Thursday, January 01, 2015

Logistics and techniques


I got into birding in the early 90s, and it gradually became one of the great sources of joy and satisfaction in my life. At first, I focused on seeing as many different species as possible, called working on a life-list. I told myself that when I'd seen 200, I could start feeling competent, but that only took a few months since I started from something over 100 seen and identified with just ordinary curiosity. So I said 300, but that only took a year or so. 400 was more of a challenge and by then I was starting to have some skill, but was also becoming aware of how many more species could be found with moderate effort. I was hooked.

When I joined the American Birding Association, it was clear that their minimum goal was 500 species to get your name published, and half the species seen in a state to be named for that area. So I knocked off my home state and several adjacent ones in easy reach. By then I was somewhere near 600, and it was getting harder to find new species. In 05 I added 11, in 06 it was 2, and one year it was a single species. I got the thrill recharged by being a conscious total ticker, someone who keeps a list in every state, and works on adding tics. Somewhere in there I got the notion that I wanted to see at least 100 species in all 48 lower US states, and that's the current project. The end is in sight. It's a nice goal; state by state it's not hard usually, I generally have some sightings already recorded when I focus on a target, and it makes me really travel and look at the whole country, and in the process get a good understanding of distributions and seasonal patterns.

Planning the trips requires carefully working out a route that maximizes potential species and minimizes distances and gas costs. I tend to be drawn to borders and places where several states meet like the boot-heel of Missouri, or New England. I get a perspective over several years as well, since different seasons present a variety of opportunities, eg, there's spring New England trip, a fall migration one and someday a deep winter foray. Since I'm independently poor, that is, not cursed with a lot of income, but also free of a lot of expenses, I make the whole production as low cost as possible, meaning eat and sleep as cheap as I can and spend the travel funds almost all on fuel. That will account for some of the details of the items that follow.

The truck

I travel in my 2000 Ford Ranger, 4WD, king cab, which replaces two earlier small pickups. It has a camper-shell, aluminum, with side opening windows and a rear lid. The inside has had various shelves and nooks built in that are where I usually keep the tools of my trade, which is a hodge-podge of building skills used to maintain, modify, add-on-to, and generally care for a number of old buildings in the town where I live, as well as make displays for the various shops there. The buildings range from Victorians on the National Register to more modern things up to the mid twentieth century.

When I'm on a birding quest, the trip always starts with piling tools from the truck into the shop, though I usually leave a few just in case of friends in need along the road. Then I load it with sleeping and other fittings to stay tolerably comfortable for several weeks. I always forget something, which is why I have doubles of lots of things, the originals that got left behind, and its replacement bought along the road. I've bought towels, several pillows, various underwear, tarps and ropes and minor camping gear like mosquito coils.

The stuff in back

A mind working at the beginning will remember: blankets, sleeping bag or two depending on anticipated weather (Minnesota in winter is two zero degree bags), pillows, towels, dirty clothes bag, detergent, a container of personal maintenance items, some kind of pack with clothes and another for backpacking if I'm feeling ambitious. Usually several pairs of footwear; sandals, rubber boots, extra hikers. There's usually some kind of bag of books for reading and lots of bird-finding reference stuff. Then the spotting scope and tripod, water bottles, a small lantern and flashlight and a headlamp, the pee bottle, some rags and then impulsive last minute items or junk and bother acquired along the way.

The sleeping setup is a four inch thick foam pad that is cut to fit the floor of the shell, a heavy cheap sleeping bag to cover it, and sometimes a sheet, even though they get tangled and dirty easily. It's more comfortable than the bag lining in warm weather. Depends on my aggravation tolerance. Always two pillows, makes it easier to set up a comfortable reading position. My primary sleeping bag is an almost forty year old North Face "Ultralight". When I took it into the factory one time people gathered around to admire it, it was one of their first products, then they put four ounces of new down in it, and voila, better then new. Zipper and Velcro still work, and I've slept under it at least a thousand times.

I sometimes take along a large water cooler jug in a five gallon plastic bucket. It makes a convenient campsite washing-up arrangement. Sometimes there's an ice chest too, especially when encountering hot weather. Cold drinks can be the key to revival at the end of a day. Keeping food cold is secondary, since there are usually plenty of opportunities to replenish at C stores or groceries at least every other day, and not buying much at once lowers the chances of spoilage.

The stuff in front

The truck has a king cab, meaning extra storage behind the seat, and there's a lot of leeway there for just stuff. At least a propane camp stove, tarps, blankets, water bottles, fuel bottles, binocs, cameras and other gadgets, state road atlases, spare jackets and sweat-shirts, backup laptop computer, and so forth. The passenger seat has a little wooden office contraption that holds the laptop used for GPS, and space for bird guides and magazines. There is a charger for batteries, the cel-phone, the iPod, and an inverter to run the laptop. I usually have one good road atlas handy on the floor for marking routes traveled and planning. The GPS doesn't have a very good format for large overviews, and the atlas I favor has lots of public campgrounds marked, especially ones in National Forests, which is great for figuring out where to end each day.

