A Big Trip, chapter 2

Initiation

The departure date of 1 June was not possible. The valve cover on the $19.95 life raft was missing. No, I had not responded to one of those $19.95 ads on TV. The raft actually cost $19.95, the going rate for a cheap raft at the local sporting goods shop. The shop provided the missing part. Somehow, I overlooked I might need food. Of course, there were the last minute items to pack. I decided to leave the next day.

****

2 June 1962.

The day was very poor bird wise and otherwise too. A twenty-minute stop and short walk to Mill Creek Falls, a small tributary to the Rogue River revealed practically nothing. I had hoped that things would look up at my first night camping. However, the cold pouring rain quieted bird life considerably, and quieted my spirit. To quote my journal, I wrote that “Most vigor is gone, leaving only the dreaded thought of setting up camp in the rain or sleeping in the cramped quarters of the VW where I now sit twisting sideways to pound the typewriter now resting on a box in the jump seat.”

My first night was just off a gravel road that led to Huckleberry Mountain, a well-traveled mountain known to the Indians and later settlers for its cool air and abundant huckleberries. My chosen campsite was a level spot bulldozed from the mountainside at the edge of the road. There were no travelers up the road that night. The pup tent lay unpacked in the car as I sat waiting for the rain to stop. The cold mixed with the spring that had barely arrived at the high elevation. There was no lull in the rain. I pitched the tent. There was no shelter from the rain onslaught. I could heat up something by using the gas stove inside the tent but the thought of fire and monoxide poisoning made that option to risky. My only alternative was a cold can of corned beef hash moistened with cream corn. With a lump in my stomach, I began to lose my enthusiasm. It was early but I unrolled the sleeping bag and crawled in, clothes and all, and zipped it up to the top. I was freezing.

Two hours later I awoke, and was relieved in not hearing the patter of rain on the tent. I peek out only to watch snow filtering from the sky and beginning to cover the ground. I had no choice but to snuggle back in my sleeping bag. Later in the night, I heard snapping twigs and heavy breathing and grunting just outside the tent. I let out a loud yell that in the still night probably startled me more than the visitor. The next morning, almost obliterated by more snow were several deer tracks.

****

Uncharacteristically, I made no record of the birds I saw at the Mill Creek Falls, or for that matter, anywhere else that first day. Perhaps having traveled only about 50 miles was not far enough away from home for beginning the adventure. Maybe I thought something might happen on this first day that would end my plans prematurely causing me to return home. I was one part pessimist and one part optimist. Birding would get better. It would have been good to get the trip going with a Hermit or Black-throated Gray Warbler, both of which breed in the region. There might have been a migrating Townsend’s Warbler or calling Pacific-slope Flycatcher, a species then known as Western Flycatcher. Any of those species would have been good to start out the trip list. As it turned out, I never saw any of those species during the 60s part of the journey. I must have been in too much of a hurry to get east of the Rocky Mountains and passed that magic 100th Meridian. The three warblers and the flycatcher would have make their way in front of my binocs on the final leg of the journey, even if it took 40 years to happen.

Forty years since camping on the Huckleberry Mountain Road three species have become regulars in the region. A couple of miles up the road Norm Barrett, Biologist for Rogue River National Forest, studies Flammulated Owls. Near the intersection of the road is now a snow park, where Black-backed Woodpeckers nest. Overlooking the owls and woodpeckers seems reasonable. On the other hand, Black Swifts nesting at Mill Creek Falls, my first stop, may today be new to the region.

****

3 June.

Knowing that snow that night might strand me for some time, I expected to see more than one inch had fallen. I peeked out the stiff door flap. Frozen rain and snow covered the tent and the gravel road. The car door lock required heating with a match in order to insert the key. My feet and hands were almost too cold to function. My stiff boots began to soften and my feet slowly thawed as I jogged up and down the road back and forth near the car. I managed to cook a hasty breakfast but the eggs and bacon were ice cold before I could get either to my lips. The hot brown coffee saved me.

