Monday, April 26, 2010

A Caper, But Not A Crime

Last night I had some capers. No, I did not rob a bank or kidnap anybody.

My capers where the little pickled buds from that peculiar Mediterranean shrub. You know....capers.

As an avid iPhone user, I am always looking for new apps that make life easy and fun. (What the hell did people do before iPhones?). Anyhow, Jamie Oliver is making quite a name for himself as a chef. He put together an app called "20-minute Meals". I don't care about the time involved. Simple and good is what I am looking for.

The Rigatoni Arrabiatta was my first go. "Arrabiatta" translates to "enraged" in Italian and is supposed to be a reference to the temps of this meal - hot and fiery. No such thing here. It was only the teeniest bit of hot. Copyright law apparently prevents me from telling you that I took red onion, red pepper, garlic, a red chili, a can of tomatoes, basil, capers, and olive oil and shlopped into a pan. I ultimately dumped it over rigatoni pasta and added feta cheese. Don't forget some salt and pepper. Done. Awesome and easy.

Simple, healthy recipes in no time. Hardly criminal.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Relaxing Morning and Flight Home

April 17, 2010

A very casual day, all in all. After a late breakfast, the only birding chance Joe and I could make work was a short trip to a Denver Park called Washington Park. A large pond. Lots of joggers, dogs and the like, but there was chance for passerines. None. I did score Wigeon, Gadwall, Hooded Merganser, Common Goldeneye, and Cooper's Hawk for my Colorado list and the Coop, with a Double-crested Cormorant, were new for the trip.

The airport. Yeah, well, what can you say about airports? They will get money from you any they can. Remember early on when my bag was just under the limit? Yeah, well, I forgot all about that until I got to airport...with more books stuffed in my bag. Oh, NOW it is too heavy. 1.8 million dollars worth of heavy. That is what it cost me to get my bag home. I had to mortage my house to cover the cost. There is absolutely no way I bought 21 pounds worth of junk. No way. Unbelievable.

So, the trip was a total success. My new figures include:
Trip Birds - 91 species
Life Birds - 632 (from 630)
Colorado – 158 (from 139)
Nebraska – 75 (from 40)
Wyoming – 138 (from 133)
Total ABA Ticks – 4037 (from 3,978)
Life Beers – 736 (from 734)
National Park Sites – 86 (from 83...I think)
Watertower Pics for Bruce and Linda’s nephew, Jeffrey – 9 from this trip (total unknown)

Next trip? Unknown. Such is birding....

Goofy Chickens - Part 3

April 16, 2010

Up before dawn, I needed to get some munchies and fuel. 7-11s, out west, provide both (here in Michigan, a 7-11 won’t have gas). While paying for my cheese danish, I realized the attendant at the register had eye-liner and a wild purple nail polish. I should also mention the attendant was a man. Let me be very clear here – I don’t care how people dress or how they do their make-up – man or woman. It is totally their call. It was simply a bit shocking to see that in what I thought was the conservative cattle region of eastern Colorado. I just was not ready for that at 4:30 in the morning.

Just north of Wray, on a back county road, I found one of my non-life target birds for the trip– Greater Prairie Chicken (I had already seen them in southern Illinois). On a low ridge, with the sun rising behind them, I heard and saw it all. The hooting. The jumping. The confrontations. The pretty colors. All those males looking for attention. So cool. With all that jumping and flashing going on, I half expected the guy from 7-11 to join them. Some even flew a few feet from my car.

After a quick bagel in Wray, it was off to the Pawnee National Grasslands again (the western end). The Crow Valley Campground was quiet (as expected) and the vagrant Yellow-throated Warbler was no longer around but the nesting Great Horned Owl was neat. A short drive through what is called Murphy’s Pasture turned up dozens of McCown’s Longspurs and a few Chestnut-collared Longspurs. One “Chestnut” in particular looked so damned handsome standing tall and nice on pronghorn poop. (Unfortunately, something went wrong with myphoto. Given the distance, the bird should have been crystal clear, but it is not. It seems very “un-sharp” to my eye. One thing I have to consider is this – I shot the picture out of the passenger window while the heat was on. Possibly the heat coming from the vent distorted the image? ) Any way you look it, that is one slick lookin’ bird.

