The Most Difficult Bird

My initial visit to Costa Rica was in 1989. There was not a guidebook for birds. I bought one for adjacent Panama, which was so unhelpful, I barely opened it. When the now classic A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica by Stiles and Skutch was published later that year, I was one of the first owners. This book remains the standard for details about behaviors of Costa Rican birds, but the color plates are too small for many species. Nonetheless, as I thumbed through that first copy, which I eventually wore out, one bird particularly caught my eye–the Rosy Thrush-Tanager.

Thrush-Tanager! Much is happening with that name. Birders recognize thrushes and tanagers as distinct families of perching birds. This is like naming a bird a “duck-goose” or a “sparrow-blackbird.” Which is it? Early taxonomists did not know what to do with it and gave it both names.

Subsequent study indicated it is not a thrush or a tanager. It is monotypic, therefore, not closely related to any other species. Its closest relatives are the non-colorful, open-country snow buntings and longspurs which, except for some southerly seasonal movements, are birds of the far north. The relationship seems especially preposterous considering the Thrush-Tanager’s tropical range, preference for living in thick brush, and bright color. The Thrush-Tanager male is rosy-pink on its face, chest, and belly, contrasting with the jet-black of its back and tail. The female has the same pattern but is rusty-orange where the male is pink.

That first guidebook by Stiles and Skutch was not encouraging to would-be Thrush-Tanager viewers, calling the bird “shy and retiring” and “rare and local.” The bird’s distribution is little more than a spot on the map of Costa Rica as shown in Garrigues and Dean’s The Birds of Costa Rica. Cornell’s eBird website says that it is “skulking and rarely seen.” Indeed, ebird showed that during the first 11 months of 2021, Rosy-thrush Tanagers were reported only on twenty-six separate days in heavily-birded Costa Rica. There were only four days in which more than two were reported.

Worse yet, as noted in the Wikipedia entry, the bird’s favored habitat is “heavily degraded former forest.” In the tropics, such a description is code for dense nearly impenetrable tangles filled with vines, thorns, and thick brush. Moreover, if a formerly forested area was left to degrade, it means the slopes were too steep and the ravines too narrow for crops or pasture. Therein resides another problem. What National Park or biological reserve emphasizes “degraded former forest?”  Consequently, suitable locations for Rosy Thrush-Tanagers are privately-owned, small patches of ravine amidst heavily grazed or farmed land. How does a foreigner even find places to look for a Rosy Thrush-Tanager? Even if you drive by a location that appears suitable, how do you gain access?

In contrast, there are shy, retiring, and skulking birds in the forest reserves. Antpittas, antbirds and Quail-Doves are examples. If you walk the trails often enough, especially at dawn or dusk, you might be lucky and see one of these on your own. You might be super-lucky and encounter an ant swarm which can make it easy for some of these species.

As my life list for Costa Rica grew, the intrigue of seeing a Rosy Thrush-Tanager grew with it. After much research, I have not found a location where a person might walk public trails in hopes of an accidental sighting of a Rosy Thrush-Tanager. I learned of general areas where the Thrush-Tanager was heard and seen, but none had trails or public access.

One area is known for harboring the species—the Dúrika road east of the village of Buenos Aires. A bird guiding friend had suggested locations to stop along the road and call for the Thrush-Tanager. He instructed me on which calls and how to use them. He told me, however, that the road was bad. It could not be accessed without 4wd.

I could rent 4wd, but then an additional problem surfaced. Degraded former forest is not necessarily where accommodations are readily-available. Of the numerous places we have stayed in Costa Rica, not many would be called “sketchy.” Two were because of my quest for the Thrush-Tanager.

Buenos Aires is an agricultural area surrounded by large fields of pineapple. There were no obvious tourist accommodations. Speaking with my guiding friends, I learned they mostly woke up quite early at birding lodges 2 or 3 hours away and drove in the early morning.

This is an area with a large indigenous presence, so we decided to avoid a 3AM start by staying in a new tourist cabin in the village of Salitre at Bribripa Kaneblo a project of the Bribrí—Costa Rica’s largest indigenous group. It was an interesting experience. They were very welcoming and truly hoped to attract tourists. There were 3 or 4 clean, rustic tourist cabins. They had set up an interesting demonstration of their cultural practices. The road, however, was terrible, not because 4wd was required but because of the bone and teeth jarring ruts that required going terribly slow.

The road was bad enough that it took us longer to reach the Thrush-Tanager habitat than if we had stayed further away in Buenos Aires. And then there was the whip scorpion in our room. Although harmless to humans (I read later), waking up to the fearsome appearance of a 6-inch arachnid on the cabin wall was unsettling.

This Tailless Whip Scoprion (Amblypygi) in our room was 6-inches across. We did not know until later that they have no venom and mostly eat cockroaches and worms.

Nonetheless, I encourage anyone who would like to learn about and support the Bribrí to stay at the village. It was secure. They provided simple meals. We were welcomed, but it was not a good place to use as a base for birding.

Anyway, by dawn, the next morning, I was in a location where Rosy Thrush-Tanagers supposedly lived but I saw and heard nothing resembling my quarry. The rest of the morning was equally futile. Meanwhile, my wife Mary was back at the village learning about Bribrí religious practices.

Not one to give up, I convinced my wife to try again on a subsequent visit. We agreed that staying in the nearby town of Buenos Aries made more sense. We had been advised of a small hotel that would be suitable. Unfortunately, repeated attempts to reserve a room by phone and internet failed. We decided we would just show up—which we did—to find it full. We asked the receptionist for help. She suggested another location and indicated that it was dangerous for us to use any of the “cabinas” or “habitaciones” for which we saw a few hand-lettered signs. I should state here, that “dangerous” means with respect to property theft. A rare tourist vehicle in this area is obvious and an invitation for a break-in. (It is worth including here that, as I write this, after approximately thirty trips to Costa Rica, most involving rental cars containing belongings, we have never had an incident.)

We found the “motel” recommended by the receptionist and rented a room. We had never seen anything like it. There were two rows of basic, square concrete block rooms—unattached but side-by-side. Down the middle was a concrete ditch to conduct runoff with barely enough room to access the rooms on either side. The parking area, clearly designed for semi-trucks, and almost full of them, was in front of the rows of rooms. The entire area was enclosed in a high chain-link fence with razor wire on top. Steel posts supported a single large metal roof which covered the entire compound and funneled runoff down the ditch. Finally, a large metal electric gate was used to lockdown the inhabitants.

The room inspection did not go well. Besides the prison-like appearance of unadorned concrete blocks, there were dusty accumulations in many of the mortar joints. If you brushed the dirt or dust, out crawled a small spider.

There was a shower stall, but no shower head, simply a pipe that one turned on and off with a spigot. It did seem that the bedding had been washed but our trust was not high. Fortunately, close inspection of the mattress under the bedding and underneath did not reveal bedbugs. Still, for sleeping, we removed the pillowcases and used clean t-shirts instead.

And then, there was the problem of our timing. We were going to search for a rare nightjar that evening, returning quite late. In addition, I wanted to leave at 4AM to be in the Thrush-Tanager’s habitat by dawn. The guard/gate-operator told us the hours were 6AM to 9 PM. In between, everyone and everything was locked in.

