*It's been a looooong while since I've assembled a collection of small thoughts, so why not today?
*Big news first: if you haven't already learned from social media, Thing One and his longtime girlfriend are engaged. This comes as no surprise to anyone who knows them, but it is a very pleasant development, and not just because it's easier to type "fiancee" than "long-time girlfriend." (I note also that "wife" is easier to type than "fiancee," suggesting that our language has a bit of a pro-marriage bias.) We are very pleased. Also, Kelly is just about beside herself at the thought of having another woman in the family.
*Meanwhile, Thing Two is in town rehearsing for an upcoming production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
. It's not your usual production, however: as he and his co-conspirators, the Nu Puppis Collective, have noticed, the original story is, um, a little problematic. Not surprising, perhaps, given that the story is based on the Rape of the Sabine Women, but disturbing. As a result, the NPC has decided to give the show's themes a thorough and pointed re-examination with the sharpest available tool: mockery. And even if you don't care for the mockery part, you can still enjoy the terrific songs (with lyrics by Woodberry Forest's own Johnny Mercer). Shows go up at the Firehouse Theater on Broad Street in Richmond, July 11-13th and 17-19th, with curtain at 7:30.
*The newest addition to our household, Ripley, is adjusting to her new situation very well. She's already reached the point of crawling onto the bed or the sofa if one of us is on it, and she seems to delight in going for car rides. When we took her from the Richmond SPCA
(which is a FANTASTIC organization with an amazing facility), we were warned that she'd never had a home before, but we've become rather skeptical about that. For one thing, she knows how to sit. She seems to associate it with getting a treat, rather than doing it every time she's ordered to, but still. And unlike our previous dogs, she does appear to have a bit of retriever in her blood, at least judging by her willingness to chase the orange rope chew toy we bought her. So far she's not barking or whining or making excessive noise, she doesn't growl or challenge other dogs (or people), and she's had exactly one urine-related accident. Basically, we have trouble believing a dog that's this well-socialized and comfortable in a house hasn't ever lived among humans before. But we're keeping her anyway.
*The novel continues to get larger, though not as quickly as I'd like. I know that Stephen King's daily writing goal is six pages, while Jim Crace shoots for three. I seem to be knocking out between one and two a day, but (as you may have noticed) things have been a little disruptive at home lately. I'm hoping to knock out three pages a day during July (except when we're traveling.)
*Speaking of traveling: despite the strength of the dollar against the pound at the moment, Kelly & I do not have the time or money to repeat our honeymoon trip to the UK just now, so we're just going to have to separate our 30th wedding anniversary somewhere else. Hey, how about a town with connections to the UK? Like, one that they burned down about 200 years ago? Hello, Washington, DC! Our favorite museum, the Renwick Gallery, has reopened, and we're ready to get a new look at Larry Fuentes' "Game Fish
." Alas, one of our favorite DC eateries, the Ghana Cafe, has closed down, and we are bummed that we will have to find someplace else to dine on African food.
*And speaking of favorite restaurants: allow me to put in a plug for our neighborhood's newest gem, Kinsfolk
. Though there is a bit of confusion about the spelling of its name on social media (the twitter handle is @kinfolkfood , for example), there is no question that this is a fantastic dining experience. The menu rotates seasonally, but there are nightly specials (Wednesday's Burger Night short rib burger is recommended) and a hellaciously good brunch on Saturday/Sunday. In addition to the outstanding flavors, there is a creative, sometimes almost reckless creativity to the dishes. It's not the cheapest eats in RVA, but you will get what you pay for: a terrific meal, excellent service, and a desire to give them repeat business. Tell 'em Pete and Kelly sent you.
*If you're in Chicago, my restaurant recommendation is a little different: try The Peckish Pig
, which offered a delicious Father's Day meal to Dixon and me when we visited about a week back. The "Pot of Pickles" appetizer was a particularly welcome surprise--many different vegetables pickled in a number of different ways--but the duck breast and coffee-bacon sandwich was pretty magnificent as well. The Cherry Evans cream ale was delicous. And the fries? Oh, man. They were the Platonic ideal of french fries: nothing fancy in terms of seasoning or smothering, but simply fries that had been cooked at precisely the right temperature for precisely the right length of time to produce tender, flavorful fries with a delicately crisp surface. Mmmm.
Also, they claim to be in Evanston. I think they're in Rogers Park. But either way, they're worth the trip to Howard Street.
*Father's Day was good to me in a couple of other ways, too. Ian gave me a copy of Smash Up, an entertainingly chaotic board game that mixes up genres (wizards, robots, pirates, ninjas, aliens, you name it), while Dixon supplied a highly practical gift: A Birder's Guide to Metropolitan Richmond
by Jerry Uhlman. Dix has also been busily exposing me to new music, which I've appreciated quite a bit. Among the artists who have piqued my interest are Dan Deacon, The Bird and the Bee, Delicate Steve, Why?, tUnE-yArDs, Martha, and Girlpool. At the very least, I'm giving my Spotify subscription a good workout.
*It's not July yet, but I've blazed through both of my summer reading novels: Mike Carey's Fellside
and Joe Hill's The Fireman
. Hill is a terrific writer and a verrrry distant online aquaintance (we were both participants at Readerville.com, though his tenure was fairly brief), and he's definitely in his element in this book; in fact, he seems to be borrowing a few elements from his dad (Stephen King) as well, but it's pretty clear why he opted to do so. My favorite Hill remains his astonishing short story "Pop Art," but The Fireman will keep you interested for a much longer time, as it clocks in at just over 750 pages. Carey, meanwhile, has been a favorite of mine for years; his post-Gaiman fantasy series Lucifer
is a wonderful comic (whatever you think of the extremely loose TV adaptation), and his tales of hard-boiled London exorcist Felix Castor are both engaging and creative, with a narrative voice that just won't quit. But none of this prepared me for The Girl with All the Gifts
, which was a tour-de-force work of horror, as well as that rare thing, an original take on the Zombie Apocalypse; it's being made into a movie, and I for one will be in line early. In addition to his talents as a writer, however, Carey has my respect because he was (and remains) a teacher; in fact, when I Tweeted that some of my students were reading The Devil You Know
, his first Felix Castor novel, he actually volunteered to help out and ended up sitting for a Skype interview with them. So yeah: Fellside
was an immediate, no-questions-asked hardback purchase, and it did not disappoint. But now I have to find something else to read. Dammit.
I suppose the term "Anglophile" fits me pretty well, what with so many of my favorite writers, musicians, and other folks hailing from the Sceptred Isle. I've certainly spent time there, though not in recent years; there was the 1982 trip with my parents, when my dad attended the NATO Defense College in Latimer, and the family went as far as Loch Ness; there was my junior year of college (1983-84) spent at the University of Manchester; there was my 1986 honeymoon, when Kelly and I toured everywhere from Windsor Castle to Llangollen to the Isle of Skye; and there was my summer running Woodberry's Oxford Program at Brasenose College, which was followed by several weeks of touring Bath, London, and Folkestone, among other spots. At some point, I've been in almost every county of England, ith the exceptions of Essex, Norfolk, Sussex, and the Isle of Wight, and have visited a number in Scotland and a handful in Wales. I've entered Merlin's Cave in Cornwall and sifted the fine sands of Nairn along the Moray Firth. So yeah. Anglophile.
