Thursday, November 20, 2014

A Day on Kinja

Everyone at Tiptoe’s Beach Bar in Charlotte Amaille harbor knew about Herman Wouk’s book Don’t Stop the Carnival.  “It’s one of the most famous things ever to happen to St. Thomas,” said Charlotte, a middle-aged woman working as a morning waitress and barmaid at Tiptoes.

Don’t Stop the Carnival tells the fictional story of Norman Paperman, a middle-aged press agent in New York City who one day suffers a mild heart attack.  While recovering and contemplating his future Norman reads an advertisement in the New Yorker about a hotel for sale on the island of Amerigo.  The island was called King George when it was under British rule but over time native islanders bastardized King George into Kinja.  With snow pilling up and his time clock running down, Norman makes a hurried trip to Kinja and after some dealings with a shifty associate purchases the Gull Reef Club and the result is a tropical disaster.

Wouk’s book was published in 1965 and twenty years later I discovered it in the bookstore of the Nassau, Bahamas airport.  It was at a time when I was traveling extensively and almost continuously in the West Indies and Wouk’s escapism theme struck a chord with me.  I read the book eagerly and fantasized about doing what Paperman had done.  By the book’s conclusion, it was clear that the heaven Paperman sought turned into “hell with palm trees.” It was a bittersweet lesson for him to learn and one that made me rethink my desire to hideout on a Caribbean island.

Several years after I last read the book my idol, Jimmy Buffett, purchased the rights to it from Herman Wouk and together they produced a musical by the same name.  It never opened on Broadway but it was popular in Nassau but not so in Miami’s Coconut Grove where a theater critic for the Orlando Sentinel said unabashedly, “The musical by Jimmy Buffett and Herman Wouk suffers from flat characters and weak songwriting.”  However the enthusiastic response to the musical caused the original end date to be extended several times to accommodate the audiences.  Obviously the Sentinel theater critic was not a Parrothead.  That same year Buffett produced the soundtrack as an album with the same title as the musical and it peaked at 15th on Billboard Magazine’s Top 200 album chart.  I’m not a music expert but 15th out of 200 suggests solid music to me.

The cover of Jimmy Buffett's CD/Album "Dont Stop the Carnival"

Wouk based Kinja on both Water Island and Hassel Island in Charlotte Amaille harbor in the US Virgin Islands.  One source said it was based on his experiences managing the Royal Mail Inn on Hassel Island.  Others have said it was based on his fictional experiences while he was merely a resident of the Virgin Islands, having moved there with his wife and two sons to escape the distractions of New York City. Whatever the truth, I wanted to discover more about where the book originated but each time I have traveled to the Virgin Islands I had other, higher priority, activities on my agenda.  When the Norwegian Star tied up at the cruise terminal on its way from Copenhagen to Miami, however, I had nothing else on my agenda but that island.

A local taxi starter at the cruise terminal told me the cost for a taxi ride to the ferry launch at Tiptoes Beach Bar was $100.  I told him he was crazy and took off on foot.  As I passed through downtown Charlotte Amaille during rush hour I felt like I was in Nassau or maybe Kingston, certainly not on a serene laid-back Caribbean island and certainly not one that could have remotely influenced Wouk’s writing about Kinja.

Kinja (Water Island) from the dock at Tiptoe's Beach Bar in Charlotte Amaille harbor

Ed, a local tourism tycoon on Water Island, knew everything there was to know about Herman Wouk and Don’t Stop the Carnival.  “I’ve lived on Water Island for 30 years,” he said, “and just like Norman Paperman I’m from New York.  The only difference is Norman went back and I never will.”

Seeking directions on this tiny island Ed told me to simply walk up the hill from the ferry dock.  “Turn right at the four-way intersection and you go to our beach.  Keep straight ahead and in a couple hundred yards you come to a field where the hotel used to stand.”  “The Hotel” was the example Wouk used for the Gull Reef Club.  It long ago outlived its usefulness and a combination of sun and time and hurricanes obliterated everything.  Unlike most of the rest of the West Indies, it was not replaced or rebuilt.

“There’s not a thing about the book I don’t know,” Ed boasted.  “If you have any questions come find me and I will fill you in.”  I asked him for clarification about whether the book is based on Water Island or Hassel Island.  “Remember how Hippolyte paddled between islands?  He was paddling from Water Island where the Gull Reef Club was over to Hassel Island.  Clearly the Gull Reef was on Water Island.”  Hippolyte Lamantine was the fictional gondolier at the Gull Reef Club.  It was only appropriate that he paddled between islands. 

Ed wished me a successful journey and left me saying, “I’ve heard so much about Don’t Stop the Carnival I think I’m going to write my own book and call it, “Stop the Carnival, I Want Off.”

I spent several hours on Water Island however in the absence of any actual remnants of the Gull Reef Club or where Wouk may have lived I sought out a beach where I spent part of the afternoon.  Megan, a local barmaid and self-proclaimed authority on virtually everything, gave me a ride back to the ferry dock after my time at the beach.  “Did you come over for a day trip at the beach,” she asked.

Honeymoon Beach, a great place to chill out and drink Carib beer, is among the many parts of Water Island that influenced Herman Wouk in his writing of Don't Stop the Carnival

Telling her of my interest in Wouk and the book, she declared with considerable certainty that Wouk may have occasionally visited Water Island but he certainly didn’t live there.  “If you ask me, that book is based on a hotel on St. Croix.  It has nothing to do with Water Island.”

Explaining further and mentioning my interest in the book because of the connection to Jimmy Buffett and his musical, Megan launched into a diatribe about Buffett.  “You know he’s opening a Margaritaville on St. Thomas, don’t you.”  Saying that I did she said, “It’s not going to be a Margaritaville, it’s going to be a Marijuanaville.” 

Megan explained how the US Virgin Islands had recently approved the use of medical marijuana.  “Buffett came down here a couple of years ago looking for a place for a new restaurant.  He searched three islands and chose St. Thomas because of the marijuana.”  Megan, of course, had no direct knowledge of this; it was all speculation.

As we arrived at the ferry dock she ended her diatribe saying “Buffett is the angriest little man I’ve ever met.  He sat in a bar here one day drinking $700 shots of tequila and leaving $100 tips. He did it all just to impress people.”  Apparently it impressed Megan because she remains livid that it wasn’t her receiving those large tips.

Unfortunately I didn’t have time to tell Megan about the night I sat backstage with him before a concert in Fort Lauderdale drinking beer (Jimmy opened mine for me) and talking about travel and fishing and conservation in the Caribbean.  He was one of the most down-to-earth people I’d ever met. 

Escaping from Megan’s golf cart just as the ferry was arriving at the dock her parting comment to me was “You seem to have a passion for the book and the story.  Why don’t you move down here and write the true story about Wouk, Buffett, and this whole Carnival thing?”  

Wouldn’t Megan be surprised if I showed up on Water Island one day intending to do exactly what she suggested.

My European Roots

A letter from my agency’s personnel office arrived every other year.  Its contents and its questions were always the same.  In it I’m asked to “reconfirm” my ethnicity as if something happened in the last two years to change where my genes originated.

My genes originated in Norway and in Eastern Europe.  My family name is Norwegian and I’ve always called myself Norwegian.  The personnel office asked about changes in my ethnicity to satisfy some game played with hyphens.  If you are a hyphenated American, you are in a protected group and unofficial official quotas are established to hire and promote a certain number of hyphenated Americans.  If your grandparents didn’t emigrate from a “protected” area, then in the eyes of the Federal personnel offices you don’t count.

Two years before my last ethnicity check I marked the box for Native American.  My reasoning for being Native American was simple.  I was born in Wisconsin and am a native of that State.  Wisconsin is in America, so logic dictates that I am a Native American.  Two years later, I received a letter confirming that my ethnicity was “white, not of Hispanic origin.”  When it was determined by the personnel office that I was not a Native American, but “white, not of Hispanic origin,” I decided to question them. 

My great grandparents sailed from Norway, in July 1885.  They landed in the United States and found their way to northern Wisconsin.  They started chopping down trees and plowing fields and raising crops and having children.  From Norway, they brought many Norwegian traditions like a serious work ethic, a love for fish, stories of the Viking explorers, cross-country skis, and an affinity for cold weather and snow.  Our last name was slightly re-written to make it more Anglicized.  My ancestors gave up their Norwegian citizenship and became Americans.  They voted in elections, they drank beer and they had more children.  Over time, they became obvious Norwegian-Americans.

