My 53rd birthday has come and gone since I last posted. Burt and I have been taking advantage of the extra long days and wandering far and wide taking in the Montana scenery. The old saw of “If you don’t like the weather in Montana…just wait 15 minutes” is proving itself true. We’ve had balmy, warm. sunny days interspersed with snow and gilded with rain. Three solid days of rain reignited the local flooding and sapped our solar power batteries. I keep telling Burt that we’re reducing our carbon footprint by refusing to fix the furnace and going without power when the sun stays away for too long. It’s helped me toughen up.
On my actual birthday we birded, played Bridge, went to a new restaurant and took in a show. It was all enjoyable but the Bridge. The Thursday crowd is a tough one and Burt and I were shredded. Proverbial ribbons or mincemeat or chum. Pick your favorite ass-kicking analogy. Our pictures will be in the dictionary next to chump.
Two days later we rejoiced in helping Montana celebrate the 25th anniversary of its first Pride parade. I remember the first event and it gives me hope to see how much has improved in twenty five years. There is so much wrong and too much work still to be done to secure human rights for everyone but I was uplifted by the energy of Saturday’s event. Despite heavy rain and frigid temperatures the parade was well attended and local business were busy. Our spirit of love kept us all warm.
There’s a very special bird visiting Helena right now. While common in much of the US, Mexico and Central America the green heron is a rare visitor to this part of the country. This is the same species (or not) of bird found in the Galapagos Islands. Out on the remote islands it can be seen in two distinct plumages and is called the lava heron or striated heron or green heron. Depending on your predilection. Burt and I saw many many many green herons on our two trips to the Galapagos. Today we will not discuss if we should lump or split this lovely bird and it’s kith and kin. We shall marvel at the fact that this individual said, “I’m gonna check out a new place.” My ebird research reveals the closest record was from 2016 up in Cascade.
How we found this bird is a testament to doing science every day and the motto of “every bird counts, count every bird.” The book Lab Girl certainly has been on my mind as I consider all the work volunteers around the world are doing to count birds. Almost every list is mundane. Robins, house finches, starlings, Eurasian collared doves…blah bland blah. But the science is found in the mundane. Data is boring but must be collected so we can see the meaning in the big picture. Each individuals list is meaningless but together something is learned. Our lone green heron is a blip. He’s meaningless to science but he’s a juicy reward for us.
Burt and I had both had long busy days. He worked on the remodel job. I walked 4 1/2 miles to town and then spent two more hours cleaning an older friend’s home. At lunchtime Burt and I met for Bridge. The unit game started with a free lunch and a commotion. The director and her minions were out of sorts. There was yelling, a kerfuffle over the wrong movement. Boards were seen by the wrong people. More yelling. I kept my head down and mouth shut but I was rattled. Then I had a long sequence of missed heartbeats or palpatations. I became confused and couldn’t remember what I was doing and ruined a couple of hands from complete brain fog. My mood was dour and my head and chest ached. Burt wanted to leave. I told him I’d rather die playing Bridge than go through another endless round of tests in the ER. He let me stay. It is clear that emotional stress with a mix of physical exhaustion is my main trigger. With my new meds just getting underway I want to just wait a bit before heading to the doctor again. Bridge wrapped up with us not in last place. That is the best we can hope for on a good day. Considering I couldn’t remember if aces were out in any suit of any hand it was a great day.
Afterwards we had an hour and a half to pass before meeting friends for an early birthday celebration. I suggested we take the dogs to the new Ten Mile Creek Park. Elvis and Olive could enjoy the new off-leash area and we could see some birdies. And that’s how we came to spot a rare visitor in the jungles of Helena. Burt said, “I see some kind of heron over there.” I peeked and thought, “It seems very familiar. It reminds me of the striated heron in the Galapagos.” Well, that’s because it was the same species of bird (if you’re a lumper). A quick look in iBirdPro revealed that we had found a green heron in an unusual location. What an improvement over bridge. Calm brain on a gentle walk. I felt like I was firing on all cylinders again.
Here’s a fact about the green heron that I should have known but didn’t: Green herons are tool users. They use bits of leaves or bread or other fishies to lure in fish to eat. They are bait fishermen. No wonder we like them.
