Desk-bound Nature Lover

My Blog: Occasional postings about the joys of birding, hiking, camping, and sightseeing.

My life: I spend most of my days in offices, looking at a computer screen, and waiting for those few weekends when I can get out and enjoy some remnant of our precious natural heritage. But, boy, do I live on those weekends!

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

ENSBC Trip to New Mexico and Arizona – January 21-30, 2011

Offering a temporary escape from the Illinois winter, Dave Johnson organized a trip to New Mexico and Arizona for some southwestern birding. Fourteen people signed up for this trip, including me. Our group tallied 178 species during nearly 10 days of birding, with 93 species in New Mexico and 155 species in Arizona.

The first leg of our trip was in New Mexico. Our guide during this time was an excellent young local birder, Raymond VanBuskirk. Raymond, a student at University of New Mexico, was featured in the May-June, 2010 issue of Audubon Magazine for his work banding and studying the three species of Rosy-finch which winter in the Sandia Mountains just east of Albuquerque. With his help, we had three exciting days in the desert canyons east of Albuquerque, the wetlands of Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, and, best of all, high above Albuquerque in Sandia Crest House where we sat in the comfort of a cafeteria, watching flocks of all three species of Rosy-finch fly in to the feeders and Raymond’s team banding and measuring the birds. Several in our group got to hold and release the Rosy-finches.

On the 4th day of our trip, we drove from Albuquerque to Phoenix. Our remaining days were spent in Arizona.

Our guides in Arizona were Karen Zipser, Diane Touret, and Michael Marsden. We met Karen and Diane near the town of Buckeye, at an otherwise non-descript point in the desert known to have three species of Thrashers: Crissal, Bendire’s and LeConte’s. The LeConte’s is a particularly fine find for Arizona.

From there, we headed south to the Tucson area, and, in an agricultural area called Santa Cruz Flats, we were treated to: a Burrowing Owl peeking out from under a broken irrigation tile; Mountain Plovers foraging with American Pipits and Horned Larks on a sod farm; and a Rufous-backed Robin in a fruit tree, trying to stay out of reach of an aggressive Mockingbird. At some cattle pens nearby, we observed four rare Ruddy Ground-Doves.

Over the next few days, we visited some of the famous hot spots in southeastern Arizona, including the canyons of the Huachuca Mountains, Patagonia Lake, and Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains. Our time in Madera Canyon got us some spectacular birds, including an Elegant Trogon, a Magnificent Hummingbird, Painted Redstarts, and Hepatic Tanagers.

Near the end of our outing, I paid with blood for my first sight of a Costa’s Hummingbird. I wandered into the brush and encountered a species of cactus known as the Jumping Cholla. It clings to a person at the slightest touch and every move you make puts you into contact with more sharp spines. Fortunately, I had a small pair of pliers with me, and succeeded in removing all the cactus spines by early evening. Such are the things which make travel memorable!

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Is anyone else getting thoroughly nauseated with all the crap we are seeing in the corporate media about Ronald Reagan on his 100th birthday. Is anyone as disgusted as I am by hearing what a great president he was? Am I the only one who still remembers the general environmental devastation his administration wrought? Has everyone but me forgotten that he sold weapons to our sworn enemies and used the proceeds to fund terrorists? Is his callousness in the face of the AIDS epidemic forgotten? Does nobody remember his profound ignorance on just about every subject under the sun? I’ll say it, if nobody else will: President Reagan was a catastrophe!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Definition of a Good Hiking Trail

For a trail to be a good hiking trail, rather than just a not-totally-awful trial, it must have all of the following characteristics.

A good hiking trail is long. It must be possible to hike the better part of a day at a moderate pace. A hike is hardly worthy of being called a hike unless it is at least five miles long, and a good hike is at least eight miles long.

A good hiking trial is roadless. It must be out of sight and hearing of paved roads and even dirt roads with any significant traffic. When you have hiked three miles, you should be at least two and a half miles, as the crow flies, from the nearest pavement.

A good hiking trail is uncrowded. A hike where you have to hear other people gossiping, or put up with other people’s bratty kids is hardly worth taking. The people you encounter on a trail should be few enough that each is pleasant surprise rather than part of a general crowd. If you see four individuals or small groups in an entire day, that is just about right.

A good hiking trail is quiet. By the time you have hiked an hour, it should have been at least forty-five minutes since the last time you heard a truck or a motorcycle or a leaf blower.

A good hiking trail is wild. Housing developments, shopping malls, and industrial farms should be miles away. Any man-made structures which are visible must be small, rustic, or in ruins (and preferably all three). If the area the trail passes through is not a pristine natural state, then any farming or logging should be many years in the past.

A good hiking trail is for hikers only. Bicycles, horses, dog walkers, hunters, and especially off-road vehicles of all kinds should be banished.

I have lived in Illinois for twenty-six years, and have searched and searched that entire time. I have yet to find a good hiking trail within 200 miles of where I live now. I will kiss the hiking boots of the first person who will tell me where I can find such a place.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Southwest Wings Bird and Nature Festival, Sierra Vista, Arizona

I spent August 5 through August 10 in Sierra Vista, Arizona, where I attended the 2009 Southwest Wings Bird and Nature Festival. This was my first time attending this festival, which is in its 18th year. Mostly, it has been held in Sierra Vista, although for a few years it was held in the more charming town of Bisbee.

Sierra Vista is in the extreme southeastern corner of Arizona, so close to the border that I could see Mexico from the parking lot of the hotel I stayed in. This area of Arizona is famous with birders because it is at the extreme northern end of a chain of Mexican mountain ranges, and thus has many Mexican bird species that cannot be found any other place in the United States.

I had never traveled to this part of the Arizona and had never birded in Arizona at all, so I expected to see a great many birds which I had never seen before.

I arrived in Sierra Vista on the afternoon of the 5th after flying from Chicago to Tucson and then driving a rental car from Tucson. I checked into the Windemere Hotel, which was the venue for the festival, and immediately afterward in the hotel parking lot I got my first life list bird of the trip – a Canyon Wren, the state bird of Arizona.

Here are some of the places I saw.

San Pedro House

The San Pedro River is one of the last rivers in the Southwest which is more or less in its nature state. That is, not dammed or dredged or drained dry for irrigation. The land on either side of it is owned by the Bureau of Land Management and is managed as a nature preserve. San Pedro House is an old farm house which has been converted into a visitor’s center. There is a parking area at the house and a trail which goes from the house down to the river. Walking on that trail one passes through tan grassland full of singing Blue Grosbeaks, Vermillion Flycatchers, and Lesser Goldfinches. Right along the river is a ribbon of tall green trees. Southeastern Arizona has been going through a drought lately, so the river was very low – hardly flowing at all – but it was still a beautiful oasis in the dessert.

Ramsey Canyon
In the Huachuca mountains to the west of Sierra Vista, the upper part of Ramsey Canyon is a natural area run by the Nature Conservancy. I went up there two evenings with owling groups. As soon as darkness fell we could hear Common Poorwills, Mexican Whippoorwills, and eventually Whiskered Screech Owls. The leaders of these groups were able to call in the Owls with recorded calls and we got excellent looks at them.

Garden Canyon
Just north of Sierra Vista is a large military base known as Fort Huachuca. Part of the base is open to civilians, if you can prove you are a US citizen. There is some excellent birding in these areas, especially in the Huachuca Mountains. I took a field trip up Garden Canyon on the base. We took a van up a steep, rocky road, but the drive was worthwhile. As you get higher into the higher mountains of southeastern Arizona the desert gives way to beautiful pine and oak forests. These mountain top forests are known as “sky islands”.

I saw some great birds in that canyon. The most memorable is the Painted Redstart, a small black, red, and white warbler which flashes its colors as it climbs along the ends of tree branches hunting insects.

Miller Canyon
Another canyon in the Huachuca Mountains is Miller Canyon. This one is part of Coronado National Forest. I went with a group that took a hike a couple of miles up Miller Canyon. This is a popular hiking and birding destination for locals. The forest was lovely and we saw quite a diversity of birds. The bird we all most wanted to see was the Spotted Owl. (The Arizona population of this species is not as close to extinction as the population along the Pacific coast, but it still can be rather hard to find.) The guide knew some places where one particular owl had been perching in recent weeks, but we did not find it in any of these places. Just as he was deciding we should turn around and head back down the canyon, he looked around and saw the owl right next to the trail. We all got excellent views of it, and I took a couple of pictures.

Lower down in the canyon, surrounded by the National Forest, is a place called Beatty’s Guest Ranch and Orchard. This was a great place to watch hummingbirds. They have dozens of hummingbird feeders set up, and covered seating to watch some of them from. There I saw nearly all of the dozen or so species of hummingbird which one can find in southeastern Arizona.

