Tag Archives: funny signs

The Canyons Keep Calling Me Back

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

Saguaro National Park

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

Magnificent Hummingbird

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

Broad-billed hummingbird

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

Acorn Woodpecker

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

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

Photo Apr 07, 7 36 44 AM

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

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

Photo Apr 04, 7 32 44 AM (1)

 

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

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

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

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

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

Cienega Creek Preserve

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

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

Cactus flower

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Dangers of Southeastern Arizona

My post about the Dangers of the Everglades has turned out to be hugely popular – I guess lots of people Google that phrase.  With that in mind, I present this encore performance: Dangers of Arizona!  All the danger!  Double the Signage!  You may not survive!  Especially if you are a car….

Dangerous Road Ahead

Dangerous road?!  But, hey – it’s a Wildlife Sanctuary!

Limited Maintenance

Just sit back and relax, for the next hour or so.

Curvy Rd next 19 mi

Hope you like curves.

Road disintegrates

I love this one.  Is that the sign for the road disintegrating?

Not a semi truck route

I had to pull over I was laughing so hard when I saw this one.  Not a semi truck route, eh?  This sign was MILES after the other ones (above) up a rocky, one-lane dirt road high in the mountains.   Thank you, US Forest Service, for this amazingly helpful sign!

Primitive Road

Does this mean that I use normal paved roads at someone else’s risk?

No services 74 mi

74 miles?!  That would get you from New York City to northeastern Philadelphia.

Smuggling

Watch for smugglers.

Wildfire Area

And for wildfires.

Fire Damage

Even AFTER the fires are over there’s danger!

Dusty car

There is no sign warning that your car will get very, very, very dusty.

One Lane Switchbacks

Which would make passing other vehicles coming in the opposite direction very problematic.  Luckily, I didn’t see any.

Polluted Sewage Water

I like how they specify that this particular sewage water is the polluted kind.

Beware of Bears

Advice #1 on this notice: Avoid Confrontation.  Sage….

Bear Damage

In case you missed the first bear sign.  Speaking of vehicle damage, the vultures of Arizona don’t mess around with merely chewing up your windshield wipers.

Vulture Emergency Power

They have been known to cut the emergency power at the most inconvenient moments.

All of this dangerous outdoor travel made me want to stop at this nice little nature museum on the outskirts of Portal, AZ.

Dangerous Venomous Reptiles

Hey, what the heck?  Dangerous AND venomous, eh?

All of these photos were taken by me within the span of less than three days last week.  My suggestion for a new state motto:

Arizona: bad roads; good signage.

 Sign Yall Come Back

Ok, I think I will.

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Florida Wrap-Up

I’m sitting at SeaTac International Airport, waiting for a flight to Tucson.  Which makes me think I should hurry up and write a short wrap-up post for my trip to Florida.

White Ibis

Overall, south Florida was a terrific experience.  There are some things I don’t love about the area: the obnoxious drivers, the vast urban sprawl, and the crazy tolling system.  But there is much to love about this beautiful flatland of swamps, beaches, marsh, and lowland forests.

Miles by car: 1757

Miles by ship: 150

Miles by ship in rough seas: 148

Miles by foot: 35 (approx)

Total species seen: 140

New Big Year Birds Added: 30

Florida boosted me up over the 600 species mark!  I’m currently at 609 official ticks.  When I started my Big Year last June, it took me just 2 days to see my first 100 species, and only another week to reach 200.  It took 2 more months to reach 400, and almost 4 months after that to reach 500.  Even in the midst of spring migration, it has taken me 4.5 additional months to top 600.  Now I have exactly one month left in my year, and we’ll see how many more I can pick up before the end.  My base goal is 650 (looks somewhat promising), and my “stretch” goal is 675 (don’t think I’m going to make that one).

Scrubbiest looking bird: Florida Scrub-Jay (note the bands on its leg)

Florida Scrub Jay

Scrubbiest looking landscape: Florida scrublands

Florida Scrub

Most Unusual Birding Location: the University of Miami (found my only Spot-Breasted Oriole there, right outside the campus radio station and bookstore)

U of Miami

Ugliest Looking Lighthouse: Sanibel Island Light (Point Ybel Lighthouse)

Ugly lighthouse

Shortest Lighthouse: Garden Key Lighthouse at Fort Jefferson

Ft Jefferson lighthouse

Most Majestic Lighthouse: Loggerhead Key Light

Loggerhead Light

Dirtiest my car has gotten: On the road to Bear Lake Trail in the Everglades

Dirty Car

Most Pleasing Sunrise: In a Slash Pine forest in SW Florida

Dawn in Saw Palmetto Slash Pine Forest

Coolest Non-bird Critters: Horseshoe Crabs at Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge

Horseshoe Crabs

Place I most want to return with my family: the Dry Tortugas

Fort at Sunset

Scariest Signs: Flood Signs at Ding Darling NWR, indicating that the 100-year flood level is 13.2 feet above sea level, in a place where the entire island (Sanibel) is only 2 feet above sea level.  Yikes!

flood signs

Sign heights

Weirdest Sign: Gopher Tortoise Crossing

Gopher Tortoise Crossing

Apparently those tortoises look kind of like Gumby!

