Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Regulatory end-runs

Although I've been blogging almost daily about our owl research project, I haven't been updating this blog - though there's lots to report.

As I and a lot of other conservationists predicted some months ago, we've seen a blizzard of so-called midnight regulations from the Bush administration, trying to leave an still-more-permanent (and damaging) stamp on the environment before they leave office. Their attempt to gut the Endangered Species Act, which I wrote about in August, has been joined by moves to open millions of acres of western wilderness to energy production, loosen air-quality standards for national parks, and much more.

Most of these regs, which do not require Congressional approval, were fast-tracked to be on the books more than 60 days before the end of the administration, a move designed specifically to prevent the incoming Obama administration from simply reversing them, as Bush did to many of Bill Clinton's last-minute regulatory changes. Any rule finalized by Nov. 1, the administration believed, would be safe from an easy Obama reversal.

But, as reports here, the Bushies made a mistake -- they overlooked the 1996 Congressional Review Act, a little-known rule passed by (oh, the irony) the GOP-controlled Congress angered by Clinton's rule-making.

In a nutshell, the CRA allows any rule passed within 60 days of Congressional adjournment to be reviewed - and overturned - by a joint resolution of the new Congress.

"In other words, any regulation finalized in the last half-year of the Bush administration could be wiped out with a simple party-line vote in the Democrat-controlled Congress," writers Erika Lovley and Ryan Grim report.

John Podesta, who is co-directing the Obama transition, has said that the new administration would make reversing Bush's last-minute rules a priority, but even with legislative help, it isn't easy. The piece reports that Bush repealed only 3 percent of Clinton's rules, and amended 15 percent. Clinton did a better job on rules imposed by Bush's father -- 9 percent repealed and 48 percent amended.

Now, if we could only make sure Bush doesn't pardon any more poisoners of bald eagles...

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Switching blogs

Banding volunteer Phil Witmer with a saw-whet owl. (©Nate McKelvie)

I've been away from the blog for a shamefully long time, but hardly idle; we just launched our 12th season of saw-whet owl research, and for the next two or three months, I'll be maintaining a near-daily blog here about our activities. Look for news soon about regular podcasts, too. (And posts here from time to time.)

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Let the fire sale begin

For those of us committed to conservation, the Bush administration can't end soon enough -- but to the immeasurable damage they've already caused to the environment, the worst may be yet to come.

Many of us have been expecting that the final months of the administration will see a fire-sale approach to eviscerating environmental protections, particularly the two months between the general election in November and the inauguration, when the political damage to the GOP will be minimal.

But that doesn't mean they can't get a start on that pesky fall housecleaning, as this story from the AP makes clear.

An internal draft of proposed changes to the Endangered Species Act, obtained by the AP, shows that the Department of the Interior wants to scuttle the process under which federal projects - mines, highways, dams - that could harm endangered species and their habitat are subjected to an independent scientific review.

Instead, federal agencies could decide for themselves whether a project would be harmful, whether or not that agency has such expertise, or even has wildlife biologists on staff. Furthermore, it would significantly restrict what constitutes "harm" to threatened species, and would set a short, 60-day limit for comment by wildlife experts - on the off chance they're actually consulted.

The current system requires consultation with either the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service. Although projects are rarely disallowed because of reviews, the process often results in changes that help protect endangered species habitat.

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said the move, which would take effect after a 30-day comment period, and without Congressional review, will prevent the use of the ESA as a "back door" attempt to regulate greenhouse gases.

In fact, of course, it's a back-door means of achieving what many conservatives have long sought but failed to get legislatively -- gutting the Endangered Species Act.

And unfortunately, we'll be seeing a lot more of these administrative end-runs around environmental protections in the months to come.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Kasatochi memories

Sunlight streams through storm clouds near Fenimore Pass in the Aleutian Islands (©Scott Weidensaul)

More about the Wales Writing Workshop presently; but I saw a small news item today that took me back to one of the most remote and beautiful places I've ever been.
"Biologists rescued from remote Alaska island after volcano erupts," read the headline on an AP story in the Fairbanks News-Miner yesterday. (I'm indebted, as is often the case, to Lou Carpenter's bird-news site for posting the report.)

"ANCHORAGE (AP) — Two federal biologists were rescued from a volcanic island just before it erupted, sending a 35-thousand foot ash plume into the air.

"The biologists, who were studying birds, were rescued from volcanic Kasatochi Island in the Aleutians on Thursday. They were rescued by a local fishing boat.

"Official said the escape allowed the unnamed biologists to escape burning flows of gas, steam and ash that reportedly enveloped the island.

“ 'If they had been there, they certainly could have died,' said Stephanie Prejean, U.S. Geological Survey seismologist with the Alaska Volcano Observatory."

In the summer of 2005, I was lucky enough to hitch a ride to Kasatochi on the M/V Tiglax (pronounced Tek-la), the research vessel of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, which protects most of the Aleutian Islands chain. Kasatochi is a miniature Mt. Fuji, a perfect volcanic cone rising from the frigid Bering Sea waters, green with grass and cupping a deep lake inside its caldera.

The Tiglax, which had picked up me, field guide author David Sibley and several folks from The Nature Conservancy the previous day on Adak Island, 50 miles to the west, crossed the chaotic waters of Fenimore Pass as bright shafts of low sunlight pierced the storm clouds, illuminating rugged island shorelines.

Laysan albatrosses followed our wake, and the boat stirred up flocks of thousands of rare whiskered auklets, which David had come to see – one of the last North American birds he hadn't seen in the wild.A Laysan albatross crosses the wake of the Tiglax near Kasatochi Island. (©Scott Weidensaul)

We arrived at Kasatochi at 11 p.m., in the dim twilight of an Alaskan summer evening. Two young women, bio-technicians working for the refuge, were living for the summer in a tiny cabin perched on Kasatochi's slope, and while the crew off-loaded supplies for them (including a new stove to replace their broken one, so they could again cook hot food), we watched one of the most amazing wildlife spectacles I've ever seen.

In the gathering dusk, several immense clouds of crested auklets had gathered in the air around the island, waiting for the couple of hours of true darkness, around 2 a.m., when they could safely land without risking attack by gulls and falcons.

