Vireo on Vacation

photo: Tom Sheffield
   The telephone always rings the moment you step into the shower. This axiom applies equally to a life spent in the outdoors: the best birds always fly into your nets when you've got your radio turned off. Luckily, this time, the surprised bander-in-charge, Jen Wilcox (aka Junco Woodcocks), was within shouting distance. Tom, one of the ranch volunteers, and I were pulling Allen's Hummingbirds out of Net #6 when we heard Jen yelling through the trees.

   Her voice was garbled by branches, so we turned our ears like receivers scanning for the best signal. It was something about a vireo. Something...about a vireo…with...white eyes? A white…eyed…vireo… that was it, a white-eyed vireo. Wait…a capital "W" White-eyed Vireo, in Orange County, California??

   We hurried over to find her with the squirming vagrant.  His blazing blue-white iris and olive mop pushed out from between Jen's fingers as she worked him out of the net. The small songbird is an eastern denizen, its range just pushing into central Texas at best.

   Vagrant birds do materialize in strange locales during migration, but on the rarity spectrum, a WEVI (as it is abbreviated in bander's jargon) is still pretty surprising. In all of California we found fewer than forty records and I'd be surprising if even an eighth of those birds were ever banded.

photo: Tom Sheffield

   We ringed him quickly with a size 0, leaving plenty of time for photography (on multiple cameras, just to be sure). In an era of easy digitalism, records without photos run rich with skepticism. Bird records are often debated so furiously that one is left with the impression that nothing one sees can be trusted. So much so that when we finally got the photos uploaded, part of me expected the bird to have suddenly transformed into a Robin.

   But, to our relief, the bird remained true to it's nature, and we ended the day with satisfaction. We'd been lucky enough to capture (and, of course, release) a stunning and unexpected bird. It wasn't a completely one-sided deal, however. Perhaps one day he'd make it back to the Atlantic, and, if any of his brethren back east ever scoffed at his tall tales of a western coast, he'd have a shiny new bracelet to prove it.

   Find a full list of species seen and/or banded that day here.

   Thanks to Tom S. and Deb E. for the photos and help at the station that day, and of course to Jen, for her expertise.


Turning Japanese

Brown Booby at the Rota Bird Sanctuary

   I spend the morning in the "office", i.e. our field station, i.e. the second story of a two-deck apartment building on the tiny island of Rota. The view is a somewhat surreal vista into the infinity of the Pacific and Philippine seas, framed by limestone cliffs and coconut palms. I cannot complain about this. But what we reap in scenery we pay for in ventilation. The building is a concrete shoebox, nestled in a windless eddy beneath two towering rock faces. None of the windows on the ocean side open, effectively stunting any remaining hope of air circulation. One quickly learns the art of moving from fan to fan (we have seven), like a napping cat chasing a patch of drifting sunlight across a living room floor.

   Juniper had gone out in the field this morning, volunteering to show Adrienne (a visiting grad student) some of the radio-tagged birds. She'd come with Renee and Jim, our Principle Investigators, to spend ten days conducting public opinion surveys around the island: an attempt to decode the perception of our work and the importance of endangered species. There were still hundreds of surveys to sort through, but a lurking sense of apathy among the Chamorro locals was becoming clear. Everyone I'd encountered in town and in the jungles had been positive, speaking with grandeur on the island's birds and animals, but perhaps this image was a narrow one.  On these islands truth often hides behind false images.

   But we were glad for the company, if nothing else, and their stay had been more than interesting. A string of dinner parties, bar nights, and birthday get-togethers had colored the week, making for a run of social events that is rare on such a small, sleepy island. Wednesday night was the capstone, culminating in a cross-cultural karaoke party at Barefoot, the bar across the street. I'd invited Yamamoto, our scuba guide, as well as Renee and company.

   Our party of seven was fortified by Yamamoto's all-Japanese crew of six. We were at first segregated by the language barrier: each group making polite outreaches into foreign territory, but mostly keeping to itself. A few drinks closed the gap and I wedged into the center, turning back and forth between conversations with Renee and Yamamoto to get everyone talking.

