Friday, December 23, 2011

When Debt Collectors Have the Wrong Address

In the hilarious movie Ruthless People there is a scene in which Danny DiVito gets a phone call that is a wrong number. After listening politely to the caller, a smirk comes over DiVito's face as he says "I'm sorry. She's busy right now. She has my cock in her mouth." DiVito then slams down the phone and with a smile on his faces says "I love wrong numbers."

If it was possible to do the same with mail being sent from debt collectors to someone who lived at my address before me I would gladly do it. Unfortunately I do not know the former resident's current address (or do the bill collectors) or I would do it.

Since moving to my current residence on February 28, 2011, my mail box has been regularly cluttered with mail for a Laura Riley who obviously used to live at my address. There were lots of letters and they came from all manner of collection agencies. At first I would write "not at this address" across the front of the envelope and drop it back in the mailbox hoping the post office would return it to the sender and the sender would get the hint.

The senders kept sending her letters. Finally in July I started opening her letters to see what this volume of mail was all about. I would read the letters and then toss them in the recycling bin. Certainly, I thought, Ms. Riley must be an adult to have been able to rent a townhouse. And certainly as an adult she had the common sense to file a mail forwarding request with the US Postal Service. However as time wore on it was apparent that being efficient and responsible were not in Ms. Riley's vocabulary.

Today, for the umpteenth time, a letter appeared for Ms. Riley from ARA a bill collector in Villa Park, Illinois. Finally having reached the limit of wanting to deal with Mr. Riley's mail any longer I decided to fight back. From now on when a bill collector letter comes for her I'm calling the company and telling them she's not here. Ms. Riley is incapable of being responsible for her actions so I'll take care of some of those responsibilities for her. I called the company twice and then wrote them a letter.

When I contacted the company by phone I was put through to the "Collections Manager" (sounds like someone at a museum). I left that person a voice mail begging them to find Ms Riley and stop filling my mail box with her stuff. I then was connected with the collections agent who sent her the letter I received today. When I called her extension I was put through to voice mail and I left essentially the same message with that person as I did with the collections manager.

Then I decided, as a follow up to the voice mails, to send a letter to ARA and the collections agent regarding Ms. Riley and her inability to get her mail forwarded. That letter follows:
December 23, 2011

Shelly XXXXXX
ARA Incorporated
Box 5022
Villa Park, Illinois 60181

Re: ARA File Number 332272

Dear Ms. XXXXXX

I am writing as a follow up to my phone call (left on your voice mail) today regarding both the referenced ARA file number and the person, Laura Riley, who is responsible for this account.

For the record – LAURA RILEY DOES NOT RESIDE AT (my address)

I have no idea who this person is but since I moved to this address on February 28, 2011, my mail box has been cluttered weekly with letters from your company and other collection agencies (and a couple of state tax revenue departments) regarding Ms. Riley’s various delinquencies.

I am writing to not only ask and request but beg you to stop sending collection information to Ms. Riley at this address because she does not live here. I have no idea where she is – perhaps you could do a Google.com search on her name. Check with the IRS for her current address. Send up smoke signals. Do whatever it takes to find her but PLEASE stop sending mail to her at this address. She is apparently an adult and should be responsible enough to have filed a forwarding information card with the US Postal Service so she can get her mail at the proper address. This is all her problem, not mine. I’m just fed up with getting her mail.

Thanks for your attention to this request. I hope you find her and I hope you get your funds from her. Perhaps when you do you can give her a handful of mail forwarding cards so she can get her mail at her address not mine.

Attachment – Incoming from ARA Inc
Its unfortunate that my phone number is not the same as the one Ms Riley had when she lived in my house. If it was and I started getting phone calls for her from collection agencies I think I'd recount verbatim what Danny DiVito said to his wrong number in that movie :)

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Southernmost Point in Africa

Geographical extremes capture the imagination. From ancient mariners to contemporary mankind, the quest has always been to reach the poles, sail around the tips of continents, conquer the highest peaks and dive to the ultimate depths...South African National Parks
My first job with the US Fish and Wildlife Service was as an ascertainment biologist in our regional office in Minneapolis. There were four of us whose responsibility it was to review lands proposed to the Service for acquisition and inclusion in the National Wildlife Refuge system. We did this work in Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and that state just west of Wisconsin whose name begins with an M.

After reviewing background information on the lands and doing site visits we prepared reports for submission to Washington DC justifying (or not) the preservation of those lands. Our reports became known as the "superlative" reports because in them we used words like "most", "fewest", "biggest" or "best" or "last" or the massively overused phrase "at a biological crossroads" between the "southernmost" and the "northernmost" or "easternmost" or "westernmost" points in the range of a species or a habitat.

It was partly because of our responsibilities in that job (and partly because I'm anal-retentive) that I developed an interest in visiting places or seeing species that are at the edge or the limit of their range. For example, a few years ago I made it a point to fly to Ushuaia, Argentina in Tierra del Fuego because its the southernmost city and has the southernmost airport in the world. Similarly there is Barrow Alaska with the northernmost airport in the world. In 2000, I chartered a plane and flew to Rose Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in American Samoa - it is not only the southernmost refuge in the system but also the southernmost point of land controlled by the United States.

One spring I walked to the tip of Point Pelee near Leamington Ontario so I could urinate on the southernmost point in continental Canada.
Point Pelee, Ontario - the southernmost point in continental Canada


When you land at the Hilo airport on the Big Island of Hawaii not only is it a new airport for your airport list but its also the easternmost airport in that state.
Hilo Airport - the easternmost airport in Hawaii

And who could forget Port Oxford, Oregon, the westernmost point in the continental United States? Or taking off from the Hobart, Tasmania, airport, the southernmost airport in Australia? Or Key West, Florida, the southernmost city in the continental United States?

One of the many reasons I wanted to visit South Africa was because it is the southernmost country in Africa. And before making this trip I had always been under the misguided assumption that the Cape of Good Hope south of Cape Town was the southernmost point in Africa - its not.
Cape of Good Hope - the southwesternmost point in Africa

When I discovered this little geographic oversight I had to make a change in my trip plans to go to the southernmost point. I was so close there was no alternative.

This information from Wikipedia pretty well describes Cape Agulhas:
Cape Agulhas is the southernmost point in the continent of Africa. It is located at 34°50′00″S 20°00′09.15″E,34°50′00″S 20°00′09.15″E in the Overberg region, 170 kilometres (105 mi) southeast of Cape Town. The cape was named by Portuguese navigators, who called it Cabo das Agulhas — Portuguese for "Cape of Needles" — after noticing that around the year 1500 the direction of magnetic north (and therefore the compass needle) coincided with true north in the region. The cape is within the Cape Agulhas Local Municipality in the Overberg District of the Western Cape province of South Africa. The official dividing line between the Indian and Atlantic oceans is defined by the International Hydrographic Organization to pass through Cape Agulhas.

South of Cape Agulhas the warm Agulhas Current that flows south along the east coast of Africa retroflects back into the Indian Ocean. While retroflecting, it pinches off large ocean eddies (Agulhas rings) that drift into the South Atlantic Ocean and take enormous amounts of heat and salt into the neighboring ocean. This mechanism constitutes one of the key elements in the global conveyor belt circulation of heat and salt.

Unlike its better-known relative, the Cape of Good Hope, Cape Agulhas is relatively unspectacular, consisting of a gradually curving coastline with a rocky beach. A survey marker indicates the location of the cape, which would otherwise be difficult to identify. The waters of the Agulhas Bank off the coast are quite shallow and are renowned as one of the best fishing grounds in South Africa.

The rocks that form Cape Agulhas belong to the Table Mountain Group, often loosely termed the Table Mountain sandstone. They are closely linked to the geological formations that are exposed in the spectacular cliffs of Table Mountain, Cape Point, and the Cape of Good Hope.
I visited Cape Agulhas on September 29, 2011 arriving there in early afternoon after driving over from the penguin colony at Simon's Town. Just like a major tourism attraction in the United States the road signs telling you that you are approaching the area begin 50 miles before you get there. Its no different with Cape Agulhas.

On my arrival I discovered that I had to disagree with some of the words in the Wikipedia description because the snarling, angry ocean crashing relentlessly into the rocks at the Cape made the Cape awfully spectacular.

Geographers have determined (decreed?) that the Cape is the official place where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic Ocean. However looking out over the water I couldn't tell where one ocean ended and the other began. Maybe next time?
Where the Indian Ocean and Atlantic Ocean meet

Despite 50 miles of highway signs leading to the Cape, and signs on almost every building in the village proclaiming this to be the southernmost point, and there being a National Park at the Cape, I was the only visitor during my hour at the Cape.
A Cape Wagtail was the "Southernmost" landbird in Africa when I visited the Cape

As I stood at the southernmost point of continental Africa looking south into the fierce spring winds my usual case of incurable wanderlust came over me. I fantasized about being on a ship headed due south from that point. Google Earth told me that it was just 2,400 miles from where I was standing to the first point of "land" on the ice continent of Antarctica. A well-provisioned ship could get me there in five days. Imagine all the cool seabirds I could find in those 2,400 miles. Then came thoughts about all of the explorers who passed through those waters just after everyone realized that the earth isn't flat. And think of the crazy folks who have passed through the "roaring forties" in sailboats as they have tried to circumnavigate the globe. Then I thought about Mark Twain's superb book "Following the Equator" and realized that at some point on his around-the-world journey Mark Twain had to have passed directly south of where I stood.