I also had to take the picture of the Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel. While I don’t speak ground squirrel, I think he was yelling at me to do so.

Pronghorn are easy to come by, too.

The final hours of the afternoon were spent looking for Mountain Plover. Yes, I had seen this bird before (in Wyoming many years ago), but it was a distant bird with some heat shimmer. A better look had always been desired. A local birder had been posting locations near his home in Nunn. After misses on three properties, I scored on the fourth. I made sure the teenager in the front yard (apparently raking rocks?) knew I was birder and that a GREAT bird was in his front yard. He was cool enough to let me take a few pics from the driveway and NOT call the guys in the white coats or the other guys with funny hats and guns. With effort, I could probably eliminate that Milky Way from the background...

By 5:00pm, I was back at the car rental returning the dirty and partly bloody car (I creamed a pheasant on the way to Wray). Joe, the buddy of mine from way back and now a resident of Denver, picked me up. While dinner at a brewery would have been grand, we opted for a tiny Greek place. The gyro was the size of a giant burrito. My “Holy cow!” exclamation was answered by the waitress with a “No, Lamb…” Thanks.

Bird-Rock-History Combo Continues.....

April 15, 2010

Sunrise was again pleasant. With my travels taking me west, the drive through drive through Smiley made perfect sense. I scored the trip’s only Osprey (very cooperative for the camera) and Magpies again (very uncooperative for the camera). More Mountain Bluebirds, too.

After getting the desperately needed fuel in Harrison, I had no desire to wait for the 8am opening of the only place in town for breakfast (Note – a lot of the small towns had Subways, but no McDonalds. This town did not seem to have either one). I opted to shoot over to Sowbelly Canyon. VERY cool place. Rock Wren, Wild Turkey, and Wood Duck were all noted. After breakfast, the Gilbert Baker WMA, which felt very much like Chadron, was not very productive. Like Wildcat and Chadron, I’m sure this place would have been hoppin’ in a few weeks.

Just a few miles south of Harrison is a site that has produced some of the best Miocene fossils known. Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, named for the Agate that can be found in veins throughout the region, was certainly worth a stop. Early camels, giant pig-like beasties, bear-dogs, pony-sized rhinos, and early ancestors to the modern horse have all been found here. Take that, creationists!

The long hike to Carnegie and University Hills was NOT what I was expecting as there were no fossils in situ (“in place”). It was more of hike to show you where they found the fossils as opposed to showing you fossils in the ground. I should have confirmed that before I did the 2.75 mile round trip hike. I would have been pretty irked had it been 94 degrees! However, I can't deny that the Horned Lizard wasn't cool. I'm not sure I have ever seen one in my travels.

The Daemonelix Trail, on the other hand, is part of what fossils are all about. First, they were in situ. Which ones? A handful of corkscrew-like tubes that are known to be the burrows of a now extinct beaver ancestor called Paleocastor. They apparently dug these tubes with their teeth, not their feet, and lived in colonies, not unlike prairie dogs. The burrows filled with sediments that, over millions of year, hardened. "Daemonelix “ translates to “Devil’s Corkscrews”. Cool, huh? The plexiglass booth shown here is as large as a phone booth.

With plenty of time in my afternoon, I followed through on my plan to head back to Scotts’ Bluff. The drive to the top had since be re-opened. It was so worth it. The White-throated Swift trio that zipped by 30 feet away like a flight of F-18s was pretty cool. They were matched by my Nebraska Long-billed Curlews, Burrowing Owls, and Vesper Sparrows I had a few minutes to the north is a field. The view from the Bluff? Incredible.