I responded to the last letter reconfirming my ethnicity by checking the “other” box and writing in “Norwegian-American.”  Several months later I received a letter from the personnel office informing me that I was not Norwegian-American because we of Norse descent are not a “protected group.”  I wrote back to the personnel office and pointed out a few simple facts.  I began by quoting an oft-forgotten piece of paper called the Constitution that affirms that we are all equal, so how can there be any protected group?  I also pointed out that a Norwegian named Leif Ericcson found the North American continent long before any of the protected groups arrived with their hyphens.  I mentioned the many contributions to American society that my Norwegian ancestors brought to this land, things like lutefisk and lefse, cod liver oil, and cross-country skis.  As a footnote to my argument, I mentioned that if personnel did not recognize my Norwegian-American ancestry, I was sure that a Federal District Court judge somewhere would recognize it for them.

Another two months passed before I received a letter from my personnel office.  It told me that there had been a communication problem earlier and that I was a Norwegian-American after all. I wrote back and said that my Norse ancestors thanked them and could I now start using the hyphen when I applied for promotions.

A trip to Iceland gave me my first feel for Scandinavia while driving along a fjord.  It helped me understand a little about where I originated, yet it wasn’t the real thing.  During a later visit to Epcot Center, I ate dinner at the Norway display and afterward knew that I had to visit Norway.  Several reservations were made to travel there, but each trip fell through.

A birdwatcher from England posted on the Internet a report from his recent trip to Sweden.  The report told about his travels to central Sweden near Uppsala, and mentioned finding several bird species that I had not yet seen.  My curiosity was piqued by the birds and I consulted references for finding the same species in Norway.  Only two of the five species I hoped to see could be found with any regularity in Norway.  Still, my heritage is Norwegian, and it didn’t seem right to visit the Swedes before I explored my own roots.

A check of airline websites confirmed my decision to travel to Sweden and not Norway.  SAS, the Scandinavian airline had astronomically expensive flights to Oslo and to Stockholm.  British Airways’ fare to Oslo was nearly twice as expensive as was their fare to Stockholm.  Weighing these facts, and adding the chances for finding more birds in Sweden, I concluded that Sweden was close enough to Norway that a trip there would give me some idea of my Scandinavian roots even if it wasn’t Norway.  I went to the British Airways website, typed in Washington, D.C. to Stockholm, chose the dates I wanted to travel, and clicked on the purchase icon.  I flew from Washington three months later.  It was Scandinavia and it was close to Mother Norway but it wasn’t the same as being there.

My last night in Stockholm I stayed in a hotel near the airport and caught their courtesy van to the departure lounge the next morning.  The driver of the van was a Swede who was married to a Finnish woman.  As we talked, I noticed that each of his statements ended with “you know,” as if I did.  His mannerisms reminded me of old Norwegians I knew when I was a child.  He asked about my visit and why I traveled to Sweden.  I told him about the birds and about my Norwegian heritage.  I mentioned how beautiful I found Sweden and how much it reminded me of where I grew up in Wisconsin.

“If you think Sweden is beautiful, you need to see Norway.”

My flight to London lifted off from Stockholm at noon and we flew in perfectly clear skies.  I was seated on the right side of the plane, forward of the wing and its engine.  We flew almost straight west before turning southwest and flying out over the North Sea.  As we made our turn, the pilot announced that we were near Kristiansand, Norway.  I looked down at my homeland and saw deep fjords that had been gouged from the Precambrian bedrock.  The land was covered with forest of spruces and birches as it was to the east in Sweden.  I had finally seen Norway as the van driver suggested several hours earlier. 

But I still hadn’t really been there.

Several years later I swallowed hard when looking at the prices of everything in Norway and traveled there to trace my roots.  I spent several days in and around Bergen on the fjord-filled coast because my family sailed from Bergen to the United States when they emigrated.  As with Sweden, this part of Norway looked exactly like home.  The lay of the land was the same, the color of the barns and the shapes of the houses were the same.  Aspen forests sprinkled with white birch and black spruce dominated the landscape exactly like they did in Barron County, Wisconsin.  Even the pastoral landscapes with Holstein cows chewing their cud in Norwegian farm yards looked exactly like they do in my natal Wisconsin.  It was instantly clear why my ancestors chose to settle where they did when they found northern Wisconsin.  Except for the language difference everything there was like it was back home.

Although my family name is obviously Norwegian my mother’s name was a bit of a mystery.  My maternal grandmother was a Gohr (not Gore like the real President, but Gohr). There is no doubting the origin of that very Germanic name.  However it was a different story with my paternal grandfather’s family name and ultimately my mother’s family name.

Some thought that “Beranek” was German and others said “oh, no, that’s a Czech name. It’s from Bohemia.”  As a child in northern Wisconsin I was quite aware of the hell that someone could be put through because of their ethnicity.  Being Norwegian was just as cool as being a Swede or German.  However some of the “lesser” nationalities seemed to cause problems.  Heaven help the Pole’s for being Polish.  The same, it turned out, was true for “Bohemians” or “Bohonks” as they were also called. For some reason I never understood, a “Bohonk” was actually a lower life form than was a Polack, and a Polack was right down there with Bohonks. Still, the possibility remained that some of my genes, in this case 25 percent of them, were Bohonk and a week in the Czech Republic was the most logical way to find out.

We slipped and slid our way out of the Prague airport and onto the motorway to the city. Seated next to me was a drunk (or at least feeling no pain) obnoxious British woman who tried her best to impress all of us with her command of the Czech language and her knowledge of the streets of Prague.  Despite her having told the driver where she wanted to go, she promptly began telling the driver how to find the address. She tried telling him in what sounded like Czech.  After five minutes of being kind and putting up with her the driver began saying “what did you say? That sounded like Czech but not any Czech I’ve ever heard.”  Instead of her taking the hint she just piled it on thicker and louder until I wanted to reach over and strangle her. At one point I stuck my index finger out, raised my thumb to resemble a pistol and then made a motion like the gun was going off – while pointed at her.  Unfortunately my finger wasn’t loaded.

By the time we were in the university district of the city the driver had had enough and told her “madam, you either shut up or you are getting out and walking. I don’t care how much luggage you have.”  Ms. Britain didn’t listen and the shuttle promptly slid to the side of the road.  The driver put the vehicle in park, opened his door, walked to the back of the van, extracted her luggage, opened her side door and said “OUT!”  She had no choice.

Wenceslas Square is one of the main city squares and the center of the business and cultural communities. It has been a place where many historical events occurred; it is also a traditional place for demonstrations, celebrations, and similar public gatherings. The square is named after Saint Wenceslas the patron saint of Bohemia.  As I worked my way around the square I was able to confirm with no reservations at all that my mom’s family name is Czech and not German.  I confirmed it when I found the Hotel Beranek on one of its street corners.  When I found my other family name attached to this hotel I dropped in to see if there were any long lost cousins floating around. Unfortunately the woman behind the counter said that the manager was not a Beranek but she was able to confirm that Beranek was “a very Czech name, you know.”  That mystery was finally settled. 

For my last evening in Prague I sought out an ethnic restaurant that was recommended by the hotel – a place where I could get real Czech food without having a sign outside the door advertising that it was authentic.  The meal, whose Czech name I cannot remember was some sort of pork sausage, boiled cabbage and a hunk of potato. It was prepared and presented exactly like my grandmother used to make this same meal. Its aroma was like grandma made and its taste was exactly as I remember her making it.  It was, as Yogi Berra once said, “déjà vu all over again” eating this food. The only thing missing was my grandmother.

Subsequent research on provided additional confirmation of my family name’s Norwegian roots and also my mother’s maiden name’s Czech roots. Intermingled with all of the ancestors I never met or heard of was several references suggesting that my maternal grandmother’s family (the Gohr side) originated in Poland and not Germany as we once speculated.  Examination of old European maps and other historical references suggested that the town from which her family originated was in what was once Poland but geopolitical influences changed the country boundaries to Germany.  Thus although the family name is undeniably German there is a hint of Polish in there somewhere which made a trip to Poland an essential and perhaps final aspect of my journey to uncover my roots.  

