Our South African Birding Adventure Begins

The acceleration of take off pushed me back in my seat, as the Emirates Boeing 777 lifted off of the runway at SeaTac and began the fourteen and a half hour flight to Dubai. The small screen in the headrest in front of me showed our current position, heading, and altitude. I wondered where the shortest route to Dubai would take us. I knew that Dubai was a city in the UAE on the Persian Gulf. What direction would we travel to get there? Dubai is south of us, and basically halfway around the world regardless of whether you are travelling east or west. On a flat map of the earth, the most direct flight looks like it should go southeast, flying over Kansas, the Atlantic Ocean, and Algeria, before arriving in Dubai. This exercise illustrates one of the many problems with trying to depict the surface of a sphere on a two dimensional map. In reality, we followed the great circle route from Seattle to Dubai, heading due north. We flew directly over the north pole, bathed in the endless July sunlight, and the remote islands of Svalbard. We passed over western Russia and Iran, before skimming over the Persian Gulf and landing in the blinding heat of the Arabian desert.

In Dubai, I met up with Neil (arriving from Boston), and we spent a four hour layover eating dinner/breakfast (it was 8pm in Dubai, 9am in Seattle), walking through the vast array of duty-free shops, and, of course, talking about our upcoming trip. After another eight hour flight on Emirates, we landed safely in Johannesburg about 6:00am local time (two calendar days after I left).

Two hours and three cups of coffee later, we exited the main highway onto Zaagkuildrift Road, northeast of Johannesburg. Despite being bleary-eyed and jet-lagged from 30 straight hours of travelling, I could feel the adrenaline start to pump through my body in anticipation of my first morning of South African birding. The weather was cool, in the mid-50s, and the sky was a spectacularly brilliant blue. On my magic birding spreadsheet, Zaagkuildrift Road was one of the most impressive birding locations in the region, with over 100 species commonly reported on day visits in July, and almost 400 species recorded there over the years. I hopped out of the car, listening intently. There was absolute silence. I scanned the dry grassland and gently rolling scrub; it appeared completely bird-free. I had a moment of uncertainty. Was this really the place? Did I get something wrong in my analysis? Was it fool-hardy to believe that I could plan and lead my own birding trip to South Africa?

Then I heard a rustle from deep in the grass. An insect was making a sharp sit noise. Wait, was that a sit, or more like a zit? It actually sounded a little like…

Zitting Cisticola – photo by Neil Hayward

… a Zitting Cisticola! A second later it hopped up on a strand of barbed wire, and Neil snapped a photo. With that, we were off and running. Zaagkuildrift turned out to be a terrific introduction to the savanna birds of Limpopo province.

We spent the next seven hours driving along Zaagkuildrift Road, stopping frequently to enjoy the abundant bird life it had to offer. We watched the ridiculous antics of the charismatic Yellow-billed and Red-billed Hornbills. We stopped to watch a couple of polymorphic Gabar Goshawks streak and twist across the sky.

Yellow-billed Hornbill – photo by Neil Hayward

A flash of black and yellow alerted us to a Crested Barbet that perched momentarily on a fence post.

Crested Barbet – photo by Neil Hayward

A family of White-crowned Shrikes huddled together for warmth, eyeing us suspiciously.

White-crowned Shrikes – photo by Neil Hayward

We drove on, past small ponds and stands of trees. I was amazed at the diversity of species we encountered. I was also amazed at how well my studying was paying off. I could put a name to almost everything we saw, or at least could find it quickly in the field guide to confirm the ID. By mid-afternoon the temperature had risen into the mid-70s. In seven hours we had only made it about 20 km down the road. By this time both the adrenaline rush and my caffeine buzz had left me, and my body began to have a serious conversation with my mind about how it hadn’t slept properly in a couple days. Although it was only 3pm in South Africa, it was 6am Seattle time, and I felt like I had been up all night. My stomach grumbled as I realized my last six meals were either on an airplane or at an airport, and I hadn’t eaten a anything substantial since I was in Dubai. There were still a few hours of useful daylight left, and Neil was keen to keep birding. I reminded him that we had 14 more days to go, and he relented, pausing only to snap a few photos of the cool weaver nests we had been admiring.

Weaver nests – perhaps belonging to Southern Masked-Weavers?

We drove to Dinonyane Lodge, where we had a delicious dinner and completed our checklist for Zaagkuildrift Road.  Seventy two species was not bad for my first outing in South Africa! I fell into bed and was instantly asleep.

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Preparing To Be Your Own Bird Guide

I know lots of people who have gone on organized birding tours with professional tour companies. VENT, Wings, Eagle-Eye, Rockjumper, Field Guides, and Topical Birding are just some of the many outfits that offer full service tours and guiding. There are lots of reasons to go with a guided tour, and most of the stories I’ve heard from my friends who have participated in these types of trips have been nothing but positive. All of that being said, the trip that Neil and I were planning wouldn’t be that kind of adventure. No one would be figuring out all of the logistics ahead of time, driving us to the next location, or carrying the scope. Perhaps most importantly, no one would be pointing out and identifying the birds for us. That would all be up to us. And on a trip where we might conceivably encounter north of 400 different species, this would be a challenge as great as figuring out where to stay or how to get there.

To prepare for this aspect of the trip, I started with my trusty field guide (Birds of Southern Africa, 4th edition) and my custom checklist. Normally I buy at least a couple different field guides when I’m travelling to a totally new region of the world, but this one from Princeton Field Guides seemed excellent and comprehensive, and there were no other comparable books that were easily obtainable in the US at that time. Birds of Southern Africa, 4th edition, includes over 950 different species. My custom checklist suggested that I should learn about 450 species from the eastern and northern halves of the country. So my first order of business was to make small blue pen marks in my field guide next to the species that I should be learning in advance of our trip.

