Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Great Northwest Birding Adventure of 2011 (part one)

This series of Birdstud’s Birdchat focuses on the birds (and life) along the Oregon Coast.  To the locals it’s the “Orgun” coast and to me it was “Or-e-GONE” until I was corrected enough to have it sink in my Midwestern bird brain. 

Funny thing about being in Orgun; you can’t pump your own gasoline.  It’s true…you pull up to the pump and roll down the window and “order” your gas from a person in a reflective vest.  EVERY person has to do it that way – even if you are in a hurry.  I embarrassingly discovered an important ritual after my tank had been filled and the kid walked off as I sat quietly in the rental car for about seven minutes waiting for the attendant to return to my window to swipe my card.  There I sat, and sat, watching people walking back and forth into the building, other cars arriving - being filled and finally the kid yells to me across the tarmac as I stupidly sat there, “You gotta go IN and pay!” You see, they accept cash from the car window, but if you say to “fill it” on a “debit” (only) card, you have to get out and go inside, to pay it yourself.  That’s some kind of union, I thought. There’s no state sales tax on goods, so that’s nice, however the price of gasoline was 60 cents per gallon more expensive than in Wisconsin where people are smart enough to fill their own automobile fuel tanks and lawn mower gas cans.  You might be waxing historical quaint visions through your head (if you’re old enough) about “full” service provided by gas stations of yore – don’t.  All you get for the extra 60 cents per gallon is the nozzle in your filler throat…that’s it.  No clean windshield, no offer to top off your fluids, check your oil, or wipe the bugs from your grille…nothing.

The same union (in league with the ferryman’s union) is no doubt in charge of deciding new bridge construction projects.  I have determined this because of the lack of bridges across the Willamette River near their capital city of Salem.  There’s one (way) south and one (way) north of the city and in the middle – ferries.   By the way, it’s Will-AH-met, not Will-a-MET.  And by the way, Oregonians who don’t quite hear what you said and wish you’d repeat yourself will say to you, “do what?”   Another regional lesson learned was that if something was expensive (like the $ 3.79/ga gasoline) it’s considered “spendy.”  Except the locals didn’t bitch about the price of gas or the fact that they are banned from using the gas pump dispenser, or the missing bridges…that was me.  Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?

Truthfully, the entire wilderness coastal area was wonderfully bucolic in an extremely humidified way.   I have never seen so much moss.  North side, south, east and west side of every tree in the forest.  Get lost in these woods – good luck.  Talk about BIG trees!  I’ve not yet seen the Redwoods of northern CA. however these massive trunks would give most of them a run for their money, in the girth department.  As such, the woods were temporary home to many of the birds that had already left Milwaukee in mid-September. 

In the Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge I chocked up a new (life) bird, the Bewick’s Wren.  Other birds of that damp and green area were Stellar’s Jays, Yellow-rumped warblers, Brown creepers, Black-capped chickadees, Red-breasted nuthatches, Red-shafted Northern flickers, Hairy and downy woodpeckers, American crows, Common Ravens, Spotted towhees, and the (ever-popular) American robin.

Stopping the car along the road into the slough next to open water, countless geese were swimming.  There are numerous subspecies of Canada geese and now, even 2 separate species (2004). What was once considered the Canada goose has now been divided into 2 species: the Canada goose and Cackling (Branta hutchinsii) goose.  There are 7 subspecies of Canada goose, and 4 subspecies of cackling goose. Each subspecies is somewhat distinct in appearance and migration patterns. All look more or less like the Canada goose familiar to us all: brown body feathers, a black neck and head, and white cheek patch. However, size among subspecies can vary greatly, and markings can vary subtly.   The two species were represented here in tremendous numbers: Canada and Cackling, with Cackling far outnumbering their larger (deeper voiced) relatives.  As well as being much smaller; Cackling Geese also tend to have rounder heads, and shorter, stubbier bills than Canada Geese. Cackling Geese generally have a more rapid and higher pitched, or "cackling" call which was quite discernable when a flock was flying over.  Maybe it was me, but I could notice that the flocks of Cacklers were nowhere as uniformly “V” looking as the Canada flocks I am familiar with.

Fall birding in the Willamette Valley presented a unique chance to view one of the subspecies of Canada goose; the Dusky goose.  The dusky is a subspecies of Canada goose that breeds only in the Copper River Delta area on the south-central coast of Alaska and on islands in the Prince William Sound and Gulf of Alaska.  They winter primarily in the Willamette Valley and along the lower Columbia River of Oregon and Washington.  The dusky has one of the smallest populations of geese in North America and were in small numbers when I saw them on the banks of the Columbia River, near Portland.  Here they feed on nutrient-rich grasses that grow in the wet, mild winters until they depart in early April.  In the late 1950s, managers recognized that wintering habitat for duskies was limited and hunting needed to be restricted to protect duskies.  At that time, duskies made up about 2/3 of the geese in the Willamette Valley, and it was recognized that the area was essential to their winter survival.  The dusky is a medium to large, dark subspecies of Canada goose.  They have darker backs and breasts compared to other subspecies in this area.  Some duskies may be wearing red neck collars with white letters.  Duskies are often found in small groups by themselves or mixed with other subspecies.

A surprise stop along the Salmon River in the tiny village of Otis, Oregon was almost worth the entire trip.  Here in a nondescript series of buildings, sandwiched between some foothills and the highway is the one and only Salmon River Pronto Pup!  When it comes to authentic golden deep-fried crunchy corn goodness; nothing beats 'em.  This fine dining establishment has been handing oil-dipped, cornmeal-coated tubes of assorted organ meats across its weathered, laminated counter, to eager customers since 1946.  I stood mesmerized, watching from the outside through a strategically placed window into the actual kitchen area where the magic happens. I gasped as it dawned on me the secret to making a perfect Pronto Pup; wipe your weenie dry with a rag first, before dipping it. 