The birds whirred in dense masses hundreds of thousands strong, forming ever-shifting shapes like Möbius strips, smoky ribbons becoming balls becoming tendrils, rushing down the water, then swooping high in the air, wheeling and wheeling endlessly while the sea lions roared and the surf boomed.

One of the huge flocks, evading a passing peregrine falcon, swooped low toward the water and engulfed the boat, a roar of rushing wings that gave me, for a minute or two, a sense of what a passenger pigeon flock must have been like. Even after they passed, the air was heavy with the cloying citrus smell of tangerines, a characteristic of crested auklets.

Once it was fully dark, the vessel was kept in black-out conditions, because any light would disorient and attract the birds, with disastrous results. (One fishing boat, unaware of this, famously almost sank under the weight of confused seabirds piling onto the decks by the thousands; you can read a journal article about it here.)

The scientists aboard the Tiglax needed to catch a few birds to collect blood samples, though, so the crew turned on a few dim lights, and we scurried around the decks scooping up Cassin's and whiskered auklets, ancient murrelets and gray, fluttering fork-tailed storm-petrels, which puked up little gobs of pink crustaceans when we carefully lifted them.A whiskered auklet from Kasatochi, caught on the Tiglax for a quick blood sample and then released. (©Scott Weidensaul)

Kasatochi was almost certainly the most remote and empty place I've ever had the privilege of visiting. Sitting in the pilothouse of the Tiglax, Capt. Kevin Bell pointed on his chart to the tiny speck that was Kasatochi. "Draw a circle 500 miles wide, with Kasatochi at the center," he said. "There probably aren't more than a few hundred people in that circle, almost all of them on Adak or a couple of fishing boats."

Kasatochi is the third Aleutian volcano to erupt this summer, along with Okmok and Mt. Cleveland. It gave no warning, going from dormant to full eruption in about 24 hours, the U.S. Geological Survey said.The Tiglax anchored at Ulak Island, near Kasatochi. (©Scott Weidensaul)

A helicopter that was supposed to rescue the biologists developed mechanical problems, according to AP story. A Fish and Wildlife Service boat – presumably the Tiglax – was too far away to help, the AP reported, and calls for fishing boats went unanswered. Finally, fishermen from Adak raced the 50 miles of rough seas to pluck off the biologists, who said the island was shaking violently, and the air smelled like sulfur.

And a little bit like tangerines, I'll bet.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

So far West it's almost East

The Bering Strait at midnight.(©Scott Weidensaul)

Look closely at that photo. Yes, it's a beautiful sunset, but the important thing is that you're looking into tomorrow. Quite literally.

That's an uncommonly tranquil midnight sunset on the Bering Strait, taken from the beach at Wales, Alaska – the westernmost point of the North American mainland, where it all but kisses Asia.

How close? The small "island" to the right is East Cape, the tip of the Siberian mainland. The larger "island" on the left is really two landmasses in one – Little Diomede, part of the U.S., which lies about 25 miles from land, and a mile beyond that is Big Diomede, which is Russian.

The International Date Line runs between them, so while it was Saturday where I was standing, it was Sunday over in Big Diomede. As I said, tomorrow.

I'm just back from spending a week in Wales, one of the most remarkable places I've ever visited. An Inupiat village at the tip of the treeless Seward Peninsula, it has been home to humans for at least 10,000 years, and the sense of history is palpable, whether it's the finely worked artifacts like harpoon tips and net frames that one can find along the beach; the countless seal, walrus and whale bones that erode out of the bluffs, speaking of feasts millennia old; the pre-Christian human burials scattered on the rocky hillsides above the village; or the huge wooden cross that marks the mass grave of hundreds of victims of the Spanish influenza in 1918.Walrus bones erode from the bluff above Wales, where people have been living for 10,000 years. (©Scott Weidensaul)

The hundred and fifty or so people who live in Wales today retain a traditional, subsistence lifestyle. Almost every house has musk-ox, polar bear and bearded seal skulls lying about outside. In the middle of the village, the huge curved jaws of a bowhead whale lie next to the dirt street.

I was in Wales at the invitation of Anchorage artists Joe and Catherine Senungetuk, to join them in leading a writing workshop for both villagers and those from outside. Joe, who was born in Wales in 1940, is a noted Inupiat artist and the author of an autobiography about growing up Native in Wales and Nome, while Catherine is an accomplished watercolorist originally from California.Wales, Alaska, on a quiet evening. (©Scott Weidensaul)

This was the second year they'd conducted the Wales Writing Workshop, and of the dozen participants from outside the village (most from Anchorage) there were several veterans of the 2007 venture. We were also fortunate to welcome villagers like Winton Weyapuk, an accomplished poet and prose writer, who joined as their schedules allowed.

Our base of operations was the village community center, which houses a large multi-use room and several tribal offices; some of group spread their bedrolls on the floor, while others bunked with families in the village. Worried that if I snored I'd keep people awake, I pitched a tent just outside, in the lee of the building and a large metal shipping container where supplies are stored – the winds that roar through the Bering Strait can be ferocious, and I figured I'd need the extra shelter.

The community center sits at the north end of the village, hard against tundra and marsh. Dunlin, dowitchers, red-necked phalaropes and western sandpipers were almost always visible foraging in the sedges, and pairs of red-throated and Pacific loons shuttled back and forth from the nearby ocean to their chicks in shallow freshwater ponds just inland.A red-throated loon splashes into the air. (©Scott Weidensaul)

Up the hill toward Cape Mountain, and the weird, jagged hill known as Razorback, we could often see herds of musk-oxen grazing, forced close to the village by grizzlies. The semi-domesticated reindeer herds the village manage, however, had moved off to their summer grazing range – although one generous villager dropped off a reindeer roast for our dinner one evening.

Over the following days, we alternated between writing, roundtable sessions at which we shared our work, and hands-on instruction by noted master bookmaker Susan Share as we learned to fold, cut, stitch and decorate small but increasingly complex books.

But the evening of our arrival was gorgeous – tranquil, with low, golden sunlight bathing the peninsula. At 1 a.m., the village was busier than at noon, with guys reroofing homes and teens playing basketball. Up here, you don't waste a nice day, and this was the first sunshine, they told me, in three weeks. The fact that it was midnight sunshine, barely south of the Arctic Circle as we were, didn't matter.

