Mainly Rain, Plains and Sage
It was late when I rolled up to our Austin host’s street, tired not from the birding, but from the rain soaked traffic of San Antonio and Austin. Seeing Linda made me feel much better, being home, which is where ever my bride is residing.
Rain fell for the next two days, days I thought might be opportunities to look for Golden-cheeked Warblers in an Austin city park. We did not venture out except for a couple of walks up the street and back. The walks help keep our blood from molding in the dreary humidity. One night we heard an Eastern Screech-Owl crooning, a life bird for Linda and a familiar but welcome serenade for me. Thoughts of a night finding several Eastern Screech-Owls near the slope of Hawk Mountain in 1962 and many pleasurable conversations with Joe Marshall interrupted the pleasure of our Austin singer. Joe’s research resulted in recognition of two species of screech-owls in North America and his company improved my time at the museum. The baleful sound outside our window seemed to mirror sadness of Joe’s absence from ornithology.
The Eastern Screech-Owl in Austin called as other members of the household were asleep, including Sabine. She would have been thrilled to hear the owl. The two days hostage to the weather provided some more or less uninterrupted time with Sabine. Sporadically, sentences, even phrases of sentences, had to repeated later when Sabine’s sister Annika interjects her rehearsal of the soon to be playing terrible two’s. I gave Sabine the field guide carried from Oregon and presented her with a checklist of the birds of Austin. She told me some of the birds she could check off and was excited about youth birding programs she might participate in this summer. Linda and I wonder if Sabine, once in the first grade, will continue to be encouraged to enjoy birds. We hope she does.
The news reported flooding in the Three Rivers region where the road to Choke Canyon was closed the day after my visit there. I began recalling that I had either met or corresponded with Dick Canning, the generous birder I met over rain and a Northern Jacana. He and his son Russ told me to contact them if ever up in Penticton, a city in the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia. Dick directs the Nature Conservancy of Canada and once worked in the Cowan Vertebrate Museum. I may have borrowed specimens from there while we were in the museum business. Certainly, his name is familiar. However, I recall it as Richard James Canning, a moniker that came into view during some of my literature searches on species in the Pacific Northwest.
Before I get ahead of myself, there are more than yellow roses to the journey. Texas is only one point on the route; it is not the final destination. Years ago, we had planned a separate trip to Colorado. Now, that we are in Texas, a homeward route via Colorado is equivalent to only a day’s drive longer than returning via Arizona. If fickle mountain weather permits, economics definitely dictates combining Colorado with Texas. We can save time, money, and look for some grouse. On our way from the Rockies, a stop in Idaho to see the crossbill, the most recently named species in North America, also makes economic as well as good birder sense. Linda and I plan to make our pennies go as far as possible, with Texas and Colorado and crossbills. On the night of 18 April, we carefully check weather and road conditions in Colorado. It is going to be a noticeable change, having been along the tropical Rio Grande and warm rains of Austin, but we decide to head north.
19 April 2010
The birdmobile, the CR-V, is 3,151 miles older since leaving Oregon. Repacked, with refortified iceboxes, we located our heavy coats that we brought in earlier anticipation of going to the Rockies. When you get older, being cold hurts more than the tip of a nose or your ears, it hurts the joints, the one needed to hold up the binoculars and the fingers to focus them and leaf through a field guide. We are ready.
Attention to Austin traffic replaces goodbye tears as we swing onto I-35 for a rainy drive north. Linda asks for more details on the Northern Jacana, a species she wishes she had seen. Earlier, telling the story of Choke Canyon and its prized bird was interrupted by crying and screaming on one side and, on the other side, innocent and intelligent questions from Sabine about Austin birds. It is amazing what a difference a few years makes between the two sisters. Anyway, while relating to Linda the great jacana saga, the question of how to pronounce jacana rises to the surface. Perhaps ignoring the ugly head of the jacana conundrum is the best route to follow. I pronounce the bird’s name with the “j” sounding hard as in jaw and just. Turning to Linda, I say “jah-CA-nah.” We wonder if Spanish speakers say ha-CA-nah, with the “j” sounding as English “h” such as in Baja. I read somewhere that is not correct, but the pronunciation zhah-sah-NAH is really the way to verbalize the name, a South American Indian name put through vocabulary grinding of early French, Spanish and Portuguese transcriptions. Linda and I agree it is a toe-mato, taw-mato situation and settle on jah-CA-nah. I wonder how classic Latin scholars pronounce the scientific name of the genus, which happens to be Jacana? We laugh, imagining how a native Chinese, Russian, who knows who, might pronounce jacana. Does it really matter?