Which makes me a little concerned about this whole Brexit thing.
Mind you, I think a lot of people have reason to be concerned, what with the global economy tanking. And franklyI'm never happy when large groups of people begin complaining about other (typically smaller) groups of people in their country. We Americans have a really, really bad record on this kind of thing, but we also have a tendency to assume that our racism is connected to our overall sense of exceptionalism, which makes our xenophobia the biggest, most powerful, and most blatant xenophobia on earth.
Alas, such is not the case. The most openly racist student I've ever taught was a South Korean, whose in-class treatment of a classmate (a German of Chinese descent) was so bad the other Koreans felt they had to bring the matter to my attention. A lot of his slurs were being shared with the other Korean speakers, rather than put into our common tongue, but the very fact that he was constantly excluding and dismissing the Sino-German kid was apparent even to me.
Another student of mine, a Jamaican of Indian descent, once loudly proclaimed to his schoolmates that homosexuals ought to be taken out and shot in the street. I was driving a minibus at the time, and I actually pulled over to pointedly tell this young man that his belief was not sanctioned by God, Christ, the law, or any form of humanity, and that any further advocacy on this topic was going to result in demerits at the very least. I doubt I had any real influence on a boy whose hatred was clearly baked in from early in his life, but I think I very definitely got the attention of the rest of the kids on the bus.
And then there was the very nice, very generous, elderly Englishwoman who spoke to me after dinner one evening, asking, "So, Pete, what are you Americans doing about the Black Question?" 9:29 AM
I stammered something to the effect that we'd had a war over it, followed by decades of civil unrest, and that I hoped it was closer to being answered now than it had been, but to this day, I couldn't tell you whether my response made a lick of sense. Hell, I doubt I could tell you what the Black Question even was. ("Were black people enslaved for several hundred years?" "Yes, ma'am.")
In short, I am unsurprised that a movement built on xenophobia could find enough support in Britain to produce a widespread cry for isolationism. The place is an island, let's not forget, and there are plenty of people on it who are glad they don't share a land border with the Continent. I am, however, rather disappointed to see that cry drown out the voices of those who want to stay engaged with their neighbors.
I'm also concerned about what this means for some of my favorite places in the U.K., particularly given the very real possibility that the K. may stop being U. Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the European Union, and given the relatively close vote on Scottish independence in 2014, the Brexit vote may inspire Scotland to join Europe while abandoning England. Northern Ireland was also in favor of Remain, and they too might see reason to leave England behind, particularly given the number of Unionists there who'd love to join up with Ireland instead. The next time I fly to Heathrow, then, it's conceivable that I'd have to go through customs to get back to see the beauties of the Road to the Isles or the Great Glen.
But I'll remain watchful over the next few months. There is apparently some belief that the treaties giving Scotland and Northern Ireland partial autonomy might actually give the two some kind of veto power over the UK's departure from the EU. Given the immediate negative economic consequences of the Brexit vote, not to mention the late but open admission by numerous Leave supporters that the departure will not provide the promised 350 million pounds to the National Health Services, I can see plenty of reasons (not least the cheap, ironic amusement) for hope that the smaller kingdoms of the UK can bring their fellows back in line. And since the referendum was non-binding, it's certainly possible that two or three percent of the MPs might opt to move to the Remain column; it might well cost them their seats, but it might preserve England, the UK, Europe, and the global economy.
But when I think of this last, I think of Paul Ryan, John McCain, Chris Christie... all lately lined up behind America's short-fingered, tangelo-skinned mascot for the Dunning-Kruger effect... and I know which way I'd have to bet.
This is Ripley.
Full name: Ripley Furiosa Woofstonecraft. She is the first female in our household since Kelly joined it, so we decided she had to be named after a feminist pioneer. After considering Susan B., Elizabeth Cady, and Shelley, I suggested Ripley (which may have occurred to me because the first volunteer who helped us at the SPCA was named Ellen) and our friend Carrie suggested the rest.
Of uncertain parentage, but clearly related to something orange, Ripley weighs in at about 40-odd pounds, which is under her fighting weight, so we'll be working to pack some protein into her. Dixon, Ian, and Adriana have all met her and given their approval, so we'll hope this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
I'm back from a bit of epic travel, a four-day, 1700-mile journey to Chicago and back, and boy, are my arms tired.
OK, that punch line might not quite work here, but it does sort of demonstrate my current mindset, which is rather shower-like at the moment, at least in the "widely scattered" department. My hope was to settle immediately back into Writerly Mode and churn out more bits of novel, but so far I've mostly managed only to lurk in online fora, win a couple of games on Sporcle, do a bit of research on ferryboats, and add roughly three sentences to the MS.
I'm not quite sure what the defining element of this block might be. At first I assumed it was related to trying to work at home, which is, as I well know, a very distracting place. Then I repaired to my local coffee shop, but other than a decent lunch and cup of joe, the results have not been especially good. I do know that one troublesome issue with writing is the simple act of getting the words down, and often the best way to do that is to churn out a few pages of something--anything--before attempting to put those words into your actual writing project. These are usually called "morning pages," at least among those who've read Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way, and I can attest that they are often very helpful in priming the writer's pump. Whether these pages are any real fun to read, however, is a question I can't necessarily answer in the positive. Unfortunately for you, you CAN answer that question, but not necessarily in the positive.
So here I am, sitting at a bus stop, wishing I was somewhere else... no, wait. That's a UB40 song.
But yeah, it's a little frustrating to be (at long last) free from work and family obligations, yet chained to a writer's block that is at least temporarily holding me back from actually making practical use of that freedom. Irony, man.
On June 15 of last year, I did one of the most challenging things I've ever done: I packed up a moving van (with the assistance of a number of friends and family members), drove it to Richmond, and moved the contents into our new apartment (with the assistance of family members and several friends of Dixon's who worked way harder than they were expecting to.) By the end of the evening, I was exhausted to the point of feeling sick, and I have every intention of paying someone else to move us when next we change homes.
So today, in celebration of this anniversary, I didn't do jack.
I decided to turn off the computer for the day, disconnect my brain, and live in the analog world for a bit. I finished reading Ron Chernow's Hamilton early this morning, and then I broke out my only activity for the day: a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle based on Charley Harper's Mystery of the Missing Migrants.
Veteran readers may know of my fondness for Harper's art, which is on display throughout the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and this seemed like a good way to recognize that the end of the school year is upon us. Granted, tomorrow morning I do have a final interview with the headmaster about next year, but the work is done, and I'm now planning to enjoy the summer in a way I couldn't last year, what with having to move out, and move in, and look for a job and all. This summer I'm gonna work on a novel, but I felt I needed a slightly out-of-the-ordinary day to get my mind reset; hence, Analog Day.
I started on the puzzle at 9:00 a.m. Man. A thousand pieces is a lot.
