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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San Clemente Island Goat

San Clemente Island Goat

I am not the only Laben undertaking new life stages lately. One of my sisters and her husband, aggrieved with city life, have signed a contract on a New Homestead. Though they must toil in the urban salt mines a bit longer, they’re starting to plan what they will raise on their farm. No monoculturists they! They want a blend of crops and critters adapted to the landscape, able to thrive with a minimum of artificial inputs, and generally healthier than a vast swath of cloned corn or a barn full of turkeys that can’t even reproduce without human input.

I, being incurably inclined to nosiness and procrastination, decided to get in on the act. So I bopped by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy site to see what was up. I ended up zeroing in on the Chantecler, a critically endangered type of Canadian chicken specially adapted for wintry climates. But along the way, I stumbled on the San Clemente Island Goat.

Astute birders of the Western U.S. may well have noted the first part of that name and deduced what’s coming next. I flashed back to my weekend reading on avian extinction in the U.S.

San Clemente Island. One of the Channel Islands, the southernmost. There was a subspecies of Bewick’s Wren there, a lively brown bird that thrived in the scrubby, rocky, dry climate of the windswept island. And then there wasn’t.

Because of the goats. (And sheep, and possibly pigs, but the goats are usually cited as the chief villains). Feral animals, they ate the Wren out of house and home; a bird that a 1908 (when the goats had been there only a few decades) article in The Condor described as “very common on all parts of the island” was gone by the 1940s, due primarily to habitat destruction. The habitat had gone into the stomachs of the goats.

In 1934, the Navy acquired the island for a firing range and landing strip. They ignored the goats until 1972, when someone pointed out to them that being the Federal Government and all, they needed to protect the remaining indigenous creatures of the island (which still include a distinct subspecies of Loggerhead Shrike and several other genetically unique plants and animals). The Navy acted in classic American fashion – after assessing the situation, they sold the goats they could profitably catch and shot the ones they couldn’t.

This went on for some years, the Navy busily reducing the goat population while the goats reacted by busily increasing the goat population – and by growing warier, thriftier, and harder to catch or shoot. Then, in 1979, the Fund for Animals stepped in, objecting to the killing of the goats.

Now comes the vigorous rolling of birder eyes, right? So-called animal lovers are about to sacrifice precious ecosystems in defense of cute and cuddly domestic destruction machines.

Only that’s not what happened. The courts cut a middle path; they allowed the Fund for Animals to round up and remove unprofitable goats, while recognizing that the Navy ultimately had a right to do what was necessary to protect the island. Suits and injunctions continued to occur throughout the early 80s; ultimately, about 6,000 more goats were removed alive from the island, and the remainder were killed off. In 1991, the island was goat-free.

On the mainland, many of the goats that had been adopted out succumbed to unfamiliar diseases, or were neutered or never bred; at one point the population dropped to 250. There are now roughly 400 San Clemente Island Goats in the world. And they, too, as it turns out, are a genetically distinct population; they can’t be linked to the populations of Spanish goats they were assumed to descend from. Left on San Clemente long enough to experience the genetic drift and selective pressures of island life, they’d become small, thrifty, and weather-hardy. They’d also developed excellent mothering skills and a relatively unaggressive disposition. These are genetic traits that could be useful to goats – and thus goat-herders – in many other situations. Now it’s the goats that need preserving.

So the goats are destruction machines and scrappy underdogs, heroes and villains. Which only shows how foolish it often is to project those categories, as powerful as they are, onto animals in the first place.

As an aside, this account indicates that the goats brought a species of ear mite unknown to science with them when they were removed from the island; no word on whether anyone has troubled to preserve that.

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As the boat rocked gently on the vast, prolific, pulsating ocean, I lay in my bunk and tried to do some reading. I’d brought along Seven Tenths by James Hamilton-Paterson, a lyrical (though sometimes a tiny bit precious) elegy for the abused and demystified oceans of the world.

I couldn’t help but think of the whales. I knew, of course, intellectually, that whales are big, and so is the ocean. But actually experiencing the difference in scale between these creatures, this environment, and my puny little self…. Consider. Some whales can live to be 200 years old, maybe older, we don’t know. They have complex social structures. And at their respective nadirs, there were only an estimated 5,000 Humpbacks and less than 2,000 Blue Whales in the world.