As Mary and I discussed this with consternation, the guard overheard and told us he would be awake when we returned in the evening and that he would get up and open the gate in the AM if we called his phone. This was still another example of what our universal experience with Ticos (Costa Ricans) has been. This place probably had not had a tourist before. This man did not have ownership in what was not a lucrative business anyway, and yet, he offered to do us a favor.

Retaining our valuables with us in the car, we headed up the difficult road. This area is unique because of its extensive grasslands, the Alto Salitre Savannas, an endangered ecosystem of uncertain origin, found nowhere else in the country. Hence, there are birds found nowhere else. One of these was the White-tailed Nightjar. By mid-November 2021, it had been reported on fewer occasions than even the Thrush-Tanager. Of course, the lack of sightings for this bird is also based on the number of people willing to be up on that bumpy rural road after dark, more than an hour from the nearest village. The nightjar was alleged to hunt on a small soccer field located at the top of the range of hills that comprise the grasslands. It is a curious soccer field because it sits atop a rounded ridge and an errant kick could send the ball hundreds of meters down the hillside.

Once we had reached the area, we parked on the roadside and waited for darkness. After it was quite dark, we quickly found a couple of the nightjars flying and displaying on the soccer field. Their white tails flashing in the beam of my flashlight reminded me of tiny propellers.

We were elated. Finding the nightjar had been easy. Even with the long, bumpy ride, we were not going to exceed the 9PM gate closing by much, if at all. We had a tip for a place to eat pizza. Shockingly, the small restaurant was run by a New Yorker who had met the doctor who ran the local clinic when she did some training in New York. The pizza was great and the proprietor, thrilled to have visitors who spoke English, sat, and talked with us. He had an interesting tale, having uprooted himself from one of the largest most diverse cities in the world and relocating to what was a backwater, even by Costa Rican standards.

Fortunately, other than the unnerving aspects of the room, there were no incidents with creepy-crawlies that night—and with the fence and gate, we had no security worries. When we arose well before 5, the gate operator heard me loading the car and opened the gate before we could call him. With a feeling that we had escaped, we headed back up the road. Now all I had to do was find the Thrush-Tanager. Again, I was in the right places at the right time. If there was a bird listening to my recording, he never answered in a manner that I recognized. No luck—not even a hint.

Subsequently, I lamented my lack of success to another one of my bird-guiding friends. He said, “Oh where you are going is too difficult to get close enough. There is an easier place to see it right now. Several people have been finding it. I’ll give you the directions.” I should mention now that this bird can be a bit of a phantom, in that a productive location for a while can become useless ultimately. Anyway, I decided to try the new location on our next trip.

This location was in the village of Volcán, not that far from Buenos Aires but not requiring access on the difficult road. Neither Mary nor I wanted a reprise of our previous accommodations so, we stayed at the nearest birding lodge which was quite a distance requiring us to arise before 4 AM.

Regrettably, despite careful consultation with my friend and having his hand-drawn map, we could not find the location in the early morning darkness. We drove around too much and were frustrated when we finally arrived. No birds were calling and again, none responded to playback. The habitat patch was small and unsurprisingly, not long after, no one was seeing a Rosy Thrush-Tanager there anyway. At this point, I had already expended more effort for a single bird than I ever had. I was now 0-3 and understanding that the only way to see this bird was with a guide.

We had been staying frequently in the small town of San Vito. Although not THE hotspot for Rosy Thrush-Tanagers, I had noticed sporadic nearby reports. They were, however, universally by well-known professional birders at locations difficult to decipher.

I knew a local guide. The first time I asked him about finding the Thrush-Tanager he declined. I knew from the online database eBird that the bird had been found nearby and asked if he could direct me to the locations so I could try by myself, but he demurred. We did spend a morning looking for other species and did very well. When, we returned a year later, I contacted Pepe again and he excitedly told me he knew of a Rosy Thrush-Tanager location with easy access, but it was not nearby. We would have to be on the road at least by 4 AM. Well, why not? I thought.

A long drive on winding roads found us in the small community of El Valle, in the middle of pastures, and mixed cultivation. Pepe had told me that the locals were excited with the idea that a particular bird in their midst might bring ecotourists—birders like me. Pepe had called ahead and obtained permission for us to access the private property. The Thrush-Tanager habitat consisted of narrow ravines between fields. These ravines were much narrower than those near Buenos Aires. It did seem we might more easily access the birds. We could walk mostly in open fields and then enter two or three feet into the ravine and attempt to call the bird.

After a couple of futile tries, one of the birds answered. It was as shy as advertised but it was approaching as Pepe played the call. I detected movement deep in the brush. Was I finally going to see a Rosy Thrush-Tanager? At that very moment, the local alcalde (mayor) of the community arrived with his daughter and their dog to watch the ecotourist. Did I say this bird was shy and skulking? I again detected movement, but the bird was leaving. Then it was gone. No other Thrush-Tanagers responded that morning. Now I was 0-4 and more than ever resigned to never seeing a Rosy Thrush-Tanager.

That second outing with Pepe occurred in the year before the covid-19 pandemic so it was almost two years later when I was again in Costa Rica, this time accompanying a friend who was on a target-trip, that is, one aimed at finding only specific birds that she had not seen elsewhere. We shared a couple of targets, so I was delighted to go along when she invited me.

The Thrush-Tanager was not on the agenda, and besides, Barb related to me that the bird was easy to see in a certain metropolitan park in Panama City, Panama. I had heard this before. There are other examples of rare or difficult-to-see birds that come to a particular feeder or have an isolated population somewhere that has habituated to humans. Well, the bird being easy in Panama City was no help. Not only did I not have intentions of going to Panama, I wanted to see it in Costa Rica.

My wife and I had planned another stay in San Vito, and I knew Pepe and his family had sold their business and moved on. I asked the guide on the target trip, Fito, if he knew other guides in the San Vito area. He enthusiastically suggested Henri Sandi. I knew the name because I had noted some of his eBird reports—occasionally in conjunction with Pepe.

We corresponded by email and Henri said we could try in the San Vito area for the Rosy Thrush-Tanager. He did mention the original location near Buenos Aires as possibly being more of a sure-thing but that would have been a 2-hour drive in the early morning darkness. I was ready to try elsewhere. “All right,” said Henri, “I think I can show you the bird nearby.”

“The bird is easiest to see early,” Henri said, “pick me up at 5.” We had not met before, I learned subsequently that Henri, a few inches shorter than my 5’10,” was a wiry 28. He had not asked about my age, 72 at the time, or conditioning. Henri lived near where Mary and I were staying. I picked him up, we did a few turns down the main road and were soon on a gravel road close to a secondary paved road when he said, “park here.” This path had been cut across a steep slope. There was just room to get the car far enough off the road without having a wheel down in the ravine. Then with a “Don’t trip on that piece of barbed wire,” Henri charged up the slope.

Although the sky was becoming light, it was still dark once we were inside the small trees. The undergrowth was dense shrubbery and vines, and it was steep. I am proud of the conditioning that I maintain, but as I struggled to keep up with Henri, I decided he was a little reckless not to have appraised me of how we were to access the location. I would have told him not to worry, but that did not mean the approach was easy. Besides the steepness, this was the end of October—the rainy season. It had been raining and the slope was very slippery. It occurred to me that Pepe certainly knew of this place. I wondered if he decided discretion was in order — that it was not smart to take someone he did not know up there.