Chiricahua Mountains

Somewhat further away from Sierra Vista than the Huachuca Mountains is a larger and grander mountain range, the Chiricahuas. I took a one day trip to the Chiricahuas which was kind of a whirlwind tour. It was enough to give me a good taste of the area, and to make me think that I want to go back there someday. This is another one of the “sky island” mountain ranges, with desert at the bottom and rich forest at the top.
The best sighting of that trip was a White-tailed Hawk. This is a bird which until recently could not be found anywhere near Arizona, but which has now moved up from Mexico in appreciable numbers.

Of the towns in southeastern Arizona which I saw, the one I would most like to spend more time in is Bisbee. It has quite a bit of charm to it. It is an old mining town which has turned into a hang-out for artsy types. The worst blemish on Bisbee is an old open-pit mine from which copper use to be dug. But most of the area around Bisbee is relatively untouched and there is some beautiful scenery.

Casa de San Pedro
If I were to go back to southeastern Arizona for birding and wanted really first class accommodations at a bed-and-breakfast, I think the Casa de San Pedro would be the place I would call for reservations. The last of the guided field trips I took stopped at the Casa de San Pedro for Sunday brunch. We had a wonderful meal in a beautiful spot.

Saguaro National Park
I didn’t see Saguaro National Park as part of the festival. Instead, I stopped there on my way to the Tucson Airport on the day after the Festival. I was cutting it pretty close with regard to catching my flight, so I could only stay about a half an hour. Those Saguaro cacti, as large as trees, are quite a sight. I actually did not realize that they grew as large as they do. Many of the cacti have holes in them which are dug by woodpeckers and used by a variety of the desert wildlife. This would be an interesting place to go back to. I hope I get a chance some day.

Monday, February 09, 2009

"Wild Things" in Chicago.

On Saturday, February 7, I attended a conference at the University of Illinois in Chicago called "Wild Things". It was put on by an organization called "Chicago Wilderness". (The name of the organization sounds like an oxymoron, doesn't it? I think it expresses more hope than fact.) This is a biannual event for profession property managers in the forest preserves, parks, and other protected areas of the Chicago area, volunteers who get involved with those protected areas, and other Chicago area people who enjoy nature and the outdoors.

Some of my friends from the ENSBC were also there. Joel Greenberg was there signing copies of his latest book.

There were many interesting talks at this conference. The ones I attended were scientific talks on the ecology of northeastern Illinois and on ecological restoration. I enjoyed every one I attended and wished I could have attended more.

Everything at the conference went quite smoothly, considering that it all must have been done on a shoestring, given the low registration fee for the conference.

This was the second Wild Things conference. The first was held two years ago. I found out about that one too late to attend, so I have been looking forward to this one for two years. I hope they do it again some time.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Mazatlan Birding Festival

I took a trip for a week in January with seven friends from northeastern Illinois (one old friend and six new friends) to attend the Mazatlan Birding Festival in Mazatlan, Mexico. Mazatlan is on the west coast of Mexico, in Sinaloa State. The festival was from January 16 to 19. We went down two days early to travel around a bit on our own. Here are some excerpts from my diary for that week. My diary includes quite a bit of bird listing. For this blog, I will mostly edit these out and put the emphasis on the places I went.

Wednesday, January 14
I got up at 3 AM to get ready for a 4:45 taxi. It had been arranged by my new friends Marge and Jamie. The three of us were the first one to the airport, but the others soon arrived. Our US Air flight was delayed by 45 minutes for de-icing, so our connection in the Phoenix airport, which was already fairly tight, became ridiculous. We had to walk all the way across the Phoenix airport in about 10 minutes.

We arrived at the Mazatlan airport about 1:00 PM. We took the shuttle to the Budget car rental place to pick up our van. Our leader Dave had to spend considerable time finishing the paperwork on the van, and the rest of us looked for birds in the vicinity of the parking lot.

We did some road-side birding near the airport and then hit the road to the Sierra Madre Occidental. We had reservations at a hotel in the little town of Copala, along the Mazatlan-Durango highway. Along the way, we stopped in the town of Concordia, where we had lunch in a little open air restaurant which was basically a dirt lot with a roof over it.

From Concordia we drove east through scrubby thorn forest. All the trees in this forest were covered with thorns. Some even had trunks covered completely covered with thorns. This being the dry season, the trees were rather bare and dry. Many of the trees were actually large branching cacti. Prickly pear cacti were a major part of the undergrowth. We kept seeing Black-throated Magpie-Jays along the way. These are some of the most spectacular birds we saw. They are blue, white, and black birds about the size of Magpies, with very long tail feathers which flow like streamers behind them as they fly.

When we got to Copala our directions sent us down a narrow cobblestone road with barely room for two vehicle to squeeze by. Our home for the night was a hotel and restaurant called Daniel’s. This is a set of white painted brick buildings. It was built decades ago by an American who had moved down to take care of his Mexican mother. The hotel we stayed in was almost a sideline, for the main business there is serving lunch to busloads of people who come up from cruise ships. We were the only people spending the night, so we had our choice of hotel rooms or cabins. All looked very comfortable and reasonably priced. The room I stayed in was 250 pesos a night. The rooms showed signs of do-it-yourself construction (like nearly every other building I saw in Mexico) but for me that only added to the charm.

After settling in, Greg, Dave, Rick, and I went birding around the town. The town looks rather third-worldish, with chickens and donkeys in people’s yards, and most of the houses I saw looked like do-it-yourself projects by people without hardware stores. But the people were very friendly and seemed about as happy as people anywhere.

Dinner was in Daniel’s restaurant, which is basically a huge veranda. It was very tasty, especially the banana coconut cream pie.

Staying at Daniel’s in Copala feels kind of like camping. The accommodations are simple, the nights are very dark and starry, and the village itself seems a bit like a campground after dark. There is a surplus of noise during the night: truck engine-breaking on the nearby highway, donkeys braying, and roosters crowing. But I had no trouble getting to sleep. I passed out about nine o’clock.

Thursday, January 15
The roosters started crowing at four AM and I got up at five. We met for breakfast at six, and were on the road as soon as it was light. Our destination was the Tufted Jay Reserve about fifty kilometers up the Mazatlan-Durango. Along the road there were little shops and houses, mostly with that thrown-together look.

From the highway into the preserve we took a bumpy dirt road which at some places looked more like a dry stream bed than a road. We parked the van in the shade in a large open area where a camp seemed to be under construction. We got out and started looking for birds.

We were in a mixed oak-pine forest. The scenery was spectacular. The weather was nice. I was comfortable in a light sweater.

We birded throughout the morning and afternoon. About one in the afternoon we returned to our van, since our lunches were there. We ate box lunches provided for us by the hotel while sitting on benches made from logs sawed in half.

Late in the afternoon we walked an uphill trail up to a spectacular overlook. (The walk really showed how unaccustomed I was to the altitude.) From the overlook we saw a rocky mountaintop known as El Espinazo del Diablo (the Devil’s Backbone). I took a number of pictures there and Rick took a group picture. (He had a timer on his camera.)

We never did see the Tufted Jays, but we saw a long list of other beautiful birds.

Sunset was approaching as we left the preserve. There was enough light to do some roadside birding on the way down, and to see more spectacular scenery, but it was dark by the time we got back to the hotel.

We had dinner again on the big veranda, again the food was delicious, and again we had the place pretty much to ourselves. And, once again, I went to bed early and fell asleep immediately.

Friday, January 16

At first light this morning we took a short drive up the Mazatlan-Durango Highway and turned onto the dirt road to the village of Panuco. We stopped about a mile off the highway in front of an apparently abandoned farmhouse. This was the only habitation we could see for miles, but there was occasional traffic on the dirt road and I could hear cowbells down below us.

The road was on the side of a mountain, and the views of the mountains beyond were fantastic. The shapes of some of the mountains on the horizon were quite unique. The vegetation was thorny scrub. As we walked along the road, thorny acacias kept clinging to our pant legs.

Dave’s information about this road was not wrong – it was full of interesting birds that morning. Some of the more interesting birds were Military Macaws, large green and blue parrots. There were several of them on the mountainside in two flocks. They were very conspicuous whenever they flew, but when they stopped in a tree they seemed to vanish. Other exciting birds included Yellow-winged Caciques (large and beautiful members of the Oriole family) and a Squirrel Cuckoo. The Squirrel Cuckoo seemed very aptly named because its movements in the trees were very squirrel-like.

We had a little worry with the van, in that one of the tires became very low. In the end it did not cause us any real problem.

We got back to the hotel about eleven, and then split up for a while. Some of the members of our group went to see the down-town of Copala, which I heard was very lovely, while Greg and I did some more birding. Our finds included a flock of Mexican Parrotlets, small stubby-tailed green parrots. They were hard to see in the trees. Like the macaws earlier, they seemed to vanish whenever they stopped flying. But we were patient and eventually got good looks at them.