The Norwegian Star sailed from Copenhagen Denmark to Miami on October 6 but I arrived a few days early to not only have time to recalibrate my body clock but also to spend a smidgen of time in Poland.  Regular flights from Copenhagen to Chopin International Airport in Warsaw made it easy to spend a day in Poland and on my first full day in Europe I flew LOT Polish Airlines to Warsaw to discover a bit about this final country from which my ancestors may have originated.

Poland's national airline, LOT, was a most appropriate way to travel to Warsaw

In what seemed like seconds we had passed over the Baltic Sea and made landfall over Poland. Our pilot made certain everyone knew because of his boastful announcement, “Ladies and gentlemen we have just passed over the frontier of the beautiful nation of Poland, my home.”  Our route of flight took us over extensive areas of farmland mixed with extensive areas of heavy forest.  We passed just north of Flatow, Poland from which my maternal great grandparents emigrated in the 1870s and then began our approach to Warsaw.

Anyone who paid attention in history class in high school is aware of the carnage that rained down on Poland by Hitler and the Nazi’s before the start of World War II.  Those same history classes likely also were the site of many discussions about how Hitler behaved toward the Jews and especially the Polish Jews.  Estimates are that before the war there were 3.3 million Jews in Poland; during the war the estimates are that 3 million of them were killed.  I wanted to learn more about these atrocities and more but had only a few hours to explore.

My flight arrived in Warsaw under brilliantly bright sunshine at 9:30 and the Warsaw Uprising Museum opened at 10:00.  A quick and efficient subway from the airport to the downtown transported me to within a few blocks of the museum and I entered it shortly after its doors opened.  The museum's website provides visitors with a little tidbit of the treasures that wait inside:

Opened in 2004, this remains one of Poland’s best museums. Packed with interactive displays, photographs, video footage and miscellaneous exhibits it’s a museum that’s guaranteed to leave a mark on all visitors. Occupying a former tram power station the 2,000m2 space is split over several levels, leading visitors through the chronological story of the Uprising.  Start off by learning about life under Nazi rule, your tour accompanied by the background rattle of machine guns, dive bombers and a thumping heartbeat. Different halls focus on the many aspects of the Uprising; walk through a replica radio station, or a covert printing press.

The mezzanine level features film detailing the first month of battle, before which visitors get to clamber through a mock sewer. The final sections are devoted to the creation of a Soviet puppet state, a hall of remembrance, and a particularly poignant display about the destruction of the city; take time to watch the black and white ‘before and after’ shots of important Warsaw landmarks being systematically obliterated by the Nazis as punishment.

Near the exit check out the film "City of Ruins," a silence-inducing 5 minute 3-D aerial 'film' which took 2 years to make and used old pictures and new technology to recreate a picture of the desolation of ‘liberated’ Warsaw in March 1945. There is also an exact replica of a B24 Allied plane once used to make supply drops over the besieged city. A viewing platform and ‘peace garden’ wrap up this high impact experience. 

The most descriptive phrase in the website information is “high impact experience” and a visit to the Uprising Museum certainly fits that description.   I left after four hours with an entirely different perspective not only on the war but also on Polish people.  As a child growing up in northern Wisconsin it was an everyday occurrence to make some negative comment about a “Polack” whether it was in a Polish joke (“Did you hear about the Polack who…”) or some other degrading comment.  Back then it was an almost accepted form of interacting but not once did I ever stop to think how it affected Carl Jalowitz or Ted Gonsowski or David Antczak or any of the others of Polish descent among whom I lived. 

My experience growing up reinforced my belief that if I had any Polish ancestry it was something about which to be ashamed.  However a few hours in the Warsaw Uprising Museum changed that view.  Instead I left the museum hoping that some of my maternal genes had originated in Poland.  The Poles are a grand and proud group of people who have persevered in spite of horrific odds, horrific treatment at the hands of the Nazi’s and in spite of all the Polish jokes I told as a child.  Wojeich, a 40-something Pole I met in the museum, easily figured out that I was an American and asked about my impressions of the museum.  I told him about my past, about the potential for some Polish genetics to be floating around inside me, and about how thoroughly the museum experience affected me.

Wojeich simply smiled and said “Welcome to your homeland, Craig.  We accept you even if you’re not Polish.”  I took his comment to mean that I was forgiven for all those Polish jokes I told in high school.  

I didn't make it to Flatow, Poland, on this trip but it was not for a lack of desire.  My oldest daughter and I want to make a trip there some time before I'm too old to travel.  We might also race down to Prague to expose her to even more of her genetic roots.  Maybe with luck we can find the restaurant that served authentic Czech food exactly like her great grandmother used to make for me.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Determining the Age of Deer at a Wisconsin Deer Registration Station

If you grew up in Wisconsin in the 1950s and 1960s you knew that from sunrise on the Saturday before Thanksgiving until sunset on the Sunday after Thanksgiving everything except the bars in Wisconsin stopped operating because it was deer hunting season.  

At dawn this coming Saturday everyone in Wisconsin will become an expert on the ecology of white-tailed deer.  Just a mere 24 hours earlier the only deer biologists in the state were men and women hired by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to manage Wisconsin’s deer population.  However at dawn Saturday every janitor, sales clerk, bank president, dentist, and truck driver, along with everyone else in Wisconsin who never studied deer biology as a profession, becomes an authority on the ecology of white-tailed deer.  Those few biologists hired to manage the deer population know not a thing about the animal.  By noon Saturday most of the bars in the state will be filled with deer experts telling stories that make fish stories look lame and most of those stories will carry at least one reference to “those god damned DNR people don’t know shit about deer.” 

Just watch.  It’s going to happen.

The other topic that will rage among the bar room debates is how old the deer is that someone has on ice in the bed of their ¾ ton pickup truck outside the bar.  Bar room biologists mostly claim that their deer is a certain age because of the number of tines (points) on the deer’s rack of antlers.  If your deer is “a 6 pointer” then by all means it’s 6 years old.  And if your deer is a “10 pointer” then by god it’s 10 years old.  These pronouncements have no basis in scientific fact.  Their origin is a combination of beer, testosterone, and north woods lore.

A deer's jaw tells a lot about its age and health (well, its health before it was shot to death).  How old do you think this animal was?

The way deer are aged is by a simple method involving slitting open one cheek, spreading the jaws with a thing called a “jaw spreader” and then looking at 1) the eruption of the last molar on the lower jaw and / or 2) the amount of wear on the remaining molars and on the premolars.  It’s a reliable method that has been around and in use since at least 1963 and its regularly used by most state resource agencies as one aspect of determining the health of a deer population.

Stop here and register your deer before you get home or you will be subject to a substantial fine.

In Wisconsin when I used to work there each deer hunter who successfully harvested a deer was required by law to have it registered at an official deer registration station before the deer was transported more than (I think it was) 50 miles.  Even if you lived closer, you needed to have it registered because a game warden passing your home and seeing a deer hanging from a tree had a no-warrant-necessary right to enter your property and examine the deer to see if it had been registered. 

In November 1976 my now former wife and I managed the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources deer registration station at a bait and tackle shop along Highway 63 in Cumberland, Wisconsin.  A large sign along the road side told lucky hunters this was the place to stop to register your deer before continuing any further along your journey.

To operate the registration station Ruth and I showed up with data sheets, a clip board, jaw spreaders and youthful enthusiasm.  We saw it as a way to not only collect data on the deer population but also to educate the public about the health of their deer.  It turned out most people could have cared less.

The first hunters arrived shortly after 7:00 that morning.  With the legal hunting season set to begin about 6:30 you had to wonder if maybe a 7:00 a.m. arrival didn’t meet its demise a few minutes before legal season.  However, and regardless, they started coming in regular processions and by the end of the first day of the season we had registered a little more than 150 deer.

Our process was simple.  After greeting the hunter we’d ask their permission to cut open its jaw and examine the teeth.  Most often we’d be asked why and we’d explain that we wanted to use a technique to determine the age of the deer.  Probably 50 percent of the time that statement would be met with a boast of “No need for that kid.  It has 6 points so it’s 6 years old."  We would ask again and usually be given permission and when we did we would show the hunter the graphic from Giles’ “Wildlife Management Techniques” handbook and explain the simple process of aging the deer.

