Thursday, December 30, 2010

Is a Florida Year List of 400 Species Possible?


I met Chris Haney in Athens, Georgia, in May, 1984. At the time he was a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Georgia and I had just transferred there from a wildlife research center in North Dakota. As we stumbled along the banks of the Ocoee River finding my life Swainson’s Warbler, Chris told me that besides getting his PhD his goal in life was to see 300 species in Georgia in one year.

Having grown up in northern Wisconsin I was more than pleased to get 230 species in the Badger state in a year. One year in the early 1970s Daryl Tessen found an incredible 264 species in the state. It was then a milestone. Certainly 300 species in Georgia was never going to be attained. However in 1984 Chris Haney beat my prognostication and came in with a list of 308 for the year.

His success with a robust year list in 1984 and all the traveling he did to achieve that goal lay dormant in my mind until a couple years ago when I retired and moved from Washington DC to Naples and then a year later to Sarasota. Living on the west coast half way up the peninsula I thought that I was ideally located for making strategic chases in the hopes of finding as many birds as possible within the borders in a calendar year. I was only four hours from Miami, seven from Key West, five from Jacksonville, and three from Titusville. If I really wanted to be a masochist, it was an “easy” nine hour drive to Pensacola when needed.

Several factors conspired to make it impossible to attempt a big year in Florida in 2009 so I settled on trying in 2010. Information I gleaned somewhere said that the Big Year record for Florida before 2010 was 374 species. It was a number I thought I would never reach so I set my goal at 325 species. Of course long ago I thought that nobody would ever surpass Lou Gehrig’s record of playing in 2,130 consecutive baseball games either. Yet when Gehrig’s record was beaten it wasn’t beaten it was smashed.

Scouring the list serves and other data sources in late December 2009, it was apparent that to get the year off to a positive start I had to be in the western Panhandle in early January and on January 6 I set off for Pensacola. It turned out to be the first of 14 round trips I made to the Panhandle in 2010 but the effort to get there was always fruitful. Before making that first long trek (its 519 miles one-way from Sarasota to Pensacola) I began the year birding Sarasota and Manatee counties. My first bird of the year, seen from my lanai on January 1, was a Wood Stork. It turned to be a positive omen for the year.

Making four chases to the Panhandle coupled with local birding provided a list of 203 species for the year by January 31, 2010. I was only 122 species short of my year goal and I’d only been birding 31 days. Highlights for the month included Greater White-fronted Goose in Duval County, Brant in Nassau County (Fort Clinch), Cackling Goose in Wakulla County, Tundra Swan in St. John’s County, Common Eider in Flagler, Harlequin Duck in Brevard, Masked Duck in Brevard, Red-footed Booby in Dade, Buff-bellied and Calliope Hummingbirds in the Panhandle, Black-throated Gray Warbler in Palm Beach, Western Tanager in Dade and Green-tailed Towhee in Escambia County.

The distribution of Florida's 67 counties is shown here

When he made his attempt at finding 800 species in the ABA area in 1979, Jim Vardamann did considerable research and chose a pattern of being in locale X on a certain date, and locale Y on a different date. Jim ended the year with 799 species. A few years later when Benton Basham actually broke the record (with 814 species I think it was) he chose a different strategy. Benton focused on chasing rarities assuming they would only be in locale X a short while. When successful in seeing the rarity, Benton would then look for the more common local species adding them to his list. The strategy worked for Benton and I decided to employ it for myself in 2010. Other than birding locally I simply watched the list serves for news of a rare bird and chased them.

By February 28, my year list had swollen to 266 species including Vermilion Flycatcher in Okaloosa County.

March brought the first wave of migrant warblers and with them my year list increased by 51 new species to 317. At the end of March I was only eight species short of my year’s goal and my thinking began changing. If 317 species are this “easy” maybe I could see 350 for the year. It would certainly be in the realm of possibility. March highlights included Neotropic Cormorant in Wakulla County, Bar-tailed Godwit at Everglades National Park (of all places!), Surfbird in Levy County, Ash-throated Flycatcher in Alachua County, Loggerhead Kingbird and Thick-billed Vireo n Key West, and Townsend’s Warbler in Dade County.

April saw the beginning of Minor League baseball in Bradenton which caused me to change focus from birds to baseballs. Surprisingly the only Yellow Warbler I saw anywhere in the state during spring migration was singing from the roof over the bleachers at McKechnie Field in Bradenton during a Bradenton Marauders game! By the end of April my year list was at 360 species, surpassing the goal of 350 I had made just a month before and putting me within striking range of the state record of 374 set a few years earlier. Highlights for April included a Golden Eagle in Okeechobee County, Brown-crested Flycatcher in Pinellas County, and a Black-headed Grosbeak in Dade County.

The summer doldrums set in during May and bird activity declined markedly. I added only five new species in May bringing the year list to 365. The highlight of the month was the totally out of place Bahama Mockingbird in Pinellas County. I was able to get to DeSoto Park, tick the bird, and be back in Bradenton in time for the first pitch of a Bradenton Marauders game.

During June I added three species including the incredible Red-legged Thrush, a one-day wonder in Brevard County on June 1. I also added two “common” species I’d missed earlier in the year on yet another trip to the Panhandle. July saw more baseball than birds and in August I added two more including a Willow Flycatcher heard and then seen while bicycling one evening in a Sarasota golf development community. By Labor Day weekend my year list was at 370 species and holding.

September ended with 380 species. An American Golden-Plover in Volusia County tied the previous record of 374 species, and Ruff in Volusia on September 15 was 375. Other highlights for September included Sabine’s Gull in Volusia County, and Cuban Pewee and Western Spindalis in Dade County.

With three months remaining and all of them good month’s for migrants, I began thinking that maybe if everything fell in place it was possible to see 400 species in Florida in a calendar year.

Six species were added in October before I took off for a few days of chasing life birds in the Andes of Colombia. Back home in Florida the highlights were Groove-billed Ani in Franklin County, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher in Escambia County, Bell’s Vireo in Franklin County and Yellow-headed Blackbird in Franklin County. My year list was at 386 at the end of October.

The Yellow-legged Gull at Ponce Inlet on November 27 was the only addition to the list in November.

“The” loon (Yellow-billed Loon) in Brevard County on December 21 was second only to the Red-legged Thrush as the most spectacular bird of the year. Other choice additions for December included Ross’s Goose in Brevard County, Lapland Longspur in Okaloosa County and Snow Bunting in Flagler County.

My last tick of the year was the Lapland Longspur in Okaloosa County on December 28. It brought my 2010 Big Year total to 391 species. Foolishly I left the Panhandle and drove back to Sarasota after seeing the Longspur that morning. On my return home in the evening I received an email informing me that an Allen’s Hummingbird was seen that day not very far from where I had been looking at the Longspur that morning. Faced with another 475 mile one way drive for a year bird I contemplated the run but my enthusiasm was telling me it had had enough for one year. I decided to stay home. If something good was to show up it had to be somewhere close to home. I was done with long distance chasing for the year.

I ended 2010 with a year list of 391 species in Florida far surpassing my early goal of 325 species and surpassing the state record by 17 species.

Seeing that many birds required 14 round trips to the Panhandle, four trips to Key West, seven to Miami and the Everglades, eleven trips to Brevard County, ten to Volusia County, and five to Duval and Nassau Counties. I put more than 28,000 miles on my car or more regularly on rental cars. I visited each of Florida’s 67 counties a minimum of five times during the year, slept in my car or in a hotel 69 nights and spent a little over $12,000 on gas, hotels, food and rental cars. During the year I added 36 species to my Florida list and added more county birds to more county lists than I care to enumerate. I also started county lists in places like Union and Washington and Liberty counties and other smaller, less birded locales. However I still came up short of the magic 400 species for a year.

Is it possible to see 400 or more species in Florida in a year? My experience this year told me it most certainly is. Because of several conflicting factors, I was not able to get on any pelagic trips this year out of the Ponce Inlet, Miami, or the Keys. And despite being in Key West four times I was never able to make a trip to the Dry Tortugas. Had I been able to get on at least one of those trips I think 400 would have been obtainable.

