Birding by RV, ch 6, Northward to Smithsonian Revisited

Northward to Smithsonian Revisited

29 April to 5 May 2015

From Homestead, our route is north toward Okeechobee and crafted to skirt carefully the more crowded coastal byways that merge along the coast from Miami northward. Exploring where the megalopolis ends is not our goal. We hope to drive far enough north to avoid the congestion before turning east to coastal Fort Pierce.  Lyle Hubbard and family, who I met in Michigan in 1962 during my big trip, invited me to spend the Christmas holidays that same year in their Fort Pierce home.  A pang of remorse accompanies my wish to thank long since passed Lyle for all the birds he showed me. In December 1962 and early January 1963, I birded Ft. Pierce and vicinity, including Hutchinson Island and the Savannas Preserve. Our destination today is Savannas County Park located south of town. I strain to recognize any part of the city once so familiar, but my view is startling.  I expect change, but the magnitude of growth and, I suppose lack of total recall, renders the view almost unrecognizable.

Savannas County Park was created in the 1960s.  Our camping spot is at the edge of a marsh where signs warn not to feed the alligators probably also mean caution while walking the banks.  At least one pair of Sandhill Cranes nest nearby.  We periodically hear them trumpet when one adult trades nest-sitting duties.  Brown and white subadult White Ibis and the pair of cranes forage around a pool created from a recent rain.

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Great Blue Heron.  Is it and Great White Heron the same species?

 

While waiting for a washing machine to complete its last spin, we discover a retiree-aged camper feeding the cranes.  Although Linda and I implore the camper to not feed the cranes since wild birds should not be habituated to human feeding, that they become unafraid of people who might lead to their demise, that they may eat handouts instead of tending their nesting behavior, and tell her the cranes might poke your eye out if not fed or they might attack humans, especially children. After all, the cranes are tall and eye-level to most adults. Unfortunately, our persuasions fall on deaf ears.  The crane feeder counters our reasoning with illogical excuses such as the camper cannot stand to see birds go hungry.  This is stupidity beyond even a child.

Member of pair nesting nearby           Another pair and offspring

Nights are full of calling birds, of frogs croaking and creaking and of alligators grunting.  Occasionally, a Limpkin cries out and for a quick moment, all is quiet before the marsh sounds again fill the moonlit night.  Our love flourishes from the soothing sounds of nature. By day, we observe a nearly fledged family of Loggerhead Shrikes, hear and then see Chimney Swifts fluttering overhead, find Common Gallinule chicks, White Ibis, Black Duck, three species of herons and discover King Rail, a new species for Linda. What a delightful place.

Watching for alligators                 Rainpool with White Ibis and crane

During our stay at Savannas County Park, I entertained an attempt to bird some of the places I enjoyed with Lyle Hubbard five-and-a-half decades ago. Fort Pierce, where I then spent the winter holidays, was then host to about 25,000 people and has grown to over 42,000. The greater congestion made it easy to decide to stay in the park to enjoy the tranquility just out our back door.

7 May 2015

Promises to visit friends to the north nudge us forward.  It is time to leave Florida, with its wonderful birds, its good and bad times of unpleasant weather and traffic, and think of days to come.  Our last night was one of those good times.  Much like those days of the early miles in Florida in 1962, we park behind a service station.  It is peaceful, free and our last night in the state.  In the morning, I carefully check the generator of the RV, and am more than careful not to spill a drop of oil at this BP gas station parking area.

We pass sites where birding brought me my first Painted Bunting at Allan Cruickshank’s house near Rockledge and Mottled Duck and Black Rail on Merritt Island. I found my first Wilson’s Plover at Cape Canaveral. Continuing to bear north today, Linda and I travel I-95 past the exit to Daytona Beach, where, in recent winters, birders report Iceland Gull. I carefully check my decades old notes to determine whether I might have listed a large gull with white primary tips. My onlylisted large white-headed gull is Herring Gull.

Our only sighting of the Atlantic Ocean this day is a quick view we squeeze in at Flagler Beach, a place I visited in late November 1962.  I recall a deserted beach since it was an inhospitable day of rough weather, but today, sun lights reddish-brown sands crowded with people.  This is not the same Flagler Beach of 1962.  Finding a place to park takes a while, but we stop long enough to smell the ocean and notice that the surf is up.