Some of the workshop participants combed the wide sand beach, which runs for more than 30 miles north of the village along Lopp Lagoon, and onto which storms had cast millions of sea stars, or chatted with villagers trying to catch hundreds of pink salmon jamming the entrance to Village Creek – something the elders said they'd never seen before.

I walked south along the rockier part of the shore, watching king eiders, common murres and pelagic cormorants in the surf, and yellow wagtails and snow buntings feeding on insects by the tide line. Then I headed up onto the flanks of Cape Mountain, staying a cautious distance from the notoriously touchy musk-ox.
Inupiat kids play on "Arctic Arc," a sculpture mirrored by another on the Russian mainland, almost 60 miles west. (©Scott Weidensaul)

As the sun came close to the horizon, a couple of kids were playing on a huge sculpture of an open hand releasing a bird, which dominates the hill above town. A joint project by Michigan sculptor David Barr, who did the hand, and Joe Senungetuk, who did the bird, it mirrors a similar sculpture across the strait on the Russian side - a symbol of friendship between two countries often at odds.

We knew the weather couldn't last, and it didn't – but it was a glorious way to start our time in Wales.

* * * * *

If you're curious what the weather's like in Wales right now, you can take a look via the Wales StraitCam, mounted in a front window of the Kingikmiut School in the village and looking out past the playground onto the Bering Strait; on a rare clear day you can see the Diomede Islands, but don't count on it most of the time. (The webcam is mostly used by villagers now living in Nome and elsewhere to monitor snow depth and sea ice in winter, to judge when best to come back home to hunt marine mammals.)

Saturday, July 19, 2008

An incredible gift for birds

The boreal forest, a 55 million acres of which of which will be protected in Ontario (©Scott Weidensaul)

One of the biggest conservation stories ever emerged last week, but received relatively little press here in the States. The premier of Ontario has pledged to set aside half of the province -- about 55 million acres, an area the size of the entire UK -- for permanent conservation, with requirements that industry work with First Nations and the government to craft sustainable development plans for the rest.

Given that the boreal forest is the great bird factory of North America, producing billions of migratory songbirds, waterfowl, shorebirds and raptors, this is arguably the single biggest win in history for bird conservation.

Anyone who enjoys the seasonal flow of warblers, thrushes, sparrows and other migrant songbirds passing through in the Lower 48 - and I'm guessing that's most of us -- owes a huge debt of gratitude to Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty for his visionary move, which is part of the larger Boreal Forest Conservation Initiative, a collaboration of conservation groups, First Nations and industry that aims to protect at least half of the 1.4 billion-acre Canadian boreal forest.

Here's how my good friend Jeff Wells of the Boreal Songbird Initiative put it on his blog this week, sending an open letter of thanks to McGuinty:

Jeff Wells (©Scott Weidensaul)

"I don’t know if you have ever heard the soft flutely song of a Swainson’s Thrush," Jeff wrote, "but try to imagine three million of them singing at once. That’s the sound emanating into the sky on a June morning from the number of Swainson’s Thrushes that would be found in the 55 million acres of northern Ontario’s Boreal that you have just announced will now be protected. Even better yet, imagine 4.5 million renditions of the “Oh-sweet-Canada-Canada-Canada” song of the White-throated Sparrow echoing across the Boreal."

As Jeff went on to point out, the land that Ontario will permanently protect from timbering and mining is home to 5 million juncos, 4 million magnolia warblers, 3 million palm warblers and 2 million Tennessee warblers, just to name a few species.

The Boreal Forest Conservation Initiative is sweeping in its scope - but so is the forest its is so effectively protecting. The Canadian boreal is the largest intact forest left on the planet, bigger even than the Amazon. And while its southern fringes have been impacted by logging, roads and other development, most of it is still whole and functioning, home not only to birds but to grizzlies, wolves, caribou, moose, wild sheep and hundreds of Native communities. (The boreal, of course, also covers much of Alaska, where a significant portion is protected federal land.)

Two years ago, I had a chance to see some of the best of the boreal along with Jeff Wells, Pete and Linda Dunne, and National Geographic writer Mel White. We traveled up through the Northwest Territories, flying for hours across lake-studded muskeg forest, knowing that every one of the thousands of ponds we saw was home to scoters, loons, grebes and scaup, that every glance out the window of the small plane encompassed the territories of thousands of blackpoll or yellow-rumped warblers. It was staggering.

Déline at daybreak (©Scott Weidensaul)

At the small Sahtú Dene village of Déline, on the shores of Great Bear Lake, we watched an incredible dawn procession of birds pouring out of the north - Pacific loons, Arctic terns, shorebirds and sea ducks of a dozen species, and waves of warblers and sparrows in numbers beyond counting. At one point, a parasitic jaeger chased a lesser yellowlegs across the immense lake, only giving up when the smaller bird took refuge in the underbrush almost at our feet.

The Northwest Territories is also undertaking a protected area strategy of its own, as part of the boreal initiative, with First Nations communities setting aside huge chunks of environmentally and culturally sensitive land before a new natural gas pipeline is built through the region.

Other provinces are taking note; this week, Manitoba's meager efforts were called "shameful" by conservationists there, who are hoping Ontario's leadership will spark equally significant moves elsewhere in the boreal region.

You can find a story from the Toronto Star about the Ontario land deal here. You can also read a piece I wrote in 2007 for The Nature Conservancy on the Boreal Forest Conservation Framework here.

And finally, you can send a note of thanks to Premier McGuinty via BSI's website -- something every American birder who reaps the benefits of the boreal forest should take a moment to do.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Hog Island memories

Lobstermen get a foggy start off Hog Island (©Scott Weidensaul)

The posts have been few and far between the past couple of months, because I've generally been far from a computer.

Case in point: I just wrapped up two weeks of teaching at the historic Hog Island Audubon Center on the midcoast of Maine, one of the prettiest spots on the planet, and a place where one can walk in the footsteps of giants like Roger Tory Peterson and Allan Cruickshank while watching blackburnian warblers and listening to loons.

I try to teach several sessions at Hog Island every year, including adult field ornithology – a week-long immersion into all things avian, from taxonomy and evolution to behavior and field ID. I've been blessed over the years to work with a stellar bunch of fellow instructors – Dr. Sara Morris from Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., one of the leading experts on migratory stopover in songbirds; Greg Budney, the curator of the Macaulay Library (formerly the Library of Natural Sounds) at Cornell; and Peter Vickery, grassland bird expert and one of Maine's top birders. (Field guide author Kenn Kaufman usually joins us, but couldn't make it this year.)