Based on what was posted on various bird list serves during the year, I missed seeing 18 species in Florida that were seen by someone somewhere in the state in 2010. Those included: Cinnamon Teal, Black-capped Petrel, Greater Shearwater, Manx Shearwater, Audubon’s Shearwater, Leach’s Storm-Petrel, Band-rumped Storm-Petrel, White-tailed Tropicbird, Masked Booby, Red Phalarope, Brown Noddy, Sooty Tern, Bridled Tern, Arctic Tern, Allen’s Hummingbird, Cassin’s Kingbird, Fork-tailed Flycatcher and Western Meadowlark

My experience in 2010 shows that if a lot of factors fall into place 400 species is certainly attainable and can be surpassed. Reliance on the five (or more?) bird list serves that blanket Florida is essential. All but one of the rarities I observed during the year, along with many of the highlighted species mentioned above, were found, documented and/or photographed by others and reported on the list serves. The one exception was a juvenal Golden Eagle sitting on a fence post along the road to Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park. In most cases I was able to find the rarities the day after the initial sighting was posted by someone else. When the Red-legged Thrush showed up in June, I received an email about it at 2:00 in the afternoon and by 5:30 that afternoon I was on the east coast looking at the bird. It was not seen again after that one day. The same held for the Surfbird near Cedar Key in March. Less than eighteen hours after its appearance on the list serve, I was paddling a kayak out to the island where it was still present.

Certainly 400 species and more can be found in Florida in a calendar year, however it will not be done by me. A Big Year chase like this is a once-in-a-lifetime project, and I’m too tired to think of trying again. I’ll just focus my attention on county listing and attend a lot more baseball games that I did in 2010.

My 2010 Florida Big Year list is reproduced below.

DUCKS, GEESE, AND WATERFOWL
Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
Fulvous Whistling-Duck
Greater White-fronted Goose
Snow Goose
Ross’s Goose
Brant
Cackling Goose
Canada Goose
Tundra Swan
Muscovy Duck
Wood Duck
Gadwall
Eurasian Wigeon
American Wigeon
American Black Duck
Mallard
Mottled Duck
Blue-winged Teal
Northern Shoveler
Northern Pintail
Green-winged Teal
Canvasback
Redhead
Ring-necked Duck
Greater Scaup
Lesser Scaup
Common Eider
Harlequin Duck
Surf Scoter
White-winged Scoter
Black Scoter
Long-tailed Duck
Bufflehead
Common Goldeneye
Hooded Merganser
Common Merganser
Red-breasted Merganser
Masked Duck
Ruddy Duck

NEW WORLD QUAIL
Northern Bobwhite

PHEASANTS, GROUSE, AND ALLIES
Wild Turkey

LOONS
Red-throated Loon
Pacific Loon
Common Loon
Yellow-billed Loon

GREBES
Pied-billed Grebe
Horned Grebe
Eared Grebe
Western Grebe

SHEARWATERS AND PETRELS
Cory’s Shearwater

STORM-PETRELS
Wilson’s Storm-Petrel

BOOBIES AND GANNETS
Brown Booby
Red-footed Booby
Northern Gannet

PELICANS
American White Pelican
Brown Pelican

CORMORANTS AND SHAGS
Neotropic Cormorant
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Cormorant

ANHINGAS
Anhinga

FRIGATEBIRDS
Magnificent Frigatebird

HERONS, EGRETS, AND BITTERNS
American Bittern
Least Bittern
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Little Blue Heron
Tricolored Heron
Reddish Egret
Cattle Egret
Green Heron
Black-crowned Night-Heron
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

IBISES AND SPOONBILLS
White Ibis
Glossy Ibis
White-faced Ibis
Roseate Spoonbill

STORKS
Wood Stork

NEW WORLD VULTURES
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture

OSPREY
Osprey

HAWKS, EAGLES, AND KITES
Swallow-tailed Kite
White-tailed Kite
Snail Kite
Mississippi Kite
Bald Eagle
Northern Harrier
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Cooper’s Hawk
Red-shouldered Hawk
Broad-winged Hawk
Short-tailed Hawk
Swainson’s Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Golden Eagle

FALCONS AND CARACARAS
Crested Caracara
American Kestrel
Merlin
Peregrine Falcon

RAILS, GALLINULES, AND COOTS
Black Rail
Clapper Rail
King Rail
Virginia Rail
Sora
Purple Gallinule
Common Moorhen
American Coot

LIMPKIN
Limpkin

CRANES
Sandhill Crane

PLOVERS AND LAPWINGS
Black-bellied Plover
American Golden-Plover
Snowy Plover
Wilson’s Plover
Semipalmated Plover
Piping Plover
Killdeer

OYSTERCATCHERS
American Oystercatcher

STILTS AND AVOCETS
Black-necked Stilt
American Avocet

SANDPIPERS AND ALLIES
Spotted Sandpiper
Solitary Sandpiper
Greater Yellowlegs
Willet
Lesser Yellowlegs
Upland Sandpiper
Whimbrel
Long-billed Curlew
Hudsonian Godwit
Bar-tailed Godwit
Marbled Godwit
Ruddy Turnstone
Surfbird
Red Knot
Sanderling
Semipalmated Sandpiper
Western Sandpiper
Least Sandpiper
White-rumped Sandpiper
Baird’s Sandpiper
Pectoral Sandpiper
Purple Sandpiper
Dunlin
Stilt Sandpiper
Buff-breasted Sandpiper
Ruff
Short-billed Dowitcher
Long-billed Dowitcher
Wilson’s Snipe
American Woodcock
Wilson’s Phalarope
Red-necked Phalarope

GULLS, TERNS, AND SKIMMERS
Sabine’s Gull
Bonaparte’s Gull
Laughing Gull
Franklin’s Gull
Ring-billed Gull
California Gull
Herring Gull
Yellow-legged Gull
Thayer’s Gull
Iceland Gull
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Glaucous Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Least Tern
Gull-billed Tern
Caspian Tern
Black Tern
Roseate Tern
Common Tern
Forster’s Tern
Royal Tern
Sandwich Tern
Black Skimmer

SKUAS AND JAEGERS
Pomarine Jaeger
Parasitic Jaeger
Long-tailed Jaeger

PIGEONS AND DOVES
Rock Pigeon
White-crowned Pigeon
Eurasian Collared-Dove
White-winged Dove
Mourning Dove
Common Ground-Dove

PARROTS
Budgerigar
Nanday Parakeet
Monk Parakeet
White-winged Parakeet

CUCKOOS
Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Mangrove Cuckoo
Black-billed Cuckoo
Smooth-billed Ani
Groove-billed Ani

BARN-OWLS
Barn Owl

OWLS
Eastern Screech-Owl
Great Horned Owl
Burrowing Owl
Barred Owl
Short-eared Owl

NIGHTJARS AND ALLIES
Lesser Nighthawk
Common Nighthawk
Antillean Nighthawk
Chuck-will’s-widow
Eastern Whip-poor-will

SWIFTS
Chimney Swift

HUMMINGBIRDS
Broad-billed Hummingbird
Buff-bellied Hummingbird
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Black-chinned Hummingbird
Calliope Hummingbird
Broad-tailed Hummingbird
Rufous Hummingbird

KINGFISHERS
Belted Kingfisher

WOODPECKERS
Red-headed Woodpecker
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Red-cockaded Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Pileated Woodpecker

TYRANT FLYCATCHERS
Olive-sided Flycatcher
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Cuban Pewee
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher
Acadian Flycatcher
Alder Flycatcher
Willow Flycatcher
Least Flycatcher
Eastern Phoebe
Say’s Phoebe
Vermilion Flycatcher
Ash-throated Flycatcher
Great Crested Flycatcher
Brown-crested Flycatcher
La Sagra’s Flycatcher
Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher
Tropical Kingbird
Western Kingbird
Eastern Kingbird
Gray Kingbird
Loggerhead Kingbird
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

SHRIKES
Loggerhead Shrike

VIREOS
White-eyed Vireo
Thick-billed Vireo
Bell’s Vireo
Yellow-throated Vireo
Blue-headed Vireo
Warbling Vireo
Philadelphia Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
Black-whiskered Vireo

CROWS, JAYS, AND MAGPIES
Blue Jay
Florida Scrub-Jay
American Crow
Fish Crow

LARKS
Horned Lark

SWALLOWS
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Purple Martin
Tree Swallow
Bank Swallow
Barn Swallow
Cliff Swallow
Cave Swallow

CHICKADEES AND TITS
Carolina Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse

NUTHATCHES
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown-headed Nuthatch

CREEPERS
Brown Creeper

WRENS
Carolina Wren
House Wren
Winter Wren
Sedge Wren
Marsh Wren

GNATCATCHERS
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

BULBULS
Red-whiskered Bulbul

KINGLETS
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet

THRUSHES AND ALLIES
Eastern Bluebird
Veery
Gray-cheeked Thrush
Swainson’s Thrush
Hermit Thrush
Wood Thrush
American Robin
Red-legged Thrush