After soaking in the sites, I took the “back roads” from Scotts Bluff to Wray, Colorado. I was hoping for a Ferruginous Hawk and Mountain Plover in Nebraska, but it did not happen. The Rough-legged Hawk and Ferruginous Hawk in the Pawnee National Grasslands, in Colorado, were a nice contrast in buteos. One is a large but delicate bird while the latter is a total butt stomping monster. Nice.

Sunset was spent scouting a location for my dawn birding just a few miles north of Wray. What is north of Wray? Yeah, you probably guess it - more chickens....

Bird-Rock-History Combo

April 14, 2010

The clock in the room was wrong and I was up an hour early. So what! I grabbed the gear and went off for some sunrise photography. Pulled over on the side of the road, near the bluff, the morning sun just did not do what I thought it would do. The pics were okay, I think. I had to use every camera trick I knew to work with a hand-held camera in little or no light. That said, however, I think it was pretty cool that two separate cars pulled over in the wee lit hours to see if I was okay. I had my blinkers on so cars knew I was there. Very friendly people, those Nebraskans.

So there I was at Scott's Bluff. I couldn't help but think of all the happiness the travelers must of felt when they reached the Bluffs. They knew their journey was one-third over when they got there. In fact, that morning of 1846, April 14th, was the very morning the Donner Party left Springfield, Illinois for their date with destiny. The Donner Party, for those of you that don't know, got stuck in the deep snows of eastern California and resorted to eating their own dead to stay alive....

Speaking of eating, I was getting hungry as I had moved on to photography without having breakfast. I can't usually go 15 minutes without eating when I get up. Breakfast was at the Log Cabin (which, by the way, sits on the road that was the original Oregon Trail). Some locals started chatting with me about why I was there and a conversation ensued. One woman even claimed that her grandkids, through her late husband's side of the family, were directly related to Hiram Scott, the namesake of Scott's Bluff. Pretty cool.

With a full belly of eggs, hashbrowns and sausage, I opted to head back to Wildcat for another run. It paid off. In front of the Visitor Center, I observed a swarm of Pine Siskins. Not just any Siskins, by the way. Those Siskins represented my 4000th tick for my North American List. (This completely insignificant number represents the sum of all my state checklists. For example, a person with 50 birds in each of the 50 states would have a list of 2,500 ticks.) Unfortunately, that Pygmy Nuthatch did not show himself for another 30 seconds. He could have been 4000th bird.

Back at Scotts Bluff, a careful scan of the rock face known as Eagle Bluff scored a Great Horned Owl. I was hoping for a Prairie Falcon, but it was not to be. Oh well....

Unfortunately, the road to the top of the bluff was closed for maintenance. With that, I shot off to the east. Various potholes yielded some descent waterfowl and an American Avocet, too.

Chimney Rock was well worth it. It, too, was a landmark on the Oregon Trail, thus its placement on the Nebraska state quarter. It was here that I learned one of the bizarre facts of my entire trip. Chimney Rock has not always been known as Chimney Rock. That is the name given to it by the Americans and Europeans moving west. The Plains Indians? They had a different name for it. "Elk Penis." I swear. Like so many other rocks features in the region, it is getting smaller as a result of weathering. I'm not going anywhere near this subject anymore...

Moving north, the Box Butte Reservoir was a bust. The white caps were straight out of World War II images of the North Atlantic. A Lesser Scaup was all I had to show for it. Chadron State Park ("SHAD-rin") was really nice but not at all birdy. It was very much like the Black hills and nice break from the extensive grasslands and agriculture that were at lower altitudes.

Heading towards Crawford, Nebraska, around dinner time, I started to think about lodging. Is there a better place for a history buff to stay than in the enlisted soldiers quarters of an old Army fort? That was it. The old barracks, constructed in 1909 for the then Fort Robinson, are now the rooms for guests of the now Fort Robinson State Park. Cool place. Awesome history. The Golden Eagle flying 100 feet added a new feel to what was called the Parade Grounds. A parade of one, if you ask me.

