Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Hardcore Birding

Working a bird count in the early 90s in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula Hiawatha National Forest, I had the opportunity to go into the Seney Wildlife Refuge at night to look for yellow rail. It was a small group of about eight people, some from New Jersey, Boston, California and Michigan. To add some birds to your life list it takes a little adventure. We left the refuge headquarters about 11 p.m. then headed out on the motor trail with Richard Urbanek, refuge biologist. When we arrived at the marsh Richard began striking two rocks together in hopes of calling a yellow rail in. When you use Morse code to call a rail, it is two short and then three short repeated clicks. Soon, on the far side of the marsh, a rail clicked back. This one was not in a traveling mood, so we finally decided to drive to the other side of the marsh and find a closer location to the rail’s position.
Once we made our move, we reestablished communications with our targeted rail and prepared to move into the marsh since he was not coming to us. I had no idea when I signed up to work the bird count that I would be going out chasing yellow rail, so I did not bring any waders. I was prepared to get wet. The roads in the refuge were developed by the CCC, and the construction method was to excavate material from both sides, pile it in the middle, and form a dike which also acts as the road system. Therefore, both sides of the road are always the deepest holes as you enter a marsh. As we plunged into the dark, my hiking boots and blue jeans turned swamp brown up to the knees very quickly. A few folks also filled their short waders, which tends to get your attention. I heard one lady in the darkness behind me tell her husband, "You go, Honey, and get the bird for your life list and I will just tell people I know you." The three ladies decided to stay back, and six of us followed Richard out about 50 yards and stopped to click again. The bird responded but would not come in to us. We cautiously moved forward again like a platoon on night patrol in a mined rice field.
A professional wildlife biologist is defined as "patient." That is also the definition of Richard Urbanek. He kept up his constant rock striking call but the bird would not come in. Finally, we moved in closer and the rail flushed. We all spotted and followed the bird with our lights, watching an hour’s worth of stalking effort take flight.
We then moved in the direction of flight and again began to communicate with the rail. Richard said this was going to be a difficult bird and moved up ahead of the group on his own. He said he would trap the bird and then bring it back for observation. As we all stood quietly in a foot or two of water for an hour, Richard clicked away and the rail clicked back, but neither moved. The silence broke with whispers as I heard one man say, "I’m satisfied. We saw the bird fly. We can list it." Another answered, "Yes, we can list it as ‘BVD,’ Better View Desired." But Richard kept clicking and cautiously moving in on the bird with his light and net. His patience finally paid off as we all heard the bird drop into the darkness nearer to Richard’s position. He advanced on the rail’s call and was able to net the bird. We all moved in as Richard banded the bird and one gentleman photographed it. Richard then took the rail in to show the ladies as we waited in the marsh for him to return and release the bird.
As unfortunate as Murphy’s Law is, it is always consistent. The photographer’s camera jammed after just a couple pictures during release. Richard slowly recaptured the bird and everyone killed their lights while the guy wrestled with his camera under his shirt. He knew what he was doing because, using the "Ensel Adams’ Braille Camera Repair Method," he had it working again in minutes. The yellow rail, however, was not so cooperative. Richard set the bird back down, and it flushed after just a couple flashes of the camera.
The whole show was well worth the effort. I had an hour’s drive back to camp and would have two hours sleep before I had to slide back into my wet boots and slosh off to the next morning’s bird count. Sometime during that short sleep period I dreamed there was a porcupine in my van. I drove a Chevy Astro Mini Van with no seats in the back. I often slept in the back on the floor as I did this night. It was a warm spring night so I left the double-doors wide open. Dreams are a mysterious thing that I do not fully understand. This one seemed so real and as I cracked the lid on my good eye I was staring a big, fat porcupine in the face. I knew it wasn’t a dream when he bolted for the door and I bolted upright. Before I was actually awake I had yelled for him to get out of my van and kicked him in the behind as he bailed out across the back bumper. Shocked fully awake and sitting up looking out the back of my van I didn’t know if I had dreamed the whole thing or not. I grabbed my flashlight and jumped out to see a disgruntled porcupine standing there like a indignant pin cushion staring into my flashlight and then turning in a huff and marching off. I apologized and went back to bed.
—Keep Smilin’, Dick E. Bird

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