By Louis Tucker, Los Angeles Audubon Society Member and Field Trip Leader
Photos by Larry Sansone

Trumpeter Swan Sept91 Jackson WY

Trumpeter Swan Sept91 Jackson, WY

Well, for those of you who read my previous tale of a trip to Yosemite, and found that the crutch I use to help me get my thoughts online was tragically absent. I have good news, for me at least, my receiver is back. And, my stereo is up and cranking high volumes. Ironically, I have playing on it right now Bach’s CHRISTMAS ORATORIO. I can assure you that this was not done on purpose. It just so happens that I made a number of CD purchases over the past week; and this was one of them. I also have a rule: the CD does not get to go and join the others on my shelves until I have listened to the whole thing. Because this piece of music is only two and a half hours long, I will be moving on, listening to other music during this journey. The Bach just happens to be a coincidence that it is playing now, as I will tell you of another road trip taken twenty-five years ago with some dear birding buddies who I’ve traveled with around the west and south-west searching for birds.

There is a maxim which says: “You can’t choose your family, but you can choose your friends.” This is a really good thing, since my family takes and took very little interest in any of my hobbies and passions. When I was younger, I did most of my hobbies and passions by myself. And, I was and am perfectly content with that outcome. This way, I don’t have to deal with whining and arguing with an unwilling personality. I can do “alone” pretty well; maybe because I enjoy me and what I’m doing. That said, it is also wonderful when you meet up with people who share the same interests. And, my first few years here in California was graced with meeting some terrific people who love to bird. Three of them, I happened to meet going on some of the Los Angeles Audubon sponsored bird trips or some of the bird walks.

Cosmo Bloom, Peter Shen and Mary Seeger, Pete’s wife, and I met some time in the late eighties, early nineties. And, we just “clicked”. We did a lot of local birding together. And, the chemistry of this “quartet” was really good. This developed into taking longer trips together; out of town and out of state trips. Some trips ended up being overnights or for several days and sometimes more. Our relationship was easy. We were basically four people who got along rather well. There were no displays of ego-trips, or bullying and sense of entitlement. In a phrase—no drama! If there was drama, it usually came from outside the four of us. We had our confrontations with border patrol almost every time we would go looking for birds in southeast Arizona. These incidents would come up as we traveled in the dead of night from one location to another.

Bohemian Waxwing 23Feb97 Ketchum ID

Bohemian Waxwing 23Feb97 Ketchum, ID

Since these confrontations started happening in Arizona, this might be a good time to point out the ethnic mix of this motley group. Pete is an Asian-Hispanic-American, Mary is Caucasian, Cosmo is British-American, and I am African-American. Now, of course, when we were stopped, the car had to be inspected as to what were the contents in the cab and in the trunk. This was always the fun part, possibly because part of basic birding equipment employs binoculars, telescopes, and sometimes cameras with big lenses. To the authorities, the numerous reference books on birds never seemed to matter. The answer to the question: “Why do you have these things and what are they for?” never seemed to make sense to these officials. Identification always had to be checked, still with more questions. So, more than a decade later in Arizona, the “Papers please” law came as no surprise at all to any of us.

Cosmo, Pete and Mary would eventually become international birders. Lacking the funds, I pretty much bird as much as I can in the states. My three amigos have had some great stories to tell; especially Pete. Pete had a really harrowing experience about twenty years ago while birding in Colombia, South America. Trying to find a threatened endemic antpitta, Pete was abducted with several other birders, including a nun. They were in a pretty dicey situation, the abductors who were engaged in civil upheaval, believed them to be spies, given the typical birding paraphernalia, (see previous paragraph). This meant their lives were literally on the line. I think Pete was held for about six weeks. Thousands of miles away, we were on “pins and needles” hoping that he would not be harmed or worse, killed. He returned, thankfully, safe, though he had lost weight out of the ordeal, he seemed to be alright. I couldn’t detect any strong psychological or emotional damage after all of this — which is nothing short of a miracle. He was a lot wiser though.