We splash through spring showers varying from sprinkles to gully washers, onward, north to Oklahoma City. The city is memorializing the anniversary of the bombing of the federal buildings on 19 April 1995. Linda was there then, heard the explosion and, as a registered nurse, was on the scene that horrific day. It was a coincidence that we are in the city today. There is no reason to stop, to relive the sad memory. Poorly signed intersections cause a wrong turn before reaching I 40, where we turn west deeper into the Great Plains, traveling in the opposite direction on that paved ribbon used by us on our way to Arkansas in 2005. Our destination today is not far, but the rainy weather and uninteresting flat interstate elongates time.
Before leaving Oregon, I monitored several birding sites in order to have a handle on the birds of different areas we might visit. Besides mining these websites for birding information, I noticed the Oklahoma site championed April Fool’s jokes. One about prairie-chickens was best. It seems Lesser Prairie-Chickens differ genetically, depending on which state they live. The differences have created taxonomic and nomenclatural problems. The website posted: “Officials from Kansas were quick to point out that since they have the most birds they should retain the name Lesser Prairie-Chicken for their species.” Colorado biologists are currently lobbying for the name Fewest Lesser Prairie-Chicken, while New Mexico biologists prefer the designation Least Lesser Prairie-Chicken because their birds are slightly smaller. Biologists in Oklahoma and Texas were unavailable for comment, as they were monitoring the situation at the border. However, taxonomic experts revealed the Oklahoma birds would be named Sooner Lesser Prairie-Chicken owing to the fact they are the most recently evolved. Texas birds, being the largest, will be called Greater Lesser Prairie-Chicken.”
In addition, before leaving home, seriously, I corresponded with a few non-joking people. The staff at Washita National Wildlife Refuge, west of Clinton, Oklahoma, replied that by late April they should have Mississippi Kites, Lark Buntings and Field Sparrows. The sparrows are missing from Linda’s life list. We already had some good views of a smattering of Mississippi Kites buffeting in the steep prairie south winds. As for new ABA birds, I will have to wait for greener pastures since I fortunately have seen most grassland birds, but the pleasure of helping Linda see them is frosting on the prairie cake. Clinton, a good commute from Oklahoma City or Amarillo, Texas, to the west is larger than I had thought. Under 9,000, the town has not shown growth since 2000. The price of our pleasant motel in the town’s outskirts matches the fact it would not cost much to live here.
20 April 2010
Morning lingers. This is a day of rest and relaxation and a day for a country drive to Washita National Wildlife Refuge. Only an estimated 300 birders annually visit the barely over 8,000-acre refuge sitting along the Washita River and the northern shores of Foss Reservoir. Probably as many birders come to Santa Ana at least once a week. From Clinton, we drive north on state highway 44 and cross the earthen dam that backs up the Washita River, forming Foss Reservoir. Both the dam and creation of the refuge was in 1961. We turn west in the remote town of Butler in the middle of Custer County. There were 345 people living there 10 years ago. The county lost 4.5% of its population in just three years following 2000. We are not far from where General Custer met his demise at the Battle of Washita in 1868. The site is in Roger Mills County, a county that has lost 6.8% of its population and where many more people were lost there in the 1800’s grassland battles. I wonder how many more inhabitants of Custer and Roger Mills counties are gone. We also are not far from Black Kettle National Grassland where Linda and I witnessed Lesser Prairie Chickens at a nearby lek in 2005. My guess is that the population of most species of birds decrease is beyond 6.8%. The remaining people of the region and the birds living there are trying to make a living. However, grassland birds are in trouble, habitat that species depend is plowed under, destroyed by agriculture, spoiled by the petroleum industry, urban sprawl, commercial zoning, unnecessary roads, and by almost every conceivable means that humans can think up. What grassland habitat that has not been trampled and bulldozed are token fragments, often too small and disconnected to support viable populations of most species. I like to equate a fragmented habitat to a house. Perhaps your bedroom and living room are intact, but half of the kitchen, maybe the part with the fridge, and most of the bathroom are destroyed. Helpless to make repairs and unable to move from the soon to be condemned dwelling, the remaining choices are bleak. Lesser Prairie-Chickens, likewise helpless to make repairs, began dying out about the same time American Indians were either moved or murdered from the habitat they shared with the grouse. Historically, the refuge is within Cheyenne and Arapaho territory. An official refuge brochure states that in 1892, the U.S. “acquired” the land and opened the area to homesteaders. Farming and farmers contributed to displacing the Indians, natural grassland habitat and slow demise of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken. Beside direct habitat loss, wind turbines are springing up on the prairie like giant metallic weeds. For birds loving flatlands, wind turbines are scary and foreign to prairie chickens. There are no wind turbines near the refuge today. Even so, Linda and I will likely not see prairie-chickens or Indians.