MOCKINGBIRDS AND THRASHERS
Gray Catbird
Northern Mockingbird
Bahama Mockingbird
Brown Thrasher

STARLINGS
Common Myna
European Starling

WAGTAILS AND PIPITS
American Pipit

WAXWINGS
Cedar Waxwing

NEW WORLD WARBLERS
Blue-winged Warbler
Golden-winged Warbler
Tennessee Warbler
Orange-crowned Warbler
Nashville Warbler
Northern Parula
Yellow Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Magnolia Warbler
Cape May Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Black-throated Gray Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Townsend’s Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler
Yellow-throated Warbler
Pine Warbler
Prairie Warbler
Palm Warbler
Bay-breasted Warbler
Blackpoll Warbler
Cerulean Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
American Redstart
Prothonotary Warbler
Worm-eating Warbler
Swainson’s Warbler
Ovenbird
Northern Waterthrush
Louisiana Waterthrush
Kentucky Warbler
Connecticut Warbler
Mourning Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Hooded Warbler
Wilson’s Warbler
Canada Warbler
Yellow-breasted Chat

TANAGERS AND ALLIES
Western Spindalis

BUNTINGS, SPARROWS AND ALLIES
Green-tailed Towhee
Eastern Towhee
Bachman’s Sparrow
American Tree Sparrow
Chipping Sparrow
Clay-colored Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Vesper Sparrow
Lark Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Grasshopper Sparrow
Henslow’s Sparrow
Le Conte’s Sparrow
Nelson’s Sparrow
Saltmarsh Sparrow
Seaside Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Lincoln’s Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Harris’s Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Lapland Longspur
Snow Bunting

CARDINALS AND ALLIES
Summer Tanager
Scarlet Tanager
Western Tanager
Northern Cardinal
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Black-headed Grosbeak
Blue Grosbeak
Indigo Bunting
Painted Bunting
Dickcissel

TROUPIALS AND ALLIES
Bobolink
Red-winged Blackbird
Eastern Meadowlark
Yellow-headed Blackbird
Rusty Blackbird
Brewer’s Blackbird
Common Grackle
Boat-tailed Grackle
Shiny Cowbird
Bronzed Cowbird
Brown-headed Cowbird
Orchard Oriole
Bullock’s Oriole
Spot-breasted Oriole
Baltimore Oriole

SISKINS, CROSSBILLS,AND ALLIES
Purple Finch
House Finch
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch

OLD WORLD SPARROWS
House Sparrow

--------- STATISTICS ---------
Species seen - 391
Families w/seen species – 63

Friday, December 24, 2010

Holiday Greetings from the Little Latitudes


2010 was a rather active year here on Florida’s Sun Coast filled with lots of bird watching, lots of baseball, a little travel, and the completion of writing another book.

January 1 2010 found me making the first of 11 trips to the “Redneck Riviera” otherwise known as the Florida Panhandle, to chase birds. I began the year hoping to topple the record of 374 bird species seen in Florida in a calendar year. By Christmas Eve I’d beaten that record with 390 species. In the process I was in each of Florida’s counties at least five times, drove more than 23,000 miles (it’s a long way from Key West to Pensacola), and spent 66 nights in hotels or the backseat of my car somewhere in the Sunshine State.

February brought the Baltimore Orioles to Sarasota for their first year of spring training, and March, when not chasing birds, was filled with spring training baseball games. The three best memories of the spring were watching David “Big Poppi” Ortiz from the Boston Red Sox hit a ball into orbit at City of Palms Field in Fort Myers, watching the Minnesota Twins go down to defeat every time I saw them play, and heckling a Philadelphia Phillies pitcher so relentlessly that he gave me the finger. Sweet!

In April the Bradenton Marauders, a Class A farm team for the Pittsburgh Pirates, made their debut in Bradenton. With season tickets I watched 68 of their 70 home games plus a few on the road. The Marauders made it to the playoffs in their first year which was very exciting to witness. I was able to expand my repertoire of baseball heckling phrases and eventually became known as the “Designated Heckler” by many of the Marauder fans and players.

Speaking of baseball heckling in September I finished the manuscript for my first novel. It’s titled “The Heckler” and it fictionalizes the 2009 season of the former minor league Sarasota Reds. It comes complete with lots of twists and turns and in the style of any good Florida mystery it leaves bodies strewn across the landscape.

International travel this year was restricted to a birthday jaunt to Medellin, Colombia. This was my fifth trip to Colombia and I spent five days in the central Andes of this much-maligned nation awestruck once again by the enormity of the Andes and by the beauty of its birds.

Plans for 2011 are rather fluid so far. Baseball spring training begins in just a few weeks and minor league games begin in early April. I have season tickets again for 2011 and plan to be directly behind home plate for every Marauder home game. The big travel plan for next year, to celebrate my 60th birthday on Halloween, is to spend 35 days birding and traveling in South Africa and its neighboring countries.

With this message I want to wish my friends and family a happy holiday season. Don’t forget to celebrate Jimmy Buffett’s birthday on Christmas Day, and I hope 2011 is even better for you than 2010.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

December 23 in North Dakota History


December 23, 1983, dawned cloudless, cold and windy in Jamestown, North Dakota. I remember well waking that morning and turning on the local radio station only to learn that at 8:00 a.m. the temperature at the airport (which was one mile from where I was then living) was a brisk -42 degrees F. That's right. The air temperature was 42 degrees F below zero. The radio then reported that the horrific cold was accompanied by a sustained wind of 40 miles per hour. The wind had arrived on what was known as an Alberta Clipper. Making matters even worse, if that is possible, was the calculated wind chill of -106 degrees F. Yes, you read that correctly. The wind chill was one hundred six degrees below zero.

Twice in my then-young life in my home town in northern Wisconsin the temperature had reached -62 degrees (January 1 1974) and -60 (January 11, 1977). However and thankfully when it was that cold in Wisconsin there was no wind. The bitter cold was just that. In North Dakota on December 23, 1983, it was a different story.

By 11:00 a.m. I had been able to get my car started and it sat in the parking lot warming up. Back in my apartment my phone rang. It was a friend in Jamestown who lived with her three sons on the south side of Jamestown. She reported that she had plugged in her head bolt heater or block heater but despite it being plugged in and working, the horrific windchill had conspired to freeze her engine. She wanted to know if I would come over to see if I could get her car running.

I dressed entirely in wool and went to her house. I had on a wool watch cap, a wool scarf over my face, a wool shirt over an insulated undershirt, a woolen jacket, wool pants, wool socks, Sorrel boots (with their felt liners) and wool mittens under deer skin outers. I was ready for the Arctic. However I wasn't ready for -106 degrees F.

As diligent as I was in trying to start the car I could be outside only 5 minutes and then had to come in her house for 10 to 15 minutes to warm up. After two hours of this nonsense and despite being layered in wool, the wind was cutting through my clothes and I felt frozen to my skeleton. I gave up and went home. Carol's car started three days later when the temperature was a bit more hospitable.

I don't think I'll ever forget that day. A year to the day later I was in the Bahamas and a year after that in the Turks and Caicos Islands. Despite my Nordic heritage, and despite having grown up in the frozen north woods of Wisconsin, and despite this frigid day in North Dakota, my subsequent time in North Dakota convinced me that living in cold climates was not the thing for me. I wonder how much that day influenced my decision to now live among the palm trees in Florida where, as the Jim Morris song states, "75 is mighty chilly to me."

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Pinheads in Mall Parking Lots


Once in Yellowstone National Park I watched a foolish tourist from New Jersey (isn't that redundant?) send his child up toward a female Moose and its calf so he could take a picture of his child standing next to these Moose. I was in a US government car at the time (complete with the emblem/target on the door) and jumped from that car and yelled at the tourist for putting his child in danger. After chewing his Cheney for being so foolish I stopped a National Park Service employee and reported what I saw and had done. I wanted him to know in case there was a report of someone in a government car harassing a tourist (because of their gross stupidity). The NPS employee laughed and then said not to worry. He added "When people leave home on a vacation they seem to leave their common sense at their driveway."

Have you ever noticed how the same maxim works in mall parking lots?