I really miss them, because they were always ready for adventure; but, they all moved to the East Coast. Initially, they were in New York City, and Cosmo got married and moved to Florida, and Mary and Pete moved to New Jersey. They are now parents. And, Cosmo is even a grandparent. But, when we were all “footloose and fancy free” we did our birding adventures. One of them was during the Christmas season of 1992. That winter, some fantastic birds had come down from the Canadian north into Washington State. Reports circulated about a Northern Hawk Owl coming to a yard in Spokane, flocks of Bohemian Waxwings were in the area, and over on or near the coast were Trumpeter Swans, Marbled Murrelet, Northwestern Crows. But, the big draw for all of us was a Gyrfalcon which would be new for Mary, Pete and Cosmo. It would be my second bird, having seen my life bird in New York at Jones Beach, eight years earlier.

We got ourselves packed with the essentials and ready for the journey. This was going to be a lot of driving for all of us. That’s the other good thing about doing these things with good friends and on a small budget: everybody does everything. The first jaunt was from Los Angeles to Spokane. That’s a twelve hundred mile drive, making it a twenty hour trip. You do a rotation. Do your shift of driving and then you go to sleep. And, if you’re awake, you get to entertain the driver and keep that person awake. So much of the trip up to Washington took place in darkness with winter’s shortened daylight hours and you’re traveling north where in the afternoon it gets darker earlier. You’re also going to the Pacific Northwest where weather is always a factor. Wet weather, be it rain, ice or snow. So, vigilance will be key.

Pete was great. He had the directions and most of the bird information. The trip up the coast of California and part of Oregon, since it was dark seemed uneventful. Then, we headed north east to Spokane. I definitely do not remember any of it. And, suddenly, at daybreak, we arrive in Spokane at the yard where the owl was reported. And, we look into the yard, and at the top of a tall pine tree, directly at twelve o’clock is the Northern Hawk Owl. Tick! That was easy. The first bird of the day was our target bird. Wow! We just sat in the car and watched it for I don’t know how long, exhausted, dazed and thrilled. The owl didn’t seem at all disturbed by our presence. I think if an artist had an easel set up with a canvas and oil paints, that artist could have made a wonderful painting, the owl was so cooperative. Every defining feature was clearly on display: the long tail, the facial discs defined by light colored feathers around the eyes and bill, with a contrasting black border around the discs. Spots on the head could be seen, and the body underneath from the chest down was barred. White spots are on the wings and back. That was our first Christmas gift. And, really, it was a gift. After twenty hours of travel, we were rewarded and didn’t have to work to try to find this gem of the Canadian north.

Northern Hawk Owl 20Aug89 Lake Louise AK

Northern Hawk-Owl 20Aug89 Lake Louise, AK

With the day barely started, albeit with a bang, we start moving west, exploring the outskirts of Spokane. All of us are in full curiosity, bird finding mission mode; in and out of the car. A stone’s throw west of Spokane in a little town called Airway Heights, in the airway, flew a flock of a dozen and a half Bohemian Waxwings. Although I could see their markings, a grayer bird, as well as the size difference to their smaller cousins, Cedar, which is really only an inch, I would like to get a better look at this species. I was content with taking it as a life bird, but, I would like to see the bird in a tree and possibly feeding, instead of flying away. And, a little further west in a farm town called Reardon, traveling on some back roads, surrounded by fields of snow; we came across a group of Gray Partridges, minus the pear tree, foraging through the fields.

We were looking for Snowy Owls, which had been reported. We looked all over and came up empty. I guess I was lucky, because just before I left New York City in January of 1987, in the metropolitan area in and around NYC, eighteen Snowy Owls were being seen. I got my life bird that winter of 1986-1987. That number seemed quite large, at the time, only to have that record crushed more than two and a half decades later when the east coast was invaded, which is an understatement, by more than two thousand Snowy Owls. They were seen everywhere, even in the big cities, and were found as far south as Florida. However, we were doing pretty well, and the day was still quite young.

We started heading west to the coast, on winding roads, surrounded by mountains, keeping up the driving rotations. At some point during this journey, I fell asleep in the back seat. And, I don’t know how long I was out, but, I was jarred awake as I felt the car completely leave the ground. We had “lift off”. We were airborne. We had turned into a cartoon! We had flown over the opposing lane and ended up in a snow bank on the other side of the road. This was a good thing, because not even ten yards beyond snow that stopped the car was a ravine with a big drop into a river at the bottom. The launching culprit: black ice! Pete was driving. As an aside, I had asked my three friends permission to write about this adventure. They all gave the green light. And, Pete added: I know you can’t wait to tell about flying off the road into that snow bank.