There was so much history in front of me that I wanted to learn and so much geography that I wanted to experience and so much biology swimming and flying around somewhere south of where I stood. And here I had gone and planned only an afternoon out of my five week trip to be at Cape Agulhas. Before going there I thought it was just going to be another bunch of rocks by the ocean where tourists would take pictures and Aunt Edna would say to Uncle George "did you see that big wave, George?" and then forget that they had even been at the Cape the following day. One of the first things you learn when you travel extensively is to always plan more time than you think you'll need for each place you want to visit. I didn't do that with Cape Agulhas and left the Cape feeling I had missed out on something.

There are many other "most's" I would like to see some time. And if you think long and hard and objectively enough almost everyplace could be turned into a "most" of some sort.

Still among all of the "most's" I have already experienced Cape Agulhas, described as "unspectacular" has been the most spectacular most of them all.

I think I need to go back there.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Taking Care of Business - JR Richardson Style



Jim Richardson was my plant taxonomy professor while I was in graduate school. It was because of him that I took so many botany courses I should have declared a botany minor. I'm not sure what it was about JR (as we called him) but he made you want to learn everything there was to learn about the natural world.

Having received his PhD in plant taxonomy from the University of Kansas JR had more than his share of stories to tell. Like the time in graduate school when he was out in western Kansas some place where he found a particularly robust specimen of Cannabis sativa that he dutifully collected for the University of Kansas herbarium. As he was preparing the specimen for the collection a local country deputy sheriff came along to check out what JR was doing and while looking around found the pot plant. Asking JR the story he quickly explained that he was a grad student at the University of Kansas and that if the deputy would just call his major professor back in Manhattan the entire thing could be cleared up.

There was only one problem. When JR's major professor was called he denied any and all knowledge of JR -- acted like he had never heard of him - and let Jim simmer in a western Kansas jail overnight. Of course the next day his major professor drove out to western Kansas and bailed Jim out. The experience seemed to set the mood for how JR loved to jerk around this own students later on.

When we were were in graduate school there was an unwritten rule that all of his students were to check his office door on Friday afternoons for instructions on what was likely to happen later that night. JR used to hold attendance required no credit "seminars" at "Bo's N Mine" a popular downtown watering hole. If the sign on JRs door said "Takin Care of Business at Bo's" on Friday afternoon you know that your liver would be screaming for mercy in the morning.

Jim's favorite libation was rum and coke and he drank it copiously. In fact he would gauge the severity of his morning after hangover by how many rum and coke swizzel sticks he had in his pocket the next morning. To the best of our recollection the best he ever did was have 23 of them in his pocket the next morning.

Its because of those nights and all the fun we had with him that every time I hear this fantastic Bachman Turner Overdrive song "Takin Care of Business" I think about JR and wonder what sort of mischief his now 70 year old body is causing.



Anyone who remembers the hilarious movie "American Graffiti" remembers the hilarious scene where Richard Dryfus is required, as part of his initiation into a street gang, is required to hook up the axel of a police car to a piece of chain. Then the gang drives by the cops making the latter give chase. When they do the chain reaches the end of its limit and it pulls the rear axel off the car. This was all done in fun for a movie. JR did it for real as a kid in his southern Illinois hometown. When he told that story he became my instant hero.

Despite all of the craziness JR taught me (by the way my oldest daughter's name is Jennifer Rebecca - notice any similarity in her initials and his) he also taught me some of life's most important lessons.

I used to wax poetic about almost everything Aldo Leopold ever said about the environment and its protection. To me Leopold was god. However JR would regularly stop me short when I was waxing poetic and say, simply, "Leopold is full of shit. What do you think of that?" I din't think much of it and an argument would ensure and after the argument I saw where JR was trying to lead me.

Then there was the time I did the oral defense of my Master's Thesis. There were five official members of my committee. JR showed up for the defense solely to harass me. My research was on the nesting ecology of common grackles and mourning doves nesting near the reactor of a nuclear generating plant. During my 2 1/2 hour defense I was required to answer any question posed by any member of the commmittee including JR. About 2 hours into this grueling experience JR asked me, kindly, to explain "why is the dove the international bird of peace?"

I didn't have a clue but I wasn't going to let him know that. Instead I went off on some tangent talking about their soft cooing voice and peaceful feathers and with each word I dug my hole deeper. Finally after what seemed like a day JR yelled at me "STOP". I stopped. He looked at me and said "you don't know the answer do you?" I looked back and said "I don't have a clue what the answer is." JR snickered and said "That's all I wanted to know."

Major life lesson. If you dont know the answer dont be afraid to admit it. You will look smarter because you are being smarter by admitting it up front.

I haven't been in touch with JR in a number of years. The last I knew he was retired and living near Alamagordo New Mexico where he was living out his life fantasy of being some sort of a cowboy.

He probably doesn't remember those "Taking Care of Business" directives on his office wall long ago but I certainly do. And even after nearly 40 years have passed I'm glad I knew him, glad he taught me how to be a biologist, and how he taught me the real meaning of takin care of business even if its not in a song by BTO.

Friday, December 2, 2011

"My" Sandhill Cranes


Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language. The quality of cranes lies, I think, in this higher gamut, as yet beyond the reach of words.... Aldo Leopold

If I was a betting person I would bet, with some certaintly, that most people with an ecological consciousness and an ecological heart remember the day they saw their first Sandhill Crane. It may have been along a channel of the Platte River in Nebraska or maybe on a National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico, or maybe along side the road to Disney World in Orlando. However no matter where it was, if you were aware of what you were seeing it was an experience that will likely follow you to your grave.

For me it was a cold early April morning in 1968. I had just recently earned my driver's license (after failing the parallel parking test three times) and decided that it was time to take off exploring. The Crex Meadows Wildlife Management Area near Grantsburg, Wisconsin was about 2 hours from home - far enough to be "away" but close enough to get home to if it turned out to be too far away.

My main reason for traveling to Crex Meadows that day was to see an Osprey, a species of bird that is all too famililar to Floridians today but forty some years ago was almost extinct. Its population was declining at a rapid pace because of chemicals placed in the environment. One of them, DDT, took a special interest in causing the shells of Osprey eggs to thin if there was too much chemical and thin shells meant that adults crushed the eggs and that meant no baby Ospreys. It was a viscous cycle for the Osprey.

For some reason, however, Ospreys were doing fairly well at Crex Meadows and something I read somewhere told me that with a modicum of luck, if I searched long enough I might actually see one of those fishing eating hawks.

I left home early on a Saturday mroning after having milked cows and fed my sheep and taken care of other farm responsibilities. I pointed my old Ford Falcon west on Highway 48 and took off for Crex.

Not long after arriving there I found a large flowage (flowage is a Wisconsin word for reservoir) and in that flowage was a group of dead trees and in one of those dead trees was a pair of Ospreys repairing winter's damage to last year's nest. Despite my anticipation it took me only a few minutes to see an Osprey and begin learning about them - how they flew, how they sang, how one squawked at the other when there was a squabble. In other words I started to learn about what makes an Osprey and Osprey.

About mid morning as I stood on the dike along the edge of the flowage I heard a voice to the south that was unlike any I had ever heard before. It was loud and trumpeting and seemed to fill the entire basin of Crex Meadows. Earlier experience told me that it wasn't a Canada Goose, and it wasn't wimpy enough to be an Eagle, and by now I'd heard enough Osprey's to know it wasn't that species. But what was it?

I searched the southern sky and finally, off in the distance, I saw two small dots that looked at first glance like fighter jets. Their wings were set, there was no motion, they were losing altitude all like a plane would do. Yet they continued to call this primordial call from as high in the sky as I could detect them. I could tell nothing else about them.

All I knew was that they were a long way away from me and were they ever noisy.

Norman Stone was the first manager of the Crex Meadows Wildlife Area. He had been there since the 1940s and probably knew every tree and every grass on his domain by its first and last name. Norm came along in an old beat up pick up truck patrolling the area and probably keeping an eye on the Ospreys when he stopped to ask this 16 year old kid what he was seeing on the marsh. I told him about the Ospreys and what I had seen but more importantly I said I was perplexed by this noise in the sky from what I thought was birds but were too far away to really tell.

"Ah," Norm said, "You get to welcome back the first Sandhill Cranes of the year to Crex Meadows. They should have been here a couple days ago. I guess they just took their time getting up here from Florida." Not knowing a thing about Sandhill Cranes I asked Norm for more information and like a gushing river he filled me with his knowledge of where they come from what they do, how they live how they die and what makes a crane a crane and not some other species. Stone also told me that Sandhill Cranes were a living reminder of primordial America. They were on the landscape long before the American bison showed up and with luck they would be on the landscape many years after humans take leave of the planet.

Stone also told me about a story in a book by a guy named Aldo Leopold that I needed to read. The story was called "A Marshland Elegy" and it was an essay in a book called "A Sand County Almanac." Norm told me "If you want to understand how things were and why they are today like they are today you need to read that book. And when you do you'll know a lot more about Sandhill Cranes in the process."

I stood on that dike for maybe 15 more minutes and listened to Norm tell me about cranes as we watched these birds, that now looked like B-52 bombers, make their final approach to the meadows, where they ultimately heralded their arrival with a triumphant bugle once they stood on the ground. It was a sound that never left me.

