Milestone 700, ch 30, Reckon to Fixin to Commence

Reckon to Fixin to Commence

An employee at Smithsonian frequently stated that he was fixing (he actually pronounced the word as “fixin”) to do something, that he was “fixin to commence” an action. In all fairness, this person cannot be named for grammatical reasons. Some of the institutions’ colleagues wondered about “fixin,” but concluded the term meant some sort of process resolving thought that is required before carrying out the actual job at hand. Of course, we all think before performing a task and may ask questions such as how, when, where, etc. However, we usually do not announce those millisecond thoughts aloud and most would not name such a process as “fixin.”

We do not offer our opinion about everything either. The same subject person usually also announced he “reckons” that he is fixin to commence an action. In fact, he reckoned about most things. Perhaps it was helpful that people knew when the unnamed employee was about to do something, that he clearly announced he reckons to perform an action or thought. It certainly was entertaining to receive such warnings, and I have to admit that my early childhood embraced “reckon” as accepted prepubescent vocabulary. Being young, I could not be sure of many things I confronted, so I used “reckon” to mean an opinion, which could be a definite pronouncement or a guess, such as the phrase, “I reckon so.” As a young Danny McSkunk, I also was fluent in using reckon, just as my Smithsonian colleague, to mean a kind of warning, such as I reckon the dog will bark. Moving to Oregon at an early age broke me from using reckon due to another “r” word, ridicule.

My early years did allow some appreciation of the colleague’s speech. Others were less understanding, but the depth of any sniggering was closely related to point of origin. My point of origin happened to be closer geographically and linguistically to the person flixin than it was for others of the institution. That location, mine, but not since age eight, was not just my prebirder home, it was home to several very astute people including the Clinton’s to name but a few. Just as many species of birds, humans, even those working with birds, have dialects. Some are just more surprising and amusing than others, and eventually, the announcement of “I reckon I will be fixin” became part of the color of the behind the scenes of good work carried out in the Division of Birds. In my judgment, reckon ought to be a more common word. No one can be 100% sure of everything. It would otherwise be a boring life. And, is it appropriate to advise people when you are about to take action. The answer, I reckon, is yes, or at least often. Perhaps “fixin” is not the appropriate word, but not everyone will reckon to the same vocabulary.

The importance, in my opinion, of beginning to start plans for where to go birding in 2013 offered plenty of reasons for “fixin to commence.” The time to go to Alaska would not be years, it would be but months from now. Before the boreal journey could, well commence, this correspondent experienced somewhat a self-imposed lackluster record of birding since the fall of 2012, but with promises of grander things to come. As always, my ABA list had a plethora of species needing my eyes and Alaska waits a thorough checking. The year 2013 may be the year to tip the scales, to get closer to 700 species before age 70. This is, by all reckoning, most definitely a time for fixin to commence, but I am getting ahead of the story.


November 2012 to April 2013

Birding has been slow since the horribly tantalizing gray area of what must have been a Gray-tailed Tattler last August. Of course, my notebook of observations contains five new ABA species during October while on the pelagic trip out of San Diego, but otherwise there were only the usual suspects to list. The tattler experience on the Oregon coast still haunts me, leaving me not in the pink and still seeing a little red about lack of any hard evidence that might make some green with envy. However, it is time to move on and dream of finding that tattler someday when I might record its call and photograph its plumage. Perhaps that will be on some familiar coast or maybe Seward Peninsula this coming May.

Progress to add a new ABA species became bad enough for any employer to put me out to pasture. It is a good thing going for 700 is not a real job. When I detect new wrinkles creeping up on my face, notice that the back of my hands are all too similar to those of my late grandfathers and realize the skin around my neck is beginning to be loose enough to be confused with a male turkey, I have to wonder if I will make the 700 number. Having to turn in my binocs and drummed out of birdingdom would hurt. Besides, my failure to find any reportable birds is not from lack of desire.