   My efforts were not in vain, but it was the arrival of the microphones and karaoke songbook that sealed the deal. By eight o'clock the whole place was howling along to our distorted versions of Hotel California, Pretty Woman, and Suspicious Minds. It's a sure stereotype, but Japanese people really do (really really) love their karaoke. Yamamoto had transformed from all-business scuba sensei into karaoke clown, singing duets with himself, complete with silly high-pitched voices for the female verses.

   He'd brought his guitar and  played some blues in between songs, with me accompanying him on the harmonica. The biggest surprise came half-way though the night when one of the girl's mothers, who had been sitting quietly the whole time, opened her purse to reveal a six-inch long harmonica and several pages of sheet music. She had a beautiful voice, and played the harmonica slowly in between verses. It was a sweet Japanese tune that she said she'd used to woo her husband during her college days.

   We went home with a warm feeling, our Japanese friends honking their horns at us as they drove back to their hotel. Except for the part where I'd accidentally summoned a Japanese ghost by whistling (I was previously unaware that I'd possessed this power), it had been one of the best nights on the island. Some mix of the heat, and the sweat, and the sea breeze lends these islands a magic quality, and the world is again as mysterious and wonderful as it was when we were children, looking out from our backyards into the untrod woods that lay beyond.

Senahom Point, or The Rota Grotto


Saipan Dumplings, or Moped Birder Rides the Rain

They were worth it.

   The monsoon rains were here, emboldened by the gathering typhoon in the west. Layers of hard rain beat against the windows of the our hotel suite, drowning out our afternoon plans to ride north and look for Micronesian Megapodes (a rare sort of scrubfowl living on Saipan). I looked longingly out the window at the silver vespa scooter I'd rented a few hours before, and cursed the gray weather.

Micronesian Megapode

   By the end of the hour we were starving, having finally recovered from the heavy doses of Japanese sake and Korean soju the night before. Blue had called to invite us on a hike out to the Forbidden Island, but we got the message a few hours too late, so we spent the afternoon lounging on the porch, watching the rain over cigars and fried crickets (tastier than one might imagine).

   But now it was dark, and the hunger had come. Our Saipan itinerary revolved around a long hit list of restaurants, culinary excitements that we'd lacked during the last four months on Rota. It was going to be tricky to squeeze all of them into our short four-day stay, and unexpected rains weren't helping. Next on the list was a new Chinese cafe that served fresh dumplings, promised to us as the best we'd ever had. The rain seemed to intensify every time I looked out the window.

  Screw it. There were fried oriental dumplings to be had. I tossed J her helmet and strapped on mine. She put on her new black dress and I slid into a pair of shorts and sandals. It was laughable riding gear at best, especially for an after-dark ride through a tropical storm, but if we were going to be damned fools, we weren't about to half-ass it.

   I'd rented the moped from a seedy Chinese man with a parrot on his shoulder. The steering was loose and it wobbled a bit more than I'd have liked, but it ran. I cranked the starter and we took off The rain blasted us the whole way up the Middle Road, and I could barely see. J was silent, sure that survival was impossible. The spray of the rain reminded me of the Texas storm that had nearly ended me on my cross-country ride last Spring.

Good job, little moped

   The lights of the dumpling shop suddenly appeared ahead. We'd made it one way at least. We parked and went in to order, shivering as the heavy air-conditioning chilled our soaking wet skin. We went outside and stood in front of an exhaust duct to warm up, laughing like idiots. Our heaping order came quickly, and we strapped it to the bike. A fool's miracle got us safely back to the hotel for hot showers.

   We spread the food out on the bed and popped our chopsticks apart. The dumplings were still steaming; tender, delicious, and worth every rain-soaked mile.


Seeing Saipan


   Things are different in Saipan. This became immediately clear as we dropped into the airport after our 30 minute flight on Freedom Air direct from Rota. There were four lane streets choked with cars, billboards and flat topography; scores of restaurants, and high rise hotels. A line of cars sat motionless in the road, stopped for no apparent reason. It took me a minute to realize what was happening: there were traffic lights here.