Take today for instance when I drove down to the shopping mall at the corner of Honore Avenue and Fruitville Road to grab a sandwich from Subway. With the sandwich in hand I left the Subway and returned to my car in the parking lot. As I got to my car (but before opening it) I noticed someone with Ohio license plates (why is it ALWAYS Ohio???) pull up and stop behind me. The driver had her left turn signal on indicating that she wanted to take my parking spot. It didn't matter that there were open parking spots several cars beyond where I was parked. She had her eyes set on my spot and she was going to park there come hell or high water.

Being retired and in no rush, I decided to change her plans a bit.

When I got to my car, instead of turning on the engine and leaving, I simply turned it on Sirius Satellite Radio Channel 31 and listened to Radio Margaritaville. I then took the turkey breast sandwich out of the bag and began to eat it while listening to Buffett music. Occasionally I would look over my shoulder. The Ohioan was still stopped there waiting for me to leave.

I kept on eating.

I had also purchased a small bag of Sun Chips and between bites of the turkey sandwich I'd take the occasional chip and pop it in my mouth.

The Ohio lady kept on waiting. However by now there were other cars lined up behind her waiting for her to move. She wanted my spot, however, and she would be damned if she was going to move.

I kept on eating.

Consuming the sandwich and the bag of chips took me 13 minutes (I know because I timed it on the car's clock). During the entire 13 minutes Ms. Ohio remained parked, engine running (wasting gasoline and putting pollutants into the air) with her turn signal flashing and cars behind her now blowing their horns.

Finished, I finally started the car's engine, put the car in reverse and slowly backed out of the parking space and drove south. As soon as I had moved away from my parking spot the Ohio lady darted in there and parked her car. To her it was worth 13 minutes of wasting gasoline to get that parking spot just five spaces from the entrance to the Mall. As I drove south from "my" parking spot, I noticed that there were several open parking spaces beginning just four cars away from where I ate lunch and made this person wait. Ms Ohio could have very easily driven four car lengths further to park 13 minutes earlier. However Ms Ohio probably doesn't know the meaning of the word "logic" or even how to find it in the dictionary.

There must be something really super special about the parking spot I occupied and she coveted. That, or this snowbird from Ohio is the latest glaring example of the sky-rocketing human stupidity quotient.

My guess is she's the latter.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Airport Pat Downs and the TSA


Anyone who has traveled by air since October 2001 has had to deal with the petulant, bullying, undignified employees of the Transportation Security Administration or TSA. This agency, part of the Bush Administration's successful effort to increase the size of the Federal government by nearly 15 percent was established to make sure that there would be no more 9/11 like attacks on the United States.

It was a great goal and at the time a politically expedient goal. However as time has gone on and the invasive nature of TSA has become augered into the psyche of the traveling public more and more people are beginning to question the wisdom of how TSA does its job.

The most recent example is the frustration that is being vented by the traveling public now that TSA has, for no known reason other than they can, begun doing pat-downs of travelers who refuse to be subjected to full body screening by TSA employees at the security check points in airports.

One of the main arguments against the pat-downs is the feeling by many that individual rights to freedom from unreasonable search provided by the US Constitution. Curiously just after 9/11 more than 70 percent of the Americans surveyed on one poll agreed that it is acceptable to give up some basic freedoms if it means fighting terrorism. Now that the latest freedom has been taken away people don't like it. You can't have it both ways!

As much as I have absolutely ZERO respect for TSA and the buffoon's who work for it I have to defend this pat down practice. And I do so because of my experience going through the gauntlet known as trying to fly out of the Tel Aviv, Israel, international airport.

First on driving into the airport all travelers are stopped and checked over by Israeli security forces. Then as you walk into the terminal you are immediately patted down (I was patted down by a Jamaican security person once and when I asked her to do it again, more slowly, her male supervisor told me "sir, you need to move along now" but that was Montego Bay, not Tel Aviv). That is the first pat down.

The second pat down comes when you go to approach the ticket counter. You lay all your belongings on a table and two or three security people rifle through everything in your luggage before you give anything to the gate agent. You are also patted down as this inspection goes on.

After getting your boarding pass, and before getting on the escalator to take you to the departure gates you pass through a metal detector but not before you are patted down (for a third time) by other Israeli security forces.

At the top of the escalator you turn right to walk to your gate. There before entering the departure area you are patted down a fourth time. When the flight is called and you walk down the steps to the bus that transports you to the plane, but before getting on that bus, you are patted down a fifth time. Finally at the base of the plane, before walking up the steps (there are no departure walkways at Tel Aviv airport - all planes are parked remotely from the terminal) you are patted down a sixth time.

All the luggage is laid out on the ground by the plane (this is why you are supposed to arrive at the airport four hours early!) where those checking bags have to go personally identify their luggage and probably get patted down again (I had this happen in the Georgetown Guyana airport also). Luckily I only had carry on so I wasn't subjected to a seventh pat down like some people were.

Once you get on the plane you feel pretty damned sure that nothing bad is going to happen to you because everyone and their brother has been checked and checked again six times even before the pilot starts the engines.

Is the security at the Tel Aviv airport excessive? A tad. But you know what? There has never been a successful hijacking of a plane out of Tel Aviv airport. Ever.

We all scream and holler and wax poetic about the need to fight "terrorism" but when techniques are implemented to do that, such as patting down passengers who don't agree to a body screening, then we start objecting like crazy.

We can't have it both ways as much as we'd like it that way. As for me, I will gladly be patted down and delayed a few minutes before getting to the gate if it means there is that much less chance for something bad to happen on the plane. My only hope is that the person who pats me down is about 38 years old, a brunette, and has a body to die for. But that's just me.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Foolishness


Being a die-hard liberal I have absolutely no problem with using tax dollars to benefit the greater good of the public. Although I detest the Department of Defense budget for what it generates there are other aspects of the Federal budget that I whole heartedly support. Things like clean water to drink, food safety, air traffic controllers, the FBI, the construction and maintenance of highways and bridges, public television and radio, libraries and health care. Things that everyone takes for granted being provided by the government.

At the same time I enjoy knowing that my tax dollars are also being spent to help people less fortunate than I am. Like providing for the education of children, or providing safe shelters for homeless people, or providing for the feeding and proper nutrition of the less fortunate. One of the principal ways of accomplishing the latter is through the ages-old "Food Stamp" program managed by the US Department of Agriculture, and now largely outsourced (with dollars following it) to the States.

This ages-old program is now administered as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The apparent motto for SNAP, as indicated on their website is "We help put healthy food on the table for over 40 million people each month." Yesterday I saw an instance of someone using their SNAP (Food Stamps) benefits in direct contradiction of the motto of the program.

Near the end of my bicycle ride yesterday I stopped in at a 7-11 store to get my now-traditional peanut butter flavored energy and protein bar and another bottle of Zephyrhills water. Standing in front of me in the check out line was a morbidly obese woman whose entire stash of food she was purchasing included 1) a 12-pack of Miller lite beer, 2) a gargantuan bag of Lays potato chips, 3) a package of Oreo cookies, 4) a 2-liter bottle of Pepsi (no doubt dripping with high fructose corn syrup derivatives), 5) a container of nachos that were smothered in cheese, and 6) a pack of sugar-laden Doublemint gum. When her purchase was rung up this morbidly obese woman paid for her items with a Food Stamp card just like the one shown above.

WTF?? At least she chose Lite beer.

The United States Department of Agriculture sells this program as putting "...healthy food on the table..." Ah, excuse me USDA but NOTHING this woman purchased with Food Stamps comes even close to being healthy. Nothing. Still she was able to make this purchase and waddle out the front door of 7-11 with about 8 billion calories (and 1 gram of protein) in her arms.

Recently the US Department of Agriculture's SNAP program provided awards to various states for "exceptional nutrition assistance service and program integrity." The news release for these awards to the states begins with:
WASHINGTON, June 24, 2010 – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced that USDA will award $30 million to selected states for their excellence in administering the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in Fiscal Year (FY) 2009. The national average level of program payment accuracy for FY 2009 is 95.64 percent, the sixth consecutive year the program has achieved a historically high rate. For the second straight year, the national negative error rate (a measure of denials, terminations and suspensions) also improved.

"Program integrity is critical as participation in SNAP continues to grow to meet the nutrition needs of the most vulnerable Americans, and these results deliver on President Obama's directive to decrease improper payments and protect taxpayer dollars," said Secretary Vilsack. "We are improving the accuracy and efficiency of program delivery while working to deliver on Obama administration efforts to reduce hunger and improve nutrition for people across the country."

Not surprisingly one of the states receiving award monies was Florida - to the tune of more than $11 million dollars.

