Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Oh, Hello Again!

Yeah so it looks like I dropped off the planet for a little while. Last post was in.. September! Well, there are some reasonable reasons for this, which I won't get into, BECAUSE there are


 A little Kestrel sketch I made before leaving Nevada.

I just finished up a wild field season in Nevada with Great Basin Bird Observatory (I swear I didn't name my blog after theirs), and my love, Bobby is heading back to Brazil for more bird guiding. So what's next for this flighty feather? Well, as you know, I've always tried to do a little writing and drawing while working in the field, it helps me relax and process the knowledge I gain and feel connected to the places I travel. But lately, I've been feeling a stronger and stronger pull in the creative direction. When I left Baltimore almost 5 years ago, I was sort of running away from a creative life that I had cultivated and felt betrayed by. It took some serious soul-searching to realize I cannot run away from this part of myself. Perhaps you know what I mean? Perhaps you have some perspective or activity or side of yourself that, when ignored, you start to feel a little zombie-ish - placid and uninvolved?

Sort of like this red-blood-cell-shaped cloud, no intentions, just floating...

I am excited (and a little nervous) to announce that while Bobby is playing squash with baby tapirs in the Amazon, (ok so I am a little jealous), I will be striking out on my own in pursuit of creative inspiration! I will be traveling throughout the US as summer sizzles into fall, visiting friends and working diligently to create a viable art practice. That's right, I have decided, once and for all, to go out on a limb - not for the bird on the end of it this time, but trying my hand at full-time arting! And now that you all know about it, I have to do it!!! (the classic accountability trick). But really, I am very excited about it, so stay tuned for the next post (I promise it won't be 6 months from now) in which I share with you my plan.

Monday, September 11, 2017



Imagine walking down a wooded path, darkly shaded by trees drenched in vines, bromeliads and moss. All around you, unfamiliar trills and whistles echo from unseen birds, hidden in shadows and behind curtains of foliage. A clear-winged butterfly sails by on panes of delicate stained glass. The air smells wet, maybe even a little musty. 

As you round a bend in the dim trail, you come upon what sounds like a 4th of July block party hosted by miniature Star Wars LARPers, complete with firecrackers and light-saber battles. This exuberant chorus of snaps, pops, and wah-wah-wah-whirrs emanates from a gang of testosterone-driven White-bearded Manakins, billiard-sized birds who puff out their long snowy-feathered beards and snap their wings as they skip along the forest floor in a dance competition that has been going on for millennia.

Now imagine if 20 years ago, this wood was an open field grazed by zebu cattle, their heavy shoulder humps and long neck skin waddling as they trundled along well worn paths. This is not an imaginary place. And it did not happen without hard work and unpopular dedication.

Today, the Reserva Ecológica de Guapiaçu, or REGUA for short, snakes through bucolic farmland and scales the sheer faces of the intimidating, jungle-draped, ancient granite mountains called Serra dos Orgaos, that loom 40 miles northeast of Brazil's urban epicenter, Rio de Janeiro.  Covering over 10,000 hectares and still growing with the help of organizations such as Rainforest Trust and World Land Trust, this privately managed, community-centric reserve evolved from much humbler beginnings.

Nicholas Locke will greet you with a hearty laugh and smack on the back. Always dressed in preppy Englishman plaid button-downs, with a sweater draped over his shoulders and a small wool herders cap perched atop short salt-and-peppered hair, he skips from Portuguese to English without hesitation, seamlessly breaking his discussion with Brazilian researchers to welcome international visitors to his woodland empire. From there, the lovely Raquel Locke will take over with a warm smile and grace we haven't seen since classic Hollywood actresses. Hailing from Buenos Aires, Raquel adds Argentinian Castellano to her fluent repertoire, but her genuine enthusiasm shines through in all three languages (plus some French, seriously??). 

Over the last quarter-century, this power couple has transformed a humble agricultural dynasty into a conservation engine for an ecosystem that needs it more, perhaps, than any other on Earth. Stay tuned as I continue to learn about the power of tree planting, land acquisition, and unbridled passion to rebuild biodiversity from the ground up.

Voldenor Trail 9/11



Today is the 16th anniversary of the terrorist attack we all know as Nine-Eleven. I was in high school when it happened, and I remember many of my friends going white with fear as we gazed at the televised images of the Pentagon burning. Their dads or moms or uncles worked there, and they had no idea if they were still alive. I was 16 years old then, sort of wondering, sort of not, whether the world was really ending. Twice a lifetime later, with a tad deeper understanding of ecology and global environmental issues, I still can't seem to shake that feeling. But I have found a decent coping strategy: birdwatching. The tunnel vision that a pair of decent binoculars affords helps to block out the underlying dread for humanity's future, even if for a moment. Plus it has proved to be a useful skill much appreciated by conservation biologists, and currently, conservation-supporting tourists. This nine-eleven of twenty-seventeen, I am on the other hemisphere, walking up a dirt road in the mountains of Brazil with one of the world's most respected experts in conservation biology. And we're both geeking out about a hummingbird.

No bigger than my thumb, the Frilled Coquette sports a neon red mohawk and zebra-striped cheek feathers that flare out in the sun, looking almost like gills of a fish. He stretches his wings and zooms off with purpose: to sip nectar from “his” flowers, then return to the perch and wait for the flowers to refill. A creature so strange it seems nearly impossible that evolution produced it, and we all gaze at him through binoculars and cameras and gasp when he spreads his tiny red tail. We meaning me; Bobby; a lovely clinical scientist named Annie from England; Clinton Jenkins, a research professor with Instituto de Pesquisas Ecologicas outside of Sao Paulo; and Stuart Pimm.

If you are involved in conservation biology, you probably don't need an introduction for Stuart. For the rest of us, he has wire-rimmed aviator glasses, gray hair beneath his mesh army bucket hat, his pants tucked into his socks, and that sparkly enthusiastic intelligence that gets students to sit up in their chairs and become some of the world's most important professional scientists. He is the Doris Duke Chair of Conservation Ecology in the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, decorated by awards, published 250+ peer-reviewed scientific articles, and a bunch of popular science books that I will promptly look for on Kindle or wait begrudgingly until April to find in the States. His prolific work spans a breadth of fields, from saving species, to training scientists in Africa and China to be better conservationists, to developing technology that seeks out biodiversity hotspots using satellite imagery. And he's the nicest freakin guy I've met in a while, so absolutely lovely and inspiring that it almost makes me want to go to grad school.