We checked out of the hotel about one PM, and drove to Concordia and got the tire inflated.

After Concordia, we stopped at another dirt road were Dave’s information said that a rare bird called a Red-breasted Chat could be found. Again, the information proved to be correct, and we found the bird.

As we approached Mazatlan we were all rather anxious about getting lost. Finding our way actually wasn’t that difficult. We just followed the signs.

We checked into our hotel, the Playa Mazatlan. It was right on the beach, hence the name. (‘Playa’ in Spanish means ‘beach’.) We also checked into the festival. That process could have been more efficient, and I think the sponsors will probably work on that in future years.

After I was settled in, I walked out to the beach. They sky seemed to be full of Magnificent Frigatebirds, which I had never seen before. I encountered Greg on the beach and we walked along for a while looking at gulls, terns, and shorebirds.

Later, I sat on the beach for a while, and then joined the rest of the group for dinner in the hotel restaurant. The food was great, although the service was just a little slow.

Saturday, January 17

This morning we went out on the first of the festival’s excursions we had signed up for. This was to the Mesa de Cacaxtla , an area which is part protected land and part cattle ranch. Our guides were Peter Alden, one of the most experienced birding guides in Mexico, and the ranch owner and major local civic booster, Ricardo Urquijo. The vegetation was tropical deciduous forest and this was the middle of the dry season, so the landscape was mostly colored in shades of brown.

We parked next to a cattle coral, and saw a lot of the curious big-eared cattle of the ranch. Also, there were some Caiba trees – tall trees with disproportionately wide trunks. (I presume this is for storing water.)

Along with us were people from the local media, who had big cameras and who came in their own van.

We all walked along a dry stream bed for a few miles and saw a lot of wonderful birds. Two of the more spectacular birds were a Lineated Woodpecker (a hawk-sized woodpecker with a bright red crest) and Citreoline Trogon (a large green and yellow bird quite unrelated to any birds we have in the Midwest)

After the walk, we went to a little village called Quelite. Mr Alden said that he knew it when it was a grubby little place, but it has evidently prospered exceedingly. We ate a rather late lunch at a lovely restaurant which seemed to have mostly locals for patrons.

Sunday, January 18

This day we had all signed up for two tours. The morning tour was to the Islands of Mazatlan. Our guides were Robert Straub and Jesus Martinez. There was also a fellow named Cory along who took lots of pictures.

Our rides to the harbor were pick-up trucks with benches and canopies. We rode through the old section of Mazatlan to the harbor where a garishly colored tour boat was waiting for us.

Once we were on the boat, our first destination was a pair of small islands, or small rocks, where Brown Pelicans, cormorants, Brown Boobies, and Blue-footed Boobies roosted in large numbers. The rocks were white from a coating of guano from many years of large birds roosting.

We saw lots of Brown and Blue-footed Boobies that day, and by the end of the day, I was pretty good at telling them apart.

We landed on Deer Island, which is directly across from the Playa Mazatlan. To land on the island we had to get into a smaller boat, and then wade onto the beach. Fortunately, towels had been arranged for us to wipe the sand off our feet before putting our shoes back on.

After that, we took a trail that went rather steeply up hill. Our target bird on Deer Island was the Five-striped Sparrow. We never did see it, but we saw enough other things that I wouldn’t complain. When we got to the top of the island the views of the ocean were fabulous.

Above the island dozens, maybe hundreds, of Magnificent Frigatebirds circled. Suddenly, they all turned in the same direction and headed off in formation, like B-17s on a World War II bombing mission. They had seen a fishing boat! We later saw the boat, being swarmed by birds and covered with birds.

Back on the boat again, we passed a crowd of sea lions, as well as the same booby island on the way back to shore.

Back at the dock, we saw a Zone-tailed Hawk circling over a hillside the harbor with a flock of Turkey Vultures. A Zone-tailed Hawk often seems to disguise itself as a Turkey Vulture. They fly with their wings in the same position as the vulture’s, and often fly in flocks of vultures.

We rode the pick-ups back through the old town and along the shore front. I decided as we were riding that whoever was in charge of the public art in Mazatlan was apparently very partial to statues of topless women. The picture here, borrowed from someone else’s website, is only one of several examples of what you can see there.

We had lunch around the corner from the hotel at an American-style smoothie and frozen yogurt place. We were served with what is apparently the usual level of Mexican efficiency. At least they did not attempt to charge us for the parts of our orders which they never brought.

Our tour in the afternoon was to the Estero del Yugo, a managed estuary system with two lagoons, one saltwater and one freshwater. The saltwater part had some nice birds, including a Yellow-crowned Night Heron and some Orange-fronted Parrots, but it was the freshwater part that was really active, with ducks, grebes, coots, and herons of many kinds. The prettiest birds were a pair of Green Kingfishers – sparrow-sized cousins to the much larger Belted Kingfishers which we have all over the Midwest.

At a wildlife blind on the lagoon there was a long debate about whether a hawk in the distance was a Crane Hawk, a Snail Kite, or a Common Blackhawk. If you zoom in real close to the little black dot in the middle of this picture, you can see the bird they were talking about. (It is almost certainly a Crane Hawk.)

Monday, January 19

Most of us had planned to take the same tour today, but Dave, Rick, and Greg decided instead to go back to Crested Jay Preserve to try again to see the Crested Jays. Jamie had signed up to go kayaking in the morning, so only Janice, Marj, and I went on the tour according to the original plan.

Our guide was a local fellow who went by the nickname Flako. His knowledge of the local birds was immense, but he only spoke a little English. Fortunately, we had on the tour an attractive lady from Mexico City named Alison, who was fully bilingual and very kindly translated for us. The sixth person on our tour was Bill, a photographer we had met on Saturday’s tour.

We rode to an area named Playa Ceuta in a van which gave us a very bumpy ride. We pulled off the highway and went on dirt roads through weedy-looking grazing land. This was cattle country, as evidenced by a coral which we passed where a man was milking cows and playing a radio very loudly.

A bit past the coral we parked and then began to hike along the dirt road. We were soon along side an estuary. On some of the mud flats were large numbers of shorebirds of various kinds. In the air were many Gull-billed Terns – the first of that species I had ever seen.

To the other side of the road was some scrubby thorn forest. In that, we saw a pair of White-tailed Kites nesting. It turned out the be the first record of that species nesting in that location.

We were suppose to visit a beach-side facility for sea turtle hatching. We got there, the place was clearly set up to receive visitors, but nobody was there. I enjoyed watching birds on the beach while Flako got on his cell phone and tried to sort things out. We ended up going to another facility where there was at least someone to show us around.

At the final location, we saw the place on the beach where the newly hatched baby turtles are released. A batch of them had been released just the night before and their tracks could be seen all over the beach. Here is something I didn’t know before: instead of making a mad rush for the water, which I always supposed they would do, baby sea turtles wander around the beach for a while. They have to learn the beach so they can find it when they are grown.

In the afternoon I walked the beach outside the hotel, looking for birds. Many other people were enjoying the beach, but not enough to make it feel crowded. At one point I passed two nice looking teenage Mexican girls wearing string bikini tops and very short shorts doing yoga poses for the entertainment of some teenage boys. One tries to be nice and not stare in such a situation. Besides, I was there to look for birds. The picture below is one I found.

In the evening, we all met for the final dinner of the festival.

Tuesday, January 20

My flight home was at 2:05 PM. I enjoyed the beach one last time until about 11. Then I checked out of the hotel, took a taxi to the airport, and went through all the usual airport lines.

My last life list bird of the trip, of the 67 I got, was a Grey-breasted Martin perched on a signal light next to the runway. I saw it from the airplane.

My trip home was uneventful. I arrived home about 1:30 AM on Wednesday.

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Friday, November 21, 2008

Back to Blogging

I'm going to try to start blogging again. If you scroll down on this page, you will see that, until a few days ago, I had only one post in the last year, and only one for nearly a year before that. I have had quite a funky mood since coming to Illinois from California more than two years ago, and there didn't seem to be much to say when I didn't have beautiful California to write about. Also, I started a new job which kept me busier than the old one. Now I am feeling better (although still very homesick for California) and my work/life balance is in pretty good order. I am ready to go back to the old outlet for my creativity. I will be trying to post at least once a month, on subjects similar to my earlier posts -- travel, birding, books I've read, and a little bit of politics from my own unique nonconformist prospective.

Here is something to feel good about: George "Dubuya" Bush will soon be out of the White House, hopefully to sink back into the obscurity he deserves.

The replacement sort of looks like he might be okay. He's smart and it looks like his heart is in the right place. I just hope he doesn't screw up too badly. Experience shows that being smart and having your heart in the right place isn't enough to succeed as president. (Think Jimmy Carter.)