Up we went. We had to make a few zig zags and eventually crossed through a barbed wire fence a couple of times. Again, I am in good shape, but being close to out of breath and having to climb through barbed wire fences on steep, slippery slopes was a challenge. More than once, one of my feet slipped back down the slope and I had to crawl before I could get back up. Another time, I started to slide and performed a tropical “no-no” by grabbing blindly. The sapling that prevented me from falling was covered in thick rose bush-like thorns. I stabbed myself directly in the joint of one of my fingers. It was sore for days. Now bleeding, I still managed to mostly keep up with Henri. Finally, he stopped and said, “this is a good location.”

Unsurprisingly, we were on a small ridge. Deep down in front was the type of shrubbery and small trees we had just busted through on the other side of the ridge. The area below was by no means “open,” but there were “holes” in the vegetation that would allow us to see a bird from a reasonable distance.

A Rosy Thrush-Tanager answered Henri’s playback within minutes. Knowing how much more Henri’s ability to detect the bird exceeded mine, I stayed as close as the slippery ground and steep hillside allowed. “It’s coming,” he said. “There!” “Where?” I responded. He started to describe a location, then shook his head. “It kept going.” He played the call again. Once again, Henri spotted the bird, and I could not see it. “Through that hole in the vegetation,” he said. I missed it again and then the bird left for good. Henri explained that Rosy Thrush-Tanagers, if they are interested in a call, typically make one approach and then they are gone. It is useless to try again for the same bird at that time.

(You might be thinking Henri should have used a laser pointer to help me out, but the vegetation was too thick and the bird’s appearance too brief. It would have been useless.)

Henri thought there was another territory adjacent to this one. We climbed further up the slope and shortly thereafter a second bird responded. Unfortunately, the entire scenario repeated. Henri glimpsed the bird twice and all I saw, finally, was a black flash as the bird detected us. I have a way I classify bird sightings as “sufficient not satisfying,” but this was not sufficient. Even calling what I saw a “flash” overstates what I saw. There was movement and the color black associated with it. Without knowing, it might have been a dead leaf.

As we discussed what I was deeming my abject failure as a birder, it became clear that I had been looking too low. My readings and the photos I had seen of the bird indicated it would be on the ground. “No,” said Henri, “when it responds to a call in this type of vegetation, it often goes up in the trees or shrubs. You are right, otherwise, it is on the ground. But, where there are trees and it is approaching a call, it often hops up into them.”  As I asked him to show me where he had seen the bird, I understood that I had looked under it. With the thick vegetation and the bird’s fleeting appearance, not “getting right on it,” meant not seeing it at all. I was now 0-5.

Disconsolate, we headed back down the slippery slope. I had found something I needed badly, a piece of plastic pipe I could use for a staff. With a staff to support me, I gingerly and safely made it back to the car.

We were both disappointed and then Henri suggested we could try in the afternoon, that sometimes Thrush-Tanagers had an active period about 3PM. I agreed to pick him up about 2:30 and we would try again. Well, the deluge started about 11:30 and, if anything, was going stronger at 2:30. I called Henri and we decided to try again the next morning.

Once again, I picked up Henri at 5 and we climbed the steep slope, now more slippery after the heavy rain, but at least I had my staff. I still lost my footing a few times and had to do a few feet on all fours.

We stopped near where the Thrush-Tanager had responded the previous day. Once again, we had an answer. Once again, Henri spied the bird. “It’s right there in front of you,” he said. I could not find it. He began to explain where the bird was, but it moved. He found it again, “there, right in front,” he said. I still could not find it. “Look in that hole through the shrubbery,” he said. Nope, I could not see it before it moved again.

Henri played the call again, and this time the bird responded within three meters of us. We looked sadly at each other. Between us and the calling bird was as thick a mass of shrubbery and plants as was possible. We knew, as then happened, that after such a close approach, the bird would leave, which we proved by continuing to play the call and receiving silence as the response.

This time, I quizzed Henri very carefully on where he had seen the bird. Which actual limb was it on? I realized there had been a communication problem. Henri’s English is excellent, but it is not his native language, and I took him more literally than he meant. When Henri said, “right there in front of you,” I expected something like 4 or 5 meters and directly in front. He meant it was straight ahead at eye level, but both limbs on which he had seen the bird were at least 20 meters away. With vegetation as thick as it was, if I did not look in just the right “window,” I would miss the bird.

I felt sorry for Henri. He had worked hard to show me the bird. He now had four sightings and I had none. I apologized. Of course, I also felt sorry for me. All this effort over the years: bad accommodations, early mornings, three solo efforts, and three more with guides—all for nothing but a feeling that I was incompetent. I assumed that had been my last chance. It was already as late as when we had quit the day before.

Instead, Henri suggested moving further up the slope and then slightly over the ridge. “I thought I heard one singing down there,” he said. I had not heard it—not surprising with my old inferior ears. Still, it being late, I had lost confidence. We tried one location for a while. No answer. I knew Henri wanted to keep trying for my sake. I formed in my mind what I was going to say. “It’s not your fault, but there’s no point in putting in more time. It is ok with me if you think we should quit.” I almost said this a couple of times, but Henri was intent and then, remarkably, a bird answered.

I heard the Thrush-Tanager down in the ravine in front of us. This time I focused my attention on windows in the vegetation about 25-30 meters away and at about three meters off the ground. Suddenly, there it was–precisely where I was looking. I saw it when Henri did. Not only that, in contrast to Henri’s previous sightings, none of which lasted more than 4 or 5 seconds, this bird remained in sight for at least half a minute as it moved about in a small tree. I had wonderful views of the amazing pink color of its belly and throat, of the bright white superciliaries contrasting with the velvet black back. I was thrilled.

Male Rosy Thrush-Tanager (photo courtesy of Greg R. Homel, Natural Encounters Birding and Wildlife Photography Tours)


Saints Among Us

“Aachee was supposed to take over the store?” My sister said quizzically. “H. E.,” I corrected her. My sister and her husband were renting a cabin in the Chiricahua Mountains in Southeastern Arizona. When she learned the owners were longtime residents, she asked about the Huffman family of nearby Willcox, knowing my wife and I were friends.

The “store,” was The Toggery. It was started by H.E.’s grandfather in 1916 and closed by her 85-year-old mother, Hazel, in 2003. My wife and I had become friends of one of H.E.’s older sisters in 1971, when Mary and I moved from Illinois to Tucson for graduate school.

I will never forget our first visit to Willcox. A little back story is necessary. My family had never traveled one hundred miles beyond the borders of my home state of Illinois. As a child, I loved TV-westerns and nature documentaries. Not many of us remember the old Walt Disney nature programs, eighty of which were narrated by the folksy baritone of Rex Allen, the “last of the singing cowboys.”  I adored those shows.

Willcox was Rex Allen’s hometown! We were there to attend the town’s biggest annual event, Rex Allen Days, when Rex returned to be feted with a parade, dances, and a talent show. The event was the equivalent of the “homecomings” popular in the Midwest. But, there was more! Rex was a friend of the family. He once stopped the parade while it was enroute, called out to Hazel, and ran into the Toggery to buy a pair of pajamas. There’s a great photo of H.E.’s dad, Bruce, with Rex Allen and Slim Pickens. Pickens, another cowboy star, often played Rex’s comic “sidekick.”  He is now better known as Major “King” Kong from the movie “Dr. Strangelove.” 