I just ate a book. I mean I that. I consumed it and it is now in my DNA. Hope Jahren has written a memoir of beautifully melded failure and success, helplessness and victory, science and love. I found it so relatable that for the first time ever I thought, wow, I’ve got to write her a letter and say, “Thanks for writing this book.” So I did. And I’ll tell you, this book is worth your time.
I came by this book accidentally when a friend handed it to me and said she couldn’t get going on it and maybe I would like to try. I had no idea what I was getting into. Apparently this book is the rage on the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math education) for Women circuit. I was out of the loop. Dr. Jahren takes us on her journey from a lonely childhood where she worshiped science through her education and onto career in academia. She even landed at Georgia Tech for a few years. Meanwhile she shares in crystal clear and devastating detail the hurdles of sexism, mental illness, and the difficulties of a career in scientific research. She’s quick witted and to the point. Meanwhile there’s a bunch of cool tree information interspersed that makes you see the world of trees in a whole knew way. Trees as nurturing communities and cunning competitors. Trees as vital to our survival. It all relates back to how we as humans live.
In some way I feel less along in the world by having read her story. I once stood on the precipice of a career in academia. I was approached by two professors to consider continuing on in grad school as their student. It was flattering but I was sick of it all. I felt like they needed to fill the female quota and I was just standing there looking malleable. I certainly didn’t have the drive for a life in engineering research (structures or soils). I needed a job. This book reinforced to me that I made the right decision and also let me see just how it might have been. It also felt kinship with the constant struggle to be taken seriously as a woman in science. There’s a paragraph in the book, only one, that covers it head on: Women are always too this and not enough that in constant contradiction. Not womanly enough, too manly, too direct, too circumspect, too good looking, too ugly, too fat, too thin.
We had a garage sale and it was a success. The clients got rid of a ton of things and now the garage is available for work space. Meanwhile I’m continuing on my medical checklists. Mammogram done and all clear. Heart monitor off, we’re waiting word on the results. My blood work was fabulous. I started a new heart medication. I got the first shot of the new shingles vaccine. The long delayed colonoscopy is scheduled. My night guard to protect my teeth and jaw is under construction. I’ve been walking many miles counting birds and practicing my fiddle. Burt has been working diligently.
Olive has become my main walking companion. It’s tough to leave Elvis home. He’s a trim and healthy looking 12 year old but he has lost his get up and go. He’d rather sleep in the trailer than walk, especially if the walk is uphill. I give him happy pills for those days he does too much but mostly I leave him behind. Olive seems pleased to be doggy number one. She minds very well and likes to get out and see the world. I sometimes wonder if Elvis and Mimi are in a battle of the wills to see who can outlast whom.
This week Burt and I drove from one end of Montana to the other. Jardine on the edge of northern Yellowstone National Park first and then Kila, just west of Glacier National Park a few days later. It is green out there. Signs of life and death are all around. We’ve eBirded a heap of locations and I feel like I have no idea what is happening out there. Bird song is everywhere and almost all of it is incomprehensible to me.
On Memorial Day we took a short break on our drive back to Helena at the regular put-in for the Dearborn River. There is a popular 19 mile float that launches from a highway bridge right of way. The place was loaded with shuttle vehicles. This is a special river for Burt and me and we hope to float it soon. The area is known for rattlesnakes and I gave a hearty scream when a four foot gopher snake came right at me and slithered by my foot. A friend commented on my photo and asked why I got so close. I was just standing there. The snake came at me.
Another day I found mating spiders. Jen, Robin, and Burt all came running when I told them spiders were having sex, so I am not the only oddball in this family. The male and female caught my eye when I saw them end to end in a web. I initially presumed it was either a meal or a molt. Spider molts often look like dead spiders. I took a close look and scared them apart but they were so into it they immediately regrouped. The male spider passed golden globules of semen from his palps to the female’s abdominal orifices. Right, left, right, in and out. On and on it went. Shining globes disappeared one after another. For hours. I found three more pairs of the same spider species doing the same thing nearby. Love was in the air. The next day it was over. No sign of the male. I fear they were eaten.
