Sunday, September 27, 2009

Musing, as the Miles Roll By

Marble Canyon in northern Arizona (Photo by Narca)

One of the big perks of travel––of long, relaxed hours on the road––is that our minds disengage from our daily concerns, and we play, unfocused, with the elements of our experience, until suddenly there's a shift, and a new pattern or recognition emerges.

On this road trip from Idaho to Arizona, I'm watching the landscape unfold. We move from the coniferous forests of montane central Idaho, through the sagebrush and basin-and-range topography of the Great Basin, into the vivid and spectacular canyon country of southern Utah and northern Arizona, and finally return to the giant Saguaro of the Sonoran Desert. As the landscape unfolds, my mind drifts.

We are, all of us, rooted in the archetypes of our heritage. In Australia, I was struck by the ways in which Anglo Australians celebrate the settling of that continent by British criminals and cast-offs, who found within themselves the necessary fortitude and courage to start new lives. Similarly, for many North Americans, a pioneer ethic and ethos resonate. Think of the changes that have swept through our two countries since their founding.

Consider the publishing trade. During the 1800s, my great grandfather, Charles M. Boynton, was editor of a newspaper in Hamilton, Texas. The typewriter was invented during his lifetime. What a boon this machine was to the newspaper trade, and now it is seldom used. In contrast, my young grandson will never know a pre-computer, pre-internet world.

After the typewriter came the linotype machine. When I had a summer job at a publishing company in Denver, the noisy old linotype machines were still in use, although the company was starting to phase in offset presses. Each linotype operator sat before his or her machine, typing, and the metal letters fell into place in the line of type, and slugs of lead alloy separated word from word and line from line––all accompanied by tremendous racket. When a proofreader discovered a mistake in a galley, we had to run downstairs and arrest the plate before more printing was done. The offending "a" or "t" had to be pried out of the page and replaced with the correct letter, a far more labor-intensive procedure than is hitting a delete key today!

These workaday changes have paralleled changes in the landscape. C.M. Boynton knew a world where Bison still roamed areas of Texas, when unbelievably vast flocks of Passenger Pigeons took days to fly past a homestead, when Carolina Parakeets still munched cockleburs back East, and where bunch grasses in southern Arizona swept the bellies of horses.

I rue the impossibility of holding these ancestral experiences and perceptions alive in our minds. They would give us a benchmark to comprehend just how much change we've brought to the planet. They would give us deeper motivation for restoring lost ecological processes, for reclaiming watersheds, for maintaining viable populations of species, and for ensuring that a network of corridors exists, so that plants and animals can migrate to suitable conditions as global climate change digs in. I don't want my grandson (or any other young person) to have to witness the extinction of wildness from the land he knows.

Several organizations are striving to put wildlife corridors in place. Check out the work being done in the US by Grand Canyon Wildlands Council, The Wildlands Network (formerly the Wildlands Project), The Rewilding Institute, and Defenders of Wildlife. In the western US, a coalition of respected conservation organizations is promoting the Spine of the Continent Initiative to connect wild lands from Alaska's Brooks Range to Mexico's Sierra Madre Occidental.

Similarly, Australians are working to create the massive Alps-to-Atherton conservation corridor, which will span 2800 kilometers along the eastern rim of that continent.

Now there is a vision for the future!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

South Hills Crossbills

South Hills Crossbill male (Rather poor photo by Narca)

Dr. Craig Benkman, who gave the banquet keynote talk at Western Field Ornithologists' annual meeting in Boise, has researched the habits and vocalizations of Red Crossbills for years. His work is helping to untangle the confusing crossbill complex. Just how many species of Red Crossbill are there? What distinguishes them? Are we seeing an example of evolving species, and at what point are they sufficiently distinct to be considered separate species?

Benkman recently proposed a new crossbill species: the South Hills Crossbill, a sedentary species known from the South Hills and Albion Mountains of southern Idaho. For more information on his publications and research, go to his website:

Here is the gist of his talk:

Red Crossbills in North America are divided into 9 or 10 "types," first recognized by Jeff Groth. Each type has corresponding calls, songs, and seed preferences. These types specialize in foraging on particular species of conifer seeds, and the grooved palates of their bills match perfectly the size of the seeds they eat.

"Type 1" lives in the eastern US and only rarely feeds on hard pines like Ponderosa.
"Type 2" feeds mainly on Ponderosa Pine.
"Type 3" feeds on the small seeds of Western Hemlock.
"Type 4" specializes on the thin seeds of Douglas-fir and is small-billed.
"Type 5" eats the seeds of Lodgepole Pine.
"Type 6" feeds on seeds of pines from the Sierra Madre and southwestern Sky Islands, and is large-billed.
"Type 7" is probably a generalist.
"Type 8" specializes on seeds of Black Spruce.
"Type 9" is the South Hills Crossbill, a specialist on Lodgepole Pine.
"Type 10" has been proposed by Ken Irwin; it specializes on coastal Sitka Spruce.