Bruce Huffman, Rex Allen, Slim Pickens in the Toggery

During that initial visit, I was thinking how not long ago I was in Illinois surrounded by fields of corn and soybeans. Now I was standing on a street seventy miles from the Mexican border surrounded by mountains and cactus-laden desert. The Tombstone parade entry is passing, complete with dancehall girls and men in overcoats with shotguns. Above is a street sign—to the left Tucson, to the right El Paso. What a sight for a wannabe-cowboy Midwesterner who thought he would never go anywhere!

The Toggery itself was both very familiar yet different. I grew up and worked in a family shoe and clothing store. That describes The Toggery except our store did not have a big old safe like the ones always being robbed in the cowboy movies. And here, the emphasis was on Levi jeans not Oshkosh.

And, The Toggery had Stetsons, the famous western hat! I was admiring one. I remarked to my wife, “I’d love to have one of these, but they are too expensive.”  A bit later, Bruce came over. “I saw you looking at the hats. Next week, they go on sale. Half-price! You can’t be here then. Buy one now if you want.” I was excited. I wore it to the dance that night. Fifty years later, that hat remains a prized possession. I have had more occasions than I expected when a cowboy hat was suitable. I have been proud of my very own Stetson.

Later, I told our friend Ann, how nice her dad had been to let me in on the sale. She laughed, “I grew up in that store. Stetsons never go on sale. He must have heard you talking about them. He just wanted you to have one.”

Bruce was a tireless booster of Willcox, his hometown. Among many civic activities, he started a chapter of the “Wildcat Club” to support the University of Arizona (UA). He developed quite a legacy of helping local students enroll and receive financial aid. Bruce had attended the UA himself in the mid-1930s. In 1936, he was the Border Conference Lightweight Boxing Champion, ranked fourth in the nation in his weight class, and received honors as “an outstanding athlete.” Each year the Arizona Letterwinners A-Club presents the T. Bruce Huffman Lettermen’s Award to “a male who has made significant contributions to Arizona Athletics.” 

I never met anyone more sincere than Bruce. Friendly to everyone, he enjoyed giving out a calling card that supposedly had a 10-cent value and made you a stockholder in a mule train with Slugger Huffman as President. I love a photo Ann has of her parents shortly after they were married. Bruce appears so happy he could burst.

The night before the Rex Allen Days Parade we had gathered at the Huffman home, located on 49 Rattlesnake Drive (an address Bruce dreamed up because one was demanded by the Army when he served with the Amphibious Engineers in the Pacific during World War II). On an old piano, Bruce pounded out a few bars and sang a few lines of the old cowboy song “Rancho Grande.” Then he told a crazy story about a wildcat that was much funnier in the telling than in the punchline—which none of us seem to remember. We laughed so hard, we asked Bruce for an encore whenever we returned, and he always obliged. After the parade, Bruce took us around town introducing us as if we were family. I remember having a glass of whiskey with the publisher of the “Arizona Range News” in his office near The Toggery. It was a fantasy.

More about Hazel—also a native Arizonan but born in Tucson. Hazel ran the store until she was 85—many years mostly by herself. She was valedictorian of her UA graduating class and began teaching at Willcox high school before she was twenty. She took an instant liking to Mary and me, telling her daughter Ann “to hang onto those two. You don’t get opportunities for that kind of friendship very often.”  That was prescient of Hazel. The Huffmans became family. I earned a small role in family lore by eating so much of Hazel’s Mexican-style shredded beef, that it has been referred to thereafter as “The Meat That Nic Liked!” Decades later we were included in extended family vacations to the beach in San Diego.

In San Diego, Hazel and I had some long conversations. She was always well-informed on the state of the world and wondered why people “just could not get along.”  She cautioned me, saying “don’t live too long.”  She was then in her late eighties and early nineties and could not walk or hear very well but remained a stalwart. She would take her two hiking poles and have a beach walk with her beloved dog every morning. Once, she visited our off-the-grid cabin in Colorado for a few days when she could no longer manage the walk to the outhouse. She uncomplainingly made use of a lawn chair with a hole in the seat and a bucket underneath.

I never believed she was unhappy for living so long because of the joy she reveled in while interacting with her children and grandchildren. After her death at 92, we scattered her ashes at the beach the following summer. Everyone was invited to say something. I thought of Buddhism’s four Brahma Viharas: Loving Kindness, Joy for the Success of Others, Compassion and Equanimity. I never saw anyone thrill at others’ happiness and manage the awful things of life better than Hazel.

Bruce passed away much too young at 65. The biggest tragedy Hazel faced though, was H.E.’s disease and eventual death at 49. When we met H.E. (given name Helen), she seemed to us as the “different” one in the family in that she was not an academic and athletic achiever, nor had she moved on from Willcox. In High School, however, she had been active in the Marching and Jazz Bands and received recognition as Thespian of the year. She did briefly attend the UA and may have dropped out because of discomfort caused by the onset of the disease that eventually took her life. Thus, H.E. stayed home and worked in the store. Indeed, on one of our early visits, Willcox was promoting itself as the place to visit and shop in “Cowboy Country.”  H.E. was all-in, wearing western clothing and Indian jewelry and displaying “Cowboy Country” stickers on her vehicle.

H.E. was only nineteen when her health issues surfaced. They manifested in odd ways. She would be cold when the weather was anything but. Her skin, especially her fingers, would be tight and painful and her hands would “tingle.”  She began to have difficulty swallowing. It was years before doctors put a name on it. She had a severe form of scleroderma—a dreadful disease that causes tightening of skin and connective tissues including those of internal organs. I do not know that awfulness of one disease is rightly compared to another, but if the idea of ALS is frightening, scleroderma is not a better diagnosis.

We moved from Arizona and usually only saw the family at Thanksgiving when we came to visit. The year-to-year deterioration was shocking. Envision a boisterous celebration including several young children. The adults are jovial, drinking beer and wine. The table is sumptuous. It is Tucson; some celebrants are wearing shorts. Off to the side is a young woman, red-faced, wearing a sweater and gloves. Her dinner is baby food because that is all her failing digestive system can manage. Yet, she is smiling brightly. During conversations, her eyes always sparkled with delight. She is thrilled to see our young children. They love her, of course, without understanding her disease. She asks about us. She does not talk about her ailments. It is only smiles and well wishes for everyone. And she has been keeping up. Cards arrive for birthdays. She knows details of our lives beyond what we know of hers.

I asked our daughter what she remembered of H.E. “Her smile,” she said without hesitation, “and the twinkle in her eyes.”  Then she said, “and she always brought me presents. She didn’t need to. I didn’t expect them, and she always put thought into them. I remember once she brought me a calligraphy set. I never thought of doing calligraphy and I enjoyed it.” None of us could remember H.E. complaining or expressing sadness.

My daughter, Ann, with H.E., circa 1990.

I have always wondered how H.E. did it. And Hazel too! Hazel never complained and rarely expressed frustration as the years went on, many of them without a diagnosis for H.E. She continued to run the store—an elderly widow running it for someone who was slowly dying. I’m sure they needed the store for normalcy, and I know nothing of H.E.’s or Hazel’s private moments in those years. There must have been anguish, but all I saw were bravery, strength, and equanimity.

We are living in a time with few heroes. Polarization and social media magnify every minor indiscretion. Where does one look for encouragement? As a child, in a Roman Catholic elementary school, I was sometimes directed to read The Lives of the Saints for inspiration. Now, fifty or sixty years later, I do not recall anything relevant from those stories. Instead, I think that book could use a new chapter.