He and Clinton, his former academic advisee and good friend, are visiting REGUA to catch up with Nicholas and another colleague, Maria Alice do Santos Alves from the State University of Rio, but they wanted to get out and see some birds. Bobby and I are “guiding” this walk, although the guidance is mutual; as we point out species, Stuart relays interesting news about recent genetic findings or recounts his adventures such as being helicoptered to the top of the mountains in search of the rare Gray-Winged Cotinga, and the helicopter never coming back (his field journal published by National Geographic here). Or boating deep up the Amazon river to visit a student mapping territories of endemic spinetails. Or trekking deep into the rainforest of Peru to meet a group of Guarani being studied by a former student, where she is helping to facilitate the passing of deep ethnobotanical knowledge from the elder population to their grandchildren before it is lost to globalization. Stuart is one of those completely unpretentious, giddy professors who can't help but take advantage of every 'teaching moment' that arises. 

Last night, Bobby and I were asked to put on a presentation about the Hooded Grebe Project, a conservation effort in Patagonia for which we have volunteered two seasons and plan to return again this coming year. The Hooded Grebe is a critically endangered bird with numerous threats to its existence, and the Project has been tackling them one by one. After our presentation, which closed with Bobby's premier footage of a grebe pair performing their exotic and elaborate mating dance, Stuart expressed his enthusiasm in a succinct and effective way: "We cannot let that go extinct!"

I feel incredibly lucky and grateful for the opportunity to spend even a short time with such amazing scientists and conservationists like Stuart and Clinton. It makes me, and even 16-year-old me, hopeful for the future of the planet that such hard-working, passionate people exist on it. And inspires me to work harder to find my own ways to contribute.

Here's a few photos from our hike:

Bobby photographing the extremely venomous Bothrops jararaca
that we just almost stepped on

Cresent-chested Puffbird

Scary horsefly, just cz the photo turned out so good

 Frilled Coquete. Unfortunately this photo didn't turn out so good.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Falcons return to the Mississippi with help from surprising places

The late summer sun was fading over a languid Mississippi river, turning the cloudless sky into an ever-so subtle collage of pastels, like the way movie theatres used to illuminate the screen before showtime. Swirling through the warm air, hundreds of chimney swifts dipped and fluttered after mayflies. Semis and SUVs pummeled across the river too, leaping the aquatic hurdle between Iowa and Illinois supported by a handsome suspension bridge, called the Great River Bridge at Burlington, Iowa.

I’ve been to this waterfront a handful of times, usually to scope the Purple Martin houses for occupants. But I had never heard the sound that echoed down from the top of the H-shaped bridge supports that evening. Faint, but unmistakable: the rhythmic screeching of a Peregrine Falcon!

Even with binoculars, the falcon circling the bridge was just a speck in the sky, distinguished from the much smaller swifts by its powerful flight. I watched it twirl upward and land on the top railing, just a tiny smudge against the darkening sky. This seemed an unusual location to me, but I had no idea how monumental it was to see a Peregrine along the Mississippi, until I looked into the recent history of the falcons in the Midwest.

Peregrines are well known as a conservation success story in the United States. They have the widest global range of any bird species, inhabiting every continent except Antarctica. Some sub populations migrate tens of thousands of miles each year, including the Canadian arctic subspecies which migrates to Argentina for the winter. The Latin ‘peregrinus’ means traveler or wanderer. This is a hardy bird.

But in the mid-twentieth century, Peregrines and other birds of prey were dwindling at an alarming rate. Rachel Carson’s famous Silent Spring alerted the public to the threat: the pesticide DDT was moving up the food chain, concentrating in the bodies of raptors and other top predators. The chemical reduced the integrity of raptor eggshells, causing doting parents to accidentally crush them in the nest while attempting to incubate. By the time DDT was made illegal, Peregrines in particular were on the brink of extinction. There was never a country-wide survey of the population before the introduction of DDT, but limited historical data suggests an estimate at 3,875 nesting pairs. By the 1960s, Peregrines were extinct in their eastern range, and by 1975 only 324 known nesting pairs remained in the western states. The species was declared federally endangered in 1973, just a year after DDT was banned.

Thanks to the clever efforts of falconers and wildlife biologists (more about their hilarious yet effective tactics here: http://www.earthtouchnews.com/all-articles/2016/march/03/behold-the-falcon-sex-hat-a-species-saving-hump-helmet/), Peregrines have made a comeback, particularly in large metropolitan areas on the East Coast. Since their prefered nesting sites are high cliffs, and their favorite food sources are large flying creatures, they have filled a niche in cities by nesting on skyscrapers and bridges, and providing a convenient service to urbanites by picking off feral pigeons.

If you are from, or have ever been to the Midwest, you might wonder if Peregrines ever lived there. After all, the lack of elevation change might preclude them from nesting. However, historical records do indicate nests along the ridges and bluffs of the Mississippi prior to their population crash. But that’s a long way away from the East coast, and despite the fact that Peregrines are able to migrate to the southern tip of Argentina and back in a year, the birds needed a little help getting a population started again in the Midwest. And they got it from an unlikely source: heavy industry.

Enter Bob Anderson, passionate falconer and conservationist living in Minnesota in the 80s. Inspired by other captive breeders’ success in the east, Bob took it upon himself to help reintroduce falcons to Minnesota. But there’s a problem when it comes to rewildling these powerful hunters. Falcons imprint on their nest site, meaning if a licensed falconer raises chicks in a backyard breeding facility they may continue to return each spring as adults. This may be helpful for training purposes, but not for rewilding an endangered population.

So what’s a rewilder to do? Look for a place that is high up, safe from people and predators such as raccoons and Great-horned Owls, that can act as a surrogate imprinting site. It’s called hacking, a method borrowed by conservationists from the centuries-long history of falconry. The banded, captive-bred chicks are brought to a high cliff or other suitable nesting place in a hack-box, a secure cage with viewing windows for the birds to see and acclimate to their surroundings, while being fed by human parents. In the final days before fledging, a cache of food is left for them and the door is opened, allowing the young birds to practice flying and hunting with little influence and disruption of human presence. Monitored from afar, they are fed surreptitiously until they no longer need it, and they leave on their own time. The method was working on the east coast in various natural and man-made structures.