The GPS is so central to my trips that it deserves more comment. I use DeLorme Street Atlas on a seven year old laptop, which works great. All trips start in deep winter wishing for getaway. So once I've visualized a rough and over-extravagant route on the wall map of the whole US, I'll get some bird-finding information, including books, pamphlets, web sites, downloaded pdfs, places mentioned on birding listservs, and word-of-mouth recommends from friends and folks met along the road. The next step is plotting and labeling the various sites that look interesting in draw files in the software. This is useful and sometimes aggravating as hell.

The descriptions of how to get to places are often incomplete, and so working out the actual locations can take some time. Road names often change or are given in forms that don't show in the software. Distances may be confusing. Landmarks may not be indicated. Fortunately, water features usually are and that can give vital clues. But if the effort is made during dark winter nights, a lot of time is saved when the quest is actually on. Sometimes alternate routes manifest. though caution is advised since the software maps have roads shown that are private, closed, gated, impassably rough or muddy, and just plain non-existent. This isn't so much a failing of the software as of the old county level maps they use to produce their maps. Just as frustrating is whole cohorts of roads not indicated at all, which has been worst in National Forests. A lot of times if it looks like I'll be spending time in those, it's best to get the official forest maps. These are usually big and unwieldy, and have gotten more expensive than the good old days of $4 a pop. A lot of times if you go to the ranger stations there are less detailed versions available that just show roads and campgrounds. That's ideal usually.

General approach

A typical day starts before first light, either by spontaneous awakening, generally prostate motivated, or by alarm clock. If the weather is mild and the bugs not bad, and if the setting doesn't require a lot of privacy, then the back lid of the shell is open just in case some owl starts calling in the dark or at dawn. If possible I try to park in places where owls are a possibility. Usually I try for sites in parks that are on the edges of the campgrounds near woods. The alternative is a a site with the sound of running water, just because it's hypnotic, and I like to think engenders good dreams. Surprisingly, this really works, and every third or fourth night I'll get to hear some kind of owl, or dream well.

After dressing, which can be thrilling if it's really cold, I'll drink some coffee saved from the day before and eat fruit or whatever. If I've managed to stay in some good habitat, especially if it's a target birding site, then I'll spend from an hour to all morning birding. Sometimes on colder mornings the truck has to warm up, and on really cold mornings it has to run until the computer is warm enough to boot up. I may have a planned route for the day, or maybe impulse rules, but in any case most of the day will be spent birding. Lunch is C store or fast-food, so called, often neither fast nor even food. Sometimes I get something big enough to serve as lunch and dinner so that I don't need to be near a town at the end of day. I'll fill up the coffee cup and thermos at the last possibility and then manage it so there's some left for morning and get whatever will work for breakfast. The one thing I'm trying to avoid is breaking up the morning birding when it's generally at its best.

Days usually end with getting to a camping site; National Forests, Wildlife Management Areas, and State Parks preferred. The latter are good for showers and sometimes even laundry. I generally avoid private KOA type camping, they're good for amenities, but a little pricey and usually have very little attractive habitat. State Parks are usually reasonable away from the ocean coasts. If possible I hope for free and uninhabited by other folks. The WMAs are good that way since there are often primitive campsites and no-one about when it's not hunting season. Experience has shown that it's best to plan ahead and be nowhere near civilization, so-called, on holiday weekends in mild weather. The campgrounds are often full or noisy until late at night, and the traffic is a waste of time and gumption.

About email: There are a lot of places to get on-line for free. The best are public libraries, and many of these keep their wifi on at night so you only have to park outside. Motels are good too, but sometimes require passwords. The likelihood of that is inversely proportional to the distance from an Ocean coast or a major city, ie, closer equals more likely. Paranoia factor. There are Internet cafes too, and I like Panera Bread joints since they have good reasonable sandwiches and baguettes. Whatever you do though, do not sign up for their newsletter. It never stops. The link for removing your name from the list is bogus. Usually Holiday Inn Express is a good choice, Super 8 is terrible, they try to install spy-ware when you connect and it usually takes a re-boot to get control of the computer back even if you have spy-ware blocking working.

Before sleep and after dark is the time for record keeping. I mark the days route in the big road atlas, save the GPS log for the day, enter the day's sightings in AviSys, the national standard list keeping program, and calculate my statistics for the day, nothing complex, just the new tic totals and percentages. Maybe I'll look over the site info for the next day. It's the time for showers and laundry if possible and if I'm not just whooped I'll read something non-birding, novels or history or ...

Cautionary tales

Mud: Several times I've encountered impassably muddy roads. The first and worst was just over a blind rise, and I was stuck before I knew it. Required the proverbial walk to the farm-house and beg the tractor. The folks were very kind. Another time I was aware of the hazard, but tried anyhow. When I came to my senses it was difficult to steer the truck backwards in 4WD for a couple of hundred yards until I could get turned around safely. Other times I didn't even try.