Most deer born in Wisconsin are born between late April and early June.  By the start of their first deer season they are somewhere between 7 and 5 months old.  A year later they are between 1 year 5 months and 1 year 7 months old with the vast majority of them 1 year 6 months old.

Every wildlife biology student worth his or her salt has spent time studying and memorizing the details on these two charts from Giles' "Wildlife Management Techniques" handbook.

When aging a deer the first thing you look at is the eruption of the last molar on the lower jaw.  If it has 3 cusps (points) on it the deer is 1 year 6 months old or younger.  If it has 2 cusps on it the deer is 1 year 7 months or older.  If there are 2 cusps present then you look at the amount of wear on several other teeth and from that get an accurate idea of the deer’s age.  In general, the vast majority of deer harvested (maybe 60 percent) have 3 cusps on that last molar and are 1 year 6 months old or younger. Of all the deer I have aged the oldest male (buck) I ever saw was 3 ½ years old and the oldest female (doe) was 12 years old.

Usually when you explain this to hunters their testosterone level drops and they ask how it can be that their 8 point monster buck (certain to be the center of most deer stories for the next 11 months) is just a 1 ½ year old baby.  The answer is simple – antler development is a function of nutrition not age.  If Bambi ate well as a yearling then Bambi could have grown some exceptional antlers.  If Bambi didn’t eat so well, then that poor nutrition will be reflected in his antler development.

At about 2:00 p.m. on opening day 1976, three obviously inebriated deer hunters rolled into our deer registration station.  They had in the rear of their pickup truck three recently harvested male deer.  Each of them as I recall had 8 points (about average for most Wisconsin deer).  On asking the first hunter if I could age his animal I discovered a 3-cusped last molar and informed him that his deer was 1 year 6 months old.  He accepted the answer and I went on to the second deer in the bed of the pickup.

Unfortunately for my ex-wife the hunter she had to deal with wanted no part of some 5 foot tall redhead telling him about his deer.

“I don’t know why you want to look at its teeth,” he began.  “That deer has 8 points so its 8 years old.”  He then added, “Biggest god damned 8 year old I’ve ever shot.”

Quietly and respectfully Ruth asked him again if she could age his deer and he finally said, “Sure.  But it’s a waste of your time. Told you that deer is 8 years old.”

Dutifully she slit open the deer’s mouth exposing the jaw. She then placed a jaw spreader between its jaws, twisted it, and exposed the last molars on the lower jaw.  When she did she saw that just like most other deer we had registered that day, the last molar had 3 cusps and she informed him, “Sir, your deer is 1 year 6 months old.”

“BULLSHIT,” he bellowed.  “That deer is 8 years old and you better god damned well write down 8 years old on your sheet there.”

Undaunted she took out her copy of the graphic from Giles’ Wildlife Management Techniques handbook and showed him what a 1 year 6 month old jaw looks like and then showed him his deer’s jaw and the teeth were an exact match.

“Sir, your deer is 1 year 6 months old.”

He responded saying, “You’re full of shit lady” which I generally did not appreciate so I walked over to Ruth and asked if there was a problem.  She explained what she had done to the deer, and told me the hunter’s response (as if I had not already heard it.) She then asked me to look at the jaw and age the deer.

I popped open the jaw, looked at the last molar on the bottom, saw that it had 3 cusps on it and informed the hunter, “Sir your deer is 1 year 6 months old.” I then picked up the graphic from Giles’ Wildlife Management Techniques book and offered to show it to him.

Giles' Wildlife Management Techniques was the bible of wildlife biology when I first started out. Most of the things you needed to know and even more that you didn't need to know, were contained in this giant handbook

Instead of accepting facts, this clown yelled “You fucking college boys don’t know a god damned thing about deer!”  By now he was livid.  “That deer is EIGHT YEARS OLD and you better write it down that way.”  Sensing he was getting a little out of control, and fearing for the safety of my diminutive 5 foot tall 105 pound wife, I agreed with him.

“You know sir, I made a mistake.  You are right - that deer is 8 years old after all.”  I then penciled in “8” in the age column and wished him a safe drive home.

As he drove out of the parking lot I’m sure his story was not only about the 8 year old buck he had shot but also about how he put those two miserable DNR employees in their place.

Before his truck reached Highway 63 and they turned south, I erased the “8” in the age column for his deer and replaced it with a “1.6” to indicate a 1 year 6 month old.  I guess in the long run we both won.

Monday, November 3, 2014

A Eulogy for a Backpack - Saying Goodbye to an Old Friend and Welcoming a New One

This old Kelty Moraine 3200 pack has logged more than 2,000,000 actual flight miles and been with me in 108 different countries during its long and productive life.  To paraphrase the old John Cameron Swayze commercials for Timex wrist watches - "Its taken a licking and kept on traveling."

On a cold and blustery January afternoon in 1989 I entered the REI (Recreational Equipment Incorporated) store on Northern Lights Boulevard in Anchorage, Alaska.  My purpose wasn’t to casually browse through the seemingly endless supply of excellent outdoor gear that REI has to offer.  Instead I was there on a mission to find, for me, the ultimate carry-on bag/back pack/day pack for use on short-and medium-length trips. 

The heavy-duty Kelty backpack I owned at the time was perfect for long trips hiking and camping on Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior or for traipsing across the Colorado Rockies for a week by myself.  However it was much too large to fit in the overhead bin or under the seat in front of me on a Continental Airlines 737 taking me from Houston to Guatemala City. Likewise the day pack I used in college to help me lug around textbooks and notebooks fit perfectly under the seat in front of me on 737’s but it didn’t hold enough clothing, medicine, bird books, binoculars, and maps to keep me functional during two weeks in the mountains of Chiriqui in western Panama.  I needed something in between – not a day pack and not a back pack.  I needed a day-and-a-half pack.  I had never seen one advertised but I knew I would recognize one when I finally saw it.

Browsing through the hundreds of packs available that day I finally came on to a Kelty Moraine 3200 pack.  Kelty called it a backpack but it was much smaller than my real backpack. It was also twice as large as the day pack I’d used in graduate school.  It had a large center area that could be tied off and sealed where clothes and other essentials could be stored.  Inside that area was a large pocket that was perfect for storing notebooks and maps.  The outside was adorned with two zipper-closed side pockets where bottles of water or extra socks could hide.  The front contained a smallish compartment where plane tickets and passports and other travel documents could be stored and on top, above the main compartment, was a small area with a zipper that could hold more items that might not fit in the main compartment when everything was full.  It was supposed to occupy the space of 32 liters on an internal pack frame.  To me it was perfect – the exact pack I had been seeking for so very long – and within minutes of trying it on I was signing the credit card slip for $59.00 and the Kelty Moraine 3200 was mine.

It was put into service almost immediately after my purchase.  In May 1989 I had to return to Anchorage for yet another meeting on a gargantuan, costly and totally unnecessary military boondoggle called “Over-the-Horizon Radar.”  The theory of OTH radar was that it would bounce a beam of electrons off the stratosphere and they would be collected by a huge net like structure some 30 miles away.  The electron beam would be able to detect incoming Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles that those pesky Russians had fired at the United States and the nation would be safe.  Of course few people other than the military were told that for the multiple billions of dollars that the American public was about to waste on this high-tech folly we would learn that Armageddon was about to befall us 20 minutes before the inevitable rather than the current 10 minutes.  The public was also not told that for the multiple billions of dollars it would cost to tell us to kiss our asses goodbye 10 minutes early, we were also constructing a huge net that was capable of killing hundreds if not thousands of migrating birds each day during spring and fall migration.  I was attending meetings to try to shake some sense into the US Air Force and to protect millions of birds at the same time. 

At the conclusion of the May 1989 meeting (luckily we killed the OTH radar debacle saving you and me billions in tax dollars and protecting millions of songbirds, ducks, geese, swans, and sandhill cranes from an untimely and unnecessary death) I had made arrangements to fly to Nome, Alaska where, with some other US Fish and Wildlife Service colleagues we would be flown by helicopter 110 miles north of Nome and dumped out on the trackless Arctic tundra.  There we would camp for two weeks while censusing the population of Bristle-thighed Curlews that nested on the Seward Peninsula (and nowhere else but the Seward Peninsula).  That pack went with me on that trip and it served as my pillow for two weeks under the midnight sun of the Arctic.

