Notes on Flagstaff: an Eyewitness at Bird Camp

On my third morning in Flagstaff, a Friday, we eat breakfast across the tracks at Biff’s Bagels (named for somebody’s dead dog and now a repository of memorial photos of everyone else’s dead dog) then split up: I head back to the hotel to pack while A. drives one of the camp Suburbans to a tire place to get a tire patched, a frequent necessity for camp vehicles given the rough roads on which they are operated. I finish packing and take her laptop down to the coffee shop on the ground floor to take care of some work emails and otherwise embrace the grid one last time before heading into the woods. While I wait, a man in a bushy beard and a cowboy hat and a shirt with mother-of-pearl snaps walks up to the counter and, in response to the counter girl’s question as to whether he’d like a menu, says he’d like a double shot of Jack with a glass of water on the side. It is 8 a.m.

“This is what you look like the day after your anniversary,” he says, adjusting his sunglasses.

When A. finally arrives, the man, who is “down from the rez” for a visit to town, is buying breakfasts for the fourth set of customers who have walked in since he did.

“I bought everything last night,” he says. At least he is only sipping the whisky. “I might as well keep going.”

I wish him a happy anniversary and we hit the road.

Bird Camp takes a three-night break every week and a half or so, with campers needing to be back and ready for work bright and early (in the field by 5 a.m., remember) the morning after the third night. In effect, this means that the last night of break can really only be spent in camp; most of the campers come back to camp in time for dinner, but some might have a reason to trail in very late that night. We are headed back early, trying to get to camp by early afternoon, because A. needs to make rounds on some nests that are due for monitoring visits that day. Riding with us is a Taiwanese UM grad student and a friend of hers from back home, also a biologist, who will be visiting the camp for a week or so. (She is a Virginia Tech student.)

Before leaving town we stop at a grocery store. (Each camper is responsible for his or her own food and other supplies, plus A. needs supplies for the BBQ she is throwing because her predecessor will be visiting the camp with her husband that evening.) The Taiwanese students are keenly aware that a container of ice cream they had purchased in town will not last the drive, much less survive at camp, so they eat it with a set of metal chopsticks as they shop.

As the Suburban makes its lumbering way out of town, the trappings of civilization fall away very quickly. Soon we are on a curving, two-lane blacktop through tree-covered hills. We pass a geographical feature known as Mormon Lake that currently has no actual water in it; it’s been a very dry season so far, though the area around Bird Camp got a lot of snow last winter.

After about an hour we reach Happy Jack: a gravel parking lot serving a gas station, general store and cafe. I fill up the Suburban while A. gets the camp’s mail. The two Taiwanese duck into the general store, surprised that I am not joining them.

“Are you sure?” asks one. “Last chance for ice cream.”

At this point, we are only halfway there, in terms of time on the road: we leave the highway at the ranger station (we stop and A. picks up the two eBay video cameras she’d ordered, which had to be sent to a street address instead of the P.O. boxes in Happy Jack) and commence the final leg, about an hour on narrow gravel roads up and down steep grades through the Coconino National Forest. The roads vary greatly in quality along the route. Often they are in good shape, but occasionally they have developed those latitudinal ridges that gravel roads sometimes get; when we encounter these on a downgrade, the Suburban has the disquieting tendency to swim back and forth across the road unless driven at barely noticeable speeds. In fact, other than its general sturdiness (I’m assuming) and high passenger/equipment capacity, there seems little to recommend this particular model of SUV for this purpose. (It’s not even four-wheel drive, although to be fair it’s not like they really need to drive off-road or deal with snow or much mud.)

Finally we pull into the camp. The first view is of the few personal vehicles that some of the campers keep at camp, parked next to the four chemical toilets that the visiting Taiwanese student refers to as “porta-pities,” which seems apt. Under a tree in this parking area lie a pile of ladders, poles, traps and other equipment. From the parking area, the tiny gravel track continues toward the center of the camp, still fifty yards distant. Off in the trees I can see some of the campers’ personal tents, which are scattered in all directions on the outskirts of camp, according to the idiosyncratic privacy desires and other considerations of each camper.

The heart of the camp consists of a row of three military campaign-style utility tents, floorless, house-shaped, in white canvas. The largest is the cook tent and the other two are used to store cameras, records and other necessities. There is a late model, smallish camper trailer to one side, where the Bird Camp Professor stays when he visits and which is otherwise available as a spot for sheltered computer use and for its refrigerator. (These people eat a lot of cheese.) The wisdom of using the computers inside the camper – in addition to comfort – is clear after only a few minutes in camp. With the dry weather, a fine red dust rises from the soil and covers everything. The white canvas tents are dingy with it.