In 1979 I had the opportunity to help on a research project designed to figure out how to keep water in the Platte River for Sandhill Cranes while allowing agricultural development to continue. At the time more than 80 percent of the world's Sandhill Cranes descended on the Platte River each spring where they prepared themselves for the rest of their migration to northern Canada, western Alaska and to eastern Siberia. For Sandhill Cranes the Platte River was the weakest link in their life history. At the same time more than 80 percent of the water in the river had been removed upstream to irrigate corn. Without the river there might likely be no cranes.

I vividly remember a conversation one March morning in 1979 with a corn farmer near Kearney Nebraska. He could tell from the emblem on the side of the truck that I drove that I wa a biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. He waved me down, gave me a thorough chewing out because of who employed me and then informed me in no uncertain terms that I should carry a side arm for protection "becaause of who you work for and you're trying to save those god damned cranes."

I owned a .375 magnum pistol at the time and it promptly went under the front seat of my car no matter where I drove.

Luckily with the passage of time and the education efforts of a bunch of fifth grade students (who are now all in their 30s) the attitudes about cranes on the Platte River have changed dramatically. Where once farmers were threatening my life because I was protecting a bird, now farmers refer to them as "our cranes." Where once the Omaha World-Herald newspaper wrote editorials bemoaning how water flowing down the Platte River that hadn't irrigated corn was "wasted" water, that same newspaper now writes editorials about the need to protect an obscure flower from going extinct.

Throughout my career as a wildlife biologist I was able to study sandhill cranes in Alaska, central Canada, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Indiana, Georgia, Mississippi, Florida, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Idaho, and Wyoming. I once got to spend 8 days with them in Cuba and still remember the blistering cold morning on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea watching a flock of Sandhill cranes fly over me and land in Russia just a few miles away.

Living in Florida we are lucky to have so many Sandhill Cranes in so many places. For me I often don't need an alarm clock in the morning. I am regularly blased out of bed by the dueting call of a pair of Sandhill Cranes who have decided that my development is ground zero for their territory and each morning the male of the pair sends a message out to all of cranedom that this is his hood and the rest of you interlopers better keep on keeping on.

The pair of Florida Sandhill Cranes shown in the picture above are, for want of a better word, "My" Sandhill Cranes. They forage along Honore Avenue most days, fly over my house at least twice a day calling out to all of cranedom that they are there, and they occasionally show their yearly colt (what baby Sandhill Cranes are called) when they figure things are safe enough to expose the colt to the rigors of the unnatural natural world in which they live.

Of all the species of birds I have seen world wide I feel no greater kinship with or love for Sandhill Cranes. I try to stop and watch and listen to them every chance I get. And each time I do I still have a synapse in the back of my head that fires reminding me of that day long ago when I first heard them herald their triumphant arrival on a primordial marsh in the wilds of northern Wisconsin.

Although I wont be around for many more years I am happy knowing that even though I wont be here some kid some where might get the same rush I got when he first heard a Sandhill Crane and maybe that rush will help him or her develop a love for nature and the natural world like my Sandhill Cranes did for me.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

What Can You Learn From an Old Field?

Dr John T Curtis was one of the, if not the preeminent, plant ecologists of the 20th century (and that's not my opinion but a fact). He held a professorial position at the University of Wisconsin in Madison for my many years where he and his graduate students traipsed across the length and breadth of Wisconsin studying its plant communities. It was easy to understand why he studied some of those communities like eastern mesic forest or tall grass prairie. They were large, extensive, held many unique plant and animal species and even to the casual observer driving north from Illinois they were a noticeable part of what made Wisconsin what it is. Curtis took his obsession with plant communities a step or two further and discovered what he could about any plant community he encountered. One of my favorites was called Shrub-Carr which today wetland ecologists refer to as a shrub-scrub wetland. Another plant community, one that was seemingly innocuous to the untrained eye he called "Old Field."

To a farmer like my grandfather an old field was just that - a field that wasn't being used for growing crops or for even allowing cattle to graze. It just sat there and became, well, old.

Curtis and his students however recognized old field communities as one of the principal building blocks of the evolution of plant communities. Old fields are where the first seeds of growth take root after land has been disturbed. Old fields are where saplings take root and if they are lucky over time turn into trees that become part of a forest. With time microclimates are created in old fields and what may seem inconspicuous to the untrained eye become an essential part of where we are.

Lets imagine an old field. In that old field there are plants that some would call "weeds" and others would call early invasives and still others would call them evolutionary building blocks. After all were it not for all of these primimal communities what possibly could follow.

Old fields are home to things like mice and like snakes. Creatures that to the uninitiated are "icky" and that have no value. However to a biologist a snake is an essential part of the environment that eats rodents before they become too many. Mice eat herbs and keep those herbs in check. If they didn't soon there would be more herbs than an area could handle. Lots of mice attact predators like gray foxes (or red foxes further north) and the foxes soon find a cornicopia of food items on which to feed themselves. Meanwhile larger herbivores like rabbits munch on the taller grasses and soon all of the rabbits attract great horned owls. Owls take the rabbits and keep them in check and then the owls themselves die and recycle their nutrients back into the soil. What was once a ferocious great horned owl is soon reduced to a pile of feathers on a hillock in an old field where its body decomposes and feeds the grasses that feed the mice and the cycle begins anew.

It becomes a cycle within a cycle or more accurately a cycle within a circle and we all are a part of that cycle and the circle.

This morning while completing 5 miles of my normal 9 mile hike (I had some higher priorities to take care of so I cut my walk short) I walked by the old field community shown in the picture above.

There to the untrained eye was a multitude of grass and maybe some shrubs and that was it. To most people it was just a place that was and had no purpose.

Aldo Leopold is considered by many to be the father of wildlife biology. From humble beginnings in Burlington Iowa, in 1888 he rose through the ranks and was first a forester and then finally a professor of wildlife biology at the greatest college on earth - the University of Wisconsin. Leopold was an ecologist in the strictest sense of the word - ecology isn't about saving baby seals from being clubbed to death for their fur as so many think. Ecology is about understanding the interaction of an organism with its environment.

A colleague of mine when I first started working for the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 1977 honored me one day with a tale about taking a graduate level course from Leopold. I don't remember the courses name but that is not important. The course was all about how organisms interacted with each other. After spending a grueling semester trying to understand how all the parts, no matter how seemingly inconsequential, fit together, Leopold took this students out to the field for their final exam. I don't remember now how much of the final grade was to be dervived from that final exam but Leopold knew how to find out just how much learning his students had accomplished as opposed to how much they read.

For the final exam they walked to an old field community on the arboretum of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. There Leopold made his students take out a pen and paper and as he he looked across the landscape he asked his students a simple question - "Tell me what happened here." That was his final exam question. As the story goes most of the students failed the final exam because they didn't get it. Leopold wasn't interested in theory or what someone recently published in a paper or what the latest buzz was from his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin Department of Wildlife Biology. He wanted his students to look at an old field and tell him how it came to be, where it was going, why it was going there, what perils laid ahead for the creatures in the field, and most importantly, if evolution was allowed to follow its course, what that old field of weeds and saplings was going to look like some day in the future, no dobut when Leopold was long gone.

I remember vividly in the fall of 1975 when I was a graduate assistant in Wildlife Biology at the University of Wisconsin River Falls. There my major professor gave me the assignment of preparing the final exam for that quarter's class. At the time I did not know about Leopold's final exam question some thirty years earlier on a Dane County old field. Instead, I walked students along the banks of the south fork of the Kinnikinnic River. There we encountered a colony of beavers. The beavers had done what beavers do - they chewed down trees, they built dams, they made winter food caches and they just generally went on about being beavers. I still remember looking over that beaver colony that afternoon and asking the students "Tell me what happened here."

Several of the students gave a strong argument for the need to trap beavers to keep their population in check. But trapping beavers wasn't the question. Not too many students got an A on that final exam.

What happened was that evolution took control and converted things that were into things that are. Given the opportunity for evolution to move forward unheeded there would soon be trees where saplings stood and there would be annual plants (like wild ginger) growing where saplings had been and there might be great horned owls nesting in trees that on that day only supported field sparrow nests on a weak branch. Maybe some day Baltimore orioles would be nesting in those same saplings that then were easily crushed by an over zealous foot.

All those things were there and all those things are possible and with luck and the passage of time all of those things will come to pass. But today they are just a thought. They are a plan in someone's mind that if x and y really equal z all of these wonderful things can come to be. Baltimore orioles will sing where today field mice cower in fear of a gray fox turning them into lunch.

Life and the relationships that come and go with it are very much the same. That old field that I will see tomorrow when I go on my daily walk wlll still be there. Mice will be hiding and great horned owls will be pondering and saplings will wonder (if a young tree can actually wonder) if they will be around tomorrow to watch the drama of life unfold around it.