During this process, I discovered the unfortunate truth about cisticolas. Cisticolas are a genus of small, insect-eating Old World warblers. They seem to spend most of the time skulking about in dense vegetation, and when they do appear, they are often quite a challenge to identify due to their striking similarities with one another. There seemed to be a rather extensive number of them on my list of birds to learn. Thirteen to be precise. They are often identified at least in part by their calls and songs, and this perhaps explains why so many of them are named for their vocalizations. I studied the Wailing Cisticola and the Rattling Cisticola. Also the Croaking and Zitting Cisticolas. And… wait, there’s a Tinkling Cisticola? Also, their cousins, Levaillant’s Cisticola, Ayres’ Wing-snapping Cisticola, and the Lazy Cisticola. When I finally made it through the entire cisticola genus, I turned the page and saw the Burnt-necked Eremomela and all of his cisticola-like friends. My kids found me later that night on the floor of the living room in the fetal position, croaking and wailing softly. This was going to be harder than I thought. Luckily, it was about this time that my buddy Neil came through in a huge way. One afternoon I found a medium-sized Priority Mail box on my front porch; inside were hundreds of 4×6 note cards. The front of each one featured one of the birds we had to learn for our trip. Its name was on the back.

Cisticola Study Time!

Neil had made us two batches of custom flash cards, and sent one to me in Seattle. This was just what I needed to kick start my studying regime. Fortunately, I had begun learning my birds about six months in advance, so I had time to get myself back on track. I also made a few photo quizzes for myself using pictures I downloaded from Google Images. Between the field guide, flash cards, and photo quizzes, I made some good progress in the months leading up to our departure. As my visual ID prowess increased, I began to become a little concerned that I would need to learn some songs and calls as well, especially for the hard-to-ID species like the cisticolas. I downloaded the iOS version of the Sinclair field guide (called Sasol eBirds in the app store) for my phone. It included images, range maps, written descriptions, and most importantly vocalizations. I amused my cats (and myself) for hours trying out different calls, like the sustained trill of the Crested Barbet.

I had grand ambitions of building an entire electronic song study guide from the Xeno-Canto website, but this just didn’t happen. I mostly contented myself with trying to learn some common species, the cisticolas, and some night birds.

Beyond learning the birds, I did some general reading up about South Africa in my Rough Guide and on the internet. I read over the US State Department website about travel to South Africa, and checked to make sure my passport was still valid. I called Verizon to get a one-month international data plan for my phone, and the credit card company to let them know I would be travelling to South Africa. I also sprayed my birding clothes with permethrin, and visited the Hall Health Travel Clinic at the University of Washington. The Travel Clinic is a fantastic community resource for anyone in the Seattle area who is planning on traveling abroad, especially to developing countries or to places where communicable or mosquito-borne diseases are prevalent. An appointment at the clinic includes an extensive consultation with a physician specializing in travel medicine. You can also get any vaccines you need right in the office, and pick up travel-related prescriptions at the in-house pharmacy. Although the clinic primarily serves the UW community, it is open to the general public. You usually need to call several weeks in advance to get an appointment. South Africa is a pretty low risk country for infectious diseases, but I did pick up some malaria pills and a course of antibiotics.

As the days ticked down, my excitement began to build. Would this trip live up to my expectations? Would all of our planning pay off? Would we actually be able to identify any cisticolas in the wild? Answers to these questions and more in the next installment!

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Planning an International Birding Trip

So Neil and I had decided to go to South Africa on our birding trip (as I discussed in my last post), but we had no idea where to go or what there was to see. The next step was to gather information. A lot of information. For this phase of the trip planning, it’s helpful if you like to play with data. The first thing I did was order Princeton Field Guide’s Birds of Southern Africa, 4th edition, by Sinclair et al.

This book has seen some wear and tear…

I love this book. It has thorough coverage of the entire region, outstanding artwork, informative text, and a great layout (with drawings, text, and range maps for each bird organized together on facing pages). The first thing I did was just flip through the book, looking for “cool birds,” and noting in which part of the country they could be found.

Wanna see some awesome barbets? Check out the northeast quadrant of the country!

I also ordered the Southern African Birdfinder book by Cohen et al. It covers all of South Africa, in addition to several neighboring countries like Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique.

One of the things I really liked about this book was the huge (3 ft x 2 ft) foldout map that came with it, showing all of the hotspots listed in the book. The map really helped to give me some perspective on South African geography.

The Birdfinder book was definitely helpful, but certainly not sufficient. It has about 200 pages to cover South Africa’s nearly half a million square miles. At almost twice the size of Texas, South Africa is a vast country covering a huge multitude of habitats. I needed more information, and I turned once more to eBird. The trusty Explore Hotspots feature suggested that popular birding areas with high species diversity included the northeastern part of the country and the southwest near Cape Town.

As I didn’t have time to cover the entire country, I decided to focus my attention on the northeast quadrant. I liked the look of those orange and red pixels. Zooming in, I could see many different promising hotspots. What was that really dark red one about 200 km northeast of Johannesburg? Nylsvley Nature Reserve! According to eBird, 385 species have been recorded there.

Notice that there are buttons in the dialog box to see Bar Charts and View Details. The Bar Charts button takes you to an annotated list of species, showing each one’s relative abundance every week of the year.

You can change the dates to include only species that are there during certain times of the year, say the austral winter between June and August. But the coolest feature is located at the bottom of the bar chart. There is an option to Download Histogram Data in the bottom right corner.

Once you download the data from eBird, you can copy it into the spreadsheet of your choice. Now the real fun begins! I averaged the frequency of observations for each species for all of the weeks from June through August for Nylsvley Reserve.

So we really shouldn’t have been surprised to see Ostriches at Nylsvley – they are recorded there on 28.4% of eBird lists during the austral winter. I guess I was just surprised to see them IN MY FACE.

I poked around the map of northeastern South Africa using eBird’s Explore Hotspots feature until I had a couple dozen sites picked out, and downloaded all of their data into a single Excel workbook. I cross-referenced this list of possible sites with the Birdfinder book, and made sure to add any locations recommended by the authors. I put each hotspot in its own separate tab. Then I made a master checklist of every common species in South Africa (thanks to eBird for that as well). By using the VLOOKUP function, I was able to see the frequency for each species at each different location on the master list tab.

