Friday, January 25, 2013

Turquoise Galaxy

I am reminded of the days when ocean met sand and the sun rose before I fell asleep.  There was music in the night, and the sound of wind through the palm fronds pulled the dreams out of me.

I spent the weeks in the forest looking up into the trees at pink pigeons and green parakeets.  I waved to you across a mountain once, and I ate the white fruits of the forest and cleaned my hair with the rain.

The ocean always stood mighty before us at the end of our drive.  The sugar cane swayed and whispered in the warm afternoon breeze and we saw the swell of the ocean as it pulsed toward us, distant silence.

Gently we lived upon that hill, in the middle of an ocean on the other side of the world.  Over there.  So far from home and so at home all at once.  We existed for a blur on this small green planet in a turquoise galaxy.

And now, as I sip my California wine, with the echoes of the complaints of the day, the murmurs of my responsibilities crawling through my brain, I remember the six months I spent over there, in the middle of nowhere.

My heart it sways to the memories of a remembered way of life.   It stays with the music of an old Indian Ocean.  My friend, I miss you.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Pacific Warmth - (May 2011)

Coconut palms are plentiful on the island of Luta
Rota is hot.  Not just hot, but humid.  Like a warm, wet blanket on your shoulders this three-dimensional heat takes some getting used to.  But what really took me off guard was another type of warmth, one I had never quite experienced in North America.

The day began like any other.  Cypress and I struggled out of sleep, hitting snooze a few times before crawling out of bed.  Bleary-eyed, I wandered out to the kitchen to prepare breakfast for our three captive crows and Cypress boiled water for our coffee.

I headed down to the aviary with two bowls of boiled eggs, Triphasia berries, and mealworms.  One portion for Sonny, and one helping each for Latte and Graucho.  With the crows fed, Cyrpress and I focused on our own breakfast of fresh ripe papaya and grilled peanut butter-and-banana sandwiches.  We sipped hot coffee and attempted the Thursday New York Times crossword puzzle.  At 8:30 we were out the door and heading north on our tiny island.  I dropped Cypress off at the golf course to look for Tiger Woods (the crow, not the golfer) who was recently fit with a radio transmitter.  I then headed southeast toward the As Matmos fishing cliffs to locate Roo, an adult female Mariana Crow.  As Matmos is Chamorro for "the drowning place", a fitting name for the precipitous limestone cliffs that receive continuous thrashings from angry Pacific waves.
Artocarpus or Breadfruit Tree

I drove slowly along the sun-bleached limestone road and stopped near the entrance to the ancient Mochong Beach latte stone village (some over one-thousand years old).  A light wind played a papery song through the Pandanus leaves and felt cool against the sweat that had already accumulated on my skin.  The air was alive with the chirps and screeches of Black Drongos and Micronesian Honeyeaters. Fairy Terns and White-tailed Tropicbirds floated silently upon the warm breeze.

I reached into the truck, pulled out an antenna and and attached it to my radio receiver with a coaxial cable.  Holding the antenna high above my head with one hand, I flicked through the frequencies on the small receiver until I found Roo's with the other.  Only the sound of static escaped the speaker.  I adjusted the gain until a faint, steady beep could be heard to the northwest.  I climbed back into the truck and headed further down the road.
On my way I passed a lime-green pick-up parked off to the side.  It was common practice for locals to hunt coconut crabs and fruit doves, and I figured these people were doing just that.

When I reached the Maya latte stone village to the north I tried for Roo again.  This time I detected her to the southeast.  Judging by the strength of the pulse I knew she was close, so I continued on foot.  As I made my way through the thick, tangled underbrush of Eugenia, Guamia and Maytenis, the beeps grew louder.  I paused to get an accurate direction when suddenly, I heard two harsh cries in the direction my antenna pointed.  It was Roo calling to her mate.  I stealthily made my way over to her and sat quietly beneath the large Neisosperma tree where she and her mate were perched.  I marked a waypoint on my GPS and scribbled some observations in my bright yellow Rite-in the Rain notebook while the pair preened quietly.
Mariana Crows are critically endangered - and seriously awesome

A few minutes ticked by and the forest grew silent.  A hermit crab scuttled through the leaf litter and wasps glided sleepily from flower to flower through the humid shade.  I waited a few more minutes to see if the crows would do anything of interest but they seemed to be content in their lazy morning silence, so I made my way back to the truck.

