Bird Camp: Dispatch in Late May

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I hold here the very latest text message from Amy – my assistant prints them up on onion-skin paper and runs into my office with them, shouting “this just in, sir!” – and it’s too good not to share.

Expecting foot of snow 2night

But that’s the way life goes when you throw off the trappings of civilization and follow the call of the songbird into the depths of the Coconino National Forest each summer – the life of a daring Bird Camper. (If none of this is making any sense, you might want to start here .)

After I left Arizona at the end of April, Amy and Jen continued with camp setup and greeted crew members as they began to straggle in. (Many of the crew members are students, or are finishing other seasonal jobs, so sometimes they are delayed in arriving at Bird Camp.)

One big obstacle was what turned out to be four trees down on fences around the exclosure plots; when I’d left, Amy only knew of one such tree.

The fences keep elk out, in the interest of Science.

Fortunately, the forest’s recreation ranger volunteered to cut up the dead trees with his chainsaw and fix the fences, which was a big help. This kind of assistance is frequently forthcoming down there, Amy tells me – between the fire crews and the rangers, there is an abundance of people who like to feel useful, it seems.

By now, just about every member of the crew has arrived, and Amy is beginning to assign research plots.

“We’ll be starting normal work days soon,” she says.

I visited for one “normal” work day last summer. Amy’s alarm went off at 3:45. I rolled over, but she struggled out into the chill morning air, brushed her teeth, dressed, and went to the cook tent to make herself breakfast (hot chocolate, instant oatmeal) before the 4:30 departure of vehicles to drop the campers at their work sites.

The first part of Amy’s work day was over shortly after noon, but after lunch and some administrative work, she was on her way back out again to make nestling measurements. I went along and held the ladder while she climbed up to grab the baby birds, her hat pulled low against possible attacks by the parents.

In the evening, Amy rushed through dinner and kept working so that we could leave for town as early as possible. I was departing on an early shuttle from downtown Flagstaff to the Phoenix airport in the morning, and we had a room booked at a Flagstaff motel. But no matter how quickly she wolfed her quesadilla – which had been sizzled to flaky, cheesy perfection in a lightweight camp cook pan above the flame of a Coleman propane stove – we still didn’t leave on the two-hour drive to town until after 7, and all I can say is thank god the pizza place near the motel that evening was able to deliver a six pack with the pies.

When Amy does get a chance to relax, one option is a movie, right there in the cook tent, projected on a wall with a projector that could also be used to, say, project scientific presentations from a laptop computer. A recent evening found the Bird Campers circled round for Cabin Fever, a 2002 film by Eli Roth that would not necessarily have made my list for the first movie I’d want to watch 50 feet from where I’ll be sleeping in a tent in the woods all summer.

But you can’t let these fears get to you. When I was down there in April, on the first night we slept in camp – and so before I’d relearned the rule that, when you are camping in the freezing cold, it’s a good idea to forego those last beers for the last hour or so before you turn in – I was out in the moonlight at around 2 a.m., attending to some business. The forest canopy blocked the stars from where I was standing and the night around me was downright inky.

For the same reason why I always have to lean out a little when I’m on top of a cliff, I started thinking about The Blair Witch Project, specifically about how that one guy ends up cut off from the group and they just hear him screaming in the distance for the rest of the movie. Hear it from in their tent.

I was also thinking about how the Blair Witch was supposed to be covered with hair, like a horse.

Also about what I would do if some witch covered with hair suddenly rushed up and poked me in the back and rushed off into the dark again.

Then I just made myself stop thinking, climbed back into my sleeping bag, and tried to find a comfortable position that wouldn’t cause me to slide off of my ThermaRest.