The rivers are up and the grass is green. Montana is in full glory this week. Burt and I are getting some miles in and catching the scenery. Yesterday we delivered the cabinets to Jardine, MT on the edge of Yellowstone National Park. Next year we will be living and working in Jardine. It’s pretty remote and spectacular. It’s a tight alpine valley with views into the northern tier of the park. We had a pleasant visit and I’m already looking forward to walking in grizzly country. I’ll have to add bear spray to my binoculars and phone on the mandatory equipment list.
On our way home we took a walk in Headwaters State Park near Three Forks, Montana. Headwaters is where the Gallatin, the Madison, and the Jefferson Rivers come together to form the Missouri River. With all the water it was pretty swampy in spots. The birds were a twittering like crazy and we spotted some new sparrows. I found a porcupine skull. Here it is below. I knew it was a porcupine because I saw its spines. Without that clue I would have guessed beaver. Check out those chompers.
In the Galapagos every place seems far away and everything in Montana seems close. When we visited the famous mail box of the Floreana Island I happily snatched up three post cards from our area and thought it would be fun to deliver them to the addresses. The post box is a three hundred year old whisky cask and has been in use since 1793. For over three centuries people have left their mail in the hopes that other travelers would help it get home. The system is easy. You drop off a card and subsequent passersby look through the addresses and take any letters they can deliver.
In my enthusiasm I grabbed Livingston, MT, Idaho Falls, ID, and Stevensville, MT. Two weeks ago we were driving through Idaho Falls and I couldn’t find the post cards. What a loser. Idaho card looms over my head. Luckily we drive through there nearly twice a year. The cards are now in the glove box ready when we are. This weekend we barely found the address of the Livingston card. Google Maps had us looking for a home deep in open country. Luckily the nearest house was the place. It was only a mile away from the GPS dot. Sadly nobody was home. I hope young Sam still lives there. I found him on Facebook and sent him a message after we dropped it but so far no response. The location could not get more stereotypical Montana. A historic ranch, a shovel with the house number, an antique table on the porch. It was all so green and idyllic. Too bad the young cowboy was not there to complete the montage.
Stevensville card weighs on my mind. Why did I pick this one? I never get to Stevensville. I think the note was called to me. Mom sent a sweet words to her daughter. Maybe this week on our way home from Kila we will take the hour detour and deliver the card. Maybe not. Maybe some other time.
Global Big Day 2018 is still happening but we are done. For months I’ve been trying to figure out where to bird for the annual global census. I knew we wouldn’t be in Baja and it made me sad. For three years we’ve done our best to get the Baja birds and our neighborhoods represented on the annual event. This year it just wasn’t meant to be. For the last week Burt and I looked at maps and did some side excursions and as we steadily headed to our job in Montana. It’s intimidating trying to bird a new area. New species, unfamiliar terrain, logistics with the trailer were all conspiring against us.
Two days ago we were at the Nelson Morley Birds of Prey National Wildlife Refuge in central Idaho. This seemed like a good spot. After birding it Thursday evening we realized it was just too difficult to sort out the raptors and we felt hemmed in by the canyon walls and the narrow riparian area. I looked at the map and decided we should bail and head for the Camas National Wildlife Refuge. Camas NWR is famous for its waterfowl and waterfowl are pretty easy to key out if you come across a mysterious bird. Despite this feeling of inadequacy at the Nelson Morley NWR we landed 6 new life birds. Or at least eBird says they were new birds. Since I’ve only been listing for a few years it’s still easy to land a new bird that I might have seen many times in the past.
We arrived at Camas yesterday around 4:30 PM. I was hoping there would be signs of life and some kind of official participation in the Global Big Day. No and no. A sad state of affairs for one of birding’s most important citizen science events. The place was empty and there was no camping allowed. Burt and I did an afternoon reconnaissance of the birds and liked what we saw. There was a lot going on. Owls and kestrels and blackbirds everywhere. Since we were happy to spend the day at Camas NWR and likely would be the only people officially birding it was worth a short drive off to a rest area to spend the night. I was relieved to know we’d finally found a place to spend the day.