And that’s exactly what Bob did. His first success was in 1986 from the top of City Center, now called Multi-Foods Tower in Minneapolis, where he released his young fledgling named MF-1 (after the Minnesota Falconer’s Association for which she was produced). The next spring, MF-1 returned to a nest box Bob constructed for her on the top of the skyscraper and raised two chicks of her own - the first wild Peregrines in the Midwest since the 1960s. Not destined to be a one-hit-wonder, MF-1 continued her reign of the City Center tower for 7 more years before being mortally injured in the most honorable way a falcon can - duking it out with a rival female. In the meantime, she produced a daughter who turned out to be another very special falcon in the Midwest.

in 1988, Bob founded Raptor Resource Project, Inc, an organization with a mission to preserve birds of prey through nest site restoration, creation, monitoring and maintenance. Meanwhile, a falconer by the name of Paul Simonet was working at Xcel Energy’s Allen S. King power plant, a natural-gas combined-cycle generator that burns 300 tons of coal an hour. https://www.xcelenergy.com/energy_portfolio/electricity/power_plants/allen_s._king . He saw a male Peregrine hanging around the stacks and excitedly called his friend Bob up with the news. A hopeful but unconvinced Bob came over and, seeing the falcon along with prime nesting potential, began building a relationship with the facility to install a nest box up on the catwalk. Bob and other falcon conservationists monitored the box closely, and discovered in 1990 a young falcon hanging around as if to stay. It turned out to be a banded daughter of MF-1, named Mae, back from her first winter on her own. To the delight of Bob and other enthusiasts, Mae laid a clutch in the nest box on top of the energy plant, hatching a new era of cooperation between conservationists and industry in the midwest.

Bob and RRP partnered with several industrial enterprises across Minnesota and eventually expanding into Iowa. The first industrial nest boxes were all adopted voluntarily by new members (aka dispersing young) of the burgeoning population. After this initial success, as well as receiving results from heavy metals testing in industrial-nesting falcons that revealed no significant increase as compared to urban or control birds, RRP began intentionally releasing young raptors from industrial sites in hope that they would return to nest themselves.

This partnership between conservation and industry may seem ironic. Coal and oil are some of the biggest culprits of greenhouse gases contributing to global warming. But Bob saw an opportunity and ran with it. According to Amy Reis of RRP, Bob worked closely with the plant managers and staff. “He actively maintained relationships with all of our industrial partners: cleaning up messy areas, responding to calls for information and assistance, transporting injured birds when necessary, maintaining and moving nest boxes, and working with the press to raise interest in and awareness of the falcons and the companies that were so crucial to their recovery.” Nesting on smokestacks does have its hazards, such as flying into wires or other tall structures. But apparently it is no more dangerous than the alternative, as smoke stack nests continue to produce more fledglings than either natural or urban sites. And the mortality rate doesn’t approach the number of collisions with automobiles and planes.

Most intriguing of all is the effect the raptors’ presence has on the industrial communities. While RRP has not conducted any formal survey of staff, they note significant enthusiasm for the birds, including an increase in cooperation with RRP in reporting avian mortalities and injuries. Bob also cultivated public support through then-innovative means: nest cams! His first web cam project, “possibly the first internet-based bird cam” according to RRP, featured Mae atop the Allen S. King Plant in 1998, and exposed thousands of viewers to the intimate home life of these previously mysterious creatures.  In her eighth year as Xcel queen, she became a celebrity followed closely by viewers for the rest of her 14-year breeding reign, when she faced the same honorable demise of her mother, at the talons of a rival.

By 1998, the populations of eastern Peregrines were rebounding successfully, reaching pre-DDT estimates of one to two thousand pairs. But something was bugging Bob. Despite a growing midwest population, the raptors had not yet begun nesting on their historical eyries on the cliffs above the Mississippi. He decided to conduct a hack program from Effigy Mounds National Monument in northeastern Iowa. The program was a success, and a few years later, not only was the Peregrine removed from the Federal Endangered Species list, but Bob watched proudly as young from his industrial nest boxes began breeding with the Effigy Mounds progeny, completing the link between history and the future, and strengthening the genes and nesting-site elasticity of midwestern Peregrines.

Unfortunately, Bob passed away in July of last year, 2015. He continued his work with passion, even rappelling down stacks and cliffs to band chicks until the last years of his life. Yet, his legacy continues to trickle down the Mississippi. His captive-bred chicks have contributed over 1500 progeny in the US and Canada over the past three decades, adding to the efforts of Iowa and Minnesota Departments of Natural Resources own captive-breeding projects. As of summer 2016, MF-1 could boast being mother, grandmother, etc to 512 wild descendents, according to the dedicated monitoring of RRP. The Great River Bridge in Iowa is tricky place to resight bands, but it has been occupied for the last ten years. Perhaps some of Bob’s extended feathered family have nested up there too. In the last few years, World Bird Sanctuary, Inc in St. Louis has successfully released Peregrines along their length of the MIssissippi, extending their reach further into the historic range.

Thanks to the innovative, open-minded dedication of Bob and other falcon conservationists, the piercing cry of the Peregrine can be heard echoing over the Mississippi once more.

Special thanks to Amy Reis of Raptor Research Project and Pat Schlarbaum of Iowa Dept of Natural Resources for taking time out of their busy schedules to answer my questions via email.

Thursday, October 13, 2016


Let me keep my mind on what matters,

which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.

-Mary Oliver

Southeastern Iowa, August 2016

Birders aren't exactly renowned for their impetuous outdoor prowess. The term 'bird-watcher' might conjure images of retirees scooting excitedly from forest to pond in matching Exofficio gear and floppy hats, or just gathering around hummingbird feeders like paparazzi to the tiny feathered celebrities.

However, as an avian field technician, aka professional bird-nerd, I spend more time in uncomfortable situations than most people would choose. For instance, standing statue-still while being marauded by armies of blood-thirsty mosquitoes in order to get a good look at an unidentified bird without scaring it away. Or climbing up and down a razor-back ridge line of scree slopes that seem to be falling out from under my feet faster than I can make any progress, in the hot summer sun, to count and measure plants at 300m intervals. Or hiding in the lee of a shallow crater on the stark Patagonian plateau while 120km sustained winds sandblast my teeth and fill my tent in a thick layer of grit, for hours until the cloudless storm passed.

I don't enjoy any of these things. I love how these situations infuse adventure into my work, but I'm not a masochistic adrenaline junkie or stamina performance artist. In fact, many field biologists value comfort. We gather tools and clothing that can protect our delicate bodies from the elements in order to make endurance a little more bearable. Many wear long pants and sleeves, in all weather, as a shield against cancer-causing sun, biting insects, and scratching brush. Sturdy boots protect supple soles from sharp rocks and thorns while hiking for miles off trail. Sometimes a mosquito head-net is the only thing that keeps us sane enough to concentrate. This summer, I even jumped in the field-gear deep-end and got gaiters – little fabric “skirts” that are worn over boot tops, so rocks and grass seeds don't pour in by the gallon. Seriously, this saved me hours of picking needle-sharp Bromus tectorum from my socks at camp each night.