The sky is swarming with clouds, many of them black and crazed by omnipresent wind. This is tornado country and we keep a sharp lookout for suspicious anomalies such as funnel clouds that might be drifting across the plains. There would no place to hide. Fortunately, the chilling bluster is the worst meteorological event. The constant blowing is almost maddening, but its influence is weakened by occasional hillocks, brushy patches and trees along the desolate road. Not far from refuge headquarter, one of these patches coughs out a Lark Bunting. It is between outfits, closer to breeding plumage but showing its winter stripes. A parking area at the small headquarters contains one vehicle of the staff person who tells us the cold weather probably has delayed Mississippi Kites that he said nest in the trees around the buildings. We tell him we are looking for certain sparrows whereupon he said almost every species of sparrow found in the refuge visits their feeder. That sounded great. However, there was no birdseed available to fill the feeders. There are no sparrows. We search a hill behind headquarters where a Lark Sparrow is singing. The clouds do not look inviting to sunlight and time is a-wasting. Back down the road, we hike a path along the Washita River. A 12-foot pile of brush comes alive with more Harris’s Sparrows than I have ever seen since my first one in Oklahoma City. Two armadillo are foraging along the trail further down the river. Other than a few glimpses of these strange mammals, my experience with armadillos is dodging road killed individuals. One of the two live armored mammals runs across the trail. Its front limbs appear to hit the ground in unison and the rear soon follows, the hind legs having been above the shoulders, come down in unison. The little rocking sprint is comical relief in an area not producing many birds. The trail loops away from the river and onto a dirt road toward the pavement where we parked. We spish at a few isolated bushes and finally a couple of birds jump up, one in plain view, perching on the winter bare limb of the bush. It is a Field Sparrow, a bird Linda somehow missed until today. It is a voyeuristic lifer for me. As the sun dips more westward, the temperature drops. We drive back to our motel in Clinton, downstream on the Washita River from Foss Reservoir. We do not worry about the earthen dam rupturing, but we check the weather. The forecast does not present the warmer temperatures we like, but it does not predict any tornados either.
21 April 2010
We plan a short drive to Campo, Colorado today. Linda has a superb view of a Mississippi Kite on the way to Amarillo. Sharing the air along our route are several Swainson’s, Red-tailed Hawks and migrating Turkey Vultures. North on U.S. 287, north across the panhandle of Texas and the narrow panhandle of Oklahoma, two speeding cars pass going close to 100 mph. The two barely touch, resulting in an explosion of bumper parts and other debris flying. One of the vehicles keeps going. We cringe as the other careens off the road into a rain soaked muddy field and circles back toward us. Happily, for us and everyone else, the front of the unruly car acted as a plow and it stops abruptly but not before wet muck encases the windshield. No one is injured. This is the second witnessed accident we have seen in one-month involving vehicles flying off the road. This unprecedented behavior will surely stop; in our many road trips, we have thus far avoided witnessing previous off-road vehicular mayhem.
Without further incidence, we arrive in Campo, occupied by 150 people in the last census, but now less than 127 inhabitants, most far below average national and state income levels. While working out our trip’s itinerary, I had found a Campo motel listed on the web. We do not see any sign for a motel. I make a U-turn in the middle of town and pull up to what appears the only open establishment, a restaurant. It is closed. As I walk from the locked door, a woman in a car turns from a side street and pulls behind our wagon. She looks inquisitive and rolls her window down. I ask about the motel, whereupon she seems apologetic, and tells me she is sorry, but the motel is closed. Thanking her, we settle in for a drive east of town.