Basically, as Fort Laramie was being decommissioned (complete by 1890), Fort Robinson picked up the slack during the various campaigns against the Native Americans. It was here, on September 5th, 1877, that Crazy Horse, the famous Sioux leader, was killed. As the years ticked by, the Fort was involved with World War II K-9 dog training, served as a German POW camp, and housed the USDA Beef Research Department. Walter Reed (who likely stayed in one of the buildings pictured here) ,who went on to figure out that mosquitoes carried yellow fever and had the military hospital in Washington DC named after him, served here, too. It was quite a place in its time and is a very nice place to stay and stroll through history nowadays.

Dinner was at The Ranch House. Originally the 1909 general store for Crawford, it is now a restaurant with all the qualities of a place on the National Historic Register. The beers were quite fine, too. The Boulevard Wheat (from the Boulevard Brewing Company in Kansas City, Missouri) was not new for me, but comes highly recommended. Give it a go when you get the chance.

The evening was spent birding Smiley Canyon. This canyon was the used by the Cheyenne during their Outbreak in January of 1879. In an attempt to “break them”, food and water were withheld. The Indians escaped from the fort and were basically hunted down and shot or re-captured. They fled through the canyon that is now the Scenic Drive. While Lewis’ Woodpeckers can be found here, the best I could muster was a Black-billed Magpie.

Goofy Chickens - Part 2

April 13, 2010

I was on the lek in the dark. Scorpio was to the south. The Milky Way was awesome and the morning was quiet. I was the only person there. In the dark, coyotes howled (not to be confused with Wiley E. Coyote; he was still at Sanford’s). A Horned Lark here. A Western Meadowlark there (it was my 1, 763, 923 meadowlark, by the way. I was counting...not really…).

What an awesome way to start the day!

A short distance away, upwards of 10 males Greater Sage-Grouse were starting to do their thing. The dance, if you will, starts with the huge chest inflated while the wrists of the wings rub against them. The white collar starts to shake and then “pow!”, two yellow air sacs bust out of the white collar (I'll let you use your imagination here or you can look it up on YouTube...). When the yellow sacs pop, there is the funniest damn bubbling sound you will ever hear. Oh no, not a roar or a growl or something intimidating. Bubbling. Cool.
At one point, in just a few seconds, all the males, closed up the white collar, leaned over on their bellies and put their head on the ground. The females did, too. Huh? Over the hood my car drifting 10 feet off the ground? A Northern Harrier. Once the raptor passed, one by one, they all went back to bubbling and popping.

Class, this is your homework – go see Sage Grouse on the lek. Do it. It is, by far, the coolest North American breeding bird event you will ever see. Period. Forget warbler song. Forget neat nests. Sage Grouse on the lek is awesome. Your report will be due on my desk the following day, no later than 8am. If it not there, you will have detention. Forever.

After some time passed (I have no idea how long – maybe an hour?), the show died off and off I went. After a quick bite at IHOP, I shot back to the east. A Rough-legged Hawk was unexpected ( the time, but not in hindsight).

A quick stop at Ayres Natural Bridge was neat. As the name suggests, a small river undercut the rock and created a bridge. Not huge, mind you, but certainly neat. The bridge is located in a little canyon just a few miles off the expressway. Chock full of trees, a rare commodity in the region, this little spot can be quite impressive when passerine migration is really underway. The Belted Kingfisher was cool and ultimately, my final new Wyoming bird.