For a week, we took the 37 participants from inland forests and bogs full of warblers, thrushes and flycatchers, to offshore islands where we watched puffins, storm-petrels and even a handful of rare razorbills.

But the highlight of my time on Hog Island this year was the second week when, along with Maine state wildlife biologist Judy Camuso, I was an instructor for Coastal Maine Bird Studies, an ornithology session aimed at teen birders.

We had 13 terrific teenagers, ranging in age from 14 to 17, and from all over the country – New England, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Indiana and New Mexico. And beyond - one young man came from Chile, where his parents are working.

Some were avid birders; Cole leads Audubon field trips back home in New Mexico, and Jack, the fellow living in Chile, regaled us with stories of birding across South and Central America. Others, like Maine resident Karl and Pennsylvanian Kelsi, were absolute beginners wanting to know more. All were eager to learn, and had enough energy that they made it hard for a certified old fart like me to keep up. (I'm not posting any photos of the kids, by the way, out of respect for their privacy.)

We started with an all-day land trip, beginning in the fog at the village of Medomak, where Peterson and Cruickshank laid out a walking route through forest, meadows and marsh back in 1936, which Hog Island campers have been revisiting ever since. We watched a Baltimore oriole pair feed their chicks, listened the subtle differences in the trilled songs of swamp sparrows, pine warblers and juncos, and admired the newly opened flowers of hundreds of rose pogonia orchids. Later, we ate lunch overlooking meadows along the Damariscotta River, where bobolinks displayed and sang, and beat the afternoon thunderstorms on Clarry Hill, a huge blueberry barrens where we found vesper and savannah sparrows, but struck out on upland sandpipers.

A fledgling bald eagle buzzes the wildflower meadow (©Scott Weidensaul)

The next day we had great looks at Canada warblers, northern waterthrush and nesting yellow-bellied sapsuckers on the mainland (including a recently fledged bald eagle that all but buzzed us), but the real treat came in the afternoon. Transferring from the camp's smaller boat Osprey III into a traditional cod-fishing dory, we rowed ashore onto Ross Island, a major nesting colony for gulls. It was a tricky, wet landing in the lively surf, but for the next hour and a half, we carefully moved through the colony, observing active nests and examining chicks, discussing the behavior of herring and great black-backed gulls nesting around us by the hundreds.

A herring gull family on Ross Island (©Scott Weidensaul)

It was a terrific opportunity to hash through the advantages and disadvantages of coloniality, and to review the impact that humans have had on seabirds – the way gulls were almost exterminated for the feather trade a century ago, for example, but now are so numerous (because of the abundance of food we inadvertently provide) that they impede the recovery of terns and other rare seabirds.

The teens had an object lesson in this the next day, when the camp's larger boat, Puffin V, pushed through dense fog to Eastern Egg Rock, which lies on the outer edge of Muscongus Bay, nine miles from shore. Here, biologists have spent decades reintroducing Atlantic puffins, and building up a large nesting colony of common, Arctic and endangered roseate terns that they must safeguard from gulls. We saw no razorbills that day, but the fog kept the nesting birds close to the island, and the teens were thrilled with close-up views of dozens of puffins – as well as a single black tern, a real rarity out there.
A black guillemot takes off at Eastern Egg Rock (©Scott Weidensaul)

July 4 found us in Acadia National Park, which was swarming with holiday tourists. We managed to find some of the hidden, less-visited jewels of the park, and although high winds made the birding pretty slow, we had some thrills, including fine views of a female gray seal hunting around a lobster boat – a life mammal for almost everyone in the group.

The last day, though, was one of the best. Under a glorious blue Fourth of July sky, we headed back out into the bay to visit Wreck Island, home to a large great blue heron colony. With us was Birdchaser blogger Rob Fergus, with the National Audubon science office. We again eased ourselves into the dory, rolling in the low swells, and first mate Eric Snyder nosed her among the rockweed-covered boulders. Forming a human chain over the treacherous rocks, we moved everyone up onto the cobblestone beach, speaking only in whispers, then headed into the woods in complete silence.

Entering the forest on Wreck always make me think of stepping back to a Cretaceous jungle – the heavy ammonia smell in the air, the riot of brambles and gooseberry under the trees, and most of all the weird croaks and clatters filling our ears. Looking up, we could see dozens of nests all around us, with gangly heron chicks, just a week or two from fledging, staring back at us.

We communicated with hand signals, or an occasional comment whispered directly into an ear. But mostly we just stood and watched, drinking in the spectacle. Adult herons flew in, their bellies heavy with fish to regurgitate to the chicks – and we also found the remains of chicks that had fallen (or been pushed) from the nest, becoming prey to great horned owls whose feathers we found snagged in the underbrush. Judy found a fresh owl pellet, which when opened revealed the skull of a Leach's storm-petrel – a swallow-sized seabird that nests on these outer islands, coming and going under cover of darkness that protects it from gulls, but not owls.
Eric brings in the dory at Wreck Island (©Scott Weidensaul)

Reluctantly, we doried back to the Osprey III, the silence this time among the kids the result of reflection rather than my warning. But once the engines kicked on, it was as though someone had flipped a different switch, and all 13 of the teens started talking at once, trying to express the remarkable experience they'd just had.

(Click here if you're interested in more information about the Hog Island Audubon Center. A few spaces for the Sept. 14-20 bird migration and conservation session for adults remain.)

I'm going to be out of touch again for a while, but should have some great material when I get back (think Inupiat, the Bering Strait and polar bears).

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Big bears

I've spent a lot of time over the years observing wild bears – black bears, polar bears and coastal brown bears – but I've always been especially fond of the Alaskan interior brown bears known as Toklat grizzlies, named for the braided glacial river that flows through the middle of Denali National Park and Preserve.

Toklats, living in the food-poor interior tundra, aren't big – averaging about 500 pounds, they are considerably smaller than the biggest male black bears in my home state of Pennsylvania, which can exceed 700 pounds. And compared with coastal brown bears, which can tip the scales at more than 1,500 pounds, they're pikers.

