Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Tit for Tat

As Theodore Roosevelt embarked on his exploration of the River of Doubt in South America, he called it his “delightful little holiday with just the right amount of adventure.”  “We left in high spirits.”  He wrote as they began their quest which would shortly turn into a nightmare and which said adventure would bring the great man to a point near his death, and in fact, probably led to his early death in 1920, denying him with almost certainty a second election term in 1921. 

Let me say it here, I am not Theodore Roosevelt.  Theodore needed to get away on his crazy trip and Olaf...?  Where has Olaf been?  I've been busy and everywhere seemingly and I guess on a much needed blogging hiatus....so what was i up to?

My son's Allwin and Tyko graduated Ripon College in May.

I was so proud, 29 years ago a master birder handed me my diploma, William Stott, when I walked across that stage outside Harwood Memorial Union.  I was so proud I cried during "Alma Mater" the school song as I did in 1988.  Great kids I have!!

I went to St Martin twice for business and so ...I went birding........finished photographing local birds for my guide of the island and nailing my 2 nemesis birds, the scaly breasted thrasher and Wilson's plover.

I sold some assets, tidied up some businesses...went to a Niece's baptism...went on a skiing holiday where there was no snow so I went...birding .......and found woodpeckers... 

then a second ski trip to Colorado where everyone got altitude sickness save me...so I went .....birding ......while everyone was out with nausea and headaches....White tailed ptarmigan anyone?

"I was cc'd on some discussions in the spring about the ABA changing the rules or better put clarifying 2016 with regards to Hawaii, which as I said to Laura Keane, "whatever you think", today, I'm not even sure what the rules are for Hawaii exactly now for last year.  Is there a new category added for last year.?...I don't know and I don't know if it affects me.  I suspect that when the new checklist comes out, maybe I'll be smarter.  I do know the Eurasian sparrowhawk in Adak was rejected by Alaska, it doesn't affect me, but things are in motion."

The past is past I guess......

I chased a black-backed oriole to Pennsylvania as I needed to be in Scranton on business, it won't ever count, but was a cool bird and looks like a real vagrant....but it still won't be accepted

I got bored at home so....I went birding....and even was helping a friend Barry Parkin work on his SD big year.....I, though, only seemed to be able to find badgers and greater sage grouse....got to love that badger face

But none of that was worth my effort for a blog....until now.  Again I am no Theodore Roosevelt but...

Last weekend when I embarked with my wife of near 27 years to an adventure on a different river but with no less doubt, this one in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, I postulated many things NONE of which could be described as promoting high spirits.  I dreamed of cold, damp, hunger, intermixed with bugs, sleepless nights, and of course…the other thing that bites in the arctic......bears.   No Olaf adventure can be complete without ….bears.  Nasty biting things, those bruins are and like I’ve written before…..bears and Olaf are mutually exclusive…..my spirit animal and when there are bears, bad things will happen.

Sigh…sadly this trip had disaster written all over it.....Olaf eaten by a bear....I boarded a flight to Fairbanks last Saturday filled with doom and gloom…I worked on our will and set up our estate right before we left....Everything needed to be in order....All of this on a quest for the holy grail of North American Birds, the Gray-headed chickadee, the bird formerly known as the Siberian tit.  We landed in Fairbanks in a heat wave but as I left the airport, it began to rain.  The gloom of the north was upon me.  I was like ...cursed.

