Chestnut-backed, and Boreal.

Mountain Chickadees are a true western species, confining themselves to the Rocky Mountains, Colorado Plateau, Basin and Range, Sierras, and Cascades.  When I see one, I know I am in the right place – which is why their appearance at my feeders reassures me that building a home on the southern slope of Cache Peak was a good decision.  I watch this one dart in and out of the feeder, seed in beak and off to a hidden juniper branch to crack it open.  Less than a minute later he is back for more, and this time with his mate.

I may not be the only one watching birds.  curled up on a deck chair cushion is our adopted cat affectionately named “Mere Cat” – short for “Come here cat” and also because his voice is more mere than meow.  Mere Cat is watching with all the interest of a cow taking notice of a magpie.  I take heart in believing that Mere Cat doesn’t like birds, and from all indications, prefers rabbits and rodents.  Susan thinks Mere Cat may be the grown-up kitty that was raised under our front porch in the summer of 2012, so we have allowed it to take up residence with us.  I’m not a cat guy, but Mere Cat has grown on me, and follows me around when I do yard work.  Dogs and cats become family members once you start talking to them, and I have to admit, Mere Cat and I have had more than a few conversations.

Almo, like most rural communities, has its share of feral cats. On some days, I might see as many cats hunting as hawks.  A feral cat is one which has been born into wildness and has learned to survive on its own without human interaction.  We do not feed Mere Cat.  He came with skills, and feeding the birds is costly enough.  A recent study by the Smithsonian estimates that 2.5 billion birds are killed by cats (feral and domestic) annually in the US.  World-wide, some 33 species of birds have become extinct due to cat predation.  Cats are just superb hunters, and domestic cats often kill for sport.

I know the statistics, but I have spent many hours watching birds and Mere Cat.  They seem to tolerate each other in this paradise I call home.  But then who wouldn’t be intimidated by 50 screaming pinyon jays arriving at the feeder in force?  Mere Cat just lays there, filled and contented from last night’s hunt.  My affections for chickadees surpass most birds and all cats, but as a naturalist and admirer of the Creator’s work, I find joy and fascination with all life.

My coffee mug is empty, and it is time to get on with the day. I turn my attention to the laptop to balance the checkbook, check Facebook, and give Instagram a look.  Suddenly a loud crash resonates from outside.  What the heck?!!  I run to the living room windows to get a broader view of the deck.  All the birds have scattered, and perched over my Mountain Chickadee is Mere Cat’s southpaw – death for breakfast.

I stand there in shock and disbelief. A rush of emotions smack me like a bird to a window. I am angry with the cat, broken over the departed, and so disappointed with my naivety. Its mate appears from the juniper, perches on the rail above and looks on.  Does it understand what has just happened?

Evolutionists might recount matter-of-factly the survival of the fittest principle. I might no doubt be chastised for anthropomorphizing the whole incident. And of course a thousand fellow birders will shake their heads in disdain. I have become the problem.  “Cats don’t kill chickadees, people do.”  Adding to my guilt, I recall the words of Jesus, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father.”  If an omniscient God takes note of the death of a house sparrow commonly used in ancient sacrifices, how much more a chickadee who is called to bring Him glory! Scripture also states, “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”

I installed the bird feeders that attracted the birds; I kept them fat and contented. I gave Mere Cat his cozy perch and permission to stay. I assumed, then, that they would abide by the house rules: (1) bring joy to the master of the house, and (2) no fighting!  And yet, in my conflicted state, I am reminded of all the times this winter that the feeders at the visitor center attracted flocks of birds, which in turn attracted bird predators: Northern Shrike, American Kestrel, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Northern Goshawk…and feral cats.  Predator and prey relationships, as the biologist will say, is the circle of life.

Some theologians argue that in the Garden, animals were vegetarians, but that predator/prey relationships began with man’s original sin.  The Apostle Paul wrote, “For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.  We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.  Judeo-Christian followers believe that the original relationship of animals will return in the new heaven and the new earth.  Isaiah writes, “The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, and dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,” says the Lord.

Three things I painfully learn from this incident: (1) I killed the Chickadee – my own sins of omission; and for that I must give an account as steward of His creation. (2) Despite the million dollar view from my deck, the song birds at my feeder, and the cute little kitty curled up on my deck, this is not paradise.  And finally, (3) Birding is all fun and games…until somebody gets hurt.