In the intervening 25 years since the Seward Peninsula trip that pack traveled with me to 108 of the 113 countries I have visited.  The only ones it missed were Lichtenstein, Lesotho, Poland, Senegal, and Zimbabwe.  It has logged more than 2,000,000 actual flight miles in planes ranging from 747-400s flown by Thai Airways and a massive Airbus A340 flown by South African Airways to a Cessna 172 flown by Iowa Flying Service in Waterloo Iowa.

My Kelty Moraine 3200 has been on each of the six inhabited continents at least four times, and been with me on 72 islands in the West Indies.  Once I checked it in with Delta in Atlanta expecting it to show up a couple hours later in Cozumel.  Instead Delta sent it to Tokyo.  It was sent back to Atlanta then routed through three Mexican airports before catching up with me in Tuxtla Gutierrez on the Guatemala border.  It was torn apart by the Mexican Federales at a bogus drug checkpoint in west Mexico on the highway to Autlan, and the Australian Immigration and Customs Ministry confiscated and quarantined it for 12 hours when I mistakenly forgot to declare 6 granola bars in my luggage. It has endured the heat of the Negev Desert in Jordan, the howling winds of Antarctica at Ushuaia Argentina, and the oppressive humidity of the Rio Napo in eastern Ecuador.  Its traveled to 16,500 feet above sea level in the Andes of Bolivia and been at both -282 feet below sea level at Death Valley, California and 1,360 feet below sea level (the lowest place on earth) at the Dead Sea in Israel.  It has sailed across 11,886 miles of ocean in the last 13 months, and cleared US Customs at 34 airports from Shannon Ireland to Agana, Guam and seemingly everywhere in between.

In short it has lived a hell of a life over the last 25 years but now it is slowly and progressively falling apart and it doesn't have much life left in it.  A local shoe repair service in Sarasota has sewn it back together at least three times in the last six years but after a mortal tear at the top of the pack while lifting it out of the overhead bin of an Icelandair 757 at the Copenhagen Denmark airport on October 3, 2014, it looks like its life has come to an end.  When I took it to the shoe repair shop here a week or so ago, the repair person informed me that there was little hope for salvaging the backpack.  It was torn in a place that was almost impossible to fix (because of all the other repairs near there earlier) and that the seams on both sides of the pack were slowly coming apart.

It wasn’t completely dead but even life support at this point was futile.

Luckily my friend Jon Andrew was able to find me a replacement for this pack - another Kelty but a contemporary model.  It’s the Redwing 44, a 40 liter model, and through a supplier who gave substantial discounts to US government employees (Jon still is one) Jon was able to purchase this new pack for only slightly more than the $59 I paid more than 25 years ago for the old one.  It will be arriving in Sarasota on Thursday when Jon travels down here for a few days in the Florida sun.  I am looking forward to meeting the new backpack even a little more than I am to seeing my long-time friend.

Both probability and genetics dictate that I am very unlikely to get 26 years of hard travel and long distance flights out of this new Redwing 44 model Kelty pack.  However you can rest assurred that I will try my best to get as many as possible before I take my last trip to somewhere new. 

If the old pack had hands and a computer it could write its own book about its life.  It has been through too much to simply toss it in the trash when the new one arrives. As I thought of alternatives to simply tossing it in the garbage (would you throw your dog in the garbage after it died?  No.  Well the pack was like a pet to me and I couldn’t mindlessly just toss it aside), I thought about my new grandson Garrett who lives in Alaska about an hour from where I bought the old Kelty pack in 1989. 

My original plan was to have the old pack repaired and give it to Garrett so it could be his first pack.  Cathy and I are traveling to central Alaska in July 2015 to see my daughter Jennifer and to meet Garrett for the first time.  It would be most fitting to let his grandpa’s old pack be his first pack, even if he wanted to throw it away the day after he used it the first time.  However the repair person in Sarasota said flatly and honestly, “I don’t want to take your money to repair something that is just going to fall further apart in a year or so.  Why don’t you just give it to your grandson as his first pack and let him keep it as an heirloom or wear it until it falls off his back like it did his grandfather’s back?”

I thought about that a nanosecond and decided his plan was the best way to deal with taking my old pack out of circulation. 

With the new pack’s impending arrival this weekend, the old one has made its next-to-the-last trip.  We are going on a cruise to Jamaica in December and the new one will come with us.  In February we are on another cruise, this one to Honduras, and the new one will be on my back when we board the cruise ship in Tampa.  In July when we fly to Alaska I’ll also take the new one with me but the old one will be packed in a large soft-sided bag and will be checked as luggage to Alaska where it will meet its new owner, my grandson and hopefully live out the rest of its days in the Arctic.

The fact that I subjected the old pack to nearly 26 years of hard use and it’s just now falling apart is a testament to the quality of packs that Kelty makes.  Having just turned 63 years old on Halloween, I know that I will likely never get 26 years of hard use (or even medium use) out of the new pack.  However I will give it my best and put as many miles as possible on the new pack.  Perhaps someday when I’m returned to dust, my grandson and my daughter can hike with the old pack and the new pack to the top of some mountain in Argentina or Colombia, and bury both packs and my ashes in an appropriate final resting place for the three of us.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Non-Seabird Species Observed From a Cruise Ship

Blackpoll Warbler image by R. Rodriquez Mojica

(All images were downladed from the CD that accompanies Mark Oberle's book "Puerto Rico's Birds in Photographs", Third Edition, 2010)

Considerable debate occurs among birders over whether or not a species occurrence in an area was human-assisted.  The most angst seems to revolve around whether the bird was released from a cage (welcome to Miami!) or if it arrived at its location because of being ship-assisted.  The theory behind the latter is - is it legitimate to count a speices as a "wild" bird after it traveled all or a portion of of their journey on a ship.  

The entire concept of human-assistance in a birds presence and your ability to observe it is actually a moot point. Viewed logically, the only bird whose observation wasn't human assisted in some way is the one you see in natural habitats of its range that are viewed with your bare eye.  A flock of Snow Geese foraging in a North Dakota wheat field are on that field because human’s plowed up the prairie and converted it to wheat that the Snow Goose eats.  Were it not for that human assistance the geese wouldn’t be where they are.  Seeing a Black-capped Chickadee in your backyard while it forages at a bird feeder is also a human-assisted bird.  It likely wouldn’t be in your backyard had it not been for the bird feeder.  Water birds in my development that forage on fishes and amphibians in the large wetland here are all human-assisted because the wetland wouldn’t be there unless human’s constructed the wetland.  Lastly, a migrating Hooded Warbler seen on Lido Key when it was fifty feet up in a tree and you observed it through binoculars is also human-assisted because humans built the binoculars through which you are viewing the bird.  

Were it not for the human-made binoculars through which you are looking (not to mention the human planted Australian pine that the bird was in) you’d likely never see the bird or be able to identify it.  In short, unless you see the bird hatch from its egg, and then track it for the remainder of its life, you really don’t know it its presence in front of you was human-assisted or not.

Finding non-seabirds on the ocean is logical given that so many species migrate over the open ocean to reach their winter habitats.  Fall migration of the Blackpoll Warbler is an interesting example.  This species nests in boreal forest across central and northern Canada and into Alaska as far as the Seward Peninsula north of Nome.  In fall the birds fly east and congregate on the coast of Atlantic Canada before pitching out over the ocean toward Venezuela.  It is estimated that most Blackpoll Warblers make a 4-5 day long non-stop flight after leaving solid ground.   Recently a group from the US Fish and Wildlife Service wildlife biologists affixed a satellite transmitter to the back of a Bar-tailed Godwit and tracked its south bound migration from Alaska to New Zealand.  To the amazement of everyone involved the Godwit made the 7,000 mile migration nonstop.

