Sunday, December 31, 2006

"...we are in View of the Ocian..."

In November 1805, Lewis and Clark reached the Pacific Ocean. Upon seeing the vast wide mouth of the Columbia River, Clark's records in his journal "Great joy in camp We are in View of the Ocian, this great Pacific Ocean which we been so long anxious to see." What he was actually seeing was the Columbia River estuary (pictured), a marsh and forested area that still supports hundreds of acres of enormous Douglas fir and Sitka spruce trees. The explorers realized the mistake after they hopped back into the canoe and made their way to the craggy beaches of the Oregon Coast a few miles away.

They pitched camp for the winter near the spot that they had first thought was the ocean, near the mouth of the Columbia in what is now Astoria, Oregon. Their Fort Clatsop has been recreated and has been a tourist draw for 50 years. Vandals torched it last year and the park service rushed to rebuild it before the end of the Lewis and Clark commemoration. The hoopla surrounding the anniversary of Lewis and Clark's journey west hasn't really impacted visitation at the site, which maintains a steady stream of visitors year-round.

In fact, according to a Wall Street Journal article this summer, tourism boards and commercial outfits in every state along the Lewis and Clark Trail have been extremely disappointed at the low visitation records associated with the commemoration. In St. Charles, Missouri, where the expedition started, organizers anticipated 50,000 visitors for a 10-day Lewis and Clark festival and only 5,000 showed up. Great Falls, Montana ended up $535,000 in debt after putting on an extravaganza that originally cost the city $1.6 million to organize. It has been estimated that all told, $70 million to $100 million have been spent by city, state, federal and private coffers countrywide to celebrate Lewis and Clark's trip out west.

Speculators point to the lack of true heroism Lewis and Clark portray; after the expedition, Lewis committed suicide and Clark worked to keep Indian tribes confined to reservations. Maybe it was the explorers' abysmal treatment of the Native Americans that have kept tourists away from Lewis and Clark sites. Or maybe Americans just don't care about their history. Nevertheless, in Missouri, as in Oregon, state agencies have placed well-written and thoroughly researched markers at significant sites. The Lewis and Clark Trail in Missouri takes the driver through charming river towns with a lot of sharp turns along the way. Some of the smaller towns, like WAshington, Missouri built Lewis and Clark motels and inns, in anticipation of tourism dollars. A private donor in St. Charles sponsored a nice Lewis and Clark museum and statue in their riverside park. If these are generating tourism dollars, I don't know. But the Cape Girardeau Lewis and Clark site remains closed most of the time due to lack of interest.

There have been about a hundred books written by writers who have driven, hiked, biked or paddled the Lewis and Clark Trail. People follow the trail, and they buy the books about the trail, but they don't attend the hoaky historical reenactments. The modern Corps of Discovery has had almost as many trials as the original expedition. Members quit because of the working conditions, the dog portraying Seaman died.

In Astoria, Oregon, standing like a lighthouse on a 600 foot hill is a Trajanic column built in the 1920s celebrating the founding of the town. Called the Astoria Column (pictured), the concrete frescoes that wrap around it offer a pictoral history of the first American settlement west of the Rockies. The Lewis and Clark encampment is only part of the city's story that began in 1792 with Englishman Robert Gray's expedition. Climbing to the top of the column affords stellar views of the surrounding landscape and the not-so-distant ocean. Down the coast from Astoria are magnetite beaches, recently littered with tons of kelp (pictured; I was floored by the kelp.) and debris following the recent storms. Lewis and Clark markers are scattered up and down the Oregon coast, and Oregonians had them in place years before the commemoration. People come to Oregon for the great scenery, Mt. Hood, Portland, the pinot noir, but it appeared to me that people were reading the Lewis and Clark markers, too.

Astoria is a very liveable city. The landscape, however, is changing; ten years ago it was a port city with a hardware store and a couple of restaurants. Now, it's a getaway town for Portlanders, a small town with chowder shops, rocky beaches and awesome Craftsman-style homes. Astoria would be a great place to spend a few years, or, like Lewis and Clark, at least a winter season.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

The Christmas Bird Count

In the 19th century, there was a popular Christmas sport called the "side hunt" where a party would split into two groups and go off hunting. Whichever group came back with the most game, usually birds, was considered the winner. The tradition worried ornithologist Dr. Frank Chapman and in 1900 he started what he hoped would become an annual tradition, the Christmas Bird Count. Over 100 years later, the count is still conducted. Now it serves as a method for understanding winter bird populations.

The Audubon Society is in charge of the CBC. They have designated count "circles," areas with various habitat requirements that are significant enough to represent winter bird populations. Within that circle, birdwatchers count individual birds, not just species. After a full day of birding in Missouri, bird counts often reflect hundreds of cardinals, flickers and juncos with species counts ranging from 60 to 120. The local state park is lucky to be the nucleus of a bird count circle. Luckier still is that since 1965, when the circle designation was assigned, bird population data for the park has been collected and stored online. You can see how many pintail were there in 1965, how many brown creepers in 1980, and so on. Audubon uses the CBC information to track changes in North American bird populations. In recent years, for example, hooded merganser populations in New England have soared while grosbeaks have declined.

Bird counters are generally glad to see and count any birds, but the more uncommon species are the real gems. Everyone looks for the migrant who never left or the aberrant species who hasn't been recorded from the area. If the bird is really uncommon, you have to document the occurrence. My common yellowthroat last December had to be documented because it was so uncommon. Neal had the only blue gray gnatcatcher in the state at Mingo NWR. That one, too, had to be documented.

