Friday, September 9, 2016

Twelve Days in the Sun: A Search for Fairy-wrens Across Queensland

In addition to my paltry journal entries, I am forced to consult an atlas to help me remember our journey. The experience exists in my head like a lovely dream, all at once so real and just beyond the grasp of recollection. I should have written it all down as soon as I returned to our field station, but I was too exhausted and elated at being in the presence of the certain comforts which we lacked during our time on the road. The details come back to me slowly when I encounter the names of certain towns on a map. Mary Kathleen: a town square with no buildings. Richmond: silly dinosaur statues. Camooweal: hot.

We spent twelve days exploring the Australian outback and covered 2,663 kilometers of mostly empty road, but I can only recall the memories in small, colorful bursts - the pounding hot sun, loping giant red kangaroos, a vast salty desert, an abandoned stone house, and many, many birds. Above all I remember a feeling of all consuming awe at a world I feared I would never see again.

Our Route

Day One 

November 22, 2009

We left Herberton, a small town in eastern Queensland where I was volunteering as a field technician for Cornell's ongoing study of red-backed fairy-wrens with four other hardworking young women. Dan, our boss, was now leading the project as a new PhD student. His research was focused on determining the role that ecological variation had in driving the divergence of sexual traits in these charming little birds. He needed someone to accompany him on a twelve-day collecting trip across Queensland to obtain blood and feather samples from 100 male fairy-wrens. I embraced the opportunity, excited at a change of scenery, more banding experience, and the chance to see new species of birds we couldn't see in the tablelands. The rest of the crew stayed behind at the field site - a donkey farm owned by a pack tour operator - to continue the important work of searching for new nests and banding young and rogue fairy-wrens.

The Atherton Tablelands
The Kennedy Highway took us west through the wind turbine-dotted verdant hills of Ravenshoe (pronounced "Raven's Hoe"). The tropical forests of the Atherton tablelands soon gave way to dry savannah and eucalyptus scrub. Two hundred and seven kilometers southwest of Herberton, Dan and I made camp at the Bedrock Village caravan park in Mount Surprise. We set up our airy tents and canvas cots in the waning heat. It was November and the beginning of summer in Australia. Air temperatures reached over 100 F, but night descended quickly providing some relief from the heat. After a quick dinner, we  retired to read by the light of our headlamps inside our respective tents.

No longer in the tablelands!

Day Two

Sick. I woke up drenched in a cold sweat. My throat was on fire and I realized that my tonsils were the size of ping pong balls. My forehead burned with fever as I lay on my stiff military cot. A less than ideal way to start the trip.

Dan an I ate a breakfast of black tea and granola soaked in hot water.  The tea temporarily soothed my throat but the cereal was hard to swallow.  I sat silently chewing my food into the smallest possible bits, swallowing little by little in utter agony.  Dan asked if I was okay but I could only produce a withering, “un-huh”.  I wanted to cry. I was indignant at the failings of my immune system. I didn't want to hinder Dan's research goals and I cursed the timing of this illness. I managed to hold it together and choked down a pair of extra-strength Advil chased with a warm cup of water. I focused my attention on the pink corellas playing behind the outdoor kitchen, waiting for the pain killers to take effect. Tonsillitis (?) or no tonsillitis, there was a lot of work to do.  We cleaned our dishes, packed up camp, and set-off for the field.

Our first attempt to trap Dan's male fairy-wrens took place in a dry, shrubby savannah on the west end of town where emus made themselves invisible through immobility and double-barred finches darted about in acacia trees and bunchgrass. We split up and walked around for half an hour trying to locate a group of fairy wrens to capture. We each found a few lone individuals but ended up targeting a larger foraging flock in the center of the site. We set up two mist-nets in the shape of a "V" and circled back around the group of twelve birds.  Together we set in on the fairy-wrens, driving them toward our nets. It took multiple attempts, as the birds were nervous and dispersed around our setup.  We hiked back a ways, squatted down and waited for them to return.  