The clouds disappeared with the rising sun and within 30 minutes, the snow and ice melted. Two Steller’s Jays and a flock of Golden-crowned Kinglets joined in the sound of dripping coniferous trees.

Even though the tent was free from caked on ice, it was still wet. I hurriedly rolled it up anyway and packed the car. The engine barely turned over. I let it warm, which took about 30 minutes. The extra heavy 140-weight transmission oil, which slowed a slow leak, was now stiff from the cold. With some difficulty shifting gears, I made my way back to the highway that climbed over the ridges radiating south of Mount Mazama, the mountain cradling Crater Lake. The first Pettingill location for bird finding was Crater Lake National Park. However, I knew that it was a winter day in the hudsonian zone. I was already too cold and opted for lower elevations on the east side of the Cascades.

I arrived at Fort Klamath, Oregon, in the midmorning. The region is at the northern end of Klamath Basin, a huge area of marshes, lakes, or at least formerly wetlands. Here streams flood the alder-conifer forests and flat, lush meadowlands where Great Gray Owls may sit motionless, mounted on a dead snag or tree trunk. Ft. Klamath had a reputation of being a good place to find Great Gray Owls, and Mrs. Ana Strahan, resident and elementary school teacher of the small town, offered to show me this wonderful bird. We never found the owls.

Among eighteen species seen during the search were Mountain and Western Bluebirds, Purple Finches but no Cassin’s Finches. Western Wood Pewees, Tree Swallows, and MacGillivray’s and Wilson’s Warblers were there to breed.

Left the Ft. Klamath region, and arrived at Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuge late in the afternoon. The road from Ft. Klamath to the refuge and south to Klamath Falls was an essentially level dirt road at the edge of the forested Cascades and the shore of Upper Klamath Lake. It was really a surface more or less scraped clear of vegetation, with rocks protruding upward from the roadbed that would cause any driver to agonize. To save my tires, car, and my body, the route down an otherwise fairly straight road was full of curves and bends with necessary dodging of the dangerously large sharp rocks looming out of the surface of the road. The refuge protects marshlands along the western shore of vast Upper Klamath Lake. No one would be at the abandoned headquarters as a letter from the refuge manager earlier informed me. I determined that the best place to sleep was inside the refuge observation tower.

****

The cold seemed worse because the heaters in vintage VWs ranged from poor to barely adequate. To make matters worse, there was no mechanism to blow the heat except the air-cooled engine itself. Had I ignored the frigid weather and taken the time to drive to the rim of the lake at Crater Lake National Park, Clark’s Nutcracker, Cassin’s Finch and perhaps a few other species would have made their way on the trip list. Based on several trips to the park, I knew that in early June the snow at the rim would be at least 12 feet deep. The probability of seeing Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches was low but possible. Maybe I should have tried anyway because there is not a single rosy-finch on the trip list. The road beyond the rim would have been closed because of snow; the park employees considered it good luck if they had the road bare earlier than 4 July. There would most likely have been an accumulation of 10 to 15 feet of snow at the rim. Would the half day of birding in the upper reaches Crater Lake National Park been worth missing Anna Strahan, who early on 3 June might be showing me my first Great Gray Owl? After all, I thought, I should try to keep on schedule. Later, I would learn, to be less strict about schedules, something I try to practice today.

A couple of years after passing up the chance to find rosy-finches at Crater Lake National Park, I ended up working at the park during two summers between sessions of college calisthenics. While there I put a couple of bands on Clark’s Nutcrackers at Rim Village, a project began by Donald Farner, author of Birds of Crater Lake National Park that was published in 1952. The monograph is a fine piece of work, and is still today an important reference on the birds of the park. Unlike many current publications, Farner did not discuss when and where to find birds in the park. A new publication, based mostly on Birds of Oregon: A General Reference (Marshall et al. 2003), of which I was the taxonomic editor, stated the obvious that Crater Lake is a good place to find Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches and Clark’s Nutcrackers but fails to mention the leagues of snow or anything about season. My summers, before and since 1962, beginning about the first or second week of June, did not produce rosy-finches or Hermit and Black-throated warblers, but maybe they were there in 1962. I should have made the attempt. Linda and I have seen rosy-finches in Crater Lake in July. They were sometimes foraging a few hundred feet down the steep caldera. Peering nearly straight down through binoculars at the finches flitting from rock to rock, with the blue lake a thousand or more feet below is a dizzying view.

