Rogue Birder, ch 9, What I did on my summer vacations

What I did on my summer vacations

After days of Christmas Counts and before I would see an American Tree Sparrow on my first Potomac River count, a few more birds and events traveled across my Rogue Birder path. In 1965, going for a degree was the order of the day and my life became upside down, forcibly and reluctantly. It was a time for all work and no play. If it was not class time, it was work time or study time or homework time and no time for birds. Well, that is not entirely true. There was, at least, a little time to dream about birds.

There was also a smattering of time to read about birds. It was my recreational reading, between and around various classes ranging from psychology 101, zoology 101 and various other 101 ranked classes, all of which required pages and pages of reading. I was then a card-carrying member of the American Ornithologists’ Union and read the Auk, the journal of the AOU, from cover to cover. It was fascinating stuff although anything physiological such as hormones produced the opposite that help me go to sleep. It was a physiological response. Papers on expansion and contraction of testes were not terribly attractive but the journal was revealing some of the important details of ornithology. Ornithology? Even though birds excited me, I still did not know for sure what I wanted to be when I grew up.

When I could scrape up the money, I would order publications not available from the local library or from the shelves of then the only bookstore in town. One publication ordered was an AOU Monograph on gulls chronicling the research by Neal Smith in 1966. “Evolution of some Arctic gulls (Larus): An experimental study of isolating mechanisms.” It wowed me, it scammed me, it what? First, here is the wow part. This guy, Smith, had designed and executed a study that altered the breeding behavior of gulls by changing the color of the skin or feathers around their eyes. This is not doing any injustice to the chronicle as was eventually realized. Another wow factor was that anything boreal sent me into a different dream set. Besides Jack London, I read about Shackleton, visited the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum at Bowdoin University in Maine while on my early 60’s bird trip, and thought of building a VW that would somehow take me to the South Pole. The polar idea most likely metamorphosed from my close proximity to Tucker Sno-Cat located between Phoenix and Medford. The company motto is “No snow to deep, no road too steep.” My idea of a VW modified for Antarctic weather and snow was almost as outlandish as Smith’s study of gulls.

Realization of the Smith’s fantasy was largely in the logistics, not to mention the taxonomy. It was impossible to get from Canadian Archipelago point A to point B in the time frame reported. Even if Smith had super powers for travel, his results were in question. George M. Sutton, who years later would lend me specimens of Rock Ptarmigan and insights about them, wrote in the journal Auk a 1968 review of Smith’s tale. “In one breath he asks us to believe that the success of a gull’s whole reproductive cycle depends on eyesight keen enough to keep it from wasting effort on a gull of opposite sex which does not have precisely the same eyelid colour as its own, and that this same gull will be fooled into considering a big black circle as an ‘eyelid’, an ‘eye’ as a ‘pupil’, etc.”

No one had really offered more than anecdotal refrain about Smith’s work until about the time Dick Banks and I began studying the systematic relationship of Thayer’s Gull to that of Iceland and Herring Gulls. These gulls, aside from Smith, have presented a confusing and sordid tale of taxonomic folly. Although not the last frontier for gullogists or lariphiles, Dick and I were determined to get to the truth. While we compared mantle and wing color and measured specimens of Arctic gulls at the National Museum of Canada too many years ago, Gary Snell of the very same museum was polishing his paper on the very gulls we were studying. Dick and I did not know this until a few days later when we sat down at a Montreal, Quebec, AOU meeting. There it was, the program statement concerning Gary’s taxonomic conclusions and poo-pooing of Smith’s paper. The conundrum of the subject gulls remains a pool of indecision. What is lumped with what continues to be argumentative. In a 2002 paper in the journal “Oregon Birds,” I wrote that the Thayer’s, Kumlien’s and Iceland Gulls should be recognized as separate species until proven otherwise. That has been echoed in Birds of Oregon and Jon Dunn and Steve Howell’s Gulls of the Americas. I may be wrong but was not afraid to write it.

Wait. I am getting ahead of myself. Sorry. Therefore, several years later I, as some might say “enjoyed” essentially no social life. My classroom study and work stretched to spring when I began worrying about employment. It was imperative that I make enough in the summer to cover expenses for the following school year. The honorable trade of pumping gas and cleaning windows was not particularly attractive. You just do not see many birds from the island, the gasoline ones that rarely give views of species beyond House Sparrow, European Starling and Rock Pigeons. Of course, in the days at the pump, I tried to identify some hawk hiding behind the dark speck that it was. I also contemplated mice vs. rat and dove vs. pigeon. One is relative to the other. How big does a mouse or a dove have to become a respectable rat or a pigeon? On especially boring times, the thought of a large rat with pigeon wings might fly in my head before the next customer. How many more could I ask the burning question: ethyl or regular? Surely, my persistence with the park service would reap dividends. It did, but not as a wished for ranger, but in fire control.