It is an admirable goal of the Obama Administration to want to reduce hunger and improve nutrition. First Lady Michele Obama has gone out of her way to initiate and support efforts to reduce childhood obesity - her efforts are a many-fold increase in concern over the non-concern demonstrated by the Bush Administration in this area.

Still, people are able to walk into a 7-11 (and why is a 7-11 ANYWHERE considered a food store??) in Sarasota, Florida, and purchase non-nutritional fructose-laden "food" items and then pay for them with food stamps provided, ostensibly, to improve nutrition and reduce hunger. I can see how this person would not be hungry after stuffing her face with a pound of cheese-draped nachos, but how in hell is that nutritional?

Don't get me wrong. This morbidly obese woman has every right to keep herself morbidly obese and to eat and drink whatever she wants. However should the State of Florida (who administers the program) really allow scarce tax dollars to be used to accomplish this woman's nutritional "goals"? And remember if she is receiving public funds for "food" then whenever she goes to the doctor or lands in the hospital there is a very good chance that public funds are being used to pay for her doctor and hospital bills as well.

Neither is a very good use of public resources.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Autumnal Movements of Cottonmouths?


The Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus)is a widely distributed and fairly well-known venomous snake in Florida. They are usually found in or very near to water. The first Cottomouth I ever saw was a very large specimen swimming in a wetland at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge near Virginia Beach, Virginia. There the animal is at the extreme northern limit of its range in the United States (they do not occur north of the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

Since that first sighting and outside of Florida, I have been fortunate enough to see this fantastic reptile at Moore's Creek National Battlefield in southern North Carolina, underneath a bridge on Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge in southern North Carolina, in the parking lot of the Hilton Garden Inn at Hilton Head, South Carolina, one with a particularly nasty disposition on Yazoo National Wildlife Refuge, Mississippi, and at least three of them floating around in a cypress-dominated wetland near Lafayette, Louisiana.

In Florida I have seen Cottonmouth's from Escambia County (Pensacola) south through most of the state to Dade County (Miami). Today was the first time I was ever able to see three Cottonmouth's in the state in one day. Unfortunately two were dead and I ran over the third one and killed it with my car.

About noon today while driving on the "canopy road" portion of 47th street enroute to the British pub for lunch, I had an instantaneous look at a Cottonmouth attempting to cross the road. Unfortunately for him three things were working against him from the start. First, the back of the animal was black, 2) it was crossing black asphalt, and 3) it chose to do this in the shade of a very large live oak tree. There is a concept in biology of protective coloration where an animal blends in with the color of its surroundings for protection. Think of a chameleon for instance. Well, the Cottonmouth's protective back color would have worked on the black asphalt and in the shade of the oak tree except that my car was moving through the same space as him and ....splat. I got out of the car and went to check on the snake's status. It was a 2 1/2 footer and it was quite dead. As I looked at it I had to ask what in hell I was doing. Was I going to take it to a veterinarian if it was still alive?

Later in the afternoon as I was leaving home to go on a 12-mile bicycle ride I found a dead Cottonmouth in the drive leading into the condo development where I live. It was pointed toward the wetland behind my house. Then as I pedaled out on to Honore Avenue, I found a third Cottonmouth lying dead along the road. It was pointed toward a small wetland in a conservancy area adjacent to Honore Avenue. Both the one in my yard and the one on the main street were about 2 feet long.

As I pedalled away from the third dead Cottonmouth of the day I started to wonder why it was that I saw three of them in a day, all within 1 1/2 miles of each other. Yet for all of 2010 until now I had seen only 1 Cottonmouth in this part of Sarasota - and it was in the forested wetland adjacent to Honore where I found the dead one today.

Most people are familiar with the migrations of some animals like the Arctic Tern that nests in the higher latitudes of the northern hemisphere, and winters off of Antarctica. Some people claim that they do a 20,000 mile roundtrip migration each year (and all that to get laid just once...imagine). And certainly most people are familiar with the migration of American Robins complete with the old adage about the first Robin of spring etc. These animals move tremendous distances each year.

At the same time there are other species of animals that have much shorter movements that are possibly a "migration" but more correctly a seasonal movement. Hummingbirds in tropical mountains are known for these sorts of movements as are birds like the Brown-capped Rosy Finch in the Colorado Rockies. American Elk (more correctly known as Wapiti) are well-known for altitudinal movements in the Rocky Mountains, most famously toward the National Elk Refuge in northwestern Wyoming.

I thought about those sorts of movements in other animals and wondered if that is not the same thing that was going on now with Cottonmouths and, unfortunately, what is making them more vulnerable to being killed on the road.

My first job with the US Fish and Wildlife Service was as an Ascertainment Biologist in the regional office in Minneapolis. There a group of four of us (this was before the over-used word "team" became vogue) evaluated lands that had been proposed to the Service for acquisition and addition to the National Wildlife Refuge system. Our mission was unique for the Service at that time because we were specifically barred from looking at lands that only or primarily benefited waterfowl (a HUGE paradigm shift for the agency then). Our area of responsibility included Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.

One of the areas nominated to us was a lowland forest with rocky outcroppings in southern Illinois near Cairo, that later became known as Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge. The reason Cypress Creek was nominated (and later acquired) was because of its importance as a wintering area for venomous snakes including Canebrake Rattlesnake, Copperhead, and Cottonmouth. We flew into St. Louis, Missouri 33 years ago today so we could go down to Cypress Creek and determine if it was suitable for Service acquisition. I remember the trip in there like it was yesterday - I had never seen any venomous snake at that point in my life and I was petrified that I would be run over by all manner of snakes. We never saw a single one during our day checking out Cypress Creek - the snakes were already "holed up" for the winter. However the experience taught me that snakes make seasonal movements from a preferred habitat to a more "stable" habitat to live out the winter in torpor. At Cypress Creek, venomous snakes migrated from miles around to spend the winter in rocky outcroppings near the center of the lands we evaluated.

If venomous snakes including Cottonmouth's make seasonal movements at more northerly latitudes like southern Illinois, why wouldn't they do the same thing in Florida? The timing of them "holing up" in southern Illinois is uncannily similar to the apparent "movement" I noticed here in coastal Florida today. A quick search of the online literature gave no hint of any sort of seasonal movements in Cottonmouths in this state but who knows. Maybe nobody was interested enough to look into it. With all the Cottonmouth's here and all the habitat remaining for them it might be another thing to do in retirement that may some day have some value to a biologist somewhere. Maybe I'll become a herpetologist now?

On another note...I am vehemently opposed to killing snakes just because they are snakes. Its foolish, our fear of snakes is based in folklore, and each time someone does it they take one more chink out of mother nature's armada. I feel badly that I killed that beautiful Cottonmouth today. I wish I hadn't. More than one time I have stopped my car and gotten out and chewed out the Cheney of people who were about to kill snakes along side a road. There is no excuse for it. After all, humans are about 1000 times larger than any snake in the United States. Give them a break - they were here first.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Wisconsin's Best Beer Guide


A month or so ago, Dave Bylsma, my friend-since-college who still lives in Wisconsin and is a rabid, avid, almost fanatic trout fisherman, told me about a silent auction fund raiser being held by the River Alliance of Wisconsin. The River Alliance's core principles are:

Our priorities and where we focus our efforts change from time to time, mimicking the ever-changing rivers we work to protect. But like a river’s steady current, the River Alliance adheres to some core principles that do not change with the times.

* We advocate respectively but assertively for rivers.

* We bring people to rivers so they experience their beauty and understand their threats.

* We partner with, when appropriate, and challenge, when necessary, the government agencies entrusted with protecting rivers.

* We develop the ability of ordinary citizens and grassroots groups to organize their passion for rivers
.

Sounds like my kind of organization so it was easy to put in a bid for some items donated to them to help promote their purposes.

I received word last week that I was the successful bidder on both items that I chose. One of them, a signed copy of Wisconsin' Best Beer Guide arrived by mail from the great white north yesterday. This 254 page gem, written by Wisconsin travel writer Kevin Revolinski (I'll bet he's Swedish, right?) is packed with all sorts of historically important information about beer in the great Badger state. It helps you understand an ale from a lager from bock, and it explains the brewing process. Most importantly it provides detailed information on each of the 74 breweries and brew pubs active in Wisconsin today.