What happened after falls under the variety of ways one handles something that could have been quite tragic, but fortunately not so. I was traveling with my Bible in my bag. And, I took it out and started reading. A car drove up going in the opposite direction. It was a young couple going to the next town and wanted to know if we needed help. Pete asks Mary to go into town with them and hopefully get a hold of triple A. Now, I didn’t quite know how to react to that request and years later when I asked my friends for permission, I spoke to Pete and Mary. And Mary and I had a really good laugh about this. She was a bit confused as to why she was asked. I laughed and told her I was stunned by the request as well. We were in one of the most rural areas in America. She’s pretty vulnerable as the only woman of our bunch. But, I was afraid for all of us. I told her over the phone that strangely, in a way, she was the only choice, given Pete’s and my ethnicity. And, then adding to that Cosmo’s very British accent. I saw the film “Deliverance”—this is something that no matter what, had the potential of not ending well.

So, I’m back reading my Bible, praying that this Christmas Eve day, won’t be our last. We are trying to get the car out of being locked in this heap of snow. Mary is now gone for a good while. And, we of course worry when two giant monster trucks show up with Mary in tow. There were four burly, bearded, giant lumberjack types that pop out of the trucks and they are in great spirits. I couldn’t tell what that meant, at first. Mary didn’t seem the worse for wear. So, we knew she was alright; literally thank God! When Mary had gone into town, entered a bar and tried to get a listing for Triple A and a pay phone (remember those?) And the guys told her that that request was impossible on Christmas Eve. So, they offered to come out and help us. These guys were joking about their friends who on black ice in this very spot kissed the side of the mountain. The big rock face that when we were flying in the air and veered left, how lucky we were that we didn’t go straight into this ominous vehicle destroyer. They threw a couple of chains around the rear axle of our car, pulled us out with one of their massive trucks, in a matter of seconds. And, we were free. I think we tried paying them something for their troubles. They instead wished us a “Merry Christmas” and drove off laughing and just as jolly as when they arrived. With that, I put my cynicism to rest. The true meaning of Christmas was revealed in their act of kindness. There are some really nice and kind people around. And, we were blessed by them. And, even with this mishap, which ended up being not as serious as it could have been, we still had daylight left.

Now, there is a sequence of events about which I have no idea of the order in which they occurred. The one thing I know is as we reached close to the coast on this Christmas Eve the idea pops in one of our heads to go into Canada; into Vancouver and try and find the Skylark on Vancouver Island. It is now very dark and the roads are empty as we head to the US/Canadian border. Around midnight we reach the border. We check in at the Canadian border patrol. They want to see our identification, and we comply, handing over our drivers’ licenses. And, now this is where the drama begins. We all check out, except Cosmo, who has a DUI on his license. We are refused entry to our “friendly neighbor” to the north. So, we make a U turn and now have to check in with the American border authorities.

This is where the fun begins. There is no one on this road but us. No one for hours. And, the border authorities have nothing to do. Do you think they would let us go through, without a hitch? Think again. Now, of course, they have to check our ID’s and they single out poor Cosmo for interrogation. And this inquisition gets very personal. Too personal. Finding out that he is British-American, they want to find out which of his parents were from which country. He politely told them of his American mother and his British father. This is taking quite a while and in the meantime the other officers are going through our bags and birding equipment in the trunk of the car which, of course, had to be explained several times. But, the “onion”, the coup de grace, the insult comes with a question to Cosmo about his conception. Were his parents married when he was conceived? I had sat patiently during all of this; but, upon hearing that absolutely outrageous question, my New York roots took over and said to the officer: “How rude!” And, it ended.

We were released. This was an example of bullying tactics when on Christmas Eve around midnight; the border patrol has nothing to do. It could have been a good night for them to catch up on some light reading, or play a game of poker. But, no. Making us as uncomfortable as possible was a better game for them to play. This was Christmas 1992. I guess they don’t see much action up at that border crossing and so they had their jollies with us. This is before any of the terrorist craziness started overtaking our American way of life. The first World Trade Center bombing didn’t take place until a year later. We laugh about it now; but, as it was happening, it was not the least bit funny.