I was making my way to Fort Laramie, Wyoming, a needed National Park Site on my list, when I knew I had to make two stops. Just West of Fort Laramie, carved in the soft sandstone, one can find grooves. Not glacial grooves. Wagon wheel grooves. So many people had crossed these rocks during the Oregon Trail era that grooves can still be seen to this day. A five minute drive up the way, carved into the same soft stone now called Register Rock, one can read the names, and in some cases, dates, of these western travelers. Who were they? How many of them made it? In the pic on the left, you can clearly see "JS Bond 1853". Pretty cool, huh? Unfortunately, there are "John Loves Jill 1980" and other drool scrawled into it. Oh sure, in the year 2184 someone might think that is cool, but for now, to me, it is a distraction. All in all, pretty incredible stuff. Also incredible was the Prairie Falcon that launched itself off the cliff. It turned out to be my only one for the trip. You never know what may turn up at these little stops...

By the time, I reached Fort Laramie, the winds were exceeding one million miles per hour. Dust, leaves, small children, and automobiles were all being strewn across the landscape. (I heard one report later that day that a woman's stroller got away from her and they recovered the stroller and child in eastern Nebraska. I can't confirm that report.) Needless to say, strolling around the grounds of this pivotal western fort was a bit tough. But, so worth it.

In a nutshell, sometime around 1815 or 1816, a Jacques La Ramee was trapping the area with some others. He disappeared. Arapahoe Indians were accused of knockin’ him off so the trading camp was named in his honor. By the 1830s, the camp had become an honest fort and before long it was a major economic hub in the West. The Mormon Trail? The Oregon Trail? The very short-lived Pony Express? They all passed through here. After gold was discovered in the Black Hills, the region became embroiled in what is now the Sioux War of 1876-77. Guess what was a major base of operations? Yeah, Fort Laramie. The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad pretty much sunk the place. By 1890, the place was abandoned. (The picture on the left is taken from inside the old admin building across the parade ground to the barracks. Notice the flag.)

A true highlight was when the interpreter there (those people know everything!) allowed me into one of the rooms at the Sutler's Cabin. What is the Sutler's Cabin? The buying, selling and trading of goods occurred here. Coffee. A saddle. Whiskey. Anything you needed could be found here. It is kinda like Wal-Mart but without the labor issues. Everybody was in that building at some point. Today, you view the room through a plexiglass door. She keyed me in. The counter, shaped like a giant “L”, was partly reconstructed. I stood at, and touched, the original counter. (In the picture, you can clearly see which side of the counter is the original.) Mind you, this building was built around 1849 (it is considered one of the olden buildings in Wyoming). Jim Bridger, the mountain man? George Custer? Crazy Horse? Richard B. Garnett, the commander of Laramie in 1853 (who went on to be blown to pieces at Pickett’s Charge 10 years later)? They all touched it. So did I. The only thing I needed to complete the feel of the moment was some money and someone to barter with.

After taking pics and enjoying the place for quite a while, I moved along. I pulled over for gas in a small town. Despite preventive measures taken by the owner, the door of the station could get the best of you in a stiff wind. I was at the counter paying for my banana when a charming old lady (I mean OLD) entered the building. At least, she tried to enter. As she pulled the door open and began to enter, the door got away from her and pinned in the door frame just like a mouse gets caught by the wire in a trap. In a heartbeat, I was at the door and got it open. “Are you okay?”, I asked. “Yes, I am. Thank you very much.”, she said as she continued on her way. “You know, you remind me of Jim Bridger. He was quite a nice man, too....” She was THAT old.

Moving east still, I wanted to continue to check out some historic sites. For the birder, the Nebraska panhandle is home to some pretty cool western birds, including Prairie Falcon and White-throated Swifts. With luck, Long-billed Curlew, Mountain Plover, Pinyon Jay, and Lewis's Woodpecker are possible, too.

In a short time, I was at Scotts Bluff National Monument, Nebraska. Rising hundreds of feet off the otherwise flat landscape, this landmark was key during the Oregon Trail days. After securing lodging and a quick dinner, I shot off for an evening of birding and photography. The winds made any landscape photography with a tripod impossible. The 400mm lens I use for wildlife photography might as well be a sail when used in the open, so it was basically site-seeing and birding.