His eyes went blank. He was in the same posture as when he seemed to be attentive.  Now, there was a sense of “lights on, no one’s home.” Yet, when I finished, he continued the conversation normally. I suspected this brilliant man’s mind was so far ahead, he had guessed what I was going to say or else my part of the conversation was so simple he could follow it with a fraction of his attention. Meanwhile, his busy mind was working on a significant research problem.

I related this incident to one of the graduate students. Ed said, “it happens to everyone. I keep thinking I’m going to say, ‘Germans suck’ and see what happens.” He never tried it. All of us had too much respect for the apparent part-time listener–Howard V. Malmstadt.

Dr. Malmstadt was the advisor for my senior project at the University of Illinois (UofI)–a requirement for a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry as certified by the American Chemical Society.  The time required and credits awarded comprised most of the senior year.  For all intents and purposes, I was a graduate student and a full-fledged member of “the Malmstadt Group.” 

Chemistry has several subfields and at the end of my junior year, I had to choose one.  It is not an exaggeration to say the difference between an inorganic chemist and an analytical chemist is as big as between a dermatologist and a cardiovascular surgeon.  Although I understood the theory and performed well on exams, Inorganic and Organic Chemistry were unappealing–too much mixing of messy chemicals. Besides, it was dangerous. One of the lab buildings at the UofI was named for a well-known chemist who had famously blown out one of the walls.

Physical Chemistry was simultaneously fascinating and too difficult.  I never regretted the time invested–including the every-Saturday morning 3–4-hour tutorials I needed to learn the material.  The familiarity with advanced mathematics and physics I acquired allowed me to comprehend the underpinnings of cosmology and enough details of atomic theory to understand the measurements I was making. Nonetheless, P-chem was not a possible career choice.  Now, only Analytical Chemistry remained.  Eventually, I came to understand that in the field of Analytical Chemistry, the UofI had no peer.

Before he left the UofI, Dr Malmstadt wrote ten books and published ~150 research papers.  Those numbers are impressive, but what he is known for is the invention of the field of Chemical Instrumentation.  He was the Bill Gates of this field.  This was the early 70s.  Chemical measurements were a variation on mixing chemicals and observing how deep was the color of the resulting solution.  One man pioneered the automation of chemical measurements and insisted that Analytical Chemistry students, yes chemists, take a class he devised called “Electronics for Scientists.”  Now, when you have blood drawn in the morning, and a call from your doctor with a list of results in the afternoon, if you trace the lineage of the instrument used for the measurements, you will find Dr Malmstadt.

Analytical Chemistry is about making better measurements, and more measurements faster.  Ultimately, I learned I had no aptitude for designing and building better instruments.  I liked interpreting measurements.  What intrigued me was the underlying physical characteristics of the substance being measured.  Nonetheless, my brief time working with Dr. Malmstadt had an enormous influence on the direction of my life.  I learned, for example, that in any field there are practitioners who can do things no one else can do–just because some say a technology or experiment cannot be performed at all or performed reliably, does not mean there are not some who can succeed at the task nearly every time.

Dr Malmstadt’s emphasis on communication excellence was another important lesson. His students constantly complained about what a task master he was regarding the quality of their written and oral presentations.   He insisted that the elegance of the presentation match the quality of the research.

My decision to leave the Midwest and attend the University of Arizona (UA) for graduate school was a result of meeting one of Dr Malmstadt’s graduates who was finishing his doctorate and had taken a position there.  The preparation I had working in “the Malmstadt Group,” led the UA to exempt me from most of the usual first-year graduate classes. I had to take the requisite number of units, but instead of taking graduate Analytical Chemistry classes with my peers, I took classes such as one in civil engineering on air pollution monitoring.  Those classes showed me how analytical chemistry produced important data.  I was able to design an interdisciplinary graduate program which was unheard of at the time.

That early start allowed me to ride the crest of the new field of Environmental Chemistry.  My training was unusual.  I had expertise in data interpretation and a solid understanding of how the measurements were made. This was the secret to my career.

Not only had I chosen Analytical Chemistry by process of elimination; I happened to work with Dr Malmstadt for the same reason.  One Analytical Chemistry professor I liked was leaving the university. Another was, perhaps, the world’s leading electrochemist. That field was not for me.  The theory required too much of the physical chemistry I struggled with and it seemed you spent hours setting up complicated and temperamental apparatus that usually failed. If it worked, you got one number.

Another choice was the only professor with whom I ever had a serious run-in.  Receiving a “B” in his laboratory class was one thing, but my lab mate and I received the same grades for each assignment. Yet, he was given an A for the class and I received a B.  Accordingly, I went to see the professor.  He was angry, but I persisted. I had a right to know why my grade was different.  Finally, he said he would change it to an A. He did, but we never spoke again.  I passed him in the halls almost daily for a year and he would not look me in the eye or greet me. 

That is how I chose Dr. Malmstadt; the only remaining analytical chemist in the department, the only one I did not know.  I had no idea of his prominence in the field.  I only knew he worked with big instruments that produced interesting data.  Working with him for nearly a year set up both my career path and where I have lived—but it almost did not happen.

My senior year had begun about three weeks previous.  I had transferred to the UofI in the middle of my sophomore year.  As a junior, I had lived in an apartment with my best friend, but he had married and transferred out-of-state. I had taken heavy class loads and worked at a shoe store on Friday nights and Saturdays.  I had not attempted a social life. I had no close friends.

My 21st birthday had just passed.  I did not receive one birthday wish or call. My present apartment-mate, whom I did not know well, did not know it was my birthday. I was depressed.  Worse yet, I did not know any girls or have any idea how I would meet any. (There had been an understandable family glitch and I had calls and cards from my immediate family a day late.)

Against all of this, I needed to initiate and commit to long hours performing independent research. I had little understanding of what analytical chemists did for a career. I could not see myself investing so many hours in a boring research project and then going to graduate school. I decided to quit.

The program I was in had already required so many extra classes that I could drop senior research and take a lesser chemistry degree. I decided I would go to law school.  Companies liked lawyers with science degrees.  My senior year would be easy. Maybe I could have a social life!  I could go to law school at the UofI and would not need to move for graduate school as chemistry required.

I obtained a drop slip and went to see Dr Malmstadt.  I do not recall whether I received the “blank-eyed stare,” while I explained why I was done with chemistry.  He responded that he knew a corporate lawyer who worked long hours for an enormous annual bonus based on his ability to continue to delay a judgement his company knew they would and should lose. The man earned a “lot of money,” Dr. Malmstadt related, but the work did not sound “interesting.”

Then he said the words that changed my life: “Before I sign the drop slip, why don’t you come in and spend an afternoon with me and we will check out a new instrument that arrived this week.  After that, see how you feel about things.” He explained that the new instrument allegedly could make measurements with a sensitivity greater than what was said possible in the textbook in a class I had finished the previous semester.

We picked an upcoming afternoon and when I arrived, he told his secretary he was not to be bothered. We spent the afternoon, both of us in lab coats, making up the solutions and testing the new instrument. It was so interesting, I decided to continue.  Dr Malmstadt suggested a senior project that was suitable for my skills and interests. I enjoyed the time immensely, and as I have related, the experience set up my eventual career path including where I would live.  Without the experience and the “jump-start” given me by Dr Malmstadt, everything would have been different.  Indeed, a week or so later I met my wife-to-be, and the rest is “history.”

