29 November 1998


Dear Friends and Family,


We hope that this letter finds you well, and that you are enjoying the holiday season. We are doing fine and have had a good year in 1998.


I am still leading the same research team, the charter of which has been somewhat extended, suggesting continuation of the effort through at least 2001. A particular frustration this year was the loss of several software engineers from our laboratory, stalling progress on the software that embodies the research team results and makes them more widely useful within Kodak. Eileen is looking into volunteer opportunities at The Nature Conservancy, which has chapter offices here in Rochester.


Unlike most years, we did not take a major trip in 1998, but instead took a few short trips and concentrated on our plant work in the Moose River Plains. This saved a couple of extra weeks of vacation for use on a 7-week car trip to northwest Canada and Alaska that we intend to take in May-June 1999. I have been having a lot of fun over the last month planning out this trip!


I again spent much of January-April studying plant specimens collected last year in the Moose River Plains. For the past five years we have been building up a good reference library for plant identification, and additions over the last year, supplemented by herbarium work at the New York State Museum in Albany, have been very helpful in working out some of the most difficult groups. In January we gave a talk to the Niagara Frontier Botanical Society about our study; there was a great deal of interest in Eileen's discussion of specimen preparation and appreciation of the many samples she passed around.


In late April and early May we visited a few of our traditional locations for spring wildflowers, and introduced the new van to camping. It worked very nicely; we like the very quiet ride on the highway, and the sliding doors on each side are very convenient, although we miss the higher clearance and skid plates of our previous van. We took advantage of the lesser travel costs this year to upgrade and expand our camping and outdoor gear, which was fun to do, and fit in well with outfitting the new van.


In mid-May we took a 10-day trip to central Texas, bisected by judging at the International Science and Engineering Fair in Fort Worth. Eileen has written a short account of this trip that is attached at the end of the note.


In late May we visited my mom and brother Chris in Virginia. We took Mom to West Virginia for an overnight wildflower jaunt. Our attention centered on the Spruce Knob area, which has nice back roads with outstanding roadside plants and lovely scenery, especially from the top of Spruce Knob, the highest peak in the state. Wild Bleeding Heart, with its deep pink heart-shaped flowers and almost fern-like leaves, was in bloom in numbers. We relocated the same stand of shooting stars that we found in the area years ago; the nodding flowers come to a yellow point shaped like a spark plug, with the twisted, pink to purplish petals looking as if they were blown backwards. Painted trilliums and a white form of the moccasin flower (pink lady's slipper orchid) were in bloom on the summit of Spruce Knob. On the way home through scenic Highland Co., Virginia there were dramatic thunderstorms that enhanced the beautiful vistas. We also drove part of the Blue Ridge Parkway with Mom and Chris, but dense fog at higher altitudes limited the extent of the trip. We did see a superb display of flowering mountain laurel, particularly on one slope that probably burned a few decades ago (this often allows shrubs to densely colonize an area, largely to the exclusion of trees, for quite a while).


During the summer we tried a new schedule, in which I worked 9 hour days, Mon-Fri one week, and Sun-Wed the following week. This allowed a 4-day weekend every two weeks, which halved our driving for the same number of days in the field. Although the Moose River Plains is normally not crowded except on holiday weekends, on weekdays it is positively deserted, so this gave us some very high quality time in our study area, and gave us the pick of the best campsites when we arrived Wednesday evenings. It was also a new experience to be in town on a day off between late April and late October, and those isolated Saturdays off once every two weeks were pleasant. I believe that it was on one of those Saturdays that we saw a mother squirrel carry her babies, one by one in her mouth, from their existing nest to a new one (both in our yard)! The mouse-sized babies did not move at all as they were carried, but just wrapped their tails around their mother's head. Each time, the mother came down the original nest tree, walked on the ground to the new nest tree, and ascended to the new nest (probably because it was too hard to leap from branch to branch while carrying the young). The mother made one extra trip, as if to confirm that the nest was really empty. Needless to say, we enjoyed many young squirrel antics in the ensuing months.