I exited the tangled tropical forest carefully, trying my best not to disturb the myriad wasp nests that littered the trees. Back on the road I began to head for my truck when a voice called out:

"Hi there!" A local man came down the road towards me and I realized he was the owner of the green truck I'd seen earlier.  "Sorry to bother you, are you Fish and Wildlife?" "Not exactly", I replied.  "I'm with the University of Washington - I work with the Aga." "Ah", he said with some recognition then continued, "My aunt and I were out here collecting medicinal plants but our truck ran out of gas.  Could you possibly give her a ride back to Sinapalu so she can get fuel?"

I hesitated for a moment as I looked at him, then at her.  I nodded and smiled, "Of course". The two strangers ran ahead of me to grab something from the bed of the truck.  The man picked up a large machete and my eyes grew wide with terror as they flicked from knife to man.  I stood frozen but remained calm.  Besdies, I had encountered random strangers carrying large knives before throughout my solo field wanderings.  Once while hiking around Mauritius I encountered a group of grim-looking monkey hunters streaked with dirt and sweat.  Since there was nowhere for me to hide, the only thing to do was smile and say, "Bonjour..."   They all broke out in wide toothy grins.  "Allo! Allo! Allo!"  And off they went into the jungle.

I heaved a sigh of relief when this knife-toting stranger proceeded to haul up a large green coconut from the bed of his truck. With one hand holding the bottom of the nut he swiped at the husk and hacked-off the top.  He handed it to me and told me to drink, "Nothing quenches your thirst like a young coconut!"

When I finished drinking the refreshing juice he took the coconut back from me and cut it in two.  He fashioned a scoop from a piece of the exterior shell and scooped-out some white jelly-like flesh and gave it back to me.  His aunt appeared beside me.  She didn't speak English, but her ancient face crinkled into a smile as she pushed a large hand of ripe bananas into my arms.  I was dumbfounded and felt guilty for thinking for a second that these people could do me harm.  I climbed into the truck and blushed as I placed the fruit on the dashboard.  The aunt climbed in next to me and I threw the truck into gear.
Thousand-year old Latte Stones like this one litter the forests of Luta.  They were once the stone pillars that ancient Chamorros built their huts upon
We drove down the dirt road toward town and despite my inability to understand Chamorro the Aunt and I managed to communicate.  I gathered through expressive hand gestures and a few random English words that she had been born here on the island, originally called "Luta" but the name was changed by the Japanese during their brief occupation during WWII because they couldn't pronounce the "R".  She had never left.

When we reached Sinapalu, she directed me to her home. I pulled up on her green lawn next to an old Honda Civic.  We were greeted by a small two-story cinder-block home with rebar poking out all over the roof, as though another story would someday come to pass.  They never did, however.

She motioned for me to follow her and we went around the back of the austere house.  I was greeted by a small outdoor kitchen with several hands of bananas hanging against wood- and stone walls.  She poured me a glass of cool water and looked pleased as I drank it down.  She disappeared into the house and came out with a bag full of freshly-caught squirrelfish.  I couldn't believe she was giving me more gifts for a quick ride to town.  I shook my head and put up my hands.  She looked disappointed and pushed the bags into my arms.  I asked if she had caught the fish herself.  She nodded as she turned around to grab her fishing rod.  She showed me the land crab she used to bait the hook.  The crab was past its prime but I smiled through the awful smell.

She patted me on the back as she walked me to my truck.  "Don't you need a ride back?"  I asked.  She shook her head no and pointed to the old car parked on the grass.  Before taking my leave I took her hands and thanked her.  As I headed back out into the field I marveled at what had just happened. People surprise the hell out of me sometimes.

After I found the rest of my crows, I returned home to cook my squirrelfish.  I paired it with fried bananas and shared them with the rest of the crew.  It was one of the best meals I'd ever be lucky enough to eat, and I savored every bite.
"As Matmos"

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Art of Stability

I left Rancho Santa Margarita with Rainbows on my feet and a head full of memories.  I wake 177 miles northwest, in a strange yet familiar place.  Another field season has ended and I have a handful of weeks between a new gig and my last job.  The desert waits for me but there is so much to do, and so much to ponder.

I'm not used to having my life planned out.  I can't help but feel a little nervous about committing myself to a 9-month contract.  Seems silly, doesn't it?  Most people thrive on stability, but it makes me uneasy.  I enjoy the thrill of not-knowing.  Applying for jobs has become second nature.  The sit-and-wait game makes my heart beat like a drum and my stomach dance like a butterfly.

