My friend and former colleague, Betsy, invited me out to fish the newly rehabilitated stretch of Prickly Pear Creek as it passes through the former Asarco lead smelter in East Helena. Last year Betsy took me on a tour and showed my the stream work in progress. This year it’s already coming back to life. Fish! Birds! Vegetation!
This was a weepy moment for me. Way back in 1997 Asarco entered into a consent decree with the U.S. EPA that was the result of a multi-year and multi-state investigation requiring the cleanup of this plant and many other things including cold, hard cash. That investigation was successful because EPA and the Department of Justice had a team of young, driven, and excellent investigators and lawyers. I just happened to be the investigator that discovered the original violations that got the whole ball rolling. It was not an easy push. I had to convince many people that our long culture of giving the mineral processing industry a pass on waste management was a misinterpretation of our laws. Unbelievable to me today was that I succeeded. I’ll spare you the details but suffice it to say neither the State or the Feds were in the habit of asking lead smelters to do anything to manage their hazardous wastes. It was because they were misinterpreting something called the Bevill Amendment in our Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Or at least, that’s what I thought. From my remote outpost in the Montana Office of the 1990s I was able to convince or cajole management to let me try. Through the course of the work I found other like minded people and together we changed the face of the mineral processing industry.
Many further developments have happened. That first Consent Decree started a cleanup process that twenty years later is showing real results both above and under ground. Teams of contractors and EPA staff (Looking at you Chuck and Betsy) have wrangled the site into a pocket of beautiful habitat. All of us feel lucky to have seen this from start to success. Soon the general public will be able to access the area and catch their own fishes. This is the good that government does.
It’s August. In Montana we’re expecting to break 100 this week. The birds are quiet. They’re resting up after the hectic breeding season and they are molting in new feathers for the long migration next month. It’s not an easy time to bird. I kind of want to rest up myself. All year I’ve been participating in eBird’s citizen science challenges trying to earn myself a free pair of binoculars or a spot in an online bird course. So far no luck. August’s challenge is to provide eBird with fifty photos or recordings of birds. I am not enjoying this challenge. I find it bothersome. The birds are hiding, I am hot, I can barely take a descent photo when I’m not trying to count birds and fifty is just a lot of birds. On the upside it doesn’t have to be fifty different birds. So I came up with a plan to make this as productive as possible. I take photos at the bird feeding station every few days.
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.
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.
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 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.
I am continuing on with my attempts to win high end binoculars from eBird.org by entering their monthly birding challenges. In the name of citizen science eBird has a challenge every month and also for the. This year’s contest requires at least one complete bird list for every day of the year. I don’t have to bird every day but I have to submit at least 365 lists during the year. I am at well over 100 and it’s only March so that shouldn’t be a problem. There’s also a drawing for binoculars for people that complete every monthly challenge of the year. And there’s a pair of binoculars given away every month for the monthly contest. Last month’s contest was easy shmeezy. The contest was designed to get people birding and reporting to eBird so I had to share at least 15 checklists. Burt was my main companion and recipient of the shared checklists. Even with both of us completing the challenge we still did not win.
This month’s contest is a real pain. I have to submit at least 15 checklists with media attached. That means I have to include photos or sound recordings of the actual birds on that day’s list. Not all the birds but at least one from the list. No historic photos allowed. That day, that list. Since I usually bird by phone using the eBird app I considered just submitting a bunch of terrible phone shots of birds in shrubs and palm trees. You have to rate your photos so I would just rate them all poor. But then I started thinking it would be my kind of luck to win the drawing with a bunch of shoddy photos. How embarrassing would that be? Fuzzy photos of feathery blobs from too far away. I couldn’t do it. Instead I’m birding from bed. It’s a lot easier than heading out with phone, binoculars, and camera with telephoto lens.