Despite how we view things in our lives we are all an old field evolving from what was into, hopefully, what we can eventually be. Some times we make mistakes and some times we fail and many times we succeed. However to get to where we can succeed we have to go through trial and error and get our saplings beaten back and have our prairie grasses eaten short by someone who at the time is stronger than us. But in the end, if we are wisened by our experience, we can all pass Aldo Leopold's final exam question and explain to everyone who asks what we got to see because we took the time to find out how it got there.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

An Artificial Wetland


Bioloigist's tend to be purists. Many of us aren't satisfied to know that what we have today is the best that we have. We long for the days when American bison roamed the prairie in herds that began moving west at sunrise and were still moving past the same point at sunset. We loathe our ancestors who so foolishly killed Passenger Pigeons that today there are none. We fantasize about seeing the marshes of New Jersey so filled with Brant that the sun was blotted out by their many wings. We still think of the days when Eskimo Curlew were so abundant that shotgun barrels melted from all the shots and the curlews just kept coming. We long for the days that once were while forgetting to enjoy the days that we still have.

Wetlands are a fine example. At the time of European settlement there were more than 5 million wetlands on the surface of the land in North Dakota. In those days early explorers told stories of of waterfowl being in such high densities that the sun was blocked out by the sheer number of birds moving by a point. Today there are fewer than 2 million acres of wetlands remaining in that state and stories of blackened skies are only available to us in history books. Those days no longer exist even though many of us, myself included, wish that they still would.

Florida has the distinction of having, at one point, the greatest number of wetlands of any of the fifty states. Historically there were more than 12 million acres of wetlands in this state. My mind fairly boggles trying to fathom what wild Florida looked like in the days before drag lines and endless condo developments.

Today there are maybe 8 million acres of wetlands remaining in the state making it the wettest state in the lower 48 states. However if you drive around Florida very much you are quickly confronted with the reality that many of our wetlands are artificial - the natural ones are largely gone and have been replaced by things that developers created to mitigate the loss of the real wetlands that we all once knew. Wetland ecologists classify these wetlands as PUB-X - meaning a Palustrine wetland (fresh water) with an unconsolidated bottom (mud) that has been excavated. My guess is that the bulk of the wetlands on Florida's landscape today are PUBx. That really wasn't the original plan.

I began my career as a wildlife biologist in 1976 studying ducks and buying wetlands in western Wisconsin. From that I went to evaluating wetlands for Federal acquisition in six midwestern states. Then for 12 years I worked on wetlands issues in North Dakota and Nebraska and finally ended my career in Washington DC where I managed a wetlands mapping program. To say that wetlands have been a part of my life is an understatement.

As I have traveled around Florida in recent years it has been nearly impossible to not notice that there are a lot more PUB-x wetlands on the landscape than there are semipermanenty wetlands or temporary wetlands and certainly not estuarine emergent wetlands. Just like so much else of our society we humans have transformed what was from a natural state to a more "acceptable" altered state. Natural lands and natural wetlands are a novelty now not the norm. Drive around Orange or Seminole Counties (suburban Orlando) and try to find something that was there one hundred years ago - just dont tear your hair out when you can't.

For the longest time I've viewed artificial wetlands as a blight on the landscape. They are not natural - they even have an X in their name to indicate they are manmade - but still they exist. Research project after research project has shown unequivocally that artificial wetlands do not and cannot mimic the same values and functions that natural wetlands possess. However what reasonable person would expect them to?

This morning while on a grueling 9 mile walk (well grueling when you are 60 years old) I passed by a familiar artificial wetland that I've been passing each day along my route. Each day I pass this wetland (shown above) I notice that its shore is largely devoid of emergent vegetation (like you would expect in a "real" wetland) and the number of birds using its habitats are not what you would expect to see on the edge of a real wetland. Still they are there. There is vegetation that looks like the sedges and grasses you would expect on the verge of a natural wetland in Okeechobee County. And there are birds on the wetland like White Ibis and Great Blue Heron and Little Blue Heron and this morning they were joined by at least two pairs of Hooded Mergansers freshly arrived from somewhere further north. There weren't huge numbers of birds but there were birds. It was much more aesthetically pleasing to see something with feathers on that wetland than to see it devoid of any bird life at all.

As I took in the scene and tried to make some sense out of what I witnessed a change came over me. I will until the day I die detest the destruction of natural wetlands for whatever reason. They have been there for millions of years before humans came on the scene. However after witnessing birds using artificial wetlands today I had an epiphany. What would happen if there were no artificial wetlands at all? Where would the Little Blue Hersons go then? Its all well and good to get bent out of shape and posture and argue and blow off steam but in the end if there are no artificial wetlands everyone, especially the birds, lose.

Each fall migration more than 1 million shorebirds of many species migrate over and past the island of Barbados in the southern Caribbean/western Atlantic. When the birds arrive on the island most of them are severely emaciated and are literally on their last leg. Luckily for them shorebird hunters maintain 14 artificial wetlands on the island that they use to attract shorebirds for hunting.

When I first visited Barbados in 1991 I was hell bent on making arrangements with the local government with the help of the US Ambassador to the Lesser Antilles to put an end to shorebird shooting. After all the shorebird shooters were killing 30,000 birds for sport and I considered that a huge waste.

However one day at the Mangrove shooting swamp something dawned on me. If I was able to pull off what I wanted to pull off - the cessation of shorebird hunting on Barbados - there would be no incentive for the 14 individuals who maintain those artificial wetlands to attact shorebirds to continue doing so. We would certainly "save" those 30,000 shorebirds from death by gunshot on Barbados but in the process there would be no incentive to maintain the wetlands that support habitat for 1 million birds who use the island habitat on their way to South America. The last time I checked, 30,000 was 3 percent of 1 million. In any normal animal population at least 50 percent of young birds born that year will not make it to their first birthday. In other words 500,000 of those birds were going to die whether the shorebird shooters of Barbados got them or not.

There was only one logical solution that could be reached. It was wiser in the long run for the shorbird shooters to maintain wetlands for that million birds than it was to stop the shooting to momentarily "save" 30,000 birds most of which will die in a few months anyway.

The same analogy holds true for the artificial wetlands of Florida. I don't like seeing so many of them on the land scape but the alternative is the latest strip mall or yet another housing development or the latest interchange from Interstate 75 or a new Holiday Inn on Fruitville Road. Which gives birds more of a fighting chance?

This morning I realized that despite my dislike of artificial wetlands they are a much more acceptable and aesthetically pleasing alternative than the alternative of another strip mall blighting the landscape.

Its funny what you see when you look beyond the trees of a forest and see what lives inside.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

On Watching a Warbler


Bird watchers are a curious lot. We come in all shapes and sizes and we wear all sorts of funny clothes and drape binoculars over our shoulders. Some of us never leave the confines of our home town while others of us travel the world seeking out new birds. We all keep lists of the birds we've seen whether its a yard list (the species you have seen in your yard) or a county list (all the birds you've seen in, say, Manatee County, Florida) or a state list or even a world list. Every list is made up of a compilaiton of all the times you have spent in the field seeking out every bird you can encounter.

The first bird I ever remember identifying by myself was a Northern Bobwhite at the edge of a farm field in western Wisconsin when I was four years old. I had an old collie named Lassie (surprise!) and whenever my mom looked out the window and could see that dog she knew I wasn't far away. Maybe that is where my incurable case of wanderlust developed.

Regardless at four years old I found a Bobwhite and remember racing home and tearing open a bird book we had sitting on a table and rummaging through it until I found a picture of a bird that matched what I had seen just minutes before in that Dunn County field.

To this day I remember how proud I was of myself having figured out this tiny animal. And the more I looked throught the book the more I realized that there are many more birds out there that I could maybe see some day. Things like Kingfishers and Kingbirds and Flycatchers and Vireos and Sparrows and even brightly colored creatures called Warblers. At four years old I had no idea that all those birds would become an obsession to me and one day I would want to see them all.

In graduate school my plant taxonomy professor asked me one day what was my single greatest goal in life and I told him I wanted to see more species of birds than anyone else on earth. For a farm boy from the wild's of Wisconsin that was a mightly lofty goal especially given our meager existence, my lack of a job, and the fact that at the time I had never even stepped on a plane.

Through graduate school I honed my skills and became a very good birder. I could easily tell a Louisiana Watertrhush from an Ovenbird from a Northern Waterthrush just by the way it held its body and once they sang there was no doubt what species was what.

Working as a professional wildlife biologist with the US government afforded me more opportunities to travel and expose myself to more birds. In fact in 31 years of Federal service I visited each of the 50 states, stepped foot in more than 2,000 of the countries counties and went to 30 foreign countries on official business. And each time I went some where I took my binoculars along with me.

When I first visited the Bahamas for work I remember coming home with something like 30 new species on my list and then in the Turks and Caicos Islands a few more. Then there was a trip to the Dominican Republic followed by Costa Rica and soon the world was just a stage on which I played. If Eastern Airlines or Pan American Airlines flew there then I went there looking for birds.

Something happened in the process however. Despite making my bird list grow in leaps and bounds I lost sight of what was really important to me. It was no longer the enjoyment of watching a Buff-rumped Warbler forage at the edge of a tropical stream or an Apapane calling from a primordial Haiwaiian forest. All the birds became were a number. Another check mark on another list. If I had seen 700 species of birds in North America I wasn't happy that I had seen that many birds. I wasn't awe struck by the fact that the Baltimore Oriole I looked at yesterday may have been dining on a palm tree in Veracruz Mexico the day before and might be building a nest with its mate in northern Ontario in two days time. To me it had become a number. If it could't be number 701 on my life list then what good was it?