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Ten Things I Like About Northeast Illinois

I hate living in Illinois. That is the truth, and it is the mildest way I can say it short of dishonesty. It is more than two years since I left California and returned full time to Illinois, and the passage of time has only sharpened my homesickness for the San Francisco Bay area.

I don’t want to go into why I can’t move back to California but I can’t. So, rather than wallow in homesickness, I had better make the best of it.

Last week I saw a blog by another person who was homesick for California. ( She had moved to Maryland from the east bay area. To deal with her homesickness, she made a list of things she liked about Maryland. It seemed to me like a good idea. She was only able to come up with five things. I set a goal of coming up with ten. It was quite hard to come up with ten good things about the place I live, but I did it. So, here are ten things I like about living in the Chicago suburbs.

1. The Forest Preserves. Okay, these are pretty lame compared to the vast areas of public space in the Bay area. But compared to some cities, they are really something. As small as the forest preserves are, the people in charge of them really try to do them right. There is a serious attempt to recreate, as closely as possible, the native natural environments of the Chicago area: tall grass prairies, oak savannas, and hardwood forests. They are not big enough to take a decent hike in, but without these, I don’t think I could survive here.

2. Lake Michigan. The lake is beautiful. It is a joy to walk along the lake front, and there is a fair amount of public land along the lake front so that you can do it. Of course, I prefer the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean, but half a loaf is better than none.

3. Chicago museums. Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History is the best natural history museum I have ever seen, outside of the Smithsonian Institute. The Chicago Art Institute is a world class art museum. Then there are the Shedd Aquarium and the Brookfield Zoo. I don’t go to these very often, but its nice to know that I can, and when I do, I like them a lot.

4. My wife and son like it here. My daughter, before she went off to college, saw nothing wrong with living in the Chicago area, either. (I guess there is no accounting for taste.) If they are happy, then I am at least somewhat happy too.

5. The Evanston North Shore Bird Club. I have a blast with these people. I’ve been a member of other birding clubs, but this one is the greatest.

6. Changing seasons. Of course, almost every place has changing seasons, but I like a full change from snowy winters to steamy summers. When I’ve lived places where the seasonal changes were milder (San Francisco, Tokyo) I missed Midwestern weather (kind of).

7. My Senator just got elected President. I was proud to have Barack Obama as my Senator, and I think I am going to like him as a President. (This more than makes up for the shame I have felt for living in the same state that produced Ronald Reagan.)

8. My job. As much as I hate living in Illinois, leaving here would probably mean leaving my job. I would need good luck to find a job I like as much.

9. No hurricanes, earthquakes, mudslides, wildfires, or other natural disasters. Illinois can have some pretty damaging weather. Thunderstorms can blow down trees and flood your basement, but after watching the news about the firestorms in Southern California today, I feel pretty safe in Illinois.

10. Good schools. I heard a lot of complaints about the schools when I was in California. Even in the nicer communities it seemed to be a problem. You also hear complaints about Chicago schools, but out here in the north suburbs you almost never hear people complain about the schools. Apparently, they are pretty good here.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Bald Eagles Nest Again in Lake County

In the county where I reside, Lake County, Illinois, there is nothing left that would pass as wilderness to anyone who really cares about wilderness. Still, all may not yet be lost for wild things here. After an absence of over 100 years, Bald Eagles are now nesting in the county.

The nest is above Nippersink Lake, in the far northwest corner of Lake County. The spot where they have built their nest is actually in a suburban residential area, in the town of Fox Lake, the kind of place that I would tend to think of as ruined by too much development. But the Eagles seem to think it will do.

I saw the nest and the eagles this past weekend when the bird club I belong to went on a field trip of the lakes of the county. Another birder had spotted it some days before and told the trip leader about it. We came into the neighborhood in a caravan of cars, and had to stand almost at somebody’s front doorstep to get a good view of them. Fortunately, the residents were friendly. They were thrilled to have eagles nesting so close by, and tolerant of the people who came to see them.

Only time will tell if the nest will succeed. I have a feeling they are up against pretty long odds.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Magical Moment with a Coyote

About a week ago I experienced a rare magical moment in my own neighborhood. I had taken my dog out for a pee about a quarter hour after sunset, as the last light of the day was fading. Away to the south I heard a Great Horned Owl hooting. From the sound of it, I thought I might be able to see it, so I walked with the dog on the leash down out of the cul du sac where we live. I could not see the owl, but as we were standing on the road a coyote came trotting across the lawns parallel to the road. It seemed to be gliding through the dark, like a grey ghost of the great natural beauty that once was here. It made a wide arc to avoid us, but then headed directly on its way, toward a small wooded area.

The dog saw it and wanted to play! She wagged her tail and pulled on the leash, as hard as I had ever felt her pull. I suppose it would be reading too much into the situation to suppose she heard the call of the wild when she saw that coyote. Rather, it would be projecting my feelings onto my dog.

The village officials in this accursed, beauty-blind suburb have coyotes shot whenever they become a "nuisance" (meaning, whenever they become too careless about being seen), and lament in the village newsletter that "unfortunately" it is not practical to shoot them all. I can't imagine how these animals could be less of a nuisance.

The traditional Native American were so right to venerate this awesome animal, and we are so very, very wrong to treat them as vermin.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Other books I’ve enjoyed recently

I haven’t read many books in the last year or so that I haven’t loved. It isn’t that I’ve become easier to please. Rather, I have become more selective about what I read. Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of nature writing. Since leaving California for Illinois, I have been largely cut off from the things which make life endurable: quiet, solitude, and natural beauty; available in Illinois only in a greatly diminished form. Hence, I have to experience these things vicariously. So the next few books I will describe fall into this category.

Kingbird Highway, by Kenn Kaufman. Among the many books that I have loved recently, this one particularly stands out. Kenn Kaufman has made a lifelong passion out of birding, which for me has only been an occasionally serious hobby. In the 1970s, at the age of sixteen, he dropped out of high school and dedicated his life to the search for birds. Three years latter, he attempted to set the record for a “Big Year”. That is, most species of birds seen in the United States and Canada by a single person in one year. (He would have set the record except that another birder tallied up a count higher than his that year. That record, in turn, was broken a few years later by Scott Robinson, for whom I worked as a teaching assistant during the 1980s at the University of Illinois.) Years after the fact, Kaufman wrote this fine book, which beautifully evokes the exhilaration of this fine sport, and gives a glimpse of the kind of nonconformist personalities who are attracted to it. This book is one of my all time favorites.

The Outermost House, by Henry Beston. Here is another book which is full of birds and other wildlife. The Outermost House may be the most beautifully written book I have ever read. It describes a year the author spent in the 1920s in a tiny cottage on the beach in Cape Cod. I had never heard of this book, until this year when it was picked for a book club that I recently joined. For that, the organizer of the club has my eternal gratitude. More than in any other book I have ever read, I felt that my point of view and the author’s were one in the same.

Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey. Here is another book that I absolutely loved, although not quite as much as the last two. During three separate years in the 1950’s Ed Abbey worked as a seasonal park ranger manning a lonely outpost at Arches National Monument in Utah. On his days off he worked as a cowboy in the nearby ranches. Out of those experiences comes a truly awesome book. It is full of Abbey’s love of wilderness and his anguish and anger at seeing it diminished. I don’t agree with all the opinions Abbey expressed, but generally I have found a kindred spirit in this author.

Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer. In this book, the mountain climber and journalist Jon Krakauer tells the true story of Chris McCandless. In 1990, Chris, a gifted, athletic, and sensitive young man, broke off all contact with his family, gave away his money, and for two years lived the life of a vagabond. In 1992, he went to Alaska to experience the wilderness. Because of a few innocent mistakes, his wilderness adventure cost him his life. In this book, Krakauer explores difficult relationships between fathers and sons, and the pull that wilderness and adventure have for certain young men. This is a slender book, but there is a lot to think about in it.

Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser. I read this book last spring, actually, and I haven’t had a fast food hamburger since. I put this book on my reading list because I had heard the author on public radio, and I am glad I did. This book is a well-reasoned accounting of all of the negative effects which the fast food industry has had on American society. It is not just that we are eating more unhealthy junk food, but as a result of the rise of the fast food industry our society has become more economically divided between rich and poor, our agriculture has become more environmentally damaging, small towns and rural families have suffered economically, and corporations have more power over our lives. Everything in this book rings true.