We are on a Baca County road named “J.” It is a hard “j,” a jacana “j.” The road juts eastward straight as an arrow that would have belonged to a Native American. Petroglyphs carved on rocks west of Campo are testament to the early inhabitants of the region, and at least four different tribes make ancestral claims in Baca County, including the Comanche Nation. This southeastern most region of Colorado has been under the flags of first Spain in 1541, followed by Mexico, Texas, Kansas Territory and finally Colorado in 1861.
We head into the southeastern part of the nearly 435,00 acre Comanche National Grassland that surrounds Campo, that protects the short grass prairie once the victim of the dust bowel where homesteaders plowed the earth, baring it to the incessant winds. In Oregon, I had phoned the office administering the grassland to inquire about a lek of Lesser Prairie-Chickens. The lek, reduced to only 23 birds, once a frequent stop for birders, is closed to the public viewing this year. Not unlike other parts of the range of this and other species of prairie grouse, populations continue to spiral downward. Today, we are not looking for chickens, but some other prairie species missing from Linda’s life list.
Dust Bowl victims and an introduced guard
Once out of town, we are alone, with only a reminder from a power line that someone probably lives out here, somewhere. Surprisingly, a male Red-headed Woodpecker leaps from one of the skinny power poles and lands on the far side of the next one down the road. Rocky bumps in our route alternate with soft, sandy stretches so soft it is like driving on a dry beach. The automatic 4-wheel drive kicks in and out, as we plow forward. The rearview mirror is full of darkening blue-gray clouds. We cannot be out here if it rains, to be stuck with the ghosts of homesteaders past. Ever hopeful, maybe, just maybe a Mountain Plover or one of the sparrows Linda is missing will pop up. Horned Larks foraging along the shoulder fly only at the last minute and dart quickly back on the road as we pass. Flapping much beyond the height of any vegetation meant being blown away from their dining site. Western Meadowlark and Lark Bunting join the meager list including a lone American Kestrel and a Prairie Falcon. The wind becomes ever more blustery. None of our target species are popping up, singing or otherwise making themselves known. We give up. As we return to pavement at the edge of Campo, I see people, perhaps 10 abreast across the road. They gradually form a single line clearing our way. They are all females and they are pushing carts loaded with infants. We wave. What did we see? Where were they going?
Twenty miles later to the north, we find a motel in relatively larger Springfield. It is a friendly mom and pop establishment and pop quickly lets us know that global warming and climate change are unfounded and probably a government plot. We outwardly smile and inwardly grimace. Inside our room, the TV reveals that a severe storm is on its way. What a surprise. Very strong wind and quarter-sized hail is predicted, a size big enough to damage roofs and cars, our cherished birdmobile. We cross our fingers and miraculously that works; we are not meteorological victims.
22 April 2010
The closest source to coffee the next morning is in the office of the motel. Before escaping with cups of the brew, I learn from the male part of the mom and pop that grackles are so thick in Texas it is difficult not to be pooped on and that prairie chickens numbers are reduced in southeastern Colorado since there are so many coyotes. I take a few steps towards our room. “Those coyotes eat all the calves just as they are being born.” Wow, talk about a cradle to the grave experience. I did not bother to mention we had been in Texas and were poop-free, that we did not see all those coyotes and that we did see enough new-born calves to make any hamburger lover happy. To give the man some credit, the grackle story he said was what pop had heard from truckers. With trepidation, fearing misinformation, I asked about the condition of the road west to Trinidad, a small town on our route. With much earnestness, he warned to “look-out” for the sharp turns near the next town. We did, but there were other worse turns beyond those he mentioned. Our guess is our motel proprietors had not been very far west of Springfield, physically or otherwise.
In a couple of hours we reached Trinidad, without missing a curve, and headed north on I 25 to Pueblo. By some mental loss or lack of good signs, we drive past the turn to Gunnison. However, north of town, I spot a state patrol car at an off ramp. The officer, a male, jumps out of his car and strides toward my open window. He, at first, looks serious and suspicious, but he must have seen Linda, my aging face, our stuff in the back, and he actually smiles. I told him we needed to get to Gunnison. It turns out, he directs, “you take this exit here, turn left and the road runs right into U.S. 50.”