There just are not any birds to prop up my ABA list that are within striking range, that is, about one tank of gas from home. Perhaps I should get a bigger gas tank since probably the most singular missed bird, a Citrine Wagtail, had an extended visit on Vancouver Island, a location just beyond my horizon. Discovered on 14 November, the wagtail continued to cooperate with birders streaming in from across the country until mid-January. Why? It is only the second North American record of the species and a birder knows it may not happen again in their lifetime. The only other showing of a Citrine Wagtail in ABA land was in Mississippi for a couple of winter days in 1992. The British Columbia bird, an immature seems in no hurry to correct its winter location, which would be southern Asia; it breeds in north-central Asia. The wagtail was not the only rarity tantalizingly close to home and horribly too far for a day trip. A Red-flanked Bluetail set up territory for part of the winter in Vancouver, B.C. Holy Old World vagrants! I wonder if this is the same bluetail seen on a closed military property in California last year. I wonder how many vagrants are out there, waiting to be discovered, and perhaps thinking of coming closer than a tank of gas.

What is going on with Palearctic birds wintering in the Nearctic? In addition to the wagtail, the bluetail, the earlier Common Cuckoo, Northern Wheatear, and, of course, my tattler, there are a smattering of Barnacle and Pink-footed Geese and Northern Lapwing in eastern North America. What next and will the next species be approachable by the birdmobile?

Some might make the accusation that my failure to chase the Citrine Wagtail and bluetail equates to me not taking seriously as someone thinking they might see 700 species by age 70. Maybe so. Not having disposable income to travel beyond my usual chase zone is a little painful. However, not all birders incomes are equal. Various studies indicate the average birder income is above the national average. However, about 30% of the birders earn less than the average and of the enthusiastic birders, those nuts like me, include many who earn below the national average. In fact, after subtracting taxes and steadily rising and exorbitant health insurance premiums, I end up with about the same amount of monthly income received when I retired nearly 17 years ago.

Many of the small percent enthusiastic birders above that national income level are duking it out for who can see the most ABA birds. Those contenders have racked up 850 or more species. Besides money, they have the time. Well, that is not completely true. A long-time colleague, presently retired from the government, admitted he would not see the number of ABA species of others running in the 800 category for lack of funds. This person is an excellent birder and an example, despite popular belief, that government employees and retirees are on economic parity with those from the private sector. They are not. My colleague of yester year has the time, but not lots of money.

According to one old study, birders annually spend $1500 to $3500 just for transportation. Getting there and back home probably costs at least a $1000 above the old figures, and if including Alaska, pretty well confines one to searching for Rusty Blackbirds on an Alaskan airport tarmac. Besides increasing transportations costs, rising costs for lodging, food, miscellaneous fees and other fiscal subtractions continually empty a hopeful birder’s pocket.

Before any birder thinks seriously of traveling to some great birding locality, there are other non-birds matters to attend that are well beyond day-to-day lodging, be it rent or a mortgage, rising fuel costs that continue to drive up food and other living expenditures. A birder’s budget sometimes asks for funds beyond the expected bills, such as dental work, tree trimming, prescriptions, new tires, and more. Sure, dental insurance helps, but few that it, and thankfully, health insurance premiums mostly keep the doctor and pharmacy out of our pockets and provide better chances to chase birds into older age. There are no free lunches and birds are sometimes costly. Budgeting for birds is a given, but we should not have to use fewer toilet paper squares, read in the dark or some combination thereof. Somehow, we birders need to save for a good trip or two before reaching the stage of life when the only time you need to pee is when you can’t. Linda and I have a budget this year that includes a trip to Alaska, and this most costly destination required trimming the itinerary and wish lists to stay out of debt and enjoy new scenery, new birds and have time to feel the country. It is time to get ready, get set, and in a few months, go.