On 3 June 1962, as I drove along the edge of Castle Creek, a major creek of the park. Water roared from the canyon floor about 200 feet below. Three years later, I saw a Cassin’s Finch, another species missed in 1962, Hermit Warblers and other species along the top of the canyon. At the bottom of the steep canyon, near Llaos Hallway, a favorite route for exploring park employees willing to risk falling rocks or themselves falling, Dippers courted the air with their song echoing off the narrow dangerous walls. More recently, at the reunion of employees during the centennial of Crater Lake National Park, discussion of birds revealed certain species are now found more easily than they were decades ago. That was possibly an artifact of more observers and better field guides, but we, the old employees of bygone years, concluded that there was much to learn. The elevational winter and my rush to go eastward in 1962 preempted any chance to learn as I motored onward to Ft. Klamath through the densely growing lodgepole pine banking the two lane black top.

The little town of Ft. Klamath has barely changed in the last 40 plus years although the surrounding cattle pastures have fewer scatterings of trees. I did not realize it in 1962, but Ft. Klamath was one of Charles Bendire’s old stomping grounds. Bendire, who lay the groundwork of what was to become Bent’s life history series, was at Ft. Klamath in the late 1800 and collected specimens of several birds new to science. Years later I would write several ornithological papers on birds collected by Bendire, and at Smithsonian, help curate Bendire’s specimens forming much of the egg collection.

The wetlands of the Klamath Basin, likened by some as the western Everglades, are now only 25% of its former size. Agriculture now occupies former marshland. Linda and I drove essentially the 1962 route in the Klamath Basin in 2003. The former rocky scrape I had bumped along now presents an effortless drive on a wide and smooth blacktopped surface where large freight trucks sped down the lanes just under 60 mph. Most of the wildlife we saw was road kills.

*****

4 June.

Yesterday, after being skunked by the Great Gray Owls at Ft. Klamath, I was glad to see something new when arriving at Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuge. Western Grebes were abundant, and there were gulls and other new species. Last night I was lulled to sleep by the multi-bird chorus 134 feet below the steel tower. However, the periods of sleep were shortened by the wind rocking the tower. Each time I turned over the tower also shook even more.

The morning was cold and damp, and with a stiff breeze to top it off. To tour part of the marsh in my life raft in that kind of disagreeable weather would be foolish. So, I waited for the weather to change. The temperature rose from cold to chilly and the wind seemed to subside. I was ready and, after gingerly climbing into the raft, and paddling out from shore about 50 feet the wind began to blow the raft toward the other shore of the lake, which was miles away. I paddled and paddled to reach the safety of the small dock on the shore below the observation tower. Exploring any of the marsh by raft was too risky.

After the near mishap with the raft, I was more than content to look for birds from solid ground. The cold and snowy conditions were great for Gray Jays but must have been bad for the few Olive-sided and Traill’s [=Willow] flycatchers near the lakes edge. Out on the lake were Eared Grebes, White Pelicans and Double-crested Cormorants. The collection of ducks and geese for the trip list began with Canada Goose, Mallard, Canvasback, and Lesser Scaup. There also were rafts of Ruddy Ducks, the males with bills turned blue to help attract the demur females. A few Forester’s Terns ventured close enough to be identified. Western Tanagers and Bullock’s Orioles were singing near the observation tower. Birds not usually found west of the Cascades were common here, including Black-billed Magpies, mostly seen along the roadways while they search for road kills and several raspy-voiced Yellow-headed Blackbirds. The first towhee for the list was a Rufous-sided Towhee [=Spotted Towhee].