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Flagler Beach

 

Moving north, we drive through the Jacksonville region and soon are about to cross the border into Georgia.  I entered Florida from Georgia in 1962.  Today, travel is in the opposite direction and this time on interstate highways that did not exist here 50 plus years ago.  The last bird of importance to my ABA list is Jungle Fowl, the same species of chicken (Gallus gallus) seen when entering Florida this April.  The last bird today before leaving Florida is a Black Vulture.  The first bird in Georgia is a Turkey Vulture, the more northern species.

What have I learned during the nearly 10 years chasing down 100 species to reach 700?  Probably the most important take-home message is something always on my mind:  birding is fun.  I also realize even more now that the more species of birds on your list, the more difficult it becomes to add new species.  Further, adding a new species to Linda’s life list is nearly and sometimes more pleasurable than adding new birds to my list.  It takes planning and luck to find certain species.  And, the last important lesson, the vultures at the border crossing when leaving Florida cements the fact that the further north you go, the fewer southern birds you see.

Now that the goal of 700 is history, a question comes to mind.  What next?  It could be seeking 800 species.  Yes, finding more species to achieve that rarefied number of 800 ABA birds might be something to aim for.  Now, at 71, it seems reasonable to set a time, say 800 species by age 80.  I have a good start, with 11 species beyond the 700 mark and about 20 species on my escrow list equates to only 69 species to go.  Granted, not all those birds on the escrow list may ever be countable. That will depend on taxonomic studies and how the AOU Check-list Committee votes. So far, voting results reveal a relatively conservative committee. Maybe I should be less concerned about species limits and perception of taxonomic studies. Perhaps I should retire, not from birds, but at least from the passion to chase new species.  Maybe I could chase the species I have seen, but are missing on Linda’s list.  The future, anyway perceived, will be exciting.

8-9 May 2015

We restock the RV with canned goods and perishables. Our usual canned chicken goes in the cabinet with a couple of cans of green beans to take place of the salad mix once it runs out. We sometimes sprinkle chicken into a salad or other dish or mix it with mayonnaise for a sandwich. Apples, oranges, strawberries, potatoes, and other fresh vegetables go into the refrigerator along with a half-gallon of 2% milk. Frozen dinners crowd the freezer. Eggs and bread occupy a shelf along with margarine, while yogurt sits another shelf and catsup and cheese are usual occupants of the refrigerator door.

Over the months, my belt has required tightening to the point it is at the last hole, the one I used when I bought it at a store in Montana while attending an AOU meeting in the early 1990’s. Somehow, I had lost weight, even with an occasional fast-food hamburger. I am eating less than before going on the road, but hunger is not a problem. Sure, peanut butter and jerky are handy for regular munching to keep up blood sugar and maintain protein levels. Part of the weight loss may be the result of exercise while attending regular chores of keeping the house on wheels in order. Checking the oil level of the generator requires squatting down to about two feet off the ground. Actually, that is pretty much it. There really are few physical movements to keep the RV happy. Perhaps, going up and down the two or three steps from the back door helped the trimming.

Shedding about 20 pounds was perfect. Linda, who was already more trim than my earlier self, also lost weight. So, what is the contributor to our healthier bodies? We realize that people sometimes eat more because of boredom. Certainly, food is available, but boredom is not an issue. Linda and I believe the principal reason for our weight loss is regular exercise through hiking and lowering our level of stress.

The strong wind blowing at Flagler Beach in Florida is the prelude to a growing problem named Tropical Storm Ana. It is making itself known from warming temperatures and wind. Any possibility to spend time on the coast near Jacksonville, Florida, is drowned by periodic torrents of rain. While north of Savannah, Georgia, we decide against our plans to travel northward on highways close to the shore of the Atlantic.

Our inland route brings us to Pink Hill, North Carolina, where, with directions to a campground app on our smart phone, we spend the night at Cabin Lake County Park. Almost a half-inch of rain fell. The wind was mild compared toward the coast where, on 8 May, winds peaked to 60 mph. Tropical Storm Ana is the earliest such storm since 2003. Wind and water surges cause minor flooding and erosion, kills at least two people and inflicts some property damage. We regret not birding the Atlantic coast, but are glad we decided to travel the interior roads.