There is one more thing.  Others told me later, and I saw it for myself that year: that was the only time anyone saw Dr Malmstadt wearing a lab coat and working with a student.  The idea of him carving out four to five hours to spend with one person was unheard of.  I was an undergrad. I was not going to complete any research that was publishable. Dr. Malmstadt had more than 10 graduate students in his group—all of them committed to obtaining their PhD, and responsible for thousands of dollars in grant money. Yet, it was me, the lowly undergrad, he did not know, for whom he took the time.  It was many years before I had the perspective to look back and realize how much that afternoon meant to my life.

I spent another 7 years with university research.  I knew many professors. I frequently heard: “teaching only hurts your career by taking time away from research.” Most, if not all, would have signed the drop slip, probably with relief to not have to manage an undergraduate project amidst their busy schedules. For my great fortune, the most famous and successful professor I ever knew is one who did not.

None of us really knows the effect of a small gesture.  I think this man did. His entire career of service to science and teaching reflected it.  Years later, when I understood how momentous was that one afternoon, it occurred to me that I ought to write Dr Malmstadt.  He had moved on and was president of a private university in Hawaii. I never did write that letter. I should have.


 My first encounter with rufous hummingbirds was on the Bluebird Ranch in Northern Arizona. It was an unforgettable sight–dozens of orange hummingbirds zipping about in a large patch of pink bee plant.

When I met my wife-to-be, I had no idea she had close ties to a pioneer ranching family. A small town in south Texas was named after an ancestor—an early banker and judge. Mary’s Great Aunt Gertrude (known as Missy) and Great Uncle Bill owned 36,000 acres in Northern Arizona. You read that right…their ranch encompassed more than 65 square miles.

We were fortunate enough to visit them annually for about a decade before old age led to retirement…and I mean old age. Bill was still working in the branding pen well into his 80s. In those latter years, a cow stepped on him and, characteristically, he did not obtain medical treatment. He was badly hobbled, but he kept on working his cattle. It was poor land…with all of that acreage they ran fewer than 100 head most seasons.

Bill and Gertrude were frugal, losing money most years, but saving it during good times. I remember a visit from a neighbor who had a new truck, a large collection of Navajo Jewelry, and a swimming pool. Some years later that ranch was auctioned from the courthouse steps. Bill and Gertrude’s land eventually sold for millions. Bill’s daughter-in-law always called him Daddy-Bill.  Her voice was loud and high-pitched, annoying actually, but there was an endearing ring to her cry of “Daddy-Bill.”  She’d speak of him while the old cowboy sat at the end of their big oak table chewing slowly on his dinner—inevitably beef. Taciturn hardly describes Bill’s slow speech and the difficulty that it required to get a story started. I knew at the time, that I should be recording those rare stories…that I should take a leave of absence from my job and stay on the ranch for six months and write them all down. I will always regret not doing so.

Daddy Bill

One sad story was when a son, his namesake, died of smallpox. Bill had to hitch a wagon and take the body to town, a several-day task. As he was nearing the ranch on his return, he saw the smoke from an enormous fire. He feared the rest of his family had contracted the disease and died. Instead, some neighbors had arrived and gathered everything associated with young Billy and were burning it.

There were stories of the reattachment of a severed thumb, rescuing small children who had climbed to the top of a windmill and were unable to climb down. Many of the stories concerned their neighbors, the Navajo. Once while we were visiting, several had gone on a “bender” as Bill put it—including, Philip, who had worked for him for years. They arrived in a pickup and were out by a shed apparently stealing ranch equipment to “sell to keep the drunk going,” as Bill stated. Bill grabbed a pistol and hobbled out to them. Soon he returned and we saw the would-be thieves drive off empty-handed. I asked Bill if he’d been afraid, “Naw,” he said. “To them it is all a joke. If they’d stolen that stuff, the joke would have been on me. I caught ‘em, so the joke was on them!”

For Bill, it required many years of working for others to earn enough to buy his own ranch, and by then he was nearly 50.  But, his own ranch was his dream. He accomplished it. He lived on that ranch for 40+ years. If you can find a copy of the 1971 USGS topographic map for the Tolapai Spring quadrangle. You will see it… there on the map–The Roberts Ranch, along with the Bluebird Well.  Why the “Bluebird Well?”  That was because Aunt Gertrude, or Missy, named the ranch for a huge flock of Mountain Bluebirds she spied the first time she saw the property.  There was no house originally. The family slept in two old Navajo Hogans which were eventually stuccoed, wired for electricity, connected with a small bathroom and turned into cabins for guests—like my wife and I.   

In contrast to Bill, Missy had an elegant manner. She always reminded us she was a city girl and that ranch life wasn’t her choice.  Yet, here she was, nearly 60 miles from anything but a small village.  Bill and Missy never had a telephone, relying on a radio for outside communication. Nonetheless, Missy had made her peace with ranch life as she was, perhaps, the most serene person I’ve ever known. 

Deeply religious, she insisted that every visitor recite the “Lord’s Prayer” while holding hands around the dinner table. “And we always say, debts and debtors,” (not trespassers), she would remind us.

When I met Missy, she was nearly blind. Everything in the house had to be placed “just so” because she’d adapted to the specific locations. She still baked pies and made the best beef and bean meals possible. Her hearing was still good. She looked you in the eye during conversations and it was possible to be around her for hours without realizing she couldn’t see. For exercise, she would walk the ranch’s dirt road for about a mile each way. She always found and carried a stone which she deposited on a small pile, which became an impressive tower over time, where she turned back.

Missy had been city-bred, but even in her family, there were frontier stories. One of her earliest memories was living along the border and having to sleep on the roof of the local general store for a time. Her family and the rest of the townspeople climbed up with guns and pulled their ladders up after them. The reason? There were rumors Pancho Villa was in the area and might raid their town. It is easy to understand why I was so enthralled with “the ranch,” as we referred to it.

Bill and Gertrude

Having grown up in the Midwest, all I knew about ranching was from old TV shows. On my first visit, I noticed a bunch of planks floating in a stock tank. I asked Bill about them. “So the birds can get a drink,” he said. Sure enough, I often saw mountain bluebirds alight on the planks and drink their fill while floating about in the breeze.

And now I wonder, Bill was a cattleman. When he referred to himself, it was inevitably as an “old cowpuncher.” I never saw him so excited as when “Old Jethro,” an elderly bull he thought had died, suddenly emerged from the brush and walked by the ranch house. Bill moved as fast as his old legs would take him to get some fresh hay from the barn to feed that old bull.

Did Bill put those planks in the tanks to help the birds, or to keep birds that might have drowned from fouling the water for his cattle? I will believe the former because this was after all, “The Bluebird Ranch.”

This was high desert pinyon and juniper…not that great for birding but I do retain a few memories besides floating bluebirds.  A roadrunner, well to the north of its usual range, once hopped onto the porch.  The cries of Say’s Phoebe’s were ever-present—so much so, that I still can’t see or hear this common bird without thinking of the sandy hills near the ranch house.  And, as noted above, here is where I saw my first rufous hummingbirds. That vision of dozens flitting about on a sunny morning in a field of pink remains one of my most unforgettable sights in a lifetime of nature watching.