Before considering forest fires by some as partially a good thing, many were regarding them as a really bad thing. Even now, depending on who and where the conversation rests, forest fires, now called wildfires, are sometimes good, sometimes bad. Fortunately, in the summer of 1964, Smokey the Bear was a character to give homage. My job would begin in June, before the snow melted in Crater Lake National Park. The crew of five, including the chief, and including me, wore olive-green pants, gray long sleeve shirts and fluorescent red hard hats. Actually, owing to their shape, they were short-billed hard caps. The arrowhead park emblem was married on the center on the front of the cap and we wore a bronze badge on our left breast. I had always tried to be a model citizen, with my worst offence being a speeding ticket in my tiny sports car, a bug-eyed Austin Healy Sprite. The badge meant I had to behave myself even more than before.

We cleared fire roads and readied our equipment for a potential fire. The forest around Crater Lake, at least the hemlock and fir, made up what the rangers called the asbestos forest. I hoped they were right but paid attention to instructions on fire suppression and tool maintenance. There were shovels, picks, axes, Pulaski’s, hoes, rakes and more. A good tool is a sharp tool and we all learned to have shovels and other hand tools cut paper. We also had an assortment of rather battered looking chain saws. Even though I had grown up in Rogue country, I had hardly even seen a chain saw, let alone operated one. Lessons followed. We were all careful not to slice off some body part or poke out an eye.

As more and more snow melted, the more the crew cleared more fire road. Trees, some four or more feet thick, had fallen across some roads and it was our job to remove them from the fire roads. It was good training, as we needed sharp tools, picks, ropes, the truck winch and chain saws to remove the irritating fallen trunks. Sometimes our poor equipment caused us to take hours to remove a chunk of a large tree. It was surprising that even a foot wide section of a downed fir or hemlock could be so heavy. On many days, we had lunches packed by the mess hall lady, a person no one would dare disrespect. She made everyone, rangers, naturalist, the fire crew sit as civilized as possible as the delicious bowls of food flew around the tables. On the days we had our sack lunch, I would look for birds. Often, by July, my fluorescent cap would attract male Rufous Hummingbirds. Most often, deep in the pristine old growth, there was little to hear except an occasional Golden-crowned Kinglet.

Eventually, we would clear the roads to the edge of the park. Once we worked our way to Boundary Springs, the headwaters of the Rogue River. Those springs silenced any conversations that might have been going on between crew members and the magnificence wrapped around our eyes, our minds for a cool respite that few places might offer. At last, I was at the birth of Rogue country.

More than likely, I saw birds at Boundary Springs, but my records are incomplete. My memory holds onto bright yellow mimulus leaping up stems anchored on furry green mossy islands in the bubbling cold water. I remember drinking the water and feeling the liquid crystal quench my thirst. Was the moment one on the dangerous side of grave illness? No, not then. In fact, by the mid-60’s I had drunk from many Oregon streams. Once, still in high school, I attempted to beat the speed record for hiking the Rogue River trail. John Day was a local resident cattle rancher turned mountaineer that including a failed attempt to summit Mt. McKinley. In or near his 50’s, Mr. Day began speed climbing and one day he and a friend decided to do a hike down the Rogue River as fast as they could. It took them 17 hours to hike 56 miles. With a companion, who had recently gotten out of the Marines, I hiked, jogged, ran, and crawled the 56 miles, tying the speed record. My companion was 28 minutes faster. The point is, the trail crossed several streams and we were not carrying water. What we did was reach back into our packs for a handful of bread and, as we crossed a stream, bend down, dip the bread in the creek and suck out the water without losing a single stride. Then, and the day at Boundary Springs were days it was possible to drink from a stream and live to tell about it. Drinking from streams today is asking for a dose of giardia, aptly called Beaver Fever, or worse, E. coli.

Would I drink from the sparkling waters of Boundary Springs today? Absolutely not. The next 24 hours were of my first visit to the springs were, alimentary canal wise, uneventful. However, what birds did I see? Dippers probably are the birds to suspect. There are not many records of birds from Boundary Springs in Donald Farner’s 1952, “The birds of Crater Lake National Park.” There was a 1934 specimen of Dipper from the springs and Farner reported finding Brown Creeper there in 1941. Perhaps I reported bird observations at Boundary Spring upon returning to the rangers’ dorm adjacent to headquarters. Maybe I filled out an observation card and gave it to Richard McPike Brown. Dick Brown was chief naturalist, having worked at Crater Lake since 1952. His career overlapped that of Farner, and although a botanist, Dick was a naturalist. His enthusiasm about everything was contagious and on most of the fire crew’s backcountry trips, I brought back notes on the birds I found.