So why is Type 9 distinct? Only in a small area of southern Idaho does Lodgepole Pine grow in the absence of tree squirrels. Squirrels harvest pine nuts very efficiently, and begin their feeding at the top of the cone, unlike crossbills. Where squirrels feed on pines, they drive the evolution of pine cone structure. These pine cones have developed thicker protective bracts, especially at the tops of the cones. Squirrels harvest whole cones early in the fall, and cache them for winter, making the seeds unavailable to crossbills. Because crossbills must forage on seeds remaining on the tree, their food supply is more erratic where squirrels share the habitat, and those crossbills must become nomads when they run out of food.

Tree squirrels have never managed to cross the surrounding expanses of sage to reach the Lodgepole Pines of the South Hills, and pine cones here do not show the adaptations to squirrel predation found in Lodgepole Pine from other areas. Without squirrels, the supply of pine cones is more reliable, and these crossbills can afford to be sedentary. South Hills Crossbills have evolved large bills to deal with the pine cones, as well as distinctive calls. Researchers have found a very low frequency of hybridization between South Hills Crossbills and other types, which occasionally occur here as well. Indeed the proposed name for this proposed species is Loxia sinesciuris, which translates as the crossbill without squirrels.

In addition to Dr. Benkman's talk, Nathan Pieplow ably moderated the sound identification panel, both of which prepared us very well for Sunday's field trip to the South Hills to look for the crossbills. Sound ID panelist Rich Hoyer described the Type 9 call as "DYUP." That phrase I could remember. If you would like to hear crossbill calls, go to this website and click on the arrow next to each entry's name:

You can also find more information on calls at Nathan Pieplow's website,

Sunday morning we set out very early in vans, eventually winding our way up into the South Hills of Sawtooth National Forest. No sooner had we arrived at an upper campground near Porcupine Springs, than "Type 9" South Hills Crossbills flew into the Lodgepole Pines next to the parking area, DYUP-ing as they came. For an hour or more, small groups of crossbills arrived and departed, giving everyone exceptionally good views. Yes!!

If this split is accepted by the American Ornithologists Union, Idaho will have gained an endemic bird species.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Idaho Bird Observatory

Sage meets conifers on Lucky Peak (Photo by Narca)

At the Western Field Ornithologists' annual meeting, Alan and I join an all-day field trip to the bird banding station run by Idaho Bird Observatory, a research institution under the auspices of Boise State University. The station is perched atop Lucky Peak, about 2500 feet above Boise. IBO director Greg Kaltenecker hosts us.

The dirt road winds up the mountainside, through sage steppe habitat that shifts into Douglas-fir near the top. Along the ecotone between conifers and sage grows a band of fruit-laden shrubs and trees, mostly chokecherry and bitter cherry. (I taste one––yes, it's well-named!) These cherries attract hundreds of migrant songbirds. Today Western Tanagers outnumber the other species. An out-of-place Chestnut-sided Warbler spotted by Ron Martin adds spice to the morning.

The banding operation is really three separate efforts: in one area, songbirds, hummingbirds and woodpeckers have been banded for about 13 years; on a nearby promontory a hawk-banding operation has been underway for about 15 years; and a nighttime owl-banding operation was begun in 1999.

The banding station is exceedingly well-placed. Not only does it lie amid the cherries, but Lucky Peak is a jumping-off point for migrants moving south from the mountains of central Idaho. It's the southernmost peak on the Boise Ridge, and beyond it lies the desert of the Great Basin. Migrant hawks use the thermals generated along the ridge, and songbirds eat berries and insects, fueling up for the next stage of their journey. So thousands of migrants concentrate atop Lucky Peak.

Greg Kaltenecker and Alan Craig at mistnet (Photo by Narca)

Jay Carlisle and his enthusiastic interns conduct the songbird banding. Net lanes run through the cherry trees, and a small building houses the banding station itself. We join the banders on their rounds of the nets and admire the warblers, thrushes and grosbeaks as they are processed, then released to resume their journey.

About noon we climb to the hilltop and join the hawkwatch. During the next 4 hours, about 70 raptors stream past, including 2 Golden Eagles and an Osprey, along with the more common species. Accipiters are the most numerous. Below our perch, researchers at the hawk-banding station run a series of traps for capturing raptors. During the afternoon, they capture and band 13 Cooper's Hawks, Sharp-shinned Hawks, and American Kestrels.

