Archive for the 'Travel' Category

Jul 02 2016

The Element Of Surprise

Published by under Mammals,Travel

Grizzly bear (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Grizzly bear (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

While visiting Glacier National Park on a Road Scholar birding trip this week, we heard that a mountain biker was killed by a bear just south of the Park. The incident made international news.

When a bear kills someone, wildlife officials investigate by collecting information on what happened, DNA samples of the bear and, ideally, the bear itself.  If it’s clear the bear was predatory (if it ate or wanted to eat the person) then the bear is euthanized.  If it was defending itself or cubs, officials weigh the evidence and it often goes free.

As of this writing the investigation is still underway, the bear hasn’t been found, and it’s not confirmed that it was a grizzly.  The only thing we know for sure is that everyone was surprised — the bear, the victim, his fellow cyclist, and the local community.  Montanans are especially surprised and saddened because the victim was a very knowledgeable local resident, an officer in the U.S. Forest Service who knew all about bear safety.

How could such a thing happen?   Imagine this: A mountain biker is traveling downhill fast on a silent bike on a narrow trail through a thicket. There’s a bear in the thicket but there is no sound to warn the bear and no time for it to move away.  Bears have a chase instinct and will pursue things that are moving fast.  UPDATE JULY 3: The cyclist collided with the bear before the fatal attack.

Here’s more about what happened near West Glacier, Montana:

Hopes Dimming But Search Continues for Bear that Killed Cyclist Near Glacier Park


Were we worried about bears while visiting the park?  No.  We followed the guidelines on what to do in bear country. These are from the Glacier National Park website:

  • Never travel alone. Don’t trail run. (There were 11 of us walking and birding.)
  • Carry bear spray and know how to use it.  (Our guide carried this form of pepper spray that has a special nozzle.)
  • Make human noise especially talking, singing, clapping or calling out at regular intervals.  NPS says, most bear bells are not enough.  (We talked a lot!)
  • Never leave food, garbage and scented items unattended. Always secure them. (We were always with our food, packing in and packing out.)
  • Be aware of your surroundings, especially when you are near bear foods, running water or thickets. Notice bears signs. (Our guide showed us bear claw marks and dig-outs.)

Bear attacks are extremely rare events.  There would be even fewer if we could eliminate the element of surprise.


(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original.)

p.s. We never saw any bears at all, not a grizzly, not even a black bear.  It would have been nice to see a grizzly on a distant hillside from the car — but only under those circumstances!

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Jul 01 2016

Dipper or Ouzel

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Question: What songbird …

  • Lives along streams in western North America?
  • Looks like a plump, dark gray robin with a short tail?
  • Bobs his tail like a Louisiana waterthrush?
  • Does “push-ups” like an angry wren?
  • Swims and dives as if he was a duck?
  • Has white nictitating membranes (third eyelids) for seeing underwater?
  • Eats only underwater prey?

Answer: A bird who has two names — the American dipper (Cinclus mexicanus) or water ouzel.

“Dipper” describes his behavior. While looking for prey from the water’s edge, he dips his body up and down as if doing push-ups on his legs. This action gives him two perspectives while looking through the water’s refraction: high view and low view.

“Ouzel” is an Old English word that now means “like a blackbird,” except that the water ouzel is not like any blackbird. 

In fact this water-loving species is unlike any songbird in North America. 

That’s why I came out west to see him at Glacier National Park.


p.s. Life Bird! I even saw one feeding his young, thanks to Denny Olsen, our Road Scholar birding guide.

(video from JVCdude on YouTube)

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Jun 30 2016

One Note

Varied thrush (photo by Eleanor Briccetti via Wikimedia Commons)

Varied thrush (photo by Eleanor Briccetti via Wikimedia Commons)

Spring starts late in the northern Rockies so many birds are still singing here in Glacier National Park. Fortunately the varied thrush is one of them.

In the breeding season the varied thrush (Ixoreus naevius) is a shy bird of mature western forests. He sings from the top of a conifer for 10 to 15 minutes but the trees are so tall that he’s hard to find. If he wasn’t singing we’d never know he’s there.

His song consists of one note that lasts two seconds.  He pauses 3 to 20 seconds and then sings again, a different note.  The disembodied sound echoes in the canyons.

Like all thrushes his syrinx allows him to blend two sounds so his note has a burry quality.  It sounds like this:

This song is unique in North America and easy to identify by ear.

Just one note.