Meanwhile, Linda said, “I bet that wagtail is driving you crazy.” I said I was not letting it. Instead of practicing as an angry birder, my thoughts are about Alaska’s new birds and consideration to the fact we will need plenty of funds. Our funds must be guarded from the urge to chase rarities. I calculate that driving to see the wagtail would eat over $200 for gasoline. Actually, the trip would drink several gallons of pricy gasoline. The travel distance, nearly 670 miles one way, would require breaking up the time with overnights and a bite or two, which would increase the trip to around $500. Of course, I could and should swing by for the Red-flanked Bluetail and check off Skylark to boot since the threesome are within about 4 hours or so between each other. That would require yet more gas and probably another motel night. Why be an angry birder? How about being an optimistic birder? Perhaps the wagtail or the bluetail will decide to travel south and sit down within easy reach. Of course, that is unlikely, but Alaska is the present goal, with wayward wagtails in the wind. To add to the frustration, another mega rarity winters to the south. As if on cue, in December, a Nutting’s Flycatcher in Arizona causes me to break any belief that I had last year of buzzing down to the Southwest for such a bird. Oh well, there is always next year. Not all is bad. A Red-naped Sapsucker made it over the snow-covered Cascades to visit my home county, reminding me that years ago I documented the distribution of what were then subspecies of Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Specimens cited in my published paper demonstrated limited hybridization, not the gradual blending of characters expected of adjacent subspecies. The moisture behind my ears was still drying and I followed the status quo, miscalling my subjects subspecies. Only a few years later, the AOU and ABA had three vs. one species. Another, not too shabby bird, a female Indigo Bunting found a bird feeder a few miles from my headquarters. The feeder is at a retirement home—I observe the bunting, ignore its location, and keep my ears to the ground and eyes wide open for who knows what might grace my slowly growing ABA list. For example, there were multiple sightings of Common Redpolls in the mountains to the south, but chasing a potential lifer seems silly since they are common in Alaska. A Rusty Blackbird spent days on end foraging with a flock of mixed blackbirds only 15 minutes from home. Although familiar from birding back east, a Rusty Blackbird would help Linda’s list, but, again, we will surely see them in Alaska. Of course, sightings of boreal species signal the possible occurrence of other species this far south. Maybe a Brambling will show up at the home feeder.

One of many wintering Golden-crowned Sparrow, a species we look forward to seeing on its breeding grounds.


One bird at the home bird feeder is Golden-crowned Sparrow, a species we look forward to seeing in the boreal nesting grounds. In the meantime, the annual ascent to the top of Upper Table Rock during the Medford Christmas Count again reveals the usual suspects. In weeks, willow shows life and readiness for coming spring.

From Upper Table Rock looking into part of the Rogue River Valley. 
Willows show color.  Spring is soon to come.

March, with its dreadful ides and welcoming first day of spring, is time to begin getting more serious about Alaska. It is time to double-check the estimated expenditures and the amount in the savings account. So far, so good, but is there some negative situation down the line? We have cancelled going to Alaska so many times that believing we are going will register only once on the ferry and heading up the Inside Passage. Linda tells friends that this is our year to see Alaska since we have postponed going north for two years. That is an optimistic reading of our history, since my notes suggest serious planning began in 2008. We even purchased that year’s Milepost, but we did not go. In 2009, Alaska was briefly on the radar, but I went to Arizona as consolation of not going north that year. The years 2010 and 2011 zipped past, with southern jaunts to Texas and Colorado and important surgery to my lovely bride’s lumbar region. Files for 2012 include an updated budget and wish list, but too much was going on to travel. Finally, in October of 2012, we made reservation for the birdmobile and us to be ferried from Bellingham, Washington, to Haines, Alaska in 2013. We had made the similar reservation a couple of years ago and had to cancel. This new reservation, written on calendars and notes, is still in place. The last day to cancel and not lose money is 3 May, 14 days before our departure. By the first day of spring, we remain steadfast to our plan.