I've now traveled to 107 countries around the world and been on each of the inhabited continents. In the process I have identified 5,903 of the world's 9900 species of birds. But what have I missed in the processs. Moussier's Redstart is one of the most beautiful songbirds you'll ever see in Morocco. I know because I've seen them there. Bornean Treepie is one of the most bizarre birds you'll ever see in the forests at the base of Kota Kinabalu in Borneo. I know because I've seen them there just like a African Crowned Crane is likely the most spectacular biird you'll ever see if you are lucky enough to get to South Africa soume day.

I've seen them all but in the process I've lost the ability to see them. My most favorite species of Warbler is Kirtland's Warbler, an endangered species that nests in northern Michigan and winters in the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos Islands. I spent the first three years of my post-divorce life following them around trying to figure out why their population wouldn't increase. Their plumage consists of the bluest of blues and the most yellow of yellows and their voice is almost like a symphony in the forest. The last one I saw was a couple weeks ago on the coast of Florida when a storm driven bird was stranded on the coast waiting for a tropical storm to die down. I dashed over there, saw the bird, added it to my Palm Beach County list, and then drove home.

I did not care about the bird or the perils it went through to get to Palm Beach County. I did not enjoy its subtle plumage variations or did I care that it was foraging in a patch of coastal vegetation just like it would in a day or so when it found its way to the Bahamas. All I saw was a number to be added to a list.

Right now I am 97 species short of seeing 6,000 species of birds on my life list. However in the grand scheme of things what does that really matter? If I keel over tomorrow those 97 species will still be out there but I wont see them. Does that really matter in the grand scheme of things?

One thing I've recently learned from digging into myself again through the help of a professional is to see the forest and the trees. Look at the subtle beauty of a Kirtland's Warbler not because its a number. Be glad that its there and that it survives and with luck it will make it back to Michigan next summer to recreate itself.

I need to look at the beauty of what is around me and not be distracted by the unimportance of what can't be seen just because its not there.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Only A Mother Warthog Could Love This Face

There are very few mammals that I've seen that could rival the Warthog in a competition for the homeliest mammal on earth. There essentially bald face is covered with "warts" that are actually there for protection. Then to top it off are the four tusks that protrude out of various parts of their head. Mother Nature had a plan when she let the warthogs personal appearance degrade this badly. I'm just not sure what the plan was. Maybe she was having a bad hair day that day?

Warthogs range in size from 0.91 to 1.5 m (3.0 to 4.9 ft) in length and 50 to 75 kg (110 to 170 lb) in weight. A warthog is identifiable by the two pairs of tusks protruding from the mouth and curving upwards. The lower pair, which is far shorter than the upper pair, becomes razor sharp by rubbing against the upper pair every time the mouth is opened and closed. The upper canine teeth can grow to 23 cm (9.1 in), and are of a squashed circle shape in cross section, almost rectangular, being about 4.5 cm (1.8 in) deep and 2.5 cm (0.98 in) wide. The tusk will curve 90 degrees or more from the root,[citation needed] and the tusk will not lie flat on a table, as it curves somewhat backwards as it grows. The tusks are used for digging, for combat with other hogs, and in defence against predators—the lower set can inflict severe wounds.

Warthog ivory is taken from the constantly growing canine teeth. The tusks, more often the upper set, are worked much in the way of elephant tusks with all designs scaled down. Tusks are carved predominantly for the tourist trade in East and Southern Africa.[citation needed]

The head of the warthog is large with a mane that goes down the spine to the middle of the back. There is sparse hair covering the body. Color is usually black or brown. Tails are long and end with a tuft of hair. Common warthogs do not have subcutaneous fat and the coat is sparse, making them suceptible to extreme environmental temperatures.

Ecology


The warthog is the only pig species that has adapted to grazing and savanna habitats. Its diet is omnivorous, composed of grasses, roots, berries and other fruits, bark, fungi, eggs and carrion. The diet is seasonably variable, depending on availability of different food items. During the wet seasons warthogs graze[5] on short perennial grasses. During the dry seasons they subsist on bulbs, rhizomes and nutritious roots. Warthogs are powerful diggers, using both snout and feet. Whilst feeding, they often bend the front feet backwards and move around on the wrists. Calloused pads that protect the wrists during such movement, form quite early in the development of the fetus. Although they can dig their own burrows, they commonly occupy abandoned burrows of aardvarks or other animals. The warthog commonly reverses into burrows, with the head always facing the opening and ready to burst out if necessary. Warthogs will wallow in mud to cope with high temperatures and huddle together to cope with low temperatures.

Although capable of fighting, with males aggressively fighting each other during mating season, a primary defence is to flee by means of fast sprinting. The main warthog predators are humans, lions, leopards, crocodiles, and hyenas. Cheetahs are also capable of catching small warthogs. However, if a female warthog has any piglets to defend she will defend them very aggressively. Warthogs can inflict severe wounds on lions, sometimes ending with the lions bleeding to death. Warthogs have been observed allowing banded mongooses to groom them to remove ticks.

Social behavior and reproduction

Warthogs are not territorial but instead occupy a home range. Warthogs live in groups called sounders. Females live in sounders with their young and with other females. Females tend to stay in their natal groups while males leave but stay within the home range. Sub-adult males associate in bachelor groups but leave alone when they become adults. Adult males only join sounders that have estrous females. Warthogs have two facial glands; the tusk gland and the sebaceous gland. Warthogs of both sexes begin mark around six to seven months old. Males tend to mark more than females. Places that they mark include sleeping and feeding areas and waterholes. Warthogs use tusk marking for courtship and agonistic behaviors and to establish status.

Warthogs are seasonal breeders. Rutting begins in the late rains or early dry season and birthing begins near the start of the following rain season. The mating system is described as "overlap promiscuity" because males have ranges overlapping several females and the daily behavior of the female being unpredictable. Boars employ two mating strategies during the rut. With the "staying tactic", a boar will stay and defend certain females or a resource valuable to them. In the "roaming tactic" boars seek out estrous sows and compete for them. Boars will wait for sows to emerge outside their burrows. A dominant boar will displace any other boar that also try to court his female. When a sow leaves her den, the boar will try to demonstrate his dominance and then follow her before copulation. For the "staying tactic", monogamy, female-defense polygyny, or resource-defense polygyny is promoted while the "roaming tactic" promotes scramble-competition polygyny.

The typical gestation period is 5 or 6 months. When they are about to give birth, sows temporarily leave their families to farrow in a separate hole. The litter is 2 to 8 piglets, although 2 to 4 is more typical.[citation needed] The sow will stay in the hole for several weeks nursing her piglets.[5] Warthogs have been observed to engage in allosucking. Sow will nurse foster piglets if they lose their own litter, making them cooperative breeders. Allosucking does not seem to be case of mistaken identity or milk theft. This may be a sign of kin altruism. Piglets are grazing at about 2–3 weeks and are weaned by six months. Warthogs are considered a "follower" species as the young are kept nearby at all times and do not hide.

Conservation status

The warthog population in southern Africa is estimated to be about 250,000. Typical densities range between 1 and 10 per km² in protected areas, but local densities of 77 per km² were found on short grass in Nakuru National Park. There are no current major threats. However, the species is very susceptible to drought and hunting, which may result in localized extinctions in South Africa. The warthog is present in numerous protected areas across its extensive range.

Warthog was the first wild mammal I saw on my trip to South Africa. I was on a private wildlife preserve (I detest the phrase "game preserve" that is used so widely in Africa) near Polakwane when the animal pictured above stumbled out of the grassland and into my view. From pictures I had seen of them before the trip I knew that they had a rather disagreeable look about them. However it wasn't until I saw one in person that it sunk in just how homely they really are.

Another day, another warthog

They seemed to be widely distributed in the eastern half of South Africa and especially in Kruger National Park. There it wasn't unusual to see groups of 2-5 warthogs hanging out at a waterhole and in typical pig fashion they were most commonly seen wallowing in the mud of the waterhole. Given the heat and the abundance of insects especially in Kruger I couldn't really blame them for spending time in the mud.

Nobody I talked with in southern Africa mentioned ever having eaten the flesh of a warthog but given that they are relatives of the domestic pig I would imagine that most of the animal would taste fairly good. From sources I have read it appears that lions like eating them. However maybe when a lion kills one they sneak up on it from behind so they don't have to see that face. Approaching from the front I imagine that most lions with any sense at all would kick in their second wind and get away from that face as quickly as possible.

Maybe THAT is why Mother Nature evolved them as such a homely animal.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho


Lesotho is another of those countries that people ask "where the hell is THAT" when you tell them you want to go there. Other than its isolation (completely surrounded on all sides by South Africa) Lesotho's greatest claim to fame is that it has the highest average elevation of any nation in Africa. And like so much of Africa, unemployment is rampant in Lesotho and with it comes the attendant poverty that is so pervasive.

Lesotho is made up mostly of highlands where many of the villages can be reached only on horseback, by foot or light aircraft. During the winter shepherds wearing only boots and wrap-around blankets have to contend with snow.

While much of the tiny country, with spectacular canyons and thatched huts, remains untouched by modern machines, developers have laid down roads to reach its mineral and water resources. Major construction work has been under way in recent years to create the Lesotho Highlands Water Project to supply South Africa with fresh water.

Resources are scarce - a consequence of the harsh environment of the highland plateau and limited agricultural space in the lowlands. So, Lesotho has been heavily dependent on South Africa.