10-12 May 2015

Tropical Storm Ana comes ashore on the northern coast of South Carolina, but we are safe and sound in the town of Greenville, North Carolina, where we hear House Finches singing. The raspberry colored birds are the first since observing western House Finches. When at the museum, the late John Aldrich determined that House Finches in the eastern US are taxonomically similar to House Finches in the more arid sections of the northwestern part of the range of the species. For inquiring minds, that means they answer to the name Carpodacus mexicanus frontalis, the northern subspecies in the east and west.   Having opportunity to look over the authors shoulder from time to time, I certainly agree that the two populations are morphologically similar. However, to my ear, the song of House Finches in Greenville, especially the ending phrase of the song, sound different from western House Finches. My ability identifying vocalizations of birds is not wonderful, but published studies on the net report differences in eastern and western populations of House Finch. This is not to say that the two populations are separate species. Song in passerines is a learned behavior. However, something evolutionary may be going on with these finches and considering House Finches were known in the east since only 1940, whatever is happening appears to be doing so at warp speed. Maybe the change is only their ability to compose their own song. Whatever is going will take many more generations of House Finches and many more generations of ourselves before the question of speciation is answerable.

Rain did not fall during our last night in Greenville.

13-14 May 2015

Dick Banks, my mentor, friend and colleague at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History is expecting us this month. We had told Dick we would arrive at his Alexandria, Virginia, home on 15 May. Doing so requires a leisurely departure from North Carolina, and a couple of nights before arriving in the hubbub of the Washington, D.C. region. A night at a Wal-Mart parking lot in Emporia, Virginia, is reason to celebrate. Nineteen years have passed since we set foot in Virginia.

Back on I-95, we speed north toward Petersburg. In 1962, my first introduction to southern attitudes by a staff member at Petersburg National Battlefield came as a shock. My curiosity about the Civil War was strictly historical. It was not to relive any cultural bitterness or love for Jim Crow, but what that individual related to a small attending audience did not agree with my idea of how people should behave. Thankfully, today, there are fewer people holding onto their unfortunate attitudes.  At least, that is our wish.

We elect a couple of nights in Pocahontas State Park located about 20 miles southwest of Richmond. Directions send us away from the steady hum of the interstate to rural country in Chesterfield County. I wonder if the name of the county was the namesake for a brand of cigarettes manufactured in the tobacco country of Virginia. It probably is the origin of the name, but what is the etymology of other cancer sticks? Is it a nearby location? Is it a humped pack animal?  Tobacco production is not the big deal it was 50 years ago and even the most ardent cigarette monger knows that tobacco sales pale to health related expenditure for those unfortunate users of the toxic plant. I quit smoking about 25 years ago. So far, so good.

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One of many trails in Pocahontas State Park in Virginia

Pocahontas State Park was recipient of the good work of the CCC, that wonderful historical organization that would probably fit into the fabric of the country today. The legendary organization built roads, trails, buildings, picnic tables and more. Originally administered by the National Park Service, the park was donated to Virginia in 1946 and it now encompasses 7,925 acres and two lakes. Virginia’s largest state park is forested with more trees than we can identify. There are species of beech, elm and oaks, all with shiny new leaves. Tall straight tulip trees remind me of an Arlington back yard owned decades ago.

Birding is good. During 14 April, we find six species of warbler, including a Louisiana Waterthrush. Acadian and Willow flycatchers are off the trail. The Willow reminds me of a taxonomic study I long ago conducted at the museum. The single Acadian Flycatcher is singing as if territorial, but when I try to relocate it for Linda, it is gone. Perhaps it is a migrant. A male Summer Tanager perches nonchalantly near our campsite.

15-26 May 2015

Careful to avoid morning rush hour in the vicinity of Richmond, we depart from Pocahontas State Park in the middle of the morning. We continue our route on I-95 and navigate through Richmond to Fredericksburg, a once familiar city where my daughter once lived. I regularly drove from Arlington, picked her up in Fredericksburg on Saturday, drove back to Arlington and returned her on Sunday. Her once quaint address has grown beyond being a burg.