Cooper's Hawk at banding station (Photo by Narca)

Banding programs run from mid July through October, and visitors are welcome. Check the IBO website for details: Their blog also details the species and numbers of individuals captured during the past couple of field seasons. In 2008 a big highlight was an immature Gyrfalcon!

You can find more photos from our day on Lucky Peak in my photo gallery.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


Papuan Frogmouth at LotusBird Lodge (Photo by Narca)

On our southward journey back down the Cape York Peninsula, we take a long side-loop from Musgrave, stopping first at LotusBird Lodge, where Sue shows us a Papuan Frogmouth in her yard and gives us great tips on where to find several very local bird species. We also ask about crocodiles.

Australia has two species of crocodiles, the Freshwater (Freshie) and the Saltwater (Saltie). Salties grow much larger, and both can occur in the same river system, although they aren't very good at sharing.

Sue responds to our question: "Oh––well, there's Stumpy. We just saw him a few days ago. He's a Freshie, and he had a run-in with a Saltie, and lost his left hand. But it's all healed over. That's why we call him Stumpy."

We follow Sue's directions to a spot along 5-Mile Creek. The drive is challenging, especially considering that this is basically flat country. Alan and Jim elect to bird near the car, while Noel and I head upstream in search of Stumpy––cautiously. By now we've heard many tales of tourists becoming lunch for a Saltie. We pass scrape marks left in the sand by sunning crocodiles. I see one six-footer drop from the far bank into a big pool and swim at the surface straight towards us, before disappearing into the depths with a rolling dive. At the very next pool, we find Stumpy.

If you were hiking here, would you see Stumpy? (Photo by Narca)

Stumpy has hauled out and is sunning. His eye is bright, and he doesn't move as we carefully walk *just a little* closer. His healed foreleg is plain to see. But it's odd that he's letting us approach.

We circle around and see that Stumpy has much bigger problems than two humans sharing his riverbank. He has obviously had another encounter with a Saltie (perhaps the one in the pool just downstream), and has lost his entire right foreleg, and has a deep gash in his hindleg. With wounds so grievous, it is hard to see how he can survive.

Stumpy, a Freshwater Crocodile (Photo by Narca)

Noel and I return to the lower pool and sit on the bank, at a very respectful distance, and wait, hoping that the Saltie will reappear. We are silent. The sleepy afternoon seems deeply peaceful. The incessant sound of cicadas lulls us. A big goanna rustles leaves on the far bank. Double-barred Finches come in to drink. Yet beneath that seeming peace hangs an ominous threat, lurking below the surface, out of sight yet palpable, a shadow cast in our minds by the hidden Saltwater Crocodile. The moment is complex and deep.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Magnificent Riflebird

Magnificent Riflebird displaying (Photo by Jim Shiflett)

The loud whistles of displaying male riflebirds cut through the rainforest of the Iron Range on the Cape York Peninsula. Largest of Australia's birds of paradise, the Magnificent Riflebird ranges from northeast Australia to New Guinea. Males are a velvet black, with a shimmering blue-green bib and throat. (The angle to the light determines the exact color that's reflected.)

Male riflebirds claim a display perch on a horizontal limb or the top of a broken stump and solicit the attention of females with loud whistles and a hopping dance. Jim was impressed by a film he recently saw depicting these "lovemasters" and is particularly focused on finding one, which he does.

Not far from the road, a male is displaying from an unusually low horizontal branch, only 8 or 10 feet above the ground. Through a scope we watch the undulations of his glistening breast as he whistles and dances. The next day, Jim and Noel spend hours in quiet concealment near the male, photographing his glittering moves.

When a brown-backed female appears, the male shifts his intensity into high gear, crisply flashing and arching his extended wings, head thrown back, dazzling the female with his shimmering iridescence. If he's impressive enough for the choosy lady, they will mate, and soon he'll be back on his perch whistling for another paramour.

The intensity reminds me of a penguin's ecstatic display––and what better term is there for what this riflebird is doing?!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

On the Road

Alan and I are picking up Rich Hoyer and heading for the Western Field Ornithologists annual meeting in Boise, Idaho, so posts may be less frequent for the next couple of weeks. But stay tuned!

The WFO meeting is a special one––their 40th anniversary. Alan is one of the six founders of the organization. The Idaho Bird Observatory is hosting the meeting. We're looking forward to reunions with many long-time birding friends––plus, hopefully, an encounter with Idaho's newly described South Hills Crossbill, expected to become a split from Red Crossbill.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Iron Range

Heathland of the Iron Range (Photo by Narca)

The Iron Range... what does that name conjure for you? For me it's synonymous with remoteness, a place of mystery, a place with rich interweaving of viney rainforest, heathlands, and mangrove-fringed tropical beaches. Its fabled birdlife crisscrosses the Torres Strait between wintering grounds in Papua New Guinea and breeding grounds on the Cape York Peninsula. In this region of only two seasons––drought and flood––access by road is impossible for months at a time. The Iron Range! The timing of our entire trip to Australia has pivoted around being able to get to this place.