Politics: Ruling party of Prime Minister Mosisili won early elections in February 2007, called after some of its MPs crossed the floor. Polls in 1998 led to violence; peacekeepers restored order

Economy: Lesotho depends on South Africa as an employer, and as buyer of its main natural resource - water. Textile exports have been hurt by the erosion of trade concessions, but appear to be expanding again

International: Lesotho is surrounded by South Africa

Over the decades thousands of workers have been forced by the lack of job opportunities to find work at South African mines. South Africa has on several occasions intervened in Lesotho's politics, including in 1998 when it sent its troops to help quell unrest.

The former British protectorate has had a turbulent, if not particularly bloody, period of independence with several parties, army factions and the royal family competing for power in coups and mutinies. The position of king has been reduced to a symbolic and unifying role.

Lesotho has one of the world's highest rates of HIV-Aids infection. A drive to encourage people to take HIV tests was spurred on by Prime Minister Mosisili, who was tested in public in 2004.

Poverty is deep and widespread, with the UN describing 40% of the population as "ultra-poor". Food output has been hit by the deaths from Aids of farmers. Economic woes have been compounded by the scrapping of a global textile quota system which exposed producers to Asian competition. Thousands of jobs in the industry have been lost.

Just like with Swaziland I wanted to go to Lesotho simply because its there and I haven't been. Also, its remoteness all but assured me that while there I would likely be unaffected by the presence of any other Americans. After all if I wanted to be surrounded by American's I would have stayed home.

There are about a dozen border crossings that allow you to reach Lesotho plus there is the option of flying to the capital from Johannesburg. The route I took was described in the Lonely Planet guide as the most spectacular route - I went up via Sani Pass set in the spectacular Drakensberg Mountains.
The Drakensberg Mountains seen from South Africa

For my assault on Lesotho I chose to arrive via the Sani Pass road in South Africa. I had booked a room at the ultra posh Sani Valley Lodge about 15 km from the South African border post at Sani Pass.
View from my chalet at the Sani Valley Lodge

As I had traveled through South Africa so far I was constantly on alert for venomous snakes. With Mozambique spitting cobras, and black mamba, and puff adders widespread and highly toxic the last thing I wanted to do was be bitten by a snake. At Sani Valley Lodge and up into Lesotho I figured I would be safe from snakes because there was still patches of snow laying about. Before taking off for Lesotho, however, I asked the manager of the Lodge about venomous snakes. Sindi said, rather authoritatively, that it was "much too early for snakes. Not to worry, my friend." I'll remember that.

I followed the winding dirt road west for about 15 kilometers toward the Sani Pass border post. Enroute I found several "good" birds, the best of which was the spectacular Malachite Sunbird - a species that by itself was worth the cost of the trip to see.
Malachite Sunbird

All the information I had read told me that a 4x4 vehicle was "essential" for climbing the road to Lesotho. However it wasn't until I actually arrived at the border post that I discovered that "essential" actually means "required by law." There, near the sign proclaiming that I was at the border post was another sign that recited a South African law that states it is illegal for any vehicle to pass the border post if it lacks 4x4 functionality. The microscopic Kia vehicle I rented at the Johannesburg airport was far away from legal here.
Sani Pass Border Control Post in South Africa

I checked in at the border post and was surprised, once again, to hear all of the officers there correctly pronounce my last name the first time they tried it. As the trip wore on I never once had anyone get it wrong including border control people in Namibia. Eventually it dawned on me that Afrikaans is a Dutch-based word and in Dutch two vowels together are always soft so it made sense eventually that they could pronounce the name correctly unlike how it gets butchered in the United States.

When traveling in Central or South America it is insulting to a resident of any of those countries to tell them that you live in "America" because to a Central or South American they, also, are American. Years of experience have taught me that its always best to say "I'm from the United States" when asked where I'm from. However I quickly learned in South Africa that the opposite is true. Like today at the border control post when I was asked where I was from. Instinctively I said "the United States." The person asking me then said "ah, America." It was like that the entire trip.

Ronald, the border control person helping me today asked me where I was from in America and I said that I live in Florida. He then responded, like everyone who asked that question responded, by saying "ah, Miami." Ronald then asked me "is there really as much crime in America as it seems?" I told him there was crime in the US just like everywhere else. I then asked where he got the idea there is a lot of crime. He said "We watch all the TV shows from America. We watch Miami Vice, Law and Order, The Closer. All those shows and it seems like there is really much crime." I shook my head, smiled, and assured him that it wasn't as bad as the television shows made it seem.

Ronald placed the exit stamp in my passport and then asked about my car. When I pointed out the little Kia he restated almost verbatim everything on the sign outside about the South African law that forbids use of anything other than a 4x4. He told me my only option was to walk. Ronald then said "its an eight kilometer walk from here to the top. If you walk really fast you can make it in two hours." Yes you can - if you are a mountain goat. As I was leaving the door Ronald told me not to worry because usually the 4 wheel drives going up the mountain stop to pick up walkers.
Start of the hike up the Sani Pass road

I set out up the mountain and found many bird species that made the effort worthwhile. Species like Gurney's sugarbird, malachite sunbird, double-collared sunbird, karoo prinia and Cape white-eye all made for a worthwhile hike. The cool thing about Gurney's sugarbird is that among males the tail makes up about 65 percent of the bird's entire body length!

Gurney's Sugarbird

I surprised myself having traversed four kilometers of the up-mountain climb in 90 minutes. At four kilometers hikers (and drivers) are given their first close-up and personal view of the sheer-face of the mountain that needs to be climbed. Out-of-shape and 60 years old I thought I was doing well until I saw how steep the last four kilometers were going to be.
The sheer face of "the switchbacks" leading to Lesotho just four kilometers away

Given the daunting task of the climb of those last four kilometers I started to wonder if maybe the best strategy was to say the hell with it and turn around. However I knew it would bug me for the rest of my days if I didn't put in the effort to climb those last four kilometers to a new country.

By now I had been passed by at least a dozen and probably more 4 wheel drive vehicles. I waved and smiled at each one but nobody stopped to offer me a ride until Julian and Kay, on holiday from Devonshire, England, pulled up alongside me and asked "Are you sure you want to walk all the way to the top?" Julian then opened the driver side rear door of their 4 wheel drive and waved me inside.

In country on a 2-week holiday Julian and Kay were spending their first week south of Johannesburg. Their final week would be in Kruger National Park where Kay wanted to fulfill her fascination with hippopotamus. Married for 21 years they had been to Africa many times. They even had spent their honeymoon in Zimbabwe where Julian had worked in the early 1980s.

"Once you get Africa in you its impossible to get it out of your system," Julian said. They were now about the fiftieth set of people who had told me the same thing. Long time friend and former colleague John Sidle was addicted to Africa ever since his Peace Corps days in the mid 1970s. Despite being stationed in a corn field in Nebraska John seemed to be able to work out a deal with the US Forest Service that sent him to some country in Africa every year since the mid-1980s. Now retired from the US Government, John lives and works in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where I'm sure he's extremely happy. The longer I went on this current trip of mine the more I came to understand why John and everyone else could not get Africa out of their system.

Julian enjoyed driving on precipitous cliffs while Kay kept her eyes closed. The ride in their 4 wheel drive SUV was swift until we reached the dreaded "switchbacks", a series of tremendously sharp and steep curves and hair pin turns on a "road" that was a little wider than a goat trail. And not by much. There is a road near La Paz, Bolivia that is reported to be the most dangerous road on earth. I traveled on it in 1997 and was scared to death the entire time because of the turns and the 1,000 foot sheer drop offs on each of them. This road to Lesotho isn't nearly that bad however my feet were sweating along with the palms of my hands as visions of a rented SUV with three white people catapulting over the edge of one of the hair pins continuously raced through my mind.
"Deadman's Curve" on the Sani Pass road just below Lesotho

At two turns we had to stop where Julian backed up to get the proper angle on the turn. At a third switchback we encountered a sizable rock that had slid off the mountain and deposited itself in our path. Just enough space existed between the rock and the cliff face to allow us to pass. After this road if any one every complains again about the switchbacks on Mount Evans in Colorado I will automatically relegate that person to pussy status.

This South African tourism video from You Tube gives you a little idea of what its like on the Sani Pass Road.


However this video, also from YouTube, gives a much better feel for driving the road. In this video I walked about as far as 2 minutes 38 seconds into it where Julian and Kay picked me up. The rest of the way to the top was spent clutching onto anything that was tied down in the backseat of their SUV!


After one last nerve-wracking turn we popped out over the rim of the precipice and were greeted by the endless rocky tundra of Lesotho.
The precipice marking the boundary of Lesotho. South Africa is everything "downhill" in the picture from this point

Our first stop was the Lesotho Immigration and Customs post a dilapidated building with a sign scrawled in paint saying "Immigration - Welcome to Lesotho." Above the sign was a satellite dish.

The Immigration officer charged Julian 30 Rand (about $4.20 US) as a "road use" tax for Lesotho despite us not going to travel any further than the border post. He then stamped our passports with entrance and exit stamps at the same time "I just want to save you some time" he said.

