It’s with great pleasure that I announce that Corey, Charlie, and Mike over at 10,000 Birds, being gentlemen of obvious sagacity and exemplary taste, have asked me to be one of their new beat writers. I’ll be covering the Interior West on a biweekly basis.

My hope is that this will create a synergy that will prompt me to update over here more often as well. Even if not, rest assured that I don’t intend to let Great Auk- or Greatest Auk become extinct. But for my deep thoughts on issues pertaining to my new home, as well as updates from some of the other finest bird bloggers out there, definitely check out 10000birds.com.

I am not a desert person. I love water above all things — be it on a pelagic, or along a river, or tromping through the much in a brackish swamp. That said, I have always been aware of, and fascinated by, the vast desert regions of the American Southwest. Almost certainly it was book that tipped me off, or a show in PBS perhaps. At any rate, I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know that the desert was a rich and fascinating place.

Most people, it seems, don’t know that. The use desert as a synonym for empty or impoverished: “food desert”, “desertification”. This is not at all dissimilar to the way that the word wilderness itself was used by early European invaders on this continent – the phrase ‘howling wilderness’, now rarely heard, denoted the same sort of space that could only be improved by the most drastic interference. Since then, we have learned better when it comes to wilderness. Not so much when it comes to desert.

Via Chris Clarke, I have been following with some trepidation the controversy over solar energy in the Mojave desert. In this place, the word desert has been overlaid on reality and used to make a bad decision: namely, the wrecking of pristine, rather than degraded, habitat for development. That the development in question is the construction of solar panels rather than malls and condos is but small consolation for the species to be displaced.

It is easy to forget what energy is. It is never free. It is always accompanied by the destruction of matter, or by the loss of energy transition from one form to another. Solar is a vast improvement over what we have now, but is not a panacea, because there is no panacea. At the very least, we surely have a responsibility to know what we are compromising, what we are choosing. Defining our words poorly does not help with that.

ETA: As I write this, I see another example of solar development with the potential to destroy habitat that birders may well be interested in.

In all the excitement of the move and classes, I almost forgot to tell everyone:

Haunted Legends is now available!

This book, edited by an unprecedented team-up of eminent, award-winning anthologist Ellen Datlow and notorious, also-award-winning outlaw sf-er Nick Mamatas, features my latest short story “Face Like a Monkey” (which, despite the title, is actually about a stork. Or is it….)

It’s available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook! Buy it today! Hand it out to trick-or-treaters!

Like John Travolta said in Pulp Fiction, when you’re someplace new and strange, it’s the “little differences” that get you. Although Missoula does not have the Royale with Cheese (it does have a surprisingly credible assortment of pizzas, but that’s another story) it does have plenty of stuff to throw a Brooklyn gal into culture shock.

Sticking strictly to the birds:

Of the primary-color feeder bird trifecta, there are no Northern Cardinals or Blue Jays here. The cardinals don’t seem to have a close local equivalent; the jay family is represented by Gray and Steller’s, but in town their niche seems to be occupied more by the boisterous and snappy Black-billed Magpie. The Goldfinches are abundant, but their calls are slightly, subtly different. I can hear their accents more clearly than the accents of the people. (Some people would say that I have always had this problem.)

The chickadees also sound different. The nuthatches sound much the same, but in addition to White and Red-breasted, I have to keep an ear (and eye) out for the aptly-named, adorable Pygmy Nuthatch. The waxwings are all Cedar now, but the mountain ash is fruiting abundantly and people speak of Bohemians as though they’re expected, not a rare treat. And speaking of not-rare treats, I go out my back door and see Pine Siskins routinely, instead of braving the cold and mud for them in vain.

And the woodpeckers. Ah, the woodpeckers. If anything sums up the way the avifauna here is just familiar enough to make the differences jarring, it’s the Picidae. It’s flicker time here too, and ostensibly the same flicker, although they look very different indeed from their east-coast conspecifics. Especially compared to something like the Red-naped Sapsucker, which looks an awful lot like a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, but is no such thing. We have Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, although more of the latter than I’m used to. We have Black-backed Woodpeckers, which look like you expect woodpeckers to look like, and Lewis’s Woodpeckers, which look like nothing so much as Betsey Johnson’s idea of a woodpecker makeover — although happily without frills.

We have Western Phoebes and Screech Owls, which look virtually identical to their Eastern counterparts but aren’t, perhaps to make up for the damn flickers.

The Osprey is just an Osprey, as it is all over the world. They fly along the river, and the young cry plaintively from their nesting platforms, not eager to fledge, just as they do at Jamaica Bay. It’s nice for some things to stay the same.

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If you’re reading this, you’ve heard of Yellowstone. America’s first and most iconic National Park, home of the geysers, the bison, the majestic elk. If you’re like me, you’ve probably read about it in all manner of books, seen it in all manner of nature programs. You’ve thought about the bison as symbols and the geysers as abstractions. As you can imagine, I was excited to see the real deal.

