Eating Small, Birding Large
Tom McCamant, who had moved to the Willamette Valley wrote, “I am very excited over your year-long birding trip… I feel almost (but not quite) as good about it as if I were going on it myself.” Six months later, my plans actually were turning toward reality. 1 January 1962 was an exciting day when I began marking the calendar. That January day was only five months to the day I would embark on a birding journey around the United States. Would I miss Rogue birding? Of course.
My hope was to have spotted most of the sandpipers.
The journey is a completely different story and goes well beyond more pages than this Rogue Birder should deliver. However, the experience from the trip did help shape things to come, including being a Rogue Birder.
The short distilled version is that while waiting to go, I kept busy planning and birding. (see Birder Interrupted for the original version) On 13 March 1962, I practiced birding at Hoover’s Lakes and the ponds of the Oregon Game Commission, those in the Ken Denman Wildlife Area near White City. I wrote “Doing just the opposite of what Earnest Thompson Seton always preached in his countless natural history books, I failed to get these notes up to date, thus forgetting many of the happenings.” I made a promise to myself to keep my notes current, but of course, I did not. After all, sometimes there is too much to see to take time to write down everything. In college, I had difficulty with one of my teachers about note taking in a field biology course. The students had instructions to write observations in a notebook using a rapidograph and India ink. In case this method is still being taught, and I hope it is not, rapidographs are a peculiar sort of writing instrument somewhat resembling a fountain pen but far more troublesome. Worse, the ink, although permanent and will not run either in water or alcohol once initially dry, tended to clog the pens. Users had to shake the pens to free the tiny wire that slide in a cylinder thus allegedly delivering a measured amount of ink on the paper. Describing the process further will serve only to upset me so much that refraining from using four-letter words will be impossible. My guess that any reader experiencing the fits and starts, the blobs and dry scratches while attempting rapid graphing might likewise burst into lyrics for four-letter arias. It is not over until the fat student writes.
I should have gone birding along Lazy Creek to look for Burrowing Owls and walked down to Larson Creek behind the old house once home on Barnett Road. That was a mistake. As they say, you cannot go back. Not long after 1962 the field that Lazy Creek crossed, the habitat for the Burrowing Owls was gone, bulldozed, subdivided, and covered by more houses and a grade school. Too bad, the kids might have enjoyed those owls and perhaps one or more students might have become Rogue Birders. They could not. The old former home on Barnett Road was gone from its foundation, as were most of the homes along that stretch of road. There were no places for pheasant to hide. A Western Wood Pewee that stopped by at least three springs and flycatched from the backyard picket fence had no reason to tarry. Except for a disgracefully thin strip of county property along Larson Creek, the entire area was a habitat for houses and other buildings. Someone probably was happy to save that thin riparian zone, not realizing that the amount of habitat was too small to support most vertebrates. Try slicing your toilet, your kitchen sink, bed, your vehicle in a fraction of its size.
In May, a trip up Roxy Ann revealed the usual suspects including a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, a species to excite even the calmest of Rogue Birders. Following tradition, I did the annual Memorial Bird Count on 30 May. Trying to do a good job was not easy. In a couple of days I would be heading east on my big birding trip and would not be available for another Memorial Bird Count until 1964. Would I even be here in 1964? What would I be doing? Very likely, I would be in Viet Nam, but I was not sure where, what country or if I would have to forever give up being a Rogue Birder.
My main concern, my most immediate one, was to complete the count and wait for 1 June. I was ready. I had a small library of bird books, a small typewriter, notes, road maps marking my route and points of interest, many from then the only finding guides written by Olin Sewell Pettingill, Jr. I also had a collection of checklists from all the places I planned to visit, clothes for winter and summer, food, camp stove, life raft, tent, you name it, it was packed in the VW Beetle.
1 June 1962 came and went, but my car did not move. It is a long story, a different story of what happened next, but it can be stated with certainty that on 2 June 1962, high school graduate and Rogue Birder, I waved goodbye to my anxious parents and headed up Oregon State highway 62 toward Crater Lake National Park. I got a late start and made only a few stops up the road. After all, my trip list, if it was going to compete at all with Peterson and Fisher’s trip list should include a few Rogue birds. Passing through the hamlet of Union Creek and I headed toward Crater Lake. In only a few miles, I turned off the highway onto the forest service road that goes to Huckleberry Mountain. A wide place along the dirt/gravel road became my first night’s camp. I pitched the tent, heated up some canned beans, which became part of my first trip meal. Rain began to fall and freeze during the night. Then, it snowed. The next morning, poorly equipped for such cold, I quickly prepared a breakfast of eggs and coffee that were cold by the time either met my lips. Although I was still in Rogue country, I was too cold to notice any birds.
Gathering up my gear, I headed back to the highway and over the Cascade crest. Crossing the Cascades seemed paramount then. The barrier somehow represented breaking into new territory. My trip list would suffer because of me ignoring Rogue birds. Hermit, Townsend’s and Black-throated Gray Warblers were three species I might have but did not pick up elsewhere. Even though one of the goals of the trip was to see as many species as possible, I was not worried about missing familiar warblers; I was excited almost beyond reason about the new birds just waiting down the road. I headed for Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuge.
As they say, the rest is history. I stopped all too briefly at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and Gene Kridler treated me to close up of views of birds he was catching in mist nets around refuge headquarters. Many visits to refuges along my route were productive birding stops. Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife was a must since, in the early 1960’s, it was the best place to see Trumpeter Swans. Birding success in Yellowstone and Teton National Parks did not yield a Blue Grouse, which would have been great since now the eastern populations are Dusky Grouse, a species still missing on my life list.