Rufous hummingbird populations have dropped drastically since then. I can’t guess if such sights are still possible. Bill and Missy are gone. The ranch is gone. It became part of the Navajo/Hopi resettlement if you recall that controversy. I heard the ranch house and buildings were dismantled. I hope someone still fills the stock tanks with water…and planks.


I was disappointed. I had just finished tramping for an hour up and down a pinyon-juniper canyon looking for a Long-eared Owl.  Stupidly, I had forgotten boots and had worn low hiking shoes.  All I had to show for my sojourn were wet and cold feet.  This canyon is not in the beautiful red rock country either.  Colors were muted. Where there wasn’t snow, there was mud.  I saw plenty of tracks in the snow but neither heard nor saw any creatures.  I looked for whitewash in previously-favored trees. Nothing.

I saw my first Long-eared Owl here about 30 years ago.  I’ve returned many times for a reacquaintance.  The majority of my visits have been successful, but the percentage has been dropping—not because I’m older and less energetic but because there are fewer owls.  Long-eared Owl populations have fallen locally, and possibly world-wide.   This nomadic and furtive species is difficult to monitor.  We know their population is down locally because the habitat loss is obvious.  This area has usually harbored a pair of owls.  I’ll come back in a few weeks and try again.

Back in my car, I kept driving the remote dirt road even though I’d seen no wildlife for miles.  I really thought I’d see an owl.  I thought maybe there would be a Ferruginous or Rough-legged Hawk. Nope. Maybe some antelope!  No, nothing.  Suddenly, flashes of blue.  Lots of flashes. I stopped and lowered a window so I could listen.

According to one of my bird books the call is kwai kwai kwai. Another calls it raa-ah, raa-raa-raa, kya-raa and compares it to a species of seagull.  Maybe you should listen:

Some bird calls evoke a landscape. This is one of them. Aldo Leopold, in his essay, Chihuahua and Sonora, spoke of the North Woods in autumn and how everyone knew it was defined by the land, “plus a red maple, plus a ruffed grouse.” “The grouse,” he said, “represents only a millionth of either the mass or the energy of an acre.  Yet subtract the grouse and the whole thing is dead.”  “An ecological death, as with the grouse, is inexpressible in terms of contemporary science.”  Leopold further notes that “a philosopher has called this imponderable essence the numenon of material things.”  He then lists other numenons besides the grouse, one being the “piňonero of the juniper foothills.” 

 Piňoneros are what I was watching and listening to.  Known to most as Pinyon Jays, I had read Leopold’s words in the 1970s when I initially encountered them in Western Colorado.  They were abundant.  I enjoyed the idea of them as the numenon, but they’ve slipped away.  Yes, there are those with feeders in the right locations that have their seed wiped out in no time by a big flock.  Indeed, I was looking at 20-30 birds myself.  But I couldn’t easily recall when I’d last had this experience. 

Have you seen the movie or read the book The Big Year? I received a phone call one evening a few years ago. The voice identified itself with the name of one of the protagonists. He said he was doing a “big  year,” that is, trying to see as many birds as possible in one year.  He needed help finding Pinyon Jays.  I was excited. I would meet a birding hero.  Except, I didn’t.  The gentleman was doing a big year. He was a nice guy. We got along well. But, he wasn’t one of the protagonists from the movie. He just happened to have the same name.  Nonetheless, I took him to a number of locations where I’d remembered finding Pinyon Jays over the years. We struck out.  Then I thought of some local feeders where I’d seen Pinyon Jays.  No jays.  I wasn’t able to show him any.  He was disappointed but thanked me for my effort and went on his way.

I went home and started pulling references from my shelves.  A 1992 reference specific to Colorado refers to Pinyon Jays as “”common to abundant” throughout Western Colorado.  On the other hand, the Colorado Breeding Bird Atlas project reported a 15% decline between 1998 and 2016.  The on-line reference, all-about-birds, states that “Pinyon Jays are uncommon and their populations have declined by 85% between 1970 and 2014” and that the species is on track to “lose another half of their remaining population by 2036.” Loss of habitat to grazing and development is a major factor in the decline.  Leopold said, “subtract the grouse and the whole thing is dead.” It may already be too late to refer to Pinyon Jays as the “numenon” in our local pinyon-juniper canyons.


I arrived at the same time as the mail.  Instant recognition.  Michelle, the mail-carrier, and I were old friends.  We exchanged greetings and I said something about delivering the mail on a hot and windy day. “It’s a good job,” she said, “because I get to meet people like these,” as she nodded toward the yard I was entering.  I was there to look in the owl boxes on the property.

I opened the gate in the chain link fence to the large backyard or was it a small farm?  On one side was the iris collection.  There was a multiplicity of colors and heights.  Many, I was to learn, were rare and valuable.  I walked a bit further and found the vegetables, the berries, the grapes, the fruit and nut trees. Lilly and Mick gave me big smiles and were happy to tell me about their recent visitor: A Western Screech-Owl.  They had been throwing hamburger on the roof of their shed, hoping that would persuade the owl to stay.  I doubted that would work, but I enjoyed their delight in having the owl in one of their boxes. 

I have a camera-on-a-pole that I use to check nest boxes for the owl project Grand Valley Audubon has in the Grand Junction area.  Typically, I turn it on as I’m walking to the box, insert it, give the receiver a quick look, turn around, turn off the camera, get back in the car and leave—takes about 3 minutes, but never at Lilly and Mick’s. 

I have a lot of boxes to check.  I’m usually in a hurry. I usually don’t check boxes on evenings or weekends because too many conversations, pleasant as they are, obstruct my time schedule.

This place was different.  “When are they likely to be home and in the yard?” I would ask myself.  I loved to learn about what they were growing. Their interest in the owl project was boundless.  Typically, they would insist I take something home. One time it was a bag full of filberts. I didn’t even know they grew here.  If it were fall, it would be some iris splits—some of which still grow in our yard.  They also had a collection of cacti and succulents.  Lilly was upset when the City did a redesign of the street in front of their house.  The work left an unsightly barren area.  The City said she could make a garden of it as long as she took care of it.  She filled it with desert plants.  Sometimes I found her out there working on them.  The City even graced the area with a sign.

Sadly, Mick died in 2007 so most of my encounters have been solo with Lilly.  She was a pioneer daughter—the first non-Indian family to live and ranch in NW Colorado, she told me.  Mostly she was simply friendly and happy to discuss owls and ask about my family.  

I used the owl project as an excuse to visit several times a year.  I would decide one of her boxes needed to be repaired or moved giving me an excuse to stop by.  Coming by for iris splits in the fall was another excuse. 

Lilly would always run out excitedly to find out if she had an owl.  She was so thrilled when I could show her one.  I was more disappointed than she was when there was no owl because I didn’t get to experience her excitement.  If I could have trapped one and relocated it on her property, I would have done so.  Her health and energy declined.  The last time I showed her an owl, she had been ailing and I had to hold and focus the binoculars because she didn’t feel able to walk back to the occupied box. 

As the years went by, she told me a few stories of her pioneer upbringing.  She told me her job as a small child was to protect the chicken feed from the sage grouse.  She said, “Nic, those sage chickens, that’s what we called them, would darken the sky.”  I responded. “Lilly, no one is ever going to see that again.”  (The Greater Sage Grouse population declined approximately 97% during her lifetime.)