Because I had contacted Dan Gibson during past years of failed plans to journey to Alaska, I hesitate writing him that 2013 is the year of going north. Would it be bad luck to announce our intentions? Dan, who, with Brina Kessel, was the principle ornithologist at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. Dan has added more species to the checklist of North America than any person in modern times. We have known each other since the 1970s when we met at my museum. He also sent specimens for verifying identifications, not that they really needed it owing to his expertise in matters ornithological. After retirement, we met at a Western Field Ornithologists meeting in Kerrville, California, which is up the Kern River east of Bakersfield, introduced me to the intrepid Steve Howell and where I birded with Kimball Garret and more briefly with Jon Dunn. A few years later, Dan and his wife Jennifer visited Linda and I at our cabin near the end of the grid in the northern part of my home county in Oregon. Later, Dan, with Kevin Winker in tow, stopped by for a visit when Linda and I lived in southern Oregon’s historic Jacksonville. Since then, Dan sends me occasional manuscripts to referee for the journal Western Birds. With the realization that in two months Linda and I will be somewhere between Tok and Anchorage, AK, putting off announcing our intentions would be irresponsible. We have to announce that we are fixin to go north.

After all the promises of visiting on his home turf, I did write Dan that our monetary and time budget would not stand for including Denali National Park and Fairbanks. Nonetheless, Dan replied to my hesitant email with his usual enthusiasm, with promises of addressing some specific questions such as any information on Wales and where we might find a nesting Boreal Owl. Dan wrote that I should contact Bob Dickerman as he would be in Nome this year. Bob, a fellow taxonomist and an avid collector who knows the value of bird specimens and a prolific writer, is another person well-known for decades. Our last contact was a few years ago when Dan called me from the Oregon coast and after a brief conversation put Bob on the phone. Bob and I talked for numerous minutes, which resulted in a memorable conversation and my outer ear aching. At Dan’s suggestion, I emailed Bob, who replied, lamenting with a damn it that our schedules in Nome did not overlap. He, his son and a couple of graduate students will be collecting in the Nome region.

In the meantime, Linda and I must collect necessary medical prescriptions. Although neither Linda nor I worry about blood pressure or some other life threatening disease, having our prescriptions is no small deal. Anyone traveling, and who must swallow prescription medicine, probably has to run the gauntlet of doctor, prescription fill dates and pharmacies before heading away from home. In our case, regardless of due date, we must have the doctor write scripts for 90 days with the comment on the script that the due date is being ignored for reasons of an extended trip or vacation. Of course, that means having to make an appointment to have audience with the doctor who writes the scripts. Maybe some lucky birders only have to pick up the phone to nudge the doctor to write the scripts. However, we made the appointments and paid the exorbitant office visit fees for the doctor? Enough said, so then, since our clinic cannot seem to get the twentieth century concept of faxing our request for meds to the mail order pharmacy, we must then send in the paperwork ourselves. That is what we did, but for some reason, our mail order company did not get our requests as soon as we thought or they were slow in opening their mail. Following several days of anguish, we called. No, they had not received our envelope. A couple of days later we received a cryptic email suggesting the mail order pharmacy may have received our envelope, but to get a clear answer, we had to call. Yes, the scripts were filled and would be mailed soon. What is the worry? The process, from communication with our doctor to actually finding the plastic bag of prescriptions stuffed in our mailbox took almost three weeks. What if we began the process sometime in mid-April, only about three weeks before our departure, and, what if there had been a snafu somewhere along the chain of pill people causing not a three-week process, but a four-week process. Perhaps a prescription is needed to abate the stress from all this.

Planning a trip obviously requires thinking beyond how many socks are going with us or wondering if the toothpaste tube has enough paste for a fresh breath leaving and returning home. Expert traveler Rick Steves, informing us on our local PBS station, packs the same number of pants, socks; you name it, whether he is traveling one week or more. Can we do that and still avoid going to a laundromat twice a week? I hope so, especially on the Seward Peninsula and other remote localities along our adventure to Alaska and northwestern Canada. One thing for sure, we have our prescriptions in order, our passports current and the latest edition of the Geographic field guide.