This “0 dark thirty” Christmas morning, we head south to Seattle and its environs. We had more birds to look for. There was still the rest of the wish list on our agenda: Marbled Murrelet, Trumpeter Swan, Gyrfalcon, and Northwestern Crow. Deciding that it was probably wiser to get the birds in the furthest direction away from us first, we head toward Olympic National Park. And, stopping at a convenience store in Port Angeles, Washington, we see around us, perched on telephone wires, are Northwestern Crows. This viewing gets a skeptical “what”? The difference is size: an inch and a half smaller. The range: the northwestern coast from Washington up through the southern coast of Alaska. And, the voice apparently is hoarser, lower; but, I don’t remember hearing any of them. And, in this range, the American Crow is not where the Northwestern Crow is. Their ranges don’t overlap. Good to know? They look identical. Seriously. Identical.

Marbled Murrelet 01Dec14 San Diego Co CA

Marbled Murrelet 01Dec14 San Diego Co., CA

We continue west to Crescent Bay, Tongue Point, along the Straight of Juan de Fuco to find a tiny alcid, the Marbled Murrelet. And, we see this sea bird a number of times during the day. But, the best look we got was in a boat marina swimming right under our noses. It was all by itself swimming and feeding. The bird seemed not at all disturbed by our close presence. It is dressed in its winter plumage; which is basic black and white. The back of this bird is very subtly scalloped or seeming like scales. It has a white collar. And, on the back on the scapulars a sort of reverse parenthesis in white. I would love to see this bird in breeding plumage, where the marbled aspect in the feathering gives this bird its name . And, I would love to see this sea bird nesting in a hole in a tree in the middle of a forest. This is one of the great solved biological and ecological mysteries. Which is one of the reasons why conserving and preserving habitat is so critical not only to creatures’ lives, but, also to our own. We need to learn this lesson and fast. Our forests are important whether they be old growth, temperate coastal rain forests, like this one, or a forest in the interior of the country. We can’t destroy them. We can’t cut them down. We need them for all sorts of reasons; not only housing the flora and fauna. They also help to soak up some of the toxins, the carbons that are causing our planet to heat up at such a rapid pace. And, I know I’m being a bit simplistic, but, we need to somehow figure out how to stop this lust of big corporations making profits much more important than the lives and well-being of every living thing which graces our planet. How about helping living things to live and prosper? How about we all try to make everything that lives better without the powers that be thinking about how many gazillion dollars they can make?

There is a Biblical directive to Adam, man: paraphrasing it, we have been directed to “tend the garden”, be stewards of the treasures of this planet. And our treasure is rapidly slipping away. What will our children and grandchildren inherit? I have digressed; but, I will have more to say about this during our return trip back to LA.

We took a cursory tour of Olympic National Park. I wish we had more time. This is a wonderful place that from our look, on the surface, one could find it to be a cross between a fairy tale and a real gothic kind of forest. It is amazingly beautiful. One thing that slipped my memory, and in correspondence with my friends, Cosmo reminded me that we were hearing a lot of Winter Wrens singing in this forest and this is where he got his life Winter (now Pacific) Wren. There is no question that if you need to find that species, and if you’re in the area, this forest is the place to look.

We had to go back east toward Seattle and places north of that city. We had two target bird species to try and get. It is now the day after Christmas and heading north of Seattle, we come to the town of Burlington. There, we found agricultural fields and our first little bit of precipitation. It was only a light mist. Out in the fields were our two target birds: Trumpeter Swans were feeding and flying around. My goodness, this is a behemoth bird. It is also quite majestic. As I watched these birds, I wondered if they had a similar temperament as Mute Swans. I know that Mute Swans can be a pretty feisty bird when approached. We weren’t close enough to test that notion. And, I certainly wouldn’t want to do that.

Gryfalcon 23Feb97 Gannett ID

Gryfalcon 23Feb97 Gannett, ID

In this same field, was Mary’s, Pete’s, and Cosmo’s life Gyrfalcon –standing on the ground. I think it may have flown around a little, not exactly intimidating the swans; but, the other birds in the field were wary. This was my second Gyr, also my first adult Gyr. It was a grey race bird. And, the color of the feathers were of a soft hue of light blue/grey on this fierce predator. It was a beautiful specimen. This was a beautiful scene: the swans, the falcon and the light mist. And, during our time birding Washington, this was the first bit of precipitation we had.