   Rota suddenly seemed like a blissful paradise of simpler times, and I felt a pang of nostalgia for the jungle-strewn mountains we'd just left. But, we were here for a change of pace, and it seemed that we'd done right in finding one. After all, we hadn't come for beaches or jungles or quiet living. We'd come for the restaurants and movie theaters and late night discos. After a few months in paradise, one begins to crave the ugly, exciting parts of civilization.

   We dove in headlong. The hotel room was perfect: a two-part suite with a sprawling bed and cozy kitchenette seated in the center of Garapan, Saipan's gaudy commercial district. Juniper and I walked the length of town, stopping in every store to marvel at the array of purchasing choices. The grocery store had brightly-lit aisles loaded with brand upon brand of treats we hadn't seen in months. Not only were there chocolate bars, there were fourteen types of chocolate bars to choose from. It was magnificent and dizzying all at once.

Thai Food, a nice change from the usual
So many choices...
Cigars and Sapporo

   We stuffed ourselves with Thai food and went back to the place for a cup of sake. The room phone rang. It was Blue, one of the biologists on island we'd planned on meeting. Another field tech we'd met on Rota, had tipped us off that Blue was a party boy, and would be the ideal host for our Saturday night in Garapan.

   We met at Godfather's at 11:30, already hours later than our regular Rota bedtime. We scanned the crowd and found him with little effort. He was, as he'd promised, easy to find, being the only blonde in a four block radius. We swapped life histories over lagers, shouting over the loud cover band that was playing in the next room.

   A couple friends of Blue's showed up around one a.m. and joined our crew. Bernie, a 22-year-old Filipino with heavy black mascara rattled on about his dream of acting in LA and partying every night with famous celebrities. "I just want to, like, meet some guy, you know, who will take me on his boat and sail to Greece," he said, "We can party all night and drink champagne and wear wonderful clothes forever, you know?"

   We bottomed our drinks and made for GIG Discotheque an hour before last call. It was the only dance club left on the island, and inevitably packed. The building rose to a point, fashioned into a Vegas-esque pyramid, complete with hieroglyphic murals and faux-sandstone block walls. I paid my five bucks and slipped in past the pair of Sphinx statues guarding the front door. Bernie lost himself in the crowd, so Juniper and I took to the dance floor with Blue and his friend. We bounced around in a sweaty rhythmic frenzy until the lights went on and we were forced outside.

   Somewhere between the club and our ride home, we decided on a swim. Suddenly we were all racing through the Hyatt main lobby and out onto Micro Beach. We stripped off our shirts and shoes and dove into the cool dark water. Juniper was slow, shouting about the possibility of deadly stonefish and other threats of the dark. Blue was out to our side splashing around in the shallow surf. I dove out flat and pushed my hands into the sand, bringing my head above the water just enough to sing a few bars: "Tall and tan and young and lovely, that girl from Ipanema goes walking…"

   We swam and watched the shapes of the oil tankers on the horizon. I could see the flashing white lights from the resort district a few miles south, the reflection spreading across the water in waves. This was the same ocean that touched Rota, but in the novelty of the night our tiny island felt a world away. I stretched out and floated on my back, mingling like flotsam in the slosh of the sea.



Lost in the Pacific

The crew out for J's birthday

   While I wait for my beer and yakisoba noodles, I think about diving. Three dives today, as is becoming the usual fare when we visit Yamamoto, our  Japanese Scuba sensei here in the Marianas Islands. I felt a wide sense of peace and euphoria when we hit 90ft below. I like to think that I'm slowly becoming a part of this ocean, but more than likely it's just a case of mild nitrogen narcosis.

   It tends to set in around 100ft and fills the diver with an uncanny feeling of intoxication, not unlike opium. Divers have been known to take regulators out of their mouths and try to "breath" the water. This doesn't usually end well. I visualize the scene and am reminded of hypothermia accounts where dead victims are found naked in the snow, having felt so "wonderful and warm" that they didn't need clothes anymore.