The officer is helpful. It is a nice shortcut to a familiar road sign, “U.S. 50.” Back in the day, during my compulsory time in the military and my elective time at the museum, I knew U.S 50 well. It begins at Ocean City, Maryland, near where I saw my first and only Black-headed Gull. I had driven U.S. 50 to the Atlantic coast many times during those day. A few miles beyond 3,000, U.S. 50, one of the longest in the country, ends in western Sacramento. We unwittingly crossed it on our way south 16 days ago. Actually, U.S. 50, sharing a sign post with U.S. 1, the highway from Main to Florida, heads south on 9th Street before turning west on Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C. The National Museum of Natural History is on U.S. 50! While commuting to work and home, I dodged many dignitary caravans on Constitution Avenue, AKA U.S. 50, not to mention hours and hours of bumper to bumper traffic standing still for more hours and hours. I even lived on U.S. 50, sort of since the back of my apartment faced that highway. U.S. 50 cuts through Scarlet Tanager country and passes near Eurasian Tree Sparrows before heading out over the plains where the grill of my Dad’s brand-new horizontally finned 1959 Chevy snagged a hapless Red-headed Woodpecker. That was in Kansas where U.S. 50 follows the Arkansas River upstream from Matt Dillon’s Dodge City. I do not recall Matt ever mentioning the Arkansas River or Red-headed Woodpeckers.
We are feeling happy to be on our way to Gunnison when an inviting sign to visit Royal Gorge welcomes a detour. Linda and I had been there, done that, but independently and as children accompanying our parents to visit relatives on one of too many tumultuous expedition back to Missouri and Arkansas, respectively. The detour stirs memories. Our separate visits included driving or walking on a suspension bridge, the second highest one of its kind, dangling 1,053 feet above the tiny Arkansas River and a miniature railroad. It was a dizzying experience. I recall walking the bridge while my mother stood half-frozen as my father and her children risked life and limb to make the round trip stroll on the wooden walkway of the 1200 foot long structure. Today, with my acrophobia, stepping out on the 1929 Royal Gorge Bridge would be tantamount to walking the plank. If I did not die, I would die. Speaking of planks, getting a view of the canyon today is essentially impossible as wooden fences block the view of any offending tourist. This is an impressive place. The gorge, sometimes called the Grand Canyon of the Arkansas River, is deep, and as viewed freely decades ago and seen today through a knothole in the fence, is spectacularly beautiful. It is also impressive that such a wonderful place could be so commercially spoiled. As for the bridge, it is accessible today only by each of us paying, less an undisclosed senior discount, $24 per person. Tickets would have allowed us to do some of the things we could not have done when we were small children such as riding the aerial tram, built in1968, and the so-called Royal Rush Skycoaster, built in 2003. No, the Skycoaster costs extra. Once past the ticket booth, inside the inner sanctum, we could have ridden horses, mules and burrows, a trolley, gone shopping and had our choice of dining to gorge in, not to mention being scared, especially me, out of our wits. Returning to good old fare-free U.S. 50, the view of the enterprises’ white buffalo near the highway seem to be good luck. We escaped looking down into Royal Gorge. We have our memories, even if the better ones are a half-century old.
A stop for gas, food and road information in Salida gets us the first two items, but only a vague idea about the road ahead. I worry, regardless of white buffalo, about crossing Monarch Pass at the Continental Divide. Linda recalls the pass from yesteryear, when she lived as a child a few years in Colorado. Her memory is of a road replete with numerous twists, turns and views of beautiful but dizzying heights. Which will be worse, my acrophobia or the snow from the clouds we are seeing to the west. As we climb toward the 11,312 foot pass, more and more roadside snow signals the impossibility of any off-highway ventures.
A Colorado birder had emailed me that American Three-toed Woodpecker and White-winged Crossbill are sometimes off a road 21 miles west of Salida. Snow makes these roads impassable, at least for us. We maintain course and speed, sailing up to Monarch Pass without an acrophobic or birding event and stop to stretch and just maybe a neat woodpecker or crossbill will appear. The stretch feels good. Drifts of plowed snow sits along the highway, bare spots are white, but the conifers long since shed their flakes. After the Southwest, Texas and the Plains, the Rockies and their evergreens are visual elegance and the air carrying mountain scent is perfume. Except for the infrequent vehicle and steady breeze singing past all those tree boughs, there is silence. No birds. Back on the road, we decide any foreboding about crossing Monarch Pass must have been allayed by straightening some of the curves and widening the lanes. It is an easy drive down into the Gunnison River watershed.
