Field Notes: Birding with John Linton

Red-tailed hawk near Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge

Klamath Basin Wildlife Refuge is an hour east of the Monument, but shares many of the same bird species.

 

 

22 February 2013

Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge
Southern Oregon/Northern California

 

“Then birds, birds swirling into sky. A ballet of swans, a bevy, a herd, a whiteness.”

Part I

Convocations of Golden and Bald Eagles, casts of Red-tailed Hawks, a tiding of magpies, gaggles of White-fronted Geese, Canada Geese, Ross’s Geese, and Snow Geese, bevies of Tundra Swans, covers of coots, flocks and rafts of Bufflehead Ducks, Barrow’s and Common Golden-eyes, Ruddy Ducks, and Shovelers, a solitary Great Horned Owl, flocks of blackbirds, a sedge of Sandhill Cranes, a boil of Harrier Hawks, a bouquet of pheasants, paddlings and badlings of Scaups, Redheads, Canvasbacks, Gadwell’s Ducks, Pintails, Wigeons, Mallards, and Common Mergansers.

Tundra Swans in flight, Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge

Tundra swans fly over Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge

I’m not sure which I enjoyed more, the volaries of birds we saw today at the Klamath Basin and near Tule Lake, or our guide, John Linton, with his wry, dry, running commentary.

There were four of us today: Steven drove, John rode up front, while nine-year-old Magdalena and I took the back seat. (My other daughter, Eliza, was off skiing at Mount Ashland with the Pinehurst middle school class.)

We weren’t far down the road when John’s cell phone rang. He fumbled through several of his pockets searching for it, mumbling, “By the time I get the damn thing out of my pocket, it’s too late.” He barely missed a call from his wife. “That was Nancy, wanting to know where the hunfrit I am.” John managed to call her back.

“Nance? I’m headed to the birds. Yup. Bye.”

Today, by the time we pick up our friend, colleague, and neighbor, John Linton, at one o’clock in the afternoon, he’d already solved four mathematical proofs, re-read the biblical book of Jeremiah, and was puzzling aloud over what Jesus had meant about scriptural interpretation when he had quoted the Old Testament’s words about longing to gather the people like a mother hen gathers her chicks. John has swapped out his trademark black felt Pendleton outback hat for a baseball cap. After decades spent teaching, John is newly retired, casting about for ways to occupy his considerable intellect. I worry about him, since John has already survived a major heart attack followed by septuple bypass surgery, and retirement can be hard on people. John frequently wanders into our house looking for conversation. Often he bears gifts of his delicious Thai spring rolls, or warm, fresh sourdough bread, or books for us to borrow.

Recently, John told us that throughout most of the year, much of the Klamath Basin’s water is diverted to irrigate farms, but in late winter, the water is allowed to flood the wildlife refuge, returning them to wetlands for the benefit of migrations of birds and birders. Today, Steve and I seized the opportunity to nab John to accompany us there and teach us about birds.

Stopped at the Klamath Wildlife Refuge

John and Magdalena at the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge

Steven drives east on Highway 66 toward Keno, where we’ll turn south toward California. As we leave our tiny community of Lincoln, I try not to get carsick on the winding mountain roads. I stare out the front windshield, quizzing myself on the names of the conifers I’ve been learning to identify: ponderosa pine, Douglas-fir, incense-cedar, incense-cedar, Douglas-fir, sugar pine . . . This area has the right soil conditions and moisture requirements for a mixed conifer forest. Near Keno, though, as we reach drier elevations, the mixed conifer forest fades out, replaced by western juniper, bunchgrass, sagebrush and rabbitbrush, species that survive in the dry regions of the Klamath Basin and Modoc Plateau, though some have suffered from a hundred years of grazing livestock.

Juniper-sagebrush chaparral. I gaze out my window at a landscape of beige-colored foreground, a middle ground of sage green plants and winter-killed grasses, a background of mellow gray-blues where the mountains range along the horizon, and pale, overcast sky.

Mount Shasta appears in the distance as if conjured. Shasta looks like the perfect archetype of a mountain, a snow-white triangle in the distance, the way a child would draw one. So tall that it is snow-covered though the chaparral foreground is bare, Shasta appears ghostly, as if on another plane from the rest of the mountains.

Young Magdalena, irritated that the adults keep pointing it out to her, asks what’s so special about Shasta.