So some of those whales we met, might very well have had friends and relatives killed by humans. Yes, this is shameless anthropomorphism. But in the case of these long-lived cetaceans, as with other highly social animals, it hardly seems out of place to think that they could have such bonds in their own right, not just as a way of being honorary humans. Certainly, they can learn. Certainly, they can remember. Yet very few whales have ever offered violence to humans even when they could have got clean away with it.

And they could have. The other thing that struck me as I lay in my bunk was how very not-solid the water was, how things could sink in it, how very much irreversible it was if one were to lose a book or a pair of glasses or an Inimitable Todd or a self overboard in a moment of carelessness. Or even a boat if it were to sink. The Pacific Ocean, for those of you who have not seen it, is a whole lot of water.

The rocking of the boat did not change. It was still gentle, still steady. It was just, suddenly, less soothing.

The whales think I should be less angsty

The whales think I should be less angsty

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After a pleasant night of sleep (I don’t think all the other birders enjoyed it as much as I did) we woke up heading for the Channel Islands. At first, the birdlife was very similar to the first day’s, with fewer but still present Brown Pelicans, another Skua, several Pomarine Jaegers and numerous shearwaters, including our first Buller’s (lifer).

Buller’s Shearwater is one of those interesting species that doesn’t align well with our land-based sense of what makes a bird rare or not-rare; they’re abundant, but far out at sea so that most people rarely lay eyes on them. And although they range over the whole Pacific, their breeding colonies are clustered tightly enough that a rapid-fire series of relatively local disasters could do the whole population serious harm. So they’re considered a vulnerable species, even as we saw over 200 on our trip.

As we bore towards the southernmost island we were briefly accompanied by a pod of Risso’s Dolphins and spotted a Northern Fur Seal doing that weird Fur Seal thing where they stick their flippers out of the water in a loop and point them skywards to thermoregulate – I initially mistook it for a floating tire.

Fur Seal, no longer cunningly disguised as a tire

Fur Seal, no longer cunningly disguised as a tire

Also numerous as we neared the islands were phalaropes; mostly Red-necked, a species that I had the good fortune to see at Jamaica Bay a couple years back, but also a small group of Red. Red was the last species I needed to complete the phalarope trifecta! Phalaropes are my second-favorite group of birds, so that was a big moment for me. Shortly thereafter yet another lifer hove into view in the slim dark form of an aptly-named Pelagic Cormorant.

The captain detected a temperature break in the channel – a place where two currents collided, creating an upwell of water and little specks of organic matter from the deep. Birds regard such places as buffets, and the whitish band of foam on the water was flocked over by more phalaropes, gulls, and cormorants. We headed that way in hope of more new birds. Here I picked out the formerly-elusive Leach’s Storm-Petrel at last; the first individual, and most of the rest we would see, were among the dark-rumped subspeceiseseseses (Leach’s Storm-petrel taxonomy is, shall we say, somewhat in flux; the species may be in for multiple splits based on little things like the fact that various subspecies are known to breed on the exact same island and yet remain sharply genetically distinct due to differences in the breeding season etc.)

Another Sabine’s Gull was in the mix, along with the trip’s first Common Tern. Dozens of phalaropes were taking off and landing everywhere we looked. I saw a non-breeding-plumaged Pigeon Guillemot briefly, but much to my frustration it disappeared underwater before anyone else got anything but a brief and unconvincing look at it.

This frustration only got worse when I spotted a Northern Fulmar, only to keep quiet in self-doubt (“maybe just a gull with weird light reflecting off the water onto the bill”) and have someone else call it a moment later. With the constant wind, engine noise, waves, and my throat dry no matter how hard I tried to stay hydrated, I wasn’t sure that I could effectively call a bird even if I had no mental blocks! It was all very well and good to tell myself I didn’t care what anyone thought of me, but I didn’t want to be one of those listers who goes on a trip and just looks at birds that other people point out!

Fretting, I retreated to the stern and continued to squint at storm-petrels. Gradually, the process of watching the sea settled my thoughts back off myself and onto the patterns made by the waves and the birds. We slipped between Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa Islands, and there a cry went up of “Common Murre!”