Conifers of California, by Ronald M. Lanner. Here is a book about the evergreen trees of my favorite state. Each species of conifer native to California is discussed. The book is beautifully illustrated and the text is quite well written.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Some Books I have Enjoyed Recently

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond. People who think of environmental issues as just fuzzy feel-good issues should read this book. As Dr Diamond demonstrates, environmental are in fact deadly serious, life-or-death issues. In this book, Diamond describes cases both ancient and modern where environmental problems lead to a societal collapse. In some cases, this collapse was complete and sudden. Easter Island society, for example, went from the height of its artistic and social accomplishment to cannibalism and near extinction within a couple generations due largely to overpopulation and deforestation. The chapter on the role of environmental problems in the tragedy of Rwanda is particularly interesting, since this part of the story was entirely overlooked by the media in the US.

Guns, Germs, and Steele: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond. The book and the previous one have established Jared Diamond firmly on the list of my favorite authors. The subject of this book is the role of geography on human history. Why is it that some societies have been able to conquer other societies, and rob them of their lands and livelihoods, as my ancestors did to the Native Americans? Usually in such cases the conquerors invent explanations involving the alleged mental, moral, or spiritual inferiority of the victims (e.g., “God willed that this land should not remain the domain of degenerate savages”). Diamond provides us with better explanations. This book should be enjoyable to anyone who is interested in history, anthropology, or biology.

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, by Carl Sagan. When people remember the late author and TV personality Carl Sagan, they tend to remember his entertaining personal quirks, like the distinctive way he would say “bill-i-ons and bill-i-ons”. What they unfortunately fail to remember is what an immense and wide-ranging intellect he had. This book is a great way to reacquaint yourself with the brilliant mind of Dr Sagan. The chapters of this book were originally published as separate essays, but most of them have a unifying them: the importance of skepticism and critical enquiry. The best and most heart-felt writing in this book are the chapters on the witch hunt of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. (The sub-title of the book is a reference to a seventeenth century book “A Candle in the Dark” which was written, a great risk to the author, to refute the “evidence” used to condemn so-called witches during this tragic episode of history.) He not only shows how flawed and uncritical thinking lead to tragedy in past centuries, but applies the lessons of story to modern day “witch hunts” and shows how modern day thinking can be just as flawed. I experienced this book as a book on tape as I was driving from California to Illinois. It sure made the miles go faster.

Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West, by Stephen Ambrose. This was another book on tape which made the miles go faster on my California to Illinois trip. The book is an autobiography of Meriwether Lewis, who is famous for the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1803 to 1806. The subject was intrinsically interesting for me and the presentation was entirely competent. In short, I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

The Republican War on Science, by Chris Mooney. The title of this book is a little overstated. Republicans are not bombing scientific institutions, or shooting at scientist. However, the point the author has to make is worth getting. The current leaders of the Republican Party, especially Bush and his administration, have politicized science to an unprecedented degree. The have brazenly pandered to anti-science elements of the religious right. They have suppressed important scientific evidence on major environmental issues, and have bullied and threatened government scientists who have not toed the Republican party line. This is not one of the best-written or best-argued books I have read, but it is still worth reading.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Issues I Consider on Election Day

When I choose whom to vote for on Election Day, there are certain issues I consider. But before I tell you about those, let me tell you which issues I don’t consider.

First of all, the economy. It’s shameful how many elections get decided because of what the economy does in the last few weeks before Election Day. The economy always cycles through expansions and recessions at its own random pace, and no politician has any real control over it. It would make as much sense to vote based on how your football team is doing as to vote based on how the economy is doing.

But there is a deeper reason why the economy doesn’t influence how I vote. So much of what is called “the economy” consists of destroying priceless treasures in order to make trash. We saw down a forest which took millennia to grow to make fast-food chopsticks which are thrown away after one use. We tear down a mountain which has stood for a hundred million years to make a car which will rust out in ten. We scar and poison a landscape which will take centuries to recover to pump oil which we will burn through in a fortnight. All of these things add to the gross domestic product, and they may bring happiness to economists and others who do not understand the real value of things, but they are sorrow to the hearts of anyone with moral discernment. Unless there are strict laws backed with aggressive enforcement to prevent them, all of these things happen faster when the economy is strong. I refuse to ever be persuaded by a politician because he claims credit for a strong economy.

I try to ignore any issue which we could change our minds about next year, and undo this year’s decision. Same-sex marriage is an example. We can make same-sex marriage legal this year, and if we don’t like how it works out, we can make it illegal next year. We can repeat this as often as we like. The death penalty is another example. Yes, in any particular instance, the death penalty is irreversible, but there will always be other vicious killers coming along. If we feel bad about the vicious killers we executed this year, we can change the law and try to rehabilitate next year’s vicious killers. (By the way, I personally favor the latter approach, though I truly understand the appeal of the former.) If we don’t like how that works out, we can go right back to hanging them. Repeat as often as you like.

Rather than consider these, the issues I pay attention to are the ones with consequences for everyone that will last for generations. Some of these are issues of war and peace. If we allow the lies of corrupt leaders to lead us into attacking another country with insufficient cause, generations yet unborn in that country will carry the distrust and anger from it. What all the consequences will be, no man can say.

Others are issues of basic human rights. (I never thought I would see the day when basic human rights are a domestic issue for the United States, but here we are!) If we allow the President to imprison whomever he considers a threat in secret prisons, to commit torture, and to take away the right to a fair trial, then democracy will be lost. Who knows how many generations it will take to win it back?

But the issues with the longest lasting consequences are environmental issues. When a species goes extinct, all the money and effort in the world will never bring it back. If the last ancient forest is cut down, twenty generations will never walk in the shade of another. If global warming is allowed to go unchecked, how many generations will it take to even partially undo the consequences? We have the ability right now to damage the Earth so badly that nobody will ever again see it set right, and there are too many people in positions of power who would help make this happen just so their stocks will be worth more at the end of the quarter. These are the issues which we must pay attention to, if we are to be true to conscience.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Vacation in British Columbia

We just returned early Sunday morning from our summer vacation in British Columbia. We spent three nights in Whistler and six nights in Victoria. Here is a brief rundown of the things we did.

Whistler (Thursday to Sunday, 8/3 to 8/6)
On Thursday we flew from Chicago to Vancouver, and then drove up to Whistler. It was a beautiful drive. The mountains around Whistler are just gorgeous.

Whistler is a ski resort town up in the mountains a couple of hours drive north of Vancouver. It sits next to Garibaldi Provincial Park, which you can walk into from the top of the ski lifts, and which contains some of the most rugged and beautiful alpine scenery I have every seen. Whistler itself is the domain of skiers in the fall, winter, and spring, and of mountain bikers in the summer. The downtown area of Whistler has the look of an enormous shopping mall surrounded by hotels. It is a little too commercial for my taste. (My brother, who had been there last year, warned me that it would be this way.) I suppose it is what Yosemite Village or Banff would have if there weren’t the US Park Service or Parks Canada to reign in the commercialism. Still, it is not as bad as it could be. On a crassness scale of 1 to 10 (with Las Vegas as a 10) the commercialism of Whistler is only about a 5.

We did several touristy things there. We rode the gondola and the ski lift to the top of the mountain. The kids rode a cart pulled by sled dogs. The sled dogs with mixed breeds, rather than true huskies, and looked too small for sled pulling, but what they lacked in size they made up for in enthusiasm. We did a “tree trek”, walking on platforms and suspension bridges build high up in the tree tops, and my son and I did “zip trekking”. This something which seems a lot scarier when you watch it than when you do it. You strap on a big harness, which is hung from a cable, and then you ride on the cable from one platform to another. It’s a unique experience, but it really feels about as safe as standing on the sidewalk. I discovered that it is more fun if you look down just as you step off the platform.

In addition, we did some hiking in the mountains and I found a group of people to go birding with on Saturday morning for a couple of hours.

Victoria (Sunday to Friday, 8/6 to 8/11)
It takes most of the day to get from Whistler to Victoria. You have to drive down out of the mountains to the coastal town of Tsewwannen, take a ferry over to Swartz Bay of Vancouver Island, and then drive into Victoria. It took us all the longer because some of the streets in Victoria were blocked off for a holiday celebration (B.C. Day) resulting in traffic chaos. By the time we got checked into our hotel most of the touristy places in town were closed, so we did some of the few which remained open: Miniature World, the Bug Zoo, and Chinatown. Of these, the most interesting was the Bug Zoo. This was a small place, with just two rooms full of insects and spiders in glass cage, but the critters were interesting and the docents were very knowledgeable and enthusiastic.

The next day (Monday) we drove over to the Pacific Rim National Park. Of all the places we saw on the trip, this is the place that I would most like to go back to. It is a beautiful park, with long beaches, rugged coast, and ancient forests. We saw several Bald Eagles there. We also were amused by watching a Glaucous-winged Gull trying to eat two sea stars, the second one bigger then his head! Unfortunately, it was quite a drive from where we were staying, so we actually spent more time getting there and getting back then we were able to spend there.