But what they lack in sheer size they make up in a solid presence and attitude, especially in early summer when the bears are still in their thick winter pelage, which highlights the distinctive tawny-colored body and dark legs typical of Toklat grizzlies.

In our time teaching at Camp Denali earlier this month, we saw lots of griz – one of the best (and occasionally alarming) things about being in the park. Along the partially frozen Savage River, we watched two caribou move nervously on the ice, unwilling to pass within a hundred yards of a sow grizzly and her two large cubs; when the female caught wind of the caribou, she came loping, but it wasn't a serious attack. (The next day, however, she had killed a moose calf in the same area.)

Along the East Fork of the Toklat, not far from the old ranger post cabin in which pioneering naturalist Adolph Murie worked while conducting his landmark wolf/Dall sheep studies in the 1930s, we encountered an adolescent grizzly, probably on its own for the first time, lying atop a red fox den in a thicket of willows.

At first, the bear was content to munch on mummified snowshoe hare carcasses lying around, but eventually it smelled food underground – fox kits – and began trying to dig through the tangled roots and rocks that protected the den.

Anyone who's seen a grizzly dig knows how much strength they possess in those massive forequarters. Once, along the Alagnak River, a guide and I spent three hours rolling massive driftwood spruce logs into a four-foot-deep gully and then shoveling several tons of gravel over top of them, to create a landing strip for a small plane. Then, while we waited for the plane, a bear came along and, suspecting food was cached beneath all that freshly dug earth, simply levered up the huge logs through all the gravel like they were jack-straws, while we watched, helpless.

So the foxes understood the danger, and attacked the teenaged bear, nipping the its flanks, barking and yowling, just barely avoiding the swatting paws and lunges. The bear seemed only half-interested, and kept wandering away, only to be lured back by the possibility of a meal, sending the foxes into new paroxyms of distress. The drama was still going on when we finally left.

I've had some heart-stopping encounters with grizzlies while on foot in Denali, but this time, the bears we saw while hiking were comfortably distant, and the close-up encounters occurred while we were in vehicles. One of the best came on our final day, when we and several Camp Denali guests were heading out of the park.

Just shy of the Eilson Visitors Center, we encountered a bear ambling up the middle of the one-lane dirt road, which in this area makes some stomach-lurching hairpins around thousand-foot-high bluffs (no guardrails). We ever-so-slowly followed, since we could hardly go around. Then, as the bear reached one bend, it met another grizzly coming the other way.

The bear we'd been following appeared to be a boar, the second one a sow – but the male gave way, scrambling up a steep slope, peering down nervously. The sow followed suit a few minutes later, and they faced off with growls and roars, baring their teeth and taking a few swipes at each other. Whether it was territorial aggression or courtship behavior is hard to say – both activities look a lot alike among bears. (The photo's a bit soft -- low light, rain and a hand-held camera.)

All photos ©Scott Weidensaul

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


Apologies for the long hiatus between posts; I've been home very little this spring. Here's a bit of what I've been up to.

The first time I visited Alaska, nearly 30 years ago, I fell in love with what the locals like to call the Great Land. I've been going back almost every year since, I've been able to travel to some of its most remote regions, from the western Aleutians and Alaskan Peninsula to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, Pribilof Islands and the North Slope.

But no place is more magical than Denali National Park and Preserve, in the Alaska Range of the southern Interior. Nowhere else in Alaska is it easier to observe large mammals and the full range of subarctic birds, from grizzlies to diminutive Wilson's warblers - and there's no better time to visit this 6 million-acre wilderness than early in June, right after iceout, when the moose and caribou are dropping calves, and the migratory birds have returned from wintering grounds as far-flung as Africa, the Philippines and South America.

Earlier this month, Amy and I spent more than a week in the heart of the park and preserve, based out of Camp Denali, one of the best ecotour facilities I've ever had the pleasure of visiting. We were what Camp Denali calls "resource leaders," there to assist the staff naturalist-guides on daily birding forays, and I was subbing for my old friend Stan Senner of Audubon Alaska, who's been teaching at Camp Denali for years but had to miss these sessions.

Just getting to camp is half the adventure - a seven-hour bus trip along the 90-mile dirt road that bisects the wilderness core of the park (the original Mt. McKinley National Park, before the park and preserve was tripled in size in 1980). Along with the staff, we pointed out caribou and Dall sheep, harlequin ducks and beavers, willow ptarmigan and a great horned owl nest with two fluffy, almost-ready-to-fledge chicks.

We saw more than half a dozen grizzlies, including one that upended our plans for a picnic dinner along the East Fork of the Toklat River - it was busy trying to dig up a red fox den (to the frenzied alarm of the foxes, which yowled and nipped and avoided the bear's swatting paws) just a few yards from where we were supposed to eat. No one complained about delaying the meal a few hours, while we watched the drama - though we had to leave before we learned whether or not the bear was ever successful in breaching the den.

Camp Denali is a mix of rusticity and decadence; the one-room cabins are heated by woodstoves and lit by propane, each with its own outhouse, but the dining room
Dall sheep ram (©Scott Weidensaul)
was a brand-new timber-peg structure with drop-dead views and a modern kitchen that turned out extraordinary meals. On clear nights, the sky dimmed a bit after 1 a.m. when the sun dipped slightly below the horizon, but you could still read on your porch, with the more than 20,000-foot summit of Denali/Mt. McKinley (take your pick; Alaska calls it the former, the U.S. Geological Survey the latter) bathed in rich pinks and oranges again at 3:30 a.m. with sunrise.

The birding was simply wonderful, even from the outhouse. Ours perched on the edge of a 500-foot rise above Moose Creek, and from it we were serenaded by Swainson's, gray-cheeked and varied thrushes, with white-crowned sparrows, orange-crowned and Wilson's warblers everywhere. Our first morning, two flocks of several dozen gray-crowned rosy-finches flew over camp, considerably lower than these alpine birds are usually seen.

The routine was for me to lead a 5:30 a.m. birdwalk, then after breakfast everyone would make their own sack lunches and spend the day in the park with guides. Among the favorite destinations for our birding groups were a series of glacial kettle ponds around Mile 81 on the park road, and Ranger Pond, close to the Wonder Lake ranger station -- lots of lesser scaup, buffleheads, pintail, green-winged teal and wigeon, along with lesser yellowlegs, least sandpipers and a few red-necked phalaropes. Greater white-fronted geese, Arctic terns, long-tailed ducks (the drakes in their black breeding plumage) and black and white-winged scoters were also around, and we often saw northern harriers and short-eared owls hunting the surrounding tundra. We watched common loons on their nest, and gray jays hitting us up (unsuccessfully) for a handout.