I used the MAX function to determine the best place to see each bird. A column using the SUM function gave me a rough idea how common and widespread each species was. Using these columns, I created a custom abundance code for each species at these couple dozen selected locations. I let “1” be the code for the most common 100 species, “2” be the code for the next 100 most common species, and so on. This gave me a shorthand way think about how “findable” each species is, for studying and planning purposes. I added conditional formatting which highlighted in orange better than average places to see each bird. By summing the total probabilities for each site, I could also get a rough idea about how important each site was, and how long I might want to spend at each place.

Not being familiar with South Africa previously, I decided that I needed to see visually where all of these new hotspots were. The map from the Birdfinder book was helpful, but it didn’t include all of the new locations I found on eBird. Also, I didn’t know how long it would take to get from place to place. Neil and I used the “My Map” feature on Google to create a custom map showing the locations of all of the promising hotspots we had found.

Google My Map showing NE South Africa

Google maps also helped us figure out how long it would take to drive from one birding site to the next. I was a little skeptical about how accurate these drive times would be, but they turned out to be excellent estimates.

We also needed a place to spend the night. Neil suggested that if we drank enough coffee, we could bird 24 hours a day for several weeks straight. I insisted that we sleep at least some every night. He grudgingly agreed. Google once again helped us find places to stay near the locations we wanted to go birding.

Apparently Dinonyane Lodge is just minutes away from Nylsvley – and 3.8 stars for about $51/night!

I cross-referenced the accommodation suggestions I found with TripAdvisor and the accommodation’s own website (if they had one). South Africa was surprisingly inexpensively. Every place that Neil and I stayed was clean, safe, and quite comfortable, and we usually spent between $20 to 35 each per night. You could frequently get a delicious hot meal for $2 to 4. I was pleasantly surprised by both the quality and value to be had in food and accommodations throughout the country.

By this point, we were constructing a tentative daily itinerary for our trip.

The itinerary starts to take shape

Then we hit a bit of a snag. We had planned to stay at least four nights in world famous Kruger National Park, but the dates for our arrival there coincided with the week of Nelson Mandela’s birthday (July 18). Mandela is, of course, a national hero in South Africa, and many South Africans go on holiday to celebrate his birthday. Some of the rest camps where we wanted to stay overnight in Kruger, like Satara and Skukuze, were completely booked up. This was a real problem, since the only place to stay in all of vast Kruger Park is the official rest camps, operated by South African National Parks (SANParks). I was really surprised by the unavailability of places to stay, given that our trip was still almost six months away. In the end, flexibility and persistence paid off. We snagged one of the last few “bungalows” available at Letaba and Oliphants rest camps, and I continued to check for openings at the other rest camps on a daily basis. One day I spied an opening at Skukuze, and grabbed that one, too. We were almost set.

As our itinerary on the ground firmed up, we were also shopping for car rentals and flights. Neil reserved us a great all wheel drive small SUV that would be perfect for our epic road trip across the southern tip of Africa. Using Expedia, Kayak, and Google Flights, I figured out that I could get a ONE STOP flight from Seattle to Johannesburg (with a layover in Dubai) for about $1100 round trip on Emirates. Not too bad! I was even more impressed when I discovered that South Africa is pretty much on the exact opposite side of the world as Seattle. There is a cool website that allows you to find the antipode (direct other side of the world) of your current location. It turns out if you tunnel directly down through the center of the earth starting at my house, you pop out in the Indian Ocean southeast of South Africa.

Here’s a trivia question for you geography buffs out there. If you fly the shortest route from Seattle to Dubai (the great circle route), what direction do you head leaving Seattle? The answer will appear in a future post!

Our major planning was nearly complete at this point. Neil surprised me by sending me a beautiful custom spiral-bound book for our trip.

It included all manner of checklists, logs, maps, accommodation and travel details, info from the internet, etc. In addition to having all of our critical info in the same place, it provided a fun place to record our sightings every evening in South Africa over a couple of beers.

At this point, we had answered some of the most important questions surrounding our trip: Where to go? Where to stay? How to get there? What will we see? But there was one major bit of preparation that remained: How will we identify what birds we are hearing and seeing? Since our trip would be almost entirely self-guided, it would be up to us to learn about 450 South African birds by sight (and a smaller number by sound as well). This enterprise would turn out to be challenging and full of hard work, but also fun and interesting. I will detail more about this process in my next post.

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South Africa Birding Adventure: A How To Guide

Edging along the dirt path through the thorn scrub forest, I could almost see the watering hole in the distance. The early morning sun was starting to warm my back, and I unzipped my lightweight jacket but did not take it off. A cisticola rattled, unseen, in the nearby weeds. My friend Neil was a few steps up the path (as usual), and already peering through his binoculars. The sky was a brilliant blue, and the dry vegetation was bathed in the golden light of an July winter morning. “I see some blesbok, and some wildebeest… and I think a Marabou Stork,” whispered Neil. Three days earlier I was packing my bags in summery Seattle. Now I was exploring the wildlands of the Nylsvley Nature Reserve in South Africa’s Limpopo province. There was a rustling through the trees, a stone’s throw distance away. I froze. Neil glanced up from his binoculars. There was silence. Then came the crashing sounds of a large animal moving towards us. I caught a glimpse of something dark and shaggy bounding in our general direction. An 7-foot male ostrich burst onto the path, gave us a quick look, and then slipped away back through the forest. My eyes were big as saucers, my mouth had formed a round “O” shape but no sound had escaped my lips. I looked at Neil, whose face mirrored mine. Then he grinned, and said, “Welcome to Africa.”

When I told some of my friends that I was planning an independent birding trip to South Africa, they were quite surprised. How will you know where to go? How do you know where to stay? How do you know what birds you’ll see, or how to identify them? Is it safe? How will you get around? While an international birding trip, like our visit to South Africa, certainly requires some advance planning, it’s not a particularly difficult task. And traveling by yourself or in a small group can be hugely rewarding and much cheaper than going with an organized tour. In this post and the ones that follow, I’ll explain how I planned and executed my recent birding trip to South Africa.