Our feeding station is just outside our window. I can sit in bed and make a list and take some photos without breaking a sweat or dropping my tools. If I win I’m still going to be embarrassed but at least my pictures are pretty good quality. Today a turkey vulture (feeling sorry for me) flew by in the little triangle of sky I can see. The bird on bird action has been hot and heavy these last few days. Longer light and warmer weather have cued up the hormones of desire and the doves are jumping each other. They are so quick I can’t get a picture.That’s kind of embarrassing for them and me.
Yesterday I tried to buy bird food but our local tienda only had chicken scratch. It’s not very popular with the birds. They spend a lot of time kicking it out of the feeders looking for their favorite morsels. I could be in trouble.
So here’s a little something you might never have heard of, the oil bird. When I think oil bird I always think of oiled birds, those black creatures accidentally trapped in spilled oil. Happily, oil birds are not oiled birds though the origins of their name are just as grim. Oil birds are a nocturnal, fruit eating bird of South America. They are the only bird in their family. That means there are no other birds like the oil bird. These unique avians live together in large groups inside of caves or cave-like formations. The oil birds use echolocation and smell to find fruit in the dark. They can fly nearly 120 miles away from their cave each night in search of food.
Burt and I heard about the oil bird cave in Ecuador and despite it being an hour drive from where we were I told him we had to go. I knew just enough to know that you must pilgrimage to the oil bird roost. We’d never see one just wandering around. Their nocturnal lifestyle and jungle habitat make them very hard to see. Burt had never heard of this creature. I told him I’d spotted some posts about it from friends that had been to Trinidad and seen them there. So off we went to visit La Cueva de los Tayos.
If you google cueva de los tayos you’ll find a bunch of stories about a famous cave, aliens, astronauts, Native Americans, and expeditions. That’s a different cave. If I ever go there, I’ll share that story. Here”s ours.
We found the Cueve de los Tayos well signed on the side of the highway 45, northeast of Baeza. Already that morning we’d hiked to a waterfall in the rain and we were thoroughly wet. We pulled into the roadside parking area and found a pair of city visitors and a guide. Our guide advised us that we were about to embark on a steep, muddy walk with a thigh deep river crossing. We were going to get wet. I replied we were already wet so let’s go. Our guide did not lie. It was a steep and muddy descent into the upper elevations of the Amazonian jungle. As we carefully made our way down slippery stones and mushy logs I pondered my lack of knowledge on the Amazon. Here I was in the actual jungle, in the Amazon watershed for the first time in my life and I was completely uninformed. Were there army ants? poisonous frogs? venomous snakes? I felt a slight taste of panic rising. Would I return home covered in leeches? Tropical diseases I hadn’t prepared for began to run through my head. Yellow fever, cholera, malaria. Wow. This was a fun way to pass a hike where the biggest risk was probably breaking my ankle. I talked myself off the ledge and reasoned that we were still too high for any tropical nightmares. But were we?
Eventually we reached the river. Going down is hard work because the body is fighting gravity and trying to use it at the same time. It’s much easier to fall while trying to stay in balance. Climbing is easier mechanically but much harder on the cardiac and respiratory systems. I was concerned I would not be up to the up hill climb. I put all these worries aside and followed my guide across the river. The thigh deep water was only to our knees. Burt’s and my knees. The guide and our Ecuadoran companions were nearly hip deep in the flow. This was a serious mini-expedition. I asked the guide if there was an easier way in and he said no. If you want to see these birds you’ve got to suck it up and do the work.
We followed the river up stream just a few hundred more feet. The greenery covered walls of the canyon closed together over our heads and we entered the nave of a natural cathedral. This wasn’t an actual cave but a tight spot in the canyon where light couldn’t reach. It was more like a tunnel. Light peaked in from the far side. Our guide urged us to keep quiet as we walked deeper into the darkened enclosure. Just over head a pair of big eyed birds gazed down. One at a time we each went in and stood. Birds called in a cat-like scream from all around and flew back and forth from shelf to shelf. It was magic. There was a lot of action and the birds were very loud. Nocturnal doesn’t mean they are all asleep all day long. They eat at night but they do other birdy things during the day. These birds seemed to be gossiping.