I had no qualms about who pointed that one out. I just ran forward and found myself with an excellent, extended look at yet another awesome alcid. We would see more Murres as the afternoon flowed on, but none as cooperative and close as this one.

Sup, Murre?

S'up, Murre?

At San Miguel Island, the leaders decided to take us west, to test the tenor of the sea and decide whether we should spent the night at anchor or head out further. Unsheltered by the islands, things immediately grew choppier and only a few hardy souls rode the bow, let alone the upper deck.

In the stern, someone cried out “Albatross!” and everyone leaped up. Trapped behind tall people, I strained to see the bird before it crossed the horizon to no avail. My funk returned, as well you might imagine.

But not for long. One of those hardy souls on the upper deck spotted a whale spouting in the distance. It looked like a Humpback. We headed in the spout’s direction.

Soon there were more spouts. And then more. And over the next hour or so, we watched some twenty-five Humpbacks and five Blue Whales surrounding the boat, blowing, flipping their flukes, and going about their business with their remarkable grace. They were so close to the boat that we could hear the tonal difference in breathing between the species, so active that no one could hope to see everything, and so immense that I was suddenly struck by the almost comic smallness of our boat on the ocean. This was my first encounter with Humpbacks, as yesterday had been my first encounter with Blue Whales, but even the experienced whale-watchers on board said that it was one of the largest pods they’d ever seen. I found myself just turning in circles, trying to take it all in.

Whales!

Whales!

Whales!

Whales!

And More Whales!

And More Whales!

Eventually the whales moved on, and we headed back for the shelter of the islands to anchor for the night. And as we did so, the albatross, or another very like it, returned. This time it stayed with the boat, and so I watched my life Black-footed Albatross until the earth rotated the sun out of sight, feeling entirely content.

And there were yet two more days to come. How could they hope to top this?

In keeping with pelagic post tradition, here is a picture of the Inimitable Todds feet

In keeping with pelagic post tradition, here is a picture of the Inimitable Todd's feet

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Bright and chipper at the crack of noon*, the Inimitable Todd and I lined up with the other twenty-odd birders and their multitudes of luggage, ready to board the Searcher. Was I excited? Just a little. This boat would be our home, our vehicle, our observation deck, our veritable Xanadu of Birding Bliss for the coming adventure.

And right now, it needed to have a pump replaced. So we hung out on shore for a bit, making small talk and getting to know each other. Then got on board, got a safety lecture, got our stuff stowed. Got out our binoculars and got ourselves positioned at the stern as the boat at last – at last! – began to make its way out of the harbor.

San Diego retreats, and the adventure begins

San Diego retreats, and the adventure begins

My first lifer came before we even reached open water; a floating platform (apparently the top of some kind of storage locker for bait) was virtually covered with Brandt’s Cormorants, along with a few Brown Pelicans and some California Sea Lions, not to mention Western Gulls and the truly fabulous Heerman’s Gulls.

Brandts Cormorants and Brown Pelicans

Brandt's Cormorants and Brown Pelicans

Sea Lions, Heermans Gulls, Even More Cormorants

Sea Lions, Heerman's Gulls, Even More Cormorants

Abundance would continue to be the theme of this first day (in notable contrast to my last pelagic experience). We were joined by the shearwaters not far out; mostly Sooties and Pink-footed (the latter another lifer) but including a handfull of Black-vented Shearwaters (another lifer.) Again in contrast to the lone Atlantic Sooty I saw last year, many of these birds elected to follow the boat for some distance and show off the wave-skimming skills that give the group its name. There were gulls as well, including a single Sabine (lifer).

Less than a mile out, we had our first jaeger. In fact, before the day was out we’d have multiple sightings of all three jaeger species – Pomarine, Parasitic, and Long-tailed (lifer, lifer, and lifer) – many far longer and closer than the desperate foggy glimpses that I’d been led to believe were typical looks. And then there was the moment when a loud cry of “Skua! Skua! Skua!” went up from the leaders around the boat, and a South Polar Skua** (a bit ratty in molt, but another lifer) came down directly across the bow and circled us long enough for all aboard to get an eyeful.