But sometimes I wonder what I'm missing. Part of the reason I got into this work was to connect myself more deeply to the natural world. Most of the time, however, I still feel like an outside observer, this clumsy, boot-clodding, bino-swinging alien, lugging a giant pack full of everything I need to survive in the wild because I am a human that can't survive in the wild. I can't exist in nature as I am. Or so I am told by my modern upbringing, and outfitters who develop high-tech must-have gear for my every outdoor adventure need.

Unless you are a member of a nudist colony, an “un-contacted” tribe deep in the Amazon, or the Yaghan, original inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego, you probably grew up wearing clothes. In addition to fire, clothing is one of the most important inventions in human history, allowing our ancestors to populate every corner of a planet with highly dynamic climates. It has also been a source of immense creativity, which can be appreciated by the dazzling diversity of fashions throughout history and all over the world.

Today I wandered to the edge of the prairie, stripped off all my clothes, and stepped in. Tall-grass prairies once blanketed much of Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota, before the plow converted it all to corn and soybeans. A few remnants persist in un-mowed ditches, old cemeteries, a handful of nature reserves, and private restoration plots like the one I am lucky enough to be staying by right now.

If you've never seen a tall-grass prairie, in late summer it's almost like Honey I Shrunk the Kids. The Indian grass is starting to bloom and its frilly, lance-shaped flower clusters emerge from their sheaths around eye-level. In a week, it will tower alongside all the Big Blue Stem, which waves its three-pronged tassels a few feet above my head. Wild sunflowers, descendants of early Native American cultivars, reach even higher, their friendly faces bowing over the prairie in a hot breeze. And it's unwelcomingly dense. Every cubic inch between grass stalks is packed with wildflowers – milkweed and coneflower, boneset and ragweed, partridge pea and others. Like climbing through a fully stuffed dress rack at Goodwill and disappearing on the other side, it feels more like swimming than walking in this mirror maze of photosynthesis and wings.

As I pressed carefully into the glowing green curtains, thousands of flying insects buzzed in my ears and around fragrant goldenrod. Butterflies flit and grasshoppers flung themselves out of my path. Tiny flower-flies disguised as bees vacated their positions on stamens to land on my skin and tap their probosces between my freckles. A pair of mating praying mantis swiveled their heads to glare at my interruption. I tiptoed carefully around a wasp as big as my thumb. My toes were surprised to meet patches of cool damp soil and painful blackberry vines winding between the shoots. The soft grass flower-heads tickled as they threaded between my legs.

I continued, glancing back at the herbal curtain shutting firmly behind me, locking me in. I wasn't sure what I was looking for. I hoped a bird would flush from a hidden nest but it's late in the season; only a single Field Sparrow trilled his bouncing ball song in the hazy distance. It wasn't as bad as I expected. The sun was shaded by cottony cumulus and I had yet to meet a mosquito. Slowly, awkwardly, I squatted down into a space the size of a bathroom wastebasket, watching the towering grasses grow even taller, engulfing the space between me and the sky. Ringing of crickets hidden deep in the grass grew louder. The smell of dank earth and roots reaching deep into soil commingled with the scent of my own skin, complimenting it: my animal fragrance.

I laid back, the grass reclining with me until I was looking up at the clouds. Something about it felt strangely familiar, and I realized, I'd been here before, but in a dream. I looked down at my knees jutting up and remembered a vision I created over a decade ago: ink screen-printed on tan paper with rough edges, the image of a supine nude body from first person perspective, surrounded by blonde and auburn grasses, with one nipple occupied by a miniature girl standing there shyly in pink socks. The fantastical image vaguely represented my reluctance to let go of a childhood sense of wonder. Today, I had brought a piece of paper and pencil with me into the prairie, just in case inspiration struck. But I didn't feel like I needed them after this revelation. As if predicting this future moment, I had already painted this scene long ago, the little girl begging me not to forget what I am constantly endeavoring to sustain.

Looking up from the cradle of grass, time warp haze buzzed in my head along with the flies, and a hot sun burst from behind the clouds. Bugs were landing on me and the grass was itching my back. Like that awful, disorienting feeling of waking from a deep nap, I sat up and tried to find reality. The flies were biting now and a I swear a leaping frog hit my spine and disappeared into the green. As if refreshed by the beating sun, humid breath wafted from each trembling blade.

I stood up, it's time to go.

I stumbled back toward open air, where my skin wasn't being licked by a thousand knife-edged leaves. I threw on my clothes and headed back to the house, in a dreamy, satisfied state with tiny yellow grass flowers in my hair and a burning sensation growing stronger on my skin. What I thought was going to be a mini act of defiance against my own cultural habits had served to connect me to myself, in a thread through time, as well as to the sensations of the earth.

After a cold shower, I saw in the mirror that my back looked like it had been attacked by a hundred rabid kittens. There's a reason grass leaves are called blades. The greatest evolutionary feat of grass is its ability to grow back after being eaten. But it would rather avoid being eaten in the first place, and has a few tricks to deter ravenous vegetarians.

If you look at a grass leaf under a microscope, you can see that each edge is serrated like a steak knife, like a row of shingled shark teeth, ready to slice anything that slides along it, such as the vulnerably supple tongue of a herbivore. This doesn't seem to deter the herds that (used to) blanket plains in Africa or the central United States, but if you've ever felt the leathery sandpaper tongue of a cow, you know why. Next time you pick a blade, carefully run your finger down the edge, but don't be surprised if you bleed.

If you look at the surface of the blade, even with the naked eye sometimes, you can see tiny hairs, called trichomes. These hairs help retain moisture in dry or windy conditions by reducing evaporation. Scientists believe they also serve to obstruct the passage of potentially predatory insects, and some trichomes even ooze an irritating substance which causes additional itchiness. Both the serrated edges and the trichomes are made of silica, aka MICROSCOPIC SHARDS OF GLASS.