We drove away from that beauty and went back down to Seattle, where it was clear and not that cold. What was a bit exciting, at least for me, while walking along the marina, there were so many Bald Eagles, flying, sitting in trees, sitting on railings. They were of all ages. Some of them were calling, making that high pitched cackle, or whistle, or I don’t know what, whimper? I have to confess, whenever I hear the bird that is our national symbol call, I am amused beyond belief. This ferocious looking bird sounding almost fragile or even desperate. Almost every time you see a Bald Eagle in a movie or a commercial, the sound department decides to use the voicing of a Red-tailed Hawk. Because Red-tails actually sound ferocious. At any rate, seeing so many in a city is something really special.

During dinner, there was a discussion about another bird in the area which had a few of us a little more than curious – a Yellow-billed Loon. I don’t know why or remember why we decided not to pursue this bird. But, we decided not to check it out. After feasting in Seattle and after getting a well-deserved good night’s sleep, the next day we headed back home to LA. We had another possible check point for another life bird in Oregon: an Emperor Goose. But, after a good lengthy search, we turned up nothing. We were also faced with the first bit of big rains that the northwest is famous for driving home. For most of our trip in Washington, we had excellent weather except for a morning of a little mist while watching the falcon and the swans. This was a good rain and fortunately it wasn’t really cold, so, there was no fear of slipping and sliding on any ice.

Since it was daylight, we got to see the “scenery” of the northwest. Those of you who have travelled these roads may know what I’m about to say. I’m talking about the “Potemkin” stands of trees close to the freeway. There is created a notion that the area is not a product of extensive clear cut logging. What they do is have several rows of trees near the road, so as you travel, you fail to see that behind this faux forest are acres upon thousands of acres where there are extensive examples of the practice of clear cut logging. I personally was horrified.

So, now back to the point which I began to make several paragraphs earlier. And, admittedly I haven’t been up that route, except by plane, in twenty-five years. And, even then, I was there for work and in the city of Portland. So, I have no idea if new saplings were planted and the native forests are bouncing back. My hunch says “no” to that idea. Twenty-five years ago was before Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” which warned of the dangers of a world heating up. We are now faced with a president and law makers who boldly deny solid science. These treasures of this planet are disappearing right before our very eyes. Species are losing numbers faster than night turns into day. We now have an administration that is trying its best to do away with every regulation that has been put in place to keep us from being poisoned by the water we drink, and or asphyxiated by the air we breathe. If that is a possibility for us, what about the creatures that roam this planet, swim in the oceans, or fly in the air? To what degree does corporate profit serve, if some chemical plague hits the billions of humans and we can no longer exist in a healthy way? Where is happiness then? Where is a sense of contentment? What can those extra profits do for you, if our lives are so radically altered as to not be able to function any longer?

As I humbly preach to the choir, we are so behind in this struggle, I wonder if we will ever get a grip on it. Each new year is hotter than the last one which preceded it. In retrospect a hint of what we would have in store for us was evident on our ride home from a wonderful Christmas road trip finding some beautiful birds in a very beautiful place. Seeing forests annihilated. Thinking about that twenty-five years later, the severity of that destruction, in terms of what that means now is really quite frightening. My memories of that wonderful trip, even with the Christmas Eve border patrol hassle, go from the discovery of such gorgeous things that raise the human spirit, to something of an apocalyptic nightmare. We, who want to do things to save this planet from the lusts of corporations and the greed of fools, have a lot of work to do. The task may seem daunting, but, we must be persistent and continue to persevere. Generations following us have to be able to see, enjoy and be refreshed by the treasures that are here. It must be passed on. It behooves us to follow that Biblical mandate to “tend the garden”. If we are conscientious, if we care about things other than ourselves, later generations following would be able to enjoy these gifts. And, those gifts will continue to elevate the human spirit. Who would not want that?

I must give a shout out to my dear friends Pete Shen, Mary Seeger and Cosmo Bloom whose input and help have been invaluable in the writing of this article. Thanks for your help and most of all for your friendship.

And, a big thank you to Larry Sansone, whose photos are so wonderful and great, they really enhance this article. And, I am grateful for his generosity." Larry may be reached at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Louis can be reached at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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