It is, or was, a one-hour drive from Fredericksburg to Arlington. Of course, that was when the traffic moved without interruption, which it often did not. Today, there seems to be an extra lane for travel. We are moving at a reasonable pace, but where are we. I struggle to recognize the landscape. Nothing is similar to what it was when Linda and I drove the region 20 years ago.

Entering the Washington, DC, metropolitan area is daunting for several reasons. First, where does the area start? Only about two decades ago, there seemed to be a break between Fredericksburg and the beltway, I-495, the interstate encircling Washington, DC.  What was once rural is no longer.  Again, the scene is foreign. More and taller buildings are in all directions. Second, or is it third, I-95 no longer goes into Washington; it joins the eastern side of the beltway. The interstate going into Washington now has the number 395. The southern junction of 95, 395 and 495 occurs at the site residents formerly shuttered when uttering the name Mixing Bowl. It was a difficult and dangerous junction, but today, we sail through the site easily. Luckily, Linda’s navigation, being in the right lane to start with and cooperating traffic help us travel in the correct direction. Our route, I-395, formerly I-95, is only vaguely familiar despite having traveled it hundreds of time while once residing in Arlington.

Locations of hills and valleys are the basic clues to help identify our location somewhere between the Mixing Bowl and the exit we need to find Dick’s home. How could so much change occur in such a short time? The population of the Washington metropolitan area, defined, I think as the District and surrounding counties of Maryland and Virginia was a little over 3 million in 1970 and was about 4.4 million in 1995. Over a million more people moved in by 2009. Growth continues, but sources, such as the venerable Washington Post, reports fluctuations and even population loss in response to changing economies. Still, on average, more and more people pour into the region.  One-source reports 2 million more will occupy the region by 2030.

Alexandria, our target real estate, shares a boundary with Arlington, where I lived in five different apartments and two separate houses during my career at the museum. According to statistics, which of course are always correct, an average American moves 11.4 times during their life. I am not sure about that .4, which may refer to involuntary moves caused by fires or angry spouses. Being average is no fun, so, after leaving Arlington, Linda and I moved four times since 1996. That puts the number of moves to 11. However, I moved or was moved at least 10 times while a preadult. I have moved 21 times during my life time and Linda has that number and many more changes of addresses. Moreover, since October last year, we have been moving numerous times a month in our RV. In addition, today, we are moving again, first in the edge of Arlington before turning off the interstate to the home of Dick Banks in Alexandria.

Finding Dick’s house has always been difficult. It nestles in the Piedmont, a term meaning the foot of the mountain, the region between the mountains and coastal plain. From an airplane, the physiography is easy to discern, with the Appalachian Mountains to the west, the tidal Potomac River where the plane took to the air, and between the mountains and tidal plain, the often-hilly Piedmont. All those hills prevented street engineers from building straight roads and streets. Streets in Arlington and Alexandria often start and stop to connect again where topography permits. That helps explain the difficulty in navigating the region. Dick’s home is tucked back away from the busy highways on what locals know as the North Ridge. That region of Alexandria was part of the original 10 square-mile District of Columbia, but was ceded to Virginia in 1846. North Ridge, full of steep dissected ravines and escarpments, was not very settled until the middle of the Twentieth Century. This rough terrain is now well tamed by quiet neighborhood streets lined with well-kept homes on tree-covered lots and sensible sized lawns. Numerous turns on curved streets will require our attention today even though I had driven to Dick’s home many times; I had house sat there, found the address in the dark and managed to return to Arlington where I lived. However, the past times I made wrong turns, had to double-back to retrace my path or accidentally driven past the house was too often. Today, we have precise driving directions, and unlike most other visits, I have a good navigator.

We exit the interstate at Quaker Lane at Shirlington. I strain to see the gas station where I once took my car for service. There is too much traffic requiring close attention as we drive south on Quaker Lane and take a left near the top of a hill. From there on the landscape is more familiar and in more lefts and rights we thread our RV through the narrow tree-lined streets to the red-brick front of Dick’s home.