I had done a little bit of work on this puzzle at school once or twice, with my students' help, but we never got very far with it, so I wanted to see if it could be completed during a single day by one person. A few small sections were still stuck together, as it happened, which sped the process up, but only slightly; you can see below that I started with the Scarlet Tanager and Bullock's Oriole, whose vivid colors were unlike anything else in the image, but I honestly wasn't putting much together to start with. It took me the length of Philip Glass's Koyaanisqatsi
soundtrack just to get all the pieces turned upright and organized:
FYI: that's blue pieces with an outside edge in the pile at lower left; the big pile above it is the plain blue pieces; the smaller pile above it is the blue pieces with a small yellow star. Every other piece with any color other than blue is in the pile at right, except for a few I slapped together while trying to turn everything over.
It was around this time that I realized I was going to need BOTH leaves of the table to keep both the finished image and the extra pieces visible. (It was also important to keep beverages as far away from the workspace as possible.) We moved on to Prokofiev's 1st Symphony, plus a collection of Rachmaninoff favorites, and by lunchtime the puzzle looked like this:
The big white Swallow-tailed Kite is taking shape over to the right, while the dozens of smaller birds (mostly warblers, mostly a frustrating mixture of yellow and grey-green) are in various stages of completion.
I ate some leftover gazpacho from last night, which was still pretty damned delicious. (I make it extremely chunky, FWIW; because I chop, rather than use a food processor, the veggies are often around half an inch per cubic side. Frankly, I think it makes the dish more interesting, both in terms of color and texture.) At that point I flipped over to part of a Beethoven piano sonata before deciding I wasn't in the mood and switching over to Mozart. By the time Kelly got home from work, I was down to only a few pieces with bird parts on them:
With that, it was time for dinner, which we ate at a local eatery with the rather confusing name of "Lunch. Supper!" (As Dixon puts it, you can't talk about eating there without having to go through a "Who's on First?" routine afterwards.) The meal was quite fine, however; I had a crab cake sandwich and a side of Brussels sprouts with bacon and parmesan, and we all split a couple of gigantic soft pretzels as an appetizer. The company was also delightful, as we met up with our cousins from Woodberry and a few other WFS friends, shared a few beers, and got to talk about a lot of things that I no longer have to worry about because I've moved.
After dinner, I came back and put the final bird-related pieces together. Then it was time for assessment:
With all the birds complete and at least one piece from every side of the rectangle laid in place, I could see that the rest of the job--placing the final 200+ pieces, all of which were a uniform midnight blue--would probably take as long as the birds had. As I'd now been working for twelve hours, minus occasional interruptions, I could see that finishing the puzzle would require an extraordinary degree of sheer bloody-mindedness, without any significant reward for the time and effort. And since today's entire focus had been not putting effort into anything unenjoyable--work, or moving, say--I made the call: the puzzle is now packed, and summer is here.
And so, after two full days and two half-days of birding, I was reunited with my beloved. Kelly, Q, and Jaspher were sharing a room in the Issaquah hotel where the con had been, and I would be spending my last night in Seattle in that room. There were, however, a few semi-official con activities happening on Sunday evening--if I recall correctly, a viewing of Magic Mike II was involved--and there was still one thing I hadn't yet done: reconnect with one of my oldest friends, Mr. William Shoemaker Flash.
(He mostly goes by William or Bill these days, but in our days on the Rainbow Soccer field or in the halls of Culbreth Junior High, he was known universally as "Willie." With a deliberate effort, I have been able to make the transition to "Will," but to me, "Bill Flash" was his dad, and I can't quite get my head around the idea of calling WSF Jr. by that name.)
During my years at Culbreth, Will was one of my very closest friends, a fellow soccer player and budding musician (alto & tenor sax) whose goofball sense of humor was accompanied by a calming and genuinely thoughtful demeanor. As I worked through one of humanity's great cases of social anxiety--hell-LO seventh grade--he was there to give me pointers, or a steadying hand, or just a nice non-judgmental laugh at one of my bizarre jokes. The summer after eighth grade (1977), he invited me to come spend three weeks at his family's place in Quebec.
To call that experience formative is to understate the case considerably. While there on the shore of Lac Perchaud, I became an expert at paddling (and capsizing, and bailing out) a canoe, fired a shotgun for the first time, kissed a girl for what might have been the third time, and learned that I could survive without electricity; the family compound had numerous cabins, but all were lit by oil lamps and heated with wood. I caught fish, shot targets with a .22, and for the first time discovered one of the most important books of my life: Catch-22. Mrs. Flash was extraordinarily patient with me, considering I was a babbling, hormone-ridden middle schooler, and would very patiently ask me to go to another room or another cabin when she just could't take any more; her firm but calm handling of the situation made a definite impression on the way I handle both parenting and teaching.
For his part, Will was the perfect partner, teaching me to play pool and joining in whatever weird role-playing might be necessary; for some reason we were fixated on South Moluccan terrorists that summer, and we would still sometimes use snorkels as guns and pretend to be taking hostages or something. He was also instrumental in introducing me to new music, which he accomplished via his portable cassette player and a lot of batteries. As he was a fan of funk and soul, I was taken in directions I hadn't much explored for myself, and two albums in particular--the Isley Brothers' Go for Your Guns and Earth Wind & Fire's Spirit--were basically carved into my brain by the time we left. It was a grand summer vacation, and even getting to see Star Wars in the theater when I got home couldn't compare.
But Will headed off to boarding school a few years later, then attended Guilford U while I was at UNC. We saw each other occasionally in our twenties, particularly when I talked him into bringing his horn to become a member of Rohrwaggon, the Triangle's short-lived but legendary ska revue. This clip shows us both pretty clearly
; I'm over on the right in hat and suspenders, playing keyboards and singing backup. Will's spot onstage was at the far left of the horn section, but for this song he ditched his alto sax, jumped into the crowd, and danced like a maniac, even (at the 1:18 mark) bowing down before lead singer Marvin Levi.
Soon after that night, however, I got married and dove into grad school and teaching and parenthood and stuff, while he headed out west, working as a musician, filmmaker, and whatever else he felt like, because he's multi-talented. We lost track of each other during the Nineties and Oughts. Eventually he wound up in the Seattle area, working for Microsoft as a maker of videos, and we reconnected on Facebook, like you do. He still came back to see family and friends in Chapel Hill, but since I was rarely there, we didn't have much opportunity for visiting. Until now.
The bad news, however, was that this was a week when he was swamped with work, so finding a time for us to meet had proved rather challenging. Luckily, Sunday evening was a time when I was done with birding and basically on my own, so we decided it was time to grab dinner and catch up.
Naturally, this was the one night on the entire trip when I forgot to bring my camera, so you'll just have to trust me when I say we had a terrific meal of sushi and beer (the latter supplied by Mac & Jack's Brewing Company of Redmond, WA) and I got to meet both his wife Denine and their delightful daughter Audrey before he dropped me back at the hotel. I'm hoping we don't go another two decades without some face-to-face hang time.
After sleeping in the same bed with my wife for the first time in what seemed like ages, we vaulted out of bed to join Q and Jaspher for a big meal at local breakfast joint The Egg & Us
. I had invited Tina so that Kelly would get a chance to bask in her awesomeness and vice-versa, and so I could buy her a meal, feeling that was the least I could do. Our lengthy and uproarious repast completed, Tina made yet another generous offer: since our plan was to head into town with Q and Jaspher for a last afternoon of tourism, she would let us load our luggage into her car for the day, meet us at the EMP Museum, and drive us to the airport.