Not far from camp, the park's ornithologist Carol McIntyre had earlier discovered a gyrfalcon nest, which we could watch through a spotting scope; one day as one of the adults flew by, it took off after a northern goshawk that was intruding on the nest territory; although a goshawk is a big, tough bird, it wasted no time in lighting out for safer terrain with the gyr in pursuit.

I'm only home for a brief time between trips, but will try to post a few more episodes from Denali before hitting the road again -- fighting grizzlies, alpine hail storms, and more great Alaskan birds.

Rock ptarmigan in Highway Pass. (©Scott Weidensaul)

Monday, April 21, 2008

More on the Border Wall

The Washington Post on Sunday ran a feature on the conservation implications of the border wall, here.

Meanwhile, the reaction from much of the birding community remains a yawn or even - because of the incendiary nature of the immigration debate - active hostility to those on birding forums trying to discuss the impacts of the border barrier. Many have asked, 'Birds can fly, so what's the big deal?'
True, birds can fly over a fence, but that's not what we're talking about here. The border "wall" will actually be two walls, with a cleared, lighted patrol strip between, and cleared land on either side - a devastating loss of habitat, especially in areas like the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas, where habitat is limited to a narrow corridor along the river...a corridor conservationists (including the federal government) have spent tens of millions of dollars to restore, and the very corridor through which the wall would run.

Wings or no wings, birds need habitat, and the land on the southern side of the border, which will include most of the good riparian forest, will quickly become as degraded and the land currently on the Mexican side of the river. And good luck trying to get access to what used to be prime U.S. wildlife habitat, and which will suddenly require a border and river crossing to visit.

For species like the 70 remaining Sonoran pronghorn antelope, the endangered handful of Texas ocelots, or the newly returned Arizona jaguars, the wall would be a death-knell. Birders, I would hope, should be interested in more than just birds.

More information on fighting the wall can be found here.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Border madness

If nothing else, the timing was sickly appropriate.

Last Tuesday – April Fool's Day – Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff announced one of the most breathtaking assaults ever on half a century's worth of environmental protection, while simultaneously attacking some of the richest wildlife habitat in the country.

If only it were a joke, instead of a nightmare.

With a stroke of his pen, Chertoff waived 36 bedrock environmental and land-management laws designed to protect our most sensitive natural communities, announcing that the federal government could ignore them in order to complete more than 670 miles of "the Fence," the proposed barrier running along the Mexican border, in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

The magnitude of the loss to conservation became clear in the subsequent days. Although Chertoff had used his waiver authority before, including to ram the wall through two sensitive wildlife areas in Arizona, the border wall will devastate the lower Rio Grande Valley corridor, a showcase of land restoration that holds some of the greatest natural diversity in the country. It's also an economic engine in the Valley, as the region is known, attracting hordes of birders from around the world, who spend millions of tourist dollars every year.

National Audubon's Sabal Palm Audubon Center in Brownsville will be on the wrong side of the wall, cut off and effectively ceded to Mexico. Ditto the Nature Conservancy's thousand-acre Southmost Preserve, where last week birders were flocking to see a fork-tailed flycatcher. John Arvin, of the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory, has noted that virtually every birding hotspot in the Valley, except for those in urban areas, will be walled off.

Congress created this mess when it passed the 2005 REAL ID Act, tacking it onto a massive military spending bill. One facet of that rider gave the Homeland Security chief sole authority to ignore essentially any law hindering construction of border barriers, and severely limiting court review of his decision.

Environmental groups are preparing lawsuits, but the bill limits such legal challenges to constitutional issues only, a steep hill to climb, especially given the current 5-4 conservative majority on the Supreme Court.

Congress is the only body that will be able to correct this mess. One solution would be the Borderlands Conservation and Security Act (H.R. 2593), introduced by Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, which would require DHS to abide by existing environmental laws, and to consult with land managers, Indian tribes and local officials on barrier construction. You can learn more, and contact your representative, here.

How are birders reacting? Mostly with a yawn. Many in the Valley are shocked and outraged, but otherwise, there seems to be little awareness of the issue nationally, or realization of what's at stake. Except for David Sibley, I couldn't find that any of the prominent birding bloggers have even addressed the issue.

It's not as though this is merely about access to birding sites. Once the wall (actually two walls, with a cleared and patrolled strip between) is built, the land on the far side effectively becomes Mexican territory, subject to the same abuse and degradation we've seen on the south side of the river already.

The barrier will also cut off movement of endangered species like ocelots – the very reason millions of federal, state and private dollars have been spent in the last 20 years, painstakingly assembling and restoring the Lower Rio Grande Valley wildlife corridor, which will be sliced apart if DHS is allowed to have its way.

And it's not just birds in Texas – the border wall will be devastating to Sonoran pronghorns and Mexican black bears, to the tiny, resurgent population of jaguars now recolonizing the sky island mountains of Arizona and New Mexico, and to countless other species.

The only thing that will stop this is outrage and protest from the millions of birders and conservationists across the country. If you've ever enjoyed the sight of a green jay at Santa Ana, or a chorus of chachalacas at Sabal Palm – get mad, and get involved. If you've ever hoped to one day look for tropical parulas or hook-billed kites in the Valley, or a jaguar in the Huachucas, get involved – because that chance is about to slip away.

* * * *

Here's a story from the New York Times about the fate of the Sabal Palm Audubon Center, along with statements on the border wall announcement from National Audubon and Defenders of Wildlife.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

'Weekend America' this weekend

Barring an especially news-rich morning, I'll be making one of my periodic appearances on public radio's "Weekend America" this Saturday. It's part of a segment in which listeners share their stories of spring, including several about robins - and I'll be talking about the bird most naturalists consider the real icon of spring, the American woodcock.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Crab moratorium passes

On March 17, the New Jersey Senate - by a 39-0 vote - passed a moratorium on horseshoe crab fishing in state waters. The bill goes to Gov. Jon Corzine, who is widely expected to sign it. More details here.