The silica grinds on all sizes of herbivorous teeth, causing ungulates to evolve extra high crowns and rodents to evolve teeth that never stop growing. It also reduces the digestive abilities of grasshoppers, robbing them of nutrients and carbohydrates. As if that weren't enough, when some grasses are damaged by a herbivore (or your lawn mower), it can trigger the grass to suck up more silica from the soil and incorporate it into the leaf surface, making it even more irritating to potential predators. Or in my case, brashly exposed skin. The First Nations who lived along the Mississippi, growing corn and beans and pumpkins, hunting game and gathering seasonal foods, wore long buckskin leggings to protect their legs from the vegetative and arthropodic onslaught when straying from well-worn paths through wood and field.

Silica and other minerals absorbed by plants, called phytoliths, persist in soil and the geologic record even after the plant has decomposed. Amazingly, highly trained scientists can interpret the structure of phytoliths left in a geologic strata to tell what kinds of plants were present at the time. Some of our major crop species – rice, wheat, corn – are descendents of grass and therefore high in silica. Archeologists can study phytoliths in excavated settlements to help them understand the history of agricultural development, piecing together the story of civilization. Even a few prehistoric human remains have revealed phytolith traces in their teeth, helping archaeologists to understand what plants the ancient people ate. In a way, the very defense mechanisms plants evolved to keep the world at bay now inadvertently serve to connect us, through science, more closely to the past of both humans and nature, to understand the bonds we share.

Evolution is a constant, tinkering push and pull between competing and consuming organisms. Perhaps what's missing from my current “nature connection” philosophy is meeting nature on its own terms, allowing it to bite back sometimes. I don't plan on striding nude through tall-grass prairie again any time soon, but next time I have a picnic, I don't think I'll mind the itchy ankles so much.


Environmentalscience.org “Phytoliths: What they are and what they tell us.” http://www.environmentalscience.org/phytoliths

University of Santa Barbara Science Hotline: “Why does human skin itch when it reacts with grass?”

Indiana Public Media A Moment of Science: “Plant Hair”

J. W. Hunt, A. P. Dean, R. E. Webster, G. N. Johnson, and A. R. Ennos
“A Novel Mechanism by which Silica Defends Grasses Against Herbivory” Annals of Botany 2008

MuseumLink Illinois State: “The Illinois”

Sunday, July 3, 2016


Dawn splashes amber light over the vertical stripes of marsh plants all around me, illuminating the intricately patterned bodies of two silhouettes in a dead cottonwood tree above my head. The silhouettes swivel their heads to look down at me. Razor claws gripping dead branches and golden eyes drooping with sleepiness, they perk up at the hoots of a distant neighboring pair. The male stands up on his perch, leans forward, almost as if he is going to somersault into the marsh, and puffs his white-feathered throat, letting out a low, booming answer. The female joins in with slightly higher-pitched hoots and few cranky yelps. Then they retreat into a huge thorny mesquite where they will doze in the shade until dusk falls and hunger draws them out again. Their nightly pursuits are written in the sand each morning.

If you've never spent much time in the desert, or especially if the only time you have spent is staring out the car window blasting down the interstate at 85mph, you might be tempted to believe there's nothing but a lifeless wasteland out there. Endless shades of brown – tawny sand, rust-tinged hills, dusty mountains carved by winding dry riverbeds, scraggly plants barely squeezing any green into the landscape. Aside from a few wheeling ravens, and ramshackle trailers that may or may not still be occupied by snowbirds, signs of life are slim. That is, until you pull your car over to the shoulder and step into a dry wash to relieve yourself (the nearest gas station still 80 miles away). The glaring sun keeps your eyes low, and scanning the cracked earth you discover a foreign language scrawled across the sand.


I'm standing knee-deep in a crystal clear marsh, but up beyond the bank is a sparse mesquite bosque, each sand-marooned shrub wreathed by tiny footprints – the paired dots of bouncing kangaroo rats, galloping four-paws of desert pocket mice and cottontails, patterned tick-marks of little grasshopper feet, and even the unusual squat-stamps of toads. The night crew of the desert. Alongside the pitter-patter, larger tracks trundle across the open sand, sometimes interrupted by dug holes and messy attacks– coyote, bobcat, raccoon, skunk, and Great Horned Owl. The owl tracks are unmistakable - longer than my forefinger with two toes pointing forward, one pointing back, and one sticking straight out to the side. Owls are what ornithologists call zygodactyl – their inner front toe able to swivel to the back, maximizing the surface area of deadly talon potential during an aerial pounce. The sand here is so fine, I even found a full-spread wing imprint of an owl touching down. But wait, you say, do owls really walk on the ground? These ones apparently do, quite a lot, as evidenced by their sloppy gait traced across the dunes. By the time I arrive at dawn to survey for avian life, the authors of all these stories have tucked in to their burrows, tunnels, and hiding places under dense brush. 

Five years ago, this whole area – the marsh, the mesquite – was a sea of tamarisk. This water-guzzling shrub, also known as salt cedar, was introduced to the west in the 19th century for erosion control as the Colorado river was being dammed, rerouted, channelized, and sucked dry. The trees spread quickly in the upturned earth and now chokes the banks of much of what remains of the Lower Colorado. Tamarisk exemplifies all the worst weed characteristics you can imagine – it grows quickly (up to 12 feet in a season), reproduces generously (one tree can produce 600,000 seeds annually), colonizes disturbed earth rapidly, and spreads by the one method you can't control: wind. The roots suck up and retain water and exude massive amounts of salt, changing the composition of the soil to levels unsuitable for most native riparian plants, thereby creating vast monoculture stands, deprived of birdsong, scurrying rodents, or sun-bathing reptiles. And worst of all, tamarisk is virtually un-killable: it resprouts vigorously from cut stumps, after fire, and even herbicide treatment. In other words, its a BIG problem for conservationists in the west, especially in riparian areas of the Southwest that have been dismantled by development.
 An inspiring scene from recreational Park Moabi, north of Lake Havasu City, with tamarisk in the background.

Not surprisingly, I don't have many photos of tamarisk itself. I think I took this one because I was so startled to find another kind of plant struggling for life beneath the deadly shroud of tamarisk canopy (center bottom).

Sunrise reflecting in irrigation canal, Blythe CA. Notice anything missing? Plants perhaps?

Habitat for local wildlife has been shrinking and fragmenting for centuries, and the effects reach further than the desert. Before industry started rearranging the river for its own purposes, migrating birds like warblers, vireos, and flycatchers followed green ribbons north through deserts and dry sagebrush basins, thousands of miles of verdant cottonwood-lined river valleys from Mexico to the Northwest and boreal Canada. Now there are a few struggling islands of original riparian habitat left, meaning these tiny birds have to fly further across those barren bajadas to find fewer resources during their epic biannual journeys. 