Stupidest Sign:

Gate May Be Closed

That’s the thing about gates: they can be open OR closed.  A gate that doesn’t open is called a fence.  A gate that doesn’t close is called a hole in the fence.

Most delightful group of birders stuck ever to get seasick on a trip to the Tortugas:

Part of Group at Loggerhead

Thanks, Florida!  I’ll be back some day….

LighthousesAs for now, I’m headed to Tucson, renting a car, and driving across Arizona and New Mexico on my way to west Texas.  I hope to be in Big Bend National Park tomorrow for my most strenuous physical challenge of my year so far, and a rendezvous with a rare warbler.

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Dangers of the Everglades

Everglades NP

I recently risked life and limb to spend a day among the many terrors of Everglades National Park.  Sure, the National Park Service would like you to believe that visiting their little watery empire on the southernmost tip of mainland Florida is perfectly safe.  But I’m here to tell you the truth.  If you can handle it.  It’s okay if you want to skip this post – it’s the scariest one I’ve written all year.

The danger that comes immediately to mind is, of course, giant alligators.  I saw several that were close to eight feet long.

Gator1

They sit there, close to the path, watching you.  And they have sharp teeth, which they advertise by leaving their gaping mouths open for hours at a time.

Gator

I understand that once a man was actually bitten by an alligator in the Everglades!  Maybe back in 1967 or something.  And all he was doing was teasing it and trying to feed it chicken scraps by hand.  They’re dangerous beasts, I tell you!

Do not approach alligators

Of course, there are other deadly creatures in the Everglades as well.  See if you can spot them in the photo below:

Bear Lake Trail

This is Bear Lake Trail.  I walked it for several hours to find Mangrove Cuckoo (found one, near the end!).  But the cuckoo isn’t scary (nor is it in this photo).  The dangerous thing in this photo is the mosquitoes.  All 5,849 of them.  Giant Everglades Mosquitoes.  Thanks to the 100% DEET bug spray I was wearing, only 5,199 managed to bite me.  Note to the Puget Sound Red Cross: I will be postponing my next whole blood donation for about 6 weeks.

As if the mosquitoes and alligators aren’t enough, there are the spiders!  And they are huge!  And scary!  And amazingly cool.

Large spider

And did I mention snakes?!

Snake Bight

Ok, actually I didn’t see any snakes.  The sign is a bit of Everglades humor.  A “bight” is actually a shallow bay.  Heh, heh… funny huh?  Snake Bight?  Here’s a bit more Everglades humor:

Rock Reef Pass

Yep, south Florida is pretty flat.  Almost literally as flat as a pancake.  [Ok, you could imagine a theoretical pancake that was bumpier than the Everglades – use your imagination!]  I’ve been across several passes in my big year: Snoqualmie Pass at 3022 feet, White Pass at 4501 feet, and Washington Pass at 5477 feet.  But this is the lowest pass I’ve crossed all year.  And dangerous, too! Especially if it were hurricane season.  Which I guess it’s not.  But still.

Ok, back to more danger.  Um, cowbirds.  Very dangerous.  Well, not dangerous to humans, mostly, but very dangerous to many species of songbirds like warblers.  Cowbirds are brood parasites, which means they lay their eggs in the nests of other smaller birds.  The bigger baby cowbirds outcompete the other nestlings for food, and may even shove the other birds out of the nest.  As a result, the warblers end up spending the breeding season raising a cowbird chick instead of their own offspring.  I saw many Brown-headed Cowbirds, like this one:

Brown-headed Cowbird

This is the same species of cowbird I saw being trapped when I visited Kirtland’s Warbler habitat last summer.

But the Everglades also has another species of cowbird, the Shiny Cowbird.  This is a species normally found in Central and South America, but a couple individuals have made their way all the up to south Florida (possibly by way of the Caribbean).  I saw a couple of these Shiny Cowbirds near the Flamingo Visitor’s Center at the southern end of the Everglades:

Shiny Cowbird

I see that you’ve made it this far in my scariest blog post ever.  But I have to warn you, the scariest part is yet to come.  It is such a terrifying phenomenon that there were warning signs EVERYWHERE about these creatures.  So what is more menacing than alligators, mosquitoes, and cowbirds combined?