The first non-seabird I ever saw on the ocean was from a seabird watching trip from Cape Hatteras, North Carolina in September 1984.  We were aboard a boat called the Crystal Dawn on a trip organized by Bob Ake and Paul DuMont, when we found a Clapper Rail swimming around in the Gulf Stream current some 40 miles from land.  Since that time I’ve seen several flocks of Blue-winged Teal headed south over open ocean along with flocks of sandpipers (of various species).  In October 2013, on a cruise from Miami to Grand Turk Island in the Turks and Caicos Islands I observed an exhausted adult Peregrine Falcon come aboard the ship while we were 100 miles east of Eleuthera Island in the Bahamas.  Later a presumed juvenile Osprey was observed circling the ship and briefly came onboard on several occasions.  Both the Osprey and the Peregrine Falcon stayed briefly enough to catch their breath before continuing their journey south. 

Both of those birds were human-assisted or ship-assisted but had I not been onboard the ship, nobody would ever know if they were ship-assisted.  They were ship-assisted at one point in their migration but by the time they came ashore there would likely be no ship around so how can you tell the difference?

The American Birding Association held a forum in one of its journal issues where “experts” debated the validity of birds, the probability of them being human assisted, and the resultant countability of that bird for your various lists. Their findings and recommendations were very restrictive.  The British Ornithological Union takes a more liberal approach and almost without exception accepts a bird’s identification regardless if it’s ship-assisted or otherwise human-assisted when it was seen. 

On a recent transatlantic cruise I conducted up to 6 one-hour long transects each day of birds observed on the ocean as we crossed the Atlantic from Copenhagen, Denmark via Ponta Delgada, Azores and St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands to Miami. Between Copenhagen and St. Thomas I saw several interesting seabirds but no non-seabird species.  That changed as we steamed west and north along the coast of Hispaniola and Cuba on October 18 and October 19, as the ship approached south Florida and the harbor in Miami.

Over those two days at sea I observed 8 different non-seabird species while on the ocean.  Another person onboard saw an additional species (Great Egret) that I missed.  Our luck in finding non-seabirds was enhanced because mid-October is at or slightly past the peak of southbound migration for many bird species.  Below is an account of the eight non-seabird species I observed on that trip along with some commentary and speculation about each occurrence.

Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) – At about 8:00 a.m. local time on October 18, and at a point about 15 miles north of the Samana Peninsula of the Dominican Republic, I observed three Great Blue Herons briefly land on the helipad at the rear of the Norwegian Cruise Line’s “Norwegian Star.”  The birds remained standing on the pad until humans frightened them back into flight.

Digital Image by M. Morel

Snowy Egret (Egretta thula).  At about 9:20 a.m. local time on October 18 and at a point about 20 miles from the Samana Peninsula of the Dominican Republic a group of three obvious Snowy Egrets flew over the ship headed south.  They likely could see the coast of the Dominican Republic (I could so why couldn’t they?) and kept flying in its direction.

Digital Image by M. Morel

Zenaida Dove (Zenaida aurita) -  Shortly after sunrise on October 19 and at a point about 20 miles off the northeast coast of Cuba, a Zenaida Dove passed in front of me as I was attempting to count seabirds.  To my knowledge that bird did not land on the ship however I have no way of knowing if that is entirely true.  At the point where it was observed we were about equidistance between the Cuban coast and Great Inagua Island in the Bahamas.  The bird’s flight direction was northeastward so I assume it was headed toward Great Inagua or one of the other islands nearby.

Digital image by R. Rodriquez Mojica

Bicknell’s Thrush (Catharus bicknellii) – At about 4:00 p.m. local time on October 18, and at a point about 20 miles due north of Cap Haitien, Haiti, a Catharus thrush of some species flew along the side of our ship before eventually landing on the rail of the balcony of our stateroom. Whether it saw me or not is unknown but the bird remained on our balcony rail for 5 or 6 minutes before departing.  Later in the day toward sunset I found the bird roosting on a wire suspended from the top of Deck 14 of the ship that passed over the pool and hot tub area. I do not know if it remained on board overnight.  Bicknell’s Thrush has one of the most restricted breeding and wintering ranges of any North American songbird. Almost without exception they winter in the mountains of the Dominican Republic and Haiti.  A bird in the cloud forest of the Dominican Republic not far from the border with Haiti in March 1985 (before the species was split from Gray-cheeked Thrush) was the first one I ever saw.  Subsequent trips to that mountain range in winter have revealed more Bicknell’s Thrushes but never in large numbers. 

Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) – At about 2:15 p.m. local time on October 18, and at a location about 30 miles north of Monte Cristi, Dominican Republic, a Gray Catbird made a brief appearance as it flew alongside (toward the west) our ship.  It landed briefly on the balcony of a nearby stateroom but I do not know how long it remained or its final destiny.

Digital image by Giff Beaton

Magnolia Warbler (Dendroica magnolia) – On October 18 at about 10:15 a.m. and at a location about 14 miles northeast of Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, an exhausted juvenile Magnolia Warbler came aboard the ship along the Promenade on Deck 7.  There it rested briefly and then took flight.  After it left the ship it continued to circle the vessel as we steamed north and west away from that point and farther from land.

Digital image by Giff Beaton

Blackpoll Warbler (Dendroica striata) -  On October 18 at about 10:30, just minutes after the Magnolia Warbler arrived, a juvenile Blackpoll Warbler came aboard the ship on Deck 7.  It stayed briefly, foraged on some insects that were buzzing around the ship, then took up a position on the gunwale on the port side of the ship where it remained until at least 12:00 noon. I’m assuming it departed the ship but just as easily it could have flown to another deck and remained there for some time.

Black-throated Blue Warbler (Dendroica caerulescens) – At about 8:15 a.m. on October 18, at a point about 16 miles north of the Samana Peninsula of the Dominican Republic (and well within sight range of the island) an adult (I think) female Black-throated Blue Warbler came aboard the ship and stayed briefly.  After its departure I continued to see and hear the bird as it circled the ship as the ship continued to move slowly northwest and away from the coast of the Dominican Republic.
Digital image by Giff Beaton 

Are You Ever Really Certain of a Species’ Origin?

Songbirds are very well known to be nocturnal migrants but while migrating over open oceans they don’t have the luxury or opportunity to stop and catch their breath.  I’ve often wondered when passing through large forests of Sargassum or past sticks and other flotsam floating around in the ocean, if songbirds don’t occasionally stop on them for a rest.  Tropical seabirds like Sooty Tern and Brown Noddy are well known for resting on whatever they can find in the middle of the ocean so why not songbirds also?  That topic would make an excellent research question for some enterprising Master’s or PhD candidate to study.

One of the most ironic aspects of these observations is that with the exception of the Zenaida Dove, the other passerines and the Great Blue Heron each was within sight of land.  If you assume a 30 mile per hour migration speed, those birds were less than 30 minutes from reaching dry land where they would likely be spending the winter.  Each of these species, with the exception of the Snowy Egret and Zenaida Dove that never came onboard (to my knowledge), was close to the island where they would likely spend the winter.  However because of the need to rest they were transported further from the island and unless they found food onboard like the Blackpoll Warbler did, they each had to expend additional fat reserves to fuel the remainder of their migration. 

Six of the eight species observed were, in the strictest interpretation of the discussion, ship-assisted. However how could any observer in Cuba, the Dominican Republic or Haiti actually know that unless they were on the ship observing the birds as they passed over the ocean?  I can understand the angst generated by birders if someone opened a cage and out flew a Scarlet Macaw in downtown New Orleans.  However what about a Purple Martin migrating over the Gulf of Mexico that stops off on an oil production platform to catch its breath.  Technically it was human-assisted just like the herons and songbirds I observed come aboard a ship.  In the long run nobody ever knows and also in the long run unless the bird can be shown to have been released from a cage does it really matter?

Friday, October 24, 2014

Finding Azores Bullfinch

Photo of Azores Bullfinch by Pedro Monterio

On the side of a mountain in Oaxaca, Mexico, in late November 1987, long-time friend Bob Ake posited what I now refer to as “Ake’s Rule” which states, simply, “Always go for the endemics.”

An endemic is an organism that occurs nowhere else on the planet except in a certain well defined area (usually a country or an island).  Endemism is especially evident in organisms like plants or insects or in small mammals – all of which are not particularly mobile and cannot intermingle with similar species outside of their range.  Despite the inherent ability of birds to move long distances, many species have evolved in an area, exploited the available niche, and through the march of time have become restricted to an area. 

