Rogue Birder, ch 6, Pivot Points

Pivot Points

The remainder of 1960 did not include any forays away from Rogue Birder territory except for day trips to the coast and stunning Crater Lake National Park. In August, I began practicing rappelling to enable me to access cliffs that might harbor nesting raptors and to ready myself for some mountain I dreamed of climbing. A purchase of some used skis held the promise of getting to snow covered trails of the Rogue watershed. Although I did learn to ski, I never noticed any birds as I careened and fell down the slopes of Mt. Shasta, and a couple of local places technically in Rogue country. Rappelling never allowed any pestering of nesting raptors although it did once make holding binoculars painful from rope-burned hands.

These were the things I dreamed while staring out a classroom window. Ranking high school subjects from worst to best, worst was algebra, closely tied with physical education, with biology rating as best. Part of worst category should be blamed on teaches since one of them could care less about anyone without nerd blood equaling x. The other loved big strapping jocks, not a skinny guy who was looking for birds on the track field. The best, bar none was the short hour with plants and animals under the leadership of Don Mitchell. He made it fun, except maybe to the fully pithed frogs the class courted. Don, who later taught college, thankfully introduced me to the science of life. Maybe that is what I should pursue when I grow up.

Biology class did not fill enough of the school day, and when the final bell rang, being out the door and out-of-doors was a priority. Each fall, when I had time, I tried hunting local gamebirds. There is nothing like Ring-necked Pheasant, whether or not under glass. The species was abundant in many places. Most of my hunting was on a ranch owned by my school friend Ralph Gysin. There were 400 acres of fields and uncultivated countryside covered with grasses, poison oak and scattered stands of nonpoisonous oaks. Several pheasants from what we dubbed Pheasant Ridge graced my folks table. Years later, the ranch was subdivided. Houses now encase parts of Pheasant Ridge. No hunting/no trespassing signs dot the landscape, competing with surviving stands of poison oak. My friend Ralph and I once went duck hunting together, the hard way. We rode horses past Pheasant Ridge to a small pond high on the slopes of Mt. Baldy. The dark black chernozem soil was sticky and slippery, a fact noticed by our steeds that tripped and plodded to our destination. A dozen or so widgeons on the tiny pond took to the air minutes after we had secured the horses to some willows. The two Ralphs shot and one bird came down on the other side of the pond. It was a female American Widgeon. Yes, widgeon with a “d” according to the big blue fifth edition of the AOU Check-list. We also saw Myrtle Warblers, but today I would report the demise of the duck as an American Wigeon and the warbler as a Yellow-rumped Warbler. Wigeon, without the “d,” is a spelling suggested at least as early as 1945 and adopted by AOU in 1973. Most likely, the songbird will once again come under the name of Myrtle, the warbler.

How is hunting important to a Rogue Birder? Simply put, it improved my aim, but perhaps not enough. Why is aim important? It is important to an ornithologist, especially for museum work, even though I did not know it at the time since I could barely spell the word, I was on the verge of becoming an arnithnologest.

What went ignorantly unrealized during the youthful years was how anyone could identify birds so easily. What besides binocular did every birder have in common? Field guides, field guides, in those days usually the trusty Peterson, went wherever a birder went. The guides provided the mug shots necessary to identify birds. The wonderful illustrations that paved the way to identifying Hermit Warblers from Townsend’s Warbler from Lesser Scaup from House Finches were not just from the figments of Peterson’s mind. He based those great plates on painting partly from memory and partly from photographs and mostly from specimens. That would be museum study skins, specimens of birds most often shot by people, who were most frequently ornithologists.

Specimens of birds have the appearance of a dead bird lying on its back. Cotton balls usually replace the eyes and bird’s legs are crossed, tied together and sport a museum label. More on the label further on. One big difference between a specimen or study skin from a bird that died is the former does not stink. A properly prepared specimen will not draw flies although certain moths do like to chew specimen feathers. Everything about the outside of the bird can be examined, including color and pattern of the plumage, certain aspects of molt are easily studied, measurements of wing, tail, and bill, how wide is it, its depth and length. Multiple generations of ornithologists and illustrators of birder’s field guide may repeat all of these observations using the same museum specimens.