The first step is to figure out if you are travelling alone or going with a group. For this trip, my traveling companion would be Neil Hayward, famous birder, author, adventurer, retired biochemist, and international man of mystery. I first met Neil during my big year in 2013, and we spent four memorable days birding Nome, Alaska. In 2015, we birded our way across Costa Rica for two weeks in August.

Neil Hayward, in his element

Neil checks all of the boxes for a birding buddy. He is a brilliant birder, adept at spotting skulking individuals and ID-ing cryptic species. He can survive for days on a diet of dried almonds and coffee, and is comfortable driving all manner of vehicles on both the left and right sides of the road. His boundless energy and enthusiasm are matched only by his encyclopedic knowledge of ornithology and his dry but hysterical sense of humor.

The next step was deciding on a destination. Neil and I talked about a number of different options, including Peru and Ecuador, southeast Asia, Australia, and South Africa. I perused the eBird.org website, using the Explore Hotspots feature. This function allows you to see where other people have submitted checklists, and color-codes the established hotspots according to the number of species which have been observed there (as recorded on eBird). Higher numbers of species diversity is indicated by warmer colors. Thus, if you want to see a lot of species, it helps to go someplace red and orange on the maps.

Latin American eBird Hotspots

Central America was promising, but we just went there in 2015. Peru and Ecuador were strong contenders, and we debated about planning a trip there.

Australasia Hotspots

Southern and southeast Asia were also very promising. We investigated several countries in that region of the world, but ultimately decided that this was not the time for them for several reasons. (One reason was that our travel window in July was extremely hot and/or rainy in many of these destinations.) Eastern Australia was tempting, but both Neil and I had been there before, and we decided to save that for another trip.

Africa eBird Hotspots

And then there was Africa, a continent that neither of us had visited. After some research, we settled on South Africa. The country has a mix of many different ecosystems hosting a huge array of avian species. Visiting South Africa is very safe and relatively inexpensive, and the people there are very friendly. Their infrastructure is excellent, with good roads and lots of birder-friendly places to stay. There are also excellent field guide and bird finding books, and a lot of information on eBird and other websites about where to go and what to see. It was now time to begin to plan our trip in earnest, which is the topic of my next post.

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The Canyons Keep Calling Me Back

It’s spring break, which means some folks are headed to Myrtle Beach.  Some lounge around on the couch and watch a lot of TV.  One teacher friend of mine curled up with a big stack of English papers and a green pen (yikes!).  I traveled to southeastern Arizona for some quality time alone in the deserts and canyons.

Saguaro National Park

Well, not alone exactly – I went to spend some time with the birds of the arid Southwest.  April is a great time to visit.  The weather was beautiful during my trip, mostly sunny with highs in the 70s to 80s depending on the elevation.  I have to say that even though it is more pleasant temperature-wise in April, not all of my favorite birds are really back yet from their wintering grounds (I’m looking at you, Red-faced Warbler!).  May, and even late July and early August score slightly higher on the cool bird index.  Still, it was a great week here in Arizona.

Magnificent Hummingbird

Hummingbirds were a highlight.  I’ve seen nine species, which isn’t too bad.  A late summer visit can net you 12-15, depending on how many rare ones are about.  The one pictured above is the aptly named Magnificent Hummingbird.  Light refracts off of special feathers on its head and neck giving rise to amazing iridescence in the sunlight.  Even in the shade, they can look pretty remarkable.  The one below is a male Broad-billed Hummer.

Broad-billed hummingbird

While the deserts have a few specialty species, many hummingbirds are found at slightly higher elevations.  I had some good hummingbird watching in Madera Canyon, Miller Canyon, and Ramsey Canyon.  Speaking of the canyons, another one of my favorite canyon birds is the Acorn Woodpecker.

Acorn Woodpecker

They look (and act) just like clowns.  I love to watch their noisy antics.  Acorn Woodpeckers are a fascinating species.  They often live in loose colonies, and practice cooperative breeding strategies in which not only the two biological parents but also other members of the colony participate in raising the young.  The colony also usually maintains a “granary tree” – which is a tree or snag that is used for storing copious numbers of acorns.  A woodpecker drills a small hole, and then stuff a single acorn in so that it fits tightly.  A granary tree many contain thousands of cached acorns.

While I was in Ramsey Canyon at the Nature Conservancy preserve there, I noticed that the next door Ramsey Canyon Inn is for sale.

Photo Apr 07, 7 36 44 AM

I’m very happy as a teacher, but in my daydreams I think it would be awesome to cash in all my savings and run a birder’s B&B somewhere.  It’s probably a ton of work, and not nearly as much fun as it seems in my dreams.  But it gives me something nice to think about as I drift off to sleep here in my last night in Tucson.

Lest you think that my days were all filled with fun and frivolity, I want to set the record straight.  Birding in Arizona is a highly perilous affair, with dangers lurking around every corner.  Take for example, the sign I saw in Florida Canyon, south of Tucson:

Photo Apr 04, 7 32 44 AM (1)

 

I was lucky to escape with my life.  And even luckier to see a pair of very rare Black-capped Gnatcatchers building a nest.

Despite finding most of the birds I was looking for this week, one particular Arizona species has been giving me trouble for years – and this trip started no differently.  When you’ve been birding in Arizona as many times as I have, there aren’t many birds left to see here for the first time.  But when I arrived, there was one on the rare bird alert that had managed to escape me during all of my previous trips: Rufous-backed Robin.  These birds are quite uncommon, but there are usually multiple individuals sighted each year.  They are most likely to appear in winter, however, and I usually visit in the spring and summer.  Also, they can be very sneaky and skulky.  I have looked for them on multiple occasions – perhaps 7 or 8 times in total.  But they had always eluded me.  These Robins are, in short, my nemesis bird.