We did 36 days of field work this year in the Moose River Plains (the most of any year so far), collecting 184 specimens, and adding about 64 new species to the list (nearly as many as last year). During the year we took many bushwhacks (hikes over difficult terrain without trails) and canoed to some of the least accessible portions of the study area. Our greatest emphasis this year was location and documentation of state rarities in our study area. The state Natural Heritage Program provided a report summarizing historical records of rarities in the southwest Adirondacks, four of which were within our study area. We were able to locate each of these four, including new locations for three of them, bringing our list of rarities to eight species. We spent hours in the field searching for and counting plants, delimiting occurrences, and describing plant associations, and I will spend most of a weekend in December filling out the necessary paperwork for the Natural Heritage Program.


At the beginning of the year it seemed a distant goal to reach 500 species in the study area, but our intensive field work relatively early in the season turned up a surprising number of new species. This raised our hopes, but then late in the season we found fewer new species than expected and it looked like we would finish the year in the 490s. (I think these results reflect the fact that we have had somewhat better coverage later in the season other years, and many early-season species flower and fruit in a shorter interval than late-season species.) In a dramatic finish, on the last day of collecting for the season, our friend Lilian, the local assistant forest ranger, took us into a new area that yielded three new species in half a day, bringing our final total to approximately 501!


Some of the highlights this year in the Moose River Plains were green adder's mouth, an orchid we had never seen anywhere before (bringing our total native orchid species in the study area to 16); dwarf grape fern, a very inconspicuous species also totally new to us; an adorable boreal red-backed vole, spot-lighted at night and a new mammal for us; and calling saw-whet owls at many locations. The latter is a very small owl most frequently seen in migration; we had not realized how common it was in our study area until our many nights early in the season this year.


Eileen's parents visited for two weeks in September, during which time the four of us took a nine-day trip to Algonquin Provincial Park, four hours north of Toronto. We did a variety of hikes and canoe trips, and enjoyed splendid fall color, fully a week earlier than has been usual in recent years. We saw three pairs of river otters during the trip, including a half-hour view at very close range of a pair fishing in shallow water! We also saw moose, red fox, and gray jay well, although we had no wolves or aurora borealis this year. Particularly exciting was a new orchid species, tesselated rattlesnake plantain.


This year we were a little more efficient than usual and got all of our fall yardwork (mostly leaf management) and most of the odious winter chores (such as the annual cleaning of the basement) done in October and November. Eileen is well along in computerizing the year's natural history records. Thanksgiving was quiet; Eileen made a lovely salmon dinner. We spent one day of the weekend looking at gulls at Niagara Falls in perfectly glorious weather. December weekends will be devoted mostly to the organizational aspects of the plant project (with serious identification work starting in January). Christmas will be in Virginia.


I think that covers it for now. Our best wishes to you for a happy and safe Christmas and New Years!



Central Texas Trip: May 1998


Prior to this trip, we'd been camping only a couple of times so far this year. Since the high points of those excursions had consisted mostly of rain and a few early wildflowers, we were looking forward to a week and a half in Texas. Although a bit late for the peak floral display, we did see lots of wildflowers, including a pink evening primrose, lots of gaillardias (also known as Indian blankets, or firewheels), and a few bluebonnets; the prickly pear cacti were in full bloom. Scissor-tailed flycatchers were everywhere and at night on the roads in the Texas Hill Country we saw hog-nosed skunk and poor-will (a western counterpart to the more famous whip-poor-will).