The last time we had seen Dick was at our home in Oregon in 2008. Unfortunately, that visit was cut short. I had a pulmonary embolism and Linda, saving my life, rushed me away to the ER. Time with my mentor and friend was too short. Earlier, during my career, Dick and I were in contact during the workweek and sometimes other days to discuss or to collaborate taxonomic studies of birds. Before Dick’s visit in 2008, the last time we saw him was during my retirement party at the museum in the Division of Birds. That was in late August 1996. It was a joyful day knowing Linda and I would have more time together and a sad day leaving behind great friends and my second home, the Division of Birds. Now, on this spring day, I knock on a familiar door. We hear dogs barking and see a huge smile as Dick opens the door for us to enter.

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Richard C. Banks and yours truly pose for the camera.

 

It is wonderful to see my old friend. He must be as shocked as I am as we observe each other’s aging faces and hair that is white and gray. Dick graciously points us to an upstairs bedroom and asks if we are hungry. Linda and I carry bags from the RV up to the spacious room. A ceiling fan helps lower skin temperature in the humid heat of Alexandria and I remember Dick always tolerated the horrible Washington summers. Linda is not enjoying the heat, but air conditioning comes to the rescue.

After dining out, we return to Dick’s forested home where he asks me to review a manuscript he is working on. It is on ill-founded names of actually horribly described taxa of Canada Geese. One of Dicks’ two coauthors is Mary LeCroy of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. She was always helpful during my visits to her museum and I am happy to know she is currently active. As expected, the manuscript is perfect. Although Dick and I are regular correspondents via email, we talk into the night. Obviously, email or even the phone cannot hold a candle to a real face-to-face conversation. We discuss what different colleagues are doing, lamenting the deaths of some and wondering what happened to others. I ask about Joe T. Marshall, who, as I have indicated earlier, was a favorite person of mine. Dick does not know. We discuss the status of the Division of Birds and those who work there today.

Our conversation continues into the night with only the interruption of the need to walk the three dogs that assures exercise for Dick, but the walks come with flailing leashes that could cause a fall. Dick, at 84, is spry and watches out for the meandering dogs, is active in the ornithological community and continues to be an avid reader to help fuel a curiosity about all things. During the next 11 evenings, we continue discussing wide-ranging subjects ranging from religion to birds and people and politics and birds and more, of course birds. During morning breakfasts and evening dinners, the three of us talk and laugh. Only the dogs, an occasional run to the grocery store and laundry interrupt.

Dick’s home is above a deep ravine replete with giant deciduous trees. From a deck, it is possible to peer into the trees sloping down from a fence to the invisible bottom of the ravine. We are at the edge of Monticello Park, one of several small city parks. I had birded in the park years ago and look forward to finding migrants this mid-May. A perennial stream flows the length of the steep-sided park. About 6 acres in size, Monticello Park is botanically the most diverse forest in Alexandria and includes more species of oaks than I thought could exist in one place, tulip trees and others that form a towering canopy. We spot warblers from the deck by simply looking mostly at eye-level into the trees. The canopy is over layers of understory of spicebush and may-apple for birds not foraging in the high trees. Migrants feeding in the trees and understory drop down to the stream to drink and bathe.

Monticello Park is well-known for attracting migrants. Since 2005, Tom Albright, Dick tell us, has been keeping regular tabs on the bird traffic to the park. Besides tanagers, vireos, orioles and more, 36 species warblers have visited the park. By my count, the tally is missing only one species of warbler that might occur in the East. Lucy’s, Virginia’s, and a few more will not likely range past their western haunts, even after surviving climate change that possibly will alter Monticello Park from a hardwood habitat to an arid scrubland.

Most days, we observe many Blackpoll Warblers and noisy Red-eyed Vireos. We search for Blackburnian and find Black-throated Green Warbler and American Redstart. Northern Cardinals are everywhere. Gray Catbird and Carolina Wren join the chorus and White-breasted Nuthatch reveals they are attending juveniles. All those birds seen and heard from the deck draws Linda and me into the depths below. A level trail loops around the creek. A handful of birders creep slowly along the dirt path, stop and crane upwards or intently look into the bushes and stream side. Tom Albright, pad and pen in hand, zips past and out of sight.