When I was a kid it seemed like every little town in Wisconsin had at least one brewery and some times more. Like Rice Lake with its famous (locally at least) Breunigs Lager Beer or down the road in Eau Claire sat the Walter's Beer Brewery both brands now, sadly, are gone. Still the 74 breweries and brew pubs mentioned in this book mean that, on average, there is at least one brewery for each of Wisconsin's 72 counties. Some things never change.

Each of the 74 breweries has the following information. I'll use the now-bankrupt "Viking Brewing Company" from Barron County, my home county, as an example. Note: I realize the brewery is named after my Norse ancestors but at first brush it seems like they named it after that bunch of purple bastards in tights who play football with a traitorous quarterback across the river in that state whose name I refuse to utter. But I digress.

For each brewery you learn:

Year Founded
Brewmaster(s)
Address
Phone Number
Website
Annual Production (in barrels)
Number of Beers produced
Staple Beers
Rotating Beers
Most Popular Brew
Samples provided?(on tours)
Brewmaster's Favorite Beer
Best Time to Go
Where Can You Buy Their Beers?
Food at the Brewery?
Tours?
Special Offers
The Beer Buzz
and
Stumbling Distance (what activities are nearby)


All of this information make this little gem of a book nearly priceless - and to think I got it for a $22 bid to aid rivers. The only things the author could have added to the book would have been information on the location of any regular drunk driving checkpoints near the breweries, and maybe some information on the average fine for public drunkenness in each county. Other than that, almost every important thing about Wisconsin beer is in this book.

The inside front page of the book shows a map of the great Badger state with all of the breweries plotted out against a backdrop of major State and Federal highways across Wisconsin. Thus with this book and the map you could plan an extended vacation driving around Wisconsin (it has a brewery checklist -like a bird checklist-in the back) getting a buzz on and seeing my great home state.

Existence of the map brings up the second item I purchased in this silent auction.

For $31.00, just one dollar over their face value, I purchased four tickets to a Wisconsin Timber Rattlers baseball game of my choice next summer. The tickets can be used any day except opening day, Tuesdays or Saturdays. The Rattlers are the Low A affiliate of the nearby Milwaukee Brewers just up the road from beer city in Appleton. Wisconsin's Best Beer Guide shows that there are breweries in Shawno, Green Bay, Ashwaubenon, DePere, Manitowoc, Chilton, Oshkosh, Appleton and Sheboygan (home of the world's greatest bratwurst festival), all within crawling distance of the ballpark in Appleton.

Maybe next summer I'll pack this handy little book in my day pack, hop on a flight to Beer City and then spend a few days quaffing beers and watching baseball in the relative bliss of the greatest state in the Union.

If you are a resident of Wisconsin you need to immediately purchase this handy essential book and keep it in your glove compartment at all times. You can order a copy from Amazon.com right here. If you are an expatriated Badger like me, get a copy and plan a trip back home to enjoy these native nectars. If you are from any of 48 other states, get the book, plan a trip, and be prepared for near nirvana in the great north woods. However if you are from Minnesota, just stay there. Please. Drink your own damned beer watch your own loser football and baseball teams and stay away from our lakes. Thank you

A Rush of Thrushes

(photo from the US Fish and Wildlife Service archives)

For some unknown reason last night was a fairly decent night for the nocturnal migration of passerine birds along the west coast of Florida. This was especially true for two species of thrushes (Swainson's thrush is shown above). From 9:30 p.m. until 11:30 p.m. last night (after I gave up in disgust while watching the Tampa Bay Rays blow another game) I recorded an average of 1.3 thrushes per minute passing overhead (I counted all call notes passing a single point for 15 minutes then waited 15 minutes and counted again).

By far the most numerous migrating thrush was Swainson's Thrush a common fall migrant (not so much in spring migration) through this part of Florida. Not far behind them in abundance was Gray-cheeked Thrush. Although getting to be late for them I also heard two Wood Thrush and if I wasn't mistaken one unusual call note was probably a Veery. This trifecta of Catharus thrushes was complimented with a nice push of migrant warblers and I was surprised that there were still two Bobolinks in the push south last night.

Despite all of the movement I heard last night there were surprisingly few migrant songbirds around this morning when I was out before dawn looking and listening. In fact among warblers this morning I saw only:

Tennessee Warbler
Northern Parula (nests here)
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler
Yellow-throated Warbler
Pine Warbler (nests here)
Palm Warbler (common winter resident)
Black-and-white Warbler
Hooded Warbler

The highlight of the morning, however was a Philadelphia Vireo, only the third one I have seen in two years in Sarasota County (wish I could get it for my Manatee County list also!).

But back to all those thrushes.

Swainson's Thrush nests in coniferous forests across Canada and Alaska, and also in suitable habitats along the northern tier of states bordering Canada. One subspecies of Swainson's Thrush nests down the spine of the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada Mountains in the western United States.

More important biologically is the winter range that extends sinuously from southern Mexico south through the spine of the Andes to northernmost Argentina.

Thrushes (except for Bluebirds and American Robins) are generally very secretive birds and seeing one is a real treat. Most of the Swainson's Thrushes I have encountered (other than ones I have caught in a net for banding) have been recorded by its voice, whether its the song or its distinctive call note. You can hear both at this link.

Swainson's Thrush has one of the most haunting, ethereal voices of any North American songbird. The first one I ever identified by voice was in late May 1968 while walking in the forest behind our farm near Rice Lake, Wisconsin. Seven years later in June 1975, my now ex wife and I stood along a road in central Douglas County, Wisconsin listening to one singing from a coniferous forest. Like it was yesterday I remember her saying that its voice was like "tinkling bells that draw you deeper into the forest." A very apt description of its voice.

The biology of migrant Swainson's Thrushes has been a research topic for more than forty years. From this species science has learned a great deal about the physiology of migration. The birds I heard last night were likely flying somewhere between 10 and 30 miles per hour. If you assume that they move at an average of 20 miles per hour and that they migrate from sunset until sunrise, the birds passing over me last night are likely resting and dining on the north coast of Cuba near Havana this morning just 260 straight line miles away from Sarasota.

From Cuba they have a long slog ahead of them to make it to up to 3,400 more miles from Havana to northern Argentina where some of these birds will spend the winter. They will remain there until next March when the migratory urge will overtake them again and they will start the push north. And just like last night when I was listening to these southbound migrants, I will be out on my lanai in early April next spring with my ear cocked toward the sky hoping to hear a rush of thrushes making their way back north.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Fifty Years Ago This Morning


Fifty years ago this morning, October 1, 1960, dawned clear and cool and crisp on my grandparents farm northwest of Rice Lake, Wisconsin. Leaves in the butternut trees across the gully from their barn were turning what Aldo Leopold once referred to as "smoky gold" and the morning air had a distinct feel of the fast approaching (and at the time seemingly endless) Wisconsin winter.

Not only was today the first day of the new month but also the first day of squirrel hunting season in Wisconsin. On October 1 1960 you needed to be 12 years old to be able to obtain and carry a small-game hunting license that allowed you to hunt things like squirrels, rabbits, and ruffed grouse in the state. I was only eight years old and in Mrs Moe's fourth grade class in Cameron Wisconsin, but my rapidly approaching ninth birthday was just 30 days away. Despite this slight difference between what was the legal age to hunt and my actual age, my grandparents gave me a single shot .410 gauge shotgun and set me off through the butternuts in search of my first animal. It was a ritual of passage in my part of the state and certainly a ritual of passage in my extended family. Hunting by myself (and not shooting off some appendage) and successfully bagging my first critter was a sure sign that I was on the path to becoming something. Not sure what it was but I was headed there.

The butternut trees, shown on this Google Earth image with a cyber thumb tack, were then (and remain today) a small patch of trees just to the west (left in this picture) of my grandparents barn.

According to the Weather Channel, sunrise that day was at 7:05 a.m. and about 7:15, just as my grandparents were settling in for the daily morning ritual of milking their cows, Craig the intrepid (and illegal!) squirrel hunter stepped into the woods. I distinctly remember walking across the gully and up the small hill to the northernmost point in the butternuts. There, mimicking the way I had watched my dad and my uncles scour the woods before looking for squirrels I set off in search of my first squirrel.

I made a wide swath across the northernmost part of the butternuts making sure to shuffle my feet in the growing bed of leaves that carpeted the forest floor. I had learned that also as a way to spook a squirrel into running for cover in trees. So far nothing worked and no squirrels appeared.

As I moved south through the butternuts I still remember hearing the sound of the milking machines working away in the barn and caught a glimpse of my grandma checking out the south door of the barn to make sure I hadn't shot myself - yet.