Vultures will damage your vehicles

Yes, vultures.  But not just any vultures.  Everglades windshield wiper-eating vultures.  Apparently they like to chew on rubber things.  Like car parts.

Tarps for vultures sign

How scary is that?!?

I won’t even mention the fact that I think a bird pooped on my hat.  I hope there’s not a strangler fig seed in there.  Or else in 40 to 50 years, I might be entombed in Ficus roots!

Strangler Fig

[Ominous music fading in…]

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Spring Texas Wrap-Up and Yankee Bobbytraps

Texas flowers

My second visit to Texas during my Big Year is in the books.  I will return to the Lone Star State in May for a brief excursion to Big Bend National Park.  But until then, here is my trip wrap-up.

Miles by car: 2206 (3rd-most behind Minnesota/Wisconsin/Michigan and Summer California/Arizona)

Miles by foot: 40 (approx)

Total species seen: 230 (a new record for my Big Year trips!)

New Big Year Birds added: 34 (I’m currently at 579 total since I started on June 12, 2012 – it may be possible for me to break 600 in the next 2 weeks)

Total number of individual birds seen during my April Texas trip (according to my eBird summary): 5380 (approx)

Highlights: Attwater’s Prairie Chicken, Black and Yellow Rails, Elf Owl, finally seeing Aplomado Falcon, and birding in Louisiana for the very first time

Favorite Duck: Black-bellied Whistling Duck

Black-bellied Whistling Duck

Coolest Thing to Just Sit and Watch: The heron rookery at High Island’s Smith Oaks, where hundreds of Great and Snowy Egrets, Roseate Spoonbills, and Neotropic Cormorants are showing off their spectacular nuptial plumage, courting, mating, bellowing, building nests, incubating eggs, and generally carrying on and creating quite a show.

Rookery

Bird that would be outrageously cool if it were rare instead of incredibly abundant, or if it were less annoying (perhaps if it didn’t get together with 750 of its friends and white-wash your car with poop while you go in to the grocery store for ten minutes): Great-tailed Grackle

Great-tailed Grackle

Best Yankee Booby-trap: The Container of Not Sweet Tea at a Houston area restaurant

Yankee Boobytrap

This one might require a little explanation if you haven’t spent a lot of time in the South.  In order to understand what’s going on here, you need to know three important details: 1) No self-respecting Southern drinks unsweetened tea.  It just isn’t done.  2) Most Southerners don’t hate Yankees, but they don’t really like ’em that much either.  3)  To Yankees, Sweet Tea may sound like an two word phrase with an adjective and a noun, like ‘green shirt’ – but it isn’t.  Sweet Tea may have two words, but it describes one single, specific thing – like cotton candy or Kansas City.

Looking at the picture above, a Yankee might take this to mean that the container on the right dispenses sweetened tea, and the one on the left unsweetened tea.  A Southerner knows better.  The one on the right dispenses Sweet Tea, and who the heck knows what’s in the other one – but it sure ain’t Sweet Tea.  It might be radiator fluid.  It would be like labeling one container ‘water’ and the other one ‘not water.’

I concluded that the ‘Not Sweet Tea’ container must be a booby-trap for unsuspecting Yankees.  I watched this beverage station for a good 30 minutes while I ate lunch.  Seventeen people came to get Sweet Tea, but no one tried the ‘Not Sweet Tea.’  I had a Diet Coke.

Provided the FAA doesn’t furlough my air traffic controllers, I’ll be on the red-eye to Fort Lauderdale on Wednesday for 12 days in South Florida.

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Deep in the Heart of Texas

I’m on the road again, this time for my final spring blitz.  My Big Year is officially over in two months and two days, so I’m getting ready for the grand finale.  Spring migration is in full swing, and I am going to follow the birds north from the US/Mexico border all the way  to the Arctic Circle over the next couple of months.  I will also range as far east as Florida, and as far west as Gambell, AK (within sight of Siberia).  It should be crazy, and I hope also great.

Right now I’m deep in the Heart of Texas.  I’ve spent the past few days traveling through the Hill Country on the Edwards Plateau, north and west of San Antonio.

Hill Country

It is a beautiful area, full of spectacular scenery and amazing wildlife.  I travelled out to this remote area to see two endangered species that only breed within a hundred miles or so of this spot: Golden-Cheeked Warbler and Black-capped Vireo.