The next summer, with a meager promotion to assistant fire chief, was another time well worth spending. As last year, the crew of five at Crater Lake cleared wind-blown trees from the fire roads, and kept generally a close eye on the park, including the inn at Rim Village. We did a fire inspection there, which is another story. We watched for misbehavior, and once I had to chase an employee of the concession from the rim to just past headquarters. My passengers were white, the brakes almost smoking and spongy from braking for the serpentine route and I was surprised. The ordeal left my adrenaline on high. The big overpowered pickup was full of rocks and a challenge while muscling the curves. It was not my little sports car, but the trip on the bumper of the speeder was actually fun although the chase also left me a bit angry. Neither emotion was appropriate and embarrassing to admit. I knew then that I should never be a patrol cop. I also remind myself from time to time when I might be speeding, to heed flashing lights. You never wonder what might happen during traffic pull-over. If there were any birds along the perilous trip down from the rim, I did not notice. The rule, do not look for birds while operating heavy equipment should apply.

Birding opportunities were good around park headquarters. On more than one occasion Sooty Grouse, then Blue Grouse, would prance along the trails leading from the ranger dorm. It seems so strange that these grouse are so often difficult to impossible to see yet at times, they act as tame as barnyard chickens. Munson Creek flowed sparklingly behind the dorm. I used to keep beverages cool in the creek; craftily hidden from view should a tourist stroll by. Mountains Chickadees were my only witness. I could open my upstairs window and hear a Warbling Vireo, see a passing flock of Red Crossbills, glimpse a Gray Jay skulking around the trail down to the mess hall, and watch juncos foraging here and there. The creek flowed south into Annie Creek and down to the Klamath Basin.

That second season at Crater Lake took me down into Castle Creek, which is most definitely in Rogue country. With three adventurous rangers, I traveled down into the ghostly colored Castle Creek canyon. We wore hard hats to protect ourselves from small rocks that occasionally fell from the walls. It was narrow, wet and sometimes slippery. There was no room for riparian growth. Consequently, few birds were around. I recall a flicker surprising me. I remember a couple of unsurprising dippers.

A position as fire chief became available between my third and fourth college years. That is how I spent my summer vacation. What more could a kid want. By now, I had herded cattle making me a cowboy, sort of, but do not tell Clint Eastwood, an enforcer of the law and do not tell Clint, and a fire chief.

My last summer with the Park Service was in the black rocky habitat at Lava Beds National Monument. It was different from the green trees of previous summers. Although volcanism played as the main theme, Lava Beds National Monument, California, was no Crater Lake. Besides flatter, it was harsh, rough and hotter than Crater Lake. The avifauna was good for Sage Thrasher, Brewer’s Sparrow and Pinyon Jay. Lava Beds, because its northeastern boundary is nearly on the southern shore of Tule Lake, also has a healthy portion of waterfowl on its checklist.

While at Lava Beds, I became inexplicably enthralled in reading detective novels. The laundry room, shared by the seasonal staff, had shelves of Matt Helm, John MacDonald, Donald Hamilton, anything of mystery ilk filled off duty hours. My behavior, strange for me, occurred about the same time I began to think of my previous career choice. Since back before there was a was, I thought of an occupation in a national wildlife refuge then, more recently, the idea of working in a national park could not be beat. However, during that summer in Lava Beds National Monument, I began realizing that there are far more politics in the park service than anyone should experience. In addition, I learned about the Federal Tort Claims Act. Although enactment of this liability law was in 1946, I had not heard of it nor could I see its relevance. My thought was that if a tree fell on you in a national park, the fault lay not with the park but with the person hit by the tree. That the bonkee can sue the government seemed contrary to what a park is. In wild America, you take your chances. However, the chief ranger at Lava Beds was worried about tree limbs and set the crew to right the potential wrongs of limbs of doom. I dubbed the work as city parkerizing natural parks. My aspiration to be a team player with the National Park Service ended. No wonder I escaped into detective shoes. The need to read mysteries abated about the time I met Charles F. Yocom from Humboldt State College in Arcata, California. He had worked with Donald Farner and Dick Brown at Crater Lake before deciding to be a seasonal naturalist at Lava Beds. Before summer was over, Charles and I penned a short manuscript on some of our observations of birds in the monument.

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