The week before I left Seattle, I noticed that a particular Rufous-backed Robin had been hanging out at Catalina State Park for several months.  Nemesis bird, prepare to meet your match!  Actually, the Robin lived up to its nefarious reputation.  I spent nearly four hours scouring its last known location on my first morning in Arizona, but it was a complete no show – and it hasn’t been seen since.  Damn you, robin!

Then, last night, as I was deciding about what to do with my last full day in Arizona, I saw another report of a Rufous-backed Robin.  This one was in Cienega Creek Preserve, a protected natural area just south of Tucson.  I had never been there before, in part because a permit is required just to enter the preserve.  I didn’t have a permit.  But I found that you can apply for one online; three hours later, the completed permit was emailed to me.  I was headed to Cienega!

The day dawned cool and cloudy.  I parked at the Preserve’s dirt parking area about 20 minutes after sunrise.  I placed a copy of my permit on the dashboard, and headed off down the trail.  Cienega Creek Preserve is spectacular.  The trail winds through a vibrant Sonoran desert scrub.  I had to shuffle my feet to keep from stepping on several coveys of Gambel’s Quail as I was serenaded by Cactus Wrens and Bell’s Vireos.  About two miles in, the trail entered an extensive stand of cottonwood trees, and the creek began to flow faster and deeper.

Cienega Creek Preserve

The cool air was scented with sage, cottonwood blossoms, and sweet petrichor.  I arrived at the place where the Robin was last seen, and began to search.  And search.  And search some more.  Then I took a break.  And a walk.  And had lunch.  And searched some more.  Suffice it to say that there were no robins on the trail this day.  Part of me was pretty disappointed that my nemesis bird had again somehow escaped my grasp.  But part of me was also deeply grateful that I keep missing these birds.  If I hadn’t been tempted by the prospect of maybe meeting my nemesis, I never would have bothered applying for a permit to visit this unique and beautiful area.  And I never would have gotten to know this special place.  My nemesis taunts me, sure.  But it also encourages me and inspires me, goads me on and fires my determination.  So laugh, robins, laugh while you can.  On my next visit, I’m going to hunt you down.

And thus ends this visit to Arizona.  I don’t know exactly when, but I’ll be back in the not too distant future.  There is always more to see.

Cactus flower

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Short Trip to the Shortgrass Prairie

It’s been almost a year since I posted to this blog, which kinda makes sense.  I started it to chronicle my “really big year” of traveling to see birds and visit schools, a year that ended in June of 2013.  I thought about whether I should “retire” this blog, or to keep using it to share new travels.  When I returned to work full time in August of 2013, I vowed to reserve a little room in my busy life for the sort of adventures that occupied much of the 2012-2013 academic year for me.  And so in that spirit, I have decided to keep using this blog from time to time, as the occasion arises.  While I will not soon repeat the kind of Big Year that began for me two years ago, I hope to keep the spirit of inquiry and adventure that I kindled in myself that year alive, to make every year at least a little “big.”

It was in this frame of mind that I cashed in some frequent flyer miles for a short trip to Colorado.  While I don’t consider myself to be the kind of birder obsessed with lists and “ticking off” the next lifer, I do enjoy seeing birds that I haven’t seen before.  And I was also only four birds away from having seen 700 species in the ABA Area, a milestone of some note.  I turn 40 in January, and it would be pretty cool (although perhaps not totally practical) to reach 700 by then.  Also, my friend Neil Hayward keeps pestering me about getting to 700, so I guess there’s peer pressure too!

I flew into Denver on Wednesday morning, and headed northeast to the Pawnee National Grassland.  This area is some of the best preserved remaining shortgrass prairie habitat in the United States.

Short Grass Prairie at Dawn

Shortgrass prairie used to be fairly widespread on the western Great Plains.  This habitat was shaped by relatively low rainfall and by the consistent grazing of abundant herds of American Bison.  The loss of the bison, overgrazing by cattle, and human development have greatly reduced the quality and quantity of this kind of prairie in Colorado and elsewhere in the American West.  Pawnee National Grassland is one place where you can still find vast swathes of unbroken shortgrass.  Interestingly, it is administered by the US Forest Service, although Pawnee is nothing but a forest of grass.

Flowering cactus

And cacti.

Caterpillar

And crazy, huge caterpillars.

However interesting the shortgrass prairie is in and of itself, I was here for the birds.  And one bird specifically: McCown’s Longspur.  This species breeds in a thin slice of shortgrass prairie from Alberta down through Montana, Wyoming, and northern Colorado, and it winters in northwest Texas.  In other words, it’s not a particularly easy or convenient bird to see if you live outside the mountain west.  And while you can find them somewhat reliably on their wintering grounds as skitterish flocks of drab grayish birds, I wanted to see them in their summer glory: the males in their full breeding plumage (black, white, and chestnut), singing, and doing their parachuting display flights over the prairie.  So here I was in rural NE Colorado, with less than 40 hours to find the longspurs before my return flight to Seattle.

Driving along the few gravel roads that transect Pawnee, there was plenty to see.  Lark Buntings, the state bird of Colorado, were incredibly abundant.

Lark Bunting

I saw probably 200 breeding pairs on territory in a day and a half.  Horned Larks were also very common.  I didn’t get any good pictures really showing how dramatic their “horns” can be – I guess that’s a job for another trip.

Horned Lark

A real treat was finding a pair of Common Nighthawks sleeping on a rusty fence.  These birds, a member of the goatsucker or nightjar family (I love those names!), are usually most active at dawn and dusk.  These two were definitely snoozy.

Common Nighthawk

Common Nighthawk

After a few miles, in the distance, I thought I caught the jumbled song of a longspur!  Trekking out into the prairie, I watched a lone male leap into the air and come fluttering down while singing his complex song.  I wanted to stay a while and watch him, but the wind was whipping up, and over my left shoulder I could see a serious storm building.

Storms Coming

Beating the rain and lightning back to the car, I vowed to come back early the next morning to get a better look.

I drove through the afternoon thunderstorm back to Fort Collins, where I had dinner at local institution that holds a special place in the hearts of chemistry teachers everywhere.