070912 photograph1

Mere Cat (kitty) 2012

February 14, 2016

Truckers and Chukars: White-knuckle Birding at Rattlesnake Pass

Filed under: Birding, Uncategorized — wfkeck @ 11:53 pm
0675 Barn Owl8

A Barn Owl escort down refuge road

I have been consoling myself of the second place finish coming out of January with the knowledge that I would soon be birding the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge.  That day has now come.  A medical appointment in Salt Lake City gives the whole adventure legitimacy.  I am not skipping work for birds, but neither will I skip birds for sick leave.  Fortunately the refuge is on the way (practically in the way) of my intended destination, and birding is always therapeutic.

Hours before my darkened departure, a weather system has arrogantly dumped four inches of fresh snow on already ice-covered roads. I am leaving plenty early to compensate, but creeping down the highway at 40 mph will certainly cut into my birding time at the refuge.  Mile after mile from Narrows Road to Utah 30, I have the highways to myself, and so I take my half out of the middle, and keep it in four-wheel drive.  But once I hit I-84, it’s a video-gamer’s nightmare.  Truckers from hell (or maybe the arctic) appear from nowhere. They race at me, overtake and splash me.  The asphalt is buried in slush that leaps to my windshield with every passing rig of rage.  God help me!  (Short, heartfelt prayers are most effective).

Even in the clouded dawn I can see white knuckles gripping the wheel, anticipating certain death.  The blood has gone into hibernation and muscles are clinched and locked.  I try to console my fingers with split-second stretches, but they aren’t listening.  On the uphill grade of Rattlesnake Pass, the truckers that passed moments ago have now met their match.  They climb the mountain in low gear.  I am forced to take the left lane and pass them, but this lane is unplowed. A northbound truck plunges into the medium. I pass within 20 feet of him.  Now the blood is draining out of my head.  hold on!  I warn out loud to no one…or maybe to my fingers that seem to be warping the wheel with superhuman strength.  The stress-o-meter rises and I feel that I might black-out in the white-out conditions.  Just keep rolling, I hear myself say.

Thirty miles later, the jeep rolls into the refuge parking lot, and a surreal sense of calm descends upon me.  I made it; I have no idea how, and very little recollection of the past 40 minutes.  I am the only visitor (survivor?).  It is silent and cold, and slightly snowing. Inside the visitor center, I check with the local birding experts about refuge conditions, what’s frozen, and what’s hot.  There is very little open water, and the refuge roads are reportedly slick, narrow, rutted, and occasionally muddy.  American Pipits are being seen along the road edges – I need those.  I am also hoping for a look at the handful of waterfowl remaining on my list.

A smile creeps over my face as I wander down the refuge road.  I am still alive, and I am birding.  Life is good.  …but the refuge is dead.  Very few birds are active or even present.  I take joy in seeing a small flock of starlings – at least its something!  A coot swims down the canal; a single house sparrow yields the road; an Eurasian Collared Dove makes a distant flight.  Even the bad birds can be good in times like these.

And then it happens…that moment when nature throws you a bone – or in this case – a Barn Owl, maintaining a flight path and pace with the jeep.  Normally birds veer off, up and away, but this one mysteriously remains at eye-level, and parallels my route just 30 feet beyond arm’s reach. I have done some stupid things in my life, but what I am now contemplating could easily earn a spot in the top ten.

The refuge road is straight but narrow, and on either side – deep water-filled canals.  I can’t continue to watch the road and photograph the owl at the same time.  I simply have to choose.  And its an easy decision.  Most birders I know will take the shot.  Pressing my left knee up into the steering wheel and my right foot on the gas,  I twist my torso counter-clockwise and become a multi-tasking Gumby.  My knee drives and my hands and eyes perpendicularly steer the 400 mm zoom lens squarely at the owl. I rip through 80-100 images like a Gatling gun. Now…I can’t be sure, but I suspect that I traveled more than a quarter-mile at 25 miles per hour without ever confirming the road.  Fortunately the owl chooses to perch on a gate post just before the road takes a 90 degree left.

A few miles later, gulls and grebes play in the unfrozen water. Shifting periodically from binoculars to field guide, I spend time to the excess, trying to confirm if the gull in scope has pink legs or yellow.  The light is horribly washed.  I really want this to be a Herring Gull, but I just can’t be sure.  He takes flight and my last hope for a new bird vanishes into the frozen sky.  I am simply out of time and need to get down the interstate to my appointment.