Another time she related how as a child; she went out to raid magpie nests because the county had set a bounty on their eggs. She was so small, she needed help to get on the horse, but was glad it was gentle enough to remain under the trees she had to climb to retrieve the eggs.  The only problem was she forgot to bring any sort of container. She used her pockets. When she returned home scratched and bloody from climbing the messy trees favored by magpies, all the eggs were broken.  She cried. “My mom felt sorry for me,” she said, “and gave me some money anyway.”

She always declined offers of help, saying she had a relative, a nephew, I believe, or else she had hired some help.  She and Mick had no children.  Over time the plantings flagged, and she would talk about a need to move.  She lived alone on that property for 13 years after Mick died.  Often, she would invite me in.  I marveled at her artistry. Her home was full of her beautiful paintings and carvings.  Even in her early 90s she was doing pieces to donate for fundraisers.    

Just three years ago, when I walked into her backyard with my camera, she came to the door and called to me. I always stopped in for a visit, but this was special. She had painted a Western Screech-Owl on a plate as a gift for me.

 I’ve been lucky enough to receive a couple of awards in my life, mainly for being in the right place at the right time.  I have them on my wall too, but that plate—it’s my favorite!  Rest in peace, Lilly McAnally!  (Lilly died June 25, 2020 at age 92.)

Great Possessions

If you asked me to name my favorite book, Aldo Leopold’s, A Sand County Almanac would come to mind.  This collection of observations and essays about the natural world, lifestyle ethics and membership in community is more important now than when the book appeared approximately 75 years ago.  My family is fortunate to own 20 acres adjacent to national forest property.  There is a rustic cabin, although not nearly so rustic as Leopold’s original “shack.” In the 20+ years of our ownership, I’ve kept Leopold in mind.

When we bought the land, portions of the meadow were impassable in the late summer because of invasive thistle and hounds-tongue.  Our small creek had sections trampled so badly by cattle that the channel could no longer contain heavy runoff and was becoming braided.   

The Leopold family had a bigger problem because the already poor soil had been eroded by both logging and inappropriate farming practices. In response, they planted thousands of trees.  For us, battling the land misuse was a combination of removing the cattle, keeping the fences repaired, digging, and spraying weeds, and repairing the creek channel by planting willows and using downed wood and rocks to rebuild the banks.  We saw our efforts almost immediately.  For the Leopolds, decades were required.  Their property is now a beautiful mature forest and hosts The Leopold Center a very worthy organization (The Leopold Center | The Aldo Leopold Foundation  ).  (If you are ever near Baraboo, WI, don’t miss a visit.)  We now have a natural creek channel and weeding requires only minor annual maintenance.  The fact that we had improved some damaged land helped me feel connected to Leopold.

I’ve felt that connection even more these past few months.  The covid-19 pandemic has kept us close to home and eliminated our social engagement.  But we still have our cabin!  Even after 20+ years, I continue to marvel at how rapid are the changes in wildlife and plants from week-to-week. 

Some species, I see often, such as this female Hairy Woodpecker I photographed last week. Last February, I spent several solo days writing. Birds were scarce. A big storm hit. The wind howled. Snow blew. Temperatures dropped below minus-10.  In the midst of the storm, I heard a loud knocking on the walls. It sounded like the rhythm of a woodpecker.  It may have been the only time I braved the outdoors that day.  I bundled up and emerged from the warm cabin.  There she was, a female Hairy Woodpecker, finding insect larvae in the logs.  There’s a good chance my photo is of the same bird nine months older.

Leopold has an essay about a banded chickadee (#5290) that was recaptured annually for five years.  Doubtless, some of the chickadees I’m seeing each week are the same birds, and the same birds I saw last winter.

I’ve been able to spend more time connecting with other species too.  Early in November, I found a Northern Pygmy Owl.  I heard his repetitive toot-toot while I roamed the woods in the twilight.  A couple of weeks later, it was a Northern Saw-whet Owl that thrilled me with a  close approach and the “scree” call that led to its name.   The next morning, I was barked at by the Pine Squirrel that lives in the oaks by the road.  Least Chipmunks, abundant all summer and fall, are mostly asleep for the winter.  In fact, I thought they were all slumbering, but the one who lives under our deck has recognized that my presence means seeds around the bird feeder.  Perhaps, my walking on the deck woke him up and led to his dash for the bush that has the feeders.  Once inside the bush, I heard his familiar bark.    

Leopold, if not the inventor, was the first to popularize the idea of ecology as the inter-connectedness of all living things.  His book is replete with descriptions of everything from the tiniest flowers to the larger animals and birds.  Leopold’s working title for his book was Great Possessions, I know how he felt.


The siren wailed. I looked in the mirror and saw the flashing lights. It was two o-clock in the morning. There was no one else. They were coming for me. “Do you know why I pulled you over?” asked the policeman. “Well,” I said. “I guess I was speeding.” “We were owling,” I continued. “I’m not accustomed to being out so late and driving without traffic. I must have been careless after getting off the highway.” “Yep,” he said. “You were going 50 in a 35 zone.” But, then he mentioned that when in a youth group he had gone owling in the eastern US. He had seen Barred Owls and Great Horned Owls. I said we had been after Flammulated Owls.
After the policeman left with my license, insurance card, and registration, I looked disconsolately at my partner. “I wonder how much this will cost,” I said, as she apologized herself for not paying attention and suggesting I slow down. Miraculously, in these days when obtaining municipal revenue from all sources is so important, I was only issued a warning. Relieved, I drove slowly home.
Have you heard of a Flammulated Owl? Many people haven’t. Except for one or two species near our Southern border, “Flams” may be the least well-known owl in the US. According to several sources, while being more-or-less identically sized, they weigh less, on average, than a pygmy owl. How is something smaller than a pygmy? Flams are found in most western states but unlike most other owls, they are migratory because their most common prey items are moths. Limited research indicates their small global breeding population of 20,000 is declining.
We had started near Windy Point in Colorado’s Uncompahgre National Forest just after 9PM. Following a protocol left by my owling mentor, the late Rich Levad ( , we stopped every half mile. We listened. We played a call, listened more and then repeated. By the time we finished our ten-mile route at Columbine Pass; it was midnight. Two owls had come in close. We heard another clearly and possibly three more distantly. Success, right?
Rich had done this route several times approximately ten years ago. One year he had ten owls, but the year he used the protocol we followed, he had 31. What’s going on? Massive logging operations, that’s what’s going on. For several miles in the middle of our route, there were stacks of logs, piles of slash and parked logging vehicles. Flams like thick, old-growth forest, not thinned, cut and disturbed. Will Flammulated Owls make it? It is up to us. The type of forests they need are almost all on public land. Nearly all federal timber sales lose money. Most analyses indicate that we taxpayers pay several hundred million per year to ensure that logging continues. Perhaps such expenditures can put the Flammulated Owls on the endangered species list. Then, the taxpayers can pay to recover them.
Flams, however, may not be so easy to recover. The limited research suggests they have a lower reproductive rate than other owls. And, at a time, when insect populations world-wide are falling, their prey-base is probably also declining.

(This old photo of a Flammulated Owl on the Uncompahgre National Forest isn’t very clear, but it shows the owl’s dark eyes. Other small US owls have lighter eyes, believed to be correlated to the fact that they hunt in the daytime or the twilight, unlike Flammulated Owls which are strictly nocturnal.)OwlOnUncompahgre Flamd