Tuesday, we spent the morning and early afternoon seeing the Royal BC Museum. This was a nice museum. There were some temporary exhibits which were worthless, but the permanent exhibits of the natural and human history of British Columbia were excellent. We particularly enjoyed the exhibits on the various Native American cultures of British Columbia. (Lots of totem poles.) In the late afternoon we saw a restored Victorian era mansion called Craigdarrock Castle, which was similar to one we had seen in Toronto last year, though less fancy.

Wednesday we saw the famous Butchart Gardens in Brentwood Bay, about half an hour drive from Victoria. The whole idea Butchart Gardens is to make the prettiest garden possible, and they have succeeded.

In the afternoon we drove to the town of Sidney and visited the Marine Ecology Center. This was a very modest attraction, set in a houseboat in a marina, but it was a lot of fun. There were rows of tables set up with trays of ocean critters which you could look at through microscopes. We all had fun there, but I think my son enjoyed it most.

On Thursday, we took a tour of the Parliament Building, which was just a short walk from our hotel. Then we went to a fancy afternoon tea in our hotel, with the little English tea sandwiches and sweets. Later in the afternoon we took a short drive to Goldstream Provincial Park. This park is notable for its huge, centuries old Red Cedars and Douglas Firs. It also turned out to be one of the best places in the world for watching American Dippers. We watched three of these little birds as they hunted caddisfly larvae. They would dive into a stream and came up with what looked like a little twig, which was actually a tube built by the caddisfly. Then they would beat the tube against a rock until it opened, and then eat the little green grub inside.

Friday was our last day in Victoria, and we spent the morning on a whale watching cruise. We got to see Killer Whales hunting salmon. The whale watch was fun, but I couldn’t help but wonder what the whales thought of it. There were more whale watching boats out there than whales. Did the whales feel at all harassed by all these watchers? In the afternoon we took a hike in East Sooke Regional Park, about an hours drive from Victoria, out to a beautiful viewpoint on the rocky coast.

Vancouver (Saturday, 8/12)
On Saturday, we left Victoria and took the ferry back to the mainland. We made one stop on the mainland, before heading to the airport. This was the Capilano Suspension Bridge in North Vancouver. This place was in some ways more like an amusement park than a national park, but it was enjoyable. The were plenty of 300 year old trees and the view from the bridge was marvelous.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Stuff I’ve been doing lately – Yosemite, Mount Diablo, Butano, and Ano Nuevo.

I’ve been too busy lately with this, that, and the other thing for internetting lately, and so I’m rather behind on posting. Here is a brief rundown of things I’ve been doing lately.

Yosemite National Park, May 5 to May 7.
I spent a weekend in May at Yosemite National Park. Since I am preparing to leave California, this will probably be that last time I will visit Yosemite in a long time. I had made camping reservations at a National Forest campground just outside of the El Portal entrance of the Park. The campground was called “Dirt Flat”. Not a particularly attractive name, but location is everything in such matters, and Dirt Flat is almost within walking distance of the park. The campsites are actually not bad. They are right on the bank of the Merced River, and were semi-shaded. A Western Kingbird was building a nest in a tree over my campsite. This was the first time I ever had to use bear boxes at a campsite. These are big metal boxes were you are required to put all your food and anything else with a scent (e.g. toothpaste). If you leave such things in your car, a hungry bear is liable to rip your car door off to get to it. However, the forest ranger I talked to says that bears are a lot less a hazard there then rattlesnakes. I got to the campsite rather late on Friday, so I didn’t have time to do much that night after setting up camp.

The next day my plan was to drive into Yosemite Valley, park at the Inspiration Point parking area, and hike as far up the south rim of the valley as I could by nightfall, and then hike back down by flashlight. However, by the time I had hiked up a few hours, I encountered snow, and eventually the trail was lost in the snow. So, I walked back down to my car, drove into Yosemite Village, and considered what to do next. From Yosemite Village, I ended up hiking up to Mirror Lake, which is right at the foot of Half Dome. It was getting dark by the time I reached the lake, and I hiked back to my car in the moonlight.

The last day I basically spent doing the touristy things around Yosemite Village, and then headed back to the SF area. I stopped at various scenic spots along the way out of the park, including at a gas station at a place called Crane Flat, which was suppose to be a good place a Hammond’s Flycatcher, a life-list bird for me. I found the Flycatcher, which was the third life-list bird I got that weekend. (Bullock’s Oriole and Calliope Hummingbird were the other two.)

Chain-o-Lakes State Park, May 20 and May 27.
Back home with the family in Lake County, Illinois, I made two visits to Chain-o-Lakes State Park, which I described at length in an earlier post. One Saturday I went canoeing with my son, and the next Saturday I went horseback riding with my son and daughter.

Mount Diablo State Park, May 30.
I made a Memorial Day trip to Mount Diablo State Park, a short trip from San Mateo. (Mount Diablo is visible from my workplace in South San Francisco on clear days.) The purpose for this trip was pure birding. I was aiming to pick up three life-list birds: the Black-chinned Sparrow, the Sage Sparrow, and the Rock Wren. Wonder of wonders, I found all three. The air was wonderfully clear that day, and from the summit of Mount Diablo I saw all the way across the San Joaquin Valley to the foothills of the Sierras.

Butano State Park and Ano Nuevo State Park, June 2 to June 4.
This may be my last chance ever to camp in California, so I chose to spend it camping under my beloved Redwoods at Butano State Park. I camped there from Friday evening to Sunday morning. The campground there is nice, although the campsites are a little close together for my taste. On Saturday, I took a side trip over to Ano Nuevo State Park, which is right next to Butano. Ano Nuevo is great for seeing marine wildlife. At this time of the year, seals were lying up on the beach molting. I spent about half the day there, before going back to Butano to spend the rest of the day hiking. Sunday, I had some things to do to prepare for my move back to Illinois, so I only stayed long enough to eat breakfast and pack up my stuff.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

The Things I Will Miss About the San Francisco Bay Area

For about two and a half years I have been travelling regularly from my home in Illinois to the San Francisco Bay area for business and staying for weeks at a time. That is going to more or less end in a couple of months. I will only going out to California once in a while now, and for shorter stays. I am happy that I will be spending more time with my family, and I will not miss the two thousand mile commute. (Each year airline seats seem to get narrower, and the other passangers seem to get fatter.) Still, I am kind of bummed out about this. I will miss California. Here is a partial list of the things I will miss.

Let’s get this one out of the way first, since it is the thing everyone always expects me to say on this subjecct, but it is the least important of the things I will miss. The San Francisco area is warmer than the midwest in the winter and cooler in the summer. In California, you can go camping in January. It’s great. But, if California had Illinois’ weather, and Illinois had California’s, I would still prefer California to Illinois, for all the reasons which follow.

They Have Their Land-Use Priorities Right Here
The Bay area has more state and county parks, more open space preserves, and more wildlife refuges, than any urban area I have ever seen. Compare this to Chicago. Some civic boosters in the Chicago area are proud of various slivers of forest preserve and specks of state park which are scattered amongst the otherwise unrelieved expanses of cornfields and suburban subdivisions. But really, they don’t amount to much. Most of these forest preserves a person can walk across in fifteen minutes, and even in the middle of the largest of them, you can still hear the noise of the highways which surround them. You could take the whole area of all the Lake County and Cook County forest preserves and put them in one corner of an average sized San Mateo County area open space preserve, and forget about them. The Bay area has lands you can get lost in, lands you can walk all day in, lands you can go to the middle of and feel a million miles from civilization, all within a short drive from any home in the area.

We’re Pretty Much All Democrats Out Here
Okay, not all Republicans are totally reprehensible. In fact, there are some people I truly love who are Republicans. But I definitely don’t want to live among Republicans. I prefer to live among people who are well informed and share values similar to mine. There are Republicans in the Bay area, but they are definitely in the minority, just the way I like it.

Racial and Ethnic Diversity
I like living in places that have a lot of racial diversity. Chicago has this too, of course, but San Francisco has even more of it.

On the Average, the Women are Prettier Here
You may have a hard time believing this. I wouldn’t believe it either, if I hadn’t spent time out here and seen it for myself. I am not sure why the Bay Area women are so much prettier than elsewhere, but I have a theory. It has to do with there being so few Republicans out here. Ask me, and I’ll explain it.

The Scents of Bay Area
There’s sage and eucalyptus. There are the rich scents of the seashore. The redwood duff gives the soils of the Santa Cruz Mountains a marvelous odor. More subtle, but also pleasant, is the scent of the California Live Oaks. Up in Marin County along certain streams there is some sort of botanical scent which I can’t even identify, but it smells just like heaven.

Public Transportation
I spent a year in Japan in my youth. That’s the only place I have ever seen which has better public transportation that the Bay area.