Twenty miles southward in Klamath Falls the weather is still miserable. My plans for tomorrow with Mr. Warner Kimble were off; he plans to visit Ft. Klamath to photograph a pair of Mountain Bluebirds, the very same pair I had earlier observed nest building. Now, I find that there are no camping sites within miles of Klamath Falls, and the local Y.M.C.A. was not equipped for overnight lodgers. I am forced to spend the night in a cheap hotel.

****

The tower and headquarters buildings of Upper Klamath refuge no longer exist; the refuge is managed from offices at Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge in California. Hunters and boaters sometimes now use the site to launch their canoes and motor boats. Just last year I heard about someone getting lost in the marsh. That could have been me that cold windy day.

Taxonomic and nomenclatural changes, although clarifying avian systematics, bring a few problems to birders. For example, the Western Grebes I saw on Upper Klamath Lake in 1962 had to be removed from the trip list. At that time, my trusty Peterson did not differentiate what are now known as Clark’s and Western Grebes. On the other hand, I could count the towhee. Older birding friends in 1962 grumbled that the AOU had changed the Spotted Towhee they knew to Rufous-sided Towhee. Vindication was just a checklist away when the name went back to the future.

The hotel room in Klamath Falls was cheap all right. I was charged $1.50! The clerk must have felt sorry for me. Not only did I get a cheap room and no trouble during the night, not even bedbugs, I had seen some pretty good birds.

At Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, I had added two species of flycatchers and a third member of the family on my visit to Moore Park. Traill’s Flycatchers, as everyone called them in 1962, are now known as Willow Flycatchers. While at Smithsonian I had occasion to evaluate the different subspecies of Willow Flycatcher and, in 1993, published a revision of the species that was later cited in the Congressional Record because one of the subspecies was considered endangered. In 1962, it never occurred to me that I might have some role in the conservation of the species. In 1962, I had no plans to evaluate the subspecies of the Western Wood Pewee but I did in 1977.

Fourteen years later, the late Burt Monroe and I published a 1991 paper with the fancy title “Clarifications and corrections of the dates of issue of some publications containing descriptions of North American birds.” Burt Monroe was then Chairman of the Committee on Classification and Nomenclature of the American Ornithologists’ Union. Actually, he was Chairman extraordinaire, friend, and teacher to multitudes. I was among many who had the pleasure of his wit and enjoyment of the knowledge he shared. He was also a highly competitive and challenging hoopster who frequently would get a game going during lulls at scientific meetings. Burt and I met many times during sessions of the AOU Check-list committee and at meetings. We had many occasions to talk on the phone, especially ironing out details of our manuscripts. He would always answer the phone with an enthusiastic twang “Ralph, how in the hell are you?” His voice and the question are still clear in my head.

Our fancy paper’s primary function was to establish the dates when scientific names were published, which is important because usually, but not always, the scientific name used for a bird is the first one published. The paper led to a 1995 publication by Dick Banks and I that took into consideration the dates of publication and how they should be applied to current nomenclature. One of the species we discussed was the Olive-sided Flycatcher, a species first seen at Klamath NWR in 1962. Then, I had no inkling that I would be writing about its scientific name. However, somebody had to do it because Nuttall published the name cooperi for the specific name of the Olive-sided Flycatcher before Swainson published the name borealis for the same species. Therefore, we concluded that the scientific name for Olive-sided Flycatchers is cooperi. That might seem an abrupt change for such a widely known species but as it turned out, the name cooperi was not a foreign name in the literature of the later 20th Century. Actually, cooperi, in its Latinized spelling, is a foreign word, but because the name was not considered obscure, it should be used. I am really trying hard to avoid the technicalities of how names are used in zoological nomenclature because it can get very sticky. There is even a published code and a body of learned people who make final rulings on how names should be used.