The label tied to the leg of a specimen provides detailed information on where the bird was collected, when and by whom. Many early specimens have only that information on the label. Unfortunately, there are a few specimens in collections with less data. Ornithologist today also record on the label, information on subcutaneous fat, feather tracks and molt data obtained during preparation of the specimens (when the skin is wrong side out), skull ossification, weight, presence and identification of parasites, stomach contents and more. In the last few decades, specimen labels may indicate sampling tissue from muscle and organs for such uses as investigating DNA. Greater amounts of pertinent data recorded on a specimen label enhance the value of the specimen, thereby increasing its usefulness to ornithologist and birders.

Yes, the specimen used to help us birders more easily identify all those birds we love to see was once a live bird and is now dead. For some people, this cradle to grave situation brings a jolting reaction. Sorry, but everything cannot be assimilated through computer modeling. The bottom line, why all those specimens exist, is ultimately to conserve the species. Live birds became specimens to save individual birds, thousands of them that might otherwise become extinct. We cannot save what we do not understand. Even with the museum of specimens, it takes little time to realize that there is still much to learn, which, in some instances means the collection of more specimens. That bird that became the specimen would have eventually ended up as dust or fodder to a predator, perhaps the stomach of a domestic cat. Instead, the bird is now providing information about its species and joins others of its ilk, all resting peacefully in museum drawers for future study.

In 1960, I was clueless to the importance of specimens. At that time, I must have thought Peterson and his compatriots somehow divined the plates of warblers, sparrows and others, by some sort of magical transcendental manipulation of paint and paper. I had no idea that museums kept drawers of birds. While the reality of how those birds got on the field guide plate went over my head my aim improved. I rarely hunted ducks since the widgeon shot at a pond on Baldy tasted like mud. In addition to pheasants, California Quail were a good taste and I tried to eat Mourning Doves, but they eluded the shotgun. I even hunted for deer a few times and each time was relieved I never even got off a shot. Eventually I stopped hunting. Hunting birds, small or large, that would become specimens was not something to relish. Besides, I was too busy looking down the sights to my binoculars.

The year1961 brought another pivotal point. My interest in birding remained, but I began to yearn for more. I discovered there are people out there, beyond Rogue country making serious studies of species such as House Wren, scrub jays, Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Trumpeter Swan to name a few. At that time, Western Bluebird caught my interest and I designed a study of their breeding habits. I put together six or so bluebird nest boxes nailed to fence posts and trees up on Larson Creek at the foot of Baldy. They were on my friend Ralph Gysin’s parents ranch and therefore safe from vandalism by humans. I somehow obtained a pre-Google Earth aerial photo of my study site, which I used to make maps. Bluebirds were soon occupying the boxes. During as many hours as I could, I would check the boxes to record the addition of nesting material, how many eggs and young were present and to weigh the young. My vigil continued, watching the parents come and go to the nest box feeding their offspring and carrying away bluebird poop. I marked my map with the parent’s locations and, days later, arrived at the size of each territory for each pair. Frank Sturges provided a sub permit and showed me how to put bands on a dead bird, a specimen from the college bird collection. He probably would have helped me further on my study, but I did not ask. My Self-sufficiency was camouflaging stubbornness. I banded the bluebird juveniles when they were about to fledge, miraculously without causing injury to them or myself.

Before beginning the study, I read and reread Charles Kendeigh’s monograph “Parental Care and its Evolution in Birds” published in 1952. It was far more influential than Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar but came close to edging out anything written by Jack London. Kendeigh’s book gave me some ideas on how to study the bluebirds. Since I had a typewriter and little money for photocopying, I spent hours copying what I believed were pertinent parts of Kendeigh. Part of those typed notes included building an itograph, a battery powered device that when placed in the entrance hole of a bluebird nest box would record the comings and goings of the parents. I was excited, but electronically challenged. Instead, I increased my hours watching the comings and goings of the bluebirds. In the end, I collected some questionably useful data, but really did not know what to do with it.

My birdbrain was thinking beyond the nesting habits of bluebirds. My birdbrain was focusing, ever finer on a birding trip, one that would take me from my beloved Rogue birds for twelve months. That is because I read Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher’s “Wild America” in 1960. The book was published in 1955, the year my tough little fifth grade teacher showed me birds and who otherwise smacked me around from time to time for nonbird shenanigans. Whether “Wild America” had not reached Rogue country or I had not reached the book, the passage of five years was just enough. Like so many before me and after me, the idea of a birding trip across the North America hatched from reading “Wild America.” At the tender age of 16, I now had a taste of birding and a taste of cross-country travel. Could I bird across the country? How could I?

