16 December 2001

Dear Friends and Family,

Greetings! Year 2001 has been a good if challenging one for us, and we hope that your year has gone well also. The dominant feature of much of the past twelve months, especially for me, has been the completion of my book, which will be entitled Handbook of Image Quality: Characterization and Prediction. From March through July I did not have a single day off while we were in town, and averaged 80 hours per week working on the manuscript. After my original camera ready pages were sent off to the publisher (Marcel Dekker) at the end of July, we spent eight of the next eleven weeks traveling, trying to help me relax and recover from the relentless pressure of making the deadline (admittedly, publishers are used to authors missing deadlines, but as a matter of pride, I wanted to make mine, and did so with a full day to spare!). Even then it was not over, with a few hundred more hours required for further proof-reading and word-smithing, preparing the index, and, over the past few weeks, making the final changes requested by the publisher. As of yesterday, I finished printing the final camera-ready pages, which will be mailed off tomorrow, after which my responsibilities should be 99% complete. The book took about 2400 hours of work from start to finish, spread out over the course of three years. It should be published sometime during the spring.

Eileen is still doing about a day per week of volunteering at the local chapter of the Nature Conservancy and continues to enjoy it very much; it is an excellent organization, doing important work, with a highly personable staff. She was featured as the volunteer of the season in the chapter newsletter this spring with a very nice write-up and photo (in which she is holding one of her very favorite birds, a red-breasted nuthatch that was captured in a banding operation). One ambitious project Eileen undertook this year was sorting through our many boxes of mail and organizing the contents so that they could be easily read and enjoyed (e.g., by author and in chronological order). She has now reread essentially all our old mail, and I have been reaping the benefits of her work, reading a sampling of letters. Eileen has been developing a particular interest in mammal tracking over the past few years and this year she studied quite intensively in preparation for a one-week workshop that she attended in the fall (described below) in the front range of the Rockies in Montana during the first week of October.

We both continue to do a lot of reading in our spare time. Eileen likes collections of letters, historical accounts, and gardening books; I get periodicals on birds, plants, minerals, and general science, and like mysteries for relaxation. Of course, we both like adventure and travel books and have continued reading various accounts of polar exploration, mountaineering, etc. Eileen has become very proficient at crossword puzzles, and I’ve spent a fair amount of time surfing the web, especially since we finally got a high bandwidth connection this fall. Mostly I do searches on obscure species that we would like to see to discover what sort of information is available. Another favorite past-time of ours is playing anagrams. This nifty game, which can be played with a set of Scrabble tiles, involves forming and stealing opponent’s words according to a simple set of rules, and does not even require a board. We finally got a CD player and have been building up a small collection of classical and country music. Favorite classical pieces that I often played while writing at home during the summer include Sheherezade (Rimsky-Korsakov), Pictures at an Exhibition (Mussorsky), and The Moldau (Smetana). We celebrated our fifteenth wedding anniversary in June with a fine dinner, in contrast to many years when we have been in the field, with sublime scenery but questionable food. While on that topic, we have both stuck with our diets and increasingly vigorous exercise programs during the course of the year, and we are now running just under 20 miles per week most of each year, switching to canoeing, snowshoeing, and hiking as conditions permit. In the last two years I have lost 65 pounds and stabilized, while Eileen has dropped by 35 and is still losing some. Our conditioning has improved a great deal and I am sleeping a lot better!

Because of the book, our field work this year was pretty sporadic, but we visited some very interesting areas, and particularly emphasized pelagic (oceanic) trips. On a birding trip to famous (among birders) Amherst Island in Ontario during January, we saw an ivory gull (only about our third one) and three boreal owls. In early March we went to Algonquin Provincial Park for four days of snowshoeing, which provided Eileen with an excellent opportunity to see mammal tracks; she identified those of wolf, red fox, snowshoe hare, river otter, moose, and red squirrel. We joined our friend Burke for a day of birding, tracking down two great gray owls and a northern hawk-owl, species that invaded in some numbers last winter presumably because of low rodent populations farther north and west.