As we sat like statues an emu made his way toward our gear.  The unwelcome guest, if frightened, could put a large hole in our net and we had few back-ups. Dan slowly walked toward it and drove it in the opposite direction. Eventually the foraging flock made its way back around and this time, without hesitation, we bolted toward them. Six individuals hung upside-down in our trap and we plucked them out with great enthusiasm.

Intermediate male red-backed fairy-wren: pure gold after a long day of searching

Ninety-four birds to go.

By the time we had banded, gently plucked and bled our last bird, the sun had reached its zenith and it was time for a top-up on my pain medication. Dan spoke to a few residents around town in an attempt to gain access to their property and all of them were surprisingly friendly and accommodating. I wasn’t used to the welcoming attitudes. Back in North America people were quick to shoo biologists off their land. But not here. Neighbors made small talk, asking us where we were from and what we were looking for. When we told them about the fairy-wrens they grew excited and recalled their own stories of the birds they knew colloquially as "red potbellies".

Cheeky apostlebird

Regardless of my inconvenient illness, we chase birds through the dry savannah all day. Afterwards, we drove towards Blancourt Station. We stopped for a lunch of cold meat sandwiches on a pullout on the side of the highway.  Apostlebirds gathered in the trees and scolded us as we ate. We used our cooler as a table and watched warily as the cheeky black birds flew closer, growing bolder in greater numbers.  Soon they were above our heads, squawking loudly. I can't figure out if they want our food or are defending their territory. We hit the road before we find out what these little devils are made of.

Cattle station camp

The dry forests along the highway seem devoid of bird-life but we lucked out after some hours of searching. We set up a few nets on the property of a large cattle station after being given the go-ahead by one of the owners (wife). She even invited us in for supper and a shower! but we didn't have time and opted to camp and remain dusty for the evening.

Cooking rice at the cattle station

We managed to trap a few wrens, collected blood samples, released the birds and called it a day.  We cooked rice by lantern light and camped on the side of the long driveway.  At 10 PM the station manager (husband) approached in a large, loud tractor and warned us of an encroaching wildfire which forced us to leave early the next morning. 

Day Three

After a seemingly short night of vivid, fever-induced dreams I awoke, again soaked in cold sweat and with large tonsils. The smoky dawn was filled with the surreal cries of currawongs. I heard Dan unzip his tent but I remained on my warm, sweaty cot listening to the large corvids and praying for a few more moments of rest. I eventually had no choice but to do the same. A fire was approaching, not to mention there was much work to be done, so much road to cover, and we had less than two weeks to do it. With great reluctance, I too emerged from my tent.  

A single-lane highway unraveled before us while the hot Queensland sun beat down upon our rental.  "Ventura Highway" by America filled the Mitsubishi and the song, as it always does, pulled at my heart. Dan and I chatted excitedly when we realized that we shared affection for a certain 1980s cartoon whose soundtrack featured music from the same band.

Careful on those single land highways. Road trains rule the roads.

We continued west and stopped for lunch at a park in Georgetown. Dan surprised me with a cold (!!!), fizzy mango soda to sooth my swollen, burning throat. Apostlebirds took on a different attitude here. Rather than ganging up on us they begged for food around our ankles like stray cats. Magpie larks bobbed their heads as they picked their way through fervent green lawns fed by sprinklers. We napped on the benches of our picnic tables before setting off toward Croydon.

I don't remember much about Croydon except for an old, lone smokestack in the middle of nowhere (probably an old copper smelting plant), and a small reservoir with many new species of birds. My favorite was the Australian pratincole, a curious leggy shorebird that resembled a mix between a seriema and a plover.

Later that day we drove ourselves into a giant salt flat devoid of life.  There were no trees, little grass, and absolutely no fairy-wrens. We had to drive another 160 km to Normanton before seeing any form of desirable habitat, and thus any chance of catching birds.  