A. confers with Kara, who is also back at camp, about which nests need a visit, flipping through the pink cards on which each nest’s location is recorded and where visits are logged. Then they get their equipment together: various small instrument cases, backpacks, notebooks, a narrow ten-foot ladder.

I am already sneezing. I seem to be allergic to every place A. does field work.

On the even rougher gravel roads around Bird Camp, the Suburban is deafening to ride in. The windows are open for what little comfort the hot breeze brings, so we hear the tires crunching and popping over every rock. The vehicle jounces up and down over hard ridges and through washed-out gullies, suspension and seat springs squeaking, the dashboard rattling. The aluminum ladder, lying across the seat backs, is its own symphony of clatters.

We need to visit three nests: one to install an egg probe, one to change out the data logger at an already probed nest, and one to measure some nestlings that have recently hatched.

The first nest is accessible from a road, so we park and A. and Kara pile their instrument cases on the ground. This nest is in a snag, or the trunk of a snapped-off tree about eight feet tall. A. walks to the nest; the mother waits until the last second, then takes off, flying low to the ground, hoping we’ll follow her, whoever we are, whatever it is we want. A. stands on tiptoe to lift a tiny, rust-specked egg out of the nest, which is built into the exposed hollow at the center of the tree. The egg is about the size of an almond M&M; the number “3” is written on the side in blue ink.

This egg is doomed; the process it’s about to undergo will kill it, but the plan is to hook up a probe to it that will allow the Bird Campers to monitor the temperature of the nest as the mother continues to incubate her other eggs. This is a difficult thing to pull off, since – while mother birds don’t mind their eggs being handled, it seems – they will reject eggs if they detect the probe, and they often do. But the often frustrating effort is worth it for the fascinating temperature data that are collected. For example, eggs must be kept above a certain temperature to develop; below that temperature, they just don’t grow and will eventually die. This temperature is easily maintained when the mother is sitting on the eggs, of course, but what about when she leaves for food? The probe data, which – when downloaded from the logging devices – is visible on a computer screen as a jagged line graph of steep peaks and valleys, show that the birds are somehow able – and somehow “know” – to increase the temperature of the eggs just before leaving, just to give themselves a little more time before they must return.

The first step is to collect a yolk sample; this isn’t necessary to the probing but might as well happen since the egg will die anyway. A. inserts a tiny, needle-shaped nozzle into the egg. The nozzle is connected to a tiny pieces of tubing on the end which is in turn attached to a syringe, where the syringe’s needle would usually be. Drawing up the syringe’s plunger, A. is pleased by the result.

“I got yolk on the first try!”

I can tell from Kara’s reaction that this is not usually so easy.

Now it’s time for the probe. A. takes out about three feet of skinny wire with black insulation. The wire terminates in two bare metal wires that come together in a little tear-drop tip, about the size of a glob of ink from a dying ballpoint. The two bare leads remind me of the filament in a light bulb. She inserts the little tear drop into the hole she made for the yolk sample, and then she and Kara work on sealing the hole as smoothly as possible with super glue and a spray accelerant that speeds the glue’s drying. A little clumpy, one of them says, but it will do. A. writes a code on the data logger, a small black plastic object the approximate size and shape of a pack of cigarettes cut in half. Holding the egg, the probe wire trailing, a roll of camouflaged duct tape around her bicep, A. walks over the nest, followed by Kara with the logger and a large ziploc bag. Now the other two eggs come out of the nest as well so that this one can be placed in the middle and the wire hidden as well as possible. After arranging the eggs and leading the wire out of the back of the nest, A. tapes the wire to the tree trunk and plugs it into the data logger, which she places in the ziploc and wedges into the space behind some peeling bark. More tape. She studies her handiwork. Nothing obvious, no strange human-related objects immediately in view. This should do the trick.

For the next nest we drive again and then pile out of the vehicle for a quarter-mile walk through the woods. If A. and Kara haven’t been to a particular nest before, they must get out an orienteering compass and follow someone else’s written directions on the pink card for that nest: start at station A, walk 30 yards at 070 degrees to a jagged stump, walk 90 yards at 180 degrees to two aspens growing in a V, etc. It’s like looking for pirate’s treasure. At this nest, which is built in a low tree at about thigh height, A. only needs to change out the logger hooked up to an already probed egg. After doing so, A. walks to two or three other low trees in the immediate area and makes the same motions, pretending to examine non-existent nests. This is to confuse any of the smarter nest predators – namely jays – who might be watching; incredibly, they are known to use human scientists to lead them to their lunches.