Our next trip did not come until May, when we visited the San Francisco Bay area for the International Science and Engineering Fair. I had made plans for this trip and a June trip to North Carolina before I realized how bad the last five months before the book deadline would be. This was probably fortunate, or I  would have had no breaks at all! The primary goals in California were to take as many pelagic trips as possible and to track down three of the remaining seven native North American conifers that I have not seen (out of 98 species). We took boat trips from Moss Landing, Bodega Bay, and Fort Bragg on the north coast. Highlights were the first Murphy’s Petrel seen in North America in seven years (except perhaps from deep sea research vessels), of course a life bird for both of us; three flesh-footed shearwaters (my second through fourth records, and a new bird for Eileen); thirty elegant northern right whale dolphins (a lifer for Eileen); one pod of three hundred dolphins (mostly pacific white-sided) breaching constantly; hundreds of black-footed albatrosses, and three Laysan albatrosses.

We spent four full and very successful days looking for plants on this trip. One day Mike Parmeter and his friends Juanita Doran and Margaret Barson, all excellent botanists, gave us a spectacular tour of the serpentine areas of Napa and Lake Counties. Serpentine is a rock that is deficient in many key nutrients and also has high concentrations of metals usually somewhat poisonous to plant life. As a result, the plants that do grow in serpentine soils often grow on no other substrates, because they must be so specialized (but at least they do not face much competition on the serpentine). The primary targets that day were two species of cypress (a kind of coniferous tree slightly resembling a juniper) that I had not seen previously. Mike showed us both species (Macnab and Sargeant cypress) growing in lovely locations at very different elevations, and we saw a great variety of wildflowers in bloom at a number of stops in between, including the striking tricolored monkeyflower, two superb clarkias, several lovely mariposa lilies, and the stream orchid, Epipactis gigantea, which is native, unlike our eastern helleborine (I will give scientific names in italics where the common name is variable or I think it is less recognizable). It was a truly marvelous day in wonderful company and was the highlight of the trip for us.

Our other days were spent tracking down the very localized bristlecone (Santa Lucia) fir in the Ventana Wilderness (a new species for us), where we also had mountain quail, band-tailed pigeon, bobcat, and a beautiful western rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis); locating the Santa Cruz cypress (a new subspecies) near the town of Bonny Doon; finding the Gowen cypress (another new subspecies) above Pt. Lobos State Park (where Eileen fed sesame sticks to a California thrasher); and visiting the Mendocino pygmy forest, where three species of dwarf conifers (lodgepole pine, bishop pine, and pygmy cypress) grow in barren soil on terraces made by ancient sea floors, and a few pink rhododendrons (R. macrophyllum) were in bloom.. On the way to visit the scenic Pinnacles National Monument, Eileen saw her first yellow-billed magpie.

Our next trip was a week and a half sojourn to the Outer Banks of North Carolina for a series of four pelagic trips into the Gulf Stream. Eileen, not having been on a pelagic trip off the Atlantic coast except in the far north (Newfoundland) and the far south (Gulf of Mexico, really), had nine life birds; I got two, band-rumped storm-petrel and white-tailed tropicbird. Short-finned pilot whale was a new mammal for us; we saw it very well on three of the four trips. During the week between the pelagic trips we birded and botanized on the Outer Banks and the adjacent mainland; our best bird was roseate tern. We spent a very enjoyable day being shown around the Nature Conservancy’s Nag’s Head Woods Preserve by Aaron McCall. The preserve has numerous interesting habitats, including oak woodlands that are being buried by high sand dunes, and fresh-water pools within the dune fields. Of particular note was a new orchid for us, grass-leaf ladies-tresses (Spiranthes praecox), and large examples of redbay, red cedar and live oak. In the Great Dismal Swamp we hiked in to Lake Drummond, seeing many examples of a very localized species, log fern (Dryopteris celsa), on the way in, and getting nice looks at a handsome red-bellied water snake. Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge was a lot of fun, with long trails of black bear tracks (including a sow with a cub) for Eileen to study, and extensive pocosin habitat featuring large stands of the enigmatic pond pine, beautiful forests with lovely sweet bay and white cedar trees, and nice assemblages of breeding warblers (including the Wayne’s subspecies of the black-throated green warbler).

