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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I would like to claim that on some level, I knew. That some sixth sense, some migratory instinct, told me to pass by Ames for Missoula and thus preserved me from being underwater at this very juncture. This, however, would be a blatant falsehood. I am here, and not there, because I got in here, and not there.

Nevertheless, when we stopped for the night in Ames (at a wonderful bed and breakfast that I heartily recommend to anyone who finds themselves adrift in that section of the country) I did have certain forebodings. For one thing, the weather had, apparently been perfect for growing corn. Anyone familiar with weather knows that this is not a thing that happens without the extensive application of human sacrifice. To give but one example, I lived on the Olde Homestead for eighteen years, and in those eighteen years, there was exactly one summer where the rain and the sun occurred in the right combination at the right time for maize cultivation. So either there was dark witchcraft afoot, or the piper would soon have to be paid.

Also, the IT and I went downtown, and discovered:

1. Two separate game stores selling Magic Cards
2. An American Legion outpost
3. A Christian bookstore
4. Two bars, both so scary that we felt zero desire to go inside. And this is me and the IT we’re talking about.

So, in short, Ames was not the place for me.

And yet… as we sat outside the hacienda, a Great Blue Heron flew over the pond. At bit later, a Red-tailed Hawk did the same. Barn Swallows arced over our heads, eating (I hope) the abundant mosquitoes. Song Sparrows set the grass wavering with their weight as they belted out their evening tune, and rabbits browsed on the lawn.

A Kingfisher splashed into the water, emerged, and perched on a snag nearby. I watched it for a long time; I rarely see as many Kingfishers as I want. After a time, it was joined by another Kingfisher, a male, presumably its mate.

Dusk began to fall, and the mosquitoes got more onerous, but neither the Inimitable Todd nor I were ready to go back inside after spending most of the day cooped up in the car. Too, IT wanted pictures of the sunset; but clouds were gathering to thwart him (and to engage in what, had we but known, was a very literal form of foreshadowing.)

I kept my eyes on the Swallows, finding their flight patterns soothing. Suddenly, something much larger cut across the sky, and I scrambled to switch gears and ID it, fortunately, it circled the house and gave my plenty of time to take in the pointed wings, overall dark color and distinctive white bands across the underwings.

I had heard Common Nighthawks before – most recently over Ann Arbor, Michigan, which was far more of what I think of when I think of a college town. But, as careful readers already know, I don’t count ear birds for my life list. So the Common Nighthawk was a gap. Until now.

The Nighthawk eventually set a course and disappeared. We also set a course, for a good night’s rest and eventually for Minneapolis and great swaths of new habitat still ahead… still grateful, despite the Nighthawks, that we weren’t staying here and that we had so much yet to explore ahead of us.

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Word association game for birders: Prairie.

Chicken, right?

At least, that’s what I thought as we drove through Kansas. We had, of course, missed the mating season and thus the fabulous displays that the male birds put on in hopes of winning the opportunity to breed. These dance-offs and Prairie Idol auditions, taking place as they do loudly, persistently, and in a pre-defined location, mark the best chance for long, clear, and impressive looks at a male prairie chicken (whether you are a female prairie chicken looking for a babydaddy or a birder looking for a tick.) But prairie chickens do not dematerialize when they are not dancing, so I hoped that if I put myself in the right habitat, I might get lucky.

So, as one does when one is feeling lucky, I turned to Google. Google offered me a few options, but none seemed as appealing as the Shawnee state fishing lake, conveniently located right off the highway that we were traveling on anyhow. I copied down the directions carefully and showed the IT the map. How hard could this be?

We set off down the highway, and the first turn appeared soon enough. It couldn’t be fairly called an exit – it was at grade, and we had to cross a lane of traffic heading in the opposite direction to get where we were going. How quaint, I thought.

Still, the not-an-exit had appeared just exactly where the map had indicated that it should, and this does not always happen with birding directions that you find on the internet. Or at least, it doesn’t always happen with birding directions that I find on the internet.

I examined the roadside wires and posts as we drove, netting quite a few Meadowlarks, some Kingbirds, and an odd-looking Rock Pigeon along the way. Nothing that would constitute a lifer, though, and nothing that screamed Kansas.

We made another turn, easy enough to find – but the road down which we’d turned shortly gave way to gravel.

“We must be getting close!” I said cheerfully. The Inimitable Todd, no doubt thinking of that day in the future when the car would have to be returned to the rental office, grimaced.

We made another turn, and the gravel seemed to get dustier. On the other hand, we also saw a sign for the lake, which I resolutely decided to regard as positive.

By the time we reached the lake itself, we were traveling on rutted dirt that our little Chevy Cobalt had never been designed for – the likes of which, in fact, I’d venture to say that most American SUVs never even attain. That speaks more to the inappropriate buying impulses of most Americans than it does to our foolhardiness. I think.

There were traces of a campfire where we parked, still fragrant, although only possibly Satan himself could have needed extra warmth in the 90+ degrees of the early afternoon. Far away, a couple of old pickup trucks were parked, but I couldn’t see anyone near them. Kingbirds hawked for dragonflies over an inlet. Far away, I could hear a Song Sparrow and a tractor and the buzzing of various insects.

I also heard, after a few minutes of listening, the call of a Northern Bobwhite. This would have been very exciting if I counted ear records for my life list, but I don’t. After all, for all I knew it might have been a Mockingbird mocking a Bobwhite.