Not being stupid, we accepted this offer.
Soon after, the four of us were on the bus downtown to the EMP, one of the strangest museums you'll ever see. It has a marvelous mix of architectural elements, and I have to say I love the way it contrasts with the organic forms outside it:
As best I can tell, it's largely a space for Paul Allen to show all the cool stuff he bought after co-founding Microsoft. "Experience Music Project" is supposedly the origin of the name, and given that there is a Hendrix collection, there's some reason to believe that, but really, I think calling it "Paul Allen's Attic" would be fairly accurate. Pop culture is celebrated in a bewildering number of ways: while we were there, we spotted exhibits on the Seattle Seahawks (which Allen owns), on Nirvana, on independent video games, on Nintendo games, and not least on Hello Kitty. The latter exhibit was the home of Super Space Titan Kitty, a rather unsettling humanoid statue of HK, a particularly disturbing bit of which you can see below:
The full-figure version can be seen here if you turn your head or your monitor sideways:
What we were mostly there to see, however, were the museum's collections of science-fiction, fantasy, and horror geekery. These did not disappoint.
The fantasy section may have been my favorite. For one thing, I have to love a collection that just features a couple of old paperbacks. Instead of gargantuan illustrations of the battle of Helm's Deep, or statues of Ghan-Buri-Ghan and the Wild Men, or reproductions of the Bridge of Khazad-Dum, we see the glorious (if unauthorized) work in which all of the above were contained, plus a letter from Tolkien to a U of Washington professor:
If that's not enough to stir your imagination, consider this relic: one of the original "brown books," which contained the earliest version of the rules and information for Dungeons and Dragons:
There were, however, a number of more visually striking items, including Bert Lahr's lion suit from The Wizard of Oz, costumes for The Princess Bride's Inigo Montoya, Buttercup, Westley, and the six-finger Count Rugen, and this array of weaponry from the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy:
That's Gimli's axe, Bilbo's sword Sting, and Aragorn's sword (NOT Anduril, Flame of the West) from The Fellowship of the Ring.
And yeah, I couldn't suppress my laughter when I spotted this choice item from the ramparts of the Castle Aaargh:
The horror section was very enjoyable, with numerous video clips from films and interviews with directors John Landis, Eli Roth, and Roger Corman, who made some of the films and curated others. There were also plenty of props from horror shows and movies, but they didn't show up as well in photos, alas, so you'll have to trust me again: if you want to see Mr. Pointy, the stake from Buffy the Vampire Slayer
, or Shaun's red-stained work shirt from Shaun of the Dead
, or the poster for (Attack of) The Giant Leeches
(which inspired one of my favorite MST3K episodes ever), you should definitely hit the EMP.
The science fiction section had some wonderful items, including the full-body Sarris suit worn by Robin Sachs in Galaxy Quest
and the clingy red dress worn by Tricia Helfer in Battlestar Galactica
, but again, my photos weren't great (and the latter is a bit disappointing when it doesn't actually contain Tricia Helfer.)
All in all, it was a visit well worth making, and I'm glad we got to do one more bit of pure tourism before heading home. But it was in fact time to head home. We posed outside the EMP for a couple of pictures while we waited for Tina's arrival. I took this one:
And Q took this one:
But we knew our time was up: Tina pulled into the driveway of the museum, and we hugged Q and Jaspher and headed for the airport. We had intentionally arrived early enough to get through TSA security, find somewhere to eat, and watch the NCAA basketball championship, but given the results of the latter, I'd rather not go into much detail about the evening. Let's just say that we landed in Philadelphia to the sight of snow flurries--pretty much the opposite of the Seattle weather we enjoyed--and made it home in time for Kelly to stagger into the library for her Tuesday shift. I don't know how she did it either.
And that was my first trip to the Pacific Northwest. It will not be my last.
For the third morning in a row, I met Tina at the door of my AirBnB, but this time was a bit different, as I was leaving for good. By dumb luck, Tom and John (and Buster) were already up and about in the garden, so I was able to introduce them to Tina and bid them adieu before I loaded my luggage into the Forester's back and myself into its passenger seat, whose contours were by now beginning to retain the shape of my backside.
The vibe this morning, however, was very different from the past few days. I'd accomplished both my Fifty-Fifty goals for the trip, so there was no performance anxiety, and Tina and I had become completely comfortable with each other as driving and birding companions. We talked about birds, sure, but we also talked about everything from politics to medicine to music to conventions, not to mention telling how-we-met stories about our spouses and mutual acquaintances (mostly Ursula and Kevin). This, in short, was not what the last few days had been. I was not a hunt for life birds. It was a sightseeing trip.
That birds would be among the most important sights was never in doubt, mind you. Tina had chosen this particular itinerary not merely because of the spectacular scenery Deception Pass State Park promised, but because she believed it would offer much better looks at several of the birds we'd seen at a distance in Oregon. Harlequin Ducks were a likely possibility, as well as Rhinoceros Auklets, and the possibility of several different loons loomed large as well. All in all, it seemed like a pretty good way to spend a Sunday: a ninety-minute drive, a look around the forests and shores of northern Puget Sound, a quick drive back, and a post-con reunion with Kelly at the hotel in Issaquah.
In fact, the only fly in the ointment was what we heard when we reached the park entrance, rolled down the windows, and began hearing a long, complex trilling song
from the cover on either side of the road. This was the sound of the Pacific Wren, formerly conspecific with the Winter Wren, but split off from it in 2010. Neither Tina nor I had any trouble detecting or identifying the song, which is basically the same as the Winter's, but despite repeated stops, the birds stayed completely out of sight. Tina had been hoping to spot one since our trip to Discovery Park, but now that we were here in its prime habitat, they seemed to be deliberately tantalizing us.
That frustration was soon eclipsed by our arrival at Rosario Beach, whose scenery is like some kind of Platonic ideal of the Pacific Northwest:
In addition to scenery and camping/nicking spots, the Rosario Beach part of Deception Pass SP offers a bit of First Nations-style artwork (which itself offers a convenient perch if you're a White-crowned Sparrow hoping to attract a mate):
The beach itself curves out into a high, forested headland looming over the smaller Urchin Rocks to the north. The water showed gulls, goldeneyes, one Red-breasted Merganser (my first in years) and a fair number of Pigeon Guillemots, but we decided that getting a little elevation and pitting Tina's spotting scope to work might give us a bit more to see.
Sure enough, there on the Urchins, only a few dozen yards away, were several surprisingly well-camouflaged Harlequin Ducks. Somehow their colors were brighter here, but their patterning was much more cryptic than the handful we'd seen at Haystack Rock. Luckily, a pair of them hopped into the water to give us a somewhat clearer picture. (You may want to click on the photo to get a closer look at them.)
No sooner had I stowed my camera than a pair of chunky birds with sooty backs and white bellies swam by, diving every couple of seconds to move forward underwater. The scope simply wasn't useful for tracking them, so I went with binoculars, knowing that this wasn't a familiar bird and wanting to get all the field marks I could before they disappeared around the point. Tina never did get a good look, but what we saw spelled something entirely new to me: the Marbled Murrelet, still in its winter plumage. I'd known about this peculiar tree-nesting seabird since reading (and blurbing) Maria Mudd Ruth's Rare Bird
, but I certainly hadn't expected to get one here.