After returning from this trip we decided to return for another set of pelagics in the fall to try to see the unique Cuvier’s beaked whale, which, while never likely, is sometimes found at that time of year. So I reserved spaces at the end of August and figured it would make a nice break after sending in the manuscript, but would allow three weeks extra past the Aug. 1 deadline in case I did not make it. Late in July, when it became apparent that I actually would be done a few days before Aug. 1, and would want to blow town the minute the publisher got my package, we had to scramble to figure out a trip that could fill in the gap before the North Carolina pelagics and that could be done with almost no advance notice or planning. We had been holding a potential trip to Labrador in reserve for just such a quandary as this, and so Aug. 1 found us departing for Labrador by car. Our first stop was on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River in a small area where blue whales gather each August and feed in very shallow water, permitting them to be observed quite reliably. We took two three-hour zodiac trips in one day, seeing a dozen blue whales at close range. It was a haunting experience to be in a small inflatable boat, surrounded by surfacing blue whales, with their resonant exhalations upon surfacing, which shoots such a high column of water vapor that it is visible for miles. We also had good looks at belugas (white whales) with young from land (an isolated population, far from the nearest populations in the high arctic), and Eileen saw her first harbor porpoises.

Leaving the St. Lawrence shore, we traveled north on Quebec Rte. 389, which together with Rte. 500 in Labrador (ending just past Goose Bay) forms an isolated road about 700 miles long, of which only a small fraction is paved. The route passes a simply enormous impact crater (about 40 miles across) that has been flooded to create the Manicougan Reservoir for hydroelectric power generation. Gasoline is only available a few places so no gas station can be passed up. Over most of the route there are no accommodations of any type, including campgrounds; camping is on crown land, mostly in the numerous gravel pits needed to maintain the road. The insects (blackflies and mosquitoes) were horrendous, requiring headnets, silk gloves, and masking-taped cuffs when in camp. Along the way we saw a number of nice northern plants such as the unique pod-grass (Scheuchzeria palustris), hooded ladies-tresses, four species of cotton grass, and the lovely sitka clubmoss (Lycopodium sitchense), which we found on a morning run. Mammals were very scarce on land, although Eileen measured a moose trail with a stride of 19 feet; that animal was moving! The birding was fairly good, with breeding species including orange-crowned and Wilson’s warblers, pine grosbeak, white-winged crossbill, and white-crowned sparrow. We found quite a few species of birds in the interior of Labrador, especially on larger lakes, that are not mapped in that area in the standard fields guides, so we had a fair amount to report to the North American Birds regional editor. For example, at a water control structure on a large reservoir far inland (close to the Quebec border), we had the best comparisons I have ever seen between common and arctic terns, plus great black-backed and ring-billed gulls (about two hundred of the latter), all of which were supposed to be restricted to the coast of Labrador. By far the greatest surprise of the trip was finding juvenile bohemian waxwings in Labrador, about 650 miles from their nearest known breeding location!

From Goose Bay we took two four-day ferry trips, separated by a one-day break. The first ferry trip was on a freight boat that goes north up the Labrador coast to the northernmost permanent settlement at Nain, where glaucous gulls were common. The boat brings nearly all the supplies to a string of northern communities, and it was interesting to watch things like small boats being loaded and unloaded from the freighter (they picked them right up out of the water, while people were in them, using what looked like two large rubber bands on a crane).