I suppose I always knew this would happen.  As we get older and more experienced the time comes to make decisions.  Decide to stay or, decide to go?  What was I still searching for?  I sat perched atop my safe little fence for a long time.  Yes or no?  If I said yes it would erase all possibility of finding myself on a tropical island, chasing some rare bird.  If I said yes it would reinforce my skills and strengthen my resume.  I was stumped, so I called upon my mother for advice. 

As a baby taking my first steps she sat a few feet away coaxing me with enthusiasm to walk towards her.  My chubby little legs took me to the safety of her arms and to this day she is the one I turn to when the going gets tough.  But this time she encourages me to remain far away, in California.  She made a lot of good points and finished by saying, "In the end, it's only nine months."

Only nine months.  Simply 270 days.  I exhaled, exasperated.  Despite not-quite-knowing, I made my choice and threw all my doubts to the wind.  I suppose 'the unknown' would have to wait a while.  Right now there is veg data to be gathered in a cottonwood-scented basin, and then birds to be banded, and children to teach back at Starr Ranch  Sanctuary.

My stomach remains in knots, but I find some peace in knowing that a pine cabin awaits my return in it's bustling oak woodland.  And I must say that all of this would have been a lot scarier on my own.  The best part about having a home is sharing it with someone you love.

Four months in review:

This Barn Owl was a rare capture at the SRBO MAPS Station.  After a long night of unseasonal rain his waterlogged feathers prevented flight.  We took him to the raptor house to dry off and then sent him on his way.
A White-eyed Vireo surprised us on May 29th.

Say Cheese!  SRBO banders pose at the end of a busy day at the MAPS station.

One of the best things about working at Starr Ranch is the opportunity to teach others.  What's better is learning from them.

A male California Tarantula in search of a mate
Starr Ranch Sanctuary in all it's glory.  Saddleback Mountain peeks over the wild oats.
Cypress poses in front of the ranch entrance.  You would never think that behind me is a horrendous sprawling suburb.  Starr Ranch really is a sanctuary in the mess that is Orange County.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Morning in the Canyon

A little over four months ago I made my way down a narrow dirt road into Bell Canyon.  Audubon Starr Ranch Sanctuary sat at the bottom, unassuming and soaking in a cool puddle, the product of a late March rain.  Nestled at the eastern edge of a sprawling suburb, 'the ranch' backs onto a vast wilderness bordered by two major state highways. 

It took little time for me to fall in love with this place, and it's easy to see why.  I wake to the cacophonous cries of Acorn Woodpeckers, the crunching footsteps of Mule Deer and the begging chirps of baby birds. This is one of the last wild places left in Orange County  - and I am delighted to call it home for another 9 months...

Munching Mule Deer

Mule Deer are a constant presence at Starr Ranch

I share my home with this aptly named bird: the House Finch

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Birds Upset by Disheveled Appearance

It's been long debated whether bird banding (or ringing as they call it in Europe) has any ill effect on birds.

Studies indicate that despite increased levels of bird banding activity, mortality rates  are surprisingly low (less than 1%) (  However, there is another issue that begs to be considered.

When birds leave the banding station, their physical appearance is appalling.  They have spit on their heads, their feathers are matted and in some cases, brood patches and cloacas are visible, which can be very embarrassing for individuals.  After their release, birds are forced to preen for at least five minutes in order to restore their aesthetic appearance.

It is a known fact that ugly birds have a harder time finding mates.  Thus, newly banded birds must spend more time preening and getting beautiful in order to impress prospective breeding partners.

Serious study needs to be done in this area, so at this point it is difficult to say what negative health impacts those five- to ten-minute post-banding preening sessions have on birds, but it is safe to say that it does nothing for their self-esteem.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Chickens in Distress

Remember that "Meet your Meat" film that PETA created a few years ago?  People thought, "It can't be that bad.  I'm sure most places don't treat their animals like that..."  Well, see for yourself. 

I personally took these photos at the Chase St. entrance on the SR10 going into Athens.  These chickens have arrived from Texas and are being delivered to a distributing plant in Athens, GA where they're "processed", divvied up and distributed to grocery stores.

I've been meaning to get some photos of these trucks for some time.  I often find dead chickens on the road that have fallen out.  Many of them on board are squashed and have broken legs.  I personally can't eat something that's suffered like this. 