As we walk back up to the car, from the wetter region at the bottom of the little valley or drainage to the drier ridge, we pass from deciduous forest back into pines, the air dappled with late afternoon sunlight and shimmering with dust and pollen. As we drive, the wind kicks up little dust devils from the red dirt in front of us. I’m blowing my nose about every minute or so, and my lips are already severely chapped from the dry air.

The last nest of the day is also a quarter mile or so from the road. Unlike the other two, this one is built high in a tree, about fifteen feet off the ground. Also unlike the other two nests, this one is guarded by a kind of a bird – a Steller’s Jay – that is known to be a little less passive when humans come knocking. Kara warns that it might fly at our faces, which has me wishing for ski goggles, but A. isn’t concerned. Kara and I prop the forestry ladder against the tree and hold it while A. worms up through the branches to lift out two of the three nestlings (never leave an empty nest, in case the mother returns and decides to abandon the nest because, she “thinks,” all of the eggs/nestlings have been eaten) before climbing down again. We retreat to the instrument cases piled about twenty yards away from the tree. Against prediction, the Steller’s Jay never once attacks.

Eggs are easy: you just weigh them. With nestlings, you must measure various parts of their wings, which means holding them firmly and grabbing the wings and unfolding them. The little creatures are startlingly ugly and pathetic; no feathers yet, although you can see where ridges of something featherlike are growing in; their skin so thin it is almost transparent. They seem too vulnerable to be exposed to the outside air, like little gallbladders with wings. After the measurements are taken, they are stuffed head first into a film canister for weighing; the film canister holds them still and keeps them on the scale. Periodically, some reflex triggers their feeding instinct and their massive mouths pop open.

A. returns the first two, retrieves the third, and completes the round of measurements. We return to camp, where more campers are trickling back from break. There is paperwork to complete, the next day’s routes and procedures to plan, and then it is time for the BBQ.

The next morning, I do not join A. when the alarm goes off at 3:45. She dresses with her headlamp on and brushes her teeth at the tent door before kissing me goodbye. I drift in and out of sleep while the camp wakes up around me. Pots and pans clank in the cook tent, vehicle doors slam, equipment clanks. When campers walk past the tent, their headlamps project the grasses and trees against the side of the tent like a shadow-puppet show. The birds’ dawn symphony is warming up, not exactly loud, but dozens of different patterns melding together from all sides. Something howls: is it a coyote or just the dog visiting camp with A.’s predecessor?

I pass the morning wandering the meadow next to the camp, my only company the flies and whatever left the large piles of poop I must keep half an eye out for. But it’s beautiful: grassland along a meandering creek, bordered by pines. Other than Bird Camp, the closest permanent human structures are seventeen miles away, at the ranger station. Back at the camp, I read and chat with two of the grad students who are working in camp today. One is transferring notes from one notebook to another; the other is making “dummy eggs” for some purpose from plaster of paris. Eventually they head out and at 10 a.m. the camp is empty, the only sounds occasional bird chirps and the wind, starting as a light whistling in the treetops before gusting louder and louder, kicking up the red dust as it whooshes through. The dust coats the haphazardly arranged plastic patio chairs, the picnic table, the six red gas cans in the shade of a tree, the seven trash cans clustered around another tree. The dishwashing station, well off from the cook tent, six blue jerry cans for water, bottles of soap, buckets. The utility tents’ doors flap with a sound like sails in the wind. And far off in the tall grass, a soccer ball sits forgotten.


Saturday evening we will return to a motel in Flagstaff for the last night of my visit, since my shuttle to Phoenix leaves at 7:30 Sunday morning. But first I accompany A. out on afternoon rounds, similar to those we made on Friday. We visit the first nest again, the one she probed, to change out the data logger. But the probed egg is gone, its innards smeared across the other two eggs. At first, A. can’t even find the logger but eventually locates it in the tall grass about six feet from the tree snag. It has been ripped from the tree and the black probe wire chewed neatly through, as if clipped by wire cutters. Back at camp, on the computer, the logger is shown to have been collecting normal nestlike temperatures until six a.m., which is when the probe seems to have been detected and destroyed. The mother might have been trying to rotate and rearrange the eggs, one of the grad students says. I ask if he’s ever seen a wire chewed straight through like that.

“They get pretty upset sometimes,” he says.

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