Less accommodating but even more exciting was the Craveri’s Murrelet that we spotted at the north end of the Nine-Mile Bank (apparently a standard stop for San Diego pelagics). It didn’t stick around long, but out of tribal affinity – or perhaps the desire for a taste of blog fame – it popped up directly underneath the bit of rail where I was standing before disappearing forever as only a softball-sized bird in a Pacific-sized ocean can do. Needless to say, lifer.

Various storm-petrels also abounded in this area; I added Black and Least to my life list but missed the Leach’s that some others spotted.

Such misses were inevitable; there was just plain too much to look at to hope to see everything. Besides the amazing birds already mentioned, many of which appeared in unusual numbers (we put up a raft of ten Long-tailed Jaegers at one point, for instance), there were more sea mammals to watch as well; Sei Whale, Bottlenose Dolphin, Long-beaked Common Dolphin, and Blue Whale. Blue Whales were one of those species, along with the California Condor and Whooping Crane, that I grew up expecting to go extinct long before I would ever have a chance to experience them firsthand; to be proved wrong on this was incredibly moving. The dolphins moved me too; that such intelligent animals, with so little reason to expect anything good from humans and boats, should nevertheless choose to interact with us in a way that seems so joyful…

Bow-riding Dolphins in Their Element

Bow-riding Dolphins in Their Element

To cap it all the food was good, the company congenial, the weather pleasant, and the tummy untroubled by turbulence despite my lack of pill, patch, or other preparations. As I fitted myself into the confines of my bunk, I could not help but feel that things were going, as it were, swimmingly.

What would the next day hold? Stay tuned!

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*there are many nice things about a multi-day pelagic. One is that you don’t have to leave at the unmentionables of dawn to get out to where the birds are.

**I privately curse the humorless or perhaps teetotalling bird-namer who missed the opportunity to name this bird the Jaegermeister.

Here’s a special bonus two-trip entry, because my week has been insanely busy.

On Thursday, I went out to Prospect Park to clear my head before immersing myself in the kitchen. Initial disappointments, including a distinct lack of Pine Siskins at the Breeze Hill feeders and a falcon that flew overhead too rapidly to be positively id’d (based on size I suspect it may have been a Peregrine but can’t rule out a large female Merlin,) were swept away when I saw my life Red-necked Grebe on Prospect Lake. These grebes are rare but regular in the park and two individuals were seen this past spring, but I’m a little disappointed that no one else has reported this one. Nevertheless, it was a distinctive bird, with the silhouette, size, dark cap, and traces of red remaining in the plumage of the neck making for an id that I’m confident in. I also had a good mammal sighting in a melanistic squirrel.

Then I got back home to find that the stray cat we took in last month was delivering her kittens in the bathroom! Dinner, let alone posting my bird list, was necessarily somewhat delayed.

Rock Dove Columba livia
House Sparrow Passer domesticus
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Bufflehead Bucephela albeola
American Coot Fulica atra
Ruddy Duck Oxyura jamaicensis
American Goldfinch Carduelis tristic
White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia alibicollis
Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura
Falcon sp.
American Robin Turdus migratorius
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker Sphyrapicus varius
Black-capped Chickadee Poecile atricapillus
Tufted Titmouse Baeolophus bicolor
White-breasted Nuthatch Sitta carolinensis
Red-bellied Woodpecker Melanerpes carolinus
Canada Goose Branta canadensis
Northern Shoveler Anas acuta
Red-necked Grebe Podiceps grisigena *LL
Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis
Mute Swan Cygnus olor
American Black Duck Anas rubripes
Blue Jay Cyanocitta cristata
Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis

Friday I stuck close to home, but this morning I went to Central Park with Todd. While he trained for the marathon, I did a little walking through the Ramble and the Shakespeare Garden. I didn’t get a long list, but I did pick up Rusty Blackbird which I was afraid by this time I might have missed for the year.

Blue Jay Cyanocitta cristata
House Sparrow Passer domesticus
Black-capped Chickadee Poecile atricapillus
Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis
Common Grackle Quiscalus quiscula
Rusty Blackbird Euphagus carolinus
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Tufted Titmouse Baeopholus bicolor
White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicolla
Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis
Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura
Purple Finch Carpodacus purpureus
Ruddy Duck Oxyura jamaicensis
Thrush sp?
Song Sparrow Melospiza melodia
Northern Shoveler Anas acuta
Rock Dove Columba livia