 The resplendent Bill Williams National Wildlife Refuge, one of the last remaining stands of riparian forest along the Lower Colorado. Just try to imagine this snaking all the way up from Mexico to the Grand Canyon.

But all is not lost. For the last three decades, coalitions of federal, state, tribal and conservation groups, including the Bureau of Reclamation, have been developing a methodology to convert reclaimed land along the Lower Colorado back into riparian habitat. Old farm fields no longer in production are replanted with native cottonwoods, willows, mesquite and marsh plants, and irrigated on an intermittent schedule to mimic historic flood cycles. Each project is an experiment with varying results. Some plots attract migratory and breeding birds while others seem to repel them, and factors change over time as trees grow and are thinned. Each project provides lessons on what works and what doesn't. And this is where nonprofit Great Basin Bird Observatory comes in.

For the past 5 years, GBBO has been leading the breeding bird surveys along the Lower Colorado for what's called the Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Plan. Through on-the-ground surveys and data analysis, GBBO documents the use of virgin, disturbed, and created riparian habitat by breeding and migratory birds. Each spring, GBBO sends out intrepid field crews to riparian plots around Yuma, Blythe, Lake Havasu City and Lake Mead to conduct area search and spot-mapping surveys of bird activity, with a focus on six of the more-imperiled passerine species. Other agencies and crews monitor endangered populations like Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Southwest Willow Flycatcher and Elf Owl. Then in the fall, GBBO conducts extensive vegetation surveys to link the bird data with environmental conditions. The analysis of this data contributes to current and future management plans.
4am wake-up call never gets easy, but dawn never gets old.
And this is where I come in. This is my third spring season with GBBO's LCR crew. The first year I was hired, I was living in Maryland and looked forward to hiking among dry dunes and cacti. Contrarily, the LCR surveys are some of the wettest I've ever participated in! It's true, I've yet to be caught in a rainstorm. But with the intermittent water flows, I never know when I am going to be knee-, thigh-, or even chest-deep in marsh water. I've even had the pleasure of surveying by kayak!

Today, the marsh seems to be lowering. Last week I was tip-toeing through a channel with my pack above my head. Now crystal-clear puddles are surrounded by thick mud. I am stationed in Yuma, Arizona to survey two big habitat creation projects: Yuma East Wetlands on the north-east edge of town, and Laguna Division Conservation Area about 20 miles up river, straddling the California-Arizona border. Yuma East is older, with some nice big cottonwood stands, plenty of bird-life and even a resident bobcat. LDCA is brand new, a baby habitat growing up fast. In 2011, the tamarisk sea was bulldozed and re-graded to create winding channels, varied slopes for ecotones, and larger bowls of open water for wintering ducks and future recreational fishing. Water delivery and control systems were constructed to direct water in what are called “pulses”, from Imperial Dam at the north end and back to the grid through Laguna Dam at the south. The next season, marsh plants and tiny saplings were planted by these crazy machines that look like 4-driver tuktuks with a harvester on the back, but instead of harvesting, it inserts baby trees into the ground. With this new technology, the painstaking process of hand-planting trees has been reduced to 10% of the time and energy once necessary.
Black Phoebe nest built against the wall of a water delivery canal, LDCA.

By the time I arrived early in April 2016, the marsh areas were fully grown and humming with the sewing-machine songs of Marsh Wrens, witchity-witchity of Common Yellow-throats, hilarious guffawing of Yellow-headed Blackbirds, and terrifying growling of Great and Snowy egrets, White-faced Ibis, and Black-crowned Night Herons. Cormorants were sunbathing and an osprey was fishing from dead snags left purposefully by the dozer crews. A beaver slapped the water in warning and fish darted in the shallows. The trees are still young, some just reaching above my head. They were arranged in sweeping rows with willows lining the waterways, cottonwoods above them, and mesquite and desert riparian grasses on the drier islands. As I weave between the glowing deciduous leaves, the air is relatively quiet, except for the bombs going off in the hills to the east. On the other side of Mittry Lake lies Yuma Proving Ground, and often my “flyovers” category could include all manner of mechanical birds, not to mention paratroopers floating on the horizon. In the midst of current global affairs, I feel a sense of bittersweet privilege, certain that the explosions are practice and not intended for me. It makes my heart go out to all those for whom that certainty is not reality. 

The current lack of birds in the young “forest” is not in the least disheartening, though! In fact, all that photosynthesizing lends an excitement to the air, I can almost taste the potential in the wafting pollen. This liminal habitat may be quiet now, but in a few years I can envision a winding row of towering cottonwoods ringing with Yellow Warblers and willow thickets so dense only small creatures seeking shelter can enter. If Yuma East Wetlands can be used as a gauge, the future is hopeful. Just across the highway from downtown, you can be transported into a wildlife wonderland. Bobcats, mule deer, Gambel's quail, legions of lizards, even a few rattlesnakes dart among the well-crafted shrubland and forest plots. Marshy ponds harbor rails and herons, and flocks of thousands of migrating swallows roost among cattails for the night. The magic is only interrupted by winks of human design – concrete canals slicing through cottonwood groves or sputtering irrigation tubes winding around mesquites and ground-squirrel burrows. This sort of cyborg nature seems slightly disingenuous – wilderness on life-support – until you witness the results in blossoming biodiversity.

As I sneak along the drying mud in LDCA, eyes scanning the ground for nighthawks, I see millions of mammal and heron tracks – the collective treading of animals over the past three years laid upon one another, never fully washed away by the gently rising and falling water levels. Signs that wildlife are already filtering in to this new opportunity. A barely-audible flickering tickles my right ear, and in my peripheral vision I catch the frantic flapping of a female Lesser Nighthawk. Her Oscar-worthy performance of broken wings and seizures momentarily draws my attention away from her two speckled eggs, laid directly on the sand. Their camouflage is impeccable, and if it weren't for the nighthawks' undying parental devotion, I would worry about accidentally stepping on them. The nocturnal birds spend all day shading their precious investments on exposed gravel bars, even bringing water from nearby sources in their breast feathers to sprinkle on eggs that could go from developing to sunny-side up in sizzling ground temperatures – sometimes up to 20 degrees hotter than Yuma's average triple-digit highs. I take a quick snapshot of the eggs and move on, careful not to leave a dead-end scent trail. Within seconds, the mother is back on her “nest” – more conceptual than practical, but it must work often enough!

 Lesser Nighthawk's meticulously crafted nest.