The day before we had to be in Fort Worth for the Science Fair, we visited Dinosaur Valley State Park, which preserves fossilized dinosaur footprints (theropods: a three-toed carnivorous dinosaur; and sauropod: a brontosaur-like dinosaur). We saw them at several locations. All the tracks were surprisingly distinct and easy to observe; the best ones required an easy wade across the Paluxy River to see. The campground midweek was nearly empty but for a very few campers and some armadillos. During the night we heard chuck-wills-widows. On a hike the next morning I saw my life golden-cheeked warbler, at the northeast extreme of its limited range here. While Brian was busy judging the next day, I went to the Fort Worth Botanical Gardens, the oldest botanical garden in the state. It contains more than 2,500 native and exotic species of plants in 109 acres of gardens and includes a 10,000-square-foot botanical conservatory filled with tropical and exotic plants such as orchids, bromeliads, etc.


The next day was mostly spent driving south to the Edwards Plateau. We visited Kerr Wildlife Management Area, where we heard but did not see golden-cheeked warbler and black-capped vireo (like the warbler, this species' range is restricted to the Edwards Plateau and adjacent Mexico). Nearby, beautiful baldcypress along the lovely Guadalupe River were a surprise. At nightfall we arrived in Lost Maples State Natural Area, a place Brian visited about twelve years ago and where he had seen his first golden-cheeked warbler and black-capped vireo. (On that trip, he stayed at a private campground nearby; after he'd registered and gone to his site, one of the owners came by to help him put up his tent. The next morning, they brought him some orange juice!) We took a scenic hike in the morning and saw golden-cheeked warbler well.


Brian spent close to an hour on the phone the evening after the judging making arrangements to visit Kickapoo Caverns, the best place to see black-capped vireos, which would be new for me. Although visitors are welcome, the gate is kept locked; we made an appointment to meet the ranger, Dave, at the gate at three o'clock Friday afternoon. By 4:15, with no sightings of Dave, we decided to leave a note at the gate and go back to town (22 miles) to try calling him, but just as we were about to leave, he rushed up to the gate in his pickup truck. We figured he must have suddenly remembered that we were waiting, but when Brian said, "Dave?", he replied, "And you are...?" "Brian Keelan, I spoke to you on the phone." "Oh yes, you're here to see the bats." (Bats?) "Actually, the black-capped vireos." "Right. Have you been waiting long?" He let us in, gave us directions to the campsites, told us who to ask about finding the vireos, and who to see about the bats; then he gave us the combination to the lock on the gate, and roared away in a cloud of dust.


We set up our tent in the shade of a live-oak tree and watched vermillion flycatchers fly-catching all around our campsite. After talking to the vireo people, we learned that Dave is always forgetting these appointments and leaves people stranded at the gate.


Another ranger, Daniel, led a small group to the bat cave that evening, where we watched and heard Mexican free-tailed bats (the kind for which Carlsbad Caverns is famous) exit the cave for their nightly hunting spree (this was the only mammal I had seen that Brian had not). For forty-five minutes, they streamed out of the cave by the tens of thousands, swirled around at the entrance and then took off in a huge column that seemed to disappear into the sky. After the main herd departed, smaller groups continued to spurt out of the cave. Daniel said, "I get such a thrill out of this every time I see it. And I've seen it over a hundred times." We went back the next morning to see them return. The flight was less concentrated than the departure had been, but we watched as a steady flow of bats zipped back into the cave. One additional exciting aspect of this cave is that dozens of cave swallows nested in its entrance; we had never seen them nesting in a natural location before, but rather in culverts and under eaves.


We knew it wouldn't be easy to top this experience, but we were pleased nonetheless when Brian heard the black-capped vireo and we had good views of male and female birds. Hiking along a dirt road, we heard more black-caps (eventually reaching double digits) and also saw rufous-crowned sparrow and varied bunting. Before we left the Kickapoo Caverns, we went to check out with Daniel. He said he'd drive out to the gate with us so he could unlock it, and he exhibited some surprise that we were in possession of the combination.


In addition to our exciting natural history experiences, we visited several historic sites as well: the Alamo, at San Antonio; and Fannin Battleground State Historical Park, at Goliad. Both places played a critical role in the Texas Revolution.


As usual, the days flew by and all too soon we had to leave Texas. And, as always, we look forward to our next trip.