Avogadro's Number

This being a birding post, I’ll spare you the significance of Avogadro’s number to the realm of the molecular sciences (but you can read about it on Wikipedia if you are really interested).

Serious birders are in the field at dawn during the spring and summer.  And dawn was about 5:20am.  So I dragged myself out of bed and raced for the prairie.  After a bit of searching, I was rewarded with fantastic looks (and mediocre pictures) of about a dozen McCown’s Longspurs displaying, singing, foraging, and generally loafing about the prairie.

McCown's Longspur

McCown's Longspur

McCown's Longspur

I spent the rest of the morning exploring more of Pawnee.  Sparrows were a highlight, including this Grasshopper Sparrow who posed for me:

Grasshopper Sparrow

I also found this amazing short-horned lizard:

Short-horned lizard

Some people call these critters “horned toads,” but they are reptiles and not amphibians.  This guy was only about 2 inches long, and almost perfectly camouflaged amongst the rocks on the side of the road.

All too soon it was time to head back to Denver for my flight home.  It was a very short trip, but I feel like I made the most of it.  My big year lives on, at least in little ways.

 

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Awesome Podcasts to Get You from Airport to Hotspot

I spent a lot of time over the past year driving from one place to another.  Sometimes these excursions were short jaunts, but often they involved hours and hours of monotonous highway driving.  Colima Warblers and Whooping Cranes, like many other cool birds, just don’t hang out close to major airports.  To fill the mind-numbing void, I loaded up my iPod up with a ton of podcasts.  The best of these episodes could help to turn a six hour trek across three states into a moderately enjoyable afternoon.  After well over 200 hours of listening, here are my favorite podcasts for making the time fly, and also a few honorable mentions.

The Absolute Best Podcasts for Long Drives

this american lifeThis American Life

Rating:  ★★★★★

Overview:  The granddaddy of narrative-based radio shows, it still delivers entertaining, thought-provoking, and high quality episodes every week – even after more than 500 episodes.  The best stories are truly riveting and unforgettable: What happens when a sane person pretends to be crazy and gets committed to a mental institution?  Are sliced hog rectums being sold as calamari?  Does a found scrap of paper really contain the secret formula to Coca Cola?  What happens when inmates at a high security prison stage Hamlet?  Ira Glass and his team of reporters and producers find out.

Suggested Episodes: Pro Se (#385),  Doppelgangers (#484), The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar (#352), Switched at Birth (#360), When Patents Attack (#441), Act V (#218), Very Tough Love (#430), Original Recipe (#427), Million Dollar Idea (#412), The House on Loon Lake (#199)

radiolabRadiolab

Rating:  ★★★★★

Overview:  Jad Abumrod and Robert Krulwich weave science and technology stories together with philosophy and observations about the human experience to make a fascinating hour-long podcast.  This duo explores everything from randomness and coincidence to space and time to morality and mortality.  Amazing soundscapes add to the listening experience.

Suggested Episodes: Stochasticity, Parasites, Race, Cities, Unraveling Bolero, Argentine Invasion, Speedy Beet

planet_moneyNPR’s Planet Money

Rating:  ★★★★★

Overview:  Dumb name, incredible podcast.  You might think that a podcast about economics would be boring, but this one is anything but.  Recent episodes explore issues such as: Is it illegal to sell your old MP3s?  Why is LeBron James underpaid, and why doesn’t he mind?  What is a firefighter worth?  Why didn’t the price of Coke change for 70 years?  Most episodes are a bite-sized 20 minutes of so, and totally worth your time.

Suggested Episodes: Rocky Pipkin, Private Eye Vs. The Raisin Outlaw (#478), The Eddie Murphy Rule (#471), The Surprisingly Entertaining History Of The Income Tax (#356), The Hidden Digital Wealth In Your Pocket (#449), It’s Hard To Do Good (#460)

snap judgmentSnap Judgment

Rating:  ★★★★

Overview: Storytelling – with a beat.  Glynn Washington hosts this hour-long podcast featuring amazing stories – sometimes humorous, sometimes heart wrenching.  Music and sound effects augment the experience.  Dig it.

Suggested Episodes: Choosing Sides (#408), Rage Against the Machine (#410), Absolution (#310), Crossing Borders (#214), Fighting Back (#212)

freakonomicsFreakonomics Radio

Rating:  ★★★★

Overview: Stephen Dubner and Steve Levitt collaborate on this informative and entertaining short-format podcast.  Episodes vary in length, but most are in the 6 to 25 minute range, with some longer specials.  A little zanier than Planet Money, but a nice complement to it.  Recent episodes have explored topics such as: Who owns the words that come out of your mouth?  Was Jane Austen a game theorist?  Do baby girls cause divorce?

Suggested Episodes: The Upside of Quitting, Government Employees Gone Wild, How Much Does Your Name Matter, The Cobra Effect, The Days of Wine and Mouses

99% Invisible99% Invisible

Rating:  ★★★★

Overview: Roman Mars explores the hidden world of architecture and design in these short but polished podcasts.  Why did early slot machines pretend to be vending machines?  Were car makers the driving force behind criminalizing jaywalking?  How did a simple circle and horizontal line painted on the hulls of ships save the lives of thousands of sailors?  What special considerations must architects keep in mind when designing spaces for deaf people?  Roman is your expert guide for these topics and more.

Suggested Episodes: Game Changer (#77), The Modern Moloch (#76), The Great Red Car Conspiracy (#70), Broken Window (#67), Razzle Dazzle (#65), The Best Beer in the World (#55), A Cheer for Samuel Plimsoll (#33), Check Cashing Stores (#18)

The MothThe Moth Podcast

Rating:  ★★★★

Overview: Entertaining and moving true stories, told live by the people who experienced them.  Some make you laugh, some make you cry, some make you think.