The first day out I got sick from an infection, and got off the boat in a fishing village at six the next morning with 40 minutes to find a doctor, get some medicine, and return to the boat. I was sick enough that walking was difficult and I wondered what the chances were of completing this mission successfully. Eileen stayed on the boat to try to prevent them from leaving without me. I asked the first person I saw on the dock where the clinic was. He called for me to be sure a nurse was on duty (I expect that the call woke her), and then he gave me directions; of course, the clinic was at the other end of town, which looked like a 15-minute walk around a sweeping bay. I started to walk and a man who overheard the exchange stopped me and asked if I would like a ride over. I thanked him and told him that would be a big help, and to my surprise he gave me the keys to his truck so I could drive myself. I made it back to the boat in time, bearing antibiotics, and all turned out well. I was really touched by the consideration shown to me.

From the boat we saw: various seabirds including hundreds of puffins and razorbills; four species of seal including the handsome harp seal (a lifer); and minke whales. At the longer stops we would get off the boat and hike around, encountering some of our favorite boreal plants like mountain cranberry (Vaccineum vitis-idaea) and bog bilberry (V. uliginosum). One night we were treated to a long display of the northern lights, which were scintillating green. On the return trip the captain took us out into an area with many icebergs and we approached four of them closely in an evening, getting nice photos. These icebergs come from both Greenland and Baffin Island.

We had a day in Goose Bay between the ferry trips, and at one point I drove into town to check on reservations, leaving Eileen in our site in a campground with just her chair, a cooler, and a magazine. Our neighbors, Barbara and John Mahler, whom we had not yet met, drove up and as John got out of their truck, he remarked “Traveling light, I see!”. We went to the local dump with them in the evening to see some sleek black bears, and enjoyed the ferry trip to the north shore of the island of Newfoundland with them over the next couple of days. Before leaving we stopped in the local store and got some more books because I had run out of reading material. We again left the car in Goose Bay and stayed in a very small cabin on the boat, which we augmented with one of our comfortable camping chairs. This trip went over some deeper water than the previous trip, especially on the southern leg of it, and we saw more seabirds (such as jaegers and shearwaters) and whales (minke and humpback, plus a single killer whale in the distance). Our primary target on this trip was two northern species of dolphins, the white-beaked and Atlantic white-sided, both of which we eventually saw reasonably well after many hours on deck scanning constantly with our binoculars. These were our third and fourth life mammals of the trip (blue whale and harp seal being the earlier ones), a remarkable total for a single trip. In total, we saw 4 species of pinnipeds (seals, etc.), 8 cetaceans (whales and dolphins), and 6 land mammals on the trip. After debarking, we drove straight home, which took two very long days. In total, during the three weeks we covered 3300 miles by car and an incredible 2050 miles in 180 hours by boat.

After a day at home paying bills and loading up the canoe, we headed for our North Carolina pelagics, stopping briefly in Virginia to see my parents and brother Chris, who all live in Charlottesville, and my sister Cathy and her children Sarah and DJ, who wer visiting from the Philadelphia area. We got in a little paddling in Charlottesville before leaving, enjoying the deep scarlet of the cardinal flower and the royal purple of ironweed along the water’s edge. The first pelagic trip from Manteo was extremely rough, with 20 knot winds going against the Gulf Stream current, causing large swells. By noon the entire fishing fleet except for two boats (one ours) had turned back. It was so rough that I could not stay on deck but had to lie prone below deck to avoid being sick, and then rush upstairs when something was seen. I’m not sure I actually got my binoculars on a bird all day (you could not let go of support without risking falling), but we did see a very rare species, herald petrel, at such close range that binoculars were unnecessary. Eileen got another lifer, Cuvier’s beaked whale, the principal goal of the trip for us, but I could not get upstairs fast enough. Our second trip, the next day, was cancelled by rough weather, and I think most people were relieved (I certainly was). Instead, we tracked down a rare curlew sandpiper on Pea Island that had unfortunately finished molting out of its beautiful breeding plumage, and keyed out some of the lovely coastal plants that were in bloom, such as seashore mallows (Kosteletzkya virginica), sea pinks (Sabatia stellaris) and the beautiful orange milkweed Asclepias lanceolata. Marsh rabbits were quite common here near the northern extreme of their range.