Our spot on the headland yielded several other goodies, including the promised Rhinoceros Auklet, whose football-shaped body and white neck stripes were indeed much more visible here, and a distant dark waterfowl revealed the pale face and throat of a Pacific Loon (an identification helped immensely by comparison with a nearby Common Loon). Still, I wanted to see more of Rosario Head, so we circled back down to the south shore of the headland, hiked up through the forest, and emerged on a grassy clifftop looking out westward toward Vancouver Island and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
In addition to my first good look at kelp in the wild, this vantage gave me a fuller appreciation that we were standing a good hundred feet above the Sound:
And when we were done scanning the largely empty waves, we turned back toward the mainland and got one of the best looks of the weekend: a gorgeous male Anna's Hummingbird perched squarely in the sun, its rosy gorget reflecting the light brilliantly:
Returning to the car, I spotted a stray Pine Siskin, but the Pacific Wren continued to elude us. Tina made several more stops as we pulled around to a parking lot on Bowman Bay, but though the wren songs never stopped, the wrens never appeared. Eventually we pulled into the lot and scanned the beach, which was largely empty, though we did see an unusual kettle of raptors circling high above us: one Bald Eagle one Turkey Vulture, one Red-tailed Hawk, and a fourth bird so small and distant that we had trouble identifying it as a Sharp-shinned Hawk. It was not a combination of species I've ever seen at once, that's for sure.
I was amused, however, to discover the truth of what birding buddy Nick Morgan once observed about birders. "If you're looking for a rare bird," he quipped, "just look for where all the Subarus have pulled over."
Once again held largely birdless, we climbed back into the Forester (2nd from left above) and turned south across Deception Pass itself. The pass gets its name from its narrowness, which led the area's early explorers under George Vancouver to miss it completely; working from the south end of Whidbey Island, they never found the strait on the north end that separated it from the mainland. That strait is now crossed by a two-part bridge high above the waters:
As you can see from the above shot, the park lies on both sides of the bridge, occupying about six and a half square miles at the north end of Whidbey Island. Whidbey itself is an improbably shaped landmass, long and narrow with an irregular blobby shape at each end; basically, it looks kind of like a vermicious knid stretching itself from one place to another. The park is a big draw for people, combining forest trails, the beaches of the strait and the sound, and even a small freshwater lake. We took our first stop along the road to the North Beach parking area, listening and looking vainly into the forest once again for the elusive Pacific Wren. Though evergreens, ferns, and fungi of every shape and size were visible, the wrens were not. On the way down to North Beach, however, we were treated to looks at a Chestnut-backed Chickadee (which I hadn't seen in years), a Brown Creeper (probably the fourth or fifth I'd seen in Washington), and even a fast-moving Townsend's Chipmunk:
Of wrens, alas, there was no sign. We scanned the waters of the Pass, returned to the car, and pulled around to the West Beach lot, where we pulled out the scope and began looking at the distant waterfowl. We observed several other Marbled Murrelets, giving Tina the look she hadn't been able to get earlier (no, it wasn't a lifer for her, but still). There were also a variety of loons out in the calmness of the sound, but the increasingly bright sun made it harder and harder to see field marks at a distance. We were eventually able to identify one faraway bird as a Red-throated Loon--my second lifer loon of the day), but we could tell that the outing was drawing to a close. Wrenless still, we reluctantly packed up the scope, clambered back into the car, and headed back.
Our return inland took us into the Skagit Valley, where traffic from down in Seattle was suddenly far, far heavier than we could explain... well, at least until Tina remembered that April is the month of the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival. Since we were trying to get to Issaquah for the end of the con, we opted not to stop, but I did get a photo of the reach-the-camera-up-through-the-passenger-side-window variety to at least capture the huge swaths of color on the ground:
As we sped down I-5 and approached the city (and the I-90 intersection), Tina and I chatted about everything we'd seen, but we spent a good deal of time discussing what we had not seen: the Pacific Wren. It was a somewhat ridiculous fixation. We'd seen probably a hundred species over the weekend; 49 of them were birds I hadn't seen in 2016, and many of those were species I hadn't set eyes on in years; I'd logged life birds in two of the states for my Fifty-Fifty Project; and the list of lifers to which Tina had guided me was enormous:
1 Glaucous-winged Gull
2 "Audubon's"/Yellow-rumped Warbler
3 "Pacific"/Orange-crowned Warbler
4 Cassin's Finch
5 Sage Thrasher
6 Brewer's Sparrow
7 Northern Shrike
8 White-throated Swift
9 Lewis's Woodpecker
10 White-headed Woodpecker
11 Golden-crowned Sparrow
12 Harlequin Duck
13 Rhinoceros Auklet
14 Cackling Goose
15 Black Turnstone
16 Marbled Murrelet
17 Pacific Loon
18 Red-throated Loon
This had been, by any standard, a fantastically successful and enjoyable birding experience. Hell, ignore the birds and it was still wonderful: I'd seen landscapes I'd never dreamed of and stood in parts of the world I'd never set foot in. I'd tasted new foods, traveled new roads, and never once lacked for good conversation. I'd gone from the high desert to the mouth of the Columbia, from the sandy shores of Oregon to the inlets and islands of Puget Sound, over the heights of the Cascades and through the forests of the seaside. Over four days, I'd traveled some 1500 miles.
And Tina had driven Every. Single. One.
So yes, the two of us were being silly when we theorized the existence of a new subspecies: the Trolling Wren, characterized by its loud, taunting song and unwillingness to break cover. But when Tina dropped me off at the hotel in Issaquah, I was completely serious about my gratitude. I knew now that she was not merely a fantastic guide, a birding machine, and a driver worthy of my highest respect, but also a friend. And that's pretty much the best thing you can find out in the field, no matter what state you're in.
To recover from Friday night's pizza-related disappointment, I slept in an extra hour. Okay, in truth, Tina had agreed to meet me at 6:00 a.m., rather than the previous day's 5:00. I needed the additional strength because today I had to accomplish something: to get a life bird in Oregon.
Washington's lifer had been easy. Basically, if you go to a totally new part of the country and wander around looking for long enough, you'll probably turn up something you've never seen before. I'd done it wandering along Lake Washington for three or four days, with Anna's Hummingbird, Bewick's Wren and a few other odds and ends for my trouble. But Oregon was going to be a different problem. I had one shot at it--a single day trip across the state line, with only a fragment of the coastal habitat within range. Tina was already being extremely generous to make this long haul southward, and there would be no time to make a second one if I went dry today.
Luckily--and at this point, unsurprisingly--Tina had a plan. We would make our way down over the Columbia to Cannon Beach and take a look around Haystack Rock, one of the world's largest sea stacks. In addition to being a gorgeous piece of scenery, the 235-foot rock is also a nesting site for a bird I'd never seen: the Tufted Puffin. With a new bird and a confirmed breeding site combined, the only thing we had to worry about was the timing; the puffins usually arrive at Cannon Beach sometime in early April, but they hadn't been spotted there yet this year. We'd either get them on their first day or not at all.