No fairy wrens out here!

In The Slater Field Guide to Australian Birds, red-backed fairy-wrens appear to sprawl all over the northern portion of the country from east to west.  However, Dan and I quickly learned within the first day of our trip that they would not be so easy to find. Fairy-wrens seem to prefer some form of understory, especially tall grasses, intermixed with larger trees where they can cluster in groups and sally for air-borne insects. Much of Queensland, save the coastal portions, consists of desert scrub and open savannah. The outback is an immense place and we had to drive hundreds of kilometers between patches of suitable habitat in order to locate the birds. Even when we found seemingly ideal locations, there was no guarantee that they would be there.

Day Four 

The Australian outback spread before us like a shimmering mirage. We kicked up dust as we drove north towards Normanton and could barely see the ribbon of dirt we left behind.  There was nothing to look at out here besides the grandeur of the desert. There was nothing but incredible space and slow time. When we reached Normanton I could smell the Arafura Sea, twenty miles to the west. We camped at a caravan park, dejected at finding no fairy-wrens in the surrounding area, but all woes disappeared when we discovered a swimming pool.

After a long, luxurious swim we relaxed around camp. I spied a bowerbird in the parking lot behind me while I strummed at my cheap guitar. I was beginning to feel healthy once again.

Freshly showered and strumming in the Normanton caravan park

Red dirt road

Day Five

We head further north on the Burke Developmental Rd. but the salty land is flat and dry and devoid of fairy-wren habitat. We turn around and head back south. Onward to Cloncurry!

As we bridged the 230 km gap between Normanton and Cloncurry we noted something very strange.  For the first time on our trip the highway was full of activity. Clouds of grasshoppers filled the air and smacked against our windshield as we drove through the swarms. The grasshoppers also attracted a myriad of bird species that unfortunately followed the insects into the highway. Willy wagtails bumped off the top of the windshield and our grill was full of insect carcasses. I slowed down in an attempt to spare the birds but we had a long way to go and we would never reach Cloncurry at this pace.  Dan urged me to speed up - hitting the birds, like the insects, would be inevitable.

When we reached Cloncurry we climbed out of the car and stretched our tired bodies.  I walked to the front of the vehicle to survey the damage. Hundreds of grasshoppers filled the front compartment. I picked a diamond dove out of the grill and held it up to show Dan. I placed the dead bird on the side of the road and whispered an apology.

Grasshoppers all up in our grill!

I can't remember much else about the town besides brolga cranes strutting along the sidewalk, and a billboard guaranteeing “a warm welcome”.  Apparently back in 1889 the town experienced a record high of 127 F. Today it was only a little over 100.

Day Six

We take the Barkly Highway west toward Mount Isa and visit Mary Kathleen, a ghost town with a terrible secret. Originally settled in the 1860s, the town didn't boom until uranium was discovered in the 1950s. The area was eventually abandoned in the 1980s when mining became unprofitable and the land was "rehabilitated" for grazing. A failed $19,000,000 radioactive cleanup attempt left seeping uranium tailings to poison nearby evaporation ponds. Nothing remains here but a grid of old roads and stop signs but no cars, a town square with no buildings, and steps that no longer lead to homes. Probably a good thing.

Camp outside of Mt. Isa

We made it to Mount Isa! A bustling copper town in the middle of the harsh Queensland desert.  A local birder took us around to search for wrens. During our wanderings we found a midden full of aboriginal artifacts, stone tools, flint, and arrowheads. Saw several new birds. Found wrens near a copper mining site and caught a few. An angry mother wren perched on Dan’s hat while he processed her two fledglings. For dinner we headed back to town and eat surprisingly delicious fish and chips wrapped in newspaper. We spent a long time searching for the turn-off road that leads to our camp. We found it after several sweeps back and forth along the dark highway. I am so happy to collapse inside my tent. Utterly exhausted. I am too tired and too sore to set up my cot. The ground is hot and hard but I fall asleep easily regardless. 