Conifers quickly give way to arid land, mostly covered with yellowish grasses still in winter mode, dotted and smeared with gray-green sagebrush and the narrow valley of meandering Tomichi Creek lined by leafless willows. Occasional ranches occupy the irrigated valley. Nineteen miles east of Gunnison is Waunita Hot Springs Road, which we turn onto and travel about 50 feet vertically and exactly 0.6 of a mile horizontally before stopping. We are about 8100 feet elevation. The rounded 11,476 foot summit of sturdy Tomichi Dome breaks the gray sky to our northeast. A small windowless trailer, about the length of a couple of cars, occupies one end of a pull-off of the gravel road. Part of the parking area is bordered by an open ended cable fence on the road side and a thick rock wall on the east side. The gravel at two open ends of the fence is slightly compacted, suggesting heavy use. This is the viewing area for the Gunnison Sage-Grouse.
The Gunnison Sage-Grouse was not recognized as a species distinct from the Greater Sage-Grouse until 2000 although many investigators knew Gunnison and Greater were different since around 1970. Remarkably, the new species had not even been recognized as a subspecies; it was scientifically nameless until 1998! While at the museum, I did not pay close attention to the taxonomic issue of sage grouse. Insofar as galliformes, the order for chickens, quails, pheasants and others, I was more worried about type localities (where a species or subspecies was first collected) of Sooty Grouse and what Nineteenth Century David Douglas was up to concerning Mountain Quail. Then, one day Carl and Fran Hammerstrom visited the museum bird collection. The Hammerstroms, because of their extensive research, were renowned experts on galliformes of the sageland. They were practically giggling as they pointed out the differences between the then nameless populations of Sage Grouse laying stately in their museum case. Years later, after the official A.O.U. birth of Gunnison Sage-Grouse, I found myself at a book signing. Seated at the table were David Marshal, Matthew Hunt and Alan Contreras as editors of the Birds of Oregon. I sat, as taxonomic editor and to my right is the illustrator, Elva Hammerstrom Paulson. Turns out, she is the daughter of the Hammerstroms. Meanwhile, back in Colorado, there has been a 90% loss in suitable Gunnison Sage-Grouse habitat. The main stronghold for Gunnison Sage-Grouse is the one in the Gunnison Basin, which are around 775 individuals in 2009 or about 75% of all the species. Other populations in much smaller regions in Colorado and in Utah are dreadfully small.
Tomorrow, we will be looking for the newish grouse. Standing at the lek viewing area this afternoon is an unlikely time to search for Gunnison Sage-Grouse. Nonetheless, our exploring does not prevent us acquiring considerable eyestrain. We scan the lek site, which is to the east, beyond the rock wall. According to a map of the lek I earlier downloaded from the net, birds may be cavorting their sexuality in the valley of a creek maybe below the parking lot. However, the map shows the boundary of the lek could be about a half-mile away, up on a ridge rising 100 feet or so above us. Covered with low growing sagebrush, it gains altitude quickly. It is hard to imagine grouse strutting on such a steep incline. We notice a fence in the flat, not far before the ridge suddenly rises where a couple of fence posts braced by a horizontal post give the fence extra strength. Very dead and spindly snags also mark the flat. We try to memorize the landscape, the fence posts, everything, knowing that morning’s dawning light will make it difficult to communicate where a grouse might be standing.
While burning into the brain’s recesses with the landmarks to recall tomorrow, a car drives up and parks behind the cable fence. A man peers over the rock wall toward the little valley and the ridge. We are standing on the leeward end of the trailer, desperate to be out of the chilling wind, trying to avoid the buffeting in order to steady our optics and keep our eyes from tearing. Our efforts barely help. The Oregon license plate of the car moves me to step into the bracing drafty current to say hello. The driver tells me he had seen Greater Sage-Grouse at a lek in the late afternoon and is trying his luck on Gunnisons before trying the site tomorrow morning. We wish each other luck and I rejoin Linda, who, regardless of the discomforting weather, is very enthusiastic about seeing the grouse now and tomorrow. Today we settle for ghosts of grouse past.