Lesotho entrance and exit stamps in my passport

Directly behind the Immigration building was a colony of Sloggett's Ice Rat (Otomys sloggetti), a cool ground-burrowing mouse that is endemic to the high elevation grasslands of the Drakensberg Mountain range.
Sloggett's Ice Rat

From there we stumbled breathlessly across the tundra to the Sani Pass Chalet whose entrance sign proudly proclaims it to be "the highest pub in Africa."

Inside the pub it felt like a ski lodge in the Colorado mountains in winter. I bought Julian and Kay a cup of coffee. It was the least I could do for their generous offer of a ride up the side of the mountain. For me, I decided that because I was in a pub and had not consumed a single beer in 2 1/2 weeks I wanted to have a glass of Lesotho's finest brew.

Maluti Beer "Brewed by the Maluti Mountain Brewing Company in the Kingdom of Lesotho"

Maluti, named after a mountain range in northern Lesotho, has an alcohol content of 4.8 percent by volume and comes in a 330 ml can. I asked the bartender if he had any really cold beers. He simply reached behind himself, plucked a can off the shelf next to the whiskey, and said "that will be 20 Rand."

I found Julian and Kay on the deck overlooking the precipitous path we had just climbed. Across from us was an incredibly black-skinned man who sat playing some sort of stringed instrument. It was made from a large tin can as its base, a wooden pole projecting from the can and attached to the pole were some weird looking metal strings. He knew about three chords and played them constantly. His livelihood was likely just playing those three chords over and over again for visiting tourists like us who pop up over the rim of South Africa and to have a drink at 10,000 feet.

Rondavels ("native" huts) used for traveler accommodation at the Sani Pass Chalet. Note the snow still on the ground in the background

As we sat talking and drinking we saw several Drakensberg Siskins that were attracted to the seed placed on the ground daily by the chalets.
Drakensberg Siskin

Occasionally an Orange-breasted (Drakensberg) Rock-jumper would pop into view. This and the Drakensberg Siskin were the two species that occur nowhere else on earth but the Drakensberg Mountains that I came to Lesotho to see.
Orange-breasted (Drakensberg) Rock-jumper. This was not only a new species for me but also a new bird family

Several Cape Sparrows competed with the Siskins for seed while Sentinel Rock-Thrush and Red-winged Starlings floated around us. Overhead we watched Alpine Swift and African Black Swift performing their aerial acrobatics.

We left Lesotho after an hour or so and began the trek back down the mountain. Julian and Kay asked me if I wanted to ride with them and I asked to go only as far as the end of the switchbacks four kilometers down the road. From there I wanted to walk back.

Kay kept her eyes shut as we passed through the switchbacks. The scenery here was breathtaking and occasionally I let out a "wow." Kay finally said "the wow's are ok, but your sighs are scaring me!" I had forgotten I was with other people.

When we reached the bottom of the switchbacks I asked about my most favorite British topic - the Queen and what she will do about Prince Chuck.

"Ah, the bloody queen," Julian began. "She will never abdicate the throne to Charles and who could blame her?"

"Will she abdicate to Prince William," I asked?

"I bloody well hope she does," Julian said, "before she bloody dies and Charles becomes King automatically. God, I hate to think of Charles and how that idiot will absolutely ruin the country."

I'm not British and I hate to think to think about Chuck also.

Julian and Kay met on a blind date. She went home that first night and told her mother than she had met the man she was going to marry. "I promptly dumped Kay and came crawling back three weeks later asking for another chance."

I asked if he was crawling back on hands and knees, and Julian said "I bloody well was when her mother got hold of me."

We said our good byes at the bottom of the switchbacks and I took off on foot for the last four kilometers to the border control station. By now the temperature had warmed considerably at this "lower" elevation and I was starting to sweat a bit from the temperature. Birds along the "road" were still active and I enjoyed second looks at several species.

About 100 meters up the road from the place where the stream crosses the road I saw a sluggish movement out of the corner of my eye. Looking more closely it was obvious I was looking at a snake but which one? Earlier in the trip I met a retired geologist who grew up in Texas. We talked about snakes and he told me that if I saw a Puff Adder it would "look like a rattlesnake without the rattles." Sure as hell this big thick snake looked exactly like a rattler and its tail was without rattles.
Puff Adder - a highly toxic and dangerous African snake

I walked in front of the snake to make sure it had the characteristic delta shaped head of a pit viper and once I confirmed that it dawned on me that I was in front of the working end of a snake whose bite kills more African every year than any other snake species. Luckily the animal moves very slowly and I was convinced that I would move one hell of a lot faster so I took this picture and moved to the other side of the road until it was out of sight.

If venomous snakes like the puff adder have emerged from their dens this high up in the mountains, then certainly black mambas and Cape cobras are out down below where I'm headed tomorrow. I think before I leave tomorrow morning I'm going to have a little talk with Sindi about there not being any snakes out yet and I had nothing to worry about. I thought of that as I watched the puff adder slide by a rock I had sat on in the morning as I took a break from the climb up the mountain.


On my return to the South African border post Ronald asked me if I had seen all the birds I wanted to see and if I enjoyed the trip up and down. Having complained about my age on the way up the last thing I wanted to do was let him know I rode in a SUV through the most difficult part of the climb.

"It was a great hike, Ronald, all the way to the top and back down. Great exercise also." When I mentioned exercise he told me about a local resident who mountain bike from the nearest large town (about 20 kilometers from the border post) up to the Lesotho border and back every day. "That old man is 75 years old and he never misses a day, even in snow in winter."

I had seen the old man from the backseat of the SUV as I was riding with Julian and Kay up the mountain. We saw him come to the top of the cliff at Lesotho, turn around, and begin his return trip. He was 75 years old and had legs like a mountain goat. He also had about zero percent body fat.

"Yes, I saw him Ronald. He passed me on the way up the mountain and then a few minutes later coming back down. He was in really good shape."

The look on Ronald's face told me that he didn't believe for one minute that I'd walked all that way up and back in six hours. He didn't say anything however and let me live in my own delusional world.

As he stamped my passport letting me back in South Africa one of Ronald's colleagues asked me "Where are some good cities to visit in America where I can stay warm?"

I told him about Miami, Tampa, Houston, Phoenix and Los Angeles. I then added "I lived in Washington DC for 14 years and it is a nice place to visit. It stays very warm in summer but is a bit chilly in winter." I then added "I lived in Washington DC through all of George Bush's Presidency and I still like Washington DC.

The passport agent said "Ah, George W. Bush. He is such an asshole."

I knew there was a reason I liked South Africa so much.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Swaziland - How Many Kids On Your Block Have Been There?

How many kids on your block have heard of, let alone been to, Swaziland? The only American I know who didn't flinch and say "huh" when I mentioned my desire to travel to Swaziland was a bible thumper who went there for a week with her church group. Her trip was a "mission" to build housing in some village. All Bonnie could tell me was that they did good deeds in their limited time in the country and that "the people were so nice."

Who wouldn't be nice if someone was building your house for free?

I wanted to go to Swaziland simply because it was there and I had never been. I also wanted to go there to see if I could understand why this tiny nation in the southeastern corner of Africa has an HIV/AIDS infection rate of 38 percent (or at least it did in 2005).

The Swazis settled in the area that is now Swaziland about 1820 after being expelled from land to the south by the Zulus. Conflict between the groups continued until mid-century, when the British, at the request of the Swazi king, helped establish peaceful relations. About this time the first white settlers came to Swaziland. With the discovery of gold in 1879, settlers and prospectors poured into the area, obtaining extensive land concessions from the Swazi king. During the 1890's the British in Cape Colony and the Boers in Transvaal exercised varying degrees of control over Swaziland. In 1903, after the Boer War, it became a British protectorate.

Though South Africa made numerous requests to annex Swaziland during the next 50 years, Britain began preparing the protectorate for independence after World War II. Swaziland achieved internal self-government in 1967. The following year, it became an independent constitutional monarchy within the British Commonwealth. In 1973 King Sobhuza II repealed the 1968 constitution and assumed all governing powers himself. He died in 1982. Following rule under a regency, Sobhuza's son Makhosetive was crowned King Mswati III in 1986. In the 1990's, popular unrest forced the government to consider political reforms. In 2005, King Mswati approved a new constitution for Swaziland but maintained his hold on power
The mountainous northwest of Swaziland has some breathtaking scenery

Duncan McEwen, the expatriated Rhodesian who owned the Komati River Chalets in Komatipoort told me almost everything I needt to know about going there. "Just keep your door locked and don't let anyone walk up behind you" Duncan said with authority. Duncan's recommendation was fresh on my mind as I drove south to the Mananga Border Control post on the South African side of the border.

I chose September 16 2011 for my day trip to Swaziland. The morning broke hot and brilliantly bright as I drove south from Komatipoort South Africa for 60 kilometers to the Mananga border crossing with Swaziland. This drive was a rude awakening for me after being lulled into complacency by the endless untrammeled natural habitats of Kruger National Park. Here, outside the boundary fence the reality of too many people slammed home as it would on a drive along Interstate 80 from Omaha to Grand Island, Nebraska. There the destruction of nature was caused by corn. Here in South Africa the culprit is sugar cane. Endless sugar cane.
Endless sugar cane south of Komatipoort, South Africa

I passed through two villages that were packed wall to wall with people and along the road I met several buses that were each filled to overflowing with people. It was quickly apparent why natural habitats here had been converted to other uses.