Suggested Episodes: Elna Baker: To Russia With Love, George Lombardi: Mission to India, Lisa Lampanelli: Fat Girl, Interrupted, Tristan Jimerson: A Dish Best Served Cold, Elna Baker: A Mexican Mormon Christmas, Ernesto Quinonez: Dog Days of Spanish Harlem, Janna Levin: Life on a Mobius Strip

Honorable Mentions

Decode DCDecode DC

Andrea Seabrook cuts through the spin and theatrics in our nation’s capital to take a clear-eyed view of our federal government and its politics.  If you’re tired of political coverage which seems to have an agenda, try this one out for a change.

How to do everythingHow to Do Everything

Want to know how to win a hockey face-off?  Cook cicadas?  Recruit a Russian double agent?  Rescue a deer stuck on the ice?  Take a portrait of the president?  These guys can tell you.  Light-hearted and fun without being dumb or silly.

Life of the Law

Life of the Law

A look at how the law and our legal system intersect our lives in mundane and extraordinary ways.  My favorite episode so far is about jury nullification – when a jury acquits a defendant they believe to be guilty – and how and why this outcome is tolerated in our country.

Love + RadioLove + Radio

Stories and interviews about everyday people doing interesting things.  The quality is a bit uneven, with some terrific podcasts and some that are only so-so.  Some episodes are not appropriate for children.

 

dinner party downloadThe Dinner Party Download

“How to win your dinner party” – a mix of food, culture, conversations, and advice.  This is a recent addition to my podcast diet, but I have enjoyed the episodes I’ve heard so far.

So what makes a good podcast?  I think there’s a strong element of storytelling in most of my favorites.  They offer up some sort of intriguing premise: a mystery, a conflict, a counter-intuitive assertion, a question, a surprise.  And then explore that premise providing details, spinning out a narrative, talking to experts, and/or discussing the outcomes.  Snap Judgment provides this awesome flowchart for determining whether a submission is right for their show.  It includes questions like:

Will your story make me laugh or cry?

Is there anything at stake?

Is there a conflict?

Are there compelling characters?

In addition to gathering good material, the best podcasts are tightly edited.  They have a sense of tension, coherence, or densely packed content.  There is no unnecessary talk, no lame airtime.  Reflective pauses or breaks between stories are relatively short and covered by interesting music or sounds.  Here’s a hint, podcasters – sitting around shooting the breeze with your buddies does not make for entertaining listening, no matter how clever you are or how famous your guests are.  The care that goes into structuring and editing a well-produced podcast is obvious, and very much appreciated!  If you want to learn about making a high quality, finely polished product check out anything by Roman Mars, Jad Abumrod, Ira Glass, Glynn Washington, Andrea Seabrook, or the Planet Money Team.

As a teacher, it also strikes me that most of these podcasts share many of the features of a good lesson:  the topic is interesting or relevant, the audience is highly engaged, the content is memorable, examples/analogies/stories are used to elucidate the topic, important details are included, and humor is used appropriately and effectively.

So the next time you’re driving through the night to see catch that rare Yellow-green Vireo or vagrant Flame-colored Tanager, load up on some good podcasts first and let these fine story tellers keep you company on that long, lonely road.

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What I Learned From a Year of Visiting Schools

The “newsworthy” media reports on the state of education in our country are largely discouraging.  The articles I read in newspapers, magazines, and blogs often focus on failing schools, disappointing test results, or the tragic criminal behavior of a few isolated teachers or administrators.  Acrimonious school board meetings make the news, as do research reports showing how American 4th graders are falling behind students in other parts of the world, especially in subjects like science and mathematics.  If you take these snippets as representative of our educational system in the US, you could easily conclude that our young people are doomed.

But after spending some time during this last academic year visiting a wide variety of different schools, I have found the real picture to be much more complicated.  Yes, there are problems – many of them large, pervasive, intractable problems.  But there are also some reasons to feel grateful and even a few reasons to celebrate.  And above all, there is reason to feel hopeful.  Here’s why:

Teachers are Amazing

Granted, I set out to find some great teachers and great schools, not to fill out the Top Ten list for the Suckiest Teachers in America.  Even so, my travels gave me plenty of opportunities to spend time in huge spectrum of schools (public and private, rural and urban and suburban, crushingly poor and fantastically wealthy).  At most of the schools I visited I spent a whole school day, seeing a full range of teachers.  What I saw was inspiring.  These educators have a passion for teaching and care deeply about their students.  They manage superhuman feats, among them:

  • Getting up at 4am every weekday to find time to prep for class, set up labs, or get those papers graded
  • Juggling classes of up to 40 teenagers at a time – not just managing the chaos, but engaging and inspiring them
  • Coaching, sponsoring clubs and activities, directing plays, doing dorm duty, counseling advisees, and generally providing a bounty of activities and support systems for students outside of class
  • Writing their own curricular materials and text books, even though they gain little or nothing financially from these endeavors
  • Using their own prior personal experiences as lawyers, historians, EMTs, park rangers, scientists, business executives, journalists, and soldiers to add to the educational experiences of students.
  • Engaging 9th graders in a collaborative cancer research project with students and professors at a local university
  • Meeting with students before school, through their lunch breaks, and after school – sometimes into the evening hours
  • Fighting NYC traffic – 90 minutes each way – just to make it back and forth to school
  • Spending their own money – often hundreds of dollars – to get supplies and materials to make lessons more interesting and more meaningful
  • Holding the rapt attention of a class for up to 90 minutes by telling stories and jokes that deliver the content in a compelling way (several groaned disappointedly when a student realized that class had actually ended a few minutes ago and they would have to leave).