“Native Americans and white witches believe that it is the center of the spiritual universe, that they can feel Mount Shasta’s spirit,” says John. “Now I’m not sure I believe that,” he says, “but I like that mountain.”

We’re driving across the Klamath Basin, flat, ochre-colored ground surrounded on all sides by great humps of mountain. It’s like driving across the bottom of a flat bowl or washtub with ornately designed sides.

We cross the Oregon-California border. My heart throbs with the American fascination with California, even though the land on the other side of the “Welcome to California” sign post is identical to southern Oregon’s, nothing like what one sees in movies or advertising.

Bare yellow ground has been cultivated into farmland that appears completely dry despite the miles of irrigation pipe floating across it. Numerous ground squirrel holes puncture every field.

“See those ground squirrel holes? We’re sure to see raptors checking them out.” John’s got it, that intuitive sense when something is about to happen, that ability to recognize gestalt.

Sure enough, three Golden Eagles appear in the sky, floating overhead. Steve pulls over to photograph them, and lets John drive from here on.

Then, a Red-tailed Hawk. “Black head, white breast, dark belly band,” John points out from the driver’s seat. Buteo is the genus name for certain hawks, all of which have a distinctive body shape, typically broad, rounded wings and a short, wide, rounded tail. He shows me a paper chart labeled BUTEOS illustrating the different markings for species: Red-tailed, Rough-legged, Ferruginous.

Red-tailed Hawk near Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge - taking off from irrigation pipe (detail)

Red-tailed Hawk near Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge

Another hawk perches on a telephone pole, the wind blowing its feathers on its head like it’s a movie actress with a fan on her hair.

“Look at that shot,” breathes John, as Steve raises his camera. “Whoops, just crapped.” The hawk has ruined this photo op, John thinks, but Steven captures a good image anyway.

Shasta is to the right of us, queenly and white, regardless of bird-beauty or bird crap.

Behind us, another raptor flies close to the horizon, appearing reddish.  “Ferruginous Hawk.”

Next, a flash of dark and white appears flying alongside us, keeping pace with the car. “Magpie,” says John. I see it better then, blue and black and white. Magdalena is delighted. “Did you know that if you change just one letter of Maggie, you get Magpie?” she says. Surprisingly, she does not object to nicknames like Magpie or even Maggot. She’s a real nature-girl.

Magpies, in groups, are called a tiding, a gulp, a murder, or a charm, depending on, I suppose, one’s mood. A mystery novelist might choose to use the term murder, while a spiritualist might prefer tiding. Magdalena likes gulp. I’m partial to gulp myself, but my daughter, of course, is all charm.

Another Ferruginous Hawk stands in the field. “White chest and belly, brown back and wings. This is a desert animal, you don’t see it anywhere else. It’s hunting ground squirrels.”

Kestrel.

Another magpie at the topmost branch of a tree. Like Magdalena, who enjoys climbing high places.

Then, a herd of antelope! “I told you this was the right kind of place for antelopes,” John says, pleased. “Pronghorns.” He hands the binoculars to the backseat for Magdalena and me to look through. Always the teacher, he explains how to adjust the focus. Seen through the lenses, the pronghorn faces appear anxious as they watch us back. With black markings like face paint, they appear exotic, like something that belongs in an African savanna. Steve is out of the car, photographing.

Pronghorn near Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge

Pronghorn near Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge

Another Red-tail Hawk perches on an irrigation line while a coyote runs beneath it.

John beckons Steve back into the car and drives on. Cold wind blows through our four open windows, either annoying or exciting, I can’t decide. Wind blows through mixed grasses outside, pale and dead.

“Two baldies,” says John. I think to myself, “John just referred to our national bird as ‘baldies.’”

Another antelope herd lounges on the left side of the road, now Shasta-side. Between me and Shasta, antelope. They’re not playing on the range like in the old song, just resting. They remind me of college students on a Saturday morning; all the antelope need are sweat pants.

The wind is definitely unpleasant, I decide, chilling us in the backseat. I roll up my window and say something to the men in the front seat about closing theirs, but they don’t hear, alert for birds and not voices from the backseat.

Past more fields, sage, and rabbitbrush. Even junipers are only occasional here, dispersed to share the little moisture available. They are shorter in stature, but broader, than the ones we passed earlier.

More Red-tails, a kettle of hawks, but John fails to slow the car quickly enough for Steve to get a good shot. So John watches more closely now, stops repeatedly for nothing. “Now I’m seeing them where they ain’t,” he says.