Linda and I scan for anything beyond the warblers we observed from the deck. All is quiet except for the mixed chorus of birds. Faint whispers from birders barely compete with birds overhead. That is when we find a yellowish warbler foraging at the base of some stream side bushes. It pops in and out of view, but long enough to see our warbler has a grayish hood. It surely is a male. A definite white eye ring makes the bird appear surprised and rules out the darker hooded Mourning Warbler that lacks an eye ring and MacGillivray’s Warbler that has a broken eye ring. We have seen plenty of MacGillivray’s Warbler in Oregon and Connecticut Warblers in Canada. Our bird also is larger and chunkier than either Mourning or MacGillivray’s warblers. Linda and I both have good looks at what has to be a Connecticut Warbler. Normally, spring migrants of Connecticut Warbler travel west of the Appalachians and migrate southward east of the mountains. There are only a smattering of spring records of Connecticut Warbler in eastern Virginia and Maryland. One was at nearby Fairfax on 6 May 2014. Our bird is a rarity, but we cannot find anyone to verify our record. An identifiable photograph is not possible.  I hate it when that happens. Attempts to relocating the warbler are unsuccessful, which I hate when that happens. What may be worse is the record of finding the Connecticut Warbler in my journal is not specifically dated; the entry is under the date 15-27 May. I think it was 19 May and I pardon myself with the excuse that we are here to visit friends. Tom Albright might like more details. Certainly, if I were he, I would require at least a date and probably a photograph. If that Connecticut Warbler had been a lifer, I would not have been so casual about the details of the record. Birders, including myself, appreciate careful details when reporting birds, especially rarities.

Toward the end of our visit, we visit the museum. Dick decides not to go, but drives Linda and I to the nearest Metro station just after morning rush hour. It had been a long time since speeding down the subway tracks. We rush underground, surface along the Potomac River while passing the airport, which I prefer by the old name “National,” dive under the river and to an underground station near the Mall. The couple of blocks from the station to the museum are almost overwhelming. For days, we enjoyed the peace and quiet at Dick’s home and now, abruptly, the traffic of vehicles along Pennsylvania and Constitution avenues and the milling people, the workers and the disoriented tourists, is almost suffocating. This hubbub, with its noise and speed, couples with my fear of the inevitable change I see and will see as I anticipate entering the venerable structure that had given so much pleasure. Of course, not everything will be the same. Perhaps I am taking all this too seriously.

Linda felt my anticipation. The tall heavy doors of the 10th Street entrance swing open. We are in the museum, which is not yet open to the public and get in a line with others waiting for security to issue passes to visiting scientists, volunteers and others working in the nonpublic areas of the building. Security is stronger after dreadful 9-11, but arriving Carla Dove, our primary contact,  pulls Linda and me out of line, hugs both of us and tells a guard she is taking us to the Division of Birds. She guides us down a hallway that was not there in 1996. We reach the familiar east wing elevator and soon are past the sixth-floor lobby and into the Division of Birds.  Carla is a forensic ornithologist heading Smithsonian’s Feather Forensics Laboratory. Her team identifies feather remains from airplane strike and feather evidence found in illegal activities such as importations, remains from other sources and contributed key information ranging from airplane safety to systematics of birds.

Carla quickly escorts us to my old office on the west side of the wing. No one is there, but the present occupant is far neater than I am. I kept my projects in separate bunches, the paper notes and reprints and the measurement sheets sometimes appearing like loose stacks of hay. As helter-skelter as my old office might seem, those stacks of hay contained needles and I usually knew where to find them. Sure, I used the two file cabinets at either end of one of my desks and I had started using a computer to organize. Those were the days when computers were slow and cranky and seemingly more trouble than the space they occupied. That giant computer took away space I needed for at least one more stack of research papers. Those were the days when Roxie Laybourne was training Carla for the position she so now expertly fills.  Standing in my old office causes a flood of recollections ranging from thoughts of the morning when I hoped no one would speak to me until I had the coffee pot almost half empty to conversations with colleagues from the museum and elsewhere. Alan Contreras, Allen Phillips, Dave Steadman, Claudia Wilds, and others stopped by to exchange ideas, to help each other to learn more about birds or just for some friendly chat.  Thoughts of countless lunches at my desk while working and nights when even after Roxie and Carla left for the night fill my mind as I think of the guards making their rounds, stopping by for a hello and still later, catching bus or subway train rides home.