My birthday commemorating the beginning of my 69th year, which is a month before departing home, became the time to rotate the tires and being bored almost to sleep by the tire shops magazines consisting of periodicals on automobiles, hunting and a group of entertainment weeklies on who wore what or who wed and divorced who wearing what. Nestled among the literary collection was a Good House Keeping. Sitting there in the smell of new tires, the whining pitch of pneumatic tools spinning lug nuts on and off a bevy of cued vehicles in the dozen or so service bays lulled me to near sleep. In the dimness, somebody yelled my name. The birdmobile is ready. At last I could escape and get back home.


early April to early May 2013

As a respite from things I should be doing, I check the Wales webcam, which was down so I check the radar, but nothing but a message came up. It read “The Wales radar is currently down due to critical equipment failure. We will not be able to repair the system for some time.” Not only might it be possible to check if any migrants are being picked up on the radar, but no one will detect anything from North Korea that is posturing to send an armed rocket our way.

Nine days later, war has not ensued, but a battle of the mind to determine particular food items between and from Canada and the U.S. takes its toll. A principal question concerns chicken. Yes, as a retired ornithologist and avid birder, I do eggs for breakfast and anything with chicken is frequently on the menu. Some might suggest my mantra is if you cannot see them, at least eat them. Over the years Linda and I consumed fresh, frozen and commercially canned chicken. It is low in fat and high in protein. Canned chicken is portable, which puts it high on a list of birding food. During trips, our birdmobile often has a few cans bouncing around in a cardboard filing box we affectionately call the food box. State to state travel presents no problems. California could care less if you have canned chicken in your vehicle as you cross the border from Oregon or any other state. However, the official website, or one of them, strongly hints that transporting meat of any kind across the border into Canada, whether for personal use or not, may be a problem. A call to APHIS, part of the Department of Agriculture, got the reply that it was ok to transport American born chicken from Canada to the U.S. The person on the phone added that they were not sure what the customs agent would do. Another phone call to Alaska did not help. I explained we would be travelling from Alaska, enter British Columbia north of Haines and enter Alaska again via travel from Haines Junction, Yukon. The U.S. person on the other end of the phone line asked if we would be opening any cans of chicken while in Canada. Hmm? Since the route from Haines to the Alaska border with Yukon is a good eight hour drive, I hazard we might get hungry for chicken. Oh well. Finally, I went to the end of the food chain, the people who actually do the inspections, the border agents. Just to be sure, I called two different agents. Both agents pronounced chicken could cross the border. Thankfully, no one asked why any chicken would cross a border. Determining the possibility of chicken entering Canada from the U.S. was more straightforward. Chicken wins.

The web includes testimonials from some travelers claiming that it was impossible to transport beef jerky from Canada to the U.S. A few wrote they were certain the border agents were hungry. Maybe, but today, at least, agents say it is ok to bring beef jerky across the line. Beef jerky wins, but regardless I was told that we should have a list of all the food were transporting, including the crackers, peanut butter, a can or two of spinach, beans, apples, I am not sure. Things must have changed since we last crossed the northern border. That was back in 2006. A lot of new rules must have been fancied by people well above my pay grade since I recall seeing recreational vehicles bigger than my house cross the border following only a five-minute conversation with a border agent.

Bringing food across the border was not a problem back in 2006 when on our way into Alberta and dreams of a Connecticut Warbler, Banff National Park and maybe a few boreal birds. Ready access to food is not only convenient, it is necessary in remote areas that typically lack culinary delights. My blood sugar has a way of dropping uncomfortably, and my doc told me I should regulate that with a good protein when needed. So, we will have food on the pending trip, which will enhance our travels as well as help our budget. Besides the canned chicken, we will have a supply of beans, spinach to replace the routine green salad at home, a cracker or two for an ample reserve of peanut butter, a box of high fiber cereal and several tins of sardines. Linda does not care for sardines but promises to learn to like them.

Being away from home will also save a few bucks here and there. Our consumption of electricity will go down to almost nothing. There will be some watts going to the hot water tank, which we could turn off, but then we would forget, come home and wonder where the hot water went. No need to maintain an optimum temperature so the air conditioner will remain dormant. In addition, speaking of high fiber cereal, we will not be buying toilet paper. Of course, we actually will, at least at the motels. My daughter, now a PhD in education, once announced as a child staying in a motel, that there was free ice. We all know better, but it is fun to think that, wow, there is free toilet paper.