Dick and I did present one nomenclatural situation that might have confused more people than using cooperi for specific of the Olive-sided Flycatcher, that being the potential change of the specific scientific name for the House Wren. Again, because of the publication dates Burt and I corrected, it turns out that Alexander Wilson, in his landmark volumes of “American ornithology” applied the name domesticus for the specific name of our familiar wren before Vieillot dreamt up and published the name aedon for the same species. What to do, what to do? Dick and I believed that even though a handful of 20th Century authors thought the name domesticus should be used for the House Wren, the name aedon was in such widespread usage that it should be retained for the species. However, because domesticus was an earlier name, we had to write the head nomenclatural guys a proposal to keep aedon for the House Wren. Our paper had the fancy title “Bombycilla cedrorum Vieillot, [1808] and Troglodytes aedon Vieillot, [1809] (Aves, Passerifomes): proposed conservation of the specific names.“ Two years later, in 1998, our case, actually assigned as Case 2969, was voted on and the results of the learned international commission ruled 44 to 1 in favor of aedon.

In addition, of changes of scientific names, there may be some question about the spelling of common names of birds. Name changes, whether Latin, Greek or English tend to drive birders up the wall at times, but there are reasons for the changes. English names are probably the most troublesome changes and often produce controversy and confusion. We usually get over the name changes, but one that seems hard to take is not recognizing the name of a particular kind of bird as a proper noun. The convention set by the American Ornithologists’ Union is to capitalize the proper common names of birds. The wren I saw at Klamath NWR was a House Wren and the dastardly cowbird, bane to countless species whose nests they lay their eggs to be hatched by the unwilling host, is a Brown-headed Cowbird. Unfortunately, if I were to write about Steller’s Jays and Brown-headed Cowbirds in the local newspaper, the sophisticated editor would print them as Steller’s jay and brown-headed cowbird.

****

5 June. I over slept in my dingy but at least warm and dry hotel room. By then most of the guests had departed when I descended the creaky stairs. I headed for the Link River and Klamath Falls’s Moore Park, at the north edge of town and on the southern shore of Upper Klamath Lake. While fixing breakfast overlooking a number of ponderosa pines in Moore Park I was reminded to look for White-headed Woodpeckers. None was found. That is probably a species that will be picked up in California when the homeward trek is made.

The Link River flows for a little over 3 miles from the southern end of Upper Klamath Lake to the Klamath River. Some of the species that were found on the Link River were surprises. According to local Klamath Falls birders, Caspian Terns are uncommon but two flew overhead displaying their large bright salmon beaks and slightly forked tails. Two female Common Goldeneyes were also unexpected. Although information from my phone conversation with Warren Kimble did not yield White-headed Woodpeckers, he did point me to locations for finding two species of herons to add to the trip list. As directed, I found numerous Black-crowned Herons that silently lumbered out of the low-growing cottonwoods where they were roosting along the edge of the river, and a Green Heron bolted from the shore and out of sight.

Yellow Warblers and Song Sparrows were heard singing throughout the day. Unseen Yellowthoats scolded with a characteristic thimk. After finding 43 species, I headed east to Lakeview, a small town nestled in the mountains and veered northward to the more arid part of Lake County. Vegetation and birds became sparse. Even the numerous bodies of water, some alkaline, others fresh, were almost birdless. A sparrow would flit across the highway now and then, and it might have been profitable to look them over. However, to travel 15,000 miles and stop all or most of the better areas still requires a certain schedule.

I drove about 100 miles when time dictated the end of the day. The sky had become blue but was gradually turning a golden bronze in the west. I turned off the deserted highway near the southern shore of Lake Abert, a huge glacially dug basin of water now the resting place for a few late migrants and nesting waterfowl. From the highway, I followed a narrow dirt track that meandered to the top of a bald hill overlooking the highway and lake. The air was crisp at 6200 feet elevation. Tabletop plateaus rimmed the yellow grassy slopes that would soon become green before the late summer parched their roots and browning blades. Sagebrush was the dominate plant. Dark perpendicular basalt rock up to 2000 feet, Abert Rim, borders the western side of Lake Abert for 30 miles; the lake is 60 miles long. The rim dwarfed the Western and Eared Grebes dotting the water. The sun was still beaming down but it was by no means was it warm. I quickly pitched the tent making sure to face one wall toward the sun so that the inside would become half way warm by the time I completed the evening meal. From camp, I searched the shore below me. The Willet that I had seen earlier had disappeared. When I turned in for the night, I heard the frog-like peeping of Eared Grebes. There were no other sounds.

