15 December 1996


Dear Friends and Family,


We hope you have had a good year in 1996. Our tenth full year here in Rochester went well; we got to do some fun traveling, and made good progress on our Moose River Plains botanical project, mentioned in last year's letter.


My work has been reasonable, although the end-of-the-year crunch to finish up projects was the worst ever. This was because we finally, after three years of planning, moved physical location into the complex which represents the digital imaging center of the company. The area was newly built to our specifications and is great! It is exciting to finally have all of us who work on the same projects located so closely to one another; most of the people with whom I work are now within 15 seconds of my office. My major project has made it through another year unscathed and now seems to safely have the momentum to carry it to completion in about three years. In 1996, about ten people contributed to the effort, and another five people worked on projects that we have spawned.


Most of the winter was spent finishing identification of the roughly 350 specimens collected in the Moose River Plains in 1995. Our final species total was 307. We prepared a list of target species for the 1996 field season that included species for which better specimens were needed (e.g. with fruit in addition to flowers), or for which a voucher specimen was needed by the New York State Museum to substantiate occurrence in Hamilton County. This list contained about 100 species, giving us plenty of things to work on in addition to finding new species! We rented movie videos every weekend and cooked potato pancake breakfasts (complete with jalapeno cheese, Indian mint chutney, and salsa) many Sunday mornings to remind us of camping. We attended several figure skating tour programs, which were very enjoyable. When the weather finally improved in April, we got to see a lovely milk snake in a friend's yard, and enjoyed viewing Comet Huyakatake almost nightly for over a week.


Early in May we took a 16-day trip to southeast Arizona involving three days of business in Tucson (judging in the International Science and Engineering Fair for Kodak). The birding was wonderful as always, and Eileen's folks drove over from El Paso to join us for a week. Eileen saw 38 new birds (!), bringing her North American life list to 610; Strickland's woodpecker, on the road to Carr Canyon, was her 600th species. She also had 6 new mammals, bringing her total to 104; Arizona gray squirrel was her 100th species, but was eclipsed in excitement by # 104, her most wanted mammal: a mountain lion streaking across the road in the Chiricahua Mountains, then sighted in binoculars as it gracefully departed from a hollow where it was being mobbed by gray-breasted jays! This and hooded skunk were only my second sightings, but I did get two new birds: a beautiful male flame-colored tanager in the Santa Rita Mts., and three white-eared hummingbirds in Ramsey Canyon, bringing my total to 683 (excluding introduced birds). Other particularly nice sightings included violet-crowned hummingbird, sulphur-bellied flycatcher, Mexican chickadee, tropical and thick-billed kingbirds (the latter especially in Guadalupe Canyon), common black-hawk, rose-throated becard and hapatic tanagers in Sycamore Canyon, Montezuma quail and antelope jackrabbit in California Gulch, many coatimundis, and many nice pines and oaks. One enjoyable aspect of the trip was visiting a number of classic locations that we had not seen previously (such as several of the canyons of the Huachuca Mts.).


Our early June census of small white lady's-slippers (endangered in New York State) at one of their two state locations was encouraging, with a higher total and percentage of plants in flower than we have had for several years. We also censused stands of several regionally rare plants (twinleaf and green violet) for The Nature Conservancy. An exciting local find was green dragon, a plant closely related to jack-in-the-pulpit but much less common and even more bizarre. One day Eileen was able to walk to the end of the street to see the Olympic torch pass by, helping to make up for the fact that we missed much of the Olympics due to travel. Our ten-year wedding anniversary on 14 June was spent touring Sonnenberg Gardens in the Finger Lakes region; while there we heard a clay-colored sparrow, a prairie rarity that was later seen by a number of other birders. I got in trouble for pointing out that a ten-year anniversary was "particularly special" only if you used the decimal system of counting. Late in June we started on a wonderful 30-day trip to the Pacific Northwest (see end of letter).


We collected about 190 specimens this year (excluding duplicates) in the Moose River Plains, which we expect will bring our species total to about 375 after two years. This is what I had estimated for our final total before we began our study; it will be interesting to see how far past this mark we go. Despite the Pacific Northwest trip, we spent about 26 days doing field work in the Moose River Plains this year, and were able to extend our coverage to a number of new blocks. Especially interesting new species in the area included one-flowered cancerroot, humped bladderwort, and slender ladies'-tresses. If you remember the description of specimen 220 in last year's Christmas letter (purple bladderwort), you will be relieved to hear that we finally did collect the species in flower this year, although, remarkably, the flowers were definitely white rather than the anticipated purple. By extending our field season a bit later than last year, we added several asters and other plants that we had missed previously.