My ramblings across the woods produced nothing until about 7:40 when to the south I caught a glimpse of a gray squirrel as it darted along the floor of the woods headed for the relative security of a butternut tree that had three stumps. I watched excitedly as the squirrel leaped onto the side of the tree and then for some unexplained reason pointed itself down toward the ground instead of up toward relative safety higher in the tree.

Then, as squirrels do so often, instead of running away, this squirrel defiantly stood its ground and started to chatter at me almost exactly as the gray squirrel does in this Youtube video.

As it stood its ground saying all sorts of derogatory things at me in squirrel language I moved forward to what I felt was the right distance and I stopped. As if it was yesterday I remember quickly bringing my shotgun to my arm, getting the butt caught in the extra clothing provided by my adult uncle's tan hunting jacket (I had to be fashion correct on this important day) and then took sight down the barrel of the gun at the squirrel.

What happened next is a bit of a blur. I remember having the bead of the gun sight on the squirrel's head as I pulled back the hammer on the gun's safety. I sat there and watched. Then out of the blue, just as the squirrel made one last defiant pump of its tail, I fired my only shot. The tiny shotgun made a muffled poof sound and instantly the squirrel tumbled from the side of the tree and lay on its back "tits up on the prairie" as I would later say about ducks when I lived in North Dakota.

I remember racing up to the squirrel and taking it in my hands and looking at it from the tip of its nose to the tip of its tail. This was my one of the first (unknown to me at the time) indications of a forthcoming life as a biologist who had to check out everything. I also remember that, despite this not being the first squirrel I had ever held before, this one of "mine" seemed so much smaller when I held it than when I would see them darting around in the woods being squirrels.

The sun had just climbed up over the top of the trees on my uncle's nearby farm and the rays of sunlight were shining across the pasture on my grand parents land (where my parents ashes are now spread) and everything was lit up in the butternuts. My grandma had heard the shot and was looking out the barn door again, this time probably worried that I had shot myself. Instead I stood there holding up the squirrel for her to see and for some unexplained reason I yelled and asked what time it was. The clock said 7:45 a.m. Central Time.

The squirrel was the first of what would be hundreds of them I harvested in my youth. From squirrels I graduated to ruffed grouse and a couple of years later (and still too young to legally buy a license) I started hunting white-tailed deer on my uncle's farm. My success rate with them wasn't like squirrels but it makes for another story.

As I grew through my childhood and my adolescence there were two things that became constants in my life. One was baseball and the other was the annual fall ritual of hunting. It was because of hunting that I developed the fierce desire to protect the earth that led to my choosing wildlife biology as a career and spending almost all my life for more than 32 years (including time as a temporary employee of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources) trying to protect habitats from the ravages of human population growth. Its something that non-hunters and anti-hunters seem unable to comprehend. "How can you love wildlife and kill it" you're often asked. I'm not sure how. It just is what it is. And it all started with that gray squirrel 50 years ago this morning.

I continued hunting until 1982. Those last years were on the prairie of North Dakota where all of October and into November from 1979 through 1982 were devoted to hunting ducks, geese, sharp-tailed grouse, gray partridge, white-tailed deer, pronghorn, and anything else that was legal. The last day I ever hunted anything was in early November 1982 when a group of us went after ducks and geese on the prairie wetlands west of Jamestown. We took along my big sloppy Chesapeake Bay Retriever named Chester. At the end of the day we stopped at a small wetland near Cleveland and Rich Madsen took a picture of Chester sitting in the wetland vegetation scanning the sky for ducks. It was his last hunt and mine. A few months later a divorce rocked my world. As part of it I had no place to keep Chester and had to take him home to Wisconsin and my parents farm. After Chester was gone my desire to hunt left me and I've never picked up a gun since then.

Still 50 years ago this morning was a different story. I left my grandparents house that morning a neophyte and half an hour later I was a hunter. It was one of the best things that ever happened to me and I relieve that moment every year on this day.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Fall Migration Marches On


At 9:30 this morning I heard the first Gray Catbird of the fall migration as it called (squawked?) from the infestation of Brazilian Pepper that surrounds my wetland. Welcome back!

If the past two winters are any indication I can now expect to at least hear and probably see Gray Catbirds out of my lanai through April 20, 2011, or so.

One theory about the origin of this species name can be tested by listening to its voice. Go to this site then scroll down to "calls" and then click on "mew call". The mew call sounds surprisingly similar to the mew of a domestic cat. And from my view point its a lot more tolerable than a domestic cat.

As the range map for this species shows it nests throughout the eastern United States and Canada west to British Colombia and Utah. In its eastern range Gray Carbirds are most commonly found nesting in thickets of woody vegetation. In northern Wisconsin they are particularly fond of "edge" habitats and especially recently logged areas that are rapidly regenerating. In Florida, this species has been recorded nesting as far south as Sarasota County. However the birds I'm listening to now were not here throughout the summer.

Now for the next six months I can expect that each morning when I get up at least 2 and if past winters are any indication, up to 5 Gray Catbirds will be climbing around in the thick vegetation by my wetland just being Catbirds. As frugivores they will be gorging themselves on the abundant fruit of Brazilian Pepper when those seeds are available in a month or so. Unfortunately there is more than enough Pepper here to sustain them for a lot longer than 6 months.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Bradenton Marauders Defeat Charlotte in Stunning Home Finale


It seems like it was only yesterday that the Bradenton Marauders took the field for their home opener in Bradenton's McKechnie Field on April 8, 2010. Having suffered through the entire 2009 season with the Sarasota Reds (who were last in the Florida State League) I more than half expected the new kids on the block to wind up the same.

Wow, was I wrong.

That first game way back almost five months ago set the stage for the rest of the Marauders season. If you can remember back that far the Marauders demolished the Fort Myers Miracle with a resounding 18-3 score. It was like nothing I had ever seen before while watching minor league baseball. The first run the Marauders ever scored was by sure-to-be-in-the-show left fielder Quincy Latimore who hit the first of 18 home runs (so far) that night! The games only got better after that.

Before this evening the Marauders had a 73 -57 overall season and were leading the South Division of the Florida State League by 2.5 games. The Charlotte Stone Crabs won the South Division's first half of the season. It was up to the Marauders to fight back to win the second half to set off a playoff for the South Division championship.

This evening that is exactly what the Marauders did.

The Stone Crabs met the fury of the Marauders and despite the close final score came they came in last. The Marauders won 3-2 in one of the best games of the season.

Remember that the first run scored by the Marauders in their first game of the season was by Quincy Latimore. As the recap of tonight's final home game shows, the last run scored by the Marauders on their home turf was by ....you guessed it...Quincy Latimore.

Charlotte started the game with rehabber Grant Balfour on the mound. Balfour lasted 2/3 inning on Saturday and was promptly run from the field after pitching 37 pitches and giving up 3 runs. Tonight Mr. Ball Four lasted one full inning. Unfortunately he didn't get the loss. Maybe next game.

Charlotte scored first with a run in the top of the second and another in the top of the third. Yes, I was getting a little nervous. However Bradenton scored in the bottom of the third, tied the game in the fourth and took the lead, never to lose it again, in the sixth inning.

I knew it was all over for the Crabs, and they should have also, when in the top of the ninth inning the Marauders put in their unbeatable closer Noah Krol who once again got a save - his 33rd of the season. Noah also happens to be the league leader in saves.

Tonight's resounding victory puts the Marauders 3.0 games ahead of the Palm Beach Cardinals with just seven games left to play this season. Four of those games are against the St. Lucie Mets (starting with a double header on Tuesday night) and the last three will be against the Stone Crabs in Port Charlotte Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. I plan to be there for the Saturday and Sunday night festivities.

Although my opinion and $4.00 will get you an espresso at Starbucks, I would like to make some predictions on the future of current Maraduers players beginning with the 2011 season.

First of all, if left fielder Quincy Latimore is less than 1,000 miles from Bradenton at the start of the 2011 season there is something terminally wrong with Pirates management. This kid is the greatest, leading the league in runs batted in, having 18 homeruns and having a magnetic glove. There is simply nobody better than "the double deuce" on the Marauders team. If Quincy is not at least in Altoona and preferably with Indianapolis at the start of the 2011 season then someone needs to have a chat with the Pirates. For me it was sad to watch Quincy on his last regular season home game tonight.

