Greetings from Yellowstone National Park, where Anders and I have just passed the 10,000-mile mark on a cross-country birding safari we started almost six months ago. Our quest to find some of the most fascinating birds in the hemisphere has taken us across bayous and rice fields in Louisiana; to a magical spring migration along the Texas Gulf Coast; to California’s sprawling Central Valley and Yosemite National Park; to a dreadfully hot desert in Idaho; and to Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii.
Hawaii is home to a world of nearly extinct and reclusive birds that live high above the beaches in dense rainforests and atop volcanoes that resemble moonscapes more than a typical tropical paradise. While here, Anders and a scientist with the American Bird Conservancy both tumbled several feet down a hill in pursuit of the endangered Palila, one of the family of honeycreepers that very few people in the world ever get to see or even know exist in the first place. (Click here for Anders’ post on that episode.)
Along the way we’ve seen 50 species we’d never seen before, some rare and some not, every one captured in photos, some of which we’ll sprinkle through here. My passion is loading our observations into eBird, Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s massive citizen science project. But we’re doing more than chasing birds: the goal of this journey is to research an upcoming book for Simon & Schuster that Anders and I are writing about bird conservation across the hemisphere.
One of the best things about writing a book for a major New York publisher, (aside from an advance that pays for these adventures), is having an editor. In our case, that’s Mindy Marques, a vice president and executive editor at Simon & Schuster, who at this juncture is part boss, part cheerleader, and on occasion a quasi couples counselor.
Working in close quarters with your spouse has its rewards and challenges, of course, and so I’ll skip the details of a few shouting matches, (with me doing all the shouting), a few tears, (with me doing all of the weeping), and more than a few hours with both of us negotiating our differing work styles. With these minor skirmishes behind us, we’ve been having terrific fun and more once-in-a-lifetime adventures than we could’ve ever hoped for.
The journey started at our hometown of Raleigh, N.C., on February 1st as we packed our Ford F-150 to the gills and hitched up our tiny, but then wonderfully shiny Airstream trailer. First stop: Melbourne, Fla., for a couple of months at Land Yacht Harbor, a favorite wintering ground not just for us, but for a host of egrets, herons, cranes, woodpeckers, hawks and spoonbills. (Click here for my post on snowbird “glamping” amongst a sea of all things Airstream, and here for the story of two Pileated Woodpeckers that ran into nature’s backlash.)
Fast forward to the beginning of April when, newly vaccinated, we set out on the next leg of the journey, a trek that led us to research stations, military bases, conservation experiments and one snake-infested swamp. Then we spent two weeks basking in the spring migration on the Gulf Coast of Texas — our first chance to do some intense birding just for fun.
Here we found an exhausted, salt-crusted stream of songbirds that have spent the night and most of the next morning flying nonstop across the Gulf from their wintering grounds in Central and South America. One of the first places they land is High Island, a series of Audubon sanctuaries near Galveston, where an unusual elevated ridge sets it apart from the otherwise flat sandy plains and coastal wetlands.
High Island is an avian candy store, where the trees drip with Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, warblers decked out in their breeding plumage and my absolute favorite – the Painted Bunting wearing his coat of many colors.
We’d read about this spectacle for years in obscure birding memoirs, Chamber of Commerce websites and how-to books for the serious birder. But expertise isn’t required to enjoy High Island. For a $30 donation, you can spend the entire month-long season visiting the Audubon preserves. If you aren’t yet a birder, a trip here will surely make one out of you.
Unlike many days of birding where we’ve had to work to see anything at all, High Island in the spring is something else entirely. You get a front-row seat at the parade by simply walking the trails, standing on a birders’ bridge at eye-level with the canopy, or sitting quietly on benches a few feet from birdbaths scattered across the property. From this tranquil vantage point, (dare say a word and you’ll get shushed), we were awestruck by how politely the newly arrived migrants behaved, taking turns splashing in the shallow pools and flitting from one berry-filled bush to the next, stuffing themselves as if they’d never eat again.
It was difficult to leave, but nevertheless we repacked our gear and set out for Killeen, Texas, home to Fort Hood. This is the best place in the country to observe two struggling species: the Golden-cheeked Warbler and the Black-capped Vireo.
I’m rather embarrassed about what happened next. Living in the Airstream’s cozy 50 square feet and the hours upon hours of driving had lost its luster — and left me worn down. So on May 5, my ever-patient and accommodating husband put me on a plane to San Diego. For the next four days I hibernated in a Residence Inn, dropping towels on the floor (just because I could), ordering take-out and napping every afternoon. In between, thanks to the first reliable WiFi connection in two months, I researched obscure facts about the endangered birds we’re planning to write about over the coming months.
