1 December 1987


Dear Friends and Family,


Season's Greetings! It's time for our second annual Christmas letter, bringing you up to date on what we've been doing over the last year, and, we hope, prompting those of you from whom we've not heard recently to write and let us know you're alive.


Where to begin? Eileen has nearly finished her masters, and started teaching this fall at a local Catholic school with temporary certification. She is teaching 7th and 8th grade social studies and a few miscellaneous classes to her 7th grade homeroom. She hopes to finish up her degree at the end of next summer, the vagaries of course scheduling permitting.


I have continued to enjoy my job at Kodak very much. The end of my training program is now in sight (a few months), and I have made some significant research advances that have resulted in several talks and reports. The research is difficult but each time a breakthrough occurs it is immediately useful to someone, which is encouraging.


We have continued to do lots of photography, and are getting better all the time. I am continuing to try to build a reference collection of slides of the more difficult bird groups, e.g. sandpipers and gulls, and have learned a great deal about their plumages this way. Eileen has been photographing all the kids in her homeroom with some very nice results. And, of course, we've been doing lots of scenic photography on our various trips.


Our big trip of the year was a 15-day trip driving from here to the Dakotas the last week of May and the first week of June. Below I include a short account of the trip. We also took several shorter trips during the year; at Christmas we visited both Virginia to see my folks and El Paso to visit Eileeen's; we'll be doing the same again this year. We spent one day there birding near Balmorhea TX, which has phenomenal numbers of wintering sparrows; highlights were several small flocks of Clay-colored Sparrows. We took a number of trips to the Adirondacks, mostly canoeing, but also skiing there in February (Gray Jays and bobcat tracks were exciting). In the fall we camped there almost every weekend, enjoying the fall color and the barred owls, coyotes, and Peromyscus mice in our favorite campsite. Over Thanksgiving we drove to Maine and visited Acadia National Park, which was mostly closed due to snow. It was a very pleasant trip except for the large amount of driving. We saw Common Eiders, Black Guillemots, Purple Sandpipers, Gannets, and River Otters very well.


On the bird front, in addition to the five "lifers" (birds seen for the first time) on the Dakotas Trip, I got four other lifers in New York State: Gyrfalcon, Boreal Owl, White-winged Crossbill, and Gray Kingbird. This brings my total to 619 (no introduced birds). Other particularly notable birds this year included Northern Hawk-Owl, King Eider, Harlequin Duck, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Red Phalarope, Bohemian Waxwing, Northern Shrike, Connecticut Warbler, Henslow's sparrow, Saw-whet and Snowy Owls, and several of the rarer gulls: Black-headed, Thayer's, and both white-winged species. There are very few new species left for me to see in the northeast now; Hoary Redpoll and Manx Shearwater are by far the most likely.


This year I worked fairly hard on a year list (an attempt to see as many species as possible in a calendar year) in the Rochester area. A total of 250-255 is considered excellent for a "working" birder; I have 259 now and have slim chances at another two or three additional gulls and a few winter finches.


We hope that you have a great holiday season!


The Dakotas Trip


The trip was largely organized around trying to see half a dozen lifers which could be found near the center of the continent: Kirtland's Warbler, Yellow Rail, Spruce Grouse, White-winged Crossbill (not found on this trip, but subsequently found on a canoeing trip in the Adirondacks), and LeConte's and Baird's Sparrows. The first day we drove to Grayling MI, where we saw Kirtland's Warbler the next morning. Kirtland's Warbler is a very rare songbird (a few hundred pairs), breeding only in stands of sapling jack pines in a small area in Michigan, wintering only in the Caribbean, and almost never seen in between in migration. It was interesting to note the transition to boreal habitats as we got farther north in Michigan. After studying the warblers for several hours, we headed north to Michigan's Upper Peninsula (UP), where we visited the Pictured Rocks area along the shore of Lake Superior.