Teachers are Innovative

Some education critics and pundits complain that teaching today looks much like it did 150 years ago, with teachers lecturing at the blackboard while students passively take notes.  While this is a scene repeated in many classrooms across the country, I was surprised by the level of innovation and creativity teachers brought to the lessons I observed:

  • Exploring ‘flipped classroom’ techniques, POGIL, and the Harkness method to use classroom time and ‘homework time’ more effectively
  • Utilizing a huge variety on online resources in smart and effective ways: access to primary documents, physics simulations, journal articles, photo databases, educational videos, scientific safety data sheets, etc.
  • Using Twitter and other social media to effectively communicate with their colleagues across the country, sharing ideas and scheduling massive online conversations about best practices
  • Developing “student-centered” lessons and curricula in which students take responsibility for their own learning and get to practice deeper level cognitive skills like critical thinking, planning, analysis, trouble-shooting, and evaluation.
  • Creating custom manipulatives and simulations that allow students to model complex systems and learn how they work
  • Using real world problems to create context and allow students to relate to the lesson – how would you go about designing a high performance skateboard?  what architectural features of a house affect the rate of heat loss in the winter?  what kind of drug delivery system would release chemotherapy drugs in the presence of cancerous cells but not healthy tissue?

Students Love Learning

If you believe the buzz about kids in the 21st Century, you might conclude that they are all technology-addicted, zero-attention-span brats with an over-developed sense of self-esteem and self-importance.  While not all kids thrive in our schools, it was encouraging to see that the negative stereotypes of this generation are either over-simplified or just plain wrong.

  • Students love learning.  When presented with an interesting and well-designed lesson, the vast majority of kids are willing to jump right in.  While school doesn’t have to be “fun,” there’s no denying that learning can be enjoyable and engaging.
  • Students respond strongly to skilled and knowledgeable teachers who care about them.  It was interesting to follow the transformation of a single student from a classroom with a talented, passionate teacher (3rd period) to a tired, less effective teacher (4th period).  The student’s engagement and performance changed by orders of magnitude.
  • The harder the problem, the harder they try (at least up to a point).  As any video game designer can tell you, challenging activities can be really fun.  Lessons that push students to the limits of their capabilities while still allowing them to experience some success and a sense of accomplishment can be highly effective learning environments.
  • Students care about each other and the broader world.  More than any generation before them, students are attuned to global issues and want to do something to make the world a better place.  They talk about international human rights, climate change, and disaster relief.  They join clubs and organizations, volunteer their time, and raise money.  And many of them are planning careers that hope to address some of the great problems of our modern age.

Resources Matter

While I found some very effective teachers and highly motivated students in every school I visited, it was also shocking to see the enormous disparity between well-funded schools and those that were sorely lacking in resources.  In one weekend I went from a school with lavish classrooms and labs, an average class size of about 10 students, and an endowment of nearly $1 million PER STUDENT to a school without books or basic supplies, classes of 35+, and a building that hadn’t been renovated in 60 years.  While there was some good teaching happening in both places, the challenges faced by the students and teachers at the second school were extraordinary.  It’s hard to teach chemistry without equipment and supplies, without books and computers, and without classroom and lab spaces big enough to adequately accommodate all of your kids.

After seeing some of these schools, it makes me sick to hear the pundits on TV saying things like “throwing money at the problem won’t fix the problems with our schools.”  Some of these political hacks think that they are suddenly educational experts, perhaps because they once spent time in a classroom.  Their diagnosis: bad teachers.  Their prescription: more teacher accountability, more student testing, and less government interference.  My response?  They are clueless idiots.  OF COURSE throwing money at the problem is the solution.  Let’s imagine some other scenarios outside the realm of education, shall we?

***

Doctor: Chief, patient care is suffering.  Our MRI is broken, and the X-ray machine needs to be recalibrated.  Also, if we got some new lab equipment, we could run more sophisticated blood tests to better diagnose disease.

Hospital Exec: Why is it all about technology these days?  Back when I was a doctor, we didn’t even have MRIs.  Being a good doctor isn’t about having fancy tech toys to play with – those things are expensive, and I’m not sure we need them.

***

Engineer: We can’t seem to find and retain highly skilled engineers for the new NASA project.  Maybe we should think about increasing pay and benefits?

Project Manager: Engineers are overpaid as it is.  The problem is that they are lazy and poorly trained.  Why would you pay engineers more if they are not doing a good job?  What we need is more effective college engineering programs to prepare future engineers better.

***

Researcher:  Boss, we have no new pharmaceuticals in development.  Once our other patents expire, we’re sure to lose market share.  Maybe we should spend some money on research & development?

Pharma Exec:  Throwing money at the problem is not going to help.  Instead of spending MORE money on R&D, we just need to spend it in SMARTER ways.  We need to think outside the box – maybe we should just test our current drugs more extensively?

***

In most other professional endeavors, providing money for competitive salaries and paying for basic materials is a no-brainer if you want to achieve quality outcomes.  Why should education be any different?

While there are courageous doctors who accomplish noble things in areas of the world without diagnostic equipment and proper medical supplies, they are hampered by the lack of appropriate resources.  Imagine how much more good they could do with a little technological and human support.  Likewise, teachers in poor schools are able to accomplish some incredible work with little or no money.  But their efforts could be greatly amplified if they only had access to decent teaching resources.  And if we want to attract and (more importantly) retain talented teachers, we’ll have to actually pay them a competitive salary (unlike, say, the $36K we pay Washington teachers with a BA and 5 years of experience – per http://www.k12.wa.us/safs/pub/per/salallocschedule.pdf).  That is not even a living wage in Seattle, and other professionals with similar amounts of training and experience make double or triple that amount (see for example http://www.indeed.com/salary?q1=Engineer&l1=Seattle%2C+WA).

While teachers in more wealthy schools have many more options for putting together effective lessons for their kids, most of them work just as many hours as teachers in poor schools – and often for the same pay.  Most of the teachers at the prestigious boarding schools I visited are required to live in the dorms, and regularly work 80+ hours a week for a surprisingly small salary.  Like their teaching colleagues elsewhere, they do it because they love their jobs, feel that their work is meaningful, and honestly enjoy working with young people.

Looking back on my year, it is all of the teachers that I have met that make me feel hopeful and inspired.  They are smart, hard working, and courageous.  They often make sacrifices of time and money in their own lives because they believe that educating the next generation is critically important.  Teachers of America, your passion and dedication is amazing.  Your students love and appreciate you.  And you are making a difference in their lives, and in the future of our country and our world.

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