New and more vicious truckers surround me, forcibly escorting me south I-15 to the inner sanctum of Salt Lake City. Wipers work overtime, until like horses that have been ridden too far too fast, they give out and collapse. The right-side rubber blade is ripped from its arm by accumulated ice. I am blind. Somehow, beyond my own vision and wisdom, I arrive at the clinic.  There is just enough time to lower my blood pressure, and allow for the color to return to my fingers.  The doc walks in with all the serious single-mindedness of a busy professional, “So, what have you been doing?”  “Um…White-knuckle birding.”

A few hours later, with a fresh tank of gas and new wiper blades, I rejoin the insanity headed north, I-15.  The weather worsens.  All the elements of danger return, and the blood in my knuckles rush to my heart as if to sustain the essential organs.  I can’t remember my last deep breath.  Lungs are not necessary.  Suddenly I am back on the northbound grade of Rattlesnake Pass.  Truckers to the left of me, truckers to the right.  Here I am, stuck in the middle again.

But then, like when a passing storm is silenced by the awe moment of a rainbow, I see them. Truckers fall away in a stroke of courtesy, giving me a timeless moment in the midst of the storm…to see a pair of Chukar happily feeding in the medium.  Their presence is unexpected and out of context. They are oblivious of the storm and semi-tractored chaos. This is the thrill and essence of birding, the risk and reward.  My first Big Year bird of February comes at a hard physical cost, and yet completely restores my soul.

February marches on.  The following day under sunnier circumstances, I am presented with Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, and Snow Goose east of Declo.  Howell Canyon offers a single Brown Creeper, early Sunday morning, February 7.  The following Tuesday, the Twin Sisters give up their only Canyon Wren; and two days later, a return trip from Boise leads to a successful detour into Hagerman.  The day before the birding festival, I steal away with three needed species – no charge: Yellow-rumped Warbler, Wood Duck, and Gadwall.

Life is fleeting; birding is forever. I have cheated death once more.



February 8, 2016

Last Day, First Month: A Big Year

Filed under: Birding, Uncategorized — wfkeck @ 2:09 am
1384 Bushtit8

Bushtits dashing in and out of sagebrush

Already I can feel the self-inflicted pressure of underachieving. Today is the last day of the first month of the big year.  Reality inevitably trumps fantasy.  I had dreamed of listing 100 birds by close-of-business, January 31.  I suppose if I were being completely transparent, I actually had the audacity to believe I could list a hundred birds on January 1.  But that’s sort of like those juvenile imaginations of dating a cheerleader, winning the lottery, or climbing Mount Everest.  My list sits at 82.

With a heightened sense of urgency, I give the Sunday morning benediction and dash for Declo.  I hear tell of tales – easy Pintails and Teal just a short drive away.  I still need Gadwall and Bushtit, Creeper and Wood Duck.  All of these are high on my hit list, and cheap targets based on tips I received earlier in the week.  Gone are the days of new birds haphazardly arriving to the visitor center feeders, like the large flock of Brewer’s Blackbirds a week ago, or the swooped-in Goshawk, or the Lesser Goldfinch that yesterday fed alongside its duller cousin American Goldfinch.  I seriously have to go get them now.

Although sunny, the weather outside my jeep is frightfully chilled.  Winds drive the late-morning temperature into the miserable.  At the junction of Hwy 81-new and 81-old, east of Declo and huddled in the warmth of the vehicle, I peer into the frozen wetlands that mark the deserted end of Marsh Creek. This is where Kathy claims to have seen too many Northern Pintail and Green-winged Teal to count.  There are no ducks here now, just a marsh hawk, looking for voles.  He’s hungry, and my list is starving.

Wood Ducks elude me along the sure-fire habitat of Granny’s Pad Road, and even her lagoons are frozen.  I am in need of open water.  I find some north of the I-84 Snake River crossing, but even here only a few crazy Goldeneye and a Common Loon dare to swim.  Perhaps it is the same loon I checked-off last Wednesday on my way to Walcott.  This will not do.  I am due a new bird, somewhere, somehow.  I can feel the minutes ticking by.  I am starting to panic.