About 20 kilometers from the border crossing I was stopped by the South African National Police at a roadside checkpoint. Here, unlike their despicable and corrupt breathern in Nicaragua, the police wanted to make sure that I was safe, check that I had my seat belt fastened, and to make sure I was enjoying my time in South Africa. Maybe the Nicaraguan and South African police forces need to do an employee exchange so Nicaragua can learn how to be kind to visitors?

An officious South African Customs officer barked orders at me as I drove up to the South African exit point.
The Mananga border control post in the Republic of South Africa

"This is your receipt for your vehicle" he barked as he pointed at a small brick building. "Take it there to get your passport stamped then to the next building to declare your camera and anything else you are taking out of the country." Intoxicated with his perceived power he then said "When you return you will give me that same slip of paper so you can bring the car back into South Africa."

I was tempted to give him a nazi salute and say "Sieg heil mein Fuehrer" but thought that it would be wiser to merely play along.

Inside the first building South African immigration bade me farewell and urged me to "return soon." Customs could have cared less about the form for my car or for my binoculars or my camera. I asked the Customs officer about the guy giving me instructions and wondered if I had not completed everything I was supposed to so. When I pointed out the person who had barked orders, the Customs officer apologized and said "oh, him. He thinks he owns this place and he never will." I love dealing with self-important people especially when their facade crashes down.
Welcome to Swaziland

Swaziland Immigration and Customs was much more simple. "Go in dare sir. Take your passport and get it stamped. Then walk next door to Customs and declare anything you have. When you are done there bring me the back of this form and enjoy your stay in the Kingdom of Swaziland." A 180 degree change in attitude by walking 100 feet south of the border into Swaziland.
The Swaziland entrance and exit stamps in my passport

Before traveling here Duncan told me that on arrival at the border post I should ask for a copy of "The Paper" which contains a road map of Swaziland. "The Paper" is a tourist publication not unlike any of a zillion of them produced in every coastal town in Florida. One of the Swazi customs agents went inside his building and retrieved the paper for me. He then stood next to me as I looked at the map. I wanted to travel west to near Pigg's Peak and then east to near the Mozambique border. Pointing at the eastern route I asked how long it would take to drive that route from where we stood on the border.

"Going dare" he said pointing to the east, "will take you a three hour drive." I was now glad that I had left early for the trip. However on actually making the drive to the eastern point I found it was only a 22 minute jaunt.

Long ago in Latin America I learned that there is an art and science to asking for directions when you're in alleged "third world" countries. The technique is simple. Ask five people for directions to the exact same place. Take the predictably five different answers, figure out the average of all responses, and drive toward the average. Apparently the same philosophy holds true for travel to Swaziland.

All sorts of theories abound regarding why Swazialand has such a high rate of HIV/AIDS infection. One huge contributing factor is ignorance. For instance many Swazi men believe that AIDS can be "cured" by having sex with virgins so Swazi men regularly are having sex with six to eight year old girls. Of course this doesn't "cure" anything - it only spreads the virus to little children and makes the infection rate continue to climb.

As soon as I left the border post I could feel that I was in a different country and a different world. There was still plenty of sugar cane and in fact there were two huge sugar mills in the first 20 kilometers of the country. However it just felt different. Large Australian pines lined the roadside and the springtime fragrance of jasmine filled the air. My first Swazi bird was a Brubru calling from dense vegetation along the road. As I drove further south I found Lilac-breasted Roller, Square-tailed Drongo, Cattle Egret, Dark-eyed Bulbul, Cut-throat and several other now-familiar birds seen earlier in South Africa.

To get a feel for Swaziland, I did exactly what Duncan warned me not to do. I stopped by the side of the road and talked with two Swazi men. Then I pulled into a bus stop and chatted with two women who told me what they thought of men and AIDS and life in general.

Chia, a stunningly attractive twenty-something said she started having sex at 11 years old. "It was just the thing to do," she said. "All of my friends gave their virginity before me so I wanted to find out what it was all about."

She had sex with two boys and two grown men when by the time she was 12 years old. "All of them were the same. I didn't see what the big deal was about."

When I asked if this was all safe sex she said "At first I didn't do that by my friends all told me to start so I did." A used condom lay flaccid on the ground on the road beside her.

The Swazi government had signs in their Immigration office titled "Condocan" complete with an image of a condom as a way to "heightening HIV/AIDS awareness. In the case of the woman I was talking with it was Condo Cant.

Can you imagine the uproar that would ensue by the religious right if the US government began an advertisement campaign like this to make more people aware of the HIV/AIDS virus? All through the Bush Administration those same self-righteous people were clammoring to get rid of aid to countries for HIV/AIDS prevention. In their myopic view it was more important to teach abstinence than to deal with the reality of the issue. Abstinence training didn't work for Chia.

"The medical practicioner told me I was HIV positive when I was 14. I'm 20 now but it not become AIDS yet."

I asked if she was still active despite having HIV.

"Of course I am," she exclaimed with a smile. "I have three children already and I'm pregnant with my fourth one right now." The last thing I wanted to know was if any of her children were HIV positive and not wanting to become more depressed I wished her good luck and drove away.

Hal Kantrud, my office partner at the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center, once said that "AIDS is the only hope for the large mammals of the African savanna." With 38 percent of the Swazi population infected with HIV and with women like Chia pumping out children who could likely be HIV positive it wont be long before Hal's comment might be proven correct. At least in Swaziland.

I traveled east under the shadow of the Lebombo Mountains in Mozambique just to the north. Not far from the crossing to Maputo I turned south and visited the Mbuluzi Game Reserve. The entrance / reception building held several artifacts of wildlife parts including the molted skin of a large narrow snake. When I asked what it was the resident biologist told me about the Mozambique Spitting Cobra the most common species of cobra in southern Africa. Great! Just what I need - to be spit on by a damned cobra!
"We have giraffe, impala, kudu and other grazers here," Mfume told me at the reception office. "Not to worry though. We have nothing here that will eat you like the leopard you saw in Kruger." That was a relief. Now I just needed to keep from being spit on by a snake.

I spent the early afternoon driving the rough trails in the veld of the preserve but the only grazers I saw was a troop of Savanna Baboons. One of them, a very large male, was sitting by the side of the road masturbating.
Grassland and veld at the Game Reserve in Swaziland. The hill in the background is in Mozambique

After a productive afternoon in the Reserve adding Striped Kingfisher, Black Crake, and Cape Scrub-Robin to my life list I departed the Game Reserve and slowly worked my way back to the Mananga border crossing. I followed a different road on my return and along it found this burned out car planted in a roadside ditch.

Its burned out and helpless shell seemed to symbolize what I was learning about Africa.

The process of returning to the Republic of South Africa was the same but in reverse from this morning. The Immigration officer wished me a quick return to the Kingdom and the Customs officer who took my car registration information in the morning told me that I hadn't stayed long enough. He reminded me of a Customs officer on the Caribbean island of Anguilla who told me, before I could say how long I was staying on the island, that I wasn't staying long enough.

Returning through the Komati River valley I traversed this morning I was even more overwhelmed by the masses of people I saw passing time along the roadside. As I watched these people, many of whom live in what is best described as a shack, I started to wonder about all of the foreign aid money that is pumped daily into Africa. Its been arriving there for more than one hundred years however when you look at the life of many black Africans including the rampant spread of AIDS you have to start wondering if any or all of that aid is actually doing any good.

I mentioned this to Ros and her daughter Jean when I returned to the Komati River Chalets in Komatipoort that evening.

Jean began by saying "I'm not prejudiced but....." Experience has taught me that anyone who says they are not prejudiced "but" is likely prejudiced. I once was in a training course on Capitol Hill in Washington DC. One of our instructors was the Dean of a prestigous university in DC. She began her presentation that day by saying "In any sentence that contains the word "but" everything before the but is bullshit."

I thought of that person when Jean said she wasn't prejudiced "but."

I mentioned to Ros and Jean what author Paul Theroux said in his excellent book "Dark Star Safari" about African countries and foreign aid. In Theroux' estimation most developing African countries feed at the trough provided by good deed doers and then become totally dependant on that aid for their existence. Eventually they believe it is their right to hold their hands out to receive aid they "deserve" simply by being poor. Why would they want to improve things? Some person in the United States or Great Britain or Germany will feel sorry for them, throw money at the problem, and feel they have absolved themselves of their white guilt as they move on.

Doing so does nothing to motivate anyone or any country to actually improve their existence. Why should they? If things get better all the free money is going to dry up.

Jean confirmed Theroux' hypothesis saying "It really has nothing to do with being white or prejudiced. It's a matter of fact."

And so it goes with the Kingdom of Swaziland. Right now 69 percent of Swazi residents live in poverty. As an analysis of economic aid in sub-Saharan Africa states, "Even though the donor community has been providing huge aid amount to this region, its economic performance is still very poor. Obviously, the question lies not in the quantity of aid but in its effectiveness, which remains ambiguous."

Ambiguous seems to be an ineffective word for it.

An old Chinese proverb nicely sums up the issue of aid in African countries. The proverb goes "Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach him how to fish and he will eat for a lifetime."

It seems that much if not almost all of our aid to countries like Swaziland has fed them for a day but nobody seems to take the time to teach them how to feed themselves for a lifetime.

Bible thumper Bonnie went to Swaziland to build homes for people thinking she was doing them a favor. Perhaps its time the Swazi's built houses for themselves.