That evening we joined a researcher at Seney National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) to search for one the more elusive North American birds, Yellow Rail. The freshwater marshes on the restricted western edge of the refuge are the finest I have ever seen. Once it got totally dark (about ten at night), the rails started calling. We attracted them by tapping pebbles together in imitation of their call, which brought one bird in close enough to be caught with a large net. They really bite! Around midnight, as we returned to our campsite, we were treated to the first aurora borealis we had ever seen! Really, two life birds and a life phenomenon in one day is almost too much.


On Day 3 we headed west across the UP to the Yellow Dog Plain near Marquette, where Spruce Grouse (an elusive but tame boreal species) had been extensively studied by Bill Robinson at the University of Michigan. Much of this area has been lumbered, but what remains undisturbed is very beautiful, consisting of spruce/jack pine forests with occasional open boggy areas. We spent the better part of the next day looking for grouse in the rain without success; late in the afternoon the weather cleared a bit and Bill met us with a new graduate student, Neil, and helped us in our search. We carried two stuffed grouse (a male and a female) and a tape recording with highly stimulating grouse vocalizations and tramped all over the place. At one point it was discovered that the head of the male stuffed bird had fallen off; when the head was finally relocated (at hundred to one odds, at least), Neil quipped "Are you sure it's the right one?" A few hours before dark we finally located two males and a female. Bill used the tape recorder and stuffed birds to lure one male in until it could be caught by hand!


Some years White-winged Crossbills breed in the UP but this did not seem to be one of those years so we moved on to Minnesota on Day 5 to explore the freshwater marshes near McGregor for LeConte's Sparrow (we heard this bird at Seney while looking for Yellow Rails but wanted to see it also if possible). There, at night, we heard more Yellow Rails (and saw one superbly), Sedge wrens (abundant), and Sharp-tailed Sparrows, as well as our target, LeConte's Sparrow. In the morning we saw these sparrows by going back to the areas where we heard them the night before.


One Day 6 we drove to northeast Minnesota, where many northern species reach the southern limit of their range (e.g. Boreal, Northern Hawk-, and Great Gray Owls); we saw and heard many species of warblers along the Gunflint Trail, and were treated to a feeding cow moose near dusk. The next afternoon we started driving west for our next stop, the short-grass prairies of North Dakota. It was interesting to see the transition from eastern forest to prairie as we crossed Minnesota. Early in the afternoon on Day 8 we arrived at Salyer NWR, which was terrific for birding: there were waterbirds everywhere in the prairie potholes, many readily photographed; the two must abundant birds were Franklin's Gull and Yellow-headed Blackbird. We found the last "target" bird of the trip that afternoon--Baird's Sparrow, which has a remarkably beautiful song. This bird has a very restricted breeding distribution in short-grass prairies, and winters mostly in Mexico. In this same area there were Chestnut-collared Longspurs, Sprague's Pipits, Gray Partridge, and many western species at the eastern edge of their range.


After some more birding and photographing the following morning, we headed south towards the Black Hills of South Dakota. The topography became decidedly reminiscent of the arid southwest when we reached the Little Missouri R. in southwest North Dakota. The Roosevelt National Park (both units) provided spectacular erosional scenery, and our list of "western" birds and mammals continued to increase. On Day 10 we finally reached the Black Hills, having been nearly Lark Buntinged to death on the way. We stayed here for three days, then visited the Badlands the morning of day 13 and started home that afternoon, arriving home at the end of day 15.


The Black Hills, especially Custer State Park, are excellent for mammal photography. We saw Bison, Pronghorn, Bighorn, Elk, and a number of smaller species here. This is the easternmost edge of the western coniferous forest habitat, and so a number of Rocky Mountain species are at the very edge of their range in the yellow pines of this region; among these we saw Western Wood-Pewee, Plumbeous Solitary Vireo, Clark's Nutcracker, and the very restricted "White-winged" Junco. In the Badlands we found rock-loving species like Rock Wren and White-throated Swift.


In total, we saw about 180 species of birds (5 lifers) and 21 species of mammals (no lifers). We drove a total of 5315 miles, and shot 35 rolls of film. The trip was highly successful in terms of finding the last of the "prairie" specialties I hadn't seen (some I had already seen in Colorado). We also gained a much better perspective of what the center of the continent is like, and how the "east" and "west" intergrade there.