Later, down the road to Gunnison, a white van coughs out several people at the Super 8 motel where we are staying. They are birders on one of the many grouse tours offered in Colorado. Overhearing one to another, one almost complained that the tour had been tough. The other, ignoring the grousing, was thrilled about tomorrow. Linda and I are excited, so much so that we do not get the room lights off until later than is healthy for two 60 somethings.
23 April 2010.
The alarm clangs at 3:30 a.m. I slap myself in gear, dress and run a sack of snacks and a blanket out to the car for a possibly long and cold vigil. By then the white van birders are slowly assembling in the hall not far from our room. There is more grumbling. Picking out one of the members who looks to least likely bite my head off, I ask about their group. It is led by Mike Flieg of a group known as Ornifolks. From the looks of the bunch, they might be dubbed ornery folks, but I had read about tour groups since I had had some concern about competing for space in the tiny Waunita Hot Springs viewing area. This morning’s group, which I estimate is close to ten weary birders, is on the sixth day of what is a seven-day journey dubbed Ornifolks Lek-A-Day trip. I return to our room. Linda is ready and eager to go and I tell her the group is fixing to commence to depart. Her competitive side kicks in as we nudge ourselves through the birders and their luggage. I would be grumpy too, getting up so early and paying over $1300 plus meals. Of course, Linda and I will not see so many species of grouse.
Soon, most everyone is outside. Linda anxiously opens our car door, signaling our departure, but the leader, thinking we are going to view from the trailer, tells us to wait for one of the volunteers from Sisk-a-dee. Gunnison Sage-Grouse is the focus of Sisk-a-dee a local organization that works with state and federal agencies, private landholders and Gunnison’s Western State College. Volunteers oversee attendees at the Waunita site every morning from late March to 10 May. I tell the leader we are independent of any group just as a vehicle from Sisk-a-dee arrives. Linda and leave the motel parking lot and drive east through the darkness. There is no one on U.S. 50 for several minutes, then I see the headlights of three vehicles lighting a caravan a couple of miles behind us.
Snow and light rain spits at us all the way to Waunita Hot Springs Road and to the viewing area. We had already picked the spot we where we would park. It blocked the lower end of the enclosed area. We reasoned that the other vehicles carrying birders not using the trailer blind would enter the enclosure from the other end. However, after the group arrived, a Sisk-a-dee representative asked us to move back so vehicles could enter the end we were blocking. Who Knew? I carefully back up and reposition the birdmobile at a slight angle, the same angle as the trailer. The Sisk-a-dee vehicle parks behind us at the same angle, with the driver‘s side of our vehicles facing eastward. We must be doing something right. Three vehicles rush in so quickly I wonder if manners were forgotten. Headlights are extinguished and motors are shut off causing heaters to cease. We roll down the eastward windows to prevent the windows from fogging and everyone settles in for first light. Well, not everyone. People in the vehicle just off our left front fender, the one in such a hurry that practically cut us from the view, are, for the next 30 minutes looking for something. A flashlight beam pulsates back and forth almost in unison with faint muffled grumbling. Finally, there is silence and chilling darkness. We wait.
Everyone is supposed to be in position, with lights off, and no sounds except whispering one-hour before sunrise. Except for the vehicle nearest to us, everyone is following the rules, until headlights announce one more vehicle crunching up the road. In a few minutes, finally, there is again tranquility, the only sound being the steady twinkling of something landing on cars. The sound changes in pitch and sometimes in volume, depending, as we discover, whether the precipitation is sleet or snow. We keep most of the cold and showers out by draping a dark flannel blanket over the open windows that face the lek. As darkness slowly fades to subdued light, we realize that everything, including the road, is turning white. At least the wind is but a wispy breeze.