After we leave the main Peninsula Developmental Road with its clouds of red dust, washboard, and speeding drivers, the road east leads through progressively lusher forest and hills, until we're back in the rainforest haunts of cassowaries. We aim for Chili Beach, arrive after dark, and set up camp. The night is warm and humid, and the surfsound lulling, as we drift into sleep.

Chili Beach (Photo by Narca)

Morning brings us the first of the Iron Range's fabulous specialties––a huge, black Palm Cockatoo flies right over our camp. Jim tracks it into a Beach Almond, where it is unobtrusively perched near the treetop, gnawing the almond-like fruits and seeds. He finds it by the sprinkle of vegetable bits falling onto the path.

Palm Cockatoo at Chili Beach (Photo by Narca)

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Butterflies of Oz

Male Cairns Birdwing (Photo by Narca)

We weren't in Australia at the best season for butterflies to be on the wing, yet a few were flying in the tropical northeast, and the butterfly house at Kuranda gives splendid photo ops at any time, of several showy species, including the spectacular Cairns Birdwing. Birdwings are in the swallowtail family.

Most of Australia's 416 butterfly species live in the rainforest, monsoon forest, and other moist habitats of the northern and eastern rims of the continent. The vast, dry interior has many fewer species.

Black Jezebel on bottlebrush (Photo by Narca)

Whites and sulphurs are gorgeously represented by the jezebels. We found Black Jezzies from the base of Mt. Lewis, to Inskip Point, to the Iron Range. Most were nectaring on flowering eucalypts.

Harlequin Metalmark in Iron Range (Photo by Narca)

Those of you familiar with the stunning array of gemlike metalmarks in the American tropics may be surprised to learn that only a single metalmark occurs in Australia, the Harlequin, which we were lucky to find in the Iron Range.

Lesser Wanderers (Photo by Narca)

Lesser Wanderers are relatives of the familiar Monarch, and they were flying at Townsville Commons.

For a slide show of more Australian butterflies, click on the link to my art gallery––and enjoy!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Galahs in Every Light

A Gathering of Galahs (Photo by Narca)

Most of us grow jaded with what's familiar. However awesome the spectacle, however exquisite the trogon, once we've seen a hundred or a thousand, or twelve thousand, we eventually stop seeing––seeing––them. Noel is exceptional in this regard.

In Australia, Galahs gather with hundreds of their kind to chatter, and screech, and feed, and dangle acrobatically from telephone lines. These pink-and-gray cockatoos stalk around suburban lawns, hang out in trees and along railway tracks, descend on agricultural areas, and perch on snags to catch the early morning sun––and they do it across an entire continent.

Yet, for Noel, every Galah we see is the First Galah, new-minted and just arrived on planet Earth––and of course each one of them needs to be photographed. Our Aussie friends, jaded from a lifetime of living around Galahs, seem intrigued and (politely) amused when a flock of Galahs appears, and Noel grabs his camera. I try to explain: "The light's different now from what it was an hour ago when he photographed them. He's photographed Galahs at dawn, Galahs by noonlight, Galahs at dusk, Galahs by stormlight––but not yet Galahs by 9 AM light."

I think they looked more closely at those Galahs than they had for some time. Another person's enthusiasm can do that: it can reawaken our own wonder, and allow us to see freshly, with new eyes, with original eyes.

Galah by stormlight––now there's a subject for a painting!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Little Red Flying Foxes

Little Red Flying Fox  (Photo by Narca)

South of Musgrave on the Cape York Peninsula is a chittering, rustling, squabbling, aromatic colony of 2.5 million Little Red Flying Foxes––reportedly the largest flying fox colony in Australia.

We find our way to the edge of the colony. The bats are very close overhead, their fur glowing red in the evening light. With wings stretched, they groom their pelage. Youngsters cling to their mothers (and are left behind when their mothers leave for the night to forage on nectar and pollen).

As dusk grows near, we return to open country and watch the bats in broad dispersal across the evening sky. These pollinators must service half of Cape York!

Little Red Flying Foxes (Photo by Narca)

Finally, as the vast star field of the southern sky stretches overhead––very brilliant in this isolated region––we drive towards our camp, and are surprised to see mobs of flying foxes drifting just above us through the forest, seeking flowering eucalypts. When they find a flowering tree, they cling to the branches to sip nectar. Outbreaks of chattering tell us where they are congregating.

I feel as if I'm underwater, looking up at a strange river, as the bats flow rustling overhead, through the treetops.