Eventually we turned back and made our way up and out. It was a nice slow pace and not difficult. I think it took about 30 minutes to go bottom to top. On our way up I asked about snakes and our guide said they aren’t found at that elevation. I can also report I contracted no tropical diseases and did not find any leeches.
Oil birds got their name because oil birds feed their chicks so much that they become super fat and eventually weigh more than the parent birds. These chicks were a rich source of food and easy to catch. These plump chickies were eaten and also boiled up for oil. Check out THIS funny write up on the oil bird.
Trip report from the singing and swinging group on the Letty. Susan and Burt, Susan and Bill, Amy and Edwin, Sue and Clay, Brian, and Fiona, and Robert. From this point on: Susan is Susan Mittelstadt. Susana is Susan Roth, Sue is Sue. There’s a full list of birds seen at the end.
2/4/18: The very first moments of our very first day looked like we might have a long week ahead of us. It all begin well enough with a fish dinner followed by Amy’s birthday cake at Puembo Birding Gardens. Then things went bad. Susan woke up with an intense version of tourista at 2 AM. With only 5 hours to go before the bus to the airport arrived some tough calls needed to be made. Pondering the hospital or disturbing a guest, Susan and Burt chose the guest. Edwin has been Susan’s intermittent primary care provider of 35 years and the two share a long tradition of medical care in remote locales. Susan swallowed her pride and gratefully accepted a shot of anti-nausea drug. She also despaired over the idea of dragging some noro-virus like disease onto airplanes and a ship with a group ready to enjoy the Galapagos Islands. Edwin assured her that if she kept her hands clean she would not infect the group. So she made up her mind to get herself to the Galapagos and recover en route. At seven she was able to leave the room and found the group rallied and taking over leadership roles. Burt was managing Susan. Susana was gathering people, luggage and keeping track of time. The bus was late. Twenty minutes after the scheduled pick up time the bus was spotted passing by a block away. Our hostess was excitedly trying to direct the driver by phone but it was not working. Ultimately Bill saved the day and ran down the bus on foot. Run, Bill, run! We arrived at the airport with only a little time to spare but EcoVenturas was ready and swept us though all the preliminaries with alacrity. Susan was wheeled about in a wheelchair. Sue and Clay joined us at the airport. We all made the flight. Way to go team. Roberto joined the group at the stopover in Guayaquil.
We arrived in San Cristobal on schedule and were ferried to the boat. The Naturalist Journey’s group met 6 new friends and we seamlessly merged into one group of friendly and excited participants. Susan passed out the species checklists and shared the extras with the other couples. We had our boarding briefing and then enjoyed the first of a continuous string of fine meals. After lunch there was a practice emergency drill. Susan slept through it but reports were it went well. We are all pleased there was no need to find out who or who not might have been paying attention.
The afternoon was the first snorkeling of the trip. Burt helped the newbies figure out the mask and snorkel and generally relax in the water. Fiona saw her first sea turtle. Highlights of the outing were the Pacific Green Sea Turtle, the blue-footed Booby, sea lions, great and magnificent frigate birds. That night an exhausted group headed to bed early. No music was played.
2/5/18: By the first morning aboard we were all under the Galapagos’ magic spell and the bad omens of the day before were forgotten. We started with a wet landing at Cerro Brujo and a beach walk. Our Ecoventura guides Cecibel and Giancarlo set us free to explore a lovely stretch of soft sandy shoreline. We walked in sight of Leon Dormido (or Kicker Rock). There we saw our first marine iguanas and lava lizards. The San Cristobal mockingbird, a warbler finch, and the velvety gray lava gull were also spotted. Elliot’s storm petrels danced on the water behind the Letty, too.
The late morning was spent snorkeling nearby. Words fail, mainly because I have no idea what we saw. The snorkeling never failed to impress.