I recall when I attended Catholic school in Coon Rapids, Mn. that the lunch menu often had these delicasies as the main dish.  I remember it because I wasn't sophisticated enough to have heard the true name for the lowly "corn dog" I had been previously familiar with as an elementary schooler from Madison, WI. until then and the moniker always stuck with me.  I often wondered through the years where the name had come from.  I suppose it rolled off the tongue more smoothly than would say, "Fast Dog" and so now here I was 40 years later again (way) west of the Mississippi (where they've never heard of a bubbler), staring at a blast from my past.  I almost had to blink twice when I read the large menu sign over the counter.  Hey, you can get six regular pups for 12 bucks!  Lisa ordered up and paid for all of us.  Plus, she threw in an order of the homemade sweet potato fries - the best I have ever eaten; hands down.  The disclaimer sign above the counter reminds the wary health conscious among us that the pups are, "Healthy We Cook In Trans Fat Free Oil,' for goodness sake. 

The small dining area reeked pleasantly of hot oil as the six of us sat munching our piping pups.  As I am prone to doing; I looked around at the various merchandise items for sale.  One wall had the obligatory display of restaurant-fan tee shirts but also harbored a unique twist; the actual, sacred, original formula, Pronto Pup mix! I looked at the sign that advertised the five pound bag for 15 bucks and hestiated only slightly before discovering that not only one, but TWO free additional packages of the authentic pup "sticks" went along with the deal.  SCORE!  Of course I bought both the bright yellow tee shirt and the mix (with free sticks included) in a heartbeat.  I mean c'mon...who wouldn't right? Granted, I have known for some time that it doesn't take all that much to impress me, or make me want to pump my fist into the air with delight.  However, that was clearly one of those moments.  I make no apology.

With the day moving along towards afternoon, it was time to move further west toward the actual Orgun coast.  We all carefully shoe-horned ourselves into the Mazda along with Polly the toy poodle, and happily belched our way towards Lincoln City and the waiting Esther Lee Motel...more to come!


Friday, November 18, 2011

To be or Not to be?

I’ll admit it…I want to be noticed too.

I have formulated a (50-year) theory about human beings of which has yet to be disproven. This concept is the primary overarching theme for all Homo sapiens on this glorious blue planet - and that is simply: to Matter.

There are other words in the English language that get close, but don’t quite describe our mutual unconscious, life-long, need to matter - such as, to be: significant, important, vital, valuable, worthy, essential, key, and focal. I choose the word “matter” because it is simply and universally understood. Think about it; have you ever found yourself questioning your miserable existence? Have you ever decided to do something (anything) merely to have others “notice” that you (personally) haven’t left the struggle?

To fully understand and embrace this concept about oneself is to finally come to grips with previously erratic and inexplicable personal behavior.  In other words; relax and give in to it…there’s nothing you can do.  It is akin to accepting the daily tides, annual migration, and that gas prices always go up.

Knowing about (and believing in) this particular inalienable driving force of human nature will provide answers to a multitude of seemingly random personal choices.  It explains tattoos, body piercings, ear lobe gauging, radically colorful hair, myriad varieties of unconventional dress, the joining of cults, participation in protest movements, call-in talk radio shows, comments to on-line articles, blogging, Facebook, My Space, and Twitter.  It brings clarity to the motivation behind overachieving athletes, budding cinema stars and nerdy scientists.

These observances of the insatiable need to matter encompass all ages, races, creeds, genders, and sexual orientation.  No one is immune.  From the person who jumps from a bridge with a bungee cord attached to their ankles, to the one that jumps without.  From the successful professional championship team to the plain and simple discalced friar who discovers a tasty new variety of wine-producing grapes.  From the stay-at-home Mom that wins the blueberry pie contest at the state fair to the top-notch executive who implements an innovative company resource-saving idea.  Don’t exclude the inner-city youth who shows the rest of the neighborhood kids the loose grating on the drainage ditch that allows undetected travel throughout the city, or the group of bystanders who lift a burning car from a trapped motorcyclist.  In their own ways, these individuals have found ways (if only for a brief moment) to matter to the rest of their peers.

Is it healthy to attempt to matter?
That’s a good question.  Ask the car bomber if it was in the world’s best interest that he chose to end lives and spread havoc to further his chosen cause.  Get an opinion from the coach of a state championship team as to the difference they made in the lives of the participants.  Query a teenager sitting in the tattooist’s chair (for their fourth inked design) if they are gratified by showing off the result of their investment.  I frankly don’t know what carefully considered rationale you’ll get from them; however I expect they’ll be extremely passionate about their actions.  See mattering doesn't have to be can be something subtle, but something that makes one stand out and become visibly special to others.  We crave it above all else.

I believe on the whole (with some obvious exceptions) that it IS healthy to aspire to matter, and to furthermore be educationally tolerant with those who are struggling with understanding the concept.  With youth, that means explaining that they are an extraordinary person regardless of the trappings of expensive physical alterations.  Granted that’s a tall order in today’s instantly broadcast society which glorifies the unconventional; but an important one at that.  Adults require validation too.  The workplace; where most of us spend the majority of our time, is a perfect environment in which to acknowledge the efforts placed on mattering.  A few simple words of encouraging acknowledgement to humans act as warming sunshine does to struggling plant life.

Think about that toddler who beamingly displays their new shoes to all in the room and understand that it's in all of us from the beginning.  So the next time someone you feel ignored and insignificant and someone finally notices enough to ask you, “What’s the matter?” Stand tall and answer confidently (if not mysteriously), “I AM and I DO!”

PS: I got new vanity plates for the white pick-up truck...SEE?  In other words; Look at Me!