A quick trip to Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area was barely worth it. The only bird that thought they winds were tolerable where the Mountain Bluebird. Their colors, by the way, are never less than stunning. (Keep in mind, there is not much green in mid-April outside of the pines).

I also managed shots of the bluff from the shelter of my car. I think, ultimately, the winds worked in my favor. All that dust turned the sunset into something spectacular. The bluffs were gorgeous...

Goofy Chickens - Part 1

April 12, 2010

The 3:30 am wake-up was hardly a big deal. Traveling west is always awesome. Getting up early is soooo easy. By 4:00am, Fred and I were on the old bus heading to Granada (Colorado, not Grenada, Nicaragua. That drive would honk on a school bus.). We met a crew of people from an Eagle-Eye Tours group and shot off to the lek. The crescent moon and Jupiter at dawn? Stunning. Fortunately, the temps were very pleasant. In fact, I was dressed a bit too warm.

In the early light, if you looked real close, you see these little black blobs jumping up over the grasses. As the light got better, lo and behold, the blobs had feathers and red air sacs. Bingo! Lesser-Prairie Chicken! #631. All the while, that bizarro bubbling was heard. How cool. We figured there were at least 10 chickens on the lek.

With a scope, the view at 100 yards (?) was very satisfying. What more could you ask for? Well, okay, one thing – shorter grass. I was a bit surprised at the height of the grass. It was much taller than I expected.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, while we were enjoying chicken stuff, Norma was cooking up a great breakfast. She would not give me the recipe for the eggs. Damn good. A family recipe, apparently. I swore she was a lost relative but she wouldn't buy it. Biscuits and gravy. Juice. An awesome way to start the day.

Unfortunately, the “on-again off-again” Barn Owl that was known to some roost in the box car was not to be seen that morning. So, with that, it was off to Casper, Wyoming.

That drive was clearly the worst part of the trip. 400+ miles was a drag. Fortunately, the posted speed limits in both Colorado and Wyoming are “warp factor 10” but I was only comfortable doing 7.5 or 8.

Grass, grass, grass, grass, and more grass. If you are going to bird this part of the country in April, you had better like grass. For that matter, you had better like grass any time of year that you are here. I saw it all. Tall grass. Short grass. Brown grass. Tan. Yellow. Blowing in the wind. Standing tall. Grass grass grass. Everywhere.

Some parts of Wyoming had land that looked very much like the Badlands (they are not far). Both Bald and Golden Eagles were tallied along the way. Beyond that, folks, from the expressway, the bird pickings were pretty light.

Casper, the second largest town in Wyoming with about 50,000 people, is tucked away in the east/central part of the state. Lodging was secured in no time. I was hoping to see some ghosts ...

Dinner was at Sanford's Pub and Grub. (I would link to the place's site, but there seems to be some trouble. Maybe try it yourself sometime.) What a total trip. Keeping with theme of Looney Tune characters, 15 foot tall statues of Bug Bunny and Daffy Duck greet you. Oh, the alligators are pretty out of place, too. If you are one of those people who fear clowns, this place will be the death of you – there are troops of them parachuting from ceiling. You can find them right next to the motorcycles, P-47s, and a whole host of other weird crap all wrapped around a place that is rooted in a 1950's stainless steel diner theme. What a crazy place. The beers were both quite good as well – Red Line Amber Ale (#735) and Oil Can ESB (#736). I recommend Red Line over the Oil Can ESB. Boy, those extra special bitters will really pucker ya…..

As fate would have it, these were the ONLY new beers I had on this trip. While many of the small towns of Colorado have their own breweries, the ones were I would spend my time, didn't. Nebraska? Forget it. No beer culture in the western panhandle (for that matter, there are basically no people in the western panhandle....). Wyoming? Sanford's was it in Casper so far as I could tell.