After lunch we did a hike at Punta Pitt. Begging blue-footed booby babies. Dancing blue-footed boobies. Egg sitting blue-footed boobies. Blue-footed boobies are looking good at Punta Pitt. A marine iguana took a run at Susan and she leapt and screamed to the delight of everyone in her group. Susan swears she was not scared only startled by the love stuck reptile.
Highlights of the day: All three species of boobies (red-footed, blue-footed, and Nazca) were seen. We also enjoyed close up swoops of the nocturnal swallowtail gull and the red-billed tropic bird. Fiona is bitten by the bird listing craze and it is revealed that her SO is an eBird administrator. Fiona spots a pair of American Oystercatchers.
2/6/18: Day three found us walking at Punta Suarez on Espaniola and sea kayaking, snorkeling, and hiking along Gardener Bay. It was a jam packed day. On our hike we saw our only waved albatross. It was dead but nobody seemed to mind. Giancarlo explained that the largely unfilled niche of carrion eaters in the Islands was why skeletons and mummified remains were so plentiful. On the live side we saw more Nazca boobies, a snake, and sea lions and marine iguanas. The marine iguanas are especially colorful and active this time of year. Our boating expedition was a delight. Calm seas, clear water, balmy temperatures. What else could you ask for? Susan and Fiona went out together while Burt boated with Brian. Roberto did the SUP and all the other couples were paired with their mates. Nobody was thrown overboard.
During the snorkel we saw a massive ball of creole fish. A shimmering blue delight.
That night Susan ate her first solid food and the instruments and singers came together and got the trip groove going. Brian, Burt, Susan, Fiona, and Roberto got down. The Capitan danced with Sue to Love Potion #9 while Claudia drove the ship. Edwin wins the award for knowing all the words to all the songs.
The day’s highlights: Galapagos mockingbird, Espaniola warbler finch, wandering tattler, a yellow-crowned night heron, creole fish, marine iguanas.
2/7/18: On our fourth day we were getting the hang of this expedition. Our ship was anchored just off Floreana. Cecibel had us getting up early to avoid the heat. The early wake up call had the added benefit of avoiding other groups. We’ve hardly crossed paths with other visitors on any day. Despite our good natured grumbles about the 6 AM alarms we are happy. That Cecibel is a smart one. On this day we visited Post Office bay and learned the history of the area. Following a centuries old tradition we took the time to sort through the mail and find some post cards to hand deliver. We left our own cards behind with the hope someone would bring them to us someday.
Before the visit to the post office, we took a walk to the turtle beach and saw fresh tracks of a Pacific green sea turtle. She was swimming away from her nest as we arrived. On our return walk we stopped and watched American flamingos in the pond just behind the dunes. Joining the flamingoes were a whimbrel, a sanderling, some lava herons, white-cheeked pintails, and a black-necked stilt. The day’s bird list was very long and varied.
That afternoon there was more snorkeling and in the evening lots of fun music with Fiona singing Crazy and Danny Boy. The requests started pouring in and the whole group was singing along now. Brian wowed us with some Sligo solos and joined in on the pop tunes, too.
2/8/18: On this day we left the wilderness behind and visited the inhabited island of Santa Cruz. First up was a stop at Los Gemelos, the twin giant sink holes in the lava on the side of the highway. At this volcanic formation half our group saw the elusive woodpecker finch. The rest of us enjoyed hearing about seeing the woodpecker finch. Afterwards we bussed up to El Chayote Farm to see the giant Galapagos tortoises. The seasonal rains were late this year and so the vegetation wasn’t very deep or thick. While a dry wet season isn’t good news for all creatures it makes for prime tortoise viewing. We saw many fine creatures and they were in the mood for love. Tortoise humping is not as sexy as it sounds nor is it a high action event but it is very fun to see. We saw many Galapagos finches here and started checking off some of Darwin’s famous species. We walked through a beautiful and long lava tunnel. There were common gallinules, smooth billed-anis, a whimbrel and some cattle egrets in the ranch surroundings.