The chicken at the top left has been crushed.  His feet are dangling out of the wire cage because either he's dead, or so weak he can't sit up.
This truck came all the way from Texas.  Long ride, especially when you're squashed among hundreds of other passengers

Sunday, February 19, 2012






The radio receiver emits a series of steady pulses against a static background.  0.719 is sitting in a large Water Oak among twelve other Rusty Blackbirds.  The oaks surround a man-made pond, in a man-made environment consisting of two houses nestled on an open field, dotted with tall oaks and Loblolly Pines.  The birds sing together and sound like the turning hinges of an old iron gate.  Is their name derived from this sound?  Or is it inspired by the rust-colored feathers the males sport during the winter months?  Perhaps both.
Can you spot the RUBLs? 

Rusties like to be near water.  They largely depend on wetlands for their food during the winter months.  Invertebrates including insect larvae and worms, and vertebrates including minnows and the odd salamander, all high in protein, make up a large part of their diet.  When it gets cold or wet, the Rusties move into residential areas to eat pecans and acorns, which are higher in fat.

Over the last few decades the Rusty Blackbird has seen a marked decline in numbers.  Their population has dwindled since the 1960s and today, biologists are scrambling to determine why.  There are a number of theories that have been developed.  Many believe the problem lies on the wintering grounds.  Pesticides, mercury poisoning, loss of habitat, and an increase in natural predators are some of the factors being looked at.   

My job as a biologist with the Polistes Foundation in conjunction with the University of Georgia is to catch these birds and attach a radio transmitter to each individual so that I can track them in order to determine what they’re doing - where they’re going, what species they’re interacting with, and what they’re eating.  This research can give us insight into their personal lives and help determine what they need during the winter months, and whether or not they're getting it.
0.992, a female RUBL we captured after 0.719
The natural world is getting smaller and smaller  as urban environments and agriculture spread like a pernicious virus.  It’s as true here in Athens, Georgia as it is in the Amazon.  Wetlands, like the rainforests, are succumbing to bulldozers and dump trucks.  They are being drained and filled, or choked with silt and invasive plants.  And the species that depend on these habitats are disappearing. 

But we can't simply narrow it down to disappearing wetlands.  Many Icterid species use wetlands, like Red-winged, and Yellow-headed Blackbirds and their numbers (for now) seem to be stable.  So something else is acting on the Rusty Blackbird.  Perhaps it all comes down to flexibility. 
I ponder this as I watch 0.719.  Since 7:45 AM, he has been using the same residential area along with the rest of his flock.  It is now closing in on ten o'clock.  The sky is grey and a steady, misty rain falls.  Occasionally it pours, but it doesn’t last long.  The flock moves from tree to tree, settles to the ground along with Common Grackles, strutting around, picking at nuts, seeds, insects, and worms, before taking off into the trees once more.  Sometimes they’ll sit there for half an hour, preening and singing, before taking off in a ball.  0.719 eventually flies off with his flock, north into the thick of the wetland.  I move with them.

Why don't people take us "hippies" seriously?
At the end of the day, streaked with muck, with raspberry thorns embedded in my skin, and twigs in my hair, I walk back to my car.  I fold up the antenna and drive to the Kangaroo Express to get gas (I know).  At the pump a man pulls up behind me and gets out to fill his own tank.  He gives me a funny look. 

“Playing in the mud?” he asks.   

I look down at my filthy rubber boots and laugh.  I tell him I was tracking blackbirds.  I didn't include the “Rusty” part. Few people have any idea what a Rusty Blackbird is.  Fewer know that North America is home to over 716 species of breeding birds, and nearly twenty of those are Icterids including the traditional blackbirds like Red-winged Blackbirds, grackles, and cowbirds, as well as the orioles and meadowlarks.   

“Why would you bother doing that?” He presses.   Bother?  I silently scoff at his choice of words.   

I tell him they’re declining.  

“Like, endangered?” He asks.   

“Soon,” I reply,  “if nothing is done to help”.  

He laughed.  “Now, why would we want to keep a blackbird around?”  

I honestly didn’t know how to answer this question.  Not for lack of reasons.  I've tried many times to explain to the typical ignoramus who argued that "if you can't eat it, why keep it" that a world rich in biodiversity is a good thing.  There are many reasons why we should work to keep our many neighboring species around, but people on their way home from work don't like to stick around listening to a hippie blather on about why the planet needs saving.  

So, I simply said, “Why not?”

0.719 preparing to roost