Mad mama trying to protect her babes

Day Seven

Mount Isa again. We did some more serious work today running through the harshest environment I've ever experienced. Spinifex grass has painfully embedded itself in my legs but it was worth it. We caught several wrens (and a spinifex bird to boot)! I also got to untangle a fat blue skink from the net and we nearly caught a rainbow bee-eater (bounced out).  I took a bucket shower behind the truck and pulled spinifex splinters out of my legs all evening. Feeling annoyed at the existence of fairy-wrens and Dan's need to study them... 

Excellent fairy-wren habitat

Rocking the dirt tan with a female red-backed fairy-wren in-hand
Day Eight 

We made our way further west to Camooweal, the last town at the edge of Queensland. We wandered into the surrounding savannah and were happy to quickly hear the twinkling twitters of fairy-wrens. Cockatiels whistled from the trees and thousands of bright birds colored the sky neon green. We focus our binoculars on them and realize they are budgerigars!

By noon it is too hot to work so we head to the car and drive back into town. We stopped at a gas station to fuel up and the thermometer reads 110 F in the shade. 

Quittin' time!

Back the caravan park I took a very long, cool shower. I felt a little guilty at using so much water in such a harsh, dry environment but it was just so heavenly. I stood there soaking in the coolness knowing it would be a while before I had a chance to do this again.

It was very hard to sleep that night. The road trains (think 18-wheelers on steroids) came and went at all hours of the night, their thunderous engines causing the earth to quake, their enormous dust clouds choking our airways.

Road Train

Day Nine

Camooweal again. Dan and I split up to scour the scrubby outback for new fairy-wrens. Instead I found a dead bustard on the side of the road. I collected a few of it's large and lovely feathers and enjoy the alone time to reflect on the last few long, hot days. Only one more day in the field before we began the long trek back to Herberton.

We eventually find two groups of fairy-wrens and try for both with some success.  Later that day we drove the short distance to the Northern Territory.  We took photos standing atop our rental and waved at passing road trains.

We made it to the Northern Territory!

Day Ten

We are headed back east along the Flinders Highway and stop just east of Julia Creek. Dan and I split off again in opposite directions. I drifted through a scrubby meadow with outstretched hands, grazing the tips of the dry grass with my palms.  I found fairy-wrens but they were the wrong species (variegated) and I watched them for a while as they sallied for insects. The ground suddenly began to shake and a flock of giant red kangaroos appeared. My heart pounded as they bounded through the crunchy grass only a few feet away. Bustards snuck through the trees, but no red-backs are to be found here so we move on.

Variegated fairy wren. Cool bird but not what we were hoping for.

In Richmond we made a visit to a museum filled with cheesy dinosaur sculptures and fossils of footprints of long dead beasts. We spent the night in the Lakeview Caravan Park. I marveled at how thick and lush the grass was and walked around enjoying the sensation on my bare feet. Hundreds of fat cane toads soon litter the lawns like ornaments as night descend and we hit a few with golf clubs. Dan hates them (they are exotic and highly invasive) and he makes them fly especially far. Tree frogs live in the showers but they are native and I welcome their quiet presence. 

Argh! A quick visit to the dinosaur museum in Richmond, QLD

Cheese! Posing inside a liopleuradon

Day Eleven

We headed east toward Hughenden and took the Kennedy Developmental Rd. north past Porcupine Gorge National Park. We are back in the tablelands and huge gymnosperms and eucalyptus trees line the red dirt highway. There were large reservoirs, lots of wise old cows, and weary loggers - but no fairy-wrens. We camped out alongside the road, our last night afield.

Day Twelve 

We made it back to the donkey farm absolutely exhausted. Our legs full of spinifex splinters, and our hides falsely tanned with several layers of outback dust, we are happy to be home. Dan and I spent twelve days scouring the state of Queensland and came back with samples from 76 birds. We hadn't anticipated that finding 100 male fairy-wrens would be so difficult.