After three weeks of being on the road, I was settling in to eating on the road. So far, I had experienced cool weather, with mornings beyond uncomfortable, they are downright freezing. My ectomorphic frame had no insulation to help keep me warm. Whenever I could, I bought bacon for my breakfast. What was I thinking? Would the bacon fat provide energy to keep me warm? My bacon and other perishables were under the chill of purchased ice or snow from a roadside. The ambient temperature and the miserably inadequate heaters in old VW Beetles kept the snow or ice from melting. I kept donuts handy, the kind you buy off the shelf and that are mold proof forever. I figured the habit would come in handy should I ever chose be a policeman, whose hard schedule sometimes requires eating on the run. Hamburger was good for lunch and dinner, although I usually snacked on a donut or cracker for midday dining. The hamburger was not the kind, less fatty type. It was sometimes marginally fresh by the time it hit the skillet. It is a wonder I did not get food poisoning.
As I traveled east, the climate changed to warmer, sometimes hot temperatures and I ate less than before. So far, I was not getting sick, my teeth were not falling out, my skin looked the same each day and I fastened my belt at the same hole. Certainly, a good salad and some fresh fruit would have been in order. Instead, I popped open an occasional can of spinach and fruit cocktail.
In July, I was in Michigan visiting Pettingill between classes at the University Michigan Field Station. After Kirtland’s Warblers, I crossed Ohio, New York and into New England. Bicknell Thrush was unknown then, but they then went by the moniker of Gray-cheeked Thrush. However, July is a bad time for such a bird. Singing was over. The woods were quite and I headed into Maine to Acadia National Park. August ended as I headed south for two weeks at Hawk Mountain. It was September and kettles of Broad-winged Hawks and other migrants traveled down the Appalachian ridge. Maurice and Irma Broun fed me numerous dinners and convinced me that, contrary to my naïve beliefs that I should go to college after the trip. Further south, I arrived in Washington, D.C. for a couple of weeks, camping in a fenced in tourist campground on West Potomac Island. The campground is gone. I spent hours in the Division of Birds library at Smithsonian searching the literature for my project on nesting Western Bluebirds. In the process, I met Alexander Wetmore and other luminaries before visits to Dismal Swamp, Cape Hatteras and southward, finally to Florida.
Citrus fruit is not a favorite, but Florida offered tree ripened oranges and grapefruits that temporarily won me over to eating citrus fruits. It may have been luck that I did not get scurvy during the previous six months while living out of my little VW beetle. The diet of canned fruit and vegetables did the trick and I maintained good health due partly also to endorphins released during my state of birding pleasure. Although usually under the weather, physically, being under the weather, figuratively, hit me only once. It happened in August, aboard the Blue Nose Ferry from Bar Harbor, Maine, to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. During that round trip, I stood as close to the bow as the ship plowed through fog that only a winter residing Rogue Birder could hate. It was a long day. Thankfully, there were no titanic proportioned icebergs. The trip gave up Cory’s Shearwater and a horrible head cold. The shearwater lasted a few seconds, the cold lasted a week.
Allan Cruickshank whose bird photography graced many publications ran one of five Christmas counts in Florida. His Cocoa, Florida, count always had the highest national species totals and glimpsing its orderliness gave me ideas on how to improve the local count in Rogue country. By the end of the year, thanks to those Christmas counts and Florida in general, I had tallied 341 species from Blackburnian Warblers to Bachman‘s Sparrow as well as a Zenaida Dove and a couple of other rarity surprises. In late January, having hatched a replay of Maine, only in winter, I left Florida headed north for Thick-billed Murres, Great Cormorants, redpolls and Snow Buntings.
It was a freezing and my car did not like it. My little VW that could developed problems that would mean it could not. I limped along until March and bought tickets for a Greyhound bus. Three days later, on 2 April 1963, the transport rolled into the Medford depot. My folks drove me home, to Phoenix. I had been on the road for nine months. Luckily, I earlier picked up a Yellow-billed Magpie in central California.
The next day I visited with old friends and for several days later, I worked on correspondence sending thanks to many of the wonderful people who helped me during the trip. Years later, I would remain in contact with some of the people. Others, I would again meet and work with.
The trip was not over. The local Rogue Valley Audubon Society invited me to give a talk on my birding journey. Thankfully, I had taken pictures along the way with my 35 mm. I even had shots of Roseate Spoonbills and Anhingas seen in the Everglades. I might have had more pictures of birds had part of my toolbox contained a telephoto lens. It did not; my meager budget would not have allowed it. Today, with digital zooms, it is almost easy to snap pictures of birds. While traveling, I carried a camera to document Yellowstone geysers, yawning bridges such as the old one at Charleston, shrimp boats and habitats. Now I carry my digital camera to document some rarity I might be lucky to stumble across. Anyway, the slide show went ok, despite my stage fright and embarrassment.
Having taken to heart the suggestion from Broun’s of Hawk Mountain that I go to college was a happy decision for my parents. They offered free room and board while commuting to the local college, but tuition and books was beyond their financial means and I needed income. After what seemed interminable, I landed a job in a service station and saved every penny for school. In the meantime, recalling all those birds experienced for the last nine months was great. Knowing that I would have home cooked meals and a roof overhead was equally, almost, as good.