I neither heard nor saw anything that seemed like it might be a Prairie Chicken. We walked around the lake for a bit, and by a bit I mean all of a few yards. The heat and humidity once again were conspiring to squish the birding impulse clean out of me, and the Inimitable Todd, with less birding impulse to begin with, was past squished.

That didn’t mean that he didn’t have his eyes open, though. And it didn’t mean that he’d forgotten what I’d asked him to look out for. So when a sparrow-ish bird popped up that was showing a bit of yellow, he asked me if it was the Dicksissel I’d wanted.

“Where?”

“Over there.” He points at a patch of weeds and I scan desperately for a movement.

“WHERE?”

Eventually, he got me on the bird. Sure enough, it was a Dicksissel, my second life bird of the trip. If I reflected on the fact that thus far my life birds had both been very very similar to House Sparrows in their own way, it was only to make a koan on the nature of Nature; and when Todd suggested that we go back to the car and look for the Prairie Chickens with four wheels and some glass between us and the bugs, I did not demur.

It seemed to me that it would be a simple matter to go around the lake; unfortunately, the roads did not cooperate. Moreover, dark clouds were gathering. We passed more Meadowlarks, more Kingbirds, many Robins and Mockingbirds. We passed many pastures and fields. The dust followed us like a cloud. Horseflies hit the windows with aplomb. Everything was rattled, even the IT; he eventually pulled out his iPhone and performed his own rite of Google to get us back to the highway. It turned out it was fairly simple – much simpler, for some reason, than getting out there in the first place. I told myself that I hadn’t really expected to see the Prairie Chickens anyway, and this was true; not only was this the wrong time of year, they seemed mythological anyway. Like prairies. Where were the prairies? They were supposed to look different, I was supposed to feel different. But nothing was different.

Shortly after we got back onto the highway, the sky opened up with rain that truly earned the name cloudburst in a way that few east coast storms can.

“Well, at least you won’t have to pay to wash the car,” I pointed out. The Inimitable Todd grimaced.

I glanced out the window just in time to see the distinctive profile of a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher beating a retreat to the relative shelter of a tree. By nightfall, we would be in Iowa.

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I have to confess, I had forgotten all about the Eurasian Tree Sparrow. I remember reading in the Peterson guide as a child about this smaller, less pushy cousin of the ubiquitous House Sparrow. Unlike the House Sparrow, there was only one successful introduction event for the Eurasian Tree Sparrow (sometimes called the German Sparrow to avoid confusion with the American Tree Sparrow). This event took place in April of 1870, in Lafayette Park in St. Louis.

In July of 2010, I checked into a bed and breakfast on Lafayette Square, a little frustrated because I hadn’t yet had a life bird on my epic journey across most of America. Now, I shouldn’t have been surprised, because I was still in mostly-familiar (e.g. Eastern) territory, and birding from a speeding car on the interstate is not really conducive to identifying the finer points of sparrows. (Although if you want to see a bunch of Turkey Vultures it’s a pretty good strategy. And who doesn’t want to see a bunch of Turkey Vultures?) I wasn’t thinking about the Eurasian Tree Sparrow at all, though. I wasn’t even sure if they were still part of the avifauna, or if they’d tapered off into American oblivion; I hadn’t considered the question in years.

It was just happenstance, and the fact that my binoculars were around my neck, that the proprietor decided to share a tidbit of local history and mention the introduction of the German Sparrows in the park across the street from his house.
Of course, no birder himself, he thought that the House Sparrows in his ivy were the birds in question. Still, the tip was all I needed to jump online and do some quick research (and all praises to the internet for making such things possible!) so that I could target the neighborhoods where Passer domesticus had not pushed out Passer montanus. A helpful site gave me not only the block, but the very backyard to check!

Lest you think that modern technology robbed all the challenge from my hunt, though, I would point out that there were a couple of confounding factors.

First, we were on a schedule that, while not tight, did involve being in Kansas City before nightfall.

Second, it was wiltingly hot and compressingly humid, as one might expect in Missouri in the summer in the middle of the day – and not only does such weather discourage birders, it takes a toll on the birds as well. Red-winged Blackbirds and Starlings around the Arch were panting and flocking to the water features like Saharan castaways.

Third, birding in the backyards of strangers is always a hairy proposition – people have been accused of peeping tommery, or worse, for focusing their binoculars indiscriminately. Even as non-threatening a person as yours truly has been ordered off of lawns. And, of course, creeping people out, however inadvertently, doesn’t make one a good ambassador for wildlife.

Nevertheless, a life bird is a life bird and it would take a lot more than three confounding factors to make me drive away from St. Louis without putting in a sporting effort to get this one.

I think the Inimitable Todd may have been less impressed with some of my birding shenanigans, sometime, but I can’t recall which. He did make a good-faith effort to help me look from the car as we entered Dogtown (“There’s… no, that’s another House Sparrow”) but when it came to actually pounding the pavement, he stayed in the shade-parked car and studied road maps.

The birds were not in their appointed backyard. I walked up the block further, staring at Cardinals and Mourning Doves patronizing a well-stocked feeder until a dog began to bark. I circled back, glancing at each passing car with what I hoped was a reassuring, non-felonious face.

And then the German Sparrows flew in to the feeder. There were two of them, and as is so often the case with new birds, they were immediately distinct and recognizable in a way that the field guide could not do justice. Their red-brown caps and black ear spots were immediately apparently, but so were their more gracile builds and higher voices.

I watched them for only a few minutes. It was, after all, hot, and I was staring into someone’s backyard, and we did have to find the frozen custard stand and the highway and our next rooms down the road. But I will never forget about Eurasian Tree Sparrows again.

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