(photo by Eleanor Briccetti via Wikimedia Commons)

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Jun 29 2016

See It Before It Melts

Published by under Travel

Saint Mary Lake at Glacier National Park (photo by NPS via Wikimedia Commons)

Saint Mary Lake at Glacier National Park (photo by NPS via Wikimedia Commons)

Many National Parks are named for their defining feature.  One has a Grand Canyon, another has Great Smoky Mountains, and yet another has Glaciers.  The canyon and the mountains won’t disappear but the glaciers are melting so I’m at Glacier National Park this week to see them.

Glacier National Park was the brainchild of George Bird Grinnell who fell in love with the place on his first visit in 1885.  Over the next 25 years he returned several times and advocated for the land to become a national park. His dream was realized on May 11, 1910.

The scenery here is breathtaking — a 1,583 square mile wilderness of majestic mountains, U-shaped valleys, gorgeous lakes and (for me) many Life Birds.

In the early 1900’s there were more glaciers than there are today.  According to Wikipedia:  “Of the estimated 150 glaciers which existed in the park in the mid-19th century, only 25 active glaciers remained by 2010. Scientists studying the glaciers in the park have estimated that all may disappear by 2030 if the current climate patterns persist.”

The glacier named for Grinnell himself is melting, too.  In 1850 it filled the entire valley. By 2009 most of the valley contained an iceberg lake.  And now …

Grinnell Glacier, before and after, 1981 and 2009 (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Grinnell Glacier retreat: 1981 and 2009 with notes extending back to 1850 (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

See it before it melts.


(photos of Glacier National Park from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals)

p.s.  Click here for more about the disappearing glaciers.

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Mar 20 2016

Best Birds Last Week

Published by under Travel,Water and Shore

Purple Sandpiper at the jetty (photo by Anthony Bruno)

Purple Sandpiper at Manasquan Inlet, New Jersey (photo by Anthony Bruno)

Taking a break from peregrine falcons, here are some birds that made me happy last week.

On March 14-17 I went on the Todd Bird Club outing to coastal New Jersey, led by Margaret and Roger Higbee.  We started at Cape May on Monday March 14 and worked our way north to the Sandy Hook unit of Gateway National Park by Thursday March 17.

It’s pretty hard for me to get a Life Bird in the eastern U.S. so I was pleased to see a seaside sparrow at the Edwin B. Forsythe NWR, Brigantine.  Click here to see what he looks like.   Thank you for finding him, Margaret!

On Wednesday we had close looks at purple sandpipers (Calidris maritima) at Manasquan Inlet, above, and I finally learned why this brown sandpiper is called “purple.”  In good light his slight iridescence produces a pinkish-purple sheen in the middle of each feather.  Who knew!

It was a real treat to see the harlequin ducks (Histrionicus histrionicus) at Barnegat Light. They’re fearless in rough water.

Harlequin ducks at Barnegat Light (photo by Anthony Bruno)

Harlequin ducks at Barnegat Light (photo by Anthony Bruno)

And every day we saw American oystercatchers (Haematopus palliatus) and long-tailed ducks (Clangula hyemalis).

American oystercatcher (photo by Anthony Bruno)

American oystercatcher (photo by Anthony Bruno)

Long-tailed duck in 16 March 2016, New Jersey (photo by Anthony Bruno)

Long-tailed duck, March 16, 2016, New Jersey (photo by Anthony Bruno)


Coastal New Jersey is a great place to visit in March. Thanks to Margaret and Roger Higbee for a great trip and Tony Bruno for these gorgeous photos of last week’s Best Birds.


(photos by Anthony Bruno)

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Sep 18 2015

Like Plunging Arrows

Here’s a bird I see in Maine that we’ll never see in Pittsburgh.

Northern gannets (Sula bassana) nest in cliff colonies on both sides of the North Atlantic.  In the fall the Canadian population visits the Gulf of Maine on their way south for the winter.  The adults will spend October to April off the U.S. Atlantic coast while the juveniles may winter as far south as the Gulf coast.

Gannets are large seabirds (6.5 foot wingspan) that catch fish by plunge-diving from 30 to 130 feet above the sea.  When the fishing is good a huge flock gathers overhead, diving over and over again.  The video shows their amazing fishing technique, both in the air and underwater.

And, yes, these birds are moving fast.  They hit the water’s surface at 60 to 75 miles an hour!  Gannets can do this safely because they have no external nostrils and their faces and chests have air sacs that cushion their brains and bodies like bubble wrap.

Watch them plunge like arrows into the sea.


(video from the Smithsonian Channel on YouTube)

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Sep 16 2015

Which Weasel?

Published by under Mammals,Travel

A stoat or short-tailed weasel, Mustela erminea (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Short-tailed weasel, Mustela erminea (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

“Best Mammal” on my trip to Maine was an animal with three or four names but I don’t know which ones until I identify him — and that’s mighty hard to do, even for professionals.