Gas: There are areas of western rural America where it can be fifty miles or more to a station. And they're usually one person operations with a tendency to close around five or six. You can park there all night waiting for the dawn opening, which fortunately is usually quite early. Client driven operations. Best to never get under a half tank out there without starting to look for a fill-up opportunity.

Lousy food, old coffee: Speaks for itself. Generally a good idea to taste the coffee before driving off. Sometimes at the end of the day they won't make more, but then at least you can dump in more sugar.

Insects: I've been held prisoner in a tent by ten thousand mosquitoes. This is why you need a pee bottle. Seed tick encounters can be handled with duct-tape wrapped sticky side out around your gathered fingers. Adult ticks I just pull off, contempt born from years in Arkansas where they are the state invertebrate.

Bad guys and girls: Usually surly overworked counter-folks. This is your mantra; "I'm not in a hurry, I'm not in a hurry" Strike up some conversation, be kind. Yield and leave if necessary. These folks are also sources of very good and very bad directions. They often know of local camping places not on any map. Unfortunately the proof of quality is in the pudding.

Mechanics: Most, especially in small towns, are honest if not widely experienced (you're in luck if you bird from an 8WD diesel tractor). Otherwise, they don't survive where word-of-mouth operates. The rip-off situation is larger places, 10,000 plus population where your out-of state license is a red-flag. Best to ask some locals, more than one, before committing. I got an excellent mechanic in Rawlins, Wyoming that way.

Really bad guys: This happened several years ago. I tell this to show a worst case scenario. You could live a hundred lifetimes without anything like it happening; the world, at least the US, is a surprisingly safe place and people are generally kind. No general culture of lethal revenge, no religious warfare. But one time I parked at the locked gate of a refuge in a drenching rain and settled in as night fell. It was about 100 feet from a two lane paved county road. Perfect site for owl listening if the rain let up. It was really dark except for some distant yard lights and I couldn't hear much because of the drumming on the thin aluminum roof. I had finished reading, turned out the lights and was half asleep when I heard a couple of car doors slam. I figured it was a cop or two checking on me, which happens now and then, and they're generally just concerned and helpful. Never been told I had to move. In fact been told it was OK to stay even though it was not so officially. Birders exude goofy harmlessness.

Anyway, I looked out the back lid and there was the outline of a large SUV with a couple of figures coming around to the back. What was curious was that even though the headlights were on there were no lights on the back, and no interior light even when they had opened their back lid. Certainly no license plate light. In other words, it was really dark and rainy and noisy, and I couldn't see anything but vague silhouettes. From each side they leaned over and seemed to pick up something large and heavy, and then together carried it to the brush along the edge of the dirt lane we were on. Remember I'm watching this from less than fifty feet away parked right in the open. They returned to the front of the SUV, got in, again no dome light, and drove off, no brake lights like the pedal was depressed to get in gear, no backup white lights like most vehicles do when shifting into gear, just the full headlights pointing away from me into the pouring rain. They drove away. I never heard any speech since the shell was closed and the rain thundering on the roof.

At that point I panicked. Quickly got dressed and got the truck started. I figured I'd seen a drug drop, and had no desire to be around when the next vehicle came for the pickup, even though I had a brief vision of a suitcase full of cash. So I'm backing out carefully onto the highway, it was hard to see, and I needed to make sure I was in the firm part of the lane since a mud event was a really bad idea. It was pouring, standing water already on the lane and in the side ditches. As I got to the paved road and backed out the headlights swept across a large undefined lump of some white and a lot of blood red. Like a body wrapped in a sheet oozing blood. I was freaked out. I got out of there quickly, afraid every minute that I would encounter another car-load of bad guys and they would somehow know that I was a witness. I didn't stop driving until halfway across the next state, in pouring rain the whole way.

I made one call to a friend with an FBI connection, but the contact had faded and I let it go for the time being. Even though I'd gotten away from the scene and was presumably safe, the sense of threat and horror wasn't going away. As I drove it was becoming clearer how much danger I'd been in. I had no doubt that if those folks had realized I was watching they would have killed me also. I was not hidden, I was not far off, quite the opposite. I have to assume that they were night-blind from driving with headlights, that they were in a hurry both from their fear and that they were being drenched, probably that they were well practiced also. That was no ordinary vehicle, the lack of lights indicated a careful electrical kill switch set-up. Good for me, life-saving in fact. If they'd had a single light I would probably have been seen, and that would be the end of my life-list.

I don't know that there's a lesson here or not. I have still kept sleeping in the truck, but not like that for a few days afterwards since there were campgrounds and truck-stops to use. It was a PTSD setup, as I know from my work as a psychologist for the VA. Exposure to an unpredictable, uncontrollable, life-threatening event. I remember having some vivid and scary dreams in the weeks following. But I haven't avoided similar situations, since it was such a unique event. I sent an anonymous report to the authorities through my lawyer, for some reason still wishing to be unknown personally as a witness (the professionalism of the perps still scares me), but nothing has come of it and I have no further information.


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