Several exciting finds this year were of ferns. We found a magnificent stand of Clinton's fern containing dozens of large plants in a swampy area, creating quite a sight. The published New York state record for species of ferns in a 1-mile radius circle is 26 species; at the end of last year we had 25 in a circle in the Moose River Plains, and there were two species that we had found not far outside our circle that we thought probably occurred within the circle, but not in areas accessible by trail or road. One species, rusty woodsia, likes sunny cliffs; the other, mountain woodfern, prefers higher elevations. We selected the highest areas within our circle that had cliffs, based on topographic maps, and took three bushwhacks (cross-country hikes in areas with no trails) during the course of the year to look for these two ferns. To give you an idea of the hiking difficulty, on the second hike, on which we did find two mountain woodfern plants, it took us five hours to cover one mile, but the record was tied. The third hike finally succeeded in reaching some partly open cliffs and a few straggling rusty woodsias were sighted, breaking the record. We will write this up this winter.


A trip to Algonquin Provincial Park over Labor Day yielded a black bear in a bog, our second in a natural setting (i.e. not at a dump) in a few weeks (the earlier one had been on a bog in the Adirondacks that we had visited to see yellow-eyed grass). Also seen were spruce grouse (our third sighting ever) and Case's ladies'-tresses, a new orchid for us. Since the end of the camping season in mid-October, when the tamaracks were superb in the Moose River Plains, we have been doing yard work, finishing up work on the aquatic flora publication (which did not quite get done before the field season started this year), and preparing to start work on the new specimens.


I scheduled a trip to El Paso for Thanksgiving without telling Eileen so she would not worry about flying for months ahead of time. We had a very enjoyable visit with Eileen's parents and her brother and sister-in-law, Rob and Mahrla. In addition to a lovely Thanksgiving dinner, some fine games of Anagrams, and innumerable authentic Mexican meals in various local restaurants, we took several day trips to interesting areas. In the Monihans Dunes near Pecos, we sledded down the dune slip faces and photographed the remarkable shin oaks that, despite being just a few feet high, supposedly can send down roots as far as 90 feet to reach reliable water. Near Deming, NM we walked through interesting rock formations and looked for semi-precious stones, finding mostly jasper, but also seeing golden eagle and prairie falcon beautifully. The solar observatory at Sunspot, NM (cute name), near Cloudcroft, was interesting and the scenery was pretty, and we enjoyed visiting nearby Three Petroglyphs as well. Finally, a trip to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge near the peak of the snow goose and sandhill crane numbers was impressive. We had great looks at Ross' goose, olivaceous cormorant, and porcupine as well; the goose was Eileen's 621st species.


Finally, we're looking forward to a week in Charlottesville visiting my family over Christmas. We hope you have a wonderful holiday season and a rewarding and enjoyable year in 1997.


Pacific Northwest Trip


During the course of this 30-day trip we drove 9925 miles, and visited locations in Idaho, northern California, Oregon, and Washington, which was our fiftieth state! We had our highest list of conifers ever for a single trip, an excellent 30 species. There are 98 species of conifers in North America north of the Mexican border, and after this trip, where I encountered four or five new species, I had seen 88 of them (Eileen has seen about 82). While quoting statistics, we visited four new national parks, and have now been to all but seven in the Lower 48. This was probably our best trip ever for wildflowers, with Mt. Ranier being the single most notable location. Camping was very nice, including an unbroken stretch of 18 nights. The weather was excellent except on the Olympic Peninsula, where it was rainy and foggy, which we blamed on Eileen's parents, who had just joined us for a week. Of the 20 mammal species, three (all chipmunks) were new to us. I got one new bird, probably the commonest North American species I was missing (Manx shearwater), although it normally belongs in the Atlantic, not Pacific, Ocean. Eileen had ten new birds, including Laysan albatross and marbled murrelet.


We drove from Rochester to Craters of the Moon NM in Idaho in three days (a bit under 2300 miles). This was the first of many fascinating volcanic areas we visited during the trip. Next was the Sawtooth NRA, with its lovely subalpine meadows full of shooting stars and other colorful flowers. Malheur NWR and the surrounding area in southeast Oregon was very interesting; a favorite flower was the sensational Clarkia pulchella. We saw the wild mustang herd most closely resembling the original Spanish stallions of all New World herds. While we were photographing, a female calliope hummingbird (the smallest American species) flew into our car and had to be rescued. Near Bend, OR we hiked in a lava tube with headlamps for several miles; it was quite eerie. Next on the agenda was Crater Lake NP, the only place in the trip where we had trouble getting a campsite. Half the loop road was still closed due to snow when we were there on 5-7 July. Vidae Falls had an excellent wildflower display, including columbines and bleeding hearts. Crater Lake had extensive forests of my favorite tree, mountain hemlock.