   TJ brings our drinks and puts a movie on the big screen. The tavern has become a second home, due to it's cheap menu and minimal distance from the field house. If we shout loudly enough, we can call in orders from our porch. Salem is here, waiting on us. He'd been expecting Renee and Jim, our University of Washington leads on the project, who'd just flown in from the mainland. But they'd cancelled the dinner meetup last minute, so Juniper and I strolled over to keep Salem company instead. 

   Most nights the lack of tourism turned the bar into our private club and we could lounge and watch movies and stare into the surf as we ate. It had a ceiling but no walls, and you could watch the open sea from every table.

   There was, of course, karaoke, but we'd burned ourselves out on that business a month ago, when we drank all night with some visiting Airmen from Guam. I'd never seen anyone keep a round of karaoke going for so long. Four hours later (and about ten songs to my name) I'd thrown in the towel.

Air Force Guys + Karaoke = "You've Lost That Loving Feeling

   The yakisoba was terrific after a long day of diving, biking, and sun exposure. We chatted on a while, until gentle fatigue gave way to heavy eyelids, and we made our way home (i.e across the street). Renee's grad student had brought us some good beers from the mainland, so I popped one open, excited for anything other than Budweiser or cheap Filipino suds. I lay back, my feet on the kitchen table, listening to the waves, and wondered how tomorrow's tides would be.

J with a friendly (and endangered) fruit bat
Ready to Dive

Underwater Archway


180 Gallons of Gas


   Philadelphia was getting close. Oneshirt dropped off the Columbus St. exit and we followed him down, into the city and along Tasker until reaching his duplex. The bike rattled over the broken pavement and potholes, as though finally relenting to the aches of the road. There seemed to be more traffic, and more lights here than I'd ever seen. Even in the relative quiet of night I could feel one thousand pounds of pressure bearing down. I was unused to the city, and everything was strange and disorienting.

   We pulled up onto the sidewalk in front of Oneshirt's place and shut off the bikes for goodbyes. The Honda looked odd in the city, with my heap of tattered bags strapped along her spine. I had a glass of water and said hello to GibsonGirl, who'd woken up when we arrived. She was glad to see Oneshirt returned alive and without missing pieces.

   Porkroll and I rolled off towards the highway. Fifteen miles till the Delaware line. The air smelled like home and humidity. A late summer storm had built on the road ahead of us, and soon the red-pink lightning was crashing soundlessly on the horizon. A massive semi-truck swerved into my lane, forcing me to ride the white line between cars until I was free. After everything else, it didn't faze me much. One last obstacle before the end, I figured.

   The storm was still boiling on the horizon, just far enough away not to be heard. The omen impressed itself on me, and I wondered what my homecoming had brought with it. We made one last stop for fuel a few miles from home and I topped off Porkroll's tank as a small thanks for the good company. It was a blessing to have the two of them with me for those last lonely miles. I filled my own bike and we kicked our engines back to life. We promised to meet at the diner in a few days, once I'd settled in, and rode off in our own directions.

   In a few moments I was back on all my old roads. Past the high school and the liquor stores, past the baseball diamond and the town flower shop. Then up the long hill and by the old swimming pool, nearing the street where I'd grown up. Past houses where friends used to live and into the amber glow of the street lamps that lined my drive. I have left and returned so many times, and always the feeling was the same. A surreal quiet haunts these familiar places, best felt in the still of night. The constancy of the old places pushing at the mercury.

   The garage door was already opening as I pulled up to the drive. It slid upward, revealing my parents. My mother was in her nightgown, having waited up in case I arrived. Six months had passed since I left this driveway, then covered in snow, the air a terrible 29 degrees. Many things were changed.

   I turned off the bike, and sat for a moment to marvel at the long circle we'd made. 12,000 miles across three seasons, two countries, and 28 states. All on about 180 gallons of gas. I'd been determined to make it West, sure, but had never dreamed that the bike would make it back. At least if it died now, it was home. I washed up and sat down with Dad. He poured me a beer, home-brewed.

   Home tasted great.