Knowing that we must move on is difficult.  It is tempting to open at least one of the case doors and pull out a drawer full of study skins, but I quash the idea. First one drawer might lead to another, just like the old days of exploring the collection.

Other than a handful of new faces, only a few staff members present today were at the museum the year I retired. It is hard to believe that was almost 20 years ago. Retired Mercedes Foster sits in her old office. I see that she has also become a paper mounder. I am sure Mercedes knows what is in each pile of what appears to be chaos, but is really, well close to, organized chaos. So long as the research is ensconced in a mind, the various pieces will eventually fall in place. Today, Chris Milensky, Greg Ludwig, Brian Schmidt and Gary Graves are also on hand. Greg, responsible for having the collection of birds computerized, used to calm my nerves when I cranked up my giant computer. It was so large that moving it was a physical ordeal. Yes, I am somewhat repeating myself about that office computer. It made an impression on me, not so that I have nightmares, but enough that I am grateful it was partially helpful and greater appreciation for its offspring, my trusty laptop. Regardless, attempting to navigate its bells and whistles, at least for me, was a mental ordeal invoking strings of four-letter slang at it and at myself for not catching on to its quirks. Chris is soon to replace Brian as collection manager and Gary is chairman for the Department of Vertebrate Zoology. I recall the days when those three began working in the Division of Birds.

Thoughtful Carla briefly leaves us with the bird people and departs to the west wing to gather Bob Fisher, still collections manager in mammals, Al Gardner, mammalogist, who joined me with many delightful conversations over the past years before my retirement, and Bob Reynolds, herpetologist and now director of my old outfit in the Biological Survey.  It is great to see old friends. Unfortunately, Storrs Olson, Curator Emeritus, and Helen James are not present. Storrs and I began working in the Division about the same time and enjoy a great history.   I would like to meet the single surviving curator of the Biological Survey, but he is in the field.

There were many people missing. Those were friends I left behind in 1996, including some who are no longer. It would be great to have at least one more conversation with Roxie Laybourne. She, along with the late John Aldrich and Alexander Wetmore once filled the halls with their unique wisdoms. Since I left, Dick Zusi retired and now living in northern Oregon, Bruce Behler, still practicing his trade, is not here and no one knows the status of Joe Marshall. Long talks with Kevin Winker, Bill Clark and curators from numerous museums remind me of the past days in the Division of Birds.  There are so many memories, so many stories, coursing through my mind, but I try to give attention to the here and now and soak in today.

After posing for group pictures, we end up in the Division of Birds library, a place where I spent many quiet hours investigating various problems concerning nomenclature and taxonomy. A few changes are apparent, but the smell I recall of thousands of books on birds, fills the air. This important library continues to grow although computers have helped speed most research.

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Part of the Division of Birds library

Again, I have the urge to walk into the collection to look at specimens. It would be too difficult to stop exploring. No one is curating or hunting hidden treasures that might spawn research to help answer a problem ultimately related to saving birds. It is not possible to conserve a species without first knowing that species. The priceless collection is available for scientist requiring its resources. I am glad to observe that the collection is safe. Fortunately, the collection of types now occupies the protective room once housing the wet collection, which is now at a facility in Maryland.

Following all too brief conversations with Gary and others, Linda and I realize we must go.  Carla escorts us down stairs. Were it not for her, our visit would not have been so smoothly pleasant. We say good-bye and leave the museum through the same set of tall brass doors we exited in on retirement day in 1996. We walk from the intersection of 12th Street and Constitution Avenue with one last glance up to the sixth floor of east wing of the museum. Linda gently squeezes my hand in wordless understanding. We cross the wide avenue that doubles here for US highway 50, a route that took us, years ago, across the Rockies and to Gunnison Sage-Grouse. I glance back at the museum I once fondly dubed “my building.” We quell any sadness with the thought of continuing our visit with Carla and Chris in western Montana since we will all be there about the same time this July.