We drive through a small town of dilapidated little houses dominated by an American flag.

“Flag’s bigger than the town,” observes John. These dwellings appear to be from a time removed, their paint peeling in colors that must once have been bright: faded yellows, blues, red-orange, pink, green.

A motel sign features a garish rendition of a Bald Eagle and a marquee reading, “Best deal for the monies. Why pay more.”

We pass an old RV park, then a new-looking lodge built of peeled logs festooned with a banner encouraging passersby to “Plan your next event here!” I wonder what sort of event would be fitting.

Abruptly, most signs of human civilization end, save for the irrigation pipe through fields lying empty of all but ground squirrel holes, fields bordered by snow-covered, juniper-studded hills. An occasional damaged camper breaks the landscape, surrounded by junked car parts, debris, plastic toys.

Finally we reach wetlands, the Tule Lake Natural Wildlife Refuge, part of the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

“These soils are alkali. In spring, there’s more water than this in here and a kind of bird called phalaropes will come and spin on the surface, stirring up brine shrimp.” For now, it’s just wet land, no visible life forms.

Open landscape, broken by sage-covered hills like bumps. I think of a book titled The Solace of Open Spaces, and understand exactly what it means. I puzzle over why it’s a relief to find oneself in a land this spare and empty, then remember that I am from southeast Iowa, a land of open, unbroken ranks of corn. Imprinted in youth by a landscape of negative space, I feel at home in this strange place that resembles a color field painting.

“Lower Klamath,” says John.

Along the horizon, I see a distant storm.

There’s a raptor in a treetop, ducks in the water. Shrubby trees with reddish branches. One of them holds in its bare branches a flock of starlings resembling leaves. We didn’t come all this way to see starlings, though, abundant as they are and invasive everywhere. Where are the migrating arctic birds? John pulls off into the Lower Klamath Wildlife Refuge’s gravel drive.

“White-fronted Geese!” John says. “Canada Geese. Ross’s Geese. Tundra Swans with the long white necks.” A mixed flock of what might be hundreds, maybe thousands, of geese and swans devour grasses near the water.

“We got five of them coming in for a landing,” John narrates, “White-fronted Geese, the landing gear is coming down, yep, the landing gear is down.”

Tundra Swan landing, Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge

A Tundra Goose comes in for a landing amidst White-fronted Geese a the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge

Greater White-fronted Geese and Northern Pintails in flight, Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge

White-fronted Geese in flight

“Coots. Buffleheads. Barrow’s Golden-eyes, Common Golden-eyes. Ruddy Ducks. Shovelers.” He points out the different kinds of ducks.

“Buffleheads?” I say, and look. This name is new to me. But sure enough, that is exactly what they look like, if only I’d thought of it. They are ducks with big heads and large white oval patches on each side, which, if I had to give them a name, buffle would sound about right.

An odd, short wooden wall stands on the opposite side of the water. “Oh, they stuck a blind up here. Isn’t that interesting?” Later, we learned the blinds were erected for photographers to reserve and use. Steve, however, uses our car as a blind today.

“We’ve got to see a Great Horned Owl today, got to see one silhouetted. Peeking up out of a nest, just their ears stick up and they look like Batman,” John says.

Frozen water, Bald Eagle in a big cottonwood tree, partly hidden in brush.

“Here comes somebody flying over. Geese.”

We’re stopped now, just watching. When I’d first heard “geese,” I wasn’t excited because I’ve seen so many Canada geese back East. But these geese were new ones, White-fronted Geese, smaller and more delicate than the ones familiar to me, with intricate color patterns on their wings. And Snow Geese, too, pure white, except for black wingtips, and lovely. Ross’s Geese are similar to Snow Geese, but smaller, the size of ducks.

Petite Maggie is wearing my gray sweatshirt, leaning her head and hand on the opened car window, her feet, clad in gray wool socks, tucked up underneath her like a little roosting bird. A winter hat, knitted in colorful stripes, covers her whole head except for her face. I watch her profile from the opposite side of the car and want to gather her in my arms like hen with its chick. But I don’t interrupt; she’s busy bird-watching. Her large, dark eyes are alert, intent, taking in the details before her. Her facial expressions shift, dark and light, as she observes flight, fights, paddling, grazing and other avian behaviors.

“Look for somebody looks like Batman,” John says. We don’t see Batman, but we do see an enormous eagle’s nest. “Could be a Great Horned Owl in that eagle’s nest. Those guys don’t have fear.”