We had our bird count on Friday, a 65 degree day with no wind and clear skies. The park's count circle is a large area that includes Ten Mile Pond Conservation Area and countless farms and abandoned barns (great for barn owls. We counted 3.). I set out around 6 am to catch a few owls (2 barred, 1 great horned) and didn't end the day until 6 pm, just as 2 short-eared owls flapped across a field. Our group of 8 was divided into four teams of retired ornithology professors from St. Louis, a few enthusiasts who have attended the count since 1965 and my teammates, a wetlands biologist from central Missouri and a novice who gladly served as the recorder. Neal, the biologist, is an outstanding birder. He didn't even bring a field guide (I had 2.). We were the youngest birders in the whole group, but Neal's expertise blew me away. Just as we set out, we heard a single chip note that he declared as a palm warbler, a very rare winter visitor. Dubious, I held us up waiting for that flash of chestnut streaking on the back. He was right. And I was duly impressed. This happened repeatedly with lapland longspurs, red shouldered hawks, flocks of Ross' geese. By noon, I realized not to question Neal.

We each had a short list of birds we really wanted to see. I wanted LeConte's sparrows and Bewick's wrens, Neal wanted a phoebe, and Jeremy, the checklist keeper who never used his binoculars, wanted a loggerhead shrike. All the swamp, song, Lincoln's and fox sparrows in the world weren't as exciting as the prospect of a LeConte's. We saw the shrike at the end of the day and never got a phoebe or the LeConte's.

The warm weather, while great for us, kept a lot of normally common winter birds at bay. We picked up only a handful of white throated sparrows, 2 robins, and no one saw a snipe or a pipit. There was only one killdeer recorded for the whole circle. Last year's 35,000 snow geese dwindled to a mere 5,000 this year. When Audubon publishes their report in October, they'll likely mention the warm weather and explain the effects on wintering populations.

It's great fun to go birding with serious bird watchers like Neal. He spends weekends in the Phillipines looking for a single hummingbird. The quest for "life list birds" is unrelenting. I'm not experienced enough to be considered a real birder, but I enjoy the competition of finding different species. I pulled together my paltry life list over the summer and despite a few great south American birds and the Gulf Coast cadre, my list is really small. I check out local birds wherever I go, but I've never flown to Thailand for a hawk. Neal can see a pine warbler from 2 miles away and I have to wait for it to land right in front of me.

I'm heading to the Oregon Coast this week. During last year's Coos Bay CBC, counters found high numbers of snowy owls and Townsend's warblers. I'm hoping to see some auklets and murres, maybe even a curlew sandpiper. I'm going to chip away at my life list this year and become a better birder. That way, Neal won't have to work so hard next year.

Monday, December 11, 2006

River otters

I don't know what's going on. There's been water in the swamp since September, the ditch system is full, fields remain flooded and the Mississippi River isn't at flood stage. I don't think the engineers of the area are thrilled with this, but it's good to see water where it should be, even if it's the wrong time of year. Winter is traditionally the time of year when swamps dry out. Late fall and winter rains slowly fill swamp systems, often peaking in the spring, but a swamp with standing water since September is not natural. Footage from the White River basin in Arkansas shows birders paddling through the swamps during early spring and walking through the cypress knees during the fall. Water is important when it nourishes cypresses and kills drought-tolerant trees that don't belong in bottomland hardwood systems. But when trees are dormant, as they are now, all the water in the world won't kill them.

I'm not complaining about all the water. The habitat benefits have been great. Wood ducks hang out all day, four hooded mergansers were paddling around the shrub swamp this morning and pied billed grebes are seen there every afternoon. With all the extra water for the past few months now, I've seen a group of 6 otters playing in the swamp and running the waterlogged ditches through the park. They clearly wouldn't be able to do this without all the water. During any one season, otters can be active along as few as 3 to 10 miles of shoreline but during one year they can run along 50 to 100 miles of shoreline. They've created a circuit of the local ditches, traveling from behind the house to the park along a manmade ditch, eating oversized carp and catfish all along the way. They leave the head skulls and tails for Molly to find.

Otters burrow in the abandoned homes of beavers and muskrats but make their own noticeable entrances, with part of the entrance above water and the rest underwater. The ears and nose close when the animal goes underwater, and the eyes are arranged on the top of the head so they can see above water. When they're out looking for food, otters cruise along the water's surface, using the tail as a rudder. When fish are found, they arch the back and dive in with strong leg strokes to capture the animal. They then pull their prey out of the water onto land and rip it to bits. Last winter, when the swamp was dry, I found a collection of at least 30 southern painted turtle shells that had been ripped apart by otters on a log. I was able to conduct an informal mussel survey thanks to their midden that included 6 different mussel species.

Otters are one of the few animals whose social nature has been recorded. They enjoy sliding down muddy slopes with all four feet folded out of the way with no purpose in mind. They toss mussels and rocks to one another and are generally sociable animals. I mainly see them when they are playing in a small group, yipping, diving and swimming in circles. Before this year I had only known sea otters from the aquarium. My friend Peter is an expert with these animals; sea otters indulge in the same playful behavior and exhibit the same violence towards their prey as river otters. I remember too well the day aquarium staff, without Peter, threw a bunch of grain-fed trout in with the sea otters. The tank turned into a bloodbath, with trout ripped apart in front of Friday's school groups and the water clouded by all the gore. While playful, otters are not gentle animals.

Otter populations in Missouri were at an all-time low in the late 1930s, when the fur trade knocked down the population to roughly 70 individuals in southeast Missouri. In 1982, a state agency released a few hundred otters along the Missouri River and affiliated streams to help repopulate the state. Thanks to stocked farm ponds and fish hatcheries around the state, otters have rebounded and have actually become a nuisance to sport fishermen. The trapping industry is not as active as it was in the 1930s, and otters are thriving. The state agency conducted a survey last summer along the Current River investigating the population density of these playful animals. Now, they've discovered, there are too many otters in Missouri. It's sounding a lot like the white-tailed deer issue...