Hill Country2

My first stop was the Kerr Wildlife Management Area, about an hour west of Kerrville.  I arrived at dawn, only to find that the main road through the refuge was closed because they were holding a spring turkey hunt – for the next three days!  My very carefully laid plans were foiled by a turkey shoot!  There are other places to see these vireos, but this was the best and closest one, and I didn’t have a lot of extra time.  I did discover that one of the side roads on the west edge of the refuge was going to be open, so I decided to give that area a go.  Forty five minutes later, I was watching a male Black-capped Vireo singing away from the top of a small cedar tree.  Success!

Driving on, I discovered another wrinkle in my plan.  The narrow two-lane highway that I intended to take to my next destination was under construction. Seriously under construction.  Like, “follow a pilot car for 15 miles along a dirt road at 10 mph” under construction.

Follow Me

I’m pretty sure my rental contract says I’m not supposed to drive off the pavement, so let’s keep this between you and me, ok?  After a slight delay, I was back on track, and arrived at Lost Maples State Natural Area.

Lost Maples2

This park is absolutely gorgeous – one of my favorite places to visit in Texas.  And it also hosts dozens of endangered Golden-cheeked Warblers, several of which obligingly popped into view during my hike along the East Trail.

Lost Maples

Lost Maples is a stop of the Heart of Texas Wildlife Trail, another example of the birding/nature trails I wrote about during my last visit to Texas.

Heart of Texas

I don’t have any pictures of the warbler or the vireo because they are hard to photograph, and I didn’t want to bother or harass them (they are endangered species, after all!).  But I did manage to snap a quick picture of this cool Scissor-tailed Flycatcher.  It’s a little hard to see in the photo, but his tail is longer than his body (it’s right in front of the barbed wire).

Scissor-tail Flycatcher

My last stop in the Hill Country was at Neal’s Lodges in Concan, TX.  The owners have done a terrific job making their property bird and wildlife-friendly.  I was there in the heat of the day, so I didn’t see a ton of different species, but I did find a (previously reported) Tropical Parula, an very rare bird north of Mexico.

Neals

Tonight I went owling at Bentsen State Park.  I got a tip from the rangers about the location of an Elf Owl roost.  The owl sleeps inside an old woodpecker hole – the top hole in the middle (broken off) trunk in the picture below.

Elf Owl Tree

Elf Owls are the smallest owls in North America – a mere 5.5 inches long and an ounce and a half in weight.  Three Elf Owls combined weigh less than a single iPhone.  I watched the roost hole from about sunset to dusk (half an hour or so), and finally saw him peeking out to check things out.  He stuck his head out several times, only to disappear again into the hole.  Finally when it was almost dark, he launched himself out into the night.  What a treat.

In my Texas travels, I have found many amazing sights.  But I haven’t found Utopia yet.  I think it might be just up the road, though.

Utopia

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Texas Wrap-Up and Silly Signs

Little Blue Heron

My February trip to Texas was a success, and I am now enjoying some time at home.  Here is my customary end-of-trip report:

Miles by car: 1799

Miles by foot: 20 (approx)

Total species seen: 169

New Big Year Birds added: 40 (I’m currently at 544 total since I started on June 12, 2012)

Total number of individual birds seen last week (according to my eBird summary): 3560 (approx)

Highlights: Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, Audubon’s Oriole, Common Pauraque, Whooping Cranes, Flammulated Owl

Rarest bird: Bronzed Kingfisher (see photo below)

Bronzed Kingfisher

Nosiest Neighbor: The guy who kept peering over the fence the whole time I was at the Valley Nature Center

Nosy Neighbor

Scariest Thing I Saw: Chachalacas racing out of the forest at me, screaming “Chachalaca!”

Chachalaca

Scariest Thing I Saw if I Were a Minnow: A flotilla of 80+ Horned Grebes swimming in close formation at the Texas City Dike

Eared Grebe Flotilla

Most Ridiculous Sign: You decide.  Here are some contenders:

Watch for Pelicans

Ok, I’m in bumper-to-bumper traffic on a narrow bridge with a concrete barrier to my left and traffic cones on my right.  How precisely should I react if I see a pelican coming at me at 45 miles an hour?

Pronto Insurance

I’ve never really contemplated the strength of a chorizo stain before…

Chacha Crossing

I know enough to stay out of their way!

Beware Sign

Agapanthus, eh?

Agapanthus sign

And that’s the news for now.  I’ll be mostly around the Pacific Northwest for the next 6 weeks or so, until I begin my Spring of Absolute Craziness: a 10-week period in which I’m traveling to Florida (including the Everglades, Keys, and Dry Tortugas), back to Texas, back to Arizona, back to Texas again (Big Bend!), and wrapping up my Big Year the first week of June in Alaska.  Stay tuned….

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