Water is life on earth, but it is no more painstakingly obvious than in the desert. Parched by sun and wind, any bit of water effects the plants and animals for miles around. The humidity created by deciduous transpiration effects valley temperatures and weather patterns. A hundred miles upstream, the Colorado is fed by the Bill Williams River, one of the last remaining stands of riparian forest. It is now a Wildlife Refuge, and harbors thirty-four species of butterfly – eleven of which were historically common throughout the river system, but are now only found there. Even elusive creatures that spend most of their time on the dry ridges – bighorn sheep, mountain lion, and ravens – come down to the valleys and springs to fill their gullets with life-saving liquid.

Dams and irrigation have created a lot of opportunity for humans in the forms of agriculture, development, and energy. It's heartening to know that its possible to give back a little to the other residents of this verdant desert corridor. It takes a lot of work but it is proving to be worth every drop. I can't wait to come back in a few years and see the habitats all grown up!

 Great Horned Owl... or desert penguin?

This essay was originally written for the Great Basin Bird Observatory blog, which you can read here: http://gbbofieldnotes.blogspot.com/

Monday, May 2, 2016

Banding Parallax

Walking in circles all day. That's the basis of bird banding. We set up loops of trails in the forest, studded by ten 12m-long, extremely soft and nearly invisible nets (hence the name mist-net), and walk them every 40 minutes. The paths become apparent even after a few days, leaves and little saplings pressed into earth, soil compacted beneath. The banding trails at Point Reyes Bird Observatory in California, where I conducted my training, have been walked by interns for 30 years, and look more like canals than footpaths: deep, smooth earthen trenches dug by boots and rain out of the forest floor.

As birds are flying along, minding their own business, they might suddenly feel a peculiar but insurmountable horizontal gravity. The nets are made of thread, basically – loose mesh diamonds of black thread that flutter slightly in the breeze. When a bird flies into one, he or she sort of somersaults into a pocket of mesh and then, confused by this sudden change in trajectory and paralysis, struggles and gets itself tangled just enough to be unable to flap back out. Usually the head, if its small enough, and one or both “wrists” get looped and then it's stuck until we come along to liberate it. But it doesn't see us that way. It thinks we want to eat it, and so struggles some more in an attempt to save its own skin, usually making our job harder. It takes a lot of training to understand and practice the fastest, safest ways to extract tangled birds. After awhile it seems as easy as taking a cardigan off a small child. Every once in awhile, they are so tangled no amount of training can help you. Then you use scissors. I have yet to need scissors. I hope I never need to.

 Wattled Honeyeater in net

Different species react differently to being in the nets and being handled. Warblers and small hawks tend to go comatose – just sort of lying there, barely tangled – and extracting them is like picking a spoon out of the utensil drawer. Chickadees are tiny and ferocious, thrashing and spinning into anarchic balls of yarn, screwing their eyes shut with the effort. Most banders loathe trying to undo the chaos they cause. Woodpeckers use their tools against you, thwarting your efforts by drumming any inch of your flesh they can aim at with their pick-ax bills. I saw a master bander come back from the net with a Pileated Woodpecker muzzled by a Pringles can, his hands streaming with blood. His own blood; leaking from a hundred puncture wounds. Most of the time, its a swift procedure, a minute or less, plus another to take some measurements, jot some notes, and they are back on the wing.

As a banding technician in American Samoa, what strikes my heart with anxiety is finding a Samoan Starling in the net. They look very much like smallish crows: dark with large bills and calculating eyes. As soon as they see you approaching, they start screaming. Ear-splitting shrieks from the moment you arrive until the moment you let them go. And they are occasionally “tongued”, which is as bad as it sounds. Their tongue is shaped like an arrowhead, and they somehow get a few threads looped around the back points, then they grab a handful of net with their sharp talons and pull, sometimes until their tongue bleeds. And then as you try to undo them, they bite, jab, and stab at all your most vulnerable parts – in between thumb and forefinger, the wrinkles above your knuckles, the flesh alongside your nails, and especially wounds from previous starling encounters, over and over and over. And if they get a good grip, they thrash their heads from side to side like a prize bass, trying to rip the skin right off your fingers. It's as if they want to take vengeance for all the birds who have ever been banded, for all the inconvenience and confusion humans have enacted on all avian species in the name of conservation.

 Samoan Starling mugshot

Remember, they are also screaming this entire time, even with a mouthful of your flesh and a bleeding tongue. It's traumatizing for everyone involved. And every time, it makes me wonder. Why the hell am I doing this? Why are scientists harassing birds, interrupting their already stressful lives, just to give them an identification number in case we get the chance to harass them again? As an intern last fall, jarringly presented with the dichotomous nature of wildlife-handling, I asked this question again and again: asked my trainer, asked the scientific literature, asked my soul.

Maybe growing up in the suburbs, sheltered from lions and wolves and anacondas, surrounded by my cherished and ever-growing plush menagerie, led me to believe that animals are soft (many are, incredibly) and that touching animals was a way to connect with them. Raising pets teaches us that animals enjoy being scratched and patted and belly-rubbed. Children instigate formative emotional bonds with nature by snatching small snakes and lizards out of the grass and feeling them wriggle free from their grasp. Being human with hands that hold and caress and nurture, I instinctively want to use my uniquely nimble appendages to calm small creatures in their moments of terror, to hug them and tell them everything's going to be alright. But the truth is, as a scientist, I am causing those moments of terror. And the very last thing that will comfort them is being touched by me. To them, I am no different than any other predator that wants to rip them into bite-sized pieces. It's a heart-breaking realization, the power-balance so repulsively tipped that it wrenches any magic I anticipated out of such an intimate encounter. It makes me feel content to bridge the space between myself and wild animals only optically, through binoculars.

The main objectives of MAPS banding programs (Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship) such as the one we are flagshipping on Ofu-Olosega, are thus: to provide annual estimates of adult population size and survivorship, proportion of resident individuals in a population, recruitment of hatch-year birds into the population (AKA survival of their first harrowing year), and population growth rate using mark-recapture data of adult birds. If that sounds like a lot of jargon to you, it basically translates to learning whether adults or juveniles are surviving, so researchers can further hypothesize about specific threats effecting the population. For example, if it seems like there are less Cerulean Warblers than there used to be, is it because something is causing massive nest failure or keeping young birds from surviving their first year, but the current generation of adults are doing fine? Or is there something more overarching that is killing off adults as well? Are they returning from their wintering grounds? Are nearby populations doing similarly or is the trend specific to this portion of habitat?