The real action is not the snowy weather. We hear a distant muted sound, which is probably a male grouse popping its yellow air sac. My hand-held scope, resting on the windowsill sticks out through the blanket. I constantly strain to see movement and wish for just a smidgen more light to travel down the barrel of the scope. Eventually we see something, which is a black speck on the white background. It seems to scoot rapidly from side to side or is it a speck of dust floating across our eyes? When whatever it is stops, it disappears, and then suddenly another joins it. The specks are in the valley, across the creek and near the fence below the ridge. Miraculously, the light breeze shifts just enough to remove the blanket and not have a snow bank forming around our laps. A pair of Mallards drifts out of nowhere and land in the creek below. Cold air wafts through the open windows and around our frigid selves, but the movement of the grouse out there warms us. Linda sees the dark specks with her binoculars. Time marches on, the lek area becomes more lit and I am able to make out the strange filoplumes arcing back in a black sweeping curve. I can now see the grouse puff up themselves as the males display their finery, their broad chests, and their eagerness to be king of the roost, to breed. The behavior is kind of lap dace in reverse. Linda, attempting to follow the rules of silence, engulfs a deep breath of delight. Bundled for the cold, she gladly accepts the scope while I continue to stare at my new species. Counting and recounting, I get seven males and one female. The lek continues to move back and forth along the distant fence until two ravens suddenly fly west from over the ridge. In a blink of an eye, the grouse jump into the air and fly toward the side of the ridge, disappearing in the brush that gives them their middle name.
Everyone shuffles out of their vehicles and out of the trailer after the departure of the grouse. I count at least seven vehicles, not including the van. One of the Sisk-a-dee representatives said there were eight males, but I am sticking to my count. If I’m wrong, why was that one bird so taken with a displaying male? I’m told that earlier in the year there were 50 in the lek, that the population dwindles as more and more males acquire females, that a coyote got at least one bird and some birds may have been Golden Eagle meals. The coyote story does not particularly vindicate our motel person in Campo, but certainly, these birds, which probably taste like the chicken they are, have it rough. No wonder, as Linda and I believe only ravens spooked the lek today.
Everyone appears happy, even the lek a day entourage, all but the driver of the vehicle next to us. Perhaps he never found what he searched for in the darkness. As for the rest of us, we found good cheer and the Gunnison Sage-Grouse.
Back at the motel, we enjoy a hearty breakfast and sleep until noon. The weather tomorrow is promising snow. We notch up our afternoon plans to visit Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and head west, downstream along U.S 50 along the Gunnison River. The river, once known as the Grand River, took the name Gunnison from a military explorer of the mid 1800’s. Compared to horse travel back in the lieutenant’s day, it takes us about an hour to reach the turn-off to the park. The land, 47 ¼ square miles, a National Monument in 1933, was upgraded to our 55th National Park in 1999. One-third of the canyon, originally 50 miles long, has been lost to dams, reminding me of the heart wrenching Hetch Hetchy tragedy of Yosemite. The drive along the north rim reveals stupendous vistas of black igneous rock walls plunging at the greatest depth to 2722 feet. It is a narrow canyon, 1100 feet at its narrowest, which offers potential views of Pinyon Jays should one or two grace our view. White-throated Swifts twitter overhead at a pull off where we hear the Gunnison River cascading through the rough canyon.
At High Point, the end of the road at 8,289 feet elevation, we park and begin hiking toward Warner Point. Not far on the trail, I decide to check out some bushes, thinking to flush a Dusky Grouse. No birds, but I hear what I am sure must be a Pinyon Jay; Linda needs it for her life list. Trekking further down the trail, I also think I will catch up with Linda, who must also be hot on the trail of the jay. She isn’t and an open stretch of the trail reveals Linda is nowhere to be found. I begin to panic. This is steep country and the sun is going down. Where is she? As fast as my legs and oxygen-taxed lungs would allow, I hoof it back toward the car, all the while yelling out “Linda.” Finally, I hear her yelling for me. She had likewise been in similar panic. Answering, I begin running, which is a surprise to me. At last, we see each other. We should have had a plan if we were going to separate, but didn’t and it scared the hell out of both us. It is a wonderful relief to be together, safe and warm and not at the bottom of Black Canyon.
Jayless and grouseless, it is late dusk when we hit U.S. 50. Snow begins to blow. By dark, the flakes are thick and heading almost straight into the windshield, and the few oncoming vehicles blind us with their headlights reflecting the dense flurry. The highway becomes disguised with white, sometimes slushy, sometimes not, and is increasingly difficult to see as we creep slowly back to our motel in Gunnison. Our long day today is complete, with pleasurable highs and scary lows. It ends inside, away from the storm, with a warm shower and clean sheets, together.