We decided that we were awesome, and high-fived. Best collecting trip ever.

Our friends are happy to see us

Home sweet home in Herberton,QLD

An early Thanksgiving celebration with the RBFW Crew!

Photo credits: Dan Baldassarre

Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Hidden Forest

The Cabin
We rumbled along the empty highway toward Corn Spring, the sky darkening all around us. We were heading for Cow Camp to spend a night beneath a blanket of stars before climbing to higher elevations the following day. The FJ bumped and rattled over large rocks and small boulders as we made our way up into the Desert National Wildlife Refuge, just north of Las Vegas, Nevada. The night was calm and silent when we arrived, the air became still after the dust had settled. I picked over the site to find an ideal spot to lay out our tarp, sleeping pads and giant sleeping bag. Cypress started a fire while I kicked rocks out of the way and prepared our bed. Soon the fire was crackling and we were reading scary tales from the macabre mind of H. P. Lovecraft. We were engulfed by total darkness. There were no other sounds up here besides Cypress's voice, only the warm whooshing licks of the fire's flames.

The next morning the sun soaked our faces with bright, brutal rays as it peeked over a rocky ridge. We groaned our displeasure and rubbed our eyes. It was impossible to relax here in our sweltering  two-person sleeping bag. I put water on to boil while Cypress packed-up our bed. We enjoyed cup after cup of creamy instant coffee before preparing peanut butter and banana oatmeal in our blue tin cups. Sufficiently fueled and feeling rested, we set about exploring our desert surroundings before heading deeper into the mountains in search of a century-old cabin hidden amongst the Ponderosa pines.

During our wanderings we discovered a cave guarded by an ancient desert tortoise who promptly scurried back into his den upon seeing us. The cave was large enough to sleep two people, the blackened roof appeared to have the scars of hundreds, if not thousands, of fires. We decided that we would return to Tortoise Camp in the future.


We turned onto Hidden Forest Rd. driving up to the trailhead. It was only a 5.5 mile hike to our destination - with an elevation gain of some 2,013 ft. Used to car-camping and unaccustomed to backpacking, Cypress and I took some time to reorganize our gear and supplies in the hot 2 PM sun. We took only the essentials (beer is also an essential). Cypress was thoroughly weighed down with 2.5 gallons of water (plus three Sculpins) and I with a 3-L Camelbak and 1-L Nalgene. Rather than adding more weight by taking our foil dinner packs with us we hunched over them in the shade of the FJ and devoured them before setting off.

The trail was rocky and uncomfortable underfoot and our 30 lb. packs weren't helping. But it felt good to know we had everything we needed on our backs - water, tent, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, clothing, lighter, food, headlamps, and binoculars. The dry, open landscape slowly changed as we climbed higher into the mountains. Joshua trees gave way to Piñon pines and junipers. The succulent opuntias, decadently adorned with juicy, purple prickly pears, become scarce in the increasingly piney landscape. A large flock of Pinyon jays caw-cawed overhead in search of ripe pine nuts. A juvenile spotted towhee scolded low in a purshia. The birds were becoming plentiful and interesting. MacGillivray's warblers skulked just ahead of us, avoiding full views while the Wilson's warblers chased flies in plain sight. As we reached higher elevations the cute "ney-neys" of the pygmy nuthatches could be heard high above, as well as the thin whistle of the brown creeper. Hairy woodpeckers tapped at the tops of tall pines. Would we be so lucky as to see a Lewis's?

By 7,600 feet we were completely surrounded by towering giants. The damp rocky canyon walls closed in around us. Small ferns emerged from the wet crevices. Mountain maples crowded the canyon edges. We knew we were close.