We went to Creamer’s Dairy to look for birds and all we found were bugs and rain, so we went shopping and waited to meet the rest of the crew on this Wilderness Birding Adventure, the one man who gave a glimmer of hope to bring light to the darkness was named Aaron Lang.  I like Aaron, he runs a great ship in birding and well, he is a Minnesotan, we relate.  His nickname at UW-Stevens Point was “Spam” as he is from the Spam capital, Austin MN.  A town I went to church in once in 1987.  It was a weird church, Pentecostals on the left,  good Baptists on the right.  The left was filled with the Holy Spirit while the other half watched them afraid at what the neighbors might think if they jumped up and yelled “hallelujah!”   Students driving back from a speech competition, we sat in the back in the middle and cautiously waived our arms, depending on who was watching.  One of my ‘mates’ went up for an alter call and we were afraid of him being kidnapped until he waived from us outside a window…he had escaped through the back door and was motioning for us to go.  Two hours later, we were buying the beer of the week in La Crosse.  Wiedemann’s anyone?  It was the “everyman’s beer” that made Newport Kentucky famous, but sold out to G. Heilemann as if any swill in a red and white can or bottle would be accepted by the faithful back home and then when it wasn’t, try to pawn off the stuff to college students three states away for under 4 bucks a case.  

2 Vintage Beer Cans - Wiedemann Beer

There was nothing like salvation and bad beer….oh the 80s, oh the memories, I have the cans and bottles in my collection but I digress.  

Aaron Lang always seems to find the gold art the end of the rainbow while the rest of us are trying to hide from the rain.

I knew we were in good hands.......but what about the bears?

We flew Wright Air to Arctic Village…a forlorn place on the edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where Sarah Palin wants to “drill baby drill”……….. I want to drill too, but use a smaller bit to make holes for chickadees in trees.

Some words on this 5.5” bird. Poecile cinctus, formerly Parus cinctus, is divided into four subspecies, the US bird may not even be the same species.  I have seen this bird in Hemavan, Sweden where it is called the Lappnes, but it is by far the most difficult breeding bird to find in North America, and is still in 2017, largely a mystery.  

Many historically who have this bird on their lists have not actually seen a Gray-headed chickadee and in the literature.  In the 1920s the species was noted in a corner of Denali and a specimen was taken and for decades birders "saw" it there.  Then sometimes thereafter someone photographed one of these “birds.”  The pictures were looked at, Boreal Chickadees a very similar species and all of them in Denali seen were Boreals.  Then they found the old specimen, it too was just a Boreal, so alas generations of birders were over-counting their lists by a bird.  The bird is not found anywhere in the park.  Oddly, it is even said that the name itself is wrong, as it doesn’t really even have a gray head.  Siberian tit was dropped on this side as this bird is more closely related to our Chestnut backed chickadee of the Pacific NW than the Willow tit of the Eurasian neoarctic.  Aaron Lang et al found the first nests well over a decade ago.  Cornell then got a recording of its calls and song and now at least we know something.  The bird is in harsh environs, nobody knows if they move much, or even go dormant in the mid winter.....one big question mark.

I did not see this bird in 2016.  One person reported it un-witnessed where the Boreal chickadee also lives in western Alaska and two weeks later in November it was reported again by another person again unwitnessed and nobody produced a single photo.  It wasn’t worth my effort to try that for a five figure bird (more than $10 grand to get it), that in some likelihood was not even a GHCH...who really knows?  This year I was going to make the big journey, do it right, go where only the GHCH lives.  Olaf on the epic expedition for the tit……tit-tastic, or tits-up, would it be colder than a witch's tit, or would I just be eaten by bears…tit for tat...revenge of the ice bear, or something like that....those dang bears….

We flew a four seater Cessna 170 STOL over a pass into the north side of the ANWR and hoped for a few feet of tundra to land.  

It took 5 plane trips trips to shuttle the gear and the ten members of this expedition led by Aaron Lang and Chris Mannix who was from Takeetna.  What we found was the Ice sheet of Despair and the Frozen Wallow of Sorrow depending on how one looked at it.  

With trepidation we camped that first night and after breakfast schlepped our gear across the frozen aufeis (river freezes in layers from bottom up).  Aaron told us of 14 feet of blocking ice that needed to be tobogganed across.  At suspicious blind turns in the river, we checked it out but by and large we were lucky.  

The ice did not kill off the expedition for tit-glory, but we had to drag and pull that first day.  All for a 5.5 inch bird that looked like a bird I see every year fishing.