While contemplating the benefits of motel living, the Red-flanked Bluetail disappears from New Minister, B.C on 26 March, negating any hope it would be there for a quick run across the border from Bellingham. This departure was no surprise, but viewing it on the cusp of going to Alaska would have been a great story.

Two days before our departure, the birdmobile is almost packed. There are the usual two suitcases. Each will, based on history, contain several items we will not wear. Any food that requires refrigeration will be limited to 10 X 7 X 9 inch cooler stashed just inside the left back door. Beside the cooler is a plastic jar with a screw-top lid. Inside will be small packets of mayonnaise, hermetically sealed and ready to mix with all that canned chicken. There are no secrets for the border agents to divine. A cardboard box containing a quart-size blender stands next to the mayonnaise jar. Behind the cooler, the jar and the blender is a file box containing a few food items, some in cans, some dry. A plastic box contains can after can of chicken, along with some tuna and my second personal favorite, sardines. The box is to the right of the cooler and in front of the mayo. On the floor, behind the driver seat is another plastic container full of fast cooking and pre-seasoned packets of noodles and rice that, once cooked, make a great meal, especially when one of those cans of chicken is added to the mix. Underneath the driver seat is a single burner electric stove in the event a microwave is not available to cook our chicken dinner. Another plastic container holds additional canned goods, including spinach and green beans. Multiple plastic pantries and the file box, aka, the food box, left little room for other bags containing items to keep us clean, healthy and not looking beyond unkempt. Also, knowing we would be experiencing cold and or wet weather, we pack our rain gear and heavy winter coats. Adding to all this are binocs, scope, tripod, extra batteries, maybe 32 ounces of water, snacks including the jerky and other items too numerous to mention. Field guides and a journal fill the front door nooks. Sun block and mosquito be-gone occupy most remaining spaces.

Of course, information on where we are going is handily in position to the left of the console. The 2013 Milepost sits ready for easy consultation. A slim blue binder is at the ready. It contains maps carefully sliced from that old 2008 Milepost. Comparison of the maps between the older and newer edition reveal little change and the older maps, now in clear plastic document holders showing our route. Next to the “map book” is a larger and darker blue binder highlighting birding locations and target birds extracted from West’s bird finding guide covering Alaska and northern Canada. Each entry refers to page numbers in West for more detail. The West sits horizontally on the sliding lid of the console. The contents of the console range from scissors to flagging tape, peanuts, an extra headlamp and probably a can of chicken.

At this eleventh-hour, I try to tape calls played over a loudspeaker from the Cornell site, but warbler songs are too high in frequency for the recorder to make adequate playbacks. I give up following a session on the computer, searching for “how to transfer computer audio to a tape recorder.” It seems it is possible, but requires more wire than I have collected during my years in quest of realistic music from a stereo. Having soaked in hours at the Kennedy Center and similar venues, absorbing music under the baton of Rostipovich, Leanard Bernstein and other conductors and under the fingers of Ruth Laredo and many additional soloist, I can attest that no amount of money can buy electronic devices that will produce the wonders heard listening to a live performance. Similarly, a bird in the wild is not comparable to an audio and video version on the home television. Not having recordings of birds diminishes our chances to see our targeted Magnolia, Cap May, Blackburnian and Connecticut Warblers and sought after LeConte’s and Nelson’s Sparrows. With all the preparation, the fixing to commence to go to Alaska or any new location might benefit from new technology now used to coax birds closer as they check the source of their song played on a smart phone. Perhaps someday, but in the meantime, the only thing to do is to wing it.

Dan Gibson and I set up a phone call to talk about birding in Alaska and ended up talking 46 minutes. He said we may be too early for Arctic Warbler and Bluethroat, put me onto someone else for finding Boreal Owl, and at the time of our talk (30 April) there was 3 inches of new snow with more coming down near Fairbanks. I watched the NARBA list go up and down between about 22 to 25 rare ABA species. By early May, the place to be is Florida with about five species worth salivating. You cannot get any further away from Alaska than Florida and be able to count ABA birds.

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