It was a relief that walking away from the museum is not too overwhelming, but I cannot allay worries about the future of the Division of Birds. Friends in the Division are facing worse budgetary problems than imagined during my stint there. The number of curators and other staff is sadly low. If I were there, the frustration from the work environment would be crushing. It will not be another 20 years before revisiting the Division of Birds. I hope that by that time, there will be opportunity to enjoy improvements for studying the treasure awaiting someone, who, like me in 1971, dared to embrace the possibilities. There are unknown discoveries to be made from the collection. If nothing else, the collection offers huge opportunities to obtain genetic material. Surely, this wonderful resource will not be allowed to languish as have so many small collections throughout the country.

It is but a few blocks to the subway station. More people are entering the metro than were exiting this morning. Like so many, we want to be ahead of the homeward bound. The advancing afternoon brings us only a hair sooner than rush hour when one then becomes a hostage to the transportation system and time becomes relative to how long your bladder will last.

Returning to the metro station in Alexandria, we call Dick, who soon arrives to drive us out of the snarl of the city, not geographically, but at least away from the crowds and sights, sounds and smells of the bustling traffic. Linda and I laugh as we both share a seat in Dick’s build for two tiny Honda and feel good to decompress in the peaceful neighborhood at the edge of Monticello Park. Dick, who left birds as senior zoologist, listens with interest as we summarize the visit to the museum. He knows of the shortfalls ahead of those in “birds.” That term, “birds,” is one we use to cover the place where the collection of birds is housed and the staff that work there. Birds is also not just a place, but also a state of mind. We know it well and hope for its future.

27 May 2015

Our intention had not been to stay in Alexandria to such a length, but I am happy to have had the time to know better my friend. However, it is time to leave. Dick gives us detailed driving directions to put us north of the metropolitan area, but Linda and I take a different route by finding Glebe Road. That road has long had significance to us. Over the years, I had second jobs on Glebe Road while I was in the Navy. At least three different residences of mine sat only a few blocks off Glebe Road. Well before our time, back in the mid-18th Century, the road was built on a glebe, land set aside for the clergy. Today, all sorts of religious and non-religious travelers use Glebe Road to travel from old Alexandria to Great Falls, Virginia.

IMG_4019
Our old apartment building view from the Arlington County Library.  The red brick section was built after we left the region in 1996.

On our way on Glebe Road, we turn to locate the apartments on Quincy Street, our last residence in Arlington. We are in the Arlington neighborhood called Ballston and handy to Arlington’s central library. Before retirement, Linda and I lived in a one-bedroom apartment that cost in the neighborhood of $1,000 per month. That price included utilities as it does today, but the same one-bedroom will cost more than double the amount we paid and there is now a parking fee. Not that we would want to, living at that same location today would be cost prohibitive. From our parked RV, we look across the street and find the windows of our first floor apartment where we placed raisins on a narrow windowsill. Our only avian guests were a couple of Northern Mockingbirds.

We recall the days and nights packing for our move to Oregon. As we do so, I circle our wagon to return to Glebe Road. Further, on our route, confusion sets in. Are we to cross Chain Bridge? I am reasonably certain that will be a mistake. Correct, we do not want to cross the Potomac River, at least not yet. Finally, and with help from a jogger, our memory lets go with a few historical tidbits: drive toward Chain Bridge and turn left just before crossing the bridge. Several bridges built at or near the site of Chain Bridge have come and gone, but one using chains in its structure is the reason for the name of the bridge today. I like bridges, but the current and chainless Chain Bridge seems almost too historic for a safe crossing since the present 1939 bridge uses the supports constructed in 1890. Nonetheless, traffic over the bridge today is heavy. Compared to more modern structures that have succumbed to gravity, Chain Bridge remains steadfast above the Potomac River.

Soon, we are cruising on the National Park Service’s George Washington Memorial Parkway toward I-495, the infamous Washington Beltway. The tree-lined drive is beautiful. I spy an exit that goes to Langley and headquarters of the CIA not so secretly beyond the trees to our left. Further upstream along the Potomac River, we pass Turkey Run, a park where, on the slope above the river, I once found trees loaded with thousands of migrating Philadelphia Vireos. In minutes, the Parkway ends and forces us onto the dreaded racetrack, the Beltway. Throttling the RV, we enter the clockwise flow of rushing traffic, cross the Potomac River, motor into Maryland and toward adventures that are more northern.

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