While puttering around the South Lubec sand flats looking for shorebirds, I noticed animal prints in the damp sand.  They were almost the size of cat prints but the toes showed claws and the prints weren’t using direct register (hind prints stepping into front prints).  They looked sort of like this:

I guessed weasel but not necessarily the short-tailed weasel illustrated here. It may have been a long-tailed weasel.  (Click here to see his prints.)

On my way out I saw a weasel cross the dirt track ahead of me and disappear into tall weeds.  He was a long russet-colored mammal about the size of a red squirrel with short round ears, stubby legs, and a long black-tipped tail. His tail was at least as long as his body.

“Size of red squirrel” says short-tailed weasel.  “Long-as-body tail” says long-tailed weasel, shown below(*).

Long-tailed weasel (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Long-tailed weasel, Mustela frenata (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

With such a short glimpse I can identify him generally but not specifically. His genus is weasel (Mustela), his species is either short-tailed (Mustela erminea) or long-tailed (Mustela frenata).  The two are notoriously hard to tell apart.  I’ll never know for sure.

No matter what he is he will soon shed his brown fur and turn white to match the winter landscape. If he’s a short-tailed weasel (erminea) you’ll recognize him as the ermine or stoat that’s native to Eurasia and North America.  His long-tailed North American cousin is just larger.

I’d like to see this weasel in his winter clothes but I’m not going to Maine in winter to find him. 😉


(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Weasel tracks linked from U.S. Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station.  Click on the image to see the original)

(* I didn’t take his picture — these photos are from Wikimedia Commons — so I had to rely on my memory.  Luckily least weasels don’t live in Maine so that narrows it to 2 possibilities.)

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Aug 08 2015

Why Arizona in Early August?

Published by under Travel

End of the road? The southern end of the Huachuca mountains heading toward Mexico (photo by Kate St. John)

The landscape is green from the monsoon rain. South end of the Huachucas, 2 August 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

To a Pennsylvanian it’s counter intuitive that birding is excellent in southeastern Arizona in early August.  It’s hot — especially at the lower elevations (104oF in Tuscon last Monday) — but the birds are active because it’s the breeding season.  Breeding?  Here’s why.

From late June through September, it’s so hot that rising desert air creates a low pressure zone that sucks in moisture from the south, primarily from the Gulf of California in western Mexico.  When the moist air hits Arizona’s sky island mountains it condenses into clouds, isolated thunderstorms, and rain.  This annual weather pattern is called the monsoon.

The moisture doesn’t have to travel far. This mountain in Mexico, called Sierra San Jose, is easily visible from Sierra Vista, Arizona, headquarters of the Southwest Wings Festival.

Sierra San Jose in Mexico, seen in the distance (photo by Kate St. John)

“I can see Mexico from my front porch.”  Sierra San Jose peak as seen from Sierra Vista, Arizona (photo by Kate St. John)

While I was at the Festival it thundered every afternoon at 3:00pm and rained somewhere by 4:00pm.  “Somewhere” means you can see it raining in the distance but you often don’t get wet.  The downpours are intense but you can drive in and out of them, sometimes within a mile.  However, watch out for flash floods!

The rain brings cooler temperatures, green leaves and, I quickly learned, bugs.  (Don’t ask me about chiggers.)

Bugs are food for baby birds so the monsoon is a second Spring when the birds court, sing and nest. That’s why the Southwest Wings summer festival is held in early August.

I had a great time!  The festival offers free seminars and one-day or two-day paid outings with guides.  I chose the day-long outings where we hiked in morning, ate lunch in the shade, and watched hummingbirds at feeders in afternoon.  In this way I visited Madera, Box, Ash, Miller and Huachuca Canyons, the Sonoita grasslands, and Patagonia.

The guides were excellent!  I saw 139 species and 33 Life Birds during my time in Arizona, and that wasn’t my first trip to the area.  Did I tell you I saw four elegant trogons?  Yes!

I highly recommend the Southwest Wings Birding and Nature Festival.  Southeastern Arizona is a lovely place in early August.

The Huachucas from AZ-92 (photo by Kate St. John)

The Huachucas from Arizona route 92 (photo by Kate St. John)

Mountains to the northeast of Sierra Vista (photo by Kate St. John)

Mountains to the northeast of Sierra Vista as seen from route 90 (photo by Kate St. John)

Looking toward Carr Canyon, Arizona (photo by Kate St. John)

Carr Peak (photo by Kate St. John)


(photos by Kate St. John)

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Aug 06 2015

Save Time: Reuse, Recycle

Cordilleran flycatcher at the nest, Mount Lemmon, AZ (photo by Donna Memon)

Cordilleran flycatcher at the nest, Mount Lemmon, AZ, 3 August 2015 (photo by Donna Memon)

Last week, Karyn Delaney reported a northern cardinal using an old robin’s nest outside her window and we joked in email that the mother took this shortcut because it’s so late in the breeding season.