And now I am hungry!  I need to pick up bird seed at C-A-L Ranch and check the open waters that separate north and south Burley, so I might as well grab a #3 at McDonalds.  Birds eat better than birders.  With ketchup and grease still moisturizing my lips, I swing into Lex Kunau Park and erect the scope.  A raft of waterfowl is huddled on the frozen bank of Cassia County, a few football fields away. Maybe I can tease out a Gadwall.  Unfortunately it is the mallards that tease. Just as I am about to rush back to the Jeep’s warmth and fragrance of fries, an odd “duck” is swimming with a dozen-plus Canada Geese.  Back out comes the tripod and scope.  Even in the glaring sun distantly down river I can make out a goose of another color.  Partly assisted by the wind-chill, I stare frozen, waiting for this odd goose to turn into the light.  Finally, it reveals a patchy white lore that is almost all that separates a domestic Graylag from a rare winter find – #83 Greater White-fronted Goose!

I give up on Gadwalls and head back to Almo in hopes of a last minute score on Cassin’s Finches or Bushtits. An hour later, I am at the office unloading 40-pound bags of black oil sunflower seeds.  Out the window, I see a pick-up pull-up.  We are closed on winter Sundays, but I am always ready to serve.  Low and behold it is Rob and Cindy from Twin Falls, driving an hour and a half in hopes of listing the Northern Goshawk and Lesser Goldfinch at the feeders. I had posted earlier in the week these arrivals to Facebook.  The odds of seeing the Goshawk today are only slightly better than my future summit of Everest, but the Lesser Goldfinch is quickly “bagged.”

In separate vehicles we caravan to Smoky Mountain Campground.  Rob needs a Juniper Titmouse.  Cindy is in Sunday shoes, and waits in the truck while Rob and I walk the frozen loop.  Snow and ice crunch below our boots, making it difficult to hear even a raven.  We talk of future birding trips, and the respectable showing we both have made in January.  Still, we can’t help but feel a stronger finish is within reach.  We scurry to add one or more before sunset.

Despite the cold, I lower the window and drive slowly out of the campground. My plan is to stop every 50 yards and attempt to call in a titmouse.  Instead I catch the faint chips and twitters of Bushtit.  I jump out, and signal for Rob to cut his engine.  They are here somewhere in the tall sagebrush just north of the road.  Rob can hear them too, and their quick dash here and there focus our attention.  Finally, dangling upside down on a dried sagebrush flower stalk, is #84 Bushtit. High fives and cheers quickly follow.  We are emboldened to get one more.

With Rob and Cindy following, I proceed toward Bath Rock, stopping at the occasional pinyon-juniper woodland to call out for Cassin’s Finches.  The only thing we get is colder.  The sun is slipping behind Mount Mahogany.  At Bath Rock, snow drifts thoroughly obstruct further progress. At 4:30 p.m., we are the only ones in the entire park.  It is here we must make our final stand for January.  A Townsend’s Solitaire takes note atop a naked aspen snag.  He hears my Cassin’s call, and probably muses, “its too early for them.”

Yet the recorded noise is enough to spur a woodpecker to leave one hidden perch for another.  We see its undulating flight, but only for a second at a distance of 50 yards. I immediately think Hairy Woodpecker, partly because I need one, but also because it just seemed bigger than downy.  Rob and I close the gap between the parking lot and the pinyon pine it landed in near campsite 54. The snow is piled high from a dozen December storms, and we posthole our way to a proper distance.  I “dial-up” the call and play it once.  Rob quickly reports that the bird has moved to the very tallest snag.  “It’s a Hairy!” he shouts twice to convince both him and me.  I lock in and confirm to my own satisfaction, the bill length to head width ratio is indeed more than half.  A Downy Woodpecker is less than half and noticeably diminutive. Another round of high-fives are served.

Rob and Cindy descend the long road out of the “City” and back to Twin.  It’s a school night, and teachers need their rest.  I have hopes for one more bird, but 20 minutes later, even I must acquiesce to dusk and bitter cold.  Rob finishes the first month of his big year with 83, I with 85, and Kathy, according to her Facebook post – with 87.  That places me somewhere in the top 25 of Idaho Birders in 2016, based on Ebird checklists thus far submitted.

Here’s the crazy thing, no one is really competing with me, at least not officially. My second place standing among two other birders means nothing. My competitive human nature wars against my joy of nature.  Such internal conflict can only be resolved by the practice of helping other birders find what they have yet to see.  Kathy regularly texts rare and unusual sightings, and Rob also passes on hot tips as he gets them.  Other birding buds continue to invite me to bird their area, and Travis is my inside man for what’s happening at Walcott. Such is the nature of big year birders. We are our own champion and critic.

But then with a hint of deviousness, I begin to plot a secret trip to the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge.  I think I can pull ahead this week!



Older Posts »

Blog at