The list of birds observed in Mexico now stands at 1,080 species.  Among them, and in spite of the nation’s substantial size, 83 species or 7.6 percent of the avifauna are endemic to Mexico.  Despite its even larger size the mainland United States and Canada support fewer species than Mexico (982 species) and among them 32 or 3.8 percent are endemic to that huge region.  A summary of the top ten nations/regions worldwide for endemic bird species follows:
New Guinea
Solomon Islands

The theory behind Ake’s Rule is that if you are in an area with endemics focus your efforts on finding them.  While you are searching for the endemics the other species, all of which can be found somewhere else, will likely be observed over time.  Thus when we were searching for Oaxaca Sparrow that long ago morning in southern Mexico our focus was on it (and we found it) and in the process we saw several other species that were also new. The “prize” however was the one that could only be found there.

Ake’s Rule has guided me to the point of obsession and whenever I am in a new area I focus my attention on the endemics and enjoy the fruits of the labors when other species are also found.  This became especially true with the West Indies and the Europe/Western Palearctic avifaunal regions.  According to the Clements Checklist of Birds of the World there are 153 species endemic to the West Indies.  Included in that total are species endemic to a single island or island nation (Jamaica with 28 leads all nations in the West Indies) and those that occur on multiple islands but nowhere other than the West Indies faunal region (Great Lizard-Cuckoo and West Indian Woodpecker are two fine examples).  While living in and working in the West Indies I long ago made it a goal to see every endemic species that occurs on individual islands and in the faunal area.  As of today I’m missing two of them – Zapata Rail on Cuba and Semper’s Warbler on St. Lucia.  There is considerable evidence to suggest that Semper’s Warbler is now extinct so for all practical purposes I’m one species short of having seen them all.  Once it’s legal to use an American credit card to rent a car in Cuba I’m going to be on the next plane south trying for the second time to find that elusive rail in the crocodile-soaked waters of the Cienega de Zapata.

Among the 1,034 species that have been recorded in Europe and the Western Palearctic (which includes Europe and areas of the Middle East, northern Africa and Atlantic islands where most birds are of European affinity) only 38 (3.6 percent) of them are endemic to that gigantic region.  When I first visited Europe I applied Ake’s Rule to the journey’s and after 27 previous separate trips across the Atlantic to bird in Europe, I had seen 32 of the 38 endemics.  The missing endemics included Caucasian Snowcock (Azerbaijan, Georgia, and European Russia), Zino’s Petrel (Maderia), Monterio’s Storm-Petrel (Azores), Algerian Nuthatch (Algeria), Krueper’s Nuthatch (Greece, Turkey, Georgia, Russia) and Azores Bullfinch (Azores).

I need to learn to speak some Russian and be willing to fill out a 16-page visa application if I ever want to see a Caucasian Snowcock.  A trip several years ago to Maderia for Trocaz Pigeon and Zino’s Petrel was only 50 percent successful.  Monterio’s Storm-Petrel occurs as a nesting species on two small islands in the western reaches of the Azores.  Algerian Nuthatch will remain on my want list until I learn to speak Arabic more fluently and Algeria becomes less volatile.  I was in Greece once but didn’t see Krueper’s Nuthatch; I have yet to travel to Turkey (it’s probably next) and will try for it there.  Last but not least was the recently split Azores Bullfinch, a stunning songbird endemic to only a small area of laurel forest at the eastern tip of Sao Miguel Island in the Azores. 
Location of the Azores in relation to Europe, Africa and North America.  As Jimmy Buffett would say "Its a mighty long airplane ride."

Being fascinated with the Azores since childhood because of their location in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, seeing the two endemics there became my highest priority for Western Palearctic birding. Getting to the Azores isn’t that difficult and can be accomplished on a once-a-day nonstop on SATA Airlines from Boston (4.5 hours in flight) or by connecting with either SATA or TAP Air Portugal in Lisboa and flying west for a couple hours to the island.  I flew TAP Air Portugal to Maderia several years ago, and SATA from Maderia back to Lisboa - both provided the superb service you expect from European airlines.

Another more appealing option, especially when a seabird is involved, is to arrive there by ship or boat.  Luckily Norwegian Cruise Line had the answer to my logistical dilemma.  The Norwegian Star, a 965 foot long 91,000 ton behemoth was used by Norwegian during the summer for cruises in the Baltic and in the North Atlantic.  In the fall the cruise line brought the ship from its summer base in Copenhagen to Los Angeles where it would ply the Mexican Riviera during the winter months.  Known as a repositioning cruise, the Star would begin its journey in Copenhagen, stop off for a day in Ponta Delgada on Sao Miguel Island in the Azores before trundling along to St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands and eventually making landfall in Miami at the end of a 2-week passage.  Although its stop on San Miguel was great for seeking the Azores Bullfinch, its arrival under cover of darkness in the morning and its sunset departure in the afternoon precluded any chance to see the endemic Storm-Petrel.

Each year for my birthday (Halloween) I take myself somewhere new and have been doing this for many years.  Birthday jaunts have taken me to the Canary Islands where I turned 50, to Samoa in the South Pacific, to Ushuaia Argentina the southernmost city in the world, to the Amazon of Ecuador, to Australia for 5 great weeks, Thailand for 5 weeks, South Africa for 5 weeks, to French Guiana and Suriname on the Atlantic coast of South America, and to Vietnam among other places.  The Norwegian Star’s departure from Copenhagen on October 6 brought it to the Azores on October 11 and back to Miami on October 20.  Despite its itinerary not fitting exactly over my birthday it was close enough and I booked the cruise in January 2014.

African Bird Club map of the islands of the Azores


The Azores are a territory of Portugal akin to how Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States.  I had once before traveled to Portugal and that experience taught me that the wildest, craziest drivers anywhere in Europe live in Portugal!  One week of driving in Portugal was enough to convince me that driving on Portuguese roads was not for the weak of heart.  I assumed (incorrectly it turns out) that Azorean drivers would be daredevils like their mainland breathern so I opted for an alternative mode of transportation.
This was the first time I ever went birding in a Mercedes Benz.  I couldn't help co-opting the famous Janis Joplin song and sang "Oh lord won't you take me birding in a Mercedes Benz..." as we drove to the laurel forests.

Not long after the trip was booked I did a search on “taxi service, Sao Miguel Island” and the name of a company called “Amazing Tours” popped up first on the list.  Because I had found Amazing Tours by doing a Google search on taxi service’s I assumed (incorrectly it turned out) that Amazing Tours was a local taxi company.  I contacted Amazing Tours and confirmed a time to be driven to the laurel forests at the east end of the island where I planned to search for the bird while the taxi driver waited.  Through emails we agreed on a price (very reasonable) and confirmed the time when I would be met at the cruise terminal by a driver.

The Bird

The following summary is taken verbatim from the Azores Bird Club webpage.  It explains almost everything you need to know about the species.  

The Azores bullfinch is one of Europe's most endangered birds. It is only found in the east of the island of São Miguel, in just a few square kilometres of wood in Serra da Tronqueira. The finch was a locally abundant pest of fruit orchards in the nineteenth century but became rare after 1920. Changes to the native vegetation of the Azores have destroyed the species' natural habitat and led to a decline in numbers to just 120 pairs. The population today is around 1000 individuals. Breeding occurs from mid-June to late August. Birds feed on seeds of herbaceous plants in summer, seeds of fleshy fruits in autumn, tree seeds and fern sporangia in winter and flower buds in spring. A mosaic of vegetation types is therefore necessary, and due to periodically shortage of food, there are today a number of feeding stations. There is also a management plan which aim to "manage the habitats of the Special Protection Area Pico da Vara / Ribeira do Guilherme in a manner that is compatible with a sustainable future, guaranteeing the conservation of Priolo". This means in practice to save and enlarge the areas with native vegetation. You can read more about the Priolo project here.

  The most striking feature that distinguishes the Azores bullfinch from its mainland counterpart is that males and females look the same, most like the female and lacking the red of the male Common Bullfinch.