Three Buffleheads paddle the water’s surface like cartoon characters running on air before flapping into flight. The Buffleheads, I decide, are my favorites today. Beautiful little clowns.

I notice the rust-orange lichen crust on the cottonwoods, the Red-tail Hawks in their branches, the Bald Eagle on the opposite bank.

Bald eagle, Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge

Bald Eagle, Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge

John notices more. “Rough-legged Hawk, a tundra bird; hovers in place to hunt. See the carpal patches, black bands on the wings? Only comes this far south in the winter.” We see this, and many more small, delicate White-fronted Geese. Also Canada geese.

“Coot city,” says John as we pass a group of perhaps a hundred of them. Birders call them a raft, or a cover, but I like John’s “coot city” better.

Redtail Ducks.

Ruddy Ducks, with white cheeks.

Shovelers.

Finally, John spots the hoped-for Great Horned Owl in a tree across the stream on the opposite bank.

“Batman!”

 

Part II

My window is down. I stick my eyes out and feel the wind cold on my eyeballs. I remember Emerson’s famous line about becoming a “transparent eyeball,” and feel like I am one now, cold and flayed by this wind, by this stark beauty of the Lower Klamath Basin and its migrating arctic birds. Klamath colors are ochre, sienna, slate blue, with darker blue parallelograms of distant rain visible along the horizon. Maggie observes that it’s raining here, too. I turn to see raindrops on her half-rolled-down pane, then turn back and feel the drops on my transparent eyeballs.

There’s muted brick red in the distance, a pearl gray sky, and “three swannies flying / fog / gotta fly low in fog,” says John in his found-poetry manner of speaking.

“We’ve got to see Sandhills here,” says John, in between expressions of disappointment that there aren’t more birds around today. Sometimes, he says, he has seen millions. Steve, Maggie, and I, not knowing any better, marvel in awe at what we do see. Sometimes John, in spite of himself, does too.

“Here’s a Bald Eagle, oh my gosh, just beautiful.” We’re keeping our eyes on all the geese. The light changes, shifting the palette to muted yellow and pale blue, flecked with white.

Bald Eagle in flight, Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge

Bald Eagle in flight, Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge

Head out the window, I’m tasting stray raindrops. Swans so pretty flying –milky white like splashes of cream against the light blue-gray sky. In flight, swans are collectively called a “wedge.” Yes, a wedge, like cheese.

Bald Eagle on fence post.

Misty fog rolls forward, obscuring the distance.

Buffles.

“Sandhill Cranes – in the air!” John says. We sit up, take notice. Delicate and crisp as origami, their wings fold and unfold in flight. A sedge of cranes.

Sandhill Cranes in flight, Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge

Sandhill Cranes in flight, Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge

A skein of geese through John’s binocs are like glyphs in the sky, presenting their message not in static, unchanging form, but moving through time like a gradually unfolding revelation. Or, to put it less mystically, like one of those LED billboards with moving letters you see when driving urban throughways.

“Snow Geese, look like snowflakes.” The Klamath Basin is a snow globe, shaken.

“Imagine half the world’s Tundra Swans in one spot, moving north.”

We pass a stand of port-o-potties labeled “MODOC Sanitation,” and I remember the stories of the Modoc people who used to migrate through this region for food until the US Army wiped them out. I wonder which is more culturally disparaging, having your people and native migration patterns annihilated by war and disease, or getting port-o-potties named after you? But everything out here is named Modoc this or Modoc that. It’s the Modoc Plateau and Klamath Basin, after all.

Yards ahead of us, a flock of blackbirds cover the gravel road like a black rug. John says to Maggie, “Do they think you’re a princess, and they’re making a carpet for you to walk on?” As we approach, the mixed flock of blackbirds – Red-winged, Tricolored and Yellow-headed – lift in flight like a magic carpet, moving in synchrony over the surface of the earth, first one edge of the rug lifting, then another, as the flight shifts and rotates but maintains the illusion of rug-ness. A flock of blackbirds is called a cloud, but this one is more pancake-shaped than any cloud I’ve seen. The cloud lifts and turns away from the road and settles again on the ground.

Blackbirds in flight, Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge

A cloud of blackbirds, Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge

“Snow Geese: they have black on their wings. On the ground here are a bajillion White-fronted Geese in front of us.” On ground, they’re a gaggle. In flight, they’re a skein.

A raft of Pintails.

Then birds, birds swirling into sky. A ballet of swans, a bevy, a herd, a whiteness.