Not far behind Quincy Latimore is center fielder Starling Marte. This product of the Dominican Republic (la isla de beisbol) is a natural to make it to the show. He's smart, fast, and an excellent hitter. Had he not experienced a disabling hand injury in June I would have expected him to be with Class AA Altoona Curve by now. He will be next year.

Had he not spent so much time on the disabled list this year I would have expected third baseman Jeremy Ferrell to already be in Altoona or higher. Jeremy is third generation professional baseball (his dad is the batting coach for the Boston Red Sox) and a shoe-in for making it higher up the food chain. He just needs to stay healthy and he will be there.

Adam Davis, who filled in behind Jeremy Ferrell when Jeremy became injured has really come into his own this summer. Some of the plays Adam has made at third base are as good as anything you'll see Evan Longoria make for the Rays in Tropicana Field. Adam needs a year or so of conditioning to make it to the Show but I fully expect him to be at least in Altoona next year.

Along with Adam Davis, if Brock Holt hadn't suffered a meniscal tear in June I'd expect him to be higher up the ladder also. Brock is quick, sharp, smart, and to top it off a very nice kid. He and I had surgery the same day to repair torn meniscus' - I only wish he had healed as fast as I did. Brock will be back momentarily in 2011 but he won't be around after the All-Star break.

On the mound I fully expect tonight's starting pitcher Nathan Adcock to be in Altoona next year. Nathan is tied for third in the Florida State League for the most wins. He's a nice kid with a great variety of pitches and is someone I expect to see higher up the ladder in the next couple years.

The other person I expect to not see around in 2011 is Noah Krol who I believe is the best closer in baseball (Major Leagues or Minor Leagues). Throughout the summer I came to understand that when Noah came out in the ninth inning to close out the game the other team might just as well have given up and gone home. In all but a very few cases it was over for them when Noah took control. I hope that I am watching him in Altoona next May.

Although there is a summary of tonight's win on the Marauder's home page there is also a narrative of the game available from the Stone Crabs. There is one fan comment on the story - some guy named "Curlew" isn't too happy with the Stone Crabs. I wonder who he is?????

The Marauders have seven more games to play before the end of the season. Again, it seems like it was only yesterday that I drove to Bradenton for the first game of the season. However it was worth every bit of energy and effort to get there to watch these kids grow and improve and move along. It's funny how you get this parental feeling for them - its like they are your kids and you have to protect them as you watch them improve and get better. Also just like a parent I get misty eyed thinking about them moving on next year.

Still, in a couple years when we see some of these kids playing in the show we'll be able to reflect back to the summer of 2010 and remember all the great baseball they played for us. I hope that at the same time they remember that Bradenton Marauder baseball is the greatest show on dirt. I certainly will.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Tampa Bay Rays Fireballer Jeremy Hellickson Sent to Class A Charlotte Stone Crabs


Not long ago the Tampa Bay Rays brought up from Durham 23-year old fire ball throwing pitcher Jeremy Hellickson.

Hellickson's career has spanned the breadth of minor league baseball, starting first with the Princeton Rays in the Advanced Rookie League in West Virginia and has included every league (Short Season A, Low A, Advanced A, AA, and AAA) since then. Most recently he was brought up from the Durham Bulls for a day to give the starting pitchers in the Tampa Bay Rays rotation another day of rest. You can see his arm in action in this YouTube video recorded in May 2010 against the Dayton Dragons in AAA baseball.

Following Hellickson's debut with the Rays he pitched in three more games and now has a 3-0 record. Many were speculating that the Rays would simply go to a six-pitcher rotation to keep Hellickson on the roster. However Joe Maddon had other plans.

You read it correctly, today it was announced that the Rays are sending Hellickson down to Class A Advanced Charlotte Stone Crabs in the Florida State League. As the story states,
With no further need for rookie RHP Jeremy Hellickson in the rotation, the Rays sent him down to Class A Charlotte to start the process of transitioning him to the bullpen.

And while he's working out — and, just as important, not adding innings to his total of 144 — and learning how to warm up, how long it takes him and how much recovery time he'll need, the Rays will figure out some things for his expected Sept. 1 return, specifically the terms under which he will be used.

"If you're going to use him out of the bullpen, there's still going to be this unknown," manager Joe Maddon said. "You're going to pitch him, and then you're going to want to give him X number of days off based on how many pitches that he threw or how many innings that he went. You're not going to use him like everybody else.

"I would imagine he would do well with this, and then you're going to want to use him more often, but you can't. So you're going to have all these different little rules going on that you're going to create for him to benefit from his abilities and at the same time not abuse his arm."

Hellickson will throw enough that he also could step back into the rotation if needed.

Typically I wouldn't really care about a move like this. However this year, at this time of the season in the Florida State League, having someone like Hellickson around could become a huge disadvantage for the Bradenton Marauders.

How so?

Bradenton is now in a race with the Palm Beach Cardinals for the lead in the Florida State Leagues South Division for the second half of the season. The Marauders, who are now 1.5 games behind the Cardinals have 14 games remaining this season. Among those 14 games, 6 are with the Charlotte Stone Crabs.

The story about Hellickson says that they plan to keep him in Charlotte for a probable return to the Rays on September 1. While there the Rays want him working on transitioning himself into being a relief pitcher. Between now and September 1 when hopefully he'll be sent back to the Rays, the Marauders will be facing Charlotte for three of the six remaining games. Given how well Hellickson has done against Major League batters in running up his 3-0 record in the Show, his presence could only mean bad news for the Marauders in the final stretch of the championship run.

The Marauders face Charlotte next on Friday August 27, then Saturday August 28 and Monday August 30 (the latter being the final home game of the season for the Marauders). Here's hoping that Hellickson learns how to be a bull pen reliever early - say tonight and tomorrow night against Palm Beach and Tuesday through Thursday against the hapless Jupiter Hammerheads. If that happened then they could send Hellickson back to the Rays before next Friday night against the Marauders.

If I had Rays Manager Joe Maddon's phone number I think I'd call him and suggest that.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Praise Be to the Prophet Muskrat


"Religious leaders in Gainesville, Florida, have planned a Gathering for Peace, Understanding and Hope, in response to a local church's International Burn a Quran Day."

That quote is the tease line for the opening of a story from Gainesville Florida where a religious group plans to burn the Koran on September 11 in memory of the disaster of that day.

First of all, I wonder if these uneducated, insensitive, bastards stopped to think for a minute that a bunch of the people killed on 9/11 were MUSLIMS. They were in both the World Trade Center and the Pentagon when the attacks happened. They died just like the "Christians" also did that day.

But aside from that fact - what a bunch of bull. Although I never met the apparition, I'm quite sure that the "Jesus" all these "Christians" claim to worship would not have behaved like these swine propose to behave on September 11. The Jesus I learned about in Lutheran confirmation classes was a loving person who healed the sick, fed the hungry, cared about the poor and put others ahead of his own needs (damn, he sounds like a Democrat).

Although I was confirmed in the Lutheran Church in the 6th grade by the 12th grade I had rejected organized religion. I became increasingly bewildered with alleged "Christians" who behaved horribly for 6 1/2 days of the week. However on Sunday morning they would appear in church dressed in their most pious uniforms of the week. There they would put $10 in the collection plate, sleep through the sermon, congratulate the minister afterward on what an inspiring speech he gave, and 2 hours later be sitting in a bar in Mikana behaving as they would for the next 6 1/2 days until the charade could repeat itself.

Once fully fed up with this nonsense, I announced to my mother, a devout "christian" that I was no longer going to step foot in a church. And since the 12th grade, other than for weddings (mine was outside in MY church) and a few funerals I have not sullied my being with the confines of a church.

At the time I rejected religion I told my mother that "my god lives in a muskrat house." I created the religion called "Muskratism" which at the time I said was based on "respect for rivers, forests, marshes, prairies and all the creatures living in and on them." Later, in college, I learned that someone had already come up with a religion called panantheism. Simply stated, panantheism is a belief in the oneness of nature. However it has a sexier name than Muskratism even though both are based on the same principle.

So, for me, on September 11 this year, while these jackals in Gainesville are burning the holy book of the Muslim faith, I will be out in a forest somewhere looking for birds and enjoying nature. Perhaps if I am lucky I will be far enough north to find the Prophet Muskrat swimming around in a marsh somewhere doing what Muskrats do best - hanging out. If I see one I'll be sure to chant "Power to the Muskrats" and then I'll just move along. No books will be burned, no tempers flared, and no angst anywhere. Just peace and tranquility and a respect for all things around me.

Isn't that what religion is really supposed to be about?