Suddenly a light shape took form in the dark woods ahead. A roof. We were in the presence of the majestic old cabin. The forest was enchanting. The setting was idyllic. Multiple fire pits dotted the large camp. We unloaded our heavy packs onto one of the three picnic tables and turned around to behold a dripping pipe. Fresh spring water leaked from the earth even now in late August. We flushed an Oregon junco and juvenile chipping sparrow to fill our empty Nalgenes. While we replenished our water supply we explored the old log cabin, repaired in 2009 by several volunteers. The building was secure and solid and smelled of wonderful pine wood. Previous campers had left freeze-dried dinner packs, baby wipes, and water, as well as etchings of their names in the cobwebbed rafters. Saws hung from nails on the wall. Someone had built a lovely table, able to seat four. A hard bed was tucked in the far corner in front of a functional wood stove, uncomfortably able to sleep two. This would be an amazing place to visit in winter.

The sun was setting and the woods grew darker. Cypress set about starting a fire while I set up our tent. It was supposed to storm this night so we opted for shelter rather than sleeping out. After our cozy tent was erected and sleeping pads topped with sleeping bags, I helped Cypress saw some logs. The saw's teeth were heavily worn and it was hard work cutting through the thick, fragrant wood. We carried log after log over to the fire pit just as the rest of our crew arrived. It was pitch black now and we howled at the bouncing lamp lights.

Soon whisky, cheese and salami were being passed around the roaring fire. The air was chilly and the heat from the flames warmed us nicely. We drank and dined until midnight. Thoroughly tired and full of food, sleep came easily. I woke only briefly as thunder rolled in the distance and raindrops danced upon our tent fly.

The next morning our ears were met with the songs of Cassin's vireo and Cassin's finch, and the buzzy calls of lazuli buntings. The spring was absolutely flooded with thirsty birds. Black-headed grosbeaks, Oregon juncos, Western bluebirds, and mountain chickadees all took their turns drinking and bathing in the cool waters of Wiregrass Spring. Dusky- and gray flycatchers sallied from nearby branches of mountain maples, and rufous hummingbirds dodged the gaping maws of hungry cooper's hawks.

We would have to return before the migration ended.

A forest lurks just beyond the Joshua trees 

An old desert tortoise pops out of his burrow for a spell

Cypress evaluates the fire-scarred cave and decides that, yes, we should come back and sleep here

Taking a thoughtful rest as we hike up Deadman Canyon

Early morning birdwatching at Wiregrass Spring

A black-headed grosbeak watches and waits with great anticipation...


Attempting to lure Cypress out of his warm sleeping bag

It worked, eventually.

Trinkets and treasures left by many a hiker

A happy hermit warbler

Back at the trailhead as the sun sets over Desert National Wildlife Refuge

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Rattlesnake Ridge by Boat

The morning air was warm but the breeze made it feel refreshing. I had a feeling it was going to be a good day. (Any day where something didn't break was a good day.) We drove to Weber boat launch and my stomach was in knots as we approached the river's edge. The water was lower than the day before and the knot loosened. Katie backed us into the water and I shoved off the small aluminum fishing boat, hopped in, lifted the motor and dropped it into the chocolate-milky water of Bayou LaGrue. The motor started and ran strong. The girls hopped in and we sputtered up north to Rattlesnake Ridge. We glided peacefully across the smooth tributary of the White. We swerved around corners and blocked out the rising sun with open palms. I saw my first alligator dash into the water as we roared by. We made it to the field site in 20 easy minutes.

The day was hot and the air was thick with mosquitos. They sucked my blood as I listened for birds and searched for nests. I met with a small cottonmouth sunning itself on a dead limb. We nodded at one another in recognition. He continued to bask, and I continued to my next point count. I must have walked 5 miles today, or at least it felt like it. My legs grew tired and I tripped over vine tangles and fallen trees. 