Unfortunately, our entrance into Yellowstone was not auspicious. We’d spent the day driving across the entire state of Wyoming, which is much longer than it looks, because it goes up and down so much. We’d stopped to refuel both the car and ourselves in Cody, where the copious meandering tourists agitated the living shit out of the Inimitable Todd (thus proving that our IT is a New York City Boy at heart, as if there was ever any doubt) and didn’t exactly relax me. We’d debated the location of our next bed and breakfast, and after an unsuccessful attempt to look it up on the phone, debated whose fault not knowing about it was. Now evening was imminent, still had no cell phone signal, and we were being charged more than twenty American dollars to enter a park that we would now have to jet straight through if we wished to find ourselves a place to sleep for the night.

Jetting was a bit of an ambitious verb, though,what with the circuitous route that we’d have to take, and the construction that the map warned us of (“expect delays of up to 30 minutes!” I read with some trepidation, and the IT groaned) and of course ALL. THE. FREAKIN’. RVS.

Now, I don’t like to judge other people’s lifestyles… oh, who am I kidding. RVs are an abomination. I’m sure they have their place, perhaps for the very infirm, or maybe at the bottom of the ocean serving as artificial reefs. They should really not be found in vast herds, rumbling up narrow, twisty mountain roads, or down narrow, twisty mountain roads, or coming to a dead stop in the middle of narrow, twisty mountain roads so that the occupant can get yet another picture of some bison.

I have to admit, I was not expecting to be impressed by the bison. In my mind I had them filed under “wild cows”, and I already know more than I ever wanted to about cows. So I also knew more than I wanted to about bison.

This was a misapprehension on my part. I realized it as soon as we came to the front of a line of stopped traffic and discovered that it was stopped because of a bison meandering down the middle of the road, forcing cars (and RVs) to go around him. This was a huge, obviously powerful animal, but it wasn’t just that. I’d seen huger, more powerful creatures in zoos. It honestly was the wildness, the fact that despite the record-breaking number of tourists, despite the brutal history of near-extinction the bison had overcome, despite the fact that it was confined to the park at the pain of hazing or death, here was an individual animal going about its own business. An individual very freaking large animal.

That was the highlight of the day; most of the rest of the evening was consumed with navigating around construction, getting lost, and similar unhappiness. We arrived at our lodge in Idaho well after dark, had a picnic in our room, and fell asleep.

The next day we went back, still on a deadline but with more time to spare. We were determined to actually stop the car and look at things this time. Things of our own choosing, not just whatever wandered up onto the road.

The RVs didn’t make it easy, mind you. They stopped for damn near everything – elk across a river, bison on a distant meadow, a bear minding its own business at the bottom of a precarious cliff that we were all driving a narrow paved strip on the side of. I can’t fault the urge to take a picture – humans have always invented tools to aid and shore up memory, and I would be profoundly ungrateful if I knocked the urge that led us to develop books. But like so many things, from peeing in a river to cutting down a tree, what was acceptable, nearly harmless behavior in individuals became completely overwhelming and a giant pain in the ass in the aggregate.

After observing this, and checking the time tables, we came to a mutual agreement to skip Old Faithful and visit some of the other, less famous geysers instead. This meant instead of insanely crowded, the boardwalks we walked and the viewing areas where we stopped were merely very crowded.

I tried to blank it all out. Not just the tourists, but the boardwalks and protective fences, the sound of cars and goddamn RVs in the distance, the photos and videos I’d seen, the books I’d read, the knowledge of geological processes that informed me about exactly what was going on under my feet. I tried to put myself into the position of a person who had, perhaps, heard rumors, but was seeing this with fresh eyes, with genuine awe in the old sense of the word, in real danger and probably in even more imagined danger, believing that there might be literal demons responsible for this process that resulted in steam and peculiarly cobalt water oozing up from the crusted earth.

I couldn’t do it, of course – the observer always affects the experiment – and moreover, I got the impression that if I’d succeeded it would have been very unpleasant (potential for a fatal scalding in the absence of those boardwalks aside.) But somewhere in the middle ground, between terrified ignorance and jaded familiarity, I caught a glimpse of what the science fiction crowd calls ‘sense of wonder’ (and so abuses in trying to recapture it that it’s now been tattered down to sensawunda, the continued absence of which explains why we’re not on Mars.)

I wasn’t expecting that.

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We interrupt the road trip for an update from The Future (dun dun dun….) which is to say, the present.

Classes have started at the University of Montana, among them my first nonfiction workshop! Among my tasks for the semester is to select, read, and comment from a writer’s perspective on four nonfiction books that have something to teach me about the craft.

I’ve decided to pick four books on birds and birding (or on nature with a strong bird component), but with different forms and themes. Unfortunately, books I’ve already read are discouraged, which rules out some strong contenders like Of a Feather and Season at the Point. Some of the possibilities I’m looking at include:

Wild America by James Fisher and Roger Tory Peterson (maybe paired with Weidensaul’s Return to Wild America if I get hardcore ambitious)
Life List by Olivia Gentile
Birding Babylon by Jonathan Trouern-Trend
Flight Maps by Jennifer Price
The Birds of Heaven by Peter Mattheissen
Mama Poc by Anne LaBastille

Please throw out suggestions in the comments, if you have any! I’m looking to cast a wide net, so the bird-ness of the book need not be the central focus. All selections do, however, have to be nonfiction.