During the week, we did quite a bit of canoeing, mostly at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, where we had anhinga and alligator at the extreme northern edge of their range; a lime green luna moth; many palamedes swallowtails; yellow-bellied slider (a handsome turtle); the new semi-aquatic water spider orchid (Habenaria repens); a new, very tall yellow pitcher plant (Sarracenia flava); a beautiful deep blue, large lobelia (L. elongata), butterfly pea, meadow beauty (Rhexia mariana), mistflower (Eupatorium coelestrinum), and pineweed (Hypericum gentianoides). One day we revisited Nags Head Preserve and hiked all the marked trails, partly in a downpour, but we did see three large cottonmouths sunning themselves before the thunderstorm broke. We also took a small boat trip into the bay to see onshore bottlenose dolphins up close (there is some evidence that the offshore bottlenose dolphins, which we saw on one pelagic trip, may be a different subspecies, being considerably larger). One night we canoed for 6 hours listening for blacks rails, but we heard them only briefly and at a distance.

Over the weekend we took two more pelagic trips, which were not great but we did enjoy adult Sabine’s gull, juvenile sooty terns, and bridled terns. Just before heading in on the second trip, at the last hour as it were, the boat came upon a group of three Cuvier’s beaked whales which I finally got to see, and the views were awesome! Although not a large whale, it belongs to the very mysterious family of beaked whales, and was in fact the first member of that family I had ever seen. It was a fine end to the trip. On the way home we stopped briefly in The Great Dismal Swamp and canoed into Lake Drummond, complementing our hike in from the other side earlier in the year. Stunning zebra swallowtails and pawpaws (their primary food source) were highlights of the day.

In late September we left for Montana for Eileen’s mammal tracking workshop. We hiked in the South Unit of Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota on the way out for a break in the drive. We saw bison and feral horses along the trail, and enjoyed the striking silver sagebrush (Artemisia cana) and a new goldenrod (Solidago rigida). I dropped Eileen off for her workshop and continued on to Glacier (Montana) and Waterton (Alberta) National Parks for five days of hiking. The first day I spent above Logan Pass, studying mountain goats, pikas (small relatives of rabbits that inhabit rock piles), and white-tailed ptarmigans (grouse that turn all white in winter to blend in with the snow). In the late afternoon I hiked to Avalanche Lake, which is encircled by beautiful mountains with several waterfalls. The lake had many familiar boreal plants, with favorites including male fern and rattlesnake plantain orchids (Goodyera oblongifolia).

The second day I hiked to Piegan Pass, a windy 9 miles with 1700 feet of elevation gain. I saw two species of chipmunks along the trail, the brightly colored red-tailed chipmunk in subalpine forests and the small, pale least chipmunk in alpine talus. I saw chestnut-backed chickadees beautifully at eye level; usually they are in the tops of towering conifers, so this was a treat. The primary goal of the hike was too see subalpine larch, the least common of the three tamaracks in North America. There was a small grove about 100 yards off the trail which was quite visible because the larches had turned golden (after which the needles fall off, because it is a deciduous conifer). I could not approach the grove, though, because the area was closed off to protect a sow grizzly bear with a cub from being disturbed. As luck would have it, the area was opened up about half an hour after I passed by it on the way back; I just missed the biologist who was coming out of there after confirming that the bears were gone. Along the road I found a vagrant shrew, a life species that was identifiable by virtue of the high elevation (over 6600 feet). Shrews are usually very difficult to see in the wild, but this one fed for about five minutes in vegetation at the edge of the road, where I had a superb view of it. We have short-tailed shrews in our yard; I had to live trap one this fall to convince him to stop living in our basement. This remarkable species finds mice in their burrows by echolocation, like a bat, and paralyzes them with poisonous saliva so that they stay alive and don’t spoil, providing several days of food. Most shrews, however, specialize in insects.