I finished my last point count at 11 AM. The cicadas of Brood 23 were humming at an impressive pitch. I had three hours to search for new nests. Nest searching is such a rush for me. I love following the sound of scolding birds, putting myself in their feathers and guessing where, if I were a bird, would I put my nest? Sometimes I'm spot-on and as I approach that dark shape in that small ash a nest materializes out of the shadows and I am awash with glee. But it can be enormously disappointing at times. After the second hour passed I was on the verge of tears as I crouched behind a low shrub trying to see where a female indigo bunting was heading with her insect morsel. She had spotted me and sat chipping above my head, alerting the avian community to my unwelcome presence. The sun was beating down and mosquitos nibbled at my flesh. I moved back behind a large snag, trying to hide. She spotted me again and scolded even more intensely. I was nearly ready to give up. And then I spotted it. A nest, nestled into the new growth of the A plot. Nearly invisible. Ahhhhhhhhh. Bliss. This is what heroin must feel like. I approached the nest and three tiny heads popped up. I flagged the nest and moved on in search of the next one.
So many places for an indigo bunting nest to hide...

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The List: a Peek Inside my Head

The 50-foot BNC to BNC video cables have been ordered. The four-marine-battery purchase has been approved by my advisor. Video data has been downloaded. Data entered for the day. Data backed up for the day. Equipment organized. Updates sent. Field clothes doused in permethrin. Schedule updated. Scholarship? Applied for.

Grad school is a big fat to-do list. Just when you think you've crossed everything off the list, and after you've jumped up and down clapping like an idiot and praising yourself like a moron, you realize you have a bunch of other shit to do.

It's June. You know the way the Papua New Guinea Pavilion at the zoo smells? That's what it smells like now in the bottomland forests of Arkansas. It's hot. It's damp. The air hums with insect noise. The stinging nettle is up to our waists. The ticks are everywhere.

In the beginning I was afraid we wouldn't find enough nests. We've actually reached a point where we have so many nests that we can't do anything else except check them. We need to do veg surveys. We need to band birds. We need to focus on the other sites. We need the rodents to STOP chewing up our video cables. I need to praise my amazing, hardworking friends. Check.

Current Status of my Head... or Six Cowbird Eggs in a White-eyed Vireo Nest?

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Control

When conducting a study you always need a frame of reference with which to compare your experimental data. Allow me to introduce TH-C...

I began grad school at Arkansas State University a little less than a month ago. The project: studying the effects of bottomland hardwood forest harvest regimes on the reproductive success of understory species of concern. Primarily, Hooded-, Kentucky-, and Swainson's Warblers.

Historically, bottomland hardwood forests were the dominant cover type in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley (MAV). Today it's corn, rice, and soy.

Land managers have slowly started taking steps in the right direction by buying-up land and protecting it while implementing harvest regimes that not only aim to benefit the buyer, but also give back to the birds. But there is a paucity of information out there describing what happens after the trees fall.

I'll be focusing my efforts on evaluating the predator community, Brown-headed Cowbird (an obligate nest parasite) response, and overall avian abundance & density, as well as the reproductive success of three warblers of conservation concern in areas that have recently been harvested using currently accepted "ecologically-friendly" logging practices.

Secondary Growth Bottomland Hardwood Forest

"TH-C" stands for Trusten Holder Control. Trusten Holder is a wildlife management area located in Dumas, AR consisting of 10,000 acres of protected land owned by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, US Fish and Wildlife, and the US Corps of Engineers. I have three study plots in here, two of which have been harvested, and one control.

My other study blocks are located in the White River National Wildlife Refuge. The WRNWR consists of over 160,000 acres of protected wildlands. This may sound like a lot, but compared to the twenty-four million acres of bottomland hardwood forest that used to cover the MAV, it's laughable. Less than 4 million acres - or 16% - remain spread across Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana, most of which is fragmented.

Our most important resources are disappearing quickly and intensive, responsible management is imperative. I'm hoping to shed a little more light on how current forest management practices are affecting our feathered friends. Stay tuned...

It's hard to believe that an ancient forest replete with 100-ft-tall bald cypresses and 2-m-wide water tupelos stood here only a few hundred years ago

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"