It could be said about this trip that I went in the wilderness filled with certainty of finding bears and death but all I found was otters and enjoyment, and that would be true.  We actually saw no bears….a Wilderness Birding Adventure first…..but seeing three otters (rare in this part of Alaska) was a better find and meant good luck.  You never know about otters, though, but Olaf and bears….not so.  Bedars are always bad.

Day three began with a walk.  What would be a long one.  Right away as I crossed the stream from our tent, one of the party reported a waxwing of unknown ID, a rarity, so we slowed to look for it but nobody saw it.  We were now maybe just 100 yards from camp….then my wife noticed a snowshoe.  Half couldn’t see it at the edge of the rocks of the creek below a willow.  I never even saw it.  As Aaron was pointing out the hare, to the rest, I saw this bird in the willows….”what is that?”  I said, it's shape not computing to be a sparrow or a redpoll.

Then time slowed as a long tailed chickadee sauntered at eye level across the openness on the creek to a willow on the right.  OMG!  It was the GHCH!  Gil Ewing and I almost broke each other’s hand giving a high five to each other.  It remained deep in the bush mostly but it fed for ten minutes and I grabbed my camera and took pictures….not good ones, but I got all of the diagnostic shots in bad lights.  Note the white on the wings the face, that tail…one takes what they can in this world and I got these.....

No doubt a GHCH……..wow!  Then it flew off.  We expected more, mostly nesting birds, fledglings, and others but all we got a hole….GHCH nested until 2015…..

a swallow nest taken over for ten years by GHCH……….

This nest proves they do not need cavities in trees to nest but....
in 2017, all these and others...empty……maybe they follow swallows and use their locations?…..stomping around though we did, the tit, the holy grail of birds, the GHCH was never seen again.   We forded deep frigid rivers in bare legs like my wife Silja, here but notta-tit. We marched everywhere....nothing.

A hoary redpoll was about as good as it got

. Three days later we gave up and looked for other things like Caribou...

But bird in hand, and the gravity of the lucky incidental find we had, I began to enjoy the other things, the majesty of the valley and the river.  I enjoyed the weather, the food by the guides, and I even enjoyed the bear tracks, the outdoor growler (bathroom), and slow mosquitoes.

The ANWR is truly majestic.

We found the back up bird….Smith’s longspur in breeding plumage.

Pretty birds....I put it on my Facebook page.

Us and caribou got bombed by Arctic terns...

We saw harlequin ducks

A rare Rusty blackbird

Fox sparrow feeding young

Rock ptarmigan

Say's pheobes are everywhere in the west or so it seems

many lifer birds for other birders on this epic trip of a lifetime.  I've had so many, I needed to say "savor it, savor it."

At some places, I didn't even know which way to look.  There was stunning scenery everywhere, the ANWR is one of a kind.  In my opinion, Palin can go ^&& herself.  Keep this place wild!

My wife was even smiling after 7 days without a bath, and paddling for a week.

in doing this, you need to relax where you can, even in the raft, 

and a raft also makes a great wall

But alas, we had our bird....lucky lucky LUCKY US!  We looked for Upland sandpipers but they were also missing like the bears and almost all of the chickadees.......day 8 came and then our contact with civilization arrived and it was Kirk to pick us up.

A plane landing on a sand bar....sheez!  Boy did I stink.  We were first out and began a day trip back home.  Gil Ewing got booted off of a Wright Air plane but I didn't have a iphone to film it but it was minus the beatings of United so it was okay......He was even in his seat (as he snuck on trying to take it) .  

It was a once in a lifetime trip......WOW!  Tit-tastic.........lifer beer.........it has been a while and you know...I like this feeling.  I think I just like the feeling of NO BEARS!!!!

I could live with tracks.

Maybe when I get home.....I may go birding.........IDK, something to do.  Thanks to Aaron and Chris and to the others on the expedition as that was what this was and expedition to get the elusive and possibly declining and the ever mysterious.....gray-headed chickadee............


Alive and busy in South Dakota

Golden dreams and memories

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