The Hills and Mountains
Furthest west, there are the awesome redwood covered Santa Cruz mountains to the south and the Marin Highlands to the north. To the east, the drier and more subtle beauties of the Hamilton and Diablo Ranges. Finally, still within a morning’s journey of San Francisco, there is the incomparable grandeur of the Sierras. It’s all wonderful.

And That Just Scratches the Surface
Throughout my childhood and youth in Iowa, I never really felt like I fit in, and I never knew why. Into adulthood in the Midwest, in Iowa, Ohio, and finally Illinois, something about my life never quite seemed right. It was only in my forties, when I came out to the San Francisco area, that I really came to understand what my problem was. It turns out, all my life I have been a Californian and didn’t realize it! Northern California, especially the Bay area, is where I really feel at home. There is so much to love about this area. Basically, California is just so not Illinois. Still, Illinois is where my family is, so I will make the best of it.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Camping Among the Condors

I must camp and hike, as surely as I must eat and breath. Death from not hiking is a lot slower than death from asphyxia, but it is death all the same.

In day-to-day life, I am surrounded either by the oppressive sterility of office space, or by the possessions bought with the money I earn there: the house, the cars, the furniture, appliances, knick-knacks, and other accumulated manufactured objects. There’s nothing wrong with any these things individually, but as all this manufactured stuff builds up, it becomes like an infestation of spiritual parasites, sucking your soul away. I need to get out from under that load from time to time, to live for a day or two with a minimum of stuff, in order to renew the soul that all that stuff is sucking out of me, by closer contact with things of the natural world.

And so, to renew my soul, I went camping last weekend. The place I choose was Pinnacles Campground, which is just outside the east entrance of Pinnacles National Monument on land currently owned by the Nature Conservancy.

Pinnacles National Monument is a relatively small unit of the US National Park system in the mountains of the California Coastal Ranges, about two hours’ drive south of my California home in San Mateo. It is noted for its towering rock formations jutting up out of the chaparral, as though some ancient tribe of giants got half-finished with putting up a vast complex of primitive stone monuments. The actual cause of these formations is a great volcano and tens of millions of years of subsequent weathering. It is a popular place with rock climbers and wildflower enthusiasts.

Pinnacles is one of the few places one can reliably expect to see the California Condor. This magnificent bird went extinct in the wild a few decades ago. Captive-bred Condors have recently been re-introduced into the wild at Pinnacles, but, sadly, it is by no means certain that the population will become self –sustaining, as many of the factors which contributed to the earlier extinction still occur.

I had reservations for two nights at Pinnacles Campground. The weather forecast for the first night called for thunderstorms and hail. Not really wanting to fight the Friday afternoon traffic, only to then be putting up a tent in that weather, I decided to delay my departure until early the next morning. I was on my way to the campground as the sun was rising, and I could see a fair amount of snow in the mountains. That much snow is quite unusual in that part of California. Later that day, a park ranger told me that in fourteen years of working at the park this was the first time he had seen more than a light dusting of snow. I arrived at the campground around nine o’clock, set up my tent, and spent the rest of the day hiking and birding around the park. It rained occasionally, and the air was rather cool, but mostly it was a nice day for hiking.

It was cold as night was falling, and I was very glad when I went to bed I had brought a huge pile of blankets. I awoke the next morning to the sound of large tree limbs breaking all around me. During the night it had snowed even more than the night before, and many of trees could not stand the unprecedented extra weight. It was a little unsettling to think how little protection my tent poles would afford me if a limb broke off of one of the trees near me, but once it was light enough, I stuck my head out of the tent and saw that I wasn’t in any immediate danger.

I made my breakfast and folded my tent while enjoying the beauty of the snow on the mountainsides. Then, I was off again to explore that magnificent park.

I have never camped in snow before, and I liked it. It is nice to know that at forty-six years old, I am still doing some pleasant things for the first time.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Weekend of Owls and Eagles

Over the three-day Martin Luther King Day weekend, I went on a trip with a group from the bay area chapters of the National Audubon Society. We planned to visit two great birding areas to the southeast of the San Francisco Bay area: the San Luis wildlife refuge complex near Los Baños, and Panoche Valley near Hollister.

San Luis Refuge Complex
The San Luis refuge complex is comprised of the San Luis, Merced, and San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuges, various state and county refuges, and innumerable private hunting clubs in Merced County. These hold a fair amount of wetland and grassland, which give some taste of what the Central Valley of California looked like before most of it was converted to pesticide-poisoned cotton fields, vegetable fields, and almond orchards. The area is very popular with birders and with duck hunters, and we saw and heard plenty of the latter during this trip.

The group gathered in the town of Santa Nella at about eight o’clock on Saturday morning. On this day there were about eight of us in the group, all from the Audubon (San Mateo County) and Mount Diablo (Contra Costa County) Audubon chapters. We were very ably led by a retired rancher who I will call “Mr Macho”. I have been birding off and on for about 23 years now, and have done it fairly seriously for about seven of those years, but I was a relative novice in this group.

We birded mostly from our cars, driving along narrow country roads and stopping where ever there was something interesting to see and enough room to park. It was a rainy day, but the rain did not dampen our spirits at all.

At the end of the day, I tallied up all the species of birds we had seen and counted 68 of them. The most common birds that day were American Coots. They were everywhere. Coots are a successful group, and in California they can be found in any more-or-less natural place that has enough water to get wet in. It doesn’t take long to stop finding Coots interesting. Mostly we were looking for less numerous waterfowl among the hundreds of Coots. The most spectacular bird seen was an adult Bald Eagle which we sighted flying low over the marshlands. Also spectacular were the immense flocks of Snow Geese and Ross’s Geese at Merced National Wildlife Refuge. These white geese gather in flocks of thousands there and at times almost darken the sky. At the same place, we saw a considerable flock of Sand Hill Cranes, which are also an inspiring sight.

We stayed the night in the town of Los Baños. Some of us, including myself and Mr Macho, were at the Regency Hotel, which was an over-priced dive. Every room seemed to have something which didn’t work. Good thing I’m not that much into luxury.

Panoche Valley
We gathered again at eight the next morning, and headed south about half an hour to the east end of the Panoche Valley. The Panoche Valley is desert at the west end and piney woodlands at the east end. This is cowboy country, where almost everybody dresses like the guys in “Brokeback Mountain” and drives pick-up trucks with gun racks. They are also very friendly to birders, and never fail to wave as they pass you. This is a place where California birders go to find species which are hard to find elsewhere.

Mr Macho particularly wanted to find four species: Mountain Bluebirds, Chukars, Mountain Plovers, and Phainopeplas. At the end of the day our score was one for four of those. We saw plenty of Mountain Bluebirds, which are the bluest of the three species of bluebird, but the others escaped us.

Our best stop of the day was at a rustic little resort called Mercey Springs, at the desert end of the valley, which Mr Macho knew about. For five dollars each, the lady in charge there let us onto the grounds and pointed out a little grove of trees where a flock of owls roosts during the daylight hours. What a spot! There had to be at least a dozen Long-eared Owls, a couple of Barn Owls, and a Great Horned Owl. Of the first two, these were the first I had ever seen.

My third life-list bird of the trip was in the middle of the day, when we spotted a Cassin’s Kingbird sitting on a wire. Central California is the extreme northern end of this bird’s range. It is quite rare here in the summer and even rarer in the winter. It was quite a find!

This was also a great day for seeing eagles. We spotted a Golden Eagle at the west end of the valley. At Paicines Reservoir at the east end of the valley, we were treated to the sight of two Bald Eagles and a Golden Eagle all sitting in the same tree. What a sight!

Henry W Coe State Park

After arriving at the west end of Panoche Valley, the group split up and went separate ways. But I still had another day left to my weekend, so I drove up to Henry W Coe State Park for a night of camping.

Henry W Coe is the second largest state park in California, and it must be one of the largest state parks in the country. It is very mountainous, and the mountains are covered with oak savannah. It is popular with backpackers, some of whom, I’ve heard, actually prefer it to the more well-known parks in the Sierras.

I set up my tent about sunset, and then started hiking. The moon was just past full and the sky was clear, so hiking at night was almost as easy as hiking in daylight. I had flashlights with me, but I only needed one at the shadier places.

After hiking a while, I bedded down for the night. It was chilly, but I had plenty of blankets. During the night I was serenaded. First a Western Screech-owl solo, then a Great Horned Owl duet, and finally a choir of Coyotes. Does it get any better than that?

I spent all the next day hiking and birding around the mountains. The scenery was breathtaking, and for the third day in a row I saw an eagle. This was a Golden Eagle soaring high over the oaks.

Friday, December 09, 2005

What I work on at my desk.