Meanwhile, Anders drove solo for 1,300 miles across Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Southern California. His reward came in the form of leisurely encounters with a Red-faced Warbler and the Western Tanager in Tucson, plus the Lazuli Bunting and California Quail after crossing The Golden State line.
I could go on for hours about our adventures during the next phase that stretched from the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance (click here for our post) to Sacramento, Yosemite National Park, and finally, Hawaii. Upon landing in Kauai, it took an entire unit of grim-faced Hawaii National Guard troops to usher passengers through the Covid-19 arrival process.
Many stores and restaurants had gone out of business and lots of other establishments were closed, but the Nene was on full display, waddling across golf courses and public parks. Also called the Hawaiian Goose and found only on the islands, it’s the state bird and a conservation success story. Thanks to habitat restoration, the cooperation of private landowners and intensive work by state and federal Fish and Wildlife Services, the Nene has escaped the brink of extinction.
Its eggs are a tasty treat for feral pigs and other predators, and by 2004 only about 800 Nene were left in the wild. For 15 years, biologists rounded up various pairs and sequestered them in research facilities to breed in safety. Their offspring were sent back to where they came from, and by the end of 2019, enough Nene had been set free to roam the landscape to restore the population to roughly 2,500 birds today.
By mid-June we’d set off for Yosemite National Park in pursuit of yet another precarious bird, the California Spotted Owl. Next came a 250-mile race along the Nevada-Oregon border and a desert packed with little else than stunning views of canyons and rock formations. The only sign of commerce appeared out of nowhere around lunchtime in the form of a dusty gas station/deli. It’s just my kind of place — a little worn around the edges, but Mom and Pop prepare delicious family recipes, and the local regulars good-naturedly tolerate tourists. Waiting for our brisket hoagies, we paged through a free magazine, a slick guide to guns and the big-game hunting the area is famous for.
That brought us to Boise, Idaho, and surrounding environs, home to The Peregrine Fund’s Birds of Prey Center, one of the few places in the world to see a California Condor up close. (Stay tuned for a post and photos by Anders in the coming weeks.) We stayed 50 miles away in Bruneau Dunes State Park, where we camped in the shadow of the tallest single-structured sand dune in North America rising 470 feet high above small lakes in the high desert. This was supposed to be a place to pause, reflect and review our notes from almost 100 interviews we’d done for the book thus far. But, by golly, it was hot.
We had landed in the middle of nowhere, a few hardy fellow campers and a flock of Western King Birds to keep us company. It was the only time in the entire 10,000 miles that the trusty trailer let us down. With no trees and the desert sun beating down on our aluminum roof, the Airstream’s air conditioner struggled all day to reach 87 degrees. So that afternoon we left our camp and took a sunset drive in search of the Common Magpie, a beautiful black-and-white bird with aqua wings.
Halfway to our destination, cell phones started blaring with a weather warning of an approaching hailstorm. Just a few minutes of hail can dent an Airstream’s aluminum shell to the point of being totaled. We weren’t sure what to do. But since the skies above looked fine for the moment, we trundled ahead. Not 30 minutes later the phones blasted again, this time with an alert for an approaching dust storm.
I clicked on the accompanying link at Weather.com and found instructions for what to do at the first sign of a swirling cloud. We were to evacuate the area immediately or else pull over to the side of the road, roll up the windows, hunker down and hope for the best.
Fortunately, neither of these disastrous events materialized. But even Anders, whose pioneering spirit is typically game for anything, agreed to a retreat the following day.
One advantage of traveling with the Airstream is flexibility. If where you are doesn’t suit, it’s easy to pick up and move. So we started calling hotels, thinking we could resume our work, ignore the 101 degrees outside and give the trailer a rest. Turns out it was the weekend for the 46th annual Idaho Regatta, a race on the Snake River in Burley, Idaho, featuring sleek vessels capable of 90 mph on a straight away and snapping up the accommodations for miles in every direction. We finally managed to book Burley’s last room, and so we spent the next couple of days typing away in climate-controlled comfort to the tune of cheering crowds and whining 1,300-horsepower engines just a few blocks away.
So, if you’ve read this far in my saga, it’s just a partial accounting of the first 10,000 miles of this work-in-progress. In a few weeks, we’ll return to Raleigh to work from home for less than a month, then head north with stops in the Shenandoah Valley, Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts. That’s probably another 5,000 miles before the fall migration heats up. We’re starting to plan a trip to South America to research the flip side of our hemisphere’s birdscape.
So please keep an eye out for updates here at Flying Lessons. There’s much more to come.