(It needs to be noted, by the way, that I was not originally going to drive to Casper. After lurking on line, I found a fellow from the University of Wyoming who was prepared to take me to a lek near Laramie, Wyoming. Apparently, this lek is rather tricky to get to, especially for an out-of-towner driving in the dark. So, he offered to meet me and guide me there. Well, he scouted the place out a few days before my departure. No go. The snow from winter had thawed and then froze repeatedly. Even his 4x4 could not get him over what were now glaciated fields. Even if we waited for warmer weather, there was the risk of mud fields impairing access . Regardless, there was a solid chance I was simply not going to get there in the early part of my trip. Fortunately, thanks to my iPhone and email, I knew this before I headed north. So, instead of the drive to Laramie, I just kept going when I got to Cheyenne and continued to Casper.)

After dinner, I scouted the Hat Six Lek. This is a well known Wyoming Greater Sage-Grouse lek and is named after the road that runs right next to it. The lek was a key location for my trip and I wanted to make sure I knew where I was going when I had to find it in the dark. (Apparently, there is lek not far from there called the Sock Nine lek…)

As the sun was setting behind the mountains west of the lek, I managed to see four grouse! Life bird #632. No courtship. No pop. No sizzle. They were just standing there looking cool. Two were right next to each other looking like they were going to either strike up a conversation or punch each other’s lights out at any minute.

The real show was in morning....

Departure For Chicken Country

April 11, 2010

It is not very often I get to have a getaway in April. That is just how things can be. So, when I was able to scoot away for a few days, I had some options. While a ton of places can be quite appealing in April, one place I wanted to see for sure was Colorado and Wyoming. While I have been to both places in the past, this trip was shaping up to be a bit different.

For one thing, life bird potential was pretty damned low. Two new birds were possible: Greater Sage-Grouse and Lesser Prairie-Chicken (Fortunately for me, I had some success in Colorado some years ago and did not need to worry about White-tailed Ptarmigan or Gunnison Sage Grouse. I had 'em both.) Both birds are easy to find in April.

Plus, I was also looking to turn this into a social trip. My buddy Joe lives in Denver now. But his schedule got so jammed up after his return from a month of birding in Mexico that the possibility of spending the week birding with him and his wife disappeared pretty quickly. A good friend from college lived (note past tense) in Fort Collins. As this trip was starting to materialize, her husband took a job in Houston. They beat it on down to Texas a few weeks before I got there. So, what was supposed to be birding, photography, history, and social stuff quickly became, for the most part, birding, photography, and history…solo.

Check in at the airport here in Detroit was a breeze. My luggage? 49 pounds. And at what weight do they start to charge you extra? Yeah, you guessed it – 50 pounds. Damn, I'm good.

After arrival in Denver and the rental was secured I hustled off to Holly, Colorado (which is practically Kansas). Reservoirs north of Lamar were a nice start with various dabbling ducks scrounging food. I was not expecting the Lapland Longspur at all. But it was the first few Swainson’s Hawks that really set the tone – yup, I’m out west!

A quick stop at the Amache National Historic Site scored one of the best bird views of the trip. A few feet outside my window? A covey of Scaled Quail. I was so hoping one would pose for me. As if on command, he jumped on a log and sat there like he owned the place. So cooperative. Apparently, a bad winter a few years back wiped many of them out in this area and they have been hard to find. They do seem to be making a slow comeback…

The Amache Camp (officially known as the Granada Relocation Center), by the way, is a site that holds a place in one of the darker chapters of American history. The United States was not a good place be for citizens of Japanese heritage in the days following December 7th, 1941 (I suspect it was a lot like being Muslim on September 12th, 2001). A few weeks after the attack at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese-Americans (thousands of them) were rounded up and sent off to camps throughout the western states. Camp Amache, is southeastern Colorado, was one of those sites. While the buildings are long gone, the foundations all remain.