The action overturns the Feb. 11 decision of the state Marine Fisheries Council to lift an existing moratorium - the only one of its kind on the East Coast, and a measure conservationists consider critical for preventing the further decline of the rufa race of the red knot, which has plummeted from a population of more than 100,000 in the early 1990s to near-extinction today. Similar declines are now beginning to manifest themselves among ruddy turnstones and semipalmated sandpipers, two other species that depend on the crabs' eggs during their spring migration to the Arctic.

Should we all just congratulate the N.J. legislature (and ourselves, since conservationists from around the country lobbied hard for this bill) and go back to birding? Hardly. The existing annual crab quota, set by the federal Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, is too high, and the commission should again consider a region-wide harvest moratorium, thus superceding a Delaware state court ruling last year striking down a state moratorium there.

The best source for information on the red knot/crab situation remains New Jersey Audubon.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

No rest for the weary...

I'm blessed to have a remarkably enthusiastic and highly trained banding crew working on the Ned Smith Center's owl research project, but they really don't know when to stop.

Back in October my King's Gap crew, which bands at a state environmental education training center on South Mountain, near Carlisle, PA, started more than two months of nightly netting to catch migrant saw-whet owls. It's fun but tiring, and by the time they finished in the first week of December, they'd banded almost 240 owls.

They'd also fitted several with tiny, 2-gram radio transmitters, which allowed us to find the owls each day on their roosts, part of a study we've been conducting since 2000 to look at roost site and habitat selection. That part of the project has long been overseen by Aura Stauffer, a state DCNR biologist who has been one of our banders for years. So several nights a week Aura was staying up past midnight banding, and most days either she or one of the other volunteers was also out with an antenna and radio receiver, tracking the owls through Michaux State Forest.

One of the birds, radio-tagged Dec. 1 and nicknamed "Grinch," stuck around through at least the middle of February, when the signal from her radio faded and died -- probably empty batteries, which had reached the end of their expected life.

Now, having had just two weeks of rest, the King's Gap crew is moving back into a month of nightly banding again, as we try to document the spring saw-whet migration, which is far less well understood. Tonight was the first night, and my King's Gap site coordinator Gary Shimmel, along with volunteer Rhonda Hackenberg (who with her husband Scott, the park director, lives on the mountaintop) opened the nets at dark. (That's Gary in the photo, tracking the Grinch last month.)

Less than two hours later, Gary called to report that they'd just caught eight owls, and that the woods were full of vocalizations from others. Considering that our entire season total in 2001 (the last time we tried spring netting) was just seven owls, we're obviously off to a great start.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Red knot update

There's been some encouraging movement in New Jersey on the dire situation regarding red knots and overharvested horseshoe crabs. Since the NJ Marine Fisheries Council voted 5-4 to lift a moratorium on crab harvests on Feb. 11, there has been a bipartisan movement in the state legislature to institute a permanent harvest ban.

You can read updates on the situation from New Jersey Audubon here. And you can read a recent news report from the Asbury Park News and a far less objective piece from the Press of Atlantic City, which focuses only on the watermen's views. (One could argue, for example, that a resource management council comprised primarily of commercial fin-fishermen, shellfisherman and fish processors constitutes a "special interest" of just the sort criticized.)

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Dark Days for the Red Knot

It's been a bad week for one of the most extraordinary birds in the world.

In an ironic little twist, the same week that PBS has been broadcasting a documentary called "Crash: A Tale of Two Species," about how overharvesting of horseshoe crabs in the Delaware Bay has led to the near-extinction of the red knot, the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council has narrowly voted down a moratorium on crab harvests in state waters that would have given both species a critical break.

Red knots at Reed's Beach, NJ, in better days, in the late 1980s (©Scott Weidensaul)

This follows on the announcement last week that scientists studying knots on their South American wintering grounds could find only about a thousand of them. Just a decade ago the population was nearly 100,000, and observers in Tierra del Fuego saw them in flocks of 20,000 at a time. Last winter researchers found only 8,000-10,000 total, a 30 percent drop from 2006. At this rate of decline, the knots will be effectively gone in a few more years.

The evidence is overwhelming that overharvesting of crabs, whose once-abundant eggs fed more than a million and a half migrant shorebirds each May along Delaware Bay, has led to this catastrophe. Without sufficient food at this critical stopover site, the knots cannot gain enough weight to continue their migration to the Arctic, and to breed successfully. Ominously, the same thing is now happening to ruddy turnstones and semipalmated sandpipers.

The state Division of Fish and Wildlife urged the fisheries panel to enact the moratorium, noting that male-only harvests have not resulted in any increase in egg production.

But in both New Jersey and Delaware (where watermen overturned a moratorium in court), the interests of a handful of commercial fishermen have stopped any significant progress.

The NJ Marine Fisheries Council's vote was 5-4 against a harvest moratorium, and given the makeup of the council, I'm frankly surprised the vote was as close as it was. The panel's membership, set by law, consists of "four sports fishermen, two active commercial fin fishermen, one active fish processor, two members of the general public, and the chairman of the two sections of the Shellfisheries Council." Like most such fisheries commissions, state and federal, it is heavily weighted toward fishing interests.

In this case, the council decided the right of 39 New Jersey fishermen – that's right, just 39 – to catch crabs as eel and conch bait outweighed the interests of two extraordinary species, and a timeless migratory drama that plays out across 18,000 miles a year. (Never mind that this fishery is less than 15 years old, and is as sustainable as strip-mining. Never mind that the state offered to compensate fishermen for their losses. And never mind the tens of millions of ecotourist dollars that birds bring to the New Jersey shore each year.)

But commercial fishermen have a long and bewildering history of refusing the heed even the clearest warnings of overfishing; expecting them to heed the best available science is like expecting a drunk to suddenly sober up and take the pledge.

The real villain here is the Bush administration, whose hamstrung U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to list the red knot under the Endangered Species Act, despite the most exhaustively documented emergency petition in the ESA's history. An ESA listing would, finally, place the welfare of the knots foremost in the regulatory process.

One reason a member of the NJMFC gave for voting against the moratorium was that, since the feds didn't list the knots as endangered, they must not really be endangered.

In fact, the USFWS admitted that the knot deserved ESA protection, but said that "placing the bird on the endangered species list is precluded by higher priority listing actions for species at greater risk."