Here is a link to an NPR news story which relates to what I do all day at my desk. It concerns three drugs to treat a condition called macular degeneration. One of these drugs, which in some cases literally restores sight to the blind, is one I work on. One of the main compensations for all the time I have to spend indoors at my job and away from the things I really care about is knowing that sometimes the products I work on really do help somebody.

Click here to hear the story

Monday, November 07, 2005

The Coastline of San Mateo and Santa Cruz Counties, California – October 30

Some day I am going to post a list of the main reasons why I love the San Francisco area so much. One of the top reasons on that list will be the beauty of the central California coast. On various occasions I have driven, hiked, and birded along the California coast as far north as Bodega Bay and as far south as Big Sur. Since I first started coming to California, a frequent daytrip for me has been to drive from San Mateo, where I stay in California, across the peninsula to Half Moon Bay, and then to spend the day making my way down the San Mateo county coastline to about Davenport in Santa Cruz county, stopping at the various public beaches, scenic overlooks, and state parks along the way.

On October 30, I didn’t have time for my usual coastal itinerary. Big things were going down at the company were I work in South City, and I had to work that weekend. Still, I took some time for a quick trip along the coast. This is a good itinerary for anyone visiting the area with just a few hours to spare.

My first stop was near the town of Moss Beach at Pillar Point, where I climbed the hill overlooking the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve. Beautiful views here of the ocean and shoreline.

By the way, the curse of Pillar Point is the clueless dog people who ignore the conspicuous signs which tell them to keep their dogs on leash. Just in case one of them happens to see this, please bear with me while I try to help him catch a clue: Hey dog person! There’s a good reason for those signs you’re ignoring! Your dogs are harassing the wildlife! Get a grip!

This time I skipped one of my usual stops, the Pigeon Point Lighthouse. Lighthouse fans will love this spot. The buildings around the lighthouse have historical and natural history exhibits.

Pebble Beach is a pretty area. The beach consists of gravel worn smooth by the action of the waves. The combination of waves and pebbles has worn the stones of this rocky section of coastline into fascinating shapes. I hadn’t visited there for a while, so I stopped to see what animals were on the rocks: seals and cormorants and pelicans, mostly.

My last stop going south was the Rancho del Oso Nature Center, in Big Basin Redwoods State Park, just south of the Santa Cruz county line. I mentioned this place in my last travel-related post. I wanted to stop there again because on my previous visit I hadn’t had time to really see the whole place. Alas, the pretty naturalist who I had previously encountered was occupied with other tasks that afternoon, and I only spoke with her very briefly. However, I struck up a conversation with the volunteer manning the desk, and he proved to be a quite satisfactory, albeit less visually appealing, substitute. He turned out to be the head of an organization called the Waddell Creek Association, one of several California state park associations which provide funding and volunteer to various California parks. (See the link to the right.) He was a good salesman for his organization, of which I am now a dues-paying member. He was quite knowledgeable of the local natural history.

Here are some things I learned at the nature center, which I found interesting. The dominant trees in that area of the park are not Redwoods (too close to salt water there), but Monterey Pines. The natural range of Monterey Pines is limited to a few small areas in California, and for some reason within their nature range Monterey Pines produce wood which is considered almost worthless. However, outside their native range, they are widely cultivated, and are very valuable for lumber. Monterey pines grow quickly, and get quite large within a matter of decades. They often grow into contorted shapes. They don’t live very long, rarely more than a century. Thus, a huge gnarly specimen of Monterey Pine which looks to be older than Moses may actually be younger than some people you know.

On my way back north to work, I made one more very brief stop, at Pescadero Marsh. This is one of my favorite places to visit, and I will probably say something more about it sometime, but right now this post is already long enough.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Reading List Update – Brief reviews of books completed so far.

A few months ago I posted a list of about 30 books that I had wanted to get around to reading someday, with the intention that I would finally read them. I promised to post updates on my progress on this list. Since then, I have finished seven of the books on the list. During the same interval, however, I added about another thirty, so at this rate I will never be finished. Here are some brief reviews of the ones I have finished, in order of how much I enjoyed them.

The Corporation – the Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, by Joel Bakan
If you want to understand what is basically wrong with our society, start by pondering on this fact: The most powerful institutions in our world today are founded and legally obligated to put monetary profit ahead of all other considerations. Greed has been established as the central organizing principle of our most powerful institutions. This book examines how this happened (it wasn't inevitable) and the dreadful consequences of it. It also gives a glimmer of what we can do about it.

This is the most important book I have read in some time. If I could, I would require every literate person in America to read it. There is a documentary film by the same name based on this book, and it is available on DVD. If you can’t read the book, see the movie. If there is a flaw in this book, it is that it ends up being too optimistic. There are very strong trends now for corporations to become more powerful and more irresponsible in their behavior, and it seems that nobody has the power anymore to stand up to them. Things are going to get much worse before they get better.

Coast Redwood: A Natural and Cultural History, edited by John Evarts and Marjorie Popper
From my point view of this book obeys the first rule of show business: always leave them wanting more. For most people, this book would be everything you would ever want to know about Redwood trees. However, most people do not have my love and fascination with Sequoia semperverins. Still, this book is an excellent start towards what I do want to know about Coast Redwoods (which is, everything there is to know!). Although the text is written by various writers, the quality of the text is consistently good. The book is beautifully and amply illustrated

The Sacred Pipe, by Nicholas Black Elk and Joseph Epes Brown
Until recently, this wonderful book had been out of print for some time, and rather hard to find. I had started reading it twice before, having had to get it via interlibrary loans from distant libraries, but circumstances had conspired to prevent me from finishing. When it came back into print, I quickly bought a copy, so that this time I would be sure to be able to finish it. I wanted to read this because I had so immensely enjoyed the other Black Elk book, Black Elk Speaks. People without my level of interest in anthropology, comparative religion, and Native American lore may not enjoy this book as much as I did, as it does get a little repetitive, but I found the descriptions of the Lakota legends, prayers, and rituals to be beautiful and fascinating. Much of the Lakota religion was about the sacredness of the natural world, about our relationship not only to our Father in Heaven, but also to our Mother the Earth. I wish the religion I was raised in had a lot more to say on that subject.

Last Chance to See, by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine
This book describes the adventures of two men (the authors) traveling to various exotic locations to see animals on the brink of extinction. This is not as grim as it sounds, because: 1) the focus is on the adventure of trying to see the animals, and on the interesting people the authors meet along the way, and 2) the narrator of these adventures is the late Douglas Adams, one of the funniest writers of the twentieth century and the author of the popular Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. Mixed in with the humor are some very poignant thoughts on the irredeemable loss of parts of our natural heritage. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

The Return of Little Big Man, by Thomas Berger
This book is the sequel to one of my favorite novels, Little Big Man. The earlier book followed the wild-west exploits of Jack Crabb, who was born white but raised by the Cheyenne, and ultimately becomes the only white survivor of Custer’s last stand. The earlier book had a colorful, but plausible, cast of characters which included gunfighters, swindlers, a gay Indian, and a reformed harlot. The newer book is not quite as interesting, and follows Jack’s career as a saloon keeper and a performer in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. It contains far more detail about that famous show than I would have ever thought I wanted to know, but I still found it entertaining.

Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein
I wanted to read this novel, the story of a man who returns to Earth after being raised since infancy by Martians, because it is on almost every list ever written of the “all-time greatest works of science fiction”. Many fans have described reading this book as a major life-changing experience. I can see how it might have been for a teenager reading it in the 1960’s, but for forty-something men in the early twenty-first century major life-change experiences are, I guess, harder to come by. Science fiction, at it’s best, is rich in thought-provoking ideas and makes you see thing in ways you’ve never considered before. This book certainly provides the ideas, and presents them most entertainingly. Perhaps because this book has been so influential, some of the bigger ideas are now commonplace in science fiction stories and will be familiar to any Star Trek fan. The others seem dated, and some I just plain disagree with. Still, I enjoyed the book, and I recommend it to any science fiction fans who may happen to see this. Just don’t take it too seriously and don’t expect it to live up to its reputation.

Dude, Where’s My Country? by Michael Moore
This book is the only real disappointment on the list so far. I love Michael Moore’s movies. “Fahrenheit 9/11” is one of the very best movies I have ever seen, and I also loved “Roger and Me” and “Bowling for Columbine”. Of course, the pranks which are so hilarious in his movies are harder to do in a book, and his satirical tone just doesn’t come across the same in print. But what is strangely missing from this book is the informativeness of his movies. I learned a lot of stuff which I hadn’t known before by watching each of his movies. I learned very little from this book. Look, I already know that George Bush is a bad person, that he cares only about his corporate pals and his own lust for power, and doesn’t give a hoot in hell about anything else. If you are going to tell me that all over again, at least support it with examples that I don’t already know all about.