On the third day I visited Waterton Lakes, after a 45-minute border crossing into Canada, during which they interviewed me extensively, checked for any police record in the U.S., and positively disassembled the van, opening all the boxes and even reading my field notebook, which must have confused them, being largely a listing of Latin scientific names. I guess looked suspicious; they were passing other people through in a matter of minutes. Subalpine larch are much more common in Waterton; I could see small bands of them just below the treeline on many slopes. I hiked to Upper Rowe Lake, which probably has the best display of these trees in the region. Several juvenile Barrow’s goldeneyes floated by while I ate lunch, and a bighorn sheep climbed up a slope on the upper shore of the lake. On the hike, I saw red crossbills, pine grosbeaks, and a nice assortment of plants, including the handsome northern holly fern. The next morning I hiked along Cameron Lake and up to Summit Lake, seeing moose, varied thrush, golden eagle, whitebark pine, and a new wintergreen (Gaultheria humifusa). The highlight of the day was a boreal redback vole with whom I shared my lunch. Voles look a bit like small hamsters, and this species has a beautiful rusty wash on the head and back, and so is quite striking. I returned to Glacier in the evening, having another slow border crossing, and camped in the Manyglacier area, which is the best area in the park for seeing large mammals. As evidence of this, on the next day, during a snowy hike to Grinnell Lake, I saw, in one sweep of my binoculars across an alpine slope, a grizzly bear, 7 bighorns, and 20 mountain goats! I returned to the guest ranch late that night after the end of Eileen’s workshop. She had a great time, as you can tell from her account below.

“A few years ago, while on a winter trip to the south rim of the Grand Canyon, we were poking around in the visitor center bookstore, when Brian recommended a book on mammal tracking to me, because “you’re always wondering what made these tracks”, and he recognized the author’s name. I decided to take the book with me last year on a canoe trip to Algonquin Provincial Park, almost always good for red fox and moose prints, and, if you’re lucky, wolf. Then Brian suggested taking the workshop given by the book’s author, Dr. James Halfpenny, and sponsored by the Nature Conservancy at their guest ranch near Choteau, Montana. One year later, we were pulling up in front of the lodge at the Pine Butte Guest Ranch. Brian dropped me off for the week-long seminar and he continued to Glacier and Waterton National Parks, where, because of heightened security, it took him almost as long to get through Canadian customs as it did for him to hike to Upper Rowe Lake.

“Meanwhile, back at the ranch [ugh! – ed.], I settled in to enjoy the workshop. each morning, after breakfast, our group of nine met in the main room of the lodge for a lecture on a particular aspect of tracking mammals: the footprint; gait patterns and trail interpretation; hair, scat, and other mammal sign; and skulls, teeth, bone, antlers, etc. These lectures were fascinating; it is amazing how much one can learn from a single track, not to mention trails (series of tracks) and other clues (of course, one of the more helpful clues is when the animal is still standing in the tracks he is leaving).

“In the afternoon, we went on field trips to practice our new skills. We looked for tracks and trails in mud, dust, and snow and tried to determine what species had put it there, what size he was, how fast he was traveling, and what gait he was using. It was very exciting to touch a print with your fingers and know that a grizzly or badger or coyote had had his own paw in that very spot. A highlight was seeing very fresh grizzly sign on Pine Butte itself, the last location where grizzlies occur in the prairies.

“We returned to the lodge in time for a social hour before dinner. Meals were served family style, except for the pack lunches. After dinner, there were presentations in the large room. One night there was a slide show about Pine Butte Swamp Reserve. On other evenings, Jim Halfpenny spoke about wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone; wildlife conservation in China; and on the final night, he presented a slide show on the northern lights and the night sky, along with some wonderfully told bear stories.