That afternoon we took a tour of the Darwin Center. Giancarlo and Cecibel explained the captive breeding program and the accidental finds of George in the wild and Diego in a zoo. We saw Diego, father of hundreds, in his compound with several lovely ladies. We also saw the remains of George, father of none, hermetically sealed in a glass case. George was the last of his kind so it’s appropriate he has a place where we can forever contemplate the loss of a species.
Afterwards we had free time in town. There was shopping to do and Ecuavoli to watch. That Ecuavoli is a high stakes game. Three on three for several hundred dollars a match. The Carnival parade with a band and the local beauty queens came by just as we headed back to the Letty for the evening.
2/9/18: On this day we visited one of the most spectacular scenes in the world, Bartolome. We took a boardwalk across a lava landscape to a view of Pinnacle rock. It was a stout hike but we all made it without distress. Again we were grateful to Cecibel for an early start. We had the island to ourselves and the dark lava was already heating up at 7:30. Our guides explained the geology of the area while we walked. Tuff was discussed at length. We saw some lovely lava cactus starting the process of vegetating the islet. At the viewing deck you can see the isle nipped in with bays on opposing shores and Pinnacle rock in the center of it all. Afterwards some of us snorkeled. Again, the snorkeling was worth the effort of donning all that gear. White tipped sharks lurked in shallow crevasse just below us. The lava landscape continued into the seascape. On our way back from the swim we passed the base of Pinnacle rock and spotted a Galapagos penguin. Fiona, on board, was watching the pangas and took note of our stop and saw the penguin from the Letty with her binoculars. Impressive skills of observation.
That afternoon we took a panga ride into the Black Turtle Mangroves on Isla Santa Cruz. Right away we happened upon a multi-species feeding frenzy. Sardines were running and everything else was chasing them. Frigates slid down in lazy arcs to just dip the tip of their bills in and flick out a fish. Pelicans and blue-footed boobies plunged deep from up high. Herons lined the shore and stabbed at passersby. Meanwhile bigger fish swam behind the schools and created vortexes of disturbed water.
We traveled deeper into the mangroves and found a hawksbill sea turtle and both white and black tipped sharks. Then we found one of the most delightful creatures to see from a boat, juvenile hammerhead sharks. We had stumbled into the recently discovered hammerhead shark nursery. There were clumps of five or more in several locations. Our guide, Giancarlo, had never seen so many baby hammerheads in one location. Hammerheads at this size look like a fun pet. This is such a recent discovery that it only made the news the week we returned.
More music and more singers let lose in public that night. Roberto slayed Dylan’s Another Cup of Coffee. Brian showed he’s got the chops to improvise on anything we throw at him.
2/10/18: The penultimate day. The previous day was one boggling scene or creature after another. On our last full day in the islands we had the time to look around and think about all the beauty we had taken in. First we took a long walk at South Plaza. We saw a hybrid of a land/sea iguana at the entry to the island. This streak faced animal is neither one nor the other. It isn’t even known if it can propagate. We also observed courtship between swallowtail gulls, a nursing sea lion and pup, some wrestling lava lizards, and some interspecies interactions between land and sea iguanas. I guess they have to interact if they occasionally produce hybrids.
We watched the shearwaters and swallowtail gulls soaring off the cliffs. A hatchling in a cliff side nest below us was fed by a parent. Half the group watched sharks eat a seal. It was reported to be a gory slow death.
That afternoon we snorkeled and hiked at North Seymour. Our hike was full of frigates in all stages of reproduction from courtship to eggs to hatchlings to juveniles. There were shrub climbing land lizards, too. There were also many blue-footed boobies. We saw two male boobies vying for the attention of a lone female. All that foot wagging and sky pointing and she seemed unimpressed. We enjoyed the show.
Our last night of tunes was full of group singing. The crew joined us for some well known numbers in both English and Spanish. Cielito Lindo, Besame Mucho, Quizas…
2/11/18: We spent our morning hanging in internet cafes and passing the time before our flight back to reality. Here’s the complete bird list.