Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Trials and Tribs in Wyoming

Tuesday to Thursday, June 17-19, 2008

Up well before first light, and then back down the mountain to a road that was supposed to be good for GRPA, at least it was sixteen years ago. That was all I had to go on. And I didn't get on quite the right road at first, since it made an unannounced right turn at an intersection, but the names in the GPS didn't reflect that, and the book used street names rather than county route numbers. I did drive the road both ways before and at sunrise, but the force of Nemesis prevailed. But my concentration was being distracted by the grinding in the front brakes; I had fried the right side coming back down the mountain. Didn't really know how bad it was till later, couldn't see any real damage to the disk since it was on the hidden back side. Drove back into Sheridan for breakfast and Wifi, House Sparrows and Rock Pigeons, both surprisingly hard to find. Here's a total ticker trick: If you need a House Sparrow try three places, horse barn lots, fast food joint parking lots (hence the name McDonald's Finch), and last resort, the inside of big box stores with garden centers, like Lowe's or Wally.

The birdfinder had a lot of sites around Sheridan and further south, and I checked out quite a few of them, and tic by tic came up with a pretty decent list for the day. Best birds were Calliope and Broad-tailed Hummers, Belted Kingfisher, Lazuli Bunting, and Cassin's Finch. I made a couple of tries for Dipper, but the snowmelt flush made the creeks a little too challenging for them, at least at the places I could access. When I'd worn that out I still needed to do some laundry, being on the second day of the last pair of UPs (he blushes to admit). Driving south to Casper, I saw one single Lark Bunting, it flew across the Interstate in front of the truck. When I got there I managed to find a laundry cum yogurt joint in a strip mall on the edge of town, and was able to renew my wardrobe and service my head. Refreshed, I drove on to Rawlins where there were some sites noted in the book. The brakes were now making nasty sounds at every stop, but I somehow convinced myself that I didn't have to respond yet. That changed in Rawlins when I went to buy gas. After I'd paid when I restarted the truck let out a mighty scream. Opened the hood and it seemed to be coming from the fan belt tensioner, something that would occasionally complain in cold weather. I hoped it was that, and not water pump or power steering or other pricey parts-and-labor. I was having a personal melt-down, worried and heat stressed in a strange town where I knew absolutely no-one. Did I mention that the "check engine" light had come on, never a good sign.

That's when a small miracle occurred, Some man, an ordinary guy, no wings or anything, offered to help. He got me inside with the phone book and took me through the mechanics, OKayed two from personal experience, and rejected two, showed me where they were located, and just helped me get some center. Bless him every day forever. I called one and they were booked up, and the other said bring it in in the morning. More luck. I drove over there, stopping for food and coffee and AC, and that helped. I still needed to get a place to sleep, but that was a problem too. Every room in town had been booked up for a week, oil boom in Rawlins since it was worth going after fields that had been laid aside at cheaper barrel prices. Back to the garage, and I just figured I'd sleep in the truck and hope the cops didn't harass me. After watching it turn dark, complete with a Nighthawk tic, I walked over to a diner and had a big French Toast breakfast. I was the only vehicle parked by the garage at first, but then a tow truck arrived with a wreck, got some local orientation from the driver who was cool, and some others showed up while I was sleeping. Actually slept well.

In the morning the two mechanics, father and son, taciturn and clean living types, were there by eight. I'd had another breakfast, comfort food, talking with an Inuit from Alaska who was down working the oil fields. He told me about Ptarmigan hunting by moonlight during the three month long night, walking snare lines in the squeaking snow. Back at the garage we started digging in. Right front brake rotor wrecked, but not terribly expensive. Idler did seem to be the source of the noise. Read the computer code and it said "Cam position sensor circuit" whatever that is, but when we wiped it it didn't come back. So far so good. Put the other rotor on the lathe for good measure. I hung in the office or tried to be interested but not aggravating, probably was, talked to folks who came by, read my Bernd Heinrich book about the Ravens mind, which I left finished on their magazine rack. Two deputies came by to talk about the wrecked truck, it was from a Sage Grouse group, the driver had gone off the road while distracted by the GPS (!) and it turned out one was the tow truck driver now disguised by a uniform and dark sun glasses. I said I needed to talk to them, I really wanted to find a Sage Grouse, and the deputy gave me directions to a place where he saw many while riding horses not too far north of town. Target lifer. The replacement idler pulley had been delivered, but it squealed too. Father mechanic patiently took it out, fiddled with it on a vice, said the bolt had been overtightened, thought it fixed, and explained that it was probably the only one in at least a hundred miles so fixing it was the only choice. I felt sorry for the extra time he was wasting, since he'd given me a fixed and reasonable price, no bullshit about the computer says it's this much time that nobody ever uses, pure rip-off garbage. You might detect some attitude there.

With all the extra trouble I was till out of there by noon, and drove up to the Sage Grouse place. Pretty easy to find, only about three miles back in the desert, a small valley with a dried up playa surrounded by waist high sage brush. I walked down in there knowing this was not the prime grouse finding time, overhead sun at least 90 degrees. Flushing was the only hope so I walked a half mile one end to the other and back, always keeping to the thickest part of the brush, waiting each second for the heart stopping blast almost under my feet. Didn't happen that way, didn't happen at all. After most of two fairly rigorous hours I still had no lifer. But it was really hot. Move to the next part of the plan. The bird finder had praised a camp-ground in the Medicine Bow mountains about fifty miles south, there were two paved routes and a more direct dirt route that the book encouraged. I took it, It climbed into snow fields and sage brush, some Ponderosa inside the National Forest boundary, mile long aspen groves, great country, not very birdy, but some ducks on hidden ponds of snowmelt, a Golden Eagle on a fence post, Sage and Brewer's Sparrows singing, and lots of Horned Larks. Battle Creek campground was down another steep rutted road, only a couple of miles, deserted but there was trailer there that looked identical to the picture in the book, so I wondered if it'd been sitting there through all those mountain winters for at least eighteen years. No bear damage. The creek was overfull and raging, it had broken it's banks and flooded the road just past the campground entrance, and I wasn't able to follow the banks very far. Still it was a great place for birding. Spotted Sandpiper, MacGillivray's, Green-tailed Towhee were notable, but the best was a big thick gray hawk, fairly high but close enough to study shape and patterns. I turned intuition to certainty when I got back to the field guide, Northern Goshawk, truly special.

I was sleeping around midnight when heavy rain started. no big deal until the vision of that steep road awash in mud sprung me awake. Stuck it in four-wheel, and climbed back up to the highway. The belt started squealing again, and the check engine light came on again. I was too tired to care, and not much I could do. In the morning I set off for Arapaho NWR in Colorado. The squealing calmed down and stopped, and later in the day the light went off. Made one last stop before CO at a restroom on a pass, and was found by a Mountain Bluebird, and then a close by Pine with a pair of Pine Grosbeaks. Got to watch them for a couple of minutes before they flew. I good way to finish the Wyoming statistics; added 41 species to the list, making 125, and just over 30%.


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