Ever since age 11, I worked, starting as a wee caddy at the local golf course where I nearly tripped into Clark Gable, who, for any young readers was a famous actor now gone with the wind. Later and not so wee, I kept busy doing almost everything in a peach orchard from winter raking and pilling trimmed tree limbs to summer loading crates of peaches in a truck. Still later, I kept busy thinning pears and hauling picked ones out of the orchard, one of the physically hardest jobs I ever did. Working on a ranch picking up bales and bales of hay and even driving cattle and more mowing more lawns than are countable kept me off the streets. I saved a little, but had spent some too. There were dreams of photographing birds with a 35mm camera, tripod and remote shutter release. That cost a few buck and although I did catch on film Acorn Woodpecker and a few other species at the family birdbath, bird photography palled in interest. It was not my cup of tea. What money I did have went to care and feeding a car. I settled on a cheap and beat up 1955 VW sedan, appropriately manufactured the year Peterson and Fisher published what was becoming my hymn book, with its pages that made me sing inside. I, a Rogue Birder, could make such a birding trip. As time passed, I made more and more definite plans and waited to become 18, to shed the shackles of high school.

In the meantime, besides continuing to work, now mostly at a gas station and whatever odd jobs I could handle, I practiced my responsibilities as a Rogue Birder. I looked for birds when and wherever time allowed. Even on those frosty days, raking trimmings in the peach orchard were time I searched for birds. Mostly though, it was quiet and bitter cold, but at the edges of the orchard I might, I nearly prayed, I would encounter something, maybe a kinglet or a sparrow, something other than fallen peach limbs. Just one Golden-crowned Sparrow helped prevent brain death.


View of Roxie Ann and Grizzly Peak from the Siskiyou Mountains.

August 1961 was especially full of field trips in Rogue country. Borrowing my dad’s Willis jeep, I drove a forest service road that traverses the Siskiyous. Nothing remarkable came in view, but my field notes contain over a half page of single-spaced typed notes. I was practicing my writing since it was my plan to write detailed notes on my pending trip. As a member of the journalism class in school, I wrote articles and enjoyed trips to businesses to sell ads for the school paper. I hated anything approaching selling, but Linda was there, pitching with me. August is often a horribly hot dog-day time in the Rogue Valley and a trip up Dead Indian Memorial Highway (then it was Dead Indian Highway) paid off with Rock Wrens at Pompadour Bluff. Whether there are Rock Wrens there today is unknown since this privately owned rock is no longer accessible. On up into cooler climes revealed Calliope Hummingbird, Mountain Bluebird and Green-tailed Towhee. Olive-sided Flycatchers were still singing. These flycatchers are decreasing and now I have to work to get them on my annual county list. In 1961, I arranged the species in my notes in taxonomic order. I did not think much beyond that in terms of taxonomy and nomenclature, and I would not have believed in the early 60’s that Dick Banks, my friend and mentor at the museum, and I would publish a paper causing the change of the binomial name of the Olive-sided Flycatcher from borealis to cooperi. Did that change of names make Dick or me a Rogue? Some people abhor any change and some hate changing names of birds, be it English or scientific. Some people believe alteration of scientific names should never occur, but scientific names are sometimes necessarily changed. In the case of Olive-sided Flycatcher, the scientific binomial name was due for something different, something correct.

The remainder of 1961 included a sprinkling of short trips outside Rogue country, including a maiden voyage in my VW to Lassen National Park and Lower Klamath and Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuges. The birding was great and I loved visiting parks and refuges since I could not decide if I would rather be a park ranger or a refuge person. A career would be later. I had more immediate plans and even more immediate plans. First was to survey my area for the Christmas Count, which was icy, foggy, windy and snowy. Ten days later, on the official count day, the weather was only foggy and that cleared enough to locate a few enviable species at the time, including Golden Eagle, Mountain Chickadee, two Northern Shrikes and a bunch of Tricolored Blackbirds.

From a wet behind the ears Danny McSkunk, without binoculars or field guide, a certain amount of progression had taken place that put me in the position of craving even more. Somehow my birding skills became tolerable, I learned there are libraries of literature on birds, and an eternity of questions to ask. I did not know at the time, but the bluebird project would help introduce me to the bird staff at Smithsonian.

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