Long before the MAPS program was established, people were watching birds. And counting them. The Breeding Bird Survey and Christmas Bird Count exemplify programs that have been estimating bird populations for decades, and it would seem the information gleaned from this data would be sufficient to understand bird population trends over time. Because of them, for instance, we know for sure that aside from a few species that adapt well to human-created environments (if you're not a birder, these are the birds you probably see the most of: species that love cities and suburbs as much as we do), birds are on the decline across North America. The major threats to birds last century were over-hunting and specific toxins such as DDT leaching into the environment. Thanks to management strategies and wildlife refuges, hunting is less of a problem, at least in the US, and the EPA removed DDT from production. But the last 50 years added climate change, invasive species, and rapid habitat loss to the list. I've always hated that term – habitat loss – as if we simply couldn't find it, though we swear it was around here somewhere. Although, maybe that describes the phenomenon perfectly – a forest is cleared for a suburban development, a few old residents are devastated as they witness a drop off in biodiversity, and the new ones, growing up in the streets named for the trees they replaced, have no recollection of what they are missing.

Anyway, we know birds are declining. Not just the Passenger Pigeon, whose populations were so mythic in proportion we have all heard the stories yet have a hard time imagining it now – flocks streaming across the countryside so thick they blotted out the sun for hours. Now there are none. Older generations, who spent more time outdoors, will tell you they've noticed a lack – it just seems quieter out there these days. Counting birds lets us know that what the old timers say is true, but it doesn't provide the answers why. Setting up nets and catching individual birds, giving them nearly weightless identification bracelets, and sending them back into the wild, provides a deeper glimpse into their lives.

But it's still just a glimpse. Recapture rates are abysmally small – ranging from 1 to 30%, depending on the banding station. Some stations, especially breeding-focused MAPS stations, host a lot of resident, non-migratory birds that are recaptured many times a season. Others, such as fall migration stations, are located along migratory pathways and catch birds who come through once a year and might never return. Additionally, each station is only a few hundred square meters of reality – a tiny porthole into the vast tanker of nature. But tracking the individuals we do recapture tells us who is surviving, and who is returning to their breeding grounds. Sometimes banders even pull one feather or take a tiny drop of blood and send it to a lab for analysis. This is how researchers have tracked a wide variety of data from migration paths, to genetic variation informing changes in the taxonomic order, to the spread of introduced illnesses like West Nile Virus in some North American species, and Avian Malaria in Hawaii. It sounds invasive, but after decades of banding birds of all sizes, scientists know that the few minutes of confusion and stress that banding causes birds has minimal effect on their livelihoods.

Backyard banding was a hobby in the early 20th century, but now banding operations are strictly regulated and conducted only by trained and permitted researchers, always with the safety of the birds taking precedence over data. The injury and fatality rate is less than 1%. Accidents do happen, and I have witnessed both irreversible damage and the miraculous – I once recaptured a healthy adult bird with a slightly crooked leg, looked up his stats in the database, and found his leg had been broken during banding several years before, splinted and taped before he was released. It clearly healed and he has been doing fine ever since. Even the Samoan Starlings seem to fair well after having their tongues lacerated – their ferocity reflects their tenacity. And thinking about it, I suppose my tongue heals pretty quickly after biting it, too. Some individuals are recaptured over and over and over throughout their lives, and because of it, researchers know that the process has little effect on their livelihood and have even illuminated lifespan records for many species.

MAPS stations across the continent (and on Ofu-Olosega) also conduct habitat surveys in conjunction with banding to link population trends with changes in habitat quality. Birds cannot exist alone in the sky: they rely on evolutionarily specific environments in which to hide from predators, find food, and build nests. The data gathered by annual banding stations contributes to land management and conservation strategies, as well as evaluating the success of implemented strategies in real time. At least, that's what I've been told by my supervisors and the scientific literature. I have yet to witness a specific example, but I am still freshman in the school of bird banding.

All of this is what I try to tell myself when I find a Samoan Starling caught in a net by his tongue, and spend minutes drenched in sweat, struggling to free him while he pummels my hands with his knife-bill, screaming until I want to scream myself. All the feel-goodie conservation stuff gets flushed from my psyche when I suspect injury in the bird I am handling. When I suspect my good intentions have caused grave consequences for the very thing I am trying to “save”. It makes me sick to my stomach and declare this to be the last banding job I ever sign up for. It makes me think the whole thing is a farce, that biologists don't gain any vital information from all those numbers, that its just an excuse to hold a beautiful, wild creature in your hand while you take a selfie that you can post online when you get back to civilization. It makes me think science is too focused on the species at the expense of the individual. Even the terminology is suspect – birds are not just banded, they are “processed”, like a cut of meat in a factory. It starts to feel like modern conservation is relegated to deciding between the lesser of two evils: invasive intervention or environmental destruction. My erupting emotions make me want to drop out of banding academy altogether. I return to our field house in the afternoon with heavy heart and a knot in my stomach.

And then a few days later, we catch a Fruit Dove. A resplendent, shining piece of feathered rainbow, a male Purple-capped Fruit Dove lay docile in the net after a whole morning of empties. My heart fluttered with excitement as I carefully removed netting from his magenta-lidded face. His eyes were bright and clear and somehow reminiscent of dinosaurs resurrected in our collective memory by Jurassic Park. His underbelly pulsed with all the hues of the most vibrant sunset you've ever seen – fiery orange, lemon yellow, flamboyant fuchsia, moody burgundy – as refreshing as a sno-cone in the dog days of summer. His only expression of discomfort while I held him for banding were his toes clenched tightly around each other – like the hands of a worried little monk clasped beneath his cloaksleeves. He never struggled, never bit or clawed out, never uttered a peep. And he smelled so wondrously sweet like flowers, I wanted to bury my nose in his soft plumage forever. Then we sent this rainbow back into the sky where he belonged, his wing beats strong and thrumming with wild vitality.

And I realized: I am sucker for this banding stuff after all. Many young scientists, including myself, are at least partly drawn to banding birds by the fleeting moment you get to hold a vibrating piece of wilderness in your hand then send it on its way. And for many, even and especially veterans, the motivation to continue is fueled by the desire to understand and conserve. Science claims to liberate itself from human bias, but what human activity isn't at least motivated by our fickle emotions? Emotions that cascade into opinions and passions but also action, determination, discovery. If the data collected really can help ensure the abundance of these gorgeous, mysterious, even ferocious creatures into the future, then maybe it is worth a few moments of discomfort – the birds' and my own. Maybe. I'm still not sure. Anyway, I still have two more months of walking in circles to decide.