Dinner in Holly was at Porky's Parlor. Perfect after a long drive. You can’t go wrong with Mexican food.

Oh, wait. I didn’t completely explain the grouse/chicken thing, did I?

First, you need to know what a lek is. It is a location where the males strut and make a bizarre calling sound (depending on the species) hoping the onlooking females, who are ready to breed, choose them. They (the males) get all rowdy while the females hang back and figure out who looks the best or has the best location on the lek. It is really a lot like a college bar. Seriously. The guys try their damndest to do everything right so they can impress the ladies and take 'em home. They try and look good or maybe flash a few bucks and buy them drinks. Burning up the dance floor is an option, too. Ultimately, it is the same thing: it's a chore for the guys while it is a choice for the chicks. In contrast, however, grouse don't have wingmen and certainly don't wear scummy looking baseball caps showing off letters from an ancient language. I'm also pretty sure grouse won't vomit on a date if they do too many Depthcharges...

One thing to keep in mind with grouse that use leks is this: the locations of the leks don't change. They are like death, taxes, and annoying people - they will always be there. Period. Every spring, year after year, you can visit the same chunk of real estate and see the show. Finding a lek, in many cases, is as easy as finding the local brewery. Just get the location from the locals or look it up on line. Go to the site on an April morning before sunrise and they will be there. At least they should be…

Unfortunately, not all is well in chicken land. The Lesser Prairie-Chicken (slightly smaller than the Greater Prairie-Chicken – really!) is in some trouble. In fact, there is talk about placing them on the Endangered Species List. It is all about habitat loss. You know the drill. Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas are the only places to find them. As I understand it, the only public lek in Colorado has been closed off. Fewer and fewer birds were coming to the lek so the State shut down public access. The next closest public lek is in southwest Kansas.

The keyword here is “public”. In the grand tradition of eco-tourism, Fred and Norma Dorenkamp in eastern Colorado, a hop, skip and jump from Kansas, made arrangements with neighbors. Said neighbors have Lesser Prairie-Chicken leks on private property. One can spend the night at the Dorenkamp's house, head over to the lek early the next day with a guide, return back for a monster breakfast and be on their way. Awesome stuff, huh?

By sunset (after checking out the Burrowing Owls up the road), I found myself standing on the Dorenkamp’s driveway in awe of the Milky Way (not the candy bar). That said, there are little things that look like Milky Ways (yes, the candy bar) all over the place. Such is cow country. Venus and Mercury were in the western sky just like they had been a few night before back home. Funny how those things work out.

Thursday, April 8, 2010


According to my sources, saliva, otherwise known as drool, contains water for the most part. Apparently, human drool in 98% water. Did you know that? The other 2% is really yummy stuff. You know, mucus (mmmm...), electrolytes, enzymes, and a weeeeee bit of epidermal growth factor.

Tonight, with my dinner, I had some drool. In fact, it was some pretty damned good drool. But it wasn't human drool. It came from a Moose. I swear.

It contained mostly water (as you would expect) but there were some ingredients not normally found in moose spit. Malts, hops, and yeast.

Moose Drool, from the Big Sky Brewing Company, is, simply put, extraordinary from top to bottom. It pours with a light tan head and dissipates in about 30 seconds. Held to the light, a beautiful but slight ruby cast cuts through the brown. Awesome. Slight roasted tones on the nose and palate. Smooth. Nuts on the finish. Incredible from start to end. A 5 out of 5 for sure. No doubt about it.

But don't take my word for it. As I wrote this, I read that Draft Magazine rated Moose Drool as the best brown ale in the United States.

I knew this was going to be some good spit. Waaaay back in 2003, I had vacationed in Montana. While I don't recall exactly where I had it, I had it. I remembered it being awesome and the name stuck with me. Interestingly enough, my beer notes don't show it, but I know I had it.

It was so good, I might just go have another. My mouth is watering just thinking about it....