It all worked out just great. We saw 52 species of birds and did 12 checklists over 5 hours. Camas NWR is a sprawling wetland and every time we got in the car we had to start a new list. That’s how it goes doing science. Delightful short-eared owls kept popping up out of the reeds while northern harriers did sky acrobatics. The waterfowl were not so many that we couldn’t count but diverse enough that we had to study the water surfaces each time we left the car. We found a pair of great horned owls and a bald eagle nest with two fledglings. Burt’s favorite bird today was the harrier. I likes the owls. And the porcupine.
Now we are resting in a rest area. Tomorrow it’s time to work.
Burt and I mean to leave this place pretty quickly. Too bad we’re both so sick that we haven’t packed. End of season social obligations have sucked all the energy out of us. Here’s what we’ve done instead of secured our property and stowed our gear.
Thursday we took my dad and SaraGay and 11 other kids and five more adults to the San Jacinto waterfall. It was a mob scene. Nobody died. Everyone is home. If you weren’t sick before the waterfall you probably are now or will be soon. Three people slipped and fell. One dead fox was found. A lot of fruit and veggies were eaten.
The next day I accompanied my fried Lorna to the cardiologist in La Paz. La Paz is an easy hour drive from here but 79 year old Lorna had a stress test scheduled and the Bridge ladies decided she shouldn’t go alone. I went. I needed to meet the cardiologist anyway and there’s good birding in La Paz and I adore Lorna, but everybody does so that’s not special. I have also had two stress tests and I knew exactly how it would go. She’d be fine and get pushed to the point of puking or she wouldn’t be fine and would have bad news for the ride home. Neither situation a good one to be alone. It turned out to be the later. That’s Lorna’s story so I’ll end it here. Lorna and I moved on and got her new meds and went to lunch and visited the wastewater treatment plant. I spotted two new birds. One was the black bellied whistling duck, a very funny looking creature. The other was an avocet. I’d seen the avocet many times but never in Mexico.
By that evening it’s obvious I’ve finally caught Burt’s cold. I don’t have time for this. I woke up at 4 AM and puzzled out how to get everything done until it was time to get up. After breakfast I ran chairs and blankets over to Mayra’s yoga studio. Our first birding class was scheduled for Saturday evening. We needed blankets to cover the windows and chairs for all our (hopefully) guests. Then we went to Bridge. Lorna and I played together and we kicked butt. It was a 66% game for us. Hence the we-fie above.
After Bridge Burt headed to round up the kids and I finished setting up the room and projector for Joaquin’s presentation. We’d planned an introduction to birding for children. Joaquin hit a homerun. He was personable and made quick and entertaining work of the subject for our audience. Everyone seemed enthused. Afterwards we went to dinner with dad, SaraGay, Joaquin, and Selene. We were home by 8:30. Joaquin and Selene stayed in the rumpus room.
This morning we were up and birding by 7:30. Burt and I wanted to go to bed but we aso wanted to share our bird spots with our guests. So we hit three places and walked several miles by 11:30. My recent spottings of the endangered Belding’s Yellowthroat at odd locations around town were confirmed by Joaquin. Yay, me. This means these birds are desperately clinging to life in tiny patches of water wherever they can find it. Hopefully we can use the information to build a network of small wetlands that will bridge the larger habitats.
Now I am in bed. While Burt and I were running around a neighbor was in the yard repairing our trailer’s suspension. We’d hoped to be closing things today and pulling out Tuesday. It looks like we might be a day later.
The Gypsy Carpenters are heading north in about a week. Our time in Mexico is swiftly wrapping up. I am not ready to return to the US. Last year my Trumpitis sent me to the hospital. I’m hoping I’m immune but only exposure will tell. Meanwhile we are making the most of our time here. We’ve taken the kids out on several outdoor expeditions during the last two weeks.
Twelve of us visited arroyo San Jacinto and walked a mile to the waterfall. Before we arrived Burt and I wondered if the kids would appreciate a creek walk to a small waterfall. Did they know what to do? They sure schooled us in how to have fun. They stripped off their shoes and ran in the creek and hopped on boulders and wallowed in the shallow water. Burt had to show them how to get into the waterfall but once he coaxed them in there was no stopping them. All ten of them went nuts. It reminded me we knew how to play when we were young and barefoot, too. What a gift for us to remember what it was like to run light and quick over rock and sand.