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