The translation: Although we'd like to, our endangered species budget has been purposefully gutted to prevent us from listing new species under the ESA, regardless of how profoundly jeopardized they may be. USFWS named the knot a candidate species, but there is no regulatory teeth behind that designation.

There is still a chance that the New Jersey's legislature could overrule the NJMFC and institute a moratorium. I suspect we're going to see the same kind of up-to-the-last-second drama, in and out of courtrooms, that we've seen past few years.

And in the meantime, the clock keeps ticking on what may become our generation's Eskimo curlew – and shame on us for allowing it.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Enough, already

Got back last week from southwest Florida, where I gave a series of lectures, including talks at Ding Darling NWR and the Southwest Florida Birding and Wildlife Festival.

It was, as most of my visits to Florida are, a mix of the sublime and the emotionally wrenching. It was wonderful to revisit favorite haunts like the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park and Collier-Seminole State Park with Amy and a couple of friends in tow, to watch big flocks of warblers and gnatcatchers moving through the pine flatwoods, or finally see my first wild indigo snake, an endangered species – though the fact that the snake was being eaten by a young red-shouldered hawk left us with decidedly conflicted emotions. It was nice to escape the snowy mountains for a few days, chasing purple gallinules and wood storks, watching short-tailed hawks, or finding a baby red rat snake.

But. There's always a very big "but" for me when it comes to visiting this part of Florida.

For a long time, this was the forgotten part of the Sunshine State, but that hasn't been the case for decades. Naples and Ft. Myers are metastasising with little apparent thought or planning, just a binge that will only end when every inch consumed by a tide of overpriced homes, golf greens and an endless, soulless swarm of Publix, CVS and Winn Dixies.

Yes, there are good things happening in southwest Florida for conservation, attempts to undo the wrongs of the past on the big chunks of land that are protected – like the ongoing work to close up 1960s-era drainage ditches in the old Golden Gate Estates boondoggle, which wrecked the hydrology of much of the Fakahatchee Strand, Florida Panther NWR and the Ten Thousand Islands and Rookery Bay estuarine reserves.

The problem is, the insane rush to build on every square meter that isn't formally protected more than offsets the gains, and (though this is a small thing in the great scheme) manages to rob my time in Florida of much of its pleasure. For a week, virtually every road and highway I drove was under expansion – two-lanes going to four, four lanes to six, six lanes to eight. Coming down I-75 and then Rt. 951 toward Rookery Bay, the longest stretch I drove without passing new construction was maybe half a mile. The redundancy of it all surpasses understanding, but the most surreal moment came when I found myself looking at competing Dunkin' Donuts and Subway shops, facing each other across the intersection like mirror images.

I felt like an accessory to a crime just being there, and the obscene recklessness of it cast a pall on my mood much of the time. By the end of the week, driving back to the Ft. Myers airport past one new golf course subdivision and shopping mall after another, I'd seen enough. It was time to get back to Pennsylvania Dutch country, cold though it may be.

But I had one more gantlet to run. The airport, itself carved out of pine flatwoods, has of course become the nexus for still more development, and several patches ranging from a few dozen acres to more than a hundred were freshly scraped down to the sandy soil.

But what stopped me dead, made me close my eyes in a laugh-or-cry moment, was the yellow "Panther X-ing" highway sign - right next to the biggest clearing of all.

If I were a panther, I might throw myself in front of a car just to make an end of it. But no matter. Looks like Lee County will be able to retire that sign pretty soon anyway, and save itself a few bucks.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Hummingbird update, and a Vermont sojourn

Even though the mid-Atlantic region has been in the meteorological mixer the past few weeks -- with several ice storms, snow, a mild spell and now a blast of Arctic cold that sent the mercury to near zero on our back porch last night -- there are still a few hummingbirds hanging around.

At one home in northern Lancaster County, Pa., which had been hosting two rufous hummingbirds for several months, one is gone but one remained earlier this week. An immature male that my colleague Wayne Laubscher banded in October left on Dec. 28, but an immature female that I banded Nov. 18 was still there at last report.

Another immature female rufous, which I banded in mid-November in southern Berks County (only a few miles from the birds mentioned above), made it through the big ice storm on Dec. 18-19, and left on Dec. 20 after feeding heavily in the morning. An adult female rufous that I banded on Halloween in Dauphin County was last seen Dec. 16.

There's a female Selasphorus hummingbird, probably a rufous, in northern New Jersey that's been coming to a feeder since November, and continued two days ago…if it sticks around into next week I'll be making the drive to band it, though I wouldn't be surprised if both of these lingering hummers decide to head south Monday or Tuesday, with the unseasonably milder temperatures being predicted.

If they do, it would fit the pattern we often see – many times, wintering hummingbirds ride out extremely cold or stormy weather at a feeder, then depart when there's a break, usually after feeding heavily for a couple of hours in the morning.

* * * * *

It's been a bit cold and bit snowy here in Pennsylvania lately, but nothing to what the Green Mountain State has seen.

We spent five days last week with Amy's family, snugged into a 200-year-old farmhouse near Rochester, Vermont, on the eastern slope of the Greens. It was snowing when we arrived, it snowed most of the time we were there, and we slipped out New Year's Day morning to try to beat still another storm that dumped more than 16 fresh inches on the region. The weather weenies on the radio said it's been the snowiest December in Vermont since 1874.

In between storms, the place was a classic, New England winter wonderland; fresh powder draping the pines, sugar maples, hemlocks and spruces, the chance to do some sledding (Amy, with her sister and 2-year-old niece) and snowshoeing and photography (me). The birding was pretty slow; mostly ravens, blue jays, and some mixed songbird flocks of chickadees, creepers and kinglets (no boreal chickadees, though not for a lack of trying).

The ornithological highlight was an old, gnarled apple tree in the pasture below the house, which attracted flocks of pine grosbeaks throughout the week, and one exciting but too-short visit by about 15 Bohemian waxwings. Both of these are rare boreal visitors showing up in the East in record numbers this winter, and the grosbeaks were a life bird for Amy (who, sadly, missed the waxwings).

And sadly, I was always either a bit too far from the tree for good photos when the grosbeaks were there, or didn't have a long lens handy if I was nearby. So you'll have to make due with a nice landscape, looking west into the Greens, the horizon framed by one of those iconic sugar maples.