Cardinals rarely reuse nests but some songbirds do.  On Monday Donna Memon and I found a Cordillean flycatcher at her(*) nest at the summit of Mount Lemmon.  Because her nestlings were too tiny to see and the nest edges and “launch pad” had fecal evidence of active fledglings, we surmised she was reusing the nest.

Birds of North America Online (BNA) reports that Cordillerans in the Santa Catalina Mountains in Arizona — the location of Mount Lemmon — build a “cup of moss, sometimes mixed with bark strips or rootlets, [and] lined with fine grass or rootlets.” Cordillerans often reuse nests, sometimes in the same location for 20 years.  Perhaps this nest has been recycled many times because it’s much sloppier than a simple cup.

In the next three photos the flycatcher feeds and watches her tiny nestlings but she has to hurry because …

Cordilleran flycatcher feeding young, Mount Lemmon, AZ (photo by Donna Memon)

Cordilleran flycatcher feeding young, Mount Lemmon, AZ, 3 August 2015 (photo by Donna Memon)

Cordilleran flycatcher at nest, Mount Lemmon, AZ (photo by Donna Memon)

Cordilleran flycatcher at nest, Mount Lemmon, AZ (photo by Donna Memon)

… this is a late nesting.  Winter comes early to Mount Lemmon and Cordilleran migration begins in mid-August so she’ll have to hurry.

It looks like she’s already saved time by reusing the nest.


(*) A NOTE ABOUT “Cordilleran and “she”:  Empidonax flycatchers are notoriously hard to identify but the Cordilleran flycatcher is the Empid species that nests on the summit of Mount Lemmon, a sky island in southeastern Arizona.  The Cordilleran’s look-alike relative, the Pacific slope flycatcher, is a low elevation bird. Also, for convenience I’ve called this bird a “she” but the males help feed the nestlings so we may have been watching a “he.”  On the subject of “he/she” I am borrowing my husband’s Poetic License.  😉


(photos by Donna Memon)

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Aug 05 2015

Smells Like Vanilla

Published by under Travel,Trees

Ponderosa pine: a look at the bark (photo by Donna Memon)

Ponderosa pine bark — photo by Donna Memon

Did you know you can recognize this tree by the smell of its bark?

After the Southwest Wings Festival I visited with Donna and Razzak Memon in Tuscon, Arizona.  On Monday Donna and I went birding on top of Mount Lemmon, one of the few mountains named for a woman (Sara Plummer Lemmon).

The summit is 9,159 feet above sea level and 6,770 feet above Tucson so the air is thinner and cooler, a welcome change from the valley’s heat.  That day it was 72oF on the mountain, 104oF in the valley.  Because of the thin mountain air we learned something about this tree.  

Donna and I were heading downhill when a group of hikers paused near the tree to catch their breath and I overheard one of them say it smelled like vanilla.  On our way back up the thin air hit me at the same spot so I paused and sniffed the bark.  Yes, the bark smells like vanilla.

The Ponderosa pine (on Mount Lemmon*) is one of the few trees you can identify this way.  When the tree is young the bark is black, but when it reaches 100-120 years old it sheds the black and shows a yellow bark that smells like vanilla or butterscotch or baking cookies, depending your point of view.

The unusual bark is also a fire shield.  According to this NPR report, when fire hits the tree it flash-boils the sap and blows the bark off the tree, but the tree doesn’t burn.

Ponderosa pine on Mt Lemmon, Arizona (photo by Donna Memon)

Ponderosa pine on Mt Lemmon, Arizona (photo by Donna Memon)

In the top photo you can see some snags at left that died in a fire on the mountain.

But not this one.  Its vanilla-scented bark protects it.


p.s.  Here we are at the top of the mountain.  You can see Tucson in the valley below.

Kate St. John and Donna Memon at Mount Lemmon, AZ (photo by Razzak Memon)

Kate St. John and Donna Memon at Mount Lemmon, AZ (photo by Razzak Memon)

(tree photos by Donna Memon; Kate & Donna photo by Razzak Memon; information about Ponderosas from this 2009 NPR article)

(*) In the comments below Nickie explains that in California Jeffrey pines smell like vanilla but Ponderosas do not. However the Jeffrey pine doesn’t grow in Arizona. In Arizona the Ponderosa (and/or the Arizona species/ subspecies) does.

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