“The sign of the millennium, the great getting-up morning, when everybody’s one happy family,” says John. “Heading north to breed.” For a moment, as John gazes upward, his usual intense expression is softened, transfixed.

A lone Bald Eagle stands in the gaggle’s midst, casting glances as if sizing up the individuals.

“He’s looking for dinner. The table is set, so to speak . . . Maitre’d, give him a napkin, he’ll go for it,” says John.

But the eagle doesn’t attack; he seems content to stand there watching.

“He’s got to be full, look for his crop to be distended. Swan is just nuts to let him be that close!”

Tundra Swans and Bald Eagle, Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge

Bald Eagle and Tundra Swans at the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge

A Harrier Hawk zooms in and out of view.

“Well, that was a little better. I’m only half-disappointed,” says John as we pass out of the swan and geese territory.

We’re now approaching the end of the gravel loop through the wetlands. A little information booth is set up adjacent to a permanent outhouse structure.

“Stop at the whizzer. This is the one where a Pinehurst kid saw a Barn Owl right down the hole. The kid came out and said, ‘There’s an owl in there,’ he paused, ‘a Barn Owl.’ She was pleased with herself; she’d been studying the names of birds at school. Not a lot of barns out here; that owl thought it found the perfect place. I think they put screens over the holes now.”

No owls today in the whizzer, but Steve nearly got stuck in one of the outhouses as the lock jammed.

We passed pheasants shortly thereafter. Two or three, pretty like fancy decorative fans. Easy to see why a group of pheasants is called a bouquet.

Great Blue Heron. “GBH,” John called it.

“Coot city on the ice.”

“Is that goose dead or sleeping?” Steve asked. Sleeping, I hoped. “If he’s dead, someone will scavenge him,” said John without concern.

Scaup.

Redhead and Canvasback Ducks.

Common and Hooded Mergansers.

Buffles.

Hundreds of Tundra Swans waddling across the ice. “This is the goose-step without the swastika,” said John.

A few of them line up, and, one by one, flap and run upward into the sky like small aircraft.

“That’s a little bit bold to take off on the ice cause you could fall on your ass,” John observes. Most of the swans content themselves with remaining on the ground, watching the four or five risk-takers.

Tundra Swans, Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge

Tundra Swans, Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge

Tundra Swans, Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge

Tundra swans, Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge

“Yup, this is balmy weather for them. Where they’re going . . . they’ll sit on their eggs below zero.”

“Look at the negative space. The difference between a Redhead and Canvasback, you can see in the negative space around their head and neck. The Redhead has a more rounded shape, while the Canvasback has a deeper slope.”

I perk up my ears. “I love negative space; it’s my thing.” I’ve written an essay or two on the concept of negative space in art, applying it as a metaphor for gaps in understanding, room for faith and wonder.

“I’m kinda negative myself, my wife says.” John chuckles.

As John names the ducks we’re seeing, I picture his words lined up like poetry, with line breaks and enjambment. Frantically, I scrawl his words in my notebook, planning to arrange them later:

Buffles Buffles, scaup scaup scaup.

Merganser, Merganser, Common Merganser, coot.

Coot city up here. Scaup, scaup, scaup, all scaup–handsome!

During all these hours, John’s been driving and stopping every several yards for Steve to hop out and take pictures. Steve’s camera lens is a better scope than the binoculars the rest of us are using, giving him a reputation for good eyes. Occasionally, he shows us a shot in the digital viewfinder.

Then, “I don’t know what I’m seeing,” says Steve. Thinking something new is coming up, John pulls to the side.

“Oh, a stick,” says Steve.

John practically giggles. “Good. Glad someone with your eyes can make a mistake. I’m not too old for this game.”

Soon afterward, John drives us out of the refuge and onto the highway. Conversation shifts from what we’ve observed today in the refuge to the old book of Jeremiah and the nature of God, musing on whether God is as violent, as he is often portrayed in Jeremiah, or more like Jesus described, a mother hen clucking over her chicks, eager to gather them in, gather them home.

I listen to John’s theologizing for a while, then allow my mind to float away where it lands on an image of wild birds, arctic whites and blacks forming glyphs, then flits through pale skies of flickering ballets, bevies, wedges, sedges, skeins, and whitenesses.

 

Text by Anna Maria Johnson
Photography by Steven David Johnson

 

 

 


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Photos © Steven David Johnson (All Rights Reserved)

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