“I can’t think of a better way to spend a week than with a group of such friendly, enthusiastic people in such a beautiful place, learning and practicing new skills related to a favorite subject. I had further opportunity to apply them when I rejoined Brian in Glacier and, a month later, in Texas. (During a guided hike along the Rio Grande, our leader found some bobcat tracks. In my excitement to see them, I failed to yield the right of way to a prickly pear cactus, the consequences of which were immediate and severe. But, hey -- bobcat tracks!)”

After spending the day looking around in the Pine Butte area, we headed up to Manyglacier, where at dusk we saw a black bear, 20 bighorns, and a remarkable 50 mountain goats! The next day we hiked above Logan Pass, finding 19 white-tailed ptarmigans (a lifer for Eileen), some being close enough to touch, and having a close encounter with a mountain goat and her kid, who softly called back and forth to one another. Eileen spotted some rocks turned over by a bear while it was foraging. We found dipper (a songbird that feeds underwater in fast moving streams) along the road and hiked in to Avalanche Lake because I thought it was so pretty the first time. The following day, each armed with a can of pepper spray and calling out twice a minute to warn grizzlies of our approach, we hiked up to the grove of subalpine larch in Preston Park that had been closed off when I was there, so Eileen could see the trees (which neither of us had ever seen at close range before this trip) and the grizzly diggings. As a bear biologist I had met said, “the area looks as if it had been worked over by a roto-tiller.” Eileen was thrilled to see her own red-backed vole, which was a lifer for her. We saw bighorn tracks in the snow and marten scat along the trail, and a flock of rosy finches blew by.

The weather was crummy the next day as winter began to set in in earnest, so we did only a short hike to Apikuni Falls, but enjoyed a herd of over 100 elk. The following day was a little better, so we hiked the 10 miles round trip to Iceberg Lake, where a wolverine had been seen three weeks earlier. It was foggy, cold, and damp, but the lake and the cirque behind it were beautiful, even if it would have been enhanced by a wolverine cruising the shore (other than the endangered black-tailed ferret, this is the only North American member of the weasel family that we have not seen, even though some of the species we have seen are quite a bit more difficult to spot). The next day was so windy that it bent one of the van doors so it would not close properly. We did a medium length hike towards Swiftcurrent Pass, seeing what might have been wolverine scat on a gravelly lakeshore, and turning around when there was very fresh grizzly bear scat in the trail (it was actually possible to identify the species of berries upon which it was feeding).

The weather continued to degrade (making us appreciate how lucky we were the previous week), so we left one day early to leave time for some hiking in the other half of Roosevelt National Park (the North Unit) on the way back through North Dakota. An 11-mile hike on the diverse Buckhorn Trail one day was very enjoyable, although we had to sneak past a herd of bison spread across the trail. Eileen checked out tracks made by pronghorn, bison, mule deer, raccoon, and prairie dogs (the trail goes through a couple of colonies), and we had good views of mountain bluebird, rock wren, and least chipmunk. On our last day we hiked on the Caprock Coulie loop, where we found a single blossom of pasqueflower, a superb deep blue member of the buttercup family that normally blooms just as the snow melts in the spring, and so was unexpected. We also walked along the shore of the Little Missouri River for tracks, of which there were a multitude.