   The most visited area to see the Azores Bullfinch is along the first part of the small dirt road towards Nordeste which sets off from the main road about 7 km northeast of Povoação. If you want more areas to search for the birds, or see more of its habitats, you can use the following tips from Thijs Valkenburg who has been involved in the Priolo Project:

   "The Priolo´s distribution coincides roughly with the Pico da Vara/ Ribeira do Guilherme SPA (special protection area) perimeter. Any road inside this area crossing a suitable habitat can be a potential spot to find this critically endangered bird. Although, there are three easy-finding places where you can get a good approach to the native laurel forest and consequently to the Priolo:
   1. Tronqueira's viewpoint situated in the middle of the dirt road from Povoação to Nordeste. From this viewpoint you can take a good look at the biggest patch of native vegetation in the Azores. This is where the LIFE/Priolo Project fieldwork actions are going on. Waiting a while on this place you have good chances to listen the melancholic whistle of the Priolo, if you follow the sound you can have a change observe the bird in its most typical habitat. Best in May-September.
    2. Near the ending of the one way road towards Pico Bartolomeu (south-eastern part of Serra da Tronqueira), there is a probability to see the bird when feeding in the road edges. Best in July-August.
   3. Salto de Cavalo's viewpoint (northeast of Furnas) is one of the most western places where you can find this exclusive bird. The asphalt road from this viewpoint to Povoação goes around native vegetation. Any place where you can take a broad look at this forest is a potential place to see the bird. Best in July-August."

This superbly done video (now four years old) does an excellent job of explaining the issues facing Azores Bullfinch and efforts underway to ensure that it does not go extinct. Birdlife International has some excellent information at this link including a map showing the entire (albeit tiny) range of this bird.

Finding the Bird

Less than two minutes after disembarking in the Ponta Delgada harbor I met Jose Francisco Melo, an Azores resident who was born on Sao Miguel Island and who served as my guide for the morning.  Jose had worked for Amazing Tours for several years after returning from living in Vancouver, British Columbia for a very long time.  Almost immediately after meeting Jose I discovered that Amazing Tours is a top notch ecotourism company and Jose is a top notch guide.  His passion for the Azores, for San Miguel Island, and especially the Azores Bullfinch were infectious and even before we left the edge of Ponta Delgada, Jose had me wishing I was staying much, much longer.

A not-so-great camera shot of the Sao Miguel Island map showing the general location where we searched for the Bullfinch

We traveled to the north side of the island (about 10 minutes from Ponta Delgada on the south shore) where we took the newly built autopista east to the picturesque village of Nordeste. There we turned off the EN 1 highway onto a much smaller road that turned from asphalt to dirt.  We followed this winding road for several kilometers and passed through swarms of Common Chaffinch, Island Canary, and Gray Wagtails on the way. At a point just 0.5 kilometers from the edge of the laurel forest we flushed an adult Azores Bullfinch that gave brief but very convincing views before it disappeared into some patches of shrubs.  It was species number 6,075 on my world life list.

These laurel-draped slopes in eastern Sao Miguel Island are the only home on the planet for the Azores Bullfinch

Jose’s goal was to take me to a place he called “The Lookout” where we parked and walked around a bit looking for and listening for Azores Bullfinch.  Its voice to me sounds like a House Finch and I kept listening for that song while Jose mimicked its call note.  Eventually three birds passed over giving that call note but their movement was too fast for identification.  Meanwhile we soaked in the exquisite scenery of a largely untouched and untrammeled primordial forest.  I soon found myself not wanting to leave.

The thick laurel forest at the Lookout was a treat to walk through.  Its structure reminded me of rainforest in the Pacific Northwest of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia

Unfortunately we had to leave and as we drove slowly back along this road we found several Goldcrest of the Azores race, Azores race of the Common Wood-Pigeon, and the Azores race of Common Chaffinch.  Eventually we found a single adult Bullfinch along the roadside laurel forest and at one place located a group of six adults and juveniles foraging along the road’s edge.  With a total population now estimated at 1,000 birds, our sighting of 0.8 percent of the world population was exciting and sobering at the same time.  Despite finding so many Bullfinches, Jose kept apologizing that he hadn’t shown me enough birds.  One is all it takes and any more than that is a complete bonus!

This informational billboard at The Lookout gives visitors a quick overview of the conservation challenges facing recovery of the Azores Bullfinch

It took us about 45 minutes from the time we left the cruise terminal until we arrived in Nordeste and entered suitable habitat.  We stayed in the laurel forest for about 1 ½ hours and then began the trek back to Ponta Delgada.  Before leaving however, Jose took me to the Priolo (local name for the Azores Bullfinch) Environmental Learning Center.  It didn’t open until noon and we were there about 11:00 a.m. still it was nice to see an entire education center dedicated to one bird and to educating the public about the irreplaceable natural resource it’s their responsibility to conserve.

Our return to the cruise terminal was swift and it gave Jose more time to provide me with an abundance of facts and figures and stories about the Azores and Azorean people.  As we drove along it dawned on me that what few drivers we saw weren’t as crazed and dare devilish as those on mainland Portugal. After asking Jose about this I concluded that just like in the West Indies, people in the Azores live and drive on island time.

If you want to lend some financial support to the efforts on Sao Miguel to help conserve the Azores Bullfinch you can do so at this link.  Efforts to restore degraded Bullfinch habitat are described at this link.

Would I Do It Again?

The Azores bird checklist is made up of at least 331 species and it seems more are added each year.  Among that total at least 68 species (20.5 percent) are North American nesting birds that took a left turn out over the Atlantic and pitched in here when they finally found dry land.  That includes at least 12 species of North American nesting warblers (Northern Parula was added to the list in 2012). Summer Tanager, Bobolink, Indigo Bunting, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Yellow-billed Cuckoo and many others are among the migrants that have turned up there.  Accordingly for people interested in building a large Western Palearctic bird list the Azores are an essential place to visit.  In fact while we were in the Azores Jose informed me that there were no hotel or bed and breakfast rooms available anywhere on the island of Corvo (westernmost island in the chain and closest to North America) because birders were all over the island looking for out-of-range birds from North America.

In addition to the North American avifauna there is also a nice selection of Old World species that can be found here including absolute boat loads of Eurasian Blackbird (the one the Beatles sang about in their famous song) and numerous other species that would be of interest to North American’s wanting an easy introduction to European birds.  Quite surprisingly while we were in the Azores a Snowy Owl was on one of the islands near Sao Miguel.  I knew of this sighting before leaving Copenhagen and as we moved south over open ocean for 3 days before reaching the Azores I kept looking in amazement at the endless ocean and wondered how that Snowy Owl oriented himself to finding that speck of land more than 2,000 miles from the nearest suitable Snowy Owl habitat.  The Azores Bird Club (of which I am about to become a member - you should also) has a wealth of information available about the birding potential of these unique islands.  

Given the variety of habitats, the great birds to be seen, and the high probability of finding some stray North American birds for my Western Palearctic list, it’s a safe assumption that I would love to go back to the Azores sometime very soon.  Cathy went SCUBA diving while I was in the mountains and she returned from that jaunt with all sorts of superlatives about what she saw under the water. Knowing that makes it easier to plan a trip there – I can look for birds while she chases fish around in the ocean. 

There is still one endemic bird that occurs in the Azores that I’ve not seen (Monterio’s Storm-Petrel) and if I am to adhere to Ake’s Rule I need to go back to try for it another time.  Plus my Europe/Western Palearctic bird list now stands at 593 species observed and I know it will bother me no end until I have at least 600 species on that list so a return trip is definitely in order.  Next time we will fly there so we have more time and flexibility and can set up visits to several of the other islands.  SATA Airlines has a great internal air system and there are several ferries that ply the Azorean waters that will make it easier to search for seabirds.

Knowledge of the Portuguese language is not essential but it would be desirable especially on outlying islands.  Unlike highly xenophobic America where some people belittle those who can't speak English, in Europe almost everyone I've ever met speaks their language, several others from nearby countries AND English.  Still to avoid the sterotype of the Ugly American I'd recommend learning at least some phrases in Portuguese.  Plus knowledge of Portuguese (it's fairly easy to learn if you can already speak Spanish) is essential if you are going to spend much time away from major tourist centers when you go to Brazil.

One thing I know for certain after my short time on the island is that if you go there on your own looking for Azores Bullfinch you should contact Amazing Tours beforehand and ask that Jose be your guide.  I can’t guarantee you will see the bird (however I bet you will) but you will come away very well informed and with a case of Azores island fever that will make you want to come back to this little oasis in the middle of the ocean over and over again.