Mind you, we were not so focused on the 50-50 Project portion of the day that we ignored all other considerations. One of these was the presence of Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge just north of Olympia, an area of woodland, field, and wetland that lay just off the interstate, and which Tina felt might well yield something interesting. In this, she was correct. I not only logged another Washington life bird--a Golden-crowned Sparrow--and got to watch the most prolonged songbird-v.-songbird battle I've ever seen (two Song Sparrows locked in a wrestling match that went from branch to boardwalk to ground for a good five minutes without one of them releasing its grip on the other), I got what is unquestionably the best look at a Marsh Wren that I could ever hope for:
Having glimpsed only a few Marsh Wrens in my entire life, I can safely say this long look at a boldly singing bird perched right next to the boardwalk was just about ideal. I can also say that Nisqually gave me a look at a very common bird doing something that I would never have expected:
Yes, folks, that is indeed a Canada Goose nesting in a hollow tree.
Having reached peak absurdity early in the day, we pressed on southward, crossing the Columbia on the Lewis and Clark Bridge in Longview and proceeding westward along the Oregon bank. Despite my awareness of the Puffin Plan, I kept my eyes on the trees we passed, hoping for a Varied Thrush or some other woodland bird, just in case. We didn't get anything new, but when we finally turned south in Astoria and headed down the Pacific coast on highway 101, we did discover that everyone else in the area had noticed that it was a) Saturday and b) sunny and warm; the roads were rapidly filling up with beachgoers. We crawled through Sunset Beach, Surf Pines, and Seaside before pulling off into Cannon Beach and beginning the search for a parking place from which we could descend to the shore. Luckily, as far as Haystack Rock was concerned, visibility was not an issue:
After a few starts down the blind alleys of driveways, we made our way to the sand right at low tide--just as Tina had planned--and started scoping out the area. A thorough scan of the rock's grassy top and craggy sides revealed that everything on it was a gull of some sort--mostly Westerns--but we didn't give up. We also noticed that the waters around the rock were full of bird life, some of it rather peculiar-looking. A great raft of birds floating in the swells beyond the rock turned out to be Common Murres, birds I'm always happy to see, and there were also a number of other birds riding the heavy surf in amongst the smaller rocks around Haystack, such as the Needles, the shorter stacks to the left in the above photo. I kept my eyes on these birds as they surged up and down in the scope, and before long I was confident that at least some of them were Black Scoters. The others, however, were harder to pin down, at least until I got one of them in profile and spotted the telltale white circle on the side of its head: a Harlequin Duck. My Oregon lifer.
It wasn't a long look, or a particularly close look, but it was enough. With that identification done, the tension of the day disappeared, and suddenly I was free to marvel at everything we could see on the beach: the gorgeous, shifting colors of the Pacific:
The richness of the tidal pools:
The misty distance of the coastline to the south, straight out of an Ursula K. Le Guin novel:
And of course the beauty of the great basalt tower themselves.
Heck, I was so relieved, I even got a passerby to get a shot of Tina and me for posterity:
We spent a while there, still hoping for puffins, and I got a look at one more life bird--a distant football-shaped seabird that Tina confirmed as a Rhinoceros Auklet. As the tide began its return, however, we tromped back up the bluff to the car, pointed it north, and made for the Columbia.
We were now about 400 miles downstream from Vantage, where I'd seen the river the day before, and the bridge over it at Astoria is nearly three miles long. Even at low tide, that's a hell of a lot of fresh water:
In short, I do not expect to refer to the Columbia in the future without appending the adjective "mighty" to it.
Tina had one more spot in mind for the day, a marina in Westport where she thought we might get a look at one species that had escaped us in West Seattle: the Black Turnstone. Seeing nothing wrong with another stop, particularly one where the chance of a decent seafood dinner might be involved, I agreed, and we headed north toward Raymond. There wasn't much bird activity by this time in the afternoon--I did spot a Greater Yellowlegs on a mud flat near South Bend--but as we turned off onto Highway 105 north of Raymond, we drove by a pasture where we had an opportunity to do something I'd never been able to do: look carefully at a large flock of Canada Geese.
For an experienced birder, that last bit may seem a bit odd. Canadas are among the most common of American birds, and spotting them at a golf course, municipal park, or even parking lot is no real challenge. What made this flock interesting, however, was the fact that the geese didn't match. Some appeared unusually short and squat, which indicated that I might be in the presence of another life bird. Sure enough, with a quick look across the flat, we could tell that there were a number of birds whose bills were quite stubby, whose necks were decidedly short, and whose overall size was roughly that of a Mallard. I was getting my first undeniable look at a Cackling Goose, a bird whose similarity to the Canada is so strong that identifying it just about requires having a Canada nearby for comparison. And luckily, we had one. More than one. And thus, I had another Washington lifer.
The day was waning by the time we reached Westport, but there we had a chance to go out on the docks to observe a variety of marine life: a troop of sea lions that had taken over a floating dock across the water... a trio of Western Grebes patrolling the entryway to the marina... several Common Loons in full breeding plumage performing some strange ritual where they placed their heads on the surface and shoved themselves forward like a crocodile... and even a few Harbor Seals poking their noses up to look around:
Still, it was clear that we were running short of light, and we didn't see any obvious signs of the Black Turnstones Tina had hoped for... until we looked across the water at the jetty on the opposite side of the Marina and realized that the stones piled around the waterside were actually about fifty percent shorebirds. In a field guide, the Black Turnstone is not a bird that immediately cries out "camouflage" to the reader, but in real life, standing on wet rocks, they're remarkably cryptic. There were probably close to fifty of them there, distant but distinctive--if you knew where to look.
As the sunlight drained away, I took one more look northward toward the Olympic Range, whose ability to be scenic in the distance was just as powerful from the south as from the east:
And with that, we called it a day. We stopped by Bennett's Fish Shack to load up on seafood, piled into the car, and headed for Seattle. Tina remained in the driver's seat, as she had for the past three days, musing on a job well done. She'd found me life birds in two states and seemingly dozens of biomes, and now she was doubtless ready to put her feet up and take a breather.
"So, Pete," she said, somewhere in the darkness west of Olympia. "I'd really like to take you out to Deception Pass. What time do you have to meet Kelly tomorrow?"
If there's one experience shared by every birder, it's that of waking up in the dark, packing one's gear, and waiting for headlights to appear outside. That Friday's experience was therefore a familiar one, with the added deja vu of having been dropped off in last night's darkness by the same car that was coming for me in today's predawn darkness. Luckily, it wasn't a long wait, and when I clambered back into Tina's passenger seat, I could almost feel my own body warmth still emanating from the upholstery.
We made the necessary stop for coffee and sped out across the floating bridge over Lake Washington, watching lights twinkle off the surface from Bellevue and Mercer Island. I knew we were heading uphill from there, along I-90 and through the Cascade Range via the Snoqualmie Pass, but I had to take Tina's word for it: there wasn't enough light to see anything but the barest hint of mountains ahead. We blazed past Issaqua, where Kelly was doubtless still sleeping in the con hotel, and I settled in for the next hour, gradually watching the snow on the peaks become visible, then leaving it behind as we descended into the interior.