6 Months, 12,000 Miles, 28 States, 180 Gallons of Gas

Ok, so I had a water first, then I had the beer.

Gibson Girl's blog can be found here: Gibson Girl Blogspot


Trifecta Idiota

   The good morning riding had left us exhilarated and jumping with energy. We eventually made our way further south along the river, finding even better roads than before. Many of the small side routes were used solely by local traffic, which was slim, offering us an crowd-free tour of the forests along the river. We kicked up leaves and dirt as we turned through the thin byways, criss-crossing the bridges that lay across the Delaware.

   By afternoon we were three adrenaline-stacked, over-confident maniacs. This sort of danger, which tends to stay under wraps when alone, multiplies exponentially when riding with friends. Add to it a long day of fast-paced riding, the illusory invincibility of three men in their twenties, and a sprinkling of the innate competitiveness between brothers. The day began to get very foolish, very quickly.

   We found ourselves alone on a double-laned highway. Little by little our speeds crept upwards until we were rolling around 70mph, each of us trying to take the lead from the other. I stood on my pegs and buzzed forward past Porkroll and Oneshirt, letting out a whooping yell as I went. Oneshirt opened throttle and took off, securing lead. P-roll met my speed and we flew along the road swapping lanes with one another.

   The road thinned and grew dark beneath the presence of a thick forest ceiling. I, ever the obnoxious younger brother, wanted to edge by Oneshirt and cut off his lead before it was too late. I was hanging at his rear fender, waiting for an opportunity, when the highway shrank again. We were now riding on a thin, cracked pavement, barely wide enough for two cars and littered with debris and gravel. Without question, these were terrible riding conditions.

   My intrusion on Oneshirt's lead seemed to incite the rivalry and suddenly he was off. P-roll and I hesitated for a moment, watching him plow forward at an unwise speed. I knew, really honestly knew, that this was exactly the kind of stupidity I'd told myself I'd avoid when they showed up. I'd half-expected it, and had already promised myself I'd see and avoid it when it came. But now, in the moment, all I could see was my older brother shooting off down the road ahead of me.

   I hesitated a moment longer, then opened up and tore after him.

   The forest edge blazed by, an out-of-focus smear beyond our motorbikes. My sight stayed true to the world ahead of me, the view just above the handlebars becoming the only thing in existence. The road arced and banked against the treeline, the light coming in speckles through the canopy. I had caught up to Oneshirt, my front wheel threatening the space between us. The speed and the road tied up most of my concentration, but I had just enough free to shout "why in the hell are you going so fast??" into the wind. The words disappeared immediately into the air behind me.

Oneshirt is a great rider, speed tendencies and all

   We were going fast, and riding well, but, inevitably, our stupidity caught up to us. The road spiked suddenly, veering into a jagged s-curve. The end of the curve met with a small bridge, lined with thick concrete "jersey" barriers. All of this was bad, but workable. The real trouble was that, in front of all of this, there lay a wide sea of loose dirt and gravel spread in heaps along the road. Outside of drunks and wild animals, loose road is about the worst thing one can run into while riding, and, at top speed, we had very little time to do anything about it.

   Oneshirt, five yards in front of me, saw it first. His brakelights went all red and I could see a cloud of dirt kicking up beneath his tires. I had fleeting visions of my broken nose pressed up against his exhaust pipes. He struggled out of the turn, somehow staying upright, but now it was my turn. All of this was happening in mere fractions of time, and neither of us had really had time to slow much beyond our initial speed.

   My Shadow was larger and less nimble than his CB450, and I knew that cutting the turn was going to be difficult. I held the brakes until the gravel was under me, then released, not wanting to skid. Like driving on ice, braking on loose gravel is almost worse than doing nothing at all. So, with my brakes gone, I could only hope to corner hard and fast enough to get out untouched.

   The barrier seemed to be accelerating towards me at remarkable speed, growing larger and more menacing. The movement of time seemed to slow, and I could clearly visualize the exact spot where I'd collide. My brain began tracing the path my body would take as I rolled. I knew I wouldn't die, but god damn, it was going to hurt.