****

Because I was on a strict budget, I maintained a ledger to record my daily expenditures. The groceries I almost forgot to buy on 1 June came to a grand total of $10.58. At Fort Klamath, I treated myself to a 35-cent strawberry milkshake; strawberry is my favorite flavor and I still love milkshakes but avoid them to avoid extra inches and cholesterol. I also purchased a quart of white gas for 15 cents. That was my fuel for the camp stove and lantern. The gas station at Ft. Klamath is gone and the restaurant where I savored the strawberry milkshake burned down around the turn of the century. On the fourth day of the trip, I had a bowl of chili and a candy bar (35 cents) for my evening meal at Klamath Falls and the next day purchased groceries and a lunch for less than $3.00. According to the ledger, I purchased gas a couple of time before the night at Lake Abert. I was overly cautious because each of the two times as the amount was less than 6 gallons–the tank held a little over 10 gallons and the average mileage was about 30 mpg. I bought a few stamps and a postcard at the Ft. Klamath post office (8 cents) and added new ice to the chest upon reaching Klamath Falls (20 cents).

Before leaving Klamath Falls, I replaced the gasket in the gas tank lid. I miniscule amount of gasoline had sloshed against the lid and the original gasket. It was just enough barely to dampen the exposed neck of the tank. That might not seem too serious but for those who didn’t have the pleasure of owning a beetle, access to the gas tank of the early models, such as mine, was inside the front hood. Actually, that might not be the correct term. The hinged door covering the rear engine probably should be called the hood. The hinged door on the front part of the car covered the gas tank and a small storage area, the VW’s answer to a trunk. Any gasoline in that area, even a trace, permeated everything in the trunk, and wafted its way into the passenger compartment. The passenger compartment was a well-crafted module, and, again, for those who have not experienced a beetle, there was always a race to see who could close their door first. Because the passenger area was so air tight, the last door to shut required considerable force in order to compress the interior air. And, yes, beetles could float but I never put my VW to that test.

The state road from Klamath Falls to Lakeview was as lightly traveled in 1962 as it is now. I had regarded Lakeview as a fork in the road, but in 2005, it was a place where Linda and I found Juniper Titmouse. In 1962, I missed the juniper counterpart to the old Plain Titmouse, a bird then divided into primarily western and eastern subspecies. Had I birded up the canyon just outside of town I would have thought I had seen the eastern subspecies of Plain Titmouse.

The route from Lakeview to Lake Abert and beyond to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, the next stop in 1962, was empty of vehicles. The U.S. highway connects the sparsely populated eastern towns and ranches in Oregon. It is used mainly for hauling livestock and hay and a few wayward tourists. During the fall, the route is a favorite of hunters traveling from southwestern Oregon to hunt antelope in eastern Oregon or to hunt elk in neighboring Idaho. Birders sometimes use the same highway while traveling to the birding oasis of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. In the Twenty-first Century, most travelers prefer to whisk to their destinations on Interstate highways, even if it means driving many extra miles. Such travelers miss the rich open sage and lake country of U.S. 395 and Oregon 140. In 1996, Linda and I saw less than five vehicles on the long stretch between Lake Abert and Malheur, about the same number that I saw 34 years earlier. The terrain surrounding Lake Abert and the alkaline lakes along the way appeared to have not changed. We stopped at a pull off above Lake Abert not long before the sun would set. An unseen grebe trilled. There were no other sounds.

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