Our first stop came near Bullfrog Road's crossing of the Cle Elum River, where even in the dim grey glow of early morning, Tina was fairly certain we could spot one of her favorite birds, the American Dipper. I'd seen one only once, and very briefly, in Glacier National Park, so I was quite happy to take some time to look for my second one. Sure enough, we discovered several perching on logs in the stream, making their telltale teetering motions.
By the time we were done, the sun was peering up over the horizon, and we took a short drive north to pick up the road into the town of Cle Elum. First, however, Tina had a little treat for me:
As longtime readers may recall, Kelly and I were devoted fans of Northern Exposure, a TV show we followed rabidly for several years. I had mentioned that fact to Tina, and she decided we had enough time in our itinerary for a quick stop in the little town of Roslyn, Washington, which was the location for the outdoor shots of the fictional Cicely, Alaska. Nothing was open yet, so I was unable to stop in at Roslyn's Cafe (the apostrophe S was added for the TV show and removed later) or the town's other Cicelian landmark, Holling Vincoeur's bar & grill, the Brick:
The Brick, as it turned out, is Washington's oldest continually operating tavern, which made me even sadder to miss a chance at sampling its wares, but we had things to see elsewhere. The first stop was the residential area in Cle Elum, where Tina had a line on some feeders where a Cassin's Finch might be. We drove around for probably thirty minutes before we spotted them, in the best possible location: in a yard where House Finches were also flying around, giving us the chance to make direct comparisons. In terms of color, patterning, and bill shape, the Cassin's is an almost perfect compromise between a House Finch and a Purple Finch, so once we actually spotted the bird, it was mostly a matter of checking our guides and working through field marks before we confirmed the sighting, which gave me my first lifer of the day.
Tina was obviously feeling a degree of personal responsibility for my list. In addition to her own extensive experience in the Evergreen State, she also brought a technological savvy I'd never had in a birding guide, using her smartphone's eBird app to keep her apprised of sightings, times, and locations all over the eastern side of the Cascade. She was also not a bit shy about pulling up her phone's birdsong app to see if what we were hearing matched what she had on record. (And yes, once or twice the phone got into a conversation with the bird.) She was also completely at home behind the wheel, and though I kept mentioning that I'd be happy to take a turn driving, the only contribution she asked for was for me to pay for the first tank of gas. From there on, we'd be splitting the cost of fuel.
After a bit more tooling around the Cle Elum river, she decided it was time to quit messing around and hit the high desert. This involved jumping back onto the interstate toward Ellensburg, which led to one unexpected discovery: at a local coffee stand, we encountered the Opal, a buttery-yellow apple variety that I'd never seen before. Despite its casual resemblance to a Golden Delicious, it was almost a diametrically opposed fruit: crisp, sweet, with just a hint of tartness, and nothing remotely mealy or bland about it. I grabbed several for the road, and we headed out into the countryside south of town on the improbably named Umptanum Road.
As you can see, Umptanum Road led us up through a canyon to a dry plateau covered in sagebrush, which seemed to stretch all the way back west to the Cascades, interrupted only by a stand of windmills on the far slope. Scrub and grass were the only foliage, but there was bird life everywhere. Robins perched on branches and fence wires, and Mountain Bluebirds were flycatching everywhere we looked.
Nor were the bluebirds alone. A Western Meadowlark made its appearance, firing off a definite non-Eastern call out in the scrub. And before long, from a shrub some yards off the road, we heard a relentless stream of birdsong, snippets of various species' calls remixed into a rhapsody by a bold male Sage Thrasher--my first. A bit further along, Tina pulled out her phone to confirm the presence of two rather shy sparrows, one a lifer (Brewer's) and one a welcome returnee to my list (Vesper). I was beginning to understand why she had been so insistent on showing me the high desert.
Neither of us was prepared, however, for the slim grey bird I spotted on a roadside power line. "Is that a shrike?" I asked, whipping my binoculars up to my eyes. Sure enough, it was, and not the fluttery-winged Loggerhead Shrike I'd seen in the southeast, but a long-billed, direct-flying Northern Shrike. It was still well before lunch and I'd seen three lifers on Umptanum alone. Unfortunately, our hopes of following the road up into the forested hills, where several woodpecker sightings had made, were stymied by a very simple sign, one reading "Road Closed." Like it or not, we were done with Umptanum.
Luckily, Tina wasn't done. We turned back toward the interstate and headed south toward Yakima; there were White-throated Swifts down there. She was sure of it. And yes, in fact, there were. We found this out when we pulled off I-82 where it crossed the canyon of Selah Creek.
The canyon walls there are home to a breeding colony of White-throats, and we were treated to another great comparison, because there were dozens of Violet-green Swallows flying in amongs them. The swifts had the standard stiff-winged flight motion seen in the eastern Chimney Swift, while the Violet-greens made the same nimble twists and turns that--hey, where'd they all go?
Our birds, along with their comparisons, had suddenly vanished, and it took only a few seconds to see why: sailing down from near the bridge was a Cooper's Hawk, and everything else with feathers had taken rapid refuge in the nooks and crannies of the canyon. The sky, like the hilltops surrounding us, had gone totally clear.
After such a satisfactory quest, one might have expected Tina to rest on her laurels for a bit, but that's not her style. It was time for another eBird pursuit, this time up to the west from Yakima. We followed US 12 up to Naches, then peeled south into the canyon of the Tieton River, passing the Oak Creek State Wildlife Area. We parked at a bend in the river where several not-entirely-lively-looking trees stood beside the road.
"This is it," said Tina. "There was a Lewis's Woodpecker here yesterday."
If there was one here today, I couldn't tell, but I took out my binoculars and scanned the area. Nothing was visible along the rock wall across the road, or in the trees across the river, though there did seem to be a crow flying into one of the dead trees near us, and--wait a minute.
Though it looks dark and crowlike at first glance, it doesn't take long to recognize the improbable Lewis's Woodpecker. Its greenish-black back isn't especially startling, but its red face, dirty white collar, and boldly pink belly combine to make it one of the most bizarre--and memorable--birds of North America. This was my first and so far only look at one, so I'm glad it was cooperative enough to pose for me.
Sane persons would probably have called it a day at this point. We had, after all, driven nearly 200 miles, logged several dozen species (including over a dozen first-of-year birds for me), and picked up six new birds for my life list. It had been a triumphant day by any reasonable measurement.
But we are birders. We don't know the meaning of the words "sane" and "reasonable," at least in a context where birds are involved. And besides, the trip down the Vantage Highway would only add about fifty miles to our return trip. No problem!
The highway parallels I-90 on its way west from Ellensburg to Vantage, but it cuts through sagebrush desert as it goes, eventually running smack into the Columbia River. Other than windmills, there weren't a lot of landmarks, but the ones we saw did have fairly distinctive names:
We pulled over at one trailhead and scanned the sagebrush gamely, spotting familiar friends like the Mountain Bluebird. Before long, we got a look at not one, but two
Northern Shrikes sailing from shrub to shrub. And then a pair of Say's Phoebes--the first I'd seen in years--flew up for a look at us as well. But the best moment was the arrival of yet another Vesper Sparrow. And this one was remarkably unafraid. It flew up close, landed, and hung out on the ground near us for some time, giving us long clear looks at its field marks: the eye ring, the white borders along the tail, and even the chestnut wing patch that neither Tina nor I had seen anywhere but in our Sibleys.