   Then, like a splash of cold water, I snapped out of it. When riding, the bike tends to go where you put your eyes, and I didn't want to go into that damn barrier. I turned my gaze sharply, and leaned as far as I could into the road. My left toes tapped the ground for support and as I turned I heard the loud, telltale scraping of the rear footpads. I'd only heard that sound one other time, when I'd over-extended my abilities on a treacherous mountain road in Arizona and tipped into the turn deep enough to scratch the side of the bike.

   The bike pivoted around the point where I'd touched down, throwing up a cloud of dust. Suddenly, we were out. The world was straight and stable once again. I was too breathless to celebrate. After six months on the road, in nearly every state in the country, I'd almost wiped out on the very last day, 150 miles from home.

   The event was sobering, and we all slowed as we went along. P-roll had wizened up just before the bridge and kept back at a more sane speed, making it through the turn with no problems. We all needed a breather, and I signaled to Oneshirt to stop at the next gas station. It was a small, four pump operation. Two of the pumps were busy when we pulled in, so P-roll took one of the free kiosks, and I let Oneshirt take the other. I pulled in behind him to wait my turn.

Porkroll dominates the bridge

   The place was full-serve only, as per New Jersey law, and the attendant shuffled out to help us. Given the more difficult nature of filling up a motorcycle, station attendants are usually understanding in deferring this task to the rider, regardless of law. In all my time on the road I'd never let anyone else fill the tank for me.

   I was used to this by now, but the other two hadn't encountered it yet, and the situation became awkward. The attendant was a chunky seventeen-year-old kid with shaggy hair and a blank stare. What words he said were mumbled unintelligibly. Oneshirt was still sitting on the bike when the kid ambled over, wedging himself in the tight space between the bike and the pump. This forced Oneshirt to dismount awkwardly on the right side of the bike (opposite of normal).

   Suddenly everything was in motion, Oneshirt's pantleg had stuck onto the footbrake and sent the bike toppling over. The whole thing crashed down to the ground, pinning Oneshirt below. P-roll came running over and we helped right the bike and free Oneshirt. The station attendant was still standing there stupidly next to the pump, not having moved a muscle the entire time.

   I took the fall as further evidence that we were losing our minds from too much time on the road, and decided it'd be better if someone other than Oneshirt took the lead. Not wanting to sound dictatorial, I figured I'd stay back and let P-roll take front. I yelled over to him, "Wanna take lead for awhile?"

   He glared back at me, shouted, "NOW YOU DO IT!" and continued to stand there, staring cryptically at me.

   'What the hell is going on?' I thought to myself, thoroughly confused.

   Before we resolve anything, Oneshirt had shot out of the station, again in the lead. I had no choice but to follow, P-roll trailing behind me. We finally stopped at a small Thai restaurant in Lambertville, and settled in. I knew we needed a serious break from the riding, and I was glad to let things settle down some. The others got a table while I went into the restroom to wash up. When I back to the table, they were both laughing hysterically.

   "You guys really didn't see me fall back there?" P-roll burst out between laughs.

   It turned out, as he explained, that after Oneshirt had tipped at the gas station, P-roll had walked back to his bike and immediately knocked IT over as well (again, accidentally). Oneshirt and I had been too busy setting his bike straight to even notice that P-roll had gone down too. The gawking attendant, on the other hand, witnessed this spill with equal slack-jawed disbelief.

   When P-roll had yelled back his strange "now you do it" to me, he'd thought we'd seen the whole thing, and was jokingly urging me to complete the trifecta. I could only imagine what that attendant had made of three idiots riding in on bikes, falling over, shouting at each other, and riding off into the night. It seemed likely that he was wondering how in the hell these three dopes could have managed to steal motorcycles and ride them all the way to New Jersey.

   We finished our meal with the relief of having survived our foolishness and come out with a few good stories. In a couple hours we'd be in Philadelphia, and I'd be almost home. Leave it to the last day on the road to nearly kill me. It really is amazing how often stupidity wins the day.