We only got in two weekends of camping in the Adirondacks this year, quite a change after our six-year vascular plant study. On the second trip, in late October for fall tamarack color, we were rewarded after a cold rainy evening to have the sky clear and to see a beautiful crimson aurora borealis! We had seen the northern lights about half a dozen times previously, but they had always been green, which is by far the most common color. The rare red color (630 nanometer wavelength) we saw is from high-altitude oxygen atoms (ca. 200 km above the earth’s surface) undergoing a low-probability transition from an excited state produced by collision with charged particles from the solar wind. Because the transition is unlikely (in fact, it is “forbidden” in the absence of a magnetic field), the lifetime of the excited state is long (about 110 seconds), and if the excited atom undergoes a collision with another atom, molecule, or ion it will be quenched and will not emit the red light. Consequently, this emission occurs only at very high altitudes, where the atmosphere is extremely rarified. The common green color (558 nanometers) is primarily from a different oxygen atom transition that is of much higher probability and so can occur lower in the atmosphere. Occasionally, red or violet fringes are seen on the lower edges of auroral displays; these are caused by even lower-altitude molecular nitrogen and its positive ionic species.

Our very final natural history trip of the year was to south Texas, where we met Eileen’s parents for a week of birding, mostly along the Rio Grande, where a number of basically Mexican species reach their northern limit. Our itinerary and sightings were mostly pretty standard stuff so I’ll just concentrate on the highlights and lesser known species and places. We flew into San Antonio and after a brief trip to the coast to see the whooping cranes from a boat tour out of Rockport (we had 32 of them), we headed south to McAllen, our base of operations for the rest of the trip. Eileen has only been to this area in winter and so was still missing a few of the species that are easier in summer. South of Kingsville we found the first of these, Couch’s kingbird, and also located a Sprague’s pipit. On the third day we took a canoe trip tour from Falcon Dam to Salineño, which was extremely enjoyable and much more satisfying than just checking the river from the occasional accessible locations such as Chapeño and Santa Margarita Ranch. The birding was great, with species such as brown jay, Altamira and Audubon’s oriole, green kingfisher, and lots of ringed kingfisher, and we had distant but long views of a pair of red-billed pigeons, another lifer for Eileen. We did not have any luck with muscovy duck, but this is the best way to get one. The trips are arranged through Santa Ana Refuge; unfortunately, it is not possible to rent canoes anywhere in the region. We had a nice hike in an arroyo after the lunch supplied by the tour and had many plants identified for us. Our principal target here was Montezuma baldcypress, a Mexican species having only a few individuals in the U.S., all on the north bank of the river. We saw three singles and canoed right under a small grove, and that represented most of the U.S. population. For those interested, one tree can be seen south of Abram, and the grove can be seen fairly well from the viewpoint at Salineño, upriver on the north bank.

The next day we found some of the flocks of green parakeet and red-crowned parrot that occur in the urban areas; some of these birds may be naturally occurring from Mexico but most are probably escapes, so we do not count them on our life list. On the fifth day we took a catamaran trip into Laguna Madre that was good for birds and bottlenose dolphins; we had great views of sandwich terns and a huge flock of bright pink roseate spoonbills. Overnight the weather crashed, dropping from about 80F to about 40F with wind and precipitation. The next day, at Santa Ana national Wildlife Refuge, was miserable in our inadequate clothing, but we somehow found a beautiful male tropical parula, another lifer for Eileen. Her fourth new bird the following day was white-collared seedeater at San Ygnacio. The next day at Bentsen yielded a gorgeous bobcat seen briefly but very well, plus a group of javelinas including young. Chihuahua Woods Preserve, owned by the Nature Conservancy, had a nice assortment of cacti, with five species visible in one spot. On our last day before driving back to San Antonio, I checked the rare bird alert just before leaving the motel and learned that a blue mockingbird we had searched for earlier had been relocated , and that a green-breasted mango (a rather large hummingbird) had turned up in McAllen. These two species are rare enough that they were not pictured in the book we had along; there are only a few records ever of the mockingbird in the U.S. We scrapped our plans for the day and managed to locate both these birds by lunch time, so I finished with two life birds and Eileen with six. The mockingbird actually sang a few times, and there were buff-bellied hummingbirds in the same yard as the mango, a bonus.

We’ll be visiting Virginia for Christmas and expect to have a quiet New Year’s here in Rochester. Plans are not yet firm for 2002 although trips to Kentucky and Washington state are likely.