We headed south to the California border, where we had fun photographing many birds with young, especially stilts and avocets, in the Klamath Basin refuges. After a brief tour of Lava Beds NM we continued south to the Mt. Shasta area. Although this mountain is magnificant from a distance, and figures prominently in early botanical records, we found it less interesting than other montane locations we visited. Our southernmost point on the trip was at Lassen Volcanic NP (still far north in California), which we enjoyed a great deal, not least because we saw many familiar species from our southern California tenure, here near the northern extent of their range. From Lassen we cut over to the coast and the redwoods parks. The drive across the state at this latitude is quite slow but rather scenic; we took some side roads up the canyons and to viewpoints, hoping for weeping spruce. Although unsuccessful, we saw superb examples of madrone and slopes covered with the unique digger pine.


After the obligatory hike through Fern Gully, and the expected view-camera photography of the towering redwood forests, we headed for the remote Siskiyou Mts. to look for the rare weeping spruce. This is a mysterious conifer with graceful, pendant branches, that grows at fairly high elevations in dry situations within a very small region (perhaps 100 miles in diameter). The road along the South Fork of the Smith River eventually degenerated into a one-lane bedrock road with terrifying dropoffs. Eileen hung up a blanket so she could not see where we were going. I constantly checked the altimiter and the GPS, which indicated that we had long ago taken leave of any road shown on any map we had. In nearly a day of travel, we saw no other vehicles after leaving the river (thank goodness). At one memorable stop, we parked next to a huge Port Orford Cedar, and in short order saw the bizarre cobra plant (a restricted pitcher plant), a new orchid, and a new lily. At the top of the ridge a weather station explained the reason for the road. Just below this weather station we finally encountered a scattered stand of about 15 weeping spruces, mixed with hundreds of other conifers in an area many acres in extent on a steep north-facing slope. At our feet was a delicate endemic bleeding heart. This road was the most exciting part of the entire trip for me.


Working our way north along the coast we visited several seabird colonies, where the nesting birds had already started to disperse, reducing numbers. Near Cape Arago, at a well-known overlook, we were treated to scope views of four pinnipeds, and I had my best comparisons ever of the two sea lion species. Mt. Hood was mostly disappointing due to the intensive clear-cutting nearly surrounding the mountain, but finally, after many hours of dirt roads, we emerged to a superb view from the north a few hours before sunset, and so decided to camp there for the night. This might be the most impressive view we have ever had from a campsite.


From Mt. Hood we briefly visited the Columbia River Gorge. The basalt formations were impressive and the falls very pleasant, but we needed more time and fewer people to see the area well. Returning to the coast, we visited the scenic Ecola SP, which had very good birding, and saw tufted puffins nesting on Haystack Rock in the town of Cannon Beach. That day we crossed over into Washington and took a photo of ourselves to commemorate our arrival in our fiftieth state. We stayed on the Olympic Peninsula for several days, where Eileen's parents met us. The temperate rainforests in three valleys on the west side of the Olympic Peninsula are unique in North America; the only other worldwide occurrences are in Chile and New Zealand. In some areas the rainfall is around 200 inches per year, whereas rainfall just a few tens of air miles away, in the rain shadow of the Olympic Mts., is only 17 inches in places. Eileen and I took a pelagic trip out of Westport, on which we had many excellent looks at uncommon species. I was very sick but was pleased at what we saw.


Mt. Ranier, next on the itinerary, had thrilling displays of alpine wildflowers (of which the magenta paintbrush was a favorite) and beautiful views. The Grove of the Patriarchs Nature Trail had male fern and Pacific yew; the latter, never especially common, has become harder to find since the discovery of the promising anti-cancer compound taxol, derived from this species. Mt. St. Helens was largely closed off due to road damage, but we studied it using a telescope from 13 miles away at Bear Meadow. On our way to our final location, Hell's Canyon, we passed through the Blue Mts. of Oregon, hoping to encounter Washoe pine (which we did not). Although Hell's Canyon is listed as the deepest gorge in the states, the readily accessible views certainly do not compare with those of many other places. Nonetheless, it is a very scenic area, and was an enjoyable final stop. We drove home in 3.5 days at our usual pace of about 800 miles per day, finishing the trip in 30 days.