And please, don’t suggest Jonathon Rosen’s The Life of the Skies. I already know that one can be a beautiful writer and wrong as hell*. And you’ll hear more about Rosen’s wrong as hellness in this very blog, in The Future (dun dun dunnnn…..)

*I learned from Annie Dillard, actually.

The next few days contained little birding but what I could get out of the window of the car. There were some highlights, nevertheless – White Pelicans soaring over the Mississippi, Black Terns at prairie potholes. But just little nibbles of each. Nothing you would call a full meal of birding.

Then we were in North Dakota, possibly the worst night of the trip. We’d found no bed and breakfast to bed down or breakfast up at, so we holed up in a fraying Motel Six as rain poured down and thunder cracked. We ventured out only to get food at a nearby mediocre steakhouse.

In the midst of this, though, I knew what would cheer me up – birding. Not just any birding. Expeditionary birding, the kind that would take us off the beaten six-lane path and get us in touch with the new territory we were crossing. And I had just the target in mind – the Orange-billed Nightingale-thrush.

This heavily-hyphenated Catharus is normally found far south of South Dakota – namely places like Costa Rica and Venezuela. The only U.S. records were a handfull from Texas before a lone individual was spotted in Spearfish Canyon, conveniently located almost directly between Bismarck and Rapid City, SD, where we planned to spend the night. The only change our plan would require was getting off the Interstate for Alt. Route 14 – promisingly aka’d Scenic Route 14. And, of course, getting out of the car. Jochen had tipped me off to the bird back in July, but I’d never dreamed that it would stick around until I could drop in. The Internet, however, assured me that it had.

Not that there weren’t a few potential issues. Like the fact that the thrush was active mostly in the early morning, a time when it was logistically impossible for us to be there. And the fact that, like any lonely male bird facing the onset of autumn, it had been singing less and less and lurking more and more over the past weeks. And, of course, my sad personal history with mega-rarities.

Still, if I didn’t try, there was no chance at all that I’d see the bird.

A lot of things would have been strikingly beautiful after Bismarck. Nevertheless, I can safely say that my perspective was not so warped that I am overpraising Spearfish Canyon. It was a lovely place. The road wound gently along the bottom of the canyon, and even in the middle of the afternoon long shadows fell over the pines and rock faces. I tried to get some photos, but nothing about a still imagine could really do it justice. At least, not with my photography skills. Ansel Adams might have had better luck. But even the greatest photograph on Earth could not have captured the sounds of water and wind on rock, or the smell of the trees.

The road was, not crowded, but appreciably populated with other vehicles. At first I thought they might all be birders, but it soon became apparent, not least from the number of motorcyclists among them, that many were just out enjoying the scenicness. (I’m not saying that motorcyclists can’t be birders, but I didn’t see many carrying binoculars.) In fact, when we arrived at the bird’s usual spot, there were only two other birders present. I was somewhat leery of interacting with them, because I was aware that the inevitable patch-birder backlash to invasive twitchers had begun, and I was in a car with New York license plates. As much as I wanted to run up and say “No, really, I didn’t waste that much gas just for this one bird!” I was too shy.

So I strolled up and down diffidently, one eye on the trees and one eye on the other birders. Occasionally something would move in the trees, but it proved – time and time again – to be the same American Redstart, dedicated to sowing confusion (or eating small bugs, more likely.) A few Violet-Green Swallows wheeled overhead, and above that, some turkey vultures.

We waited.

The other birders left. They came back. The IT goaded me into talking to them, but they had no new information, and soon went away again.

Shortly thereafter, we entered the most awkward phase of birding – the part where you have to decide whether stay or go. I’d been there before – I suspect we all have. Other obligations, appointments, hunger and thirst and other bodily urges, the knowledge of (or uncertainty of) the drive ahead of you. And against that, the conviction that as soon as you leave the bird will pop out of the bushes and start singing its heart out, or soar in from wherever it was visiting, or flush and show a crucial field mark, or what have you. The dwindling light or growing shadows. The long uncomfortable fading of hope. It’s hard to know whether this is more difficult to deal with when you’re with other birders – dare I be a quitter in front of them? – or a non-birder who is clearly being patient and understanding.

In short, we didn’t leave, and then we did.

It got darker. We drove into higher and higher foothills, looking for our bed and breakfast, growing anxious. Finally, up a dirt road, we found it, populated with a vast flock of Wild Turkeys and a bustling birdfeeder whose clientele included Black-Headed Grosbeaks. Oh, and also a pair of very nice proprietors and their dogs.

We talked briefly about returning to Spearfish Canyon for one more stab at the Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush the next day, but we had a long drive ahead of us, a drive that included Yellowstone National Park. It was not to be.

Perhaps it was road-weariness, or maybe I’m just older now, but I couldn’t even bring myself to curse this rarity out.

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