And then, eventually, there it was: the Columbia, a river whose mighty stature often goes unappreciated by Easterners like me. There was no denying it now, however: it was a huge, sprawling piece of water, stretching as far as I could see from the top of the cliff on the western shore.
That was as far east as we would go. Tina and I climbed back into the Forester and headed back. There was still plenty of daylight, though, and as we came back near the Cascades, she decided we could take one last gamble: the chance of seeing a reported White-headed Woodpecker at the Cle Elum ranger station.
We arrived after the station had closed, so we were left to wander the parking lot and grounds alone, and there wasn't much to be seen. Birds were just about absent. The only sounds were the rush and roar of rush-hour traffic, or what passed for it in rural Washington. We ambled to the back side of the station, our steps cushioned by years' worth of pine needles, hoping for something to turn up, but after about thirty minutes, Tina was starting to check her phone and I was wondering if we'd be back in Columbia City by dinnertime so I could get Flying Squirrel Pizza to deliver a pie for me.
Naturally, it was at that moment that I was startled to see a largish bird light on the trunk of a ponderosa pine. It was quickly followed by another, and then by a third. I was just recognizing the birds' clear, inimitable field mark--a head of pure white, unlike that of any other woodpecker--when one of them flew into the sunlight and landed, perfectly lit, on the siding of one of the station's outbuildings. The White-headed Woodpecker was mine, the seventh lifer of the day.
We celebrated our good fortune with a second stop at the bridge on Bullfrog Road--and the Dippers were still there--and as the sun sank over the Cascades, we made our way back through the Snoqualmie Pass.
It had been an all but perfect day, I knew, and one that couldn't possibly end better than it had begun or than it had continued. But once Tina had dropped me off, with promises that she'd be back at six the next morning, I should have expected that something would, at long last, have to go wrong.
And it did. Flying Squirrel Pizza, I was crushed to discover, does not deliver.
Where were we?
Ah, yes. Thursday afternoon. Columbia City. We were sitting in our Air BnB room, waiting. Kel, Q, and Jaspher were preparing to take an Uber to their con hotel for the next few days, while I waited for the arrival of Tina (a/k/a "Masterbirder,"), whom Friend of the Blog Ursula Vernon had recommended as a Seattle-area companion and bird guide. Right about 5:00, there was a knock on the door, and there she was, complete with the obligatory birder's vehicle: a Subaru. In this case it was a 2006 Forester, and as I have owned a Forester since 2003, two impressions immediately formed: first, that this was a person whose mindset I could understand, and second, that I would have no problem contributing to the driving when it became necessary.
Both those impressions were accurate, but as I would soon learn, only one was applicable.
With little fanfare, I bid a fond adieu to Kel and the Qsphers and loaded my pack and binoculars into the passenger seat of Tina's car. For some reason I had been expecting her to be much younger than I, but we were roughly contemporaries. As she was a decidedly open and talkative person, I rapidly learned that she and her husband Bruce, who worked for Microsoft, were Canadians, that she was trained as a biologist and as a dental hygienist, and that "Masterbirder" was a deliberately ironic choice of name, though her volunteer work with Seattle Audubon had certainly given her a certain mastery of the subject.
Despite occasional patches of traffic, she smoothly took us up over the ridge and down into the I-5 corridor, heading for the north end of town and a place called Discovery Park, which sits on a high headland. We made a brief stop at the north end of the peninsula, looking down at Shilsole Bay and getting distant glimpses of a few birds I'd seen over the last few days--Red-necked Grebe, for example--as well as the familiar blackless wingtips of the bird I'd been thinking was Thayer's Gull. Having heard me say that, Tina gently but firmly informed me that those grey-and-white wings belonged not to the Thayer's, but the much more common Glaucous-winged Gull (whose eyes are often dark, especially in young birds.) I faced this error without much emotion, as all it ultimately meant was that I'd traded one life bird for another. Still, I worried that I had not made the best first impression on a fellow birder.
Not that Tina mentioned the matter further. Instead, she drove us around to the southern side of the park so that we could follow the Loop Trail out to the point. This involved walking through woods and meadow, dodging the occasional bicycle, but mostly free to stop and look at anything that interested us. We spotted a few kinglets in the evergreens and soon located a few Savannah and White-crowned Sparrows out in the grass patches. In all honesty, however, I found it a bit hard to concentrate on the birding, what with the path's running close to the edge of a bluff standing several hundred feet above Elliot Bay.
From the top, we could peer through Tina's scope and see just enough of distant birds to take reasonable guesses at their species. The Bald Eagle and Great Blue Herons were fairly easy IDs, but the flock of dark waterfowl gave us a long stretch of irritation, mostly due to their habit of paddling along in the light reflecting from the still-high sun. We were eventually confident enough to call them Brants, but I can't say it was a great look at them; more frustrating still, the only other time I'd seen a Brant was on my Cornell SFO trip to Cape May in 2011--and that look had been equally distant and unsatisfying.
Within a few yards, however, we reached the top of the trail leading down to the point, one which descended steeply through woodland and passed by occasional viewing platforms. The latter we used for periodic rest stops and searches for warblers; with a bit of pishing, we lured in several members of the extremely yellowy northwestern race of the Orange-crowned Warbler, and high in the canopy I spotted the telltale inverted black U on the chest of the Yellow-rumped Warbler--in this case the western "Audubon's" variant, with a yellow throat. Technically neither was a life bird, as I'd logged both species, but the varieties were new to me.
After perhaps fifteen minutes of downward progress, Tina informed me that she was feeling a bit tuckered, what with having had an operation only a few weeks ago. I responded to the news with a) surprise, because even post-surgery she had been demonstrating an energy level decidedly higher than my own, and b) a suggestion that we didn't need to descend any lower, what with two more days of birding still ahead of us. She agreed, and we clambered back to the top of the bluff, where I was once again assaulted by scenery.
We were now nearly ten miles away from the BnB, but Mount Rainier had become no less imposing or any less spectacular than it had been from Columbia City.
Back at the car, Tina decided that wasting daylight simply wouldn't do, and she promptly took route 99 down through town so that we could cross the bridge into West Seattle. Rounding Duwamish Head, we then cut down to the shore south of Alki Point in hopes of logging some Black Turnstones. We didn't find any, but amongst all the beachcombers walking along the shore, we were given a look at one familiar species in unusual plumage:
The late-afternoon birding wasn't amounting to much, but the sightseeing was excellent, and I was treated to one of the most spectacular sunsets I've ever gotten to watch.
At one point a Great Blue Heron flew in to make the sight almost ridiculous.
And over it all Rainier still loomed, glowing rosily in the western light.
As darkness fell, Tina loaded me back into the car, seeming perhaps just a it frustrated that I hadn't seen a life bird with her yet. By contrast, I was feeling more than satisfied by the afternoon's results, and after she took me to her house, where she and Bruce stuffed me full of lamb stew and beer and wine